The Bethanys

So, I am sure at one point in your life, you have wondered which Bethany sister you were most like, Mary or Martha. No one ever asks if you are more like Lazarus. Today, July 29th, is their day and to commemorate the occasion I want to induct ALL THREE of them into the Hall of Marys because they were great hosts and even better friends to a pushing-the-envelope rabbi that I follow. Also, they lived together and seemed to get along, which, despite any complaints on Martha’s part, is an amazing thing that anyone with a sibling can admire. (Technically, I guess, Mary will be in the Hall of Marys and her siblings will be Honorary Marys.)

When it comes to identifying with one or the other, I have to say I am torn. My name is Mary and I like to think I am a good disciple. But I am also the one who is most often muttering under my breath in the kitchen while everyone else is still partying. I am guessing that I am not the only one in the world who feels like this:

Mary-Martha. (This was harder to write than you’d think.)

The red egg

image by Janet McKenzie

Today is the Feast of Mary Magdalene, a great day to induct my favorite saint into the Hall of Marys. She is perhaps my favorite follower of Jesus for so many reasons that I cannot list them all here. Suffice it to say that my daughter is named for her and I hope she grows up to be as loyal, caring, strong, persistent, and pioneering as the Magdalene, but without all the strange rumors.

Among the strangest stories about Mary Magdalene is this: after the death and resurrection of Jesus, she was spreading the Gospel and managed to visit the Emperor Tiberius in Rome. She greeted him with a plain egg in her hand and the Easter greeting, “Christ has risen.” The Emperor laughed and said that Christ was no more risen than the egg in her hand was red. Immediately the egg turned blood red.

Red is Mary Magdalene’s color. It is the color of prostitutes and adultery for women–one of the rumors about her. Red is the color of blood–Jesus blood given for us, Mary’s blood coursing through her veins, a source of nourishment. Red is the color of love and passion–Mary’s passion for Jesus, his mission, and his followers. In the church today, fiery red is the color of the Holy Spirit present in burning bushes and Pentecost flames.

Mary was the Apostle to the Apostles, the one who went to the tomb to carry out the saddest duty one friend can do for another: anoint them for burial. She unwittingly became the witness to the miracle of resurrection, the first to believe the unbelievable. She became the first to share the good news. Mary Magdalene was aflame with love for God and spread that love far and wide. It is for this that she is known, not for her relationship to a husband, father, son, or brother. She is known as her own self and for her own passionate, spirited love.

Go and do likewise.



The only thing I want

If only…

Over the years, as the lottery phenomenon has grown, I have developed a recurring fantasy of what I would do with a sudden influx of money. When I was younger, the fantasy included a new car, huge house, and extravagant gifts for all my friends and family. As I got older, I dreamed of starting a foundation that would end, once and for all, at least one world crisis. Travel was on the top of both lists. All over the world and never in coach class again.

Something happened recently to upend my priorities. Actually it was a series of things that acted like running water eroding my high standards of what constituted living well. In fact, it actually WAS running water.

If I ever win the lottery, or in any other way come into a huge bundle of cash, my only wish is never to smell urine again. Not human, not dog, not cat. No more scent of wet beds in the middle of the night. No more incontinent pets. No more boy children with bad aim who really should try harder. No more, “I forgot to tell you I accidentally got pee on the sofa and now it smells horrible.” No more adorable puppies peeing on my shoe. (That really did happen.)

When you see a picture of me holding up a comically huge check for $130,000,000, don’t come with your hand held out unless that hand is holding air freshener or a Clorox wipe. And for goodness sake, if you win the lottery, please don’t use your winnings to buy my children large drinks late at night, or I will be calling your new full-time housekeeper to clean up the mess.


Abstract painting of a person by Paul Klee

I’ve been thinking about the idea of personhood a lot lately. Last summer, there was some election-year debate about whether corporations are people. This summer, the issue is abortion, where people of good will can’t agree on when personhood–and the rights that go with it–begins.

