even when we win

It is better for children to raise fists in square-capped joy,
to breathe salt air and ponder the unending horizon,
to dance like big folks, then double over with laughter.

It is better for love to accrete in beating hearts,
an aspiring star. It is better
for parents’ eyes to mist with salt tears
as they ponder the unending horizon from a wooden pew.

It is better for small hands to lift triumphantly,
safe in their parents’ grip. It is better for uncles
to dispense secrets of life in between sips,
for aunts to chart courses through narrow straits
in sacred circles of wisdom.

It is better to sit slowly, with creaking bones,
to watch children play. To gather them around your feet,
and tell them harrowing tales of near-disaster,
how you thought you’d never get away,
how there was mercy,
how you might not be here today.

It is better for long, dirty toenails
to be clipped and cleaned as soon as you get home.
To sit on the front porch while shadows lengthen,
to let the soil return to the soil,
to give something else a chance to grow.

-C. G. Brown
25 November 2021

After Another Verdict

“God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who hast by Thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.”

While you’re at it God, can you remove some of the thorns on this path?
Can you lift our weary and hopeless hearts?
Can you strike down the things and the people that block the light over, and over again?
Can you give us sweet manna for the journey through this deserted wasteland, to nourish us, and clear the bitterness from our mouths?

Dear neighbor.
Listen. 
Stop smugly crowing about the legal system being correct, even if you feel it’s only technically correct and not spiritually so. 
Stop and listen to your neighbors, either next door or for many of us, not so far away as the crow flies on its way to guide yet another Black soul, or any soul that loves Black people enough to fight for them, to the next place, too early. 

In the streets we don’t see the imaginary terror groups you have conjured out of weary people who just want to matter.
We see people weeping silently to themselves, quietly lamenting to each other and through their tiny digital megaphones, crying out to God for something to change.
We see a straight line between young white men killing with impunity in 2021 and young white men killing with impunity when my father was a child, and when my grandfather was a child, and back and back to the bloody water route that fed the sharks and ate the souls of European men who hadn’t quite figured out that they were white yet. Men who filled the hole left behind by their inhumanity with the imagined substance of whiteness.

Watch, neighbor. 
Watch as more young men become bold and unafraid to kill people who threaten the imagined power of whiteness. 
Watch as your representatives redraw the lines so your hollow scolding about voting is rendered meaningless. 
Watch as we wearily raise our eyes and said “We told you.”

This verdict is not the story.
The thousands upon thousands jailed, bankrupted, and ruined over the mere accusation of property crimes is the story.
The police who we are told protect people, but on a good day protect property and on a bad day protect this imagined substance of whiteness are the story.
The women and others who defended themselves and were met with imprisonment if they were lucky and death at the hands of legally exonerated men are the story.
The 66 years of fragile democracy we have experienced in nearly 250 years of existence, and its eminent demise through gerrymandering, emboldening, and incrementalism by those who purport to save us is the story.

The country that has functioned in this way from the beginning is the story.

It probably won’t be big and bright and terrible enough for you to see it, neighbor, not from where you sit. I look from where I sit and if I wanted to, I could ignore much of it myself. I could pretend that none of these things are real, and do not affect me, and there’s a good chance I’d get away with it.

But one day, I’d forget myself, and I’d get indignant with an official whose salary is paid in part by my taxes. And I’d learn, as my friends have, as my cousins have, that they have very clear instructions that they do not work for me.

If I were lucky on that day, I would eventually make it home.

You’ll see it, neighbor, when the elections stop making a difference at all. When even the candidates you find distasteful sail to victory. When the statistics don’t change and race is still a strong predictor of outcomes.

And you’ll have to reason with yourself. You’ll wonder why those people can’t overcome adversity like you did. You’ll look at your legitimate slings and arrows, and think, “If I could make it, anybody could.” You’ll never see the thousand invisible hands that buoyed you, and watching someone drown in what looks like the same circumstance as you is just. . . distasteful and unfortunate.

You’ll say that either something is deeply wrong in our nation, or something is deeply wrong with those people.

