Saturday, October 10, 2015

Kindness Matters

    Where there is kindness, there is goodness. And where there is goodness, there is magic.
    - Cinderella, 2015

    As children we're taught to be kind. To do unto others, follow the Golden Rule, et cetera.
    And for some reason, I still believe in those childhood lessons. I've had too many moments in my life where I wasn't treated kindly - rejection by my peers, ignorance of teachers who favored the popular kids, out-of-control anger by people I was supposed to trust - to not believe in kindness.
    I can't forget those moments, even though I desperately wish I could. But, because of those haunted memories, I can remember to show others what I wasn't given: kindness, mercy, acceptance.
    Which is why I shudder almost every time I log onto Twitter or Facebook.
    Yes, this is another discussion on public shaming and outcry. But please hear me out.
    There is verbal abuse being committed in the name of justice. There is backbiting, judging and gossip. That is not justice.
    No one who screwed up has ever changed because someone badgered them into it.
    No one who screwed up has ever changed after being scapegoated and mocked by people who don't know them.
    Maybe, instead of publicly calling out an individual and assuming their motives are hateful, maybe we should engage them in conversation, if we are able. There's no reason we can't be kind and firm and bold and even funny all at once.
    Because maybe they were having a terrible day and just slipped up. Maybe they're just ignorant or maybe they're mentally ill. Maybe they are suffering already and don't need your warrior outcry. Maybe they need a conversation or kindness. Maybe they want to learn - or maybe they don't.
    Or: maybe they are just a terrible, abusive, bigoted person.
    That shouldn't change our behavior. That shouldn't mean we can be cruel, rejoice in their downfall, shame them into change. That shouldn't mean writing passive-aggressive blog posts.
    Because if we want justice, it starts with us. We should look at our micro aggressions and bigotry - I'm going to guess we all probably have them, especially if we are white, straight, and/or male. We should listen to those without our privilege...and realize that somewhere along the line, we're going to screw up big time, too.
    We should look at how we treat others. We must be kind.


Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Why I Can't Say Eternity Doesn't Matter

    Growing up conservative evangelical, eternity often seemed like the only thing that mattered. The gospel was basically, "Jesus was God and died so you don't have to go to hell."
    In high school, I remember standing in the grocery store check-out line and thinking, most of the people here are going to hell. The thought was so horrifying my socially anxious self briefly contemplated screaming out the message of Jesus.
    Even in college, I was plagued by the notion that some of my best friends and roommates could die and burn forever. And I, being the shy and fearful introvert that I was, couldn't work up the courage to invite them to listen to the whole gospel. Talk to strangers? That I could do, but I could not talk to my friends.
    I lacerated myself for my cowardice and even my introversion. How dare I be an introvert, how dare I need "me time," how dare I be private when people were dying and going to hell?
    Still, I meant it when I declared that I would go to hell for my friends. In fact, I devised a plan to volunteer for hell in place everyone else in the entire world. Maybe that meant I loved others more than God, but I couldn't conceive of love, which is God, being immoral.
    Yet, even as I panicked and prayed for their salvation, even as I tortured myself trying to pray for every random passerby I even saw - because what if no one else ever prayed for their salvation? - my beliefs on hell began shifting.
    The gospel, insisted theologians and bloggers, with compelling evidence from the Bible itself, was about more than eternity. It included social justice, and it was good news - not terrible "most people will burn forever" news.
    I'd always been an "inclusivist," indignantly dismissing the idea that God could condemn those who never heard the gospel. But then I began reading about annihilationism, Christian universalism, Calvinism and Armenianism, and more theories on eternity, and I realized that hell was not as clear-cut as I'd believed.

     I cannot believe the gospel is good if I am saved but most people are tortured.
     Or vanquished.
     Because the more I reviewed the popular annihilation theory, the more repulsed I was. God wiping out the existence of people sounds like a cop-out. Oh, God won't torture people forever; He'll just take back the gift of life He's already bestowed. He'll undo his creations.
     Annihilation removes the pain of eternal torture but not the pain of lost loved ones. And I cannot think that heaven is heaven without the people I love. My love for God should not erase my love for people, because, again, God is love.
     Obviously, I lean towards an eventual Christian universalism - that everyone will be reconciled to Jesus in the end, although I suppose a temporary place for anyone who doesn't want God would have to exist. Because people being forced to love God would just be creepy. Then again, I am not a scholar and these are just ideas that pass through my mind.
     I realize there is Biblical evidence for all the Big Three: eternal torment and annihilation and universalism, but I choose the one that presents a God who is actually good, the one that leaves infinite chances for redemption.
     Now, my understanding of "good" is probably muddled due to my limited human understanding. But I don't see how rejoicing while another suffers or is gone forever could ever be good.

     Still, despite my beliefs, I can't stop researching eternity.
     People tell me it doesn't matter because no one can know (which is true). But then people tell me to focus on the here and now, and even if eternity doesn't exist, that's okay.
    And that's when I yell hogwash.
    If you say eternity doesn't matter, you say that it's too late for everyone who never got justice in this life. For the babies beaten to death to the victims of the Holocaust to those slain by serial killers, justice will never come.
    That's disgusting. How can we live in this reality?
    I mean, I can't. Maybe you can - and congratulations to you. I'm truly glad the concept of no eternal justice makes you want to work harder at justice now, and I wouldn't disagree with the notion that no eternity is better than an unjust one.
    But we're still operating under a threat. Only the threat isn't a supernatural hell - just natural injustice and pain for everyone on earth for generations and generations.
    For me, the idea that people could be gone forever, people who deserved to live, dammit, is so horrifying I want to first vomit and then invent a time machine to save them, and maybe die in their place because for them, justice will never matter. Maybe that's because I'm unhealthily sensitive, but that is honestly how I feel.
     Justice must matter for all: past, present, and future, or it is not good. That's my firmly held belief, and you're free to disagree. And maybe I'm a caught up in fairy-tales or insane with hope and empathy. There are worse things.
    But yeah. There you have it: why I think eternity must matter.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Stop Pontificating on Abortion

***This is not an article arguing for either the pro-choice or the pro-life side. This is an article asking some complicated questions about abortion that we can't answer, and some we won't answer, prompted by a barrage of myopic pro-life and pro-choice articles I've read.***

    I'd like to remind those debating about abortion of one simple fact:
    You don't know when life begins.
    If you want to argue that life starts at conception, what do you do with identical twins like me? Did God just throw two souls into one egg? Or am I just one half of a soul to you? And if you don't believe in God yet believe life begins at conception, seriously, how do you make sense of my existence?
    Moreover, what do you do with human chimeras? Were these twins two people, then one died, and God just let that one's cells be absorbed into the other? Or are they two souls in one person? If you're not a believer in God, seriously: what do you say?
    What do you say about the millions of zygotes frozen in time?
    What do you say about in-vitro efforts? Are these people selfishly risking someone's life for their own desires to have a kid - really?
    What do you say about the spontaneous abortions that end a pregnancy within days of conception - whose frequency, for the record, the birth control you usually oppose lessens?
    What do you say about the fetuses who, tragically, don't have a brain? Were they ever alive?
    Where is life, as a matter of fact? Is it in the brain? Is it consciousness? Have you considered the varying degrees of consciousness that all animals have, yet you eat them?
     Is life in the soul, if you believe in souls? Again, when does the soul enter your body?
     Now, if you don't believe that life begins until a baby is born, what do you do with late-term abortions whose babies can sometimes be born alive?
     What do you do with the fact that babies can be born earlier and earlier due to increasing medical technology?
     Okay. The point is this:
     You don't know when life begins.

     "We must therefore protect anything that can be life!" is an understandable conclusion. Except you're then faced with how we don't protect life once it's born, with our society's permitting of verbal abuse and sexism and classism and racism and LGBTQ+ bigotry, etc. Plus, I'm betting precious few of you have adopted an unwanted child, and many of you view unmarried sex as shameful. And if you believe in hell, what if the baby you forced to be born grows up to reject whatever god you hold?
    Okay, but two wrongs don't make a right.
    Still, you then must acknowledge - I want to hear you pro-lifers answer this - that you are forcing a woman whose life has definitely begun to have her body rearranged for nine months, to endure a discrimination and invasion of privacy. You are taking away her bodily autonomy, and if you are a man, I would also like to hear you admit that this is something your sex has done to women throughout history in a variety of ways.
    Because on both sides of the debate, a body is torn apart. Pregnancy is no easy feat - it's painful and a woman's organs are actually rearranged in her body and sometimes this is, you know, dangerous.
     If you want to go through this, yay. But how can you command someone to go through this if she doesn't want to?
    And obviously, in abortion, I want to hear pro-choicers answer that, yes, a fetus's organs are torn apart, and there is a possibility that this fetus - whose life may or may not have begun - can feel pain. During abortion, you do risk taking someone helpless's bodily autonomy away.
    So: is it moral to risk your life for someone who may or may not yet exist? And is it moral to force someone to do this? And is it moral to pontificate and shame the experience of marginalized women who made hard choices, either for or against aboriton?

    These are serious morality and metaphysical questions here, and these cannot be answered in laws or blogs or tweets.
    So no, once again, I'm not arguing for or against abortion here. I'm simply saying that you need to acknowledge the limits of your knowledge and the implication of your beliefs, and blogs and tweets do not accomplish this (including this post, since I've never experienced anything like this).
    So please stop pontificating. Please listen and learn, with compassion and empathy.
    Because abortion is just a name for a hard situation that involves real people.
    Thank you.


Saturday, July 18, 2015

Let's Be Disney Protagonists

    "Drive them from our shore!
    They're not like you and me,
    which means they must be evil!
    Let us sound the drums of war!
    They're savages! Savages!
    Barely even human!"
    -"Savages," Pocahontas

    This summer I've been re-watching my favorite Disney (mostly princess) movies. While every story is rich to me (magic, abuse survivors in Snow White and Cinderella, classism in Sleepy Beauty, cute animals!), many movies seems to have a theme of "otherness."
    See, most Disney heroes and heroines don't fit in:
    Aladdin is a street urchin who affirms his worth despite his poverty,
    Jasmine, Mulan, Merida, and Meg don't want to be playthings for men,
    Cinderella and Snow White are abused,
    Aurora, Phillip, and Hercules scorn riches and fame for the people they love,
    Ariel ignores her father's racism for Eric,
    Tiana is a working woman,
    Belle doesn't care to fit in, and, moreover, has compassion on the self-destructive,
    Esmeralda and Pocahontas belong to persecuted peoples,
    Tarzan is actually a different species from his family,
    Simba is haunted by his traumatic past, and
    Anna, Elsa, Quasimodo, and Rapunzel have been kept hidden from the world since childhood.
    Yet it's these Others who destroy their worlds' views of class, race, abuse, and goodness.
    Disney movies tell us that what is in our hearts matters more than our differences.
    Yes, even the older Disney stories. The wealthy stepsisters in Cinderella, and the beautiful queen in Snow White, lose because they have no kindness or compassion. In a sense, these princesses are saved by their own kindness and good-hearts - not their looks.
    And yet, how often do we forget this? Really, it's like us adults who grew up on a diet of Disney have forgotten this important lesson.
    Look at the oppression of black males in American society. Look at Franklin Graham's call to stop Muslim immigration, or Charisma News' obsession with the "threat" posed by Muslims and LGBTQ+ people. In fact, look up the statistics on LGBTQ+ homelessness and suicide rates. Try to pretend our society hasn't become like the bigoted Englishmen who belt out "Savages."
    Also, try to pretend the lyrics to "Kill the Beast" aren't very applicable to modern America.

    "We don't like what we don't
    Understand, and in fact it scares us,
    And this monster is mysterious at least.
    Bring your guns, bring your knives,
    Save your children and your wives!
    Save your village and our lives!
    Let's kill the beast!"
    - "Kill the Beast," Beauty and the Beast
    Because not only does this song emphasize our tendency to ostracize anything outside the norm, it also shows us what that norm is: trigger-happy manhood. The "we" doesn't include females (or anyone gender-nonconforming), yet, ironically, the heroine Belle is the only one who actually does understand. This idea is also explored in Mulan's  epic "I'll Make a Man Out of You," in which the best "man" turns out to be the woman warrior Mulan.  
    Moreover, last week I re-watched The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I was struck by how much Claude Frollo's persecution of the Romani in the name of purity reminded me of the way my evangelical tradition often treats LGBTQ+ people.
    In one particularly powerful moment, Frollo commands Esmeralda to be silent after she shows kindness to the bullied Quasimodo.
    "Justice!" she shouts back.
    Perhaps, we should all take a cue from Esmeralda. Perhaps, my fellow Christians should show kindness to the LGBTQ+ individuals instead of seeing them merely as sinners. Perhaps - especially to my fellow white American Christians - we should all support the Esmeraldas, the voices of the marginalized (religious, racial, sexual, gender, etc.) crying out for justice.
    "You speak of justice, yet you are cruel to those most in need of your help!" Esmeralda tells Frollo.  
    Perhaps we should not be the puritanical Frollo - or Pocahontas' racist Radcliffe or Beauty and the Beast's chauvinistic Gaston - silencing all who are different than the majority.
    Perhaps we should all endeavor to be like Disney protagonists once again. We should endeavor to see the inside of people different from us, to encourage the good, to subvert the system for love.
    This is what Disney taught me, and what I still faithfully cling to. This is the way of Jesus, who dined with tax collectors and prostitutes.
    This might be idealistic, but it is good.

