Their Own Alien: Thoughts on "Kind of Kin" by Rilla Askew

I didn’t quite finish “Kind of Kin” by Rilla Askew in time for this month’s Daughters of Abraham book group.  The truth is, I put off starting it because it was a Christian selection (the group is composed of Christian, Jewish and Muslim women, and each group takes a turn selecting a book that in some way represents their religion).  I have developed an aversion to “Christian fiction” after reading a few too many books in Jan Karon’s Mitford series and seeing movies like “Facing the Giants” in which Christianity is a magical forces that makes everything better for those who believe.

I shouldn’t have worried. People do good things and they do bad things and their motives for their actions are always complex and rarely pure.  The testimony of scripture is helpful and challenging but it doesn’t solve everything.  The book makes a good case for how the Christian faith can make a positive difference in a community, but it doesn’t do so in a simple, magical way. 

In fact, in this book Christianity mostly makes people’s lives more challenging.  It leads them to challenge the assumptions of their community and to stand up for strangers in trouble.  But behind all of their Strong Moral Positions is the question of how to care for the people we love.  Good material for my work on a “Spirituality of Us.”

The book describes how a number of different people—a Christian pastor, a politician, an overwhelmed mom, a born-again grandfather, a Sherriff, an oil worker and a 10-year-old boy—respond to a new law in Oklahoma that makes it a felony to harbor an illegal alien.  The book doesn’t attempt to represent both sides of the illegal immigration debate in this county—it makes a strong case against deporting undocumented workers and portrays anti-immigration forces in a fairly laughable way.  But it represents those who come to the aid of immigrants as having very complex motives.

One young woman has fallen in love with a Mexican man who is in the country illegally.  They have gotten married and had a child, but he hasn’t obtained legal status and is deported.  The woman’s grandfather has made connections in the Mexican community by occasionally attending a Mexican Pentecostal church.  Through his friendship with the pastor of that church, he eventually agrees to hide a group of workers who are at risk of deportation in his barn.  Another family member is fearful that immigrant Mexicans will take his job, and so he turns the grandfather in.  That man’s wife is personally overwhelmed and not particularly interested in the troubles of the Mexicans in her community, but she finds she has to take a stand when her family members ask her for support.

After days of soul-searching, scripture study and prayer, the local pastor decides that it is his duty as a Christian to give refuge to the young man who had returned to his family after his deportation to Mexico.  When the local sheriff, Arvin Halloway, arrives at the church, the result is a showdown that lasts most of a day and attracts media attention.  Church members and neighbors find themselves called to either stand by their pastor in support of his convictions or to stand with the Sherriff in support of the law.

I so appreciated Askew’s description of the reasons why so many church members decided to side with their pastor:

“Later some of them would say that they did what they did purely because Arvin Halloway told them they couldn’t.  Others claimed that they hadn’t really known anything about that law; if they had, they might have acted different.  Some said they’d just surmised that if the pastor of the First Baptist Church aimed to stand against the law (and here by the law they didn’t mean statute but officers), then, by gosh, that was good enough for them.  In the long run, there turned out to be a whole host of reasons—conscience, ignorance, rumor, the makings of a good show….”

The pastor takes a stand because he becomes convinced, through his reading of scripture, that God commands him and his congregation to do so.  But he only starts looking for Biblical guidance on the issue when he is asked directly by one of the members of his congregation to help an illegal immigrant.  And she only asks for help because that person is married to her niece and her niece showed up at her door, desperate and without any alternative.

These characters, even the ones who see themselves as responding to divine guidance, do not have pure motives.  But they do represent the way that people makes decisions, change their mind and are spurred to action.  Personal conviction plays a role.  Identifying as a member of a faith community can play a role.  But in the end, our love for particular people is what gets us moving.

