HB2, Bathrooms, and Politics

Some projects emerge out of long-desired purposes. For instance, I am now in the throes of creating as complete a catalog of Sylvia’s artistic work as I can. It spans over thirty years of work in stitchery, tapestry, mosaic, paper, mixed media and installation materials and spaces. It’s well over 300 pieces at this point and, with my daughter Aneliese’s help, will appear as a brand new www.WisdomsTable.net. Don’t worry, I’ll let you know.

Other projects simply arrive from “outside” because of the actions of others. At this juncture, most of the world knows that the Republican-dominated state legislature here in North Carolina stealthily rammed through an egregious piece of legislation a few weeks ago (known as HB2) that requires Transgender persons to use public restrooms, showers, and the like that match the “biological sex” on their birth certificate. And they did this, with other limitations on the right to sue for discrimination of this sort as well as prohibitions against raising the minimum wage in a municipality, in only one day from start to finish! Even the Governor, who clearly wanted to scapegoat Transgender persons for political persons, didn’t seem to know what he was signing.

As a result, I have joined with others in our Reconciling Conversations Group to begin a process of education and advocacy to respond to this attack. I’m going to end this blog with the letter that just appeared in our local media from the Group. Let me also expand on some of the underlying reasons we confront this kind of ignorance and bigotry. It seems to me that it is the currently predominant expression of the effort to maintain the form of political, social, and familial control that we have called patriarchy. In this region of the world, it was most powerfully articulated in the plantation system of slavery. So its sexual grounding in male power was also inextricably joined to racial domination. It is still, like an endemic disease, deeply rooted in our culture here. It is indeed a system of thought and practice that can easily be grasped at an emotional level by white males and those who depend on their power. While it is most graphically expressed in bathrooms and bedrooms, it is a system of power embracing the whole of life.

The immediate response by modern corporations against this form of domination reveals that white patriarchy (the corporation as plantation) is no longer the reigning model of economic organization. North Carolina is now struggling to reconcile these two loyalties. Though they are often reflected in the demographics between urban and rural constituencies, this is not the complete story.

Whether or not you confront this in your part of the planet, it seems to me to be the red thread connecting a lot of the conflicts going on around here right now. I hope it helps you understand the news, as well as political satire and humor, that is coming from here. Meanwhile, everyone is looking for their birth certificates in case they are questioned while heading to the toilet of their choice. I hope they’ll go on to reject this brazen assault of all our dignity.

Here’s the letter:

As members of the Reconciling Conversation Group of First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, we are striving to bring healing and reconciliation to our church family and the wider community by exhibiting love and acceptance for ALL persons regardless of sexual orientation and gender identities.  The Spirit of Jesus commands no less.

Thus, we are deeply concerned that:

  1. The recently passed law known as HB2 has deeply hurt and offended our LGBTQ members who are our brothers and sisters in the body of Christ.
  2. HB2 exhibits a total lack of medical knowledge and scientific understanding as to what it means to be a transgender person in today’s society.  Without adequate investigation of the facts about transgender persons, it inflames our fear and mistrust of others.
  3. HB2 is a denial of basic human rights.
  4. HB2 ignores the precedent set by nineteen states, the District of Columbia, and over 200 cities and counties that have passed laws, without incident, prohibiting discrimination against transgender persons in public facilities.  We know of no cases of transgressions or offensive behavior occurring because of these laws.
  5. HB2 denies legal recourse to all persons who have experienced discrimination of any sort.

We need to construct laws that enable all of us to live together in mutual understanding, trust, and respect.  HB2 stands in the way of this need.   As followers of Jesus Christ who showed unconditional love to all persons, we strongly urge that this law be repealed.

For the Group:

Betsy Hardin

Kenneth M. Johnson

Douglas Wingeier

William Everett

Jim Hoyt

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Spirals and Labyrinths at Easter

This year our Easter experience emerged as an exploration of the spiral that is often seen to be at the source of all life, whether in the galaxies of space or the double helix of our DNA.

For Holy Week we helped build a labyrinth of stones in the Sanctuary space, led by Scott Taylor, our Director of Music and the Worship Arts here at First United Methodist Church of Waynesville, North Carolina. During the week, we and others walked the labyrinth, often carrying a pebbleLabyrinth 2016-1_web we placed among the stones as we walked. Palm branches lay at its entrance to lead us from Palm Sunday to Good Friday. The walk of the labyrinth has become very popular in recent years, probably as a way of reclaiming the spiral of creative power at the heart of life in a world of so much destruction, disruption, and anger. A small journal was placed on a lectern so we could leave our thoughts behind for others.

On Saturday the stones were removed and Sylvia’s new art pieces were placed in the sanctuary. They consisted of two 14-foot panels of sumptuous fabric glowing against he cherry walls. The paraments on the pulpit and lectern, as well as runners on the altar table, echoed their vibrant, almost iridescent gold. Here is what she said about them:

Banner LeftThese two panels, with echoes of the theme in the paraments, are a visual meditation on the gathering and dispersing of life energy. This energy, which some of us call God, is most readily recognized by us when condensed into a finite, earthly manifestation, such as a human life, a tree, or a flower. On a grander scale we recognize light, love, music, and the cosmos as other showings. These mysteries are both metaphor and reality at the same time.

The Righteous Branch (The “Gathering” on the left)

In the story we call “The Stump of Jesse” (Isaiah 11) we trace the genealogy from Jesse through several generations to culminate in the birth of Jesus. In this panel I have attempted to use this story as an example of the gathering creative life energy until it becomes manifest as a new life. The dark form at the bottom of the panel represents this “stump” which will grow through succeeding generations as it flows upward. The spiral, found throughout creation, represents the coming together of this flow of energy as the birth of Jesus.

The Flower Full Blown (The “Dispersing” on the right)

Here the life-giving energy flows out of the dark cave of death/renewal toward the spiral of dispersion. The life force which became manifest in the birth of a child has grown and matured. The flower has become full blown.Banner Right It is once again returned to its source, but not lost or dissipated. It is in this ebb and flow that we participate, both in our lives and in our faith.

The great cosmic manifestation of this gathering and dispersing is the birth and resurrection of Jesus, the Christ. Each panel moves from a place of darkness through successive places of light. The blue and white crosses we observe in our central window above them come together and dissolve as a motif in the panels. The flames in the window become sparks given off by the suggested intense heat and light in the spirals. The pieced background refers to our Appalachian “crazy quilts” where bits of precious fabrics were used to form a new whole.

As Sylvia worked on these pieces over the past months, we talked often about what to name this “life force,” which we have tried to capture with words like “God,” “Allah,” “Creator,” and the like. But it is always a reality beyond naming, as we learn in the story of Moses at the burning bush. Moreover, it is bound into the core of our very existence, not as isolated individuals but as creatures within a lineage transmitted by DNA as well as the collective DNA of our libraries, customs, language, habits, and manners. So the DNA fragments came to be a kind of linkage of incarnation, the bridge between the material and the spiritual, the mundane and the transcendent.

This is a precious linkage, as our ethical disputes over gene research, preservation of memory, and respect for deep traditions tell us. But there is always a power transcending as well as working through that which binds us together over time and space. I hope that these pieces from her mind and hand will continue to arouse wonder and conversation as we walk the labyrinth of life in the years ahead.

Easter 2016 Lower

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Trumpism and the Struggle for (Re)Public(an) Life

Like most Americans and many of you in other countries, I have been trying to put together my own understanding and response to the rise of a vicious demagogue to be the putative Republican nominee to the US Presidency. While there are people much more informed about our political life who can trace the fracturing of the Republican party to its so-called “Southern strategy” and its inability to address the aching injustices of poverty and disintegrating local communities, my own thoughts have turned to some key themes that have been with me since I wrote God’s Federal Republic some thirty years ago.

In that book I traced the way our deep desire for personal confirmation finds expression in a desire for fuller public life as well as in demonic forms of narcissism and fraudulent celebrity. There are two deep religious strands in us: a yearning for “publicity” and for covenantal relationship. The first is the ground for our desire to found and preserve republics which can maximize our public life; the second builds a commitment to forms of federalism (derived from covenant) that knit these republics together in more expansive care for the common earth we inhabit.

This drive for publicity has now secured a technology that threatens the very covenants that hold us together as a people. You’re carrying it in your pocket or purse right now. That is, every individual is able and encouraged to become a kind of celebrity universe who Tweets, “likes,” and Instagrams his or her way to ever more expansive forms of celebrity fame. Donald Trump, along with ISIS and other terrorists, is its most virulent expression.

But not everyone can become a narcissistic universe, and so most of us live through virtual surrogates whom we follow in the digital universe. But in following these surrogates we expose ourselves to their power to shame as well as save us. (David Brooks has just written insightfully about this in “The Shame Culture,” New York Times, March 15, 2016.) Trumpism is only its most obvious expression. In building up a following of “the saved” they cast others into a fearful world of “others.” Their salvation becomes a cataclysm of vengeance and banishment. Narcissistic leaders seek to build a universe of Black Holes sucking everything else into them.

The decision to follow others to our own heart’s goal is found in every religious tradition, whether the figure we follow is Jesus, Mary, Muhammed, Moses, or even Buddha. And these religious tendencies can be hijacked at any time by the authoritarians and demagogues among us. Of course, every profound religious tradition also has traditions that lead us deep into our own hearts and souls to find the Holy One within, directly communing with our whole self. That, we know, is very hard to do. It takes disciplines of meditation, prayer, study, and service outside ourselves.

And yet it is precisely this claiming of a self grounded in confirmation before the One who presides in a greater Republic and a fuller Covenant that enables us to begin to think, feel, hope, and love in a wider and deeper way. In one sense, our problem is not so much the technology of digital communication as it is the destruction of smaller communities of truth-testing, cooperation, and face-to-face conflict resolution where we can participate in common work to change our lives and our world. In spite of the ravages of globalized capital, massive militaries, and sclerotic national politics, local communities can still be the places genuine public life and sustaining covenants can emerge. (I was especially encouraged recently by the “American Futures” work of James and Deborah Fallows, who published their findings in the March 2016 Atlantic as “How America Is Putting Itself Back Together.”)