    "God help the outcasts
    Hungry from birth.
    Show them the mercy
    They don't find on earth...
    God help the outcasts
    We look to You still.
    God help the outcasts,
    Or nobody will...

    God help the outcasts,
    Poor and down trod.
    I thought we all were
    Children of God."
    -Esmeralda, The Hunchback of Notre Dame


Sunday, June 21, 2015

Pope Francis, Climate Change, and That Evil Liberal Scientific Agenda

    I have a confession: we scientists do have an agenda.
    It's learning.
    We like making discoveries. I'm a graduate student at MIT; of course I want to synthesize a cool new catalyst. Biologists want to discover the cure to cancer. Ecologists want to figure out a way to stop climate change, and neuroscientists want to understand how our brains work. Discoveries are our agenda.
    Moreover, in our private lives, I'm sure every one of us scientists has a social and political agenda. We're human, and we feel and believe things things as much as non-scientists.
    What we don't have is an agenda that mixes our evil liberal ideology with our science.
    Really. I promise.
    Science is mostly gathering and analyzing data. When neuroscientists discovered that transwomen brains function more like ciswomen brains, and that transmen brains function more like cismen, that's called data. Data is fact. The interpretation - that transgender is a legitimate identity and that people aren't lying when they say "this is how I am" - can be debated. The similarities found between transbrains and cisbrains, however, are not up for debate.
    Likewise, when ecologists and geologists discover that the earth's climate is changing, that's data. The cause and consequences may be debated, but you do not get to deny the data.
    So we can debate Pope Francis's encyclical all we want. We can disagree with his interpretation all day long.
    What we cannot do is deny the facts- climate change is real. And yet...
    So many conservative Christians - the community I hail from - do. Because scientists transform the magic and mystery of the world into facts, many Christians assume we are attacking religion, which is fundamentally associated with invisible, supernatural mysteries.
    Except, I'm a Christian myself. 33% of us scientists do believe in a god, and another 18% in some sort of higher power. So, while scientist may be less religious than other American populations, it's hardly accurate to say that science has an anti-religious agenda. 
    Basically, science is not a crutch to be twisted at will, as I was told earlier this week. The scientific method relies on skepticism and repetition and fact. Yes, there's interpretation, but typically we go with the simplest interpretation in accordance with Occam's Razor.
    So Pope Francis is not betraying the Christian faith when he says we are facing a climate crisis. He isn't siding with a liberal, anti-thiestic agenda. Rather, he has read and interpreted a deluge of scientific data as accurate, and decided that, as "the earth has been given to us" by God, we should care for it.
    Trust in science is not a betrayal of faith. It is not a political decision, or at least, it shouldn't be. Science is merely our attempt to discern facts about the natural world.
     Yes, we scientists are flawed and we will misinterpret and make mistakes, but that's why peer review and verification exists. No, the scientific method is not the be-all, end-all of reality, but few scientists would claim it is. Yes, we can, and perhaps should, be skeptical of scientists - and religious leaders and politicians, too!
    What we cannot do is dismiss people, whoever they are, as driven by an liberal, evil, anti-thiestic agenda just because it upsets our notions of how the universe works. We cannot deny facts just because they challenge us.
    Because then we're the ones motivated by a dangerous agenda - pride and trust in our own beliefs as fact, when all data contradicts us.