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Monday, November 20, 2017

It wasn't just merit

Three children doing arithmetic problems on a blackboard. Image source.
I'd like to talk about my experiences in school- specifically, what it was like being a girl who excelled in math and science. In the past, I thought I did it all on my own merit- I wasn't held back by sexism in grades K-12. And yes, that's partly true. Sexism didn't affect my success in math/science in any meaningful way back then. But. That doesn't mean it was all my own merit. I now see that, all along the way, my parents and teachers encouraged me and shaped my expectations of what I could do. I was in an environment which pushed me to follow my passions and didn't think there was anything weird about a girl being good at those things. But I now see so many places where there could have been sexism or other types of discrimination, places where I could have subconsciously internalized the idea that participating in math contests is just not the sort of thing that I do.

My parents both have backgrounds related to computers and engineering. So they were happy to teach me all about science. In kindergarten, I was fascinated by the planets in the solar system, and my parents told me all about them. Throughout my childhood, they bought me science kits and books full of logic problems, because I loved that stuff. They told me it was so great that I was interested in science.

Actually, I liked art class the most, back in elementary school. But my mom and dad aren't interested in making arts or crafts, so they didn't really have the ability to encourage me in art to the extent that they encouraged me in math and science. They bought me all the art supplies and craft kits I asked for, but because they weren't personally interested in it, there wasn't the same "wow it's fantastic that you're good at this" that there was for science-y things. And that's not their fault, but my point is that I was raised to value math and science much more highly than other subjects. It was probably unintentional- I know my parents would support me no matter what job I decided on- but at the same time, I don't really see a way for parents to avoid passing that kind of bias to their kids. It seems like, if you have parents who are good at a certain thing, you'll naturally end up believing that it's "normal" to value that particular thing. I can imagine there are kids who would be good at some certain activity, but because no adults in their life do that activity, it never really occurs to them to do it.

My parents told me "you're good at math and science- you should totally be an engineer!" and guess what, I'm an engineer now. And yes, of course I love it, I wouldn't want to do any other job, but I wonder how much that choice was influenced by the idea that "kids like you, who are good at math and science, should become engineers when they grow up"- because that's pretty much what I was taught. That's what I always thought I was "supposed" to do.

In high school I discovered contest math. Well, actually, those of us in the upper-level math classes were required to participate in math league. We had to attend 3 math league meets per year. My 9th grade math teacher told us that math league questions were so hard and hardly anybody ever gets any points. She framed it as something that we had to do, but nobody really has fun or is successful at it. I went to the first math league meet of the year and scored a bunch of points- I don't remember the exact number, maybe 10 out of a possible 18. Which is way above average (the questions are hard, but it turns out I'm a math genius).

The next day, my math teacher was like, "So who went to the math league meet last night? ... So... did anybody get any points?" and I told her how many, and she was shocked and I was kind of embarrassed, like I was freakishly good at it and I was weird.

So that's how it was my freshman year of high school. I went to exactly 3 math league meets (the bare minimum that was required), did really well, but it never occurred to me "wow I am really good at this and I really like solving these types of problems- maybe I should go to more than 3 meets." Because my 9th grade math teacher had set the expectation that math league isn't something people are actually interested in, and the other kids complained about how hard the questions were.

In 10th grade, I thought I would just do the same thing. I attended the first 3 meets of the year, thinking then I'd be done and wouldn't have to worry about it for the rest of the school year. At the third meet, I got 18 points. Out of 18. Pretty amazing- it was very rare that anyone in our school got 18 points. Still, I considered myself done with math league. Until the day that all the different clubs at school were having their photos taken for the yearbook, and when I got there for the math league picture, the head of the math department was like "where is Perfect Number?" and handed me the trophy that our school had won at that third meet, and I had to hold it, front and center, in the yearbook photo.

And then I kind of felt like, well I'm holding the trophy in the yearbook photo, I guess I can't just quit math league now.

So I went to every meet that year, and I found the other kids who were actually interested in math league. I qualified to go to the state math league competition, and it was great. Nerds everywhere! I loved it. I had finally found my people.

After the state math league meet, our coach gave everyone an application for the national math league meet. (Yes, math league teams have coaches. Also we sometimes referred to ourselves as "mathletes." Because of course we did. Also, fun fact: A group of nerds is called a nerd herd.) My parents were like "are you going to apply for it?" and I said no. They wanted to know why not. Eh, it just didn't seem like the kind of thing I would do. I wasn't really the kind of person who filled out applications or attended national competitions. Just seemed kind of weird.

My parents were like "but you had such a good time at the state math league contest" and I realized I didn't have any good reason not to go to the national one. I had just thought it didn't seem like the sort of thing I do, but there was really no basis for that belief.

So I filled out the application. I made the team. My mom told me I had to write a letter to my school and ask them to cover the costs for me to go on the trip. Did that. Did more math. Had a great time.

And after it was established that I was a huge math nerd and that I was totally the type of person who missed school to attend math competitions in other states, I started pursuing them more and more. I found so many different math contests. I met other math nerds online. I took the USAMO.

But I see now that raw talent alone was not what allowed me to participate in those contests. It was adults telling me "you're really good at math, therefore you should participate in this optional contest"- and sometimes they needed to convince me because I just had never thought of myself as the type of person who did that sort of thing. It wasn't enough to have the ability- I also needed to have an understanding of my own identity that included being a math nerd and/or math genius. And let me tell you, it was a big step when I decided I was a math nerd, back in high school. Before, I felt social pressure to "be normal"- straighten my hair, shave my legs, put on makeup, don't wear t-shirts all the time- basically to meet society's standards of what high school girls should look like. I didn't want to (it seemed like a lot of work with no real purpose), but I felt like everyone was judging me. (They probably weren't, I was just insecure. You know how high school is.) When I decided I was a nerd, it meant I could stop trying to meet society's standards of what "normal" looks like- I could stop trying to be someone I'm not. And most importantly, I no longer had to hide my math skills. I no longer felt embarrassed for being freakishly smart. (I definitely had to deal with sexism for this aspect- I've written before about how presenting in a more feminine way would make me "look like" I wasn't as much of a math nerd, and it wasn't until college that I decided I could be cute and feminine like I wanted, without calling my nerdiness or math skills into question.)

And I started applying for colleges. Because my parents taught me that everyone is supposed to go to college, that's normal, that's what we do. I always knew I was going to go to college and major in engineering- the only choice was which college. What if I had been raised in an environment where going to college wasn't seen as "normal"? Would I have been able to recognize that it would be a really good thing for me and that I was capable of doing it?

I went to a well-ranked engineering school, and a lot of my classmates were planning to get Phds. Many of them had known for their whole lives that they wanted to get a Phd. I never even considered it. My parents don't have Phds, and there was never really anything that prompted me to ask "I wonder if it would be good for me to get a Phd." I thought "normal" was you go to college for 4 years and then you're done with school. That's what I had been expecting my whole life.

I remember some of the other students did co-ops- which meant working at a company for one semester, instead of taking classes. I never even considered doing a co-op because I just didn't get it. Like, the way life is supposed to work is you go to college for four years, and then after that, you get a job. Right? Taking a semester off to do a co-op (or study abroad) didn't fit into my idea of "normal," so I never even thought "hey is that something I would want to do?" And nobody ever sat me down and specifically addressed my not-getting-it and explained that no, my ideas about "how life is supposed to work" weren't necessarily true. Maybe I wouldn't have been able to do a co-op anyway because I was double-majoring and it wouldn't have been possible to take no classes for a whole semester. Maybe. Who knows? The opportunity was there, but I never even looked into whether it could be a good thing for me, because it didn't fit into my assumptions about how life is supposed to work.

My advisor talked me into getting a masters degree. The school had one of those programs where you can take some grad-level classes while you're an undergrad and then finish the masters degree after only 1 extra year. I wasn't interested at first, because I had always figured I would do 4 years of college and be done. Why would I want to do something different than that? Isn't that the "normal" thing people are "supposed" to do? But my advisor was a really really big fan of the school's MS program. He was really persistent- he talked a lot of us into it. I finally decided it was a good deal, and that's how I got my masters degree in electrical engineering. (Which, actually, is a really good thing for me. As it turns out, there's a big difference between "I have a degree in electrical engineering" and "I have a degree in electrical engineering and my thesis was on this one specific aspect of robotics" in a job interview.)

And let me tell you about when I started studying Chinese. So I'm like, hey I'm going on this mission trip to China, so I should learn how to say some things I guess. But my entire life I had heard people saying "I tried to study this foreign language, but... it turns out my brain just can't learn languages." A LOT of Americans say stuff like that. As if speaking two languages is so unbelievable and superhuman, us mere mortals can't expect we can actually do it. (Oddly, though, I never heard anyone say we shouldn't expect immigrants to learn English because "maybe some of them just can't learn languages.")

So I started studying Chinese, with the belief that maybe no matter how hard I study, I won't ever be able to speak Chinese, because white people just can't, it's way too hard. I heard people say that if you're not exposed to the sounds of a different language as a baby, then you just can't learn it. What a bunch of nonsense.

However, I did know one white missionary who was able to speak Chinese. He was the proof that it could be possible.

And even when I started learning how to say a few sentences, I didn't try to learn the characters, because wow how can anyone learn all those? I actually was skeptical over whether Chinese people really do read and write in Chinese characters- it just seemed so impossible. (Umm, they do.) I didn't even try at first- I thought "well I'll just be illiterate." Surely white people can't really learn to read Chinese characters.

And then I started taking an actual Chinese class in college and guess what, when we learned vocabulary words, we learned to write them in Chinese characters because OBVIOUSLY that's part of what it means to learn a vocabulary word. There was no talk of "but maybe it's too hard and impossible to actually learn to write Chinese." The professor expected us to read and write. Because, OBVIOUSLY.

So please don't go around telling people "Chinese is the hardest language in the world", or that it's unfathomably astounding that someone can speak two languages, or that it's very common that people "just can't" no matter how hard they try, or any crap like that. I really believe that these myths stop a lot of Americans from even trying to learn a second language, even though they totally do have the ability. Yes, it's hard- but it's not so hard that it's pointless to even try.

And by the way, I now speak Chinese fluently, can read and write Chinese characters, and I'm still as white as ever.

It's all about your beliefs and expectations about whether or not you're able to do something, internalized from society and role models in your life before you even try to do the thing.

Of course I worked hard. Of course I have the natural ability to excel in math and engineering. But that's not enough. I also needed adults and role models in my life to tell me which direction I should work hard in. I needed people who said "you're good at this, how about you take this opportunity, I bet you would really like it." And fortunately I had those people in my life. I'm not aware of any parents or teachers who didn't encourage me because I'm a girl. But now I see many places where that could have happened, and probably does happen for other girls. (Or really any demographic that's not "expected" to be good at math and science.) I can now see how there were so many ideas I internalized about what's "normal" and what sorts of things I would or would not be involved in, about my identity, really. I always knew that I was the type of person who would go to college. But I didn't think I was the type of person who would get involved in contest math until my parents explicitly pointed out to me "hey you enjoyed doing that one contest, how about you do more?" It's not about talent alone- I see so many ways that sexism, racism, and other forms of bigotry can influence kids, make them internalize messages about what they should or shouldn't try.

One more thing I will say: Back in middle school and high school, I often heard adults make comments about how it's great that I like math because "we need more girls in math" or "isn't it nice to see a girl winning the math award." And I hated it because for me, there wasn't any sexism that discouraged me from succeeding in math and science class (at least in grades K-12, where all the grading is objective). It felt like they were saying I had overcome something internal, as if femininity was an obstacle I had to defeat in order to be a math genius, instead of just "I am a math genius and being an girl really has nothing to do with it." Really, if you want to bring gender into it, it's not about what I did, it's about what society didn't do. Society often discourages girls from pursuing math and science, but in my case, society did no such thing (at least at that age). Good for you, society!

When kids are that young, they're not really able to question and reject the expectations that society puts on them. If there is sexism or other prejudice that tries to hold them back, they won't recognize it as incorrect and fight against it unless an adult in their life tells them they should. How can a kid know that "people of this certain demographic don't do this certain thing" is a factually incorrect statement? They're not born with an innate understanding of reality; they're learning everything from scratch based on what adults teach them. So don't go and tell the girl "it's great you're doing this because we need more girls in math"- no, tell that to the parents and the teachers. Tell them good job not being sexist, good job recognizing students' natural talent and encouraging them in that direction. When kids are that young, they're not the ones overcoming sexism. They're just doing what their parents and teachers expect and encourage them to do. (Or at least, this was my experience- if yours was different, go ahead and leave a comment.)

It takes more than just skill and hard work. Kids also need access to education and opportunities. But it's more than that too. They need people to tell them "you are good at this, therefore you are totally the kind of person who should choose to take this opportunity, it will be really good for you." Otherwise they might believe the stereotypes and not even realize they have the ability to excel.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Blogaround

1. "God Help The Outcasts" (from "The Hunchback of Notre Dame") is now one of my favorite worship songs.


2. Roy Moore's alleged pursuit of a young girl is the symptom of a larger problem in evangelical circles (posted November 10) [content note: child sexual abuse] "[Evangelicals] will blanch at only two accusations in the Washington Post expose: He pursued a 14-year-old-girl without first getting her parents’ permission, and he initiated sexual contact outside of marriage."

3. Perfect Number Watches VeggieTales "Are You My Neighbor?" (posted November 12) Continuing with my mission to livetweet all the VeggieTales episodes.

4. Sex vs. Rape vs. Power (posted 2014) "To begin with, “Rape is not sex” can be easily construed as “Rape never looks like sex.” If this were true, then it would follow that we would always immediately recognize rape and be able to differentiate it from consensual sex."

5. George Takei Accused of Sexually Assaulting Former Model in 1981 (posted November 10) [content note: description of sexual assault]

6. Writing While Autistic, #1: Advice and Rules and Guilt (posted October 31) "From conversations I keep having with other autistic writers, the reaction in this situation is usually not “oh, this advice is unhelpful to me, I’ll look for advice that is actually helpful to me/try to figure out what works for me,” but “What’s WRONG with me?!?!”, often accompanied with intense feelings of guilt."

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Hot Pot

In China we have a type of meal called 火锅 [huǒ guō], or hot pot. It means you have a pot of boiling soup on your table, and you- the people eating- put food in, wait for it to get cooked enough, and then pull it out and eat it. It totally blew my mind the first time I had it, because you go to a restaurant but you, the customer, are the one who's responsible for cooking the food. Like, they bring it out all cut up already and it's pretty simple to put it in, but still, wow, you go to a restaurant and pay money for raw food. And for the experience of boiling it in the pot.

