Thursday, October 26, 2006

The story of the Lamed-Vov

From the blog of Elizabeth Kaeton, an Episcopal priest:

I remembered a story told by Rachel Naomi Remen, MD, in her book MY GRANDFATHER’S BLESSING. It’s the story of the Lamed-Vov. She writes:

As a child I had loved the story of Noah and the Ark the best of all my grandfather’s stories. He had given me a coloring book that had pictures of all the animals, two by two, and Noah and his wife, looking much like Mr. and Mrs. Santa Claus but dressed in different way.

We spent hours coloring in this book together which is how, at almost four, I had learned the names of many animals. We had also discussed the story at length, and wondered about the surprising possibility that even God sometimes makes mistakes and has to send a flood to start over again.

The last picture in the book was a beautiful rainbow. “This represents a promise between God and man, Neshume-le,” my grandfather told me. After the flood, God promises Noah and all of us that it will never happen again.”

But I was not so easily fooled. This whole thing had started because people had been wicked. “Even if we are very naughty, Grandpa?” I asked. My grandfather had laughed then. “That is what it says here in this story.” He looked thoughtful. “But there are other stories,” he told me. Delighted, I asked him to tell me another one.

The story he told me is very old and dates from the time of the prophet Isaiah. It is the legend of the Lamed-Vov. In this story, God tells us that He will allow the world to continue as long as at any given time there is a minimum of thirty-six good people in the human race. People who are capable of responding to the suffering that is a part of the human condition. These thirty-six are called the Lamed-Vov. If at any time, there are fewer than thirty-six such people, the world will come to an end.

“Do you know who these people are, Grandpa?” I asked certain that he would say, “Yes.” But he shook his head. “No, Neshume-le,” he told me, “Only God knows who the Lamed-Vovniks are. Even the Lamed-Vovniks themselves do not know for sure the role they have in the continuation of the world, and no one else knows it either. They respond to suffering, not in order to save the world but simply because the suffering of others touches them and matters to them.”

It turned out that Lamed-Vovniks could be tailors or college professors, millionaires or paupers, powerful leaders or powerless victims. These things were not important. What mattered was only their capacity to feel the collective suffering of the human race and to respond to the suffering around them. “And because no one knows who they are, Neshume-le, anyone you meet might be one of the thirty six for whom God preserves the world,” my grandfather said. “It is important to treat everyone as if it might be so.”

I sat and thought about this story for a long time. It was a different story than the story of Noah’s Ark. The rainbow meant that there would be a happily-ever-after, just as in the stories my father read to me at bedtime. But Grandpa’s story made no such promises. God asked something of people in return for the gift of life, and He was asking it still.

Suddenly, I realized that I had no idea what it was. If so much depended on it, it must be something very hard, something that required a great sacrifice. What if the Lamed-Vovniks could not do it? What then? “How do the Lamed-Vovniks respond to the suffering, Grandpa?” I asked, suddenly anxious. “What do they have to do?”

My grandfather smiled at me very tenderly. “Ah, Neshume-le,” he told me. “They do not need to do anything. They respond to all suffering with compassion. Without compassion, the world cannot continue. Our compassion blesses and sustains the world.”

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Abusive relationships and the church

There are some in my newly-adopted Episcopal Church who accuse the wider church of persecuting them, of forcing a liberal, un-Biblical interpretation of sexuality down their throats and of silencing them when they try to speak. They are having delusions of persecution. Additionally, just because it's Biblical doesn't make it right. Lot, as we know, is the only righteous person in Sodom and is visited by angels. The people of Sodom surround his house, and demand that the angels be brought out to that they may rape the angels. Lot protests, and offers his daughters instead. God is said to incinerate Sodom as a result. But God (presumably) doesn't condone violence against women; why didn't God at least reprimand Lot? If I were in the mood to incinerate Sodom, I would have, as a result of that incident, incinerated Lot along with the rest of the city.

One fellow blogger I've read accused conservatives in TEC of being abusive toward the wider church ( Her thesis:

Here are the warning signs:
· Abusers use emotional abuse. They put you down in many ways, make you feel bad about yourself, call you names, try to make you think you’re “crazy, play mind games, humiliate you and make you feel guilty.
· Abusers use coercion and threats. They make or carry out threats to do something to hurt you. They threaten to leave you, to commit suicide or to report you to authorities without cause. They make you drop charges. They make you do illegal things.
· Abusers use economic abuse. They take your money. They refuse to give you money. They prevent you from getting a job. They make you ask for money. They won’t let you know about the family money or let you have access to the family income.
· Abusers use gender privilege. They treat you like a servant. They make all the big decisions. They act like “master of the castle.” They define “men’s” and “women’s” roles.
· Abusers use intimidation. They make you afraid by using looks, gestures and actions. They smash things. They abuse pets. They display weapons.
· Abusers use the children. They make you feel guilty about the children. They use the children to relay messages. They use visitation to harass you. They threaten to take the children away from you.
· Abusers use isolation. They control what you do, whom you see and talk to, what you read and where you go. They limit your outside involvement. They use jealousy to justify actions.
· Abusers minimize, deny, blame. They make light of the abuse. They don’t take your concern seriously. They say the abuse didn’t happen. They shift responsibility for abusive behavior to you.

This list could well be a strategy memo for those conservatives who are determined to wreck the Episcopal Church and/or to replace it with their own “purified” NeoPuritan version.
One can go down the list and check it off.
Uses emotional abuse and calls you names? Try “pagan” and “revisionist” and “heretic.”
Tries to make you feel guilty? Try claiming that Christians are being killed in majority Muslim countries because TEC elected and confirmed an honestly gay man.
Plays mind games? Try claiming that Lambeth resolutions have the power of laws, or that TEC has been “kicked out of” the Anglican Communion, or that the Windsor Report is some kind of judgment from on high against us.
Uses coercion and threats? Try threats of leaving, again and again and again and again.
Uses economic abuse. Try withholding money from the national church.
Uses gender privilege. Surely I don’t have to explain this one.
You do it. Go down the list and see what you come up with.
So. Once it is determined someone is in an abusive relationship, what happens next?
The number one thing to do is GET AWAY FROM YOUR ABUSER.

I disagree with her thesis. Those who are trying to tear my newly-adopted church to pieces may be behaving badly, but they are in the minority. We do not have to suffer their idiocy. In fact, we have power over them. We have the power of being recognized as the Anglican franchise in the US, former US territories, and other churches affiliated with the Episcopal Church. In addition, those who have left have had to leave their churches and property behind; the buildings are generally recognized by law as property of the diocese held in trust for the congregation. And even if Canterbury invites the pro-schismatics to Lambeth and leaves the rest of us behind, we still have considerable moral standing among those who belive that we should include the LGBT community in our attempts to live in God's love.

No, the correct parallel of an abusive relationship is this. LGBT Christians, some closeted, some not, are in abusive relationships with the broader, catholic church (NOT specifically the Roman Catholic Church). My thesis is as follows.

Emotional abuse: homphobic pastors call gay people depraved or objectively disordered. They insist that you're on a path to hell if you "choose" a "lifestyle" that includes loving someone of the same gender or displaying a variant gender identity. They threaten expulsion from church. They promote "reparative" therapy to change sexual orientation.

Gender privilege: Gender privilege is specific to abusive interpersonal relationships where the abuser is male and the abused is female. But, the church claims to have a hold, usually exclusive of all others, on eternal truths. Homophobic churches claim that the fact that homosexuality is a disorder is eternal truth.

Intimidation: threatening people with eternal damnation can reasonably be described as intimidation.

Use of children: homophobic Christians tell gay Christians that they're destroying the family, and they warn us that those gays are out to recruit children.

Use of isolation: can't think of a specific example right now ... would anyone care to post one in the comments?

Minimizing the situation: homophobic Christians pick verses from the Bible to justify their prejudices. Given that some verses condone violence against gays (mainly Leviticus, which prescribes stoning), a minority still find the use of murderous violence justified. To their credit, many conservative Christians have condemned violence against the LGBT community. But, when you use such phrases as "depraved" (Southern Baptist Convention, 1987) and "objectively disordered" (Roman Catholic Church), you legitimate violence.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

"To think they preached about respect for all, we are all children of God and that we not judge people..." said another student. "I personally feel that they are wrong to be teaching something that they are not practicing."

Charlene Genther was fired from her post of Campus Safety Officer at Marian High School, a Catholic high school, in Detroit, Michigan. She had recently published a book where she detailed the harassment she faced for being a lesbian on the Detroit police force. She spent nearly 15 years on the force, and was one of the first women assigned to patrol duty.

Michigan law does not protect discrimination based on sexual orientation, so Genther has little legal recourse. Jeffrey Montgomery, executive director of Triangle Foundation, a Michigan LGBT rights organization, said, "Unfortunately, Charlene is facing a second round of discrimination. It's a horrible lesson to be teaching these girls: that being honest will cost you your job. It's also hypocritical, because even the Church says job discrimination against gays and lesbians is wrong. She was a role model and mentor and they cast her out."

Anecdotally, I know a large number of lay Catholics disagree with their church hierarchy on issues such as sexual orientation and contraception. To their credit, the Catholic hierarchy has not forced people to abandon their intellects at the church door; they have accepted such well-founded scientific theories as evolution, unlike fundamentalist Protestants. However, issues like sexual orientation, the Catholic hierarchy is blind, perhaps wilfully blind. Pope Benedict has started trying to remove all the gay people from their seminaries - this in response to the child abuse scandals. It galls me to no end when people try to pass off their own prejudices as God's will.

Hundreds of former and present Marian students have started a petition to bring Genther back. The quote in the header is from a student. Their are hundreds of LGBT Catholics with immense gifts to bring to the church. There is no way to put it kindly - the Catholic Church does not love them, despite claims to the contrary. It won't let them leave, either, claiming that it is the one true church, and that to leave is damnation. These are the actions of an abusive spouse, not God's supposedly one true church. And the Catholic Church is not alone in its abuse of its LGBT members.

It is easy to see why many LGBT folk leave Christianity and never look back. It may seem hard to understand why there are affirming groups in every Christian denominations from the Mormons and the Southern Baptists to the Episcopalians and the UCC. But God's love us is stronger than anyone's hatred.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Mohammed Yunus and Grameen Bank awarded Nobel peace prize for lending efforts to very poorest citizens of Bangladesh

From CNN Money: OSLO (Reuters) -- Bangladeshi economist Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank he founded won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for grassroots efforts to lift millions out of poverty that earned him the nickname of "banker to the poor."

Yunus, 66, set up a new kind of bank in the 1976 to give credit to the very poorest in his native Bangladesh, particularly women, enabling them to start up small businesses without collateral.

"In Bangladesh, where nothing works and there's no electricity," Yunus once said, "microcredit works like clockwork."

The Nobel committee awarded the prize to Yunus and Grameen Bank "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below," it said in its citation.

"Lasting peace cannot be achieved unless large population groups find ways in which to break out of poverty. Microcredit is one such means. Development from below also serves to advance democracy and human rights," it said.

Yunus and Grameen were surprise winners of the 10 million Swedish crown ($1.36 million) award from a field of 191 candidates. The prize will be handed out in Oslo on Dec. 10.

"This is fantastic, unbelievable. Thank you," Yunus, whose autobiography is called "Banker to the Poor," told Norway's NRK television after the announcement.

Returning from a Fulbright scholarship in the United States, Yunus was shocked by the 1974 Bangladesh famine and headed out into the villages to see what he could do.

He discovered the women were in severe debt to extortionate moneylenders, and Yunus's initial aim was simply to persuade a local bank manager to step in and offer the villagers regular credit. The banker said it was impossible without a guarantee.