That’s an important insight to bring to the immigration debate.  The conversation changes when it stops being abstract, about “illegal immigrants” in general, and becomes personal.  Askew writes about the young man being harbored in the church basement saying,

“There were rumors that the man belonged to that really good roofing crew out of Panola, and some even got it correct straight off—that he was Bob Brown’s granddaughter’s husband who had been, according to news reports, deported last fall.  The main unity to the rumors was how they all had the Mexican man qualifying as a stranger according to the preacher’s texts, but one with a local connection.  He was an alien all right, but he was somehow their own alien.” 

Prescription for a Pauline Headache


The Word of God proclaims, “women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the Law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church."  1 Corinthians 14: 34-35  (as quoted on

 "Greet Andronicus and Junias, my relatives who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was." - Romans 16:7

 “…It ought to be said that from a biblical standpoint, there is no tolerance in Scripture for women leaders in the church, apart from women leading other women--older women teaching younger women and leading their children and so forth.” –John MacArthur

“About the injunction of the Apostle Paul that women should keep silent in church? Don't go by one text only.” – Theresa of Avilla

This subject of a woman’s authority has been a thorny issue for the church for a very long time. Entire denominations have split over this. People’s lives are ruined over this. Which perhaps is understandable, if, as many Christians believe, Paul’s writings are The Word of God. Because if they are the words of God, how can God contradict himself so often?  And apparently contradict Jesus, too?

Paul’s words were used over the centuries to justify Antisemitism, authoritarianism, slavery, misogyny and sexual bigotry. He also wrote tender love poems memorized by people around the world.  Which Paul should we listen to? Or should we listen to him at all?

Now, I think there is an enormous amount of good stuff in Paul's writings. There’s a lot we can learn from what he has to say and a lot (but not all) of his advice is well worth heeding (even though he is really not advising “us” who came 20 centuries later – Paul thought the end of the world was just around the corner). It’s even been said that Paul, and not Jesus, was the true founder of the Christian religion.

But a lot of what he says just doesn't make sense to contemporary ears and a lot of today’s Christians have dismissed Paul as irrelevant or even dangerous to the faith.  I even considered doing so myself but then remembered that Paul’s work is the earliest known written account of the Christian faith, years before the earliest Gospel. If the Gospel writers were likely influenced by Paul then how can we ignore him? And then how do we reconcile him to the Gospel? This used to give me terrible headaches.

Unless I stopped trying to make this first-century square Jewish peg fit into our Western culture’s round holes I would always  bog down in his words. Instead of some iconoclastic mouthpiece for God I needed to see Paul as the man he was, when he was, and where he was. Paul needed to be put back into the scope of real history, freshly scrubbed of all the unfortunate doctrines and dogmas that his writings are the source of.I believe that many of Paul’s words are taken so far out of context that the resulting Christian theology is tragically flawed -so flawed that the world has suffered terribly for it. This theology has become the conventional Western Christian wisdom and, using circular reasoning, is now the distorted lens through which we view Paul - as well as Jesus.

That’s why I am excited about this upcoming series on Paul and Empire at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.  I’ve read a couple of Crossan and Borg’s books and they were mind opening; intelligent and scholarly - not written for seminarians, but in a way I could understand. I’ll admit it was hard for me at first because they so thoroughly skewered ‘truths’ that I once held to be sacred. But when I began to learn about Paul and Jesus’ “back stories”, the story of Israel under Roman domination, everything began to make sense. The now obvious parallels to our day and age began to emerge and I was able to understand better what Jesus meant by the ‘coming Kingdom of God’ and what my minor role might be (or how I might be standing in the way).

But more importantly, the headaches are gone.


Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Is there a "usable past"? Is there some way to distinguish the history we must leave behind in order to grow from the history which nourishes and supports us?

With All Saints Day a few days back and All Saints Sunday coming tomorrow, that question has pressed in on me all week. It's a question that was posed to a number of writers back in 1939, and James Agee included his answer in the middle of his book, "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men". Although his book is ostensibly about the life of three families of white sharecroppers in the middle of the Great Depression, his answer to this question about his literary influences is deeply relevant to the book. Years ago, when I first found this book on my parents' shelves, I skimmed through until I found this list of what the "usable past" includes. I was enchanted with his embrace of the sacred and the profane, or rather, his refusal to make that distinction:

"Christ: Blake: Dostoyevsky: Brady's photographs: everybody's letters: family albums: postcards: Whitman: Crane..."

Yesterday, while waiting at the ice rink while Rosa had her lesson, I was leafing through this month's Harvard Divinity Bulletin and came across a breath-taking essay by Kimberley Patton revisiting James Agee and Walker Evans' luminous book. This morning's Writers Almanac told me that today is the birthday of Walker Evans, and so I'm back to thinking about "Famous Men".

I admire Agee and Evans in large part because they found the assignment which sent them to Alabama with their notebooks and cameras completely impossible. They couldn't make the people the were sent to report on into social problems. In just six weeks, they developed such respect for the people they encountered that Agee found it nearly impossible to put into words what he saw within them. So instead, he describes the gleam of the floor boards in their house, the nails that hold the wood together, the simple fireplace, the sound of their conversation as they fall asleep. He notices everything, as does Evans, and the more they notice, the higher their regard for the lives they observe.

In the end, Agee makes a pretty persuasive case. When we are willing to observe--when we can keep our eyes and ears open, even when what we encounter is terrible--we will find that everything is useful, which is to say, everything is valuable. Every human life sheds some light that helps us walk through darkness. The key is to resist the temptation to make people into types, caricatures, saints.

Tomorrow, as we remember and celebrate the saints of our lives, I hope to do so in the spirit of James Agee. I want to remember that God's light shines in the small particularities of our lives, perhaps even more so than in the overarching themes of human history. I want to celebrate the humanness of the saints, which is perhaps the most hopeful thing about them.

The Problem With Living In Your Body

I'm really good at "yeah, but's...", probably as a result of the early imprint of high school debate. I can almost always see the other side of any argument I happen to make. Ever since I wrote about the benefits of being alive and present to our bodies, I have been thinking about the problems with doing exactly that.

I realize that this sound like a slightly weird dilemma. After all, there may be pros and cons to having a body, but what's the alternative? It's not like we can choose to be disembodied spirits instead of embodied human beings. And while that's true, it really is amazing to realize that we can choose to live as if we were disembodied spirits. We can choose to ignore our bodies, to neglect them, and to live life as if we were floating heads.

A lot of us do this, and don't even realize we're doing it, until we have an experience which makes us show up to our whole body and start living there. I'm sure there are a number of experiences which can push us in that direction. For me, the main ones have been pregnancy, sexuality, intuitive eating and yoga.

I'm no expert on that last one. My forays into yoga have been interesting, but brief. But I know a little bit about the power of that practice from my own experience, and even more from Matthew Sanford's amazing book, "Waking: A Memoir of Trama and Transcendence". I first heard of this book when Sanford gave an incredible interview on the NPR show, "Speaking of Faith".

Sanford was paralyzed from the chest down at the age of thirteen in a car accident that also killed his father and sister. His book tells the story of his recovery from that accident, a journey that eventually led to his becoming a yoga practitioner and teacher of "adaptive yoga" to disabled people. Before he discovered yoga, he writes, he really did see himself as a "floating torso". He essentially ignored the paralyzed part of his body. But yoga brought him into relationship with even the parts of his body that he can't feel or use, and taught him to fully restore his mind-body connection.

This wasn't an easy task, it turns out. As he began to reconnect with the parts of his body which had been cut off from him by his accident, he found himself re-experiencing the trauma of that experience. Somehow, his body had retained a memory of a trauma that his mind did not have access to. When he begins to have vivid flashbacks of the accident, he's terrified. But eventually he realizes, "Healing, however, is not instantaneous. It is earned. There is no way to step around my body's past experience. I am terrified. My body has much to say, and it needs acknowledgment. More important, I need to feel grateful."