(Though I should mention, the more expensive hot pot restaurants are known for their good service, and if the waiters notice that you have some raw food just sitting there on your table and you haven't put it in the pot yet, they'll often come up and ask if they can go ahead and put it in for you. So you don't really have to do any work if you don't want- you can just tell the waiters if you're clueless or don't know what to do, and they'll do it for you.)

Anyway hot pot is totally great and I have a bunch of photos here to show you. First of all there's the pot:



At this particular meal, we ordered a pot that has a divider so you can have two different kinds of soup- one is spicy and one is not. Also, the one in the photo is a pot shared by the whole table, but at some hot pot restaurants each person actually orders their own pot individually.

Next there is the 调料 [tiáo liào] which are seasonings and sauces:



You get up from your table and go over to the sauce station, get a little bowl, and put in whatever mixture of different sauces and other seasonings you want. Each person can make their own unique mixture in their own little bowl. This is for dipping food in after it gets boiled.

When you order food to put in the pot, the waiter will bring it out arranged all fancy:

This is lamb or beef, I don't remember which.
Notice that the meat is cut really thin. This way it only needs to boil for about 10 seconds, then it's ready to eat.

Some more photos of raw food before we put it in the pot:

The white strips are cow stomach. I don't like cow stomach because it's chewy, not like regular meat. Hendrix eats it though.

I think this is pork? Or maybe chicken. Arranged all fancy with cucumber slices.

Bowl with different kinds of seafood, sitting in ice.

Meatballs made of different kinds of seafood. Notice the big tongue-depressor on the left- that's for dividing up the ground meat in the white saucer into smaller balls. Typically you get the waiter to do that for you.

Vegetable platter
Here's the shrimp boiling in the pot:



You can use chopsticks or a big spoon to put the food in and take it out:

Using chopsticks to put the cow stomach into the pot.

Using a big spoon to search for food that's boiled enough and ready to eat.

Pulling rice noodles out of the pot.

Scooping a block of duck blood out of the pot. It's kind of a similar consistency to jello. I don't eat duck blood but Hendrix does.
Usually there's also tofu, which I totally love. And potato slices.

Hot pot is a really cool experience, though it does take longer than an average meal, and it's often hot in the restaurant because of all those boiling pots of soup. And then your clothes smell like hot pot. Definitely something you need to try if you're in China.

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If you want to see more posts like this, go consider supporting me on patreon~ When I reach my goal of $20/month, I'll do a series of blog posts about various aspects of life in Shanghai. With lots of photos. ^_^

Monday, November 13, 2017

3 Good Reasons for Abstinence (If None of These Apply to You, Go Ahead and Have Sex)

T-shirt that says "Sex is okay." Image source.
So this is a post about good reasons not to have sex, but it's not going to be like other posts I've read on the subject. Typically, those posts are written from the perspective of "abstinence is DEFINITELY the ONLY right answer for people who are not married. In order to convince you to follow this rule, here are some benefits of not having sex. But it's not really about that- really, you have to follow this because it's the rule. It's totally not acceptable to carefully consider all the items on the list, decide 'yeah these don't apply to my situation' and then be totally justified in choosing to have sex." (I submit to you that this is the definition of legalism.)

I don't believe abstinence is "the right answer." I had sex before marriage, and it was a really good thing for my mental health. (Note, however, that before I had sex, I didn't have sex, for some of the reasons given in this post.) I think sex is a big deal, and people should carefully consider the ideas in this post before making a decision, but it's totally valid for your decision to be "I'm going to have sex."

Also, this isn't just about unmarried people. Typically the "good reasons for abstinence" discussion is assumed to be only for unmarried people, because OBVIOUSLY married people have sex all the time and it's always good and awesome and there is never any risk or any reason not to do it. Uh, right. No. All the considerations I give here also apply to married people.

So here they are. 3 Good Reasons for Abstinence:

1. You Don't Want To

All right so if you don't want to have sex, you don't have to have sex. It doesn't matter if you have a "good enough" reason. You're in charge of your body. You don't have to submit your reasons for others' approval and wait for them to decide if you have the right to say no to sex.

If you don't want to have sex because you think it's a sin, then that's fine. I personally don't think it's a sin- but it would DEFINITELY be a sin for someone to try to force you to have sex by explaining "here's why it's not actually a sin." If you don't want to have sex because, even though you no longer think it's a sin, you still have a lot of shame or fear associated with the idea of sex, then that's fine, you don't have to have sex. If you don't want to have sex because you just don't want to but you can't explain why, that's also a valid reason.

However, "you don't have to have sex if you don't want to" is actually not as simple as that. Your choice to not have sex could have an effect on the relationship. You have the right to not have sex if you don't want to- but your partner has the right to break up with you because of it. And this is going to play out differently depending on how committed the relationship is, how long you've been in the relationship, the expectations that each partner had about sex and whether or not those were communicated, etc.

If a couple waits until marriage to have sex, and then once they try it, one partner realizes they don't like it and actually they're asexual, that could be a huge problem. They would need to renegotiate their sex life and see if they can come to an agreement that's acceptable for both of them. The asexual partner can't just decide "if I don't want to have sex then I don't have to have sex, and this relationship will just continue as normal and everything is fine." Maybe because they value the marriage, they choose to have sex even though they don't really want to. It's not their partner coercing them, it's the situation coercing them. And maybe it's worth it because the rest of the relationship is so good, or maybe it's not and they'd be better off if they split up. (Or have an open relationship.) Things are more complicated than "yes means yes."

And there are other reasons that a married person might not want to have sex with their spouse. Maybe they're too tired. Or they're angry at their spouse that day. If this happens a lot and the other partner is unhappy that they're not having sex enough, then they will need to communicate about how to solve whatever problem is making one partner not want to have sex.

So if you don't want to have sex, then you don't have to. That's true no matter what level of commitment your relationship is at- yes, including marriage. At the same time, though, if you're in a committed relationship where your partner expects you to have sex with them, your decision to not have sex could cause problems in the relationship. You're going to have to communicate about how to handle it.

2. Health Risks

So if, between the two partners, you have all the body parts necessary to make a pregnancy, that's a risk you have to consider. If you don't want to have a baby, then figure out what kind of birth control you want to use, research the effectiveness and side effects, etc. And make a plan for what you would do if you did get pregnant. If you feel the risk of pregnancy is just too high, then maybe it would be a good choice for you to not have sex with a partner with opposite genitals.

Also there is the risk of sexually-transmitted diseases. So educate yourself about that and how to protect yourself.

And this isn't just about unmarried people- if you're married and monogamous, that doesn't mean sex never carries any health risk. If you don't want to get pregnant but don't have any condoms or other birth control on hand, well, better not have sex even though you're married.

Also, doctors say you shouldn't have sex for 4 to 6 weeks after giving birth, or possibly longer if it was a C-section. (Yes, this is a case where married people SHOULDN'T have sex.) Or maybe one spouse is HIV-positive; it's still possible to have sex safely, but you have to educate yourselves about how.

So definitely be aware of the health risks that come with sex. They can be very serious. But if you know about them and are fine with the risk (even the small risk inherent in whatever protection you use), then it's totally fine for you to choose to have sex.

3. Emotional Risks

There are certain emotions that people often feel as a result of having sex. Or as a result of things that need to happen for practical reasons in order to have sex. For example, you have to take off your clothes (or at least some of your clothes) and you may be nervous about letting another person see your body. You would have to trust someone enough before you're willing to do that.

(Or maybe you're not nervous about having a new partner see you naked. That's also fine. Go ahead and have sex.)

In purity culture, they always said that sex is the most emotionally vulnerable a person could ever be, and if someone has sex with you and then breaks up with you, that's the WORST THING EVER because they knew you in the deepest way possible and then they rejected you. In reality, though, having sex with someone doesn't mean you fully know them. (Geez, I WISH. Wouldn't it be great if me and my husband automatically knew each other just from having sex, and never had to deal with any communication problems because we were raised in different cultures on opposite sides of the planet.) And if you break up, it doesn't necessarily mean they're "rejecting you" or making a grand judgment on your worth as a person. Like maybe they don't think you're a bad person, they just broke up with you because there's some aspect of their personality that's not compatible with yours.

But if you feel like "I would need to be married to them in order to feel safe and trusting enough to have sex" then that's fine. Or whatever standard you have for the point at which you feel ready to have sex with this person.

Please note, though, that even people who are married might choose not to have sex with their spouse because of the emotional risk. Maybe their spouse laughed at them during sex one time, and they feel really bad about that. Hopefully they can work together and communicate and get past that problem- but until then, it's totally reasonable that one partner might not be willing to have sex.

Or maybe one spouse wants to try some new and possibly weird sex thing, but they feel too embarrassed to actually say it. Maybe you need more time to get comfortable enough with each other to communicate about things like that. Even though you're married.

Or if you're married but you're having a fight with your spouse. Or maybe they did something bad and you feel like you can't trust them- or it will take some time before you can trust them again. Lots of reasons you might not feel safe enough to be vulnerable with them and have sex. And hopefully it's just temporary and you can work through the problem and then trust each other again.

Being married doesn't mean you're always willing to be totally emotionally vulnerable with each other 100% of the time. You and your spouse will make mistakes and hurt each other sometimes, and it's reasonable that when that happens, the partner who is hurt won't really be feeling like they want to take their clothes off and "make love."

Or maybe you want to have sex because you have some unrealistic expectations of sex solving some relationship problem. (Like "maybe if I have sex with them, they will finally love me" or "maybe if I have sex with them, I'll be able to get over my ex" or basing your self-esteem on your sexual partner's opinion of you, etc.) This could be the case whether you're married or not, and it sets you up for disappointment. So consider your reasons and expectations and whether they're reasonable or not. Be realistic. Be honest with yourself about what exactly you are hoping to get out of it. Sex can be a good thing but it's not some kind of magical fix for all your relationship or mental-health problems.

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I believe sex is a big deal. It carries health risk and emotional risk. But believing it's a big deal is not the same thing as believing it should only happen in marriage. If you understand the risks, if you understand your own motivations and what you're hoping to get from sex, if you consent and your partner consents, then there's absolutely nothing wrong with having sex. Regardless of if you're married or not. At the same time, being married doesn't automatically mean you will always be willing to have sex. You still need to consider the risks, and there will be times you can't have sex because a doctor says so or because one partner just doesn't want to.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Blogaround

So I just watched "Thor: Ragnarok", and Loki is, ahem, causing me to stumble. Image source.
1. To stop the institutionalization of children, stop volunteering in orphanages (posted October 31) "To meet the demand of tourists who want to support poor children, according to Save the Children,  there are many cases of orphanage managers taking children from their parents after convincing them they would be better off in the institution."

2. So you know the scene in "Spider-Man: Homecoming" where Peter is like, "If you even cared you'd actually be here" and the Tony pops out of the Ironman suit unexpectedly- was anybody else like "SEE THIS IS WHY THE INCARNATION IS SUCH A BIG DEAL"?

3. Perfect Number watches VeggieTales "Where's God When I'm S-Scared?" (posted November 4) So I decided to livetweet episodes of VeggieTales. (Come for the questionable theology, stay for the hilarious jokes and songs.) This is a storify on the first episode.

Here's episode 2: Perfect Number Watches VeggieTales "God Wants Me To Forgive Them!?!"

4. On the Evangelical Response to Harvey Weinstein (posted October 30)

5. Thor: Ragnarok is a direct commentary on Trump's America (posted November 5) [content note: spoilers for "Thor: Ragnarok"]

6. 'Thor: Ragnarok' Is A Bold Commentary On The Insidiousness of Imperialism (posted November 4) [content note: spoilers for "Thor: Ragnarok"] "In the climax, Hela gestures towards the golden grandeur on display and muses: 'Proud to have it, but not proud of how you got it.'"

7. Sheep pick Barack Obama, Emma Watson out of a line-up "Human appreciation that sheep have superior face-recognition skills isn’t new. There’s a reason the Gospel of John has Jesus observing: 'I know my sheep and my sheep know me.'"

Loki with his horns, cape, and daggers. Image source.

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

Either Matthew Was Dishonest, Or He Wasn't Writing an Apologetics Book

Jesus on a donkey. Image source.
Today let's look at Matthew 21:1-11. In this passage, Jesus enters the city of Jerusalem riding a donkey, and a crowd of people spreads tree branches on the road and shouts "Hosanna!" as he comes by.

Specifically, I want to focus on this bit:
This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet:
“Say to Daughter Zion,
‘See, your king comes to you,
gentle and riding on a donkey,
and on a colt, the foal of a donkey.’”
Because... not really.

It's a quote from the Old Testament book of Zechariah. Let's go take a look at that passage (Zechariah 9), shall we? Yeah go click over there and skim it. Basically it's a judgment against a whole lot of cities or nations which were Israel's enemies. "Ashkelon will see it and fear; / Gaza will writhe in agony, / and Ekron too, for her hope will wither. / Gaza will lose her king / and Ashkelon will be deserted." And so forth. A big list of enemy groups, and prophecies about them all being defeated. Then the bit about "your king comes to you ... riding on a donkey", then some stuff about how God will bless Israel and make them stronger, etc.

So if you were just reading Zechariah 9, how would you understand the verse about "your king comes to you"? From my perspective, it sounds like the king is God, helping Israel. And perhaps the donkey symbolizes that the king will come to bring peace. Sounds like generally this passage is talking about war and politics on a national level, not about an individual messiah riding on an actual donkey. The enemy nations are personified- how can Gaza "writhe in agony"? That's not something a nation does, it's something a person does. The whole thing uses poetic language like that, so it seems like the "king" wouldn't really be an actual individual person either.

For evangelicals, the phrase "This took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet" means "Before Jesus lived, there was a prophecy about what the messiah would do, and here's Jesus doing it, that is evidence that Jesus really is the messiah and the bible really was inspired by God." But if you actually look at the supposed "prophecy" in Zechariah 9, you see it's not like that at all. Zechariah mentions Israel's king riding a donkey, but doesn't say anything to indicate that it's talking about an actual specific person, who will show up some time in the future and be the messiah.

Here, let's see if I can invent an "Old Testament prophecy" that's just as valid as Zechariah 9:9. Here, how about a phrase from Jonah 2:5, "seaweed was wrapped around my head." Ah, look at that, an Old Testament prophecy that Jesus didn't fulfill, tsk tsk. And of course you're going to say "but that verse was just talking about Jonah, it wasn't trying to be a prophecy about the messiah at all!" Yeah, I totally agree. But YOU KNOW that if Jesus had ever fallen into a lake, Matthew would have been like "this took place to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet, 'seaweed was wrapped around my head.'" And then modern apologists would be like "WOW isn't it amazing that Jesus fulfilled ALL THESE prophecies?!!! Like no way that could have happened without God's intervention!"

So if that's what Matthew meant, then he was extremely dishonest. The thing about "your king comes to you, riding on a donkey" wasn't written to specifically refer to Jesus and provide evidence that he was the messiah. It's a thing that was mentioned in the Old Testament, and then also a thing that Jesus did. But there are a lot of things mentioned in the Old Testament that Jesus didn't do.

(Matthew does something similar in his genealogy in chapter 1. "Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah." Which, to a good the-bible-is-inerrant Christian, sounds like "Exactly 14 generations in each of these segments! Wow! EXACTLY FOURTEEN! Now isn't that amazing?!!! Wow surely God must have made it happen that way- this is AMAZING EVIDENCE that Jesus really was the fulfillment of everything in the Old Testament!" But, umm, hold up. Matthew kind of fudged things and skipped a few kings to make stuff fit as "fourteen generations." Yeah. It very much was not "WOW EXACTLY FOURTEEN!!!!")

So... was Matthew shady as hell, or what's going on here? For Christians who believe the whole bible is inspired by God, this is a scary question. Was God trying to deceive us into thinking there were all these Old Testament prophecies specifically about the messiah, and Jesus fulfilled them (and if Jesus hadn't fulfilled them it would be super awkward because clearly they were supposed to be about the messiah)? Was Matthew- and by extension, God- making a dishonest apologetics argument?

The way I see it, they weren't. Matthew was making connections between the life of Jesus and the Old Testament. He wasn't saying that the connection proves anything, or that Jesus HAD TO fulfill that verse from Zechariah. It's like when you watch Star Wars and find parallels between Luke's and Anakin's stories. They were both pilots. They both had to leave behind their families and become Jedi. They both said "I have a bad feeling about this." It's fun for fans to point these things out (and even speculate and make fan theories) but it doesn't really prove anything. We notice the things that are the same, we ignore the things that aren't. Whoop dee doo.

Seems like Matthew was more interested in telling a cool story than making an evidence-based argument that Jesus was the one they had been looking forward to all along. To good evangelicals, this sounds like I'm saying the book of Matthew is wrong or bad or worthless- but that's not what I mean at all. I think Matthew (and the bible in general) is really good and interesting and totally worth studying. And now that I'm no longer required to believe it's perfect/inerrant/inspired/whatever, I'm discovering entire new worlds of biblical study I never knew about as a good evangelical.

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Related:
Why on Earth Did I Ever Expect the Bible to be Anything Other Than Incredibly Weird?
This Star Wars Fan Theory Is EXACTLY How Apologetics Works

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

Previous post: How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings (Matthew 20:29-34)

Click here to go to the beginning of the series.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Blogaround

Patrick Stewart sitting among a bunch of pumpkins. Image source.
1. 7 Things You Need To Know To Be A Good Ally To An Intersex Person (posted October 23) "Despite numerous studies indicating infant genitoplasty does more harm than good, physicians in the U.S. and elsewhere still routinely perform medically unnecessary procedures on intersex babies."

2. On Bisexuality and Reformation Bingo (posted October 23) "For every one thing that I put out on the internet about bisexuality, I've got a couple of women at least emailing me, being like, 'That's also my story, I also came from purity culture, I'm married to a dude, I'm bisexual but like what's the point of coming out, etc etc.'"

3. This tweet in a Twitter thread of "biblical sexual ethics" (such as when Abraham set Sarah up to be sexually assaulted by Pharaoh). The whole thread is good, but that tweet in particular was shocking to me- it says "Leviticus 21:9. If the daughter of a priest has sex not in marriage, she is burned alive." It blew my mind to see that listed as an example of the bible being IMMORAL in terms of sexual ethics. Before, I always read that verse like it was about unmarried sex being a sin, which is a complicated topic we can debate- it's not something that's so clear that you would put it in a tweet to convince people the bible is wrong. But. No. The issue is not whether unmarried sex is a sin. The issue is the death penalty for having unmarried sex. And that is very obviously immoral- but I never noticed it before.

To me, sex was always this huge, scary, terrible thing that of course we shouldn't do. (Until you're married and it's suddenly the best thing ever, right?) It never occurred to me to think, "even if it is a sin, it doesn't deserve the death penalty."

4. Literally, Why Can’t I Say #MeToo? (posted October 16) [content note: descriptions of sexual assault] "I feel guilty using those words. I feel like I’m being dramatic."

5. Fooling Neural Networks in the Physical World with 3D Adversarial Objects (posted October 31) "Here is a 3D-printed turtle that is classified at every viewpoint as a “rifle” by Google’s InceptionV3 image classifier, whereas the unperturbed turtle is consistently classified as “turtle”." Cool!

Monday, October 30, 2017

How Are Autistics Supposed To Know Which of Our Pain is Socially Acceptable To Express?

Sadness, Fear, Disgust, and Anger, from the movie "Inside Out." Image source.
I recently found an article from 2015 called Unseen agony: Dismantling autism's house of pain. It says that autistic people are often perceived as being less sensitive to pain (and in some cases, truly are less sensitive to pain) but on the other hand, they also often experience pain from sensory stimuli that others might not even notice.

First there's a story from a man named Noah, who recalls his experiences of pain caused by the sound of a vacuum cleaner on wood floors:
“At first I would scream and yell for her to stop [the vacuum sound], but she had no concept that what she was doing was irritating,” Noah says. “And I had no idea that what I was feeling was not what everyone else felt.”

Noah eventually came to accept that the noise of the vacuum, like many other sensory experiences, was something he just had to suffer through. As a result, “I was very numbed off,” he says. “I could handle really intense cold or even pain and not do anything, not feel too much.”
This is so real. So, for me, I've only recently realized that other people are literally experiencing sensory input (sound, in particular) differently than I am. I've figured out that "pain" is the word to use to describe my experiences. And I've discovered the answer to the mystery that has baffled me for my entire life: Why does everyone else seem to not notice or react to overwhelming, unbearable sounds? The answer is that they literally experience sound differently than I do. I feel it as pain, and others don't.

Poor little Noah. "Noah eventually came to accept that the noise of the vacuum, like many other sensory experiences, was something he just had to suffer through." And that was my life too, as a child. That was my normal. Sometimes I suffer pain, and nobody else understands, and that's just the way it is.

The article comes back to Noah later on:
When he was working at a summer camp for children with autism, Noah says, he once heard one boy respond to another boy’s annoying, singsong repetition of “to-MAY-to, to-MAH-to” with: “Stop saying that. It feels like you’re pricking me with a thousand needles.”

Despite that sharp visual, Noah says this kind of description is only a metaphor: His sensory sensitivities don’t feel like the physical reality of a cut or bruise.

“My response will be very similar to someone who’s in pain, but it comes from a different place,” he says. “It’s just that it’s an all-encompassing, irritating process that envelops your whole brain.”
I find it interesting that they're explicitly pointing out that sensory pain doesn't feel the same as physical pain. To me, that distinction seems like something only autistic people need to know. Like, for autistic people this information is really helpful- I never thought to use the word "pain" to describe how sound felt to me until I met a therapist who used it. Because yes, it's not the same feeling as getting hit or something. But at the same time, when I tell people "loud sounds are painful for me," I don't explain that the pain is not like physical pain- because then they might think my pain isn't really real and they don't have to take it seriously. (Side note: It is a BIG DEAL that I'm able to tell people "loud sounds are painful for me." Because I've discovered that avoiding loud sounds is literally a real need I have and it is 100% valid to tell people and expect them to act accordingly. Before, I always felt like I was asking for something unreasonable and I was being pathetic and other people didn't have to take it seriously.)

I figured out I should use the word "pain" to talk about how sound feels by doing thought experiments like the following: Which would be worse- getting slapped hard or suddenly hearing fireworks? Of course they don't feel the same, but I find myself unable to choose which is worse. And that means it's valid to say hearing fireworks is painful for me.

(And I'd like to quibble with the language about "sensory sensitivities" being contrasted with "the physical reality of a cut or bruise." Sensory pain is reality too.)

The article gives some examples of autistic people who (in my opinion) really do seem to be less bothered by things that would be painful for other people. It mentions girls with Rett syndrome, who sometimes fracture bones and don't seem to feel pain from it. So yes, in some cases, autistics really do feel less pain.

But I believe a lot of this being-perceived-like-we're-not-in-pain is because of how other people don't take our sensory pain seriously, so we are taught to not express it when we feel pain. A child with autism might tell their parent that the tag in their shirt is bothering them, and the adult says it's fine, it's not a big deal, stop complaining. Of course the child is going to internalize the idea "it's wrong for me to express it when I feel pain."

Take a look at this excerpt from the article:
In a 2009 study, researchers found that the hearts of children with autism pounded faster while they had their blood drawn than did those of typical children. But the children with autism made fewer facial expressions, such as grimaces, that indicate pain, perhaps because they have a smaller repertoire of expressive behaviors in general.

“The challenge with autism is that we’re dealing with a population that has altered social behavior,” Moore says. “And pain behavior is a fundamentally social thing.”
All right. I have some things to say about this.

Let's say you're a child, and your sock is irritating you. It's like all itchy and touching your skin all wrong and you just can't stand it. So you tell you mom, and she says no, your sock is fine, it's not a big deal. So you are forced to keep wearing the socks and just endure the pain.

Let's say you go to McDonald's, and the smell of the soap in the bathroom is just unbearable. And you can't stand touching the tables, they feel a bit greasy and nasty. You keep your arms close to your body so you don't have to touch anything. You hold your breath so you don't have to smell the soap. And your parents tell you to stop it. It's not that bad, they say. Come over here and eat your food. It's FINE. The food is a little bit cold and a little bit too soft and feels nasty in your mouth. But this is the way of the world. This is your lot in life. You suffer and you just have to deal with it. You tear off the edges and eat the parts that aren't nasty, until you just can't stand to eat any more.

Then you're at school and you're in the gym with a bunch of kids, everyone's running around and it's so loud. It takes all of your energy just to withstand the sound. You just want to find a corner where you can keep to yourself and look at the floor and not make eye contact with anyone, because you're exhausted from the sensory overload. But the gym teacher tells you to stop that. You have to come and play with the other kids.

And then you go to the doctor and get blood drawn. It's scary and painful, but every day your life is scary and painful. It's just one more item on the list of things you have to endure as a normal part of living your life.

And then the adults are like "wow she is not grimacing, maybe it's not painful for her."

Or maybe it's because time after time, you told me to hide my pain. Stop making that face. Stop whining. It's fine. It's not that bad. It's not a big deal. It doesn't hurt.

How am I supposed to know that suddenly I have happened upon a situation where adults expect me to express that I'm feeling pain?

How am I supposed to know that, even though they expected me to go the whole damn day with my sock scratching me and I'm supposed to pretend I'm fine, now they're going to think something is wrong with me if I don't whine while getting blood drawn with a needle?

How are we supposed to know when adults want us to hide our pain and when they want us to show it?

During our childhoods, we're constantly told that our pain isn't real and we just need to learn to be okay with it and act like everybody else. The adults don't know that we're truly experiencing pain. And we don't know that other people aren't experiencing the same thing. We internalize the idea "when I'm in pain, I should just try to be okay with it and not bother other people." OF COURSE this has an effect on our reaction when we're experiencing something that other people believe "counts" as real pain.

And here's a wild idea: Could this constant gaslighting- where people tell us our pain isn't real- also explain other autistic behavior?

When a neurotypical child gets hurt, and an autistic child doesn't respond with the "correct" show of empathy: How are we supposed to know that we come across as uncaring and heartless if we don't make the proper facial expressions and say the proper comforting words? That's not what adults have modeled to us. Sure, they show empathy at first, until they determine that we are just complaining about "nothing" and we need to shut up about it. But we make the mistake of saying "it's not that bad" to someone who's experiencing pain that society recognizes as painful, and then suddenly everybody thinks "autistic people don't have empathy." (The question of who, in this scenario, "doesn't have empathy" will be left as an exercise for the reader.)

A lot of autistic people have trouble recognizing their own emotions, or don't show emotion in their facial expressions the way neurotypical people expect: Could this be because, from our earliest childhood moments, people have told us that our pain is not real pain? They cut off our ability to express the most basic, primal emotion. We internalize the idea that we're not actually suffering real problems, we're just pathetic and need to get over it. Adults take us to crowded, loud public places with overwhelming sensory stimuli and tell us "this is fun"- and we try to believe we are having fun, try to ignore how nervous we feel. No wonder it takes so long to even figure out what our emotions are.

And how about the autistic focus on black-and-white rules? Maybe this originated with our search for the rules governing when we're allowed to express pain and when we're not. Seems to be based on some arbitrary, absolute criteria that everyone except us understands. We can't trust our own feelings; there is some set of rules higher than us, and we mustn't break them. (As it turns out, the common thread running through all the situations where adults expect us to express pain is this: neurotypical people experience pain in those situations. Yeah. Imagine that. So simple, and yet there is NO WAY I could have figured that out as a child. How am I supposed to know when neurotypical people do or do not experience pain?)

Probably it's a stretch to say that these other autistic traits can be totally explained by gaslighting related to sensory pain. But I know that in my own life, there have been extensive, long-term consequences. I deeply internalized the idea that if I'm in pain, I should just endure it and try not to bother anyone else about it. (Yes, my parents did care about me and help me- but it always felt like "she's just a scared little kid and she's too weak to deal with these things, but we can't let her avoid them forever- she has to learn to live in the real world and 'be normal.'") I believed it would be bad to ask for accomodations related to sensory stimuli- for example, to say "I have to leave now because it's too loud in here"- that would mean I'm weak and pathetic, and I should be ashamed. I need to try to be "normal." (I still feel a lot of anxiety- my body gets shaky and my heart beats fast- when I ask for accomodations. Because I grew up believing that I should hide my pain and "stop complaining.")

So don't believe anyone who tells you autistic people experience less pain. Most of us experience more pain that others, and then on top of that, the psychological stress of being told we're doing something wrong when we express it.

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Related:
Autistic at Disneyland
Autistic at the Aquarium
The Sound

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Blogaround

A cake with layers whose colors are the asexual flag. Image source.
1. How Did Saying “Merry Christmas” Become a Judeo-Christian Value? (posted October 17) "The problem, I suspect, is that people sometimes forget that Judeo-Christian is not a synonym for evangelical Christian—because, and let’s be frank, that is how it is used."

2. An Indiana county just halted a lifesaving needle exchange program, citing the Bible (posted October 20) You'll be shocked to hear that the bible verse they cited doesn't have anything to do with needle exchange programs. Also, they literally said "morals" was the reason to NOT approve a program that saves lives. Just goes to show in conservative-Christian-land, "morals" doesn't actually mean morals at all. It never did.

3. Get a Thumbs-Up from Trick-Or-Treaters with This BB-8-O'-Lantern (posted October 18) NICE.

4. Ace Community Census. A survey to gather data on the asexual community. Go over and take it~ Even if you're not asexual you can still take it- they want some non-asexual data to compare with.

5. The 'orphan' I adopted from Uganda already had a family (posted October 13) "The travesty in this injustice is beyond words. I must be clear in the following statement: My race, country of origin, wealth (though small, it's greater than that of the vast majority of people in the world), my access to "things," my religion -- none of these privileges entitles me to the children of the poor, voiceless and underprivileged."

6. On Protecting Women from Abusers, Franklin Graham Is an Opportunist and a Hypocrite (posted October 25) "In early 2016, when Naghmeh Abedini accused her husband, Saeed Abedini, of abusing her, Graham immediately sided with her alleged abuser. Graham undermined her statements publicly and went so far as to suggest, again publicly, that she was doing the devil’s work."

7. The rules about responding to call outs aren’t working (posted October 24) "Like most formal descriptions of social skills, the rules don’t quite match reality."

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

How About We Let Disabled People Tell Us What to Think About Jesus' Healings

Blind man walking with a cane and dog.
Let's look at Matthew 20:29-34. In this story, two blind men call out to Jesus and ask him to give them their sight, and he does.

In my experience, when Christians read biblical accounts of Jesus' healings, we discuss and interpret them from a certain set of assumptions about disabilities. These are assumptions which seem, to abled people, to be so obviously true, we never even question them or realize it's possible to think in a different way. Specifically, I'm talking about beliefs like:
  1. The #1 thing a disabled person needs most is to become not-disabled.
  2. After Jesus heals them, everything is good, and they can immediately go ahead and "be a normal person."
However, I have now learned that society's beliefs about disabled people are often wrong and harmful. In particular, many disabled writers talk about how they want people to listen to them instead of spreading ignorant stereotypes, and they want society to be accessible so disabled people are not barred from participating in everyday activities that abled people take for granted. They say that it's not the disability that limits them, it's people's stereotypes and ignorance and how society is basically designed with the assumption that disabled people don't exist or aren't important. To imagine that they just need to be "healed" and then everything would be better just perpetuates the idea that there's nothing wrong with society and it's totally fine that we constantly exclude disabled people.

In my own case, loud sounds are painful for me (because of sensory reasons related to autism). If Jesus "healed" me so loud sounds weren't painful, that would be great, but it also wouldn't mean the whole loud-sounds problem is solved and done and it's all good. I have an entire lifetime of experience of people not taking me seriously when I was upset by a sound, people laughing at me, people saying my pain isn't real and "it's not that bad." I have all this emotional trauma that I'm working through now, trying to make sense of my childhood and what was really going on all those times adults told me to "be brave" and stop being so "sensitive"- and it takes years. (Blogging is cheaper than therapy...)

It would be just THE WORST if Jesus "healed" me and then other people thought, "ugh FINALLY she got over it and quit complaining"- as if my "healing" justified all the times that they wished I would just shut up and act normal. Like they did nothing wrong, all their attempts to shove a square peg in a round hole, because I finally became a round peg and gained the ability to act like they always wanted me to act. Why does "healing" mean a person becomes not-disabled, rather than abled people learning how to stop excluding and stereotyping disabled people?

So anyway, my point is, when I read this story about Jesus healing two blind men, I wanted to know what blind people think about it. And in general, what do disabled people think about Jesus' healings in the bible? I've gathered some articles here, and I would like to know if my readers have any other good resources about it or book recommendations.

Here are the links I've found:

Out of the Darkness: Examining the Rhetoric of Blindness in the Gospel of John
[In the gospel of John, p]hysical blindness may provide the necessary ground for faith to grow and emerge, but the person cannot remain physically blind. There are biblical scholars and disability activists alike who note that there are no blind disciples. Grant (Eiesland & Saliers, eds., 1998) writes, for example, "It is true that at one level the healing stories are stories of inclusion in that Jesus heals and welcomes all sorts of people into God's reign. However, the very fact that they are physically healed by Jesus suggests that physical restoration is a necessary component of their entry into the community" (p. 77). Grant also cites Donald Senior, Frederick Tiffany, and Sharon Ringe, all who have made similar points. From her perspective working with people with disabilities and government agencies in Australia, Elizabeth Hastings writes:
...with all the respect due to the ten lepers, the various possessed, and the sundry blind, lame, and deaf faithful of scripture, I reckon people who have disabilities may have been better off for the last two thousand years if Our Lord had not created quite so many miraculous cures but occasionally said, "your life is perfect as it is given to you – go ye and find its purpose and meaning," and to onlookers, "this disability is an ordinary part of human being, go ye and create the miracle of a world free of discrimination" (quoted in Calder, 2004, p. 12).
John Hull (2001) in his recent reflection on reading the Bible from his own blind perspective tries to conceive of blind men and women following Jesus through the Galilee—he cannot. Blind disciples would have been an affront to Jesus' power.

Although physical infirmity is not connected to sin in the example of the man born blind, it is, in this case, connected to ignorance of truth. In John 9, the physical condition of blindness always also connotes metaphorical blindness as a mental or spiritual condition, or ignorance. Both the literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness are always present every time the words "blind" and "to see" are used in the story. The literal and metaphorical meanings of blindness have the potential of contaminating each other in any context. There is a danger of at least implicitly, if not explicitly, associating physically blind people with mental and spiritual incapacity, and associating Jewish people, whether blind or not, with the same shortcomings.
In Search of a More Robust Theology of Disability
The idea that sight=good and blind=bad is so deeply ingrained in our culture that most of us are not even aware of its existence. I can't begin to cover all of the ways that this idea manifests itself, from sighted people giving pity to finding inspiration in how we "cope" with our "suffering" to fearing us, to assuming we have substandard lives, to fervently thanking God they are not us, to rushing up to us on the street and laying hands on us to receive healing, when we are trying to run to the grocery store before an appointment. We are constantly told in numerous subtle ways that we are "broken" or "damaged" and then in the same breath told that we are "brave" and "inspirational" when in reality to us it feels about as important as being tall or short. It is merely a physical attribute and life goes on. For a blind person, being able or willing to return the gaze of a sighted person is not an accurate measure of his dignity or self-worth. By the same token, to the blind person, the sighted person he is talking to seems undignified as a result of the noxious body odor or the grating, gravelly voice and repulsive manner of speaking even though he is meeting the other's gaze. I realize the above was used metaphorically, and thus am I also using it. Consider the actual source of dignity!

The disclaimer that "real blind people don't count" doesn't hold any water at all, because to talk about an attribute of our lives is to talk about us. You cannot propose a theology of dark skin without involving people who have dark skin, or a theology of Asian people without involving people who live in or come from Asia. You cannot talk about how God treats women in the abstract without it affecting real women and how people think about us and treat us and the ways we as people empower or disempower other people to live as Christians, or how apt we are to reject Christianity because it simply does not work as a realistic worldview.

An example of this is a discussion I read recently on social media between a group of mixed blind non-Christians and blind Christians who have experienced sighted Christians approaching them on the street and asking to lay hands on them so that Jesus can heal their blindness. The non-Christians in particular were incredibly repulsed by this experience, which unfortunately stems directly from the theology as put forth in the quoted post above.

Biblically, blind people are beggars, like Blind Bartimaeus, who come to Jesus asking to be healed, to be redeemed, to be given social standing and allowed re-entry into society. Blind people in ancient times were cursed; there is no denying that. They could not navigate or work at meaningful labor. They could not participate in civil government and were hardly better than lepers.

In third-world countries, blindness is the same today. Blind people are not offered an education and usually do not marry or have children. They are taught menial tasks such as basket weaving and are often a lifelong burden on their families or communities. They are poor, pitiful, in short, everything we assume blindness to be. My daughter, adopted from Ethiopia was "rescued" (cringe) from just such a life.

Contrast this with a blind person living in the Western developed world. Here, a blind person in ideal circumstances is taught to read and write using alternative methods. This blind person (we'll use the male pronoun for convenience and brevity) is taught to navigate using a white cane or guide dog (for example), and is allowed access to all public facilities and places of business. He can travel anywhere he wants to go by himself, and can hold a job is nearly any field. He can work meaningfully, marry and support a family, have hobbies, own and maintain a house, contribute to society, have honest dealings with other members of society and have a comparable quality of life to a person with perfect sight.
‘Lord I was deaf’. Images of Disability in the Hymnbooks
Before we began to refer to the metaphor of sight and blindness we had arrived at a discriminating criterion. This was to ask ourselves if the metaphor suggested a disparaging comparison with groups of disabled people. I would now like to suggest a more searching rationale for this. If sighted and hearing people use the imagery of light and sound to express their experiences in the world they inhabit that is natural and inevitable. However, if able bodied people make disparaging allusions to people who have very different experiences this may not only betray ignorance of those ways of life and is discourteous, but may reinforce a prejudice against disabled people that will in turn give credibility to the view that Christian faith does not offer answers to the search for equal opportunities: it may actually be part of the problem. In other words, when we consider the sliding scale of metaphors from those that refer explicitly to various impaired states through to those which merely use the various ideas of light and sound, sight and speech, we should distinguish between those that speak to our own world, the one we know and experience, and those that refer negatively to other peoples worlds of which we have no first-hand experience.

In saying this, I do not overlook the fact that there may be hymn writers who are themselves blind yet continue to use disparaging metaphors of their own condition. This is to be explained by the combination of a piety which does not adopt a critical stance towards the tradition, and immersion in the assumptions of a society in which the inferiority and the marginalisation of disabled people were simply taken for granted.

In the light of our new principle it is possible to comment on the situation of people with other impairments such as those who use wheelchairs for mobility. Biblical precedent such as the eschatological hope expressed in Isaiah 35.5 and some of the miracles in the gospels do encourage the hymn writers to refer to lame people. Lameness can be used as a disparaging metaphor for sin. Such expressions are as unacceptable as the explicitly pejorative references to blind and deaf people. Merely referring to standing up, however, comes into the category of speaking of the body’s symbolism which is natural to those who have legs and can use them. A wheelchair user should no more object to ‘stand up and bless the Lord, ye people of His choice’ than I as a blind person have any right to object to ‘the Lord is my light, my strength and my salvation’. True, the Lord is not my light, because I have no light sensation, and wheelchair users cannot respond to the invitation to stand up in the presence of the Lord. However, just as able bodied people should not thrust the demands of their experience upon others, so people with impairments should not demand that able-bodied worlds should conform to theirs. The principle is to rejoice in your own world without making disparaging remarks or setting unreasonable limits upon the natural life-worlds of others.

A limited range of disabilities are referred to in the hymnbooks. These are usually those that find a symbolic place within the vocabulary of the bible: blindness, deafness, being lame or having leprosy. We referred earlier to the hymn ‘Thine arm O, Lord in days of old’, quoting the line ‘the beggar with his sightless eyes’. This replaced the line, found in the older version, ‘the leper with his tainted life’ which has not reappeared in that particular hymn since about 1950. References to diseases such as AIDS and cancer are rarely if ever found in hymns, partly because they are contemporary conditions, and partly because they are not referred to in the bible.
Disability Theology
The most powerful discussion of God to arise from within disability studies comes from Nancy Eiesland's proposal of the Disabled God, in the book by the same title (Eiesland, 1994). Eiesland identifies herself as "a woman with disabilities, a sociologist of religion, and a professor at a seminary in the United States" (Eiesland, 1998a, p. 103). These three elements come together in her theology, which centers on what she calls "the mixed blessing of the body," especially as these relate to the lived experience of disability. From her sociological perspective, she is especially interested in theories and methods that empower and provide a foundation for political action. She uses the image of the Disabled God to support such political action, particularly through processes of resymbolization. She is also interested in deconstructing notions of normalcy. She writes: "My own body composed as it is of metal and plastic, as well as bone and flesh, is my starting point for talking about 'bones and braces bodies' as a norm of embodiment" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 22). Her proposal is a model of God that makes sense of her "normal" experience of embodiment, as well as one that supports and participates in the struggle for liberation of all people with disabilities.
Eiesland argues that traditional images of God, especially those that lead to views of disability as either a blessing or a curse, are inadequate. Within her own experience, she wondered whether such a God could even understand disability, let alone be meaningful to her. While working at a rehabilitation hospital, she asked the residents one day what they thought.
After a long silence, a young African-American man said, "If God was in a sip-puff, maybe He would understand." I was overwhelmed by this image: God in a sip-puff wheelchair, the kind used by many quadriplegics that enables them to maneuver the chair by blowing and sucking on a straw-like device. Not an omnipotent, self-sufficient God, but neither a pitiable, suffering servant. This was an image of God as a survivor, as one of those whom society would label "not feasible," "unemployable," with "questionable quality of life" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 13).

Eiesland made a connection between this image and the resurrection story in which Jesus appears to his followers and reveals his injured hands and feet (Luke 24:36-39). She notes "This wasn't exactly God in a sip-puff, but here was the resurrected Christ making good on the promise that God would be with us, embodied, as we are — disabled and divine. In this passage, I recognized a part of my hidden history as a Christian" (Eiesland, 2002, p. 14). Eiesland suggests that Jesus reveals the Disabled God, and shows that divinity (as well as humanity) is fully compatible with experiences of disability. The imago Dei includes pierced hands and feet and side. According to Eiesland, this Disabled God is part of the "hidden history" of Christianity, because seldom is the resurrected Christ recognized as a deity whose hands, feet, and side bear the marks of profound physical impairment. As Rebecca Chopp notes in the introduction to this work, "The most astonishing fact is, of course, that Christians do not have an able-bodied God as their primal image. Rather, the Disabled God promising grace through a broken body is at the center of piety, prayer, practice, and mission" (Eiesland, 1994, p. 11).
Strength in Weakness: The Bible, Disability, and the Church
From an able-bodied reading of the Bible, it is easy to assume God wants to heal every person with a disability. In the New Testament, every person who encounters Jesus blind, deaf, or lame is restored to health. But theologian Amos Yong wants the church to read the Bible differently, seeing good news for people with disabilities as they are, and not as God might change them.
Crooked Healing: Disability, Vocation and the Theology of the Cross
There are few things more potentially useful to the disabled experience than the idea of vocation. Vocation places disability in a wider spectrum of the sacred calling. It implies that disabled people and their able-bodied counterparts are on equal spiritual footing. More than that, it suggests that disabled people can be seen as conduits for God’s grace and service rather than it only images of a broken creation in need of “fixing.”
Christians who aren't disabled have a much too simplistic view of Jesus' healings in the bible. And even the biblical authors had some of the same prejudices, equating disability with sin or portraying it as incompatible with following Jesus. Just because the bible has a certain view doesn't mean it's right- it could be ableist (or anti-Semitic, or sexist, etc). We need to learn about disability by listening to actual disabled people.

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This post is part of a series on the gospel of Matthew.

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