I hope that our more engaged and informed citizens can resist the demagogue flailing in our midst, even though much damage has already been done. And I hope that out of this we can begin to deal more thoughtfully and energetically with the financial, political, and economic forces that have kept generations of my fellow citizens from participating fully in the publics and the economies in which they live. It begins in local communities—religious, civic, mutual aid, and voluntary associations—where we once again ignite a flame of citizenship through which to address our need to care for the earth and other creatures on whom we depend for life.

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My Life with Words, Images, and Acts

Words, images, acts. They constitute the three-legged stool of my life. This is a matter of not only where I sit but of how I express myself in the world, see the world, and seek to change it. Yet, as Roger Cohen points out in his recent New York Times column, “Smartphone Politics,” of February 22, the connection between word, image, and act has become strangely unsettled, not only in our public life, but in how to proceed in my own. The way we combine them to form communication in a digital age is reshaping our deepest relationships.

I grew up in words, the building blocks of sentences. Each sentence helped build a paragraph, each paragraph an argument. Words and thinking were the engine and the car, inseparable in navigating a human life. The words I learned to use were lawyerly, realistic, scientific—the kind you saw in the mail-order catalogs or the hardware store describing articles to buy and use. They were the words of prose that filled my National Geographics, even while I imagined I was climbing Everest or descending into the ocean’s depths.

But as a child I also heard and used words that spoke beyond the hard and fast reality of common sense. They spoke of flying dragons and of my imaginary friends, whom I named Friends, Corners, and Britches. They existed in my mind and were my closest companions, but they weren’t, my mother said, “real.” With them I knew that words could build a fictional world. And so, I have written some fiction, but that isn’t the main way I seek to go beyond the conventionally “real.” That came with words the poets use.

It was in my teens that I found the world of poetry, where words could conjure up realities existing only in the spiderweb of connotations and images they constructed in strange juxtapositions, jarring expectations of ordinary logic and perception. They argued without arguing, created worlds without a formula, evoked emotions without visible instructions. Poetry is how I plumb the emotional depths to find a way between perception and action.

While I have learned to use all three types of words and writing, I still find it hard to enter into one type without giving up the others for a while. So now I am working back in prose as I decipher the meaning of old photographs and correspondence by my grandparents. Poetry and fiction scuttle to the sidelines as I strive for clarity about what “really” happened a century ago on Cyprus at the copper mine of Skouriotissa.

With that book on its way to find a publisher I have turned to another work of recollection—assembling photos of Sylvia’s thirty years of artistic production so we can create a complete catalog for a revised version of our website, WisdomsTable.net. So I am once again absorbed in a world of images—images that are not recording people and places of a land, but images of works in cloth, mosaic tile, yarn, paper, and found materials that take us beyond our everyday world to one of more transcendent meanings. It is the world of the “ineffable word” intimated in this stitchery from her Wisdom Series.

The Ineffable Word, by Sylvia Everett

The Ineffable Word, by Sylvia Everett

Just as I am absorbed more deeply into working with these images, I am buffeted, as are you, with shocking images pouring from the electronic devices in our living rooms, our pockets, on our desktops, in our waiting rooms and restaurants. Raw images of politicians bellowing for our loyalty, of catastrophes off the shores of Greece as people flee barbaric atrocities of war, of seductive blandishments by manufacturers and marketers. Images, as Roger Cohen says, short-circuit thought—the thought that comes in words, sentences and paragraphs. As images overwhelm our political process, thought and reason recedes, the demagogue holds sway, conflicts seek their resolution in violence rather than negotiation and persuasion.

Perhaps this unease between image and word is what has turned me increasingly to the importance of rituals—the acts that seek to form the disciplines of living in our world without being reduced to it. In particular it is the rituals of listening, praying, speaking, gesturing, and walking through the choreography of worship. These are the kinds of acts that form the third leg of my stool. They create a still point where I can let my words wrestle with my images, discover and assess their meanings, and evaluate their truth or import for my life.  In all the distractions of smartphones, TV, radio, and breaking news, these times of ritual come to be my central nervous system for response, for judgment, for genuine expression, and for relationships that endure.

As Sylvia and I sort through the many images of her work we sometimes have to re-assess their proper names, when they were created, where they might now reside. Even as we name, explain, and locate we know that it is the image itself which is speaking in its own way. It is a work of image and word, but it is also a work of providing a space for rituals in which to integrate them in a life that is whole and healing. Many of these works have been created to shape times of worship—in  churches, at the Lake Junaluska Peace Conference, and in workshops over many years. Others are for personal meditation and illumination, as is the process of creating these works itself. These images lead us to connect word and act in new ways.

In the cacophonies and distractions of the present I am aware of my need for a balance among the work of words, of images, and rituals. I think we all need some sort of stool like this. How does this process look from where you are sitting? Let me know, by whatever image, word, or act you want to use.

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