Thursday, April 28, 2016

Albs, Robes, and Some Other Thoughts on Femininity

My dad--a judge on the Kansas state court of appeals--and I have pretty similar gigs in many ways.

We both interpret law (though the law I interpret is a whole lot older...and less boring, I think, but I'm willing to admit that may simply be a difference of opinion).

We both issue proclamations of what to do on the basis of such laws, and those proclamations are for public consumption (his also have the added bonus of being legally binding--at least, when he is in the majority.  For my sermons...oh, if wishing made it so...)

And we both dress up in impractical regalia for ceremonial events--he dons his black judicial robes for oral arguments and photo ops, and I trot off to Sunday worship in my white monastic alb and multicolored stole.

Personally, I like my alb.  It allows me to wear whatever I want underneath (years ago, Postsecret put up a postcard from a pastor who said that they wear AC/DC shirts underneath their alb, and no fewer than three of my friends messaged me to ask if that was me).  It immediately identifies me to first-time visitors.  And during the cold winter months, it's like wearing a snuggie.  Or, you know, one of these.

But the alb--so called because it comes from the Latin word "albus," meaning "white"--is also commonly the root of critique from fundamentalist Christians who insist on pastors wearing a suit and tie to preach in.  I don't even mention anything about business suits for women, because fundamentalist Christians would never countenance a woman teaching them, and that is sort of the point: believers with such an attitude would likewise not care for a "man in a dress" teaching them jut as they would not care for a woman teaching them (and when you have a website called "Stuff Fundies Like" making fun of this, you *know* it's not an uncommon opinion to hold...also, ironically, these "dresses" were still traditionally made for men, and specially-made robes had to be made for women once they began being ordained).

Put another way: any vestige or trapping femininity in the pulpit is simply not tolerated by many a Christian.

Which is profoundly unfortunate.  There is an aspect of God--and of Jesus--that identifies as female and especially as a mother (Luke 13:34, Matthew 23:37, Galatians 4:19, among others).  Women were among the most faithful followers of Jesus, journeying with Him all the way to the cross even after His male disciples had fled (Mark 15:40-41).  And women are extraordinarily capable preachers and teachers of the Word--to all ages, not just children.

But I think this is intertwined with the antipathy more fundamentalist Christians are exhibiting towards transgender people--and trans women (that is, who have transitioned from male to female) in particular, castigating them as "repulsive perverts" and potential dangers to young girls in public restrooms.

They cannot countenance dangerous femininity affecting them and their children, and that danger, to them, comes from people who they see as men altering their appearance to appear as women (no matter if they in fact identify as a woman or not).

Never mind that masculine predators have affected our children plenty--many of those same supporters of bathroom laws also just went to bat for former House Speaker and confirmed pedophile Dennis Hastert, asking the judge in his case to exhibit leniency (Hastert was ultimately sentenced to fifteen months in prison, and it wasn't for his acts of sexual abuse--the statue of limitations had run out; rather, he was sentenced for illegal payments made to cover up the abuse).

Tom DeLay, the former House Majority Leader, went so far as to write to the judge, "He (Hastert) is a good man who loves the Lord.  He gets his integrity and values from Him.  He doesn't deserve what he is going through."

Let's review: trans women simply needing a place to relieve themselves when they're outside their homes--dangerous, repulsive perverts.  Predatory heterosexual, cisgender men who actually prey on children?  They're led by God and don't deserve even the slap on the wrist they are getting (it's not just Hastert, either--Josh Duggar has never even been prosecuted for his crimes against his victims).

A confession: I think it took me a little while to get to quite understanding transgender identity because I didn't see initially just how it might fit into my belief of intersectionality: I could see the overlap in treatment of, say, gays/lesbians and people of color.  I could see the overlap in how women are cruelly dismissed in the church and how they are likewise cruelly dismissed on social media.  Transgender rights seemed a bit of an outlier to me--partly because up until seminary I knew very few transgender people, and partly simply because of my own ignorance, privilege, and learning curve.

But honestly, after seeing how straight, cisgender male predators are being spoken for, whilst trans women who are murder victims are often not, I *am* beginning to see a common link in the treatment of cis women and trans women: the ugly, ugly dismissal of femininity in the public sphere.

I still have a very public role in my work.  And, as a part of that public role, I wear what some denigrate, inaccurately, as a "dress."

But I'll take it as a dress this Sunday, though.  Because as a pastor of God's church, I am meant to reflect God.  As William Willimon wrote (admittedly, rather tartly) in his book Pastor: The Theology and Practice of Ordained Ministry:

The clergy's representative burden can also be a great blessing, a source of pastoral wisdom and power.  A parishioner emerged from a little church on a Sunday, muttering to her pastor, "You are not even thirty, what could you know?"

Her pastor drew himself up to his full height, clutched the stole around his neck, and said, "Madam, when I wear this and I climb into that pulpit, I am over two thousand years old, and speak from two millennia of experience.

The man may have been somewhat of an ass, but his point was well taken, ecclesiastically I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself.  I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages."

When I don my ceremonial "dress," I do so because I am affirming an identity far larger than my own, and that divine identity *includes* a part of the divine that does indeed identify as female.  Even Paul, whose verses get ripped out of context to justify so much of this antipathy towards femininity in the church, famously wrote that in Christ, there is no male and female.

In Christ, there may not be.  In God, there may not be.  But in their church, there sadly most definitely is.  That is why we have these bathroom laws now.  That is why women are still relegated to second-class status.  And that is why even something like my alb, that is meant to reflect the image of God and of Christ, is denigrated...all because we men need our religion to be about us?

I hope not.

So on Sunday, at 10:50 am, as I remove my alb from its closet space as I do almost every Sunday and pull it on over my nonexistent AC/DC shirt, I will do so this time while taking a moment of prayer to remember the women--cis and trans alike--who have served God and humanity with their whole selves.

I will continue to live out my life and my ministry with the attendant privilege that comes with being who I am.  But at least on one hour a week, I can don an unconventional outfit that reflects not me but the One who created me, and proclaim the unimaginable grace that flows forth from that singular act of creation.

What an amazing blessing that is, to imperfectly yet joyfully worship in an appearance that is meant to reflect the reality of God.

Longview, Washington
April 28, 2016

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