There are different ways to define a person–theologically, morally, legally–and it is possible to hold multiple views depending on your purpose. For instance, you can hold on theological grounds that a person is a single, natural human being created by God and, at the same time, believe on legal grounds that a social group or corporation is a person that can sue and be sued. Science is even opening the discussion of how much a person can be changed by artificial parts and technology and still be considered a person. If you have an artificial brain with human memories, are you a person?

Regardless of where you start and what decisions you make, the determination of personhood is philosophical, not scientific. Science can tell us if a being is human or alive, but it cannot tell us under what circumstances it is a person. There is a difference between the two. To be overly general, “human” is what you are, the DNA you have, and “person” is what you are capable of, the rights and responsibilities you hold. Attributes like agency, self-awareness, and emotion are considerations when conferring personhood. In the U.S., persons are recognized by law according to their possession of rights and duties.

I believe my children are human persons (even if they don’t believe it about each other)  but they don’t have the same rights I do as a legal person–they cannot vote or have free assembly or engage in a host of other civil activities. On the other hand, they can inherit money and property and have a right to due process if they ever get in big trouble. So, even among persons, there are differences.

And that is just right now, here in the U.S. during the 21st Century. The idea of personhood varies across cultures and history. My own forebears believed that personhood was only granted to white, male, property owners. There are cultures in which moral and legal personhood can be ascribed to animals and other non-human beings.

So all of these thoughts have been swirling through my mind as the women and men in Texas and around the country have been shouting back and forth about the rights of women and the rights of fetuses, about medical procedures and murder, about responsibility and privacy. Is it possible to determine a standard by which a fetus is a legal person? And whatever the answer, how do the rights of a pregnant women–a person–fit with the rights of a fetus she carries? What happens when the rights conflict?

Of course, the law can be guided by not based on theological standards of personhood–not least because our nation includes a vast array of religious traditions with differing points of view. We can be informed by science and ethics, tradition and other areas of law. Does personhood begin when a human ovum is fertilized? or when a being has the ability to feel pain? or the ability to survive outside the womb? or draws its first breath?

It would seem important that whatever standard we use be consistent across the range of personhood rights. Are there different stages of personhood–just as we now withhold the right to vote until adulthood? Should the standards used to determine personhood for a fetus be the same as those for born human beings? If so, do they have access to all the legal rights of a born human being, or just some of them? At what point does a person gain rights to health care and nutrition? (In my state, access to both have recently been significantly cut for pregnant women.) What happens when the rights of two human persons conflict? How should the law arbitrate between them? There are some people who think pregnant women should not be allowed to eat raw fish or raw milk cheese. Japanese and French women think that’s going too far.

Perhaps, since a pregnant woman can be considered by some as two united human persons, they are the ultimate corporate person. What would the law say about that?


These shoes are made for standing with Texas women

My Stand-With-Texas-Women shoes

A week ago today, along with a bazillion other people across Texas and the world, I watched the filibuster heard round the world. I knew I’d be angry about the content of the legislation being blocked (really, how do you protect women’s health by limiting care?) and inspired by Wendy Davis, who spoke for more than 11 hours and gave voice to the  experiences of women across the state. What I didn’t expect was the level of disgust I felt watching sworn members of my state government flagrantly violating rules and procedures. And the level of disrespect they showed their female peers in the Senate was shocking.

Lawmaking is like sausage making. It makes many people (including me) want to turn away. But this time, instead of making me the equivalent of a political vegetarian, the meat grinder in the Texas Senate woke up my inner activist. I headed down to the Capitol yesterday with more than 6,000 other sisters and brothers clad in orange to make our voices heard.

I also didn’t expect that last week’s filibuster and this week’s rally would give me some new heroes. I guess I had become too cynical–politics is seeming less and less like a public service for so many politicians. I never tell a child that s/he can grow up to be president because I am not sure that is a compliment anymore. I felt different watching the filibuster and participating in the rally. The Representatives and Senators who spoke inspired me and woke me from my cynical political slumber. (I realize that anyone who knows me might think that slumber was awfully restless, given as I am to the occasional rant. But talking is not the same as acting.)

There was one last thing I didn’t expect. Among the ralliers and speakers, it was clear that the issues at hand went beyond abortion and women’s health–and also beyond political affiliation. It was clear to those of us there that what used to pass as pro-freedom is really an intrusive set of public policies that limit human flourishing (except for the most wealthy and politically connected). Those who claim the “moral high ground” are willing to lie, cheat, and insult to get their way. Oxymoron, anyone?

I am now in the fray and a little bit awed by the powerful emotions the political process elicits from people who are deeply engaged in divisive issues. When you face political and moral opposition, sometimes things get heated. Sometimes people on both sides start using words and tactics that get everyone angry and off-topic. It doesn’t help children, women, families, and the poor–those we are claiming to help. So I am committing to the following principles as I work for access to quality health care, reproductive choice, and voting rights:

  1. Respect. Just because I disagree with someone does not mean I will use derogatory language or name calling about them or their beliefs. Even if they don’t return the favor. Vigorous debate yes; insults, no.
    This is a big one for me, based on a lesson I learned when I worked for the Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts. I joined them as a volunteer before an anti-abortion activist went on a shooting spree, killing two and wounding five. I returned because they needed help in the aftermath and were too traumatized to bring in anyone they didn’t already know. For the next few years, our Executive Director and some of her colleagues met with representatives from the opposing side for a regular series of conversations. What it turned into was supportive relationships–friendships even–and some guidelines for how to hold your ground without being disrespectful. Their work was successful in bringing down the level of vitriol and violence.
    So, based on what I learned from those brave women, I will respect my opponents. I will call them by the political moniker they prefer–pro-life is that is what they wish. I will listen and have a conversation with anyone who wants to discuss touchy issues. And, because respect includes self-respect, I expect the same in return. When I am called an anti-baby anti-woman murderer, that is disrespectful. I understand clearly that you do not want to talk to me and I will leave you alone. If you describe my beliefs in disrespectful terms, I will correct you.
  2. Truth. One thing about health care of which you can be sure, including reproductive health care, is that it involves science. Right? So my viewpoints and my advocacy are going to be based on scientific evidence that is widely accepted. In my opinion, if you cite scientific evidence to support your case, it should be subject to scrutiny–especially peer review. Science is a search for truth, not a tool for political gain.
    Experience is also a way of knowing the truth. I will honor the experience of people whose lives have been and will be affected by my political actions and the proposals at hand. Where science and experience can’t inform us, we are left with opinion. And opinions, can witness to the truth, but they are not truth itself. Opinions can be philosophical, theological, moral, political, social, economic, or a zillion other kinds of opinions, but they are not facts. I have lots of opinions and share lots of opinions (I bet you do too) but it is really so much easier if we can admit that is what they are.
  3. Focus. There are plenty of people who can and will and need to delve into the minutia of getting a law passed or blocked. God bless them! Others of us are better at delivering care or getting out messages or raising money or registering voters. There are many ways to get involved, but for me, no matter what my task is,  it is important to stay focused on the people who will pay the highest price as a consequence of public policy actions: the poor, the young, those who have no powerful allies, and women. Sometimes it is easy to get lost in the work, so I will try my hardest to stay focused on the mission.
  4. Open heart. I am willing to learn and change and grow. It is the ONLY way to be in conversation with other people. If you show me respect and are willing to have a conversation, I am game! But it has to be mutual. Who knows, maybe we can find some common ground.
  5. Faith. I am a Christian who is pro-choice. I have lots of friends who are not Christians, who love their country, and are pro-choice. (I could mention a lot of other faiths here, but I am speaking for myself and how I intend to act with regard to my own faith tradition.) While I believe that there should be no establishment of religion in America (including Texas, y’all), my political motivations and decisions are informed by my faith. Did you catch that? It is possible to honor your faith and your God without dishonoring others. I won’t accept the use of religion to abuse or exclude people in the public square.

I have my orange protest shoes on and am ready to march! or email or sort mail or deliver bottled water. Whatever. My shoes are not exactly like Wendy’s, but then again my job is different from hers. I’ll see you at the altar, at the Capitol, and in the voting booth.