I know which one you will choose. I’ve seen you choose it again and again.

I’ve seen you try, I grant. You demand proof. You want the hard evidence. And yet any evidence that draws on history, that points to things that are happening even now in our corporate, legal, and political systems, is never enough. And now, neighbor, your neighbors want to ban even that. They give factual history a dangerous sounding, elitist sounding name. And before you know it, a woman who is younger than my father, who marched into a school building as a child while angry people, some your age, some maybe your parents’ age, jeered and threw things, and who wrote a book about it finds her book on the ban list. You don’t think your children should hear this living woman’s story, because it might make them feel bad.

This God that we say we both serve told me to love you. This God did not qualify it. This God did not tell me, “love them unless they commit a crime.”, or “love them until they cheat at politics.”, or “love them until they kill someone you love.” This God told me to love you, neighbor.

So I’m going to once again love you enough to tell you the truth.

Frankly, though, it’s becoming harder for me to give a damn if you listen.

This God also told me to love myself, to see myself as something precious and worthy because I’m imbued with God’s image and spirit.

So goodbye, neighbor. I’ll see you out there.

Just keep your weapon holstered. 
Keep your ready-to-call-the authorities voice holstered. 
Keep your scolding and lack of empathy holstered. 

Just wave, and move along, unless you’re ready to do something different and realize the shining bit of promise that’s embedded under all the dross, evil dreams, and evil deeds our society is built on. 

While you eat your lotus and dream, neighbor, we will remember for you.

While you chase insubstantial crowns and wave ethereal scepters at all you survey, we will dream prophetic dreams for you.

We will survive this.

You’ll see how beautiful we are — 
and be ashamed.

On The Mainline

Photo by Roman Ska from Pexels

Jesus on the Mainline, tell him what you want
you got to call him up and tell him what you want

The Staple Singers

My wife, reflecting on both the miraculous and the “merely” wonderful healing experiences she has witnessed, observed that the types of prayer the people who experienced these healings engaged in varied wildly from person to person. They didn’t always pray for healing, or to know God more, or for any of the traditional things modern Christians are told to pray for to endure hardship and to receive blessings.

I had separately observed the previous week that I was starting to think that prayer itself was less about worship and more about connection. This is why some monotheists pray to saints or to ancestors and do not consider that the same as worshipping them as deities. It’s about connection.

During the period in my adult life where I was deeply involved in a church, I did get some good things out of it. Community. Accountability. Discipline. But I never really developed a “prayer life”. In the tradition I was in, what I’ll call the “Abba Father” prayer style was popular. There were not rules per se, but there were expected patterns:

  • Say “Father”, “Daddy”, or “Father God” a lot
  • Start with gratitude for what God has done in your individual life
  • Continue by abasing yourself as a person might before a king and acknowledging God’s sovereignty
  • Make your request as a supplicant
  • End with gratitude for whatever God will decide to do
  • Amen

Different leaders had different variants on this, but this was more or less the pattern that was most popular.

In contrast, I never really prayed in this way, because it didn’t feel authentic to how I experienced my relationship with God. God for me is simultaneously an intimately close being that cares a lot about my pain and challenges, and a wholly other, vast being for whom traditional monarchic worship doesn’t feel quite right. I have described myself over the past year as leaning into the “mystery” and “weirdness” of God, and that feels more correct. I still haven’t figured out how that translates into a regular discipline, but the style of prayer I have developed is what I call the “Hey God” style. It’s still being refined, but it looks something like:

  • Say “Hey!” to God. For me, that’s “Hey God”, (as in “hello”, not as in “I need your attention”) but for others it may be something else
  • Sometimes I ask how God is doing. (I told you I’m leaning into weirdness.) I have been touched in a very childlike way by sermons I’ve heard in the past encouraging prayer that describe God almost like an empty nesting mom hoping to hear from her kids. And so I sometimes imagine God finds it nice when someone cares about how God is doing.
  • I talk about what I’m worried about.
  • I ask for help or support.
  • I say, “Thank you for listening.”
  • Amen

My primary other form of prayer is enjoyment of the world. Sometimes I will be skiing, or walking in a city full of people, or lifted high on good energy from people that care about me around me, and I take a moment to experience gratitude. I think that’s prayer, too; it’s recognition of both the good thing and the source of the good thing.