That's the insight that eventually changes everything. His body has been working hard to sustain his life, and it has done well. He can honor it, even though it's broken. For me, I read his story as a real-life parable of traveling into death and coming out on the other side, resurrected.

I have a feeling that Sanford's story is a more extreme version of a story each of us could tell. Our bodies carry the memory of trauma--of pain, of brokenness, of death--and when we show up to our bodies, when we consent to hear what they have to say to us, we will hear some harrowing things. But the promise of the Gospel makes us bold: when the new day dawns, the tomb is empty.

Dare I say it? I believe in the resurrection of the body.

Happy Birthday T.S. Eliot

Today is the birthday of T.S. Eliot--a fact that I was made aware of by my morning email from The Writer's Almanac. In honor of the occasion, I offer this short tribute.

When I was a senior in high school, I was looking for a new challenge. I had been involved with high school Speech competitions for the previous two years, almost always in the Original Oratory category. One afternoon, I was organizing my parents books for a little extra cash, and came upon a collection of poetry by T.S. Eliot, probably from my mom's undergraduate days as an English major at Boston University. I opened it up, read The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and was so struck by it that I spent the rest of the afternoon memorizing it.

A couple of weekends later, I entered a speech competition in the Poetry category. I was thrilled to share the poem--I felt like I had re-discovered an little-known masterpiece (I had never heard of T.S. Eliot, after all) and my heart swelled with the idea that I was bringing something very special to the world that day.

To my horror, the first contestant in my first round of competition that morning recited, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Not only that, he began his recitation with a few minutes of introduction of T.S. Eliot and interpretation of the poem. I hadn't realized that was part of the competition at all, so I listened very closely to what he said so that I could repeat it in later rounds. His basic assertion was that the poem was the words of a middle class Englishman, spoken from the grave, looking back on his life with regret.

I did pretty poorly in competition that day--fumbling through a plagiarized introduction, my confidence shaken. But the truth was, there was something about that contestant's interpretation of the poem (almost certainly supplied to him by his coach or English teacher) that just didn't sit right with me. I had never read any formal studies of the poem, but I knew in my gut that it wasn't about death, and it wasn't about being English. It was too alive, too universal, too much about me, a mid-western American, on the brink of graduating from high school, leaving home and growing up.

Is every step of my growing up, growing old, a step away from the limitless potential I sensed that year before college? I was aware of it even then--our imagined lives, our imagined future, have a kind of vitality that actual life never has. So we linger there in our imaginings, assuring ourselves that "there will be time."

I still find myself muttering at times, "No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be..." And at other times I say, "Should I, after tea and cakes and ices, Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?" When do we push forward into life, and when do we need to receive with gratitude the role that we have received?

I gave up competing with the poem quickly, but the poem has stayed with me the rest of my life.

book recommendation

I want to recommend a book that I have just read. It is "Apostle Paul" by James Cannon. It is a novel about Paul the apostle. This is a historical novel. Much of the story is accurate with the authors own account of what may have been.  As we will be studying Pauls dramatic conversion on the Damascus road and how change can occur I think you would get a lot out of what Cannon has to say. The book brought out for me the importance of Paul and how he was the one who really spread Christianity throughout Europe. I was touched by the way Paul was continually attacked by the Jerusalem contingent of Peter and James. This book has helped me see Paul in a different light and if you have a 'problem' with Paul this may help. I would be glad to loan you my copy of the book. Charlie Powell

book recommendation

I want to recommend a book that I have just read. It is "Apostle Paul" by James Cannon. It is a novel about Paul the apostle. This is a historical novel. Much of the story is accurate with the authors own account of what may have been.  As we will be studying Pauls dramatic conversion on the Damascus road and how change can occur I think you would get a lot out of what Cannon has to say. The book brought out for me the importance of Paul and how he was the one who really spread Christianity throughout Europe. I was touched by the way Paul was continually attacked by the Jerusalem contingent of Peter and James. This book has helped me see Paul in a different light and if you have a 'problem' with Paul this may help. I would be glad to loan you my copy of the book. Charlie Powell