Yunus set out to prove him wrong and has never looked back. Grameen - the word means village in Bengali - has now disbursed $5.72 billion since its inception. Of this $5.07 billion has been repaid -- a loan recovery rate of 98.85 per cent.

"Across cultures and civilizations, Yunus and Grameen Bank have shown that even the poorest of the poor can work to bring about their own development," the secretive five-member Nobel committee said in announcing the award.


Microcredit is loaning small sums to the poor, at market but not unreasonable interest rates. It's not worth it to the big banks to make these loans: the sums are too small, and the poor have no collateral. Under Yunus, Grameen went into the market. Microcredit institutions will make loans to groups of people; if one defaults, all will not get credit. This leverages the social networks that countries like Bangladesh have, but which have become less important in developed countries. The fact that the borrowers are paying market rate gives them incentive to repay, as does the fact that they will face shame if they default.

Microcredit is not charity, in the sense of giving out handouts. Grameen does have run charity programs, some of which make small interest-free loans to beggars. However, what makes it work is that they help people start their own small businesses by giving out market-rate loans, which they would not be able to get othewise. And in Bangladesh, "small business" might mean selling snacks in a cart by the side of the road. "Small business" in the Third World is a lot smaller than in, say, America. Microcredit institutions also often provide business education to their borrowers. I bank with Self-Help Credit Union, a community development financial institution (its principles are similar to Grameen), and they require borrowers to file a concrete, viable business plan before taking out a loan. Self-Help's first loan was a to a non-viable business, which defaulted. If you just hand out money, you will not make a social impact.

Microcredit institutions may be more effective in the Third World. There are community development financial institutions that have viable businesses and make noticeable impacts on communities, but there are not very many (Self-Help is based in North Carolina, and Shorebank is based in Chicago and I think Detroit). The reasons aren't very clear. I speculate that one reason is because the markets in the developed world are dominated by large corporations; there isn't a huge amount of room for family businesses to enter the market. For the poor here, the solution is not to go into business. It's to get a decent job paying a living wage ... and there are no such jobs. There is definitely a need for credit unions to take the place of payday lenders, and make small loans to get people through the month at a more reasonable interest rate (some have accused payday lenders of predatory practices). But the solution here is more complicated than forcing businesses to pay living wages - they would simply outsource more jobs, and pass on the costs to the rest of us, and then we'd be back where we started.

That should in no way detract from Grameen's success. In fact, they are expanding by engaging in a telecom business. They loan phones to villagers, who in turn loan use of the phone to their neighbors. Admittedly, capitalism has many ugly flaws, but Grameen is capitalism near or at its finest.

For more info, try this article from The Motley Fool:

TMF is a financial services site that encourages investors to tell Wall Street to shove it where the sun doesn't shine, and educate themselves and invest on their own. Grameen's ethos is parallel to theirs, and they have donated to Grameen in the past. They also offer a selection of investment newsletters.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

A gag policy memo from Bishop Robert Duncan to the Presiding Bishop

I'm starting my first year in the School of Public Health at the University of Michigan. We were required to write a ficticious policy memo for one of my classes. I chose to write on transgender rights in healthcare. I also chose to take some fictional license and to make it from one bishop to another in my beloved Episcopal Church. And, in a joke that I doubt my professor will understand, I chose to ghost-write for Bishop Robert Duncan, the notoriously homophobic bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, who is trying to lead his diocese and some others out of the church. I decided to post this to enlighten my readers (however many of you there may be) on the health care issues facing the transgender community, which is especially marginalized. And if you know anything about me, you also know that I have a slightly twisted sense of humor.

Cheers, Bob! Love what you're doing!


To: Rt. Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori, Presiding Bishop, The Episcopal Church

From: Rt. Rev. Robert Duncan, MPH, Bishop, Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh

Re: Transgender Rights Legislation

Dear Bishop Jefferts Schori,

I am writing to urge you to ensure that the Episcopal Church provides for the health of the transgender community. Keeping in mind Christ’s admonishment that “whatever you did to the least of these, you did it to me,” my diocese is taking steps to provide full insurance coverage for transgender individuals. We have amended our canons to ban discrimination based on gender identity as well as sexual orientation. And, since Pennsylvania law protects neither sexual orientation nor gender identity, we are joining in advocacy efforts to reach our state legislators. The University of Michigan, my alma mater, is soon expected to take similar steps, and a number of States, municipalities, companies, and other organizations have already done so. We should do likewise at the Diocesan and the national level, and take leadership among the major American religious bodies.

According to the Human Rights Campaign (2004), “transgender” is a broad term encompassing all persons who “live all or substantial portions of their lives expressing an innate sense of gender other than their birth sex.” Gender identity is “a person’s innate sense of gender.” Discrimination based on gender identity is legal in most states, and the transgender community is very marginalized as a result. Transgender people may experience discrimination when their transgender status is discovered, revealed, or suspected, or when they transition to another gender. The persistent workplace discrimination they face results in underemployment and unemployment, which reduces access to healthcare.

Insurance providers usually refuse to cover medical services relating to transitioning, such as hormone treatments and sex-reassignment surgery. Some ordinary surgeries may not be covered if they are seen as related to transgender status. The Transgender Law Center (2006) cites an interview with a female to male (FTM) transsexual who developed uterine cancer after transitioning, but whose insurance would not “treat uteruses in men.” Even if insured, doctors may refuse treatment because of personal prejudice; the Human Rights Campaign (2004) gives the example of an FTM transsexual who developed cervical cancer, but was refused treatment by 20 doctors. He found a willing doctor 130 miles from his residence, but died as a consequence of delayed treatment. Experiences and rumors of discrimination may stop transgender individuals from seeking or continuing medical treatment. (Lombardi, 2001)

Clements et al (1999) found that transgender individuals may be at higher risk for HIV and other STDs, and were unable to fully access HIV prevention and health services. In focus groups conducted in San Francisco, they found that many participants had engaged in sex work at some point in their lives, due to economic necessity. Participants felt that discrimination contributed to low self-esteem, which in turn led to taking risks with unprotected sex. The relief at being able to pass as their chosen gender, and being able to find a partner who accepted them sexually, also contributed. The participants also discussed high community levels of intravenous drug use. Healthcare providers were seen as insensitive to the needs of the transgender community. They felt that, for HIV prevention programs to be successful, the transgender community’s needs for successful employment, housing, and substance abuse and mental health programs had to be addressed first.

Hormone treatments and sex reassignment surgeries are expensive for individuals. Costs of FTM surgery from websites of prominent plastic surgeons range from $4,000 to $60,000; MTF surgery is slightly cheaper (Horton, 2006). Also, patients require mental health consultations to be diagnosed with “gender identity disorder” before they can undergo surgery or receive hormones. A myth prevails that transgender health benefits will drive up insurance costs. A former parishioner at the University of Michigan recalled how she was harassed when the University was debating whether to include transgender health benefits in insurance. Someone accosted her, and screamed, “I don’t want to pay for your sex change, you freak!” (Smith, 2005). However, the prevalence of transgenderism is low. Horton estimates that if spread over the entire population of people with health insurance, the maximum cost for all transgender health benefits, surgical and non-surgical, is a maximum of $3.64 per insured person, and a minimum of $0.16. She estimates that, in 2001, up to 1495 sex-reassignment surgeries were performed nationwide.

Frankly, there are few transgendered people. We may get a few or no transgender clergy candidates. Some might say we raised our premiums, albeit not by much, for nothing. That is not the point. We are sending a message to society that we are prepared to provide for the physical, me0ntal, and spiritual health of transgender employees. We are saying that discrimination is unacceptable, that it is not wrong to be in a minority as regards gender identity. We believe that we are playing some role in decreasing the physical and psychic violence that the transgender community faces. There is no theological justification for discrimination against them. I am proud of my diocese for saying so, and I pray the wider Church will take similar action.

Anonymous. (2006). Recommendations for transgender health care. Available: October 9, 2006.

Anonymous. (2004). Transgender basics. Available: October 9, 2006.

Crea, J. (January 7, 2005). Trans inclusion dooms Md. Hate bill: delegate. Available: October 9, 2006.

Clements K., Wilkinson W., Kitano K., Ph.D., Marx R., Ph.D. (1999) HIV Prevention and Health Service Needs of the Transgender Community in San Francisco. IJT 3,1+2,

Horton, M. A. (January 14, 2006). The cost of transgender health benefits: transgender at work. Available: October 7, 2006.

Smith, J, personal communication, September 20, 2005.


PS Take note, some events in the article are fictional. The real Bob Duncan never wrote this memo. He will not write anything like it in his lifetime. His successor will certainly not. The U of M is not Duncan's alma mater, and I do not expect it to provide transgender health benefits in the near future, although I believe it will at some point. And there is no Smith, J, whose ficticious personal communication I cite. The line is real, though. The partner of a transgendered individual testified at a Regents' meeting, and she mentioned that someone had shouted those words at her.

Monday, October 09, 2006

In honor of Christopher "Genocide" Columbus

You can tell right away that this is going to be a polemic. Columbus Day, on October 9, is a federal holiday in the United States. I'm not writing to begrudge the postal workers their holiday - they deserve one.

Interestingly enough, Columbus Day is celebrated in the Italian-American community, and in Latin America. Sometimes it is called Dia de la Raza; la Raza, as I understand it, refers to "the race," the mestizos who descended from the Spaniards and the native populations of Latin America.

All this does ignore the fact that Christopher Columbus was responsible for acts of intentional genocide against the Native Americans. I'd like to emphasize that I'm singling out Columbus the mythical figure more than Christopher the person, because if not for him, someone else would have come in conquest.

Columbus wrote in his journal, "We can send from here, in the name of the Holy Trinity, all the slaves and Brazil wood which could be sold." (1) As the source points out, he landed among the Taino, a peaceful people, and he wasted no time in pillaging them. If he had landed among, say, the Iroquois or the Maya, the story might have been different - or it might not. The Taino may have numbered in the millions before Columbus, but after 40 years of introduced foreign disease, pillaging, and murder, they were nearly extinct.

The United States of America is founded on a base of genocide. That genocide is probably worse than the Holocaust, only it is far back enough in history that people forget. We have soothed our consciences for too long, saying that we were bringing enlightenment to the savages. This must cease. What has been done cannot be undone. But reparations can be made for the slaughter. Reparations to the people who we have made foreigners in their own land, and repentance to God, who knows the hearts of all men and women, and who weeps at our coldness and wilful ignorance. Every time we feel hostile towards illegal immigrants, we should humble ourselves by remembering that the land we are on was obtained through conquest, coercion, and forced population transfer - which would make it illegal under the modern Geneva Conventions.

I have a friend, who is trying to find God on the Arizona-Mexico border. She works with an organization called No Mas Muertes, or No More Deaths. They provide food and medical aid to immigrants who are attempting to cross the border. The objective is not to assist them in entering the US illegally, but to provide aid to those who are in need - and, this being the desert, if you don't get aid, you might die of dehydration. The leaders of the organization were recently arrested on a felony charge of transporting illegal immigrants (in their case, to a hospital). The charges were dismissed on technical grounds. However, I am told that focus groups that No Mas Muertes conducted before the trial showed that juries would simply vote to convict on hearing the words "illegal" and "immigrants". The sad irony is that Arizona and some neighboring states were obtained by conquest from the invasion of Mexico. It does not matter who fired the first shot in the war. By the modern Geneva Conventions, it is illegal for a country to conquer a territory by military force, and then transfer its own population there. That is what we did in the Mexican-American War, and we should remember that.