I am not encouraging anyone to adopt my styles of prayer. I don’t even know if they’re valid. The point isn’t that there is a better or worse prayer technique. The point is that if we seek connection with God, we should actually do things that connect us rather than follow rules and patterns that make us feel more distant, abased, and small.

My mother had to have an unexpected surgery recently. She found a doctor that could do the procedure in a safer and less invasive way, but it was serious, even though her prognosis was good. I talked to God about it, and asked for help and protection for her. And then I talked to my grandma.

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, died earlier this year as a centenarian. She lived a long, faithful life and has at least 4 generations of living progeny who she actively influenced. She was truly a matriarch and a model for the people in our family. And in that moment, I asked her, “Hey Grandma, could you please look out for your baby girl? Thank you.”

Most of the faith experiences I have had taught me that praying to anyone except God is idolatrous or blasphemous. One of the many things taken from the enslaved people brought to the Americas was their connection to their ancestors. And as the Catholic Church split in Europe, the intercession of the saints was increasingly forgotten in many of the newer Protestant traditions. The reasons for this are probably book-length subjects, but probably had to do at least partly with who European Christians had to become to justify the colonization of the world. People who have no connection to their ancestors, only to a distant God-king that tells them that they are the chosen ones, lose spiritual accountability and perspective beyond their own lifetimes. They neither answer to and learn from their ancestors, nor feel the responsibility to future generations of eventually becoming an ancestor. In the US, we preserved a weak form of ancestor worship in the mythology of the Founding Fathers, but they were specific, often problematic men that few of us feel a direct connection to from our own family stories. Even with them, we continually re-interpret and adapt their complex and sometimes conflicting reasoning as simple, received texts handed down from a new Mount Sinai.

Some of the syncretic religions that emerged did not have this problem. The Afro-Caribbean manifestations of Christianity preserved ancestor worship, and kept African ritual and ancestral reverence alongside church attendance and Christian practices. In Mexico and in parts of the US that were once Mexico, the Day of the Dead, popularized in the American imagination most recently through the movie Coco, is a day when families embrace full connection with those family members who have left this plane of existence. I have some limited experience with Santeria, the fusion of Ifa, the Yoruba religion of Nigeria, with Catholicism, including a visit with a babalawo (high priest). And his recommendation to me when I sought his counsel? Go to church and thank God. He meant a Christian church, because for him, there was no conflict between his practices and those of the priests in the local Christian church.

Modern fundamentalist Christianity thinks of these practices as Satanic. Usually, when modern fundamentalists call something Satanic, they typically mean “not from the specific allowed set of traditions and practices we have approved”. There’s again, another book-length conversation about whether some forms of Christianity are actually bitheistic, with a stronger Greater God and a weaker but still quite powerful “god of this world”, an adversary who arrays forces against humanity that we are ill-equipped to resist.

(As an aside, I looked up the phrase “god of this world” found in 2 Corinthians 4:4, and while many translations refer to that concept as “Satan” explicitly, the literal translation actually just says “the god of this age”, which could be interpreted as a specific being or as a mindset or ideology. This is important as we consider the relatively recent trend of Biblical literalism, where ancient texts are translated in a particular way, held up against modern understanding, and deemed to be specifically speaking into our moment and experience rather than primarily into the moment and experience for which they were written.)

I do believe in spiritual malevolent forces, just as I believe people on the material plane have great capacity for evil. However, I do not see my own family members’ energy as a work of an adversary plotting my eternal downfall. And besides, where is the energy to name the explicit perversion of Christianity to support chattel slavery or white supremacist terror as Satanic? The same people will call it “wrong” and “bad” when pressed, but will name teaching what science observes as “lies from the pit of Hell”.

To understand how problematic the above teachings are, imagine something that we can all agree is bad, like sacrifice of live children, let’s say 3 year olds, via fire. This was probably a thing in the land where the ancient Hebrews of the Torah lived, and was explicitly called out as something followers of YHWH should not do. Take a look at Leviticus 18:21, King James Version:

“And thou shalt not let any of thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, neither shalt thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.”

Now, imagine that for several hundred years, your church advocated that this passage in fact said:

“And thou shalt let thy seed pass through the fire to Molech, lest thou profane the name of thy God: I am the Lord.”

Now, imagine after thousands or even millions of children were sacrificed, that went out of fashion and was no longer allowed, and the full text was restored, but the church did not acknowledge or repent loudly and fully of it. That’s basically where we are.

Isaiah 5:20 says:

“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter.”

When I look at how so many modern fundamentalist Christians land on unloving, inflexible, and historically inaccurate sides of the issues of our day again and again, I can’t help but ask, “are you calling evil good and good evil?”

I’m sure they have the same question for me.

Anyway, my mother’s healing, while not miraculous, is going as well as it can possibly medically be expected to, and I’m grateful. I thanked God for her healing. And I also thanked my Grandma for her support. She’s not a deity. But I do believe her energy and wisdom, along with that of our other ancestors, continues to be available to us if we choose to ask for it. I can’t know whether she had anything to do with it. But it’s nice to think that even after leaving this plane, she shared the love she gave us throughout her life and used it to help things along a bit.

I did look up recommendations from both Afro-Caribbean traditions and hoodoo, the under-discussed form of African-European religious syncretism practiced anywhere in the US enslaved people were held, for how to better connect with one’s ancestors. I’m not ready to build a mantel or altar, with photos, candles, water, and gifts. I’m less concerned with breaking the norms I was taught and more concerned with attracting spiritual energy I’m not ready to process. But my grandmother and my uncle who passed a few years ago are people that I’ve started to talk with from time to time. Perhaps, with time, I’ll learn to talk to others. And perhaps in the process, I’ll gain some additional understanding of the God that set this whole thing up.

Critical Race Theory – A Primer For Bridge Builders

This document was originally written as a content post for the Be The Bridge Facebook Group in support of the Be The Bridge (BTB) racial reconciliation initiative. This unpacking of Dr. Uju Anya’s description of Critical Race Theory may be generally useful, so I’ve reposted it here.

Hey BTB friends, it’s time to talk about Critical Race Theory. Before you groan and grab your heads and roll your eyes, let’s establish a couple of baselines. 

First, Be The Bridge’s official statement on CRT can be found here: 

Executive Summary

Full Document

If you are concerned about how CRT impacts the organization, our full statement on it is articulated in that document.

Second, while we encourage dialogue about how CRT is or is not helpful for bridge building, we’ll ask that the conversation stay focused on the validity and applicability of the tenets to the work we have set before us, and that we don’t drift into arguing about their compatibility with the Gospel. There is no actual dialogue between CRT and the Gospel; CRT does not require the presence or absence of a religious framework for the model to hold. CRT’s accuracy or inaccuracy has no effect on what we at BTB would describe as your charge as Bridge Builders under the Gospel. 

Finally, yes, it’s called a theory, and we all learned in sixth grade science that a theory is by definition unproven, right? Not exactly. It’s more accurate to say that it’s a model that can be used to describe how things work. The fitness of a model is determined by how accurately it can predict outcomes in a system, not in whether it has found some objective truth. Newton’s theories weren’t “wrong”; they were an accurate enough model of how things work that we still use his equations to describe basic physics today, even though we know that they don’t accurately describe what happens on the quantum level.

Dr. Uju Anya lays out in clear language an overview of CRT in a Twitter thread that she posted, and which I’ve included images of at the bottom. I am using her definitions from said thread as a basis for this, and unpacking them a bit more in the context of bridge building. If your bridge building conversations are being derailed by accusations of CRT, this thread may be a useful place to begin dialogue.

Dr. Anya lays out six tenets of CRT, all of which are often misunderstood and used to discredit the theory. The primary misunderstanding about CRT comes from a radically individualistic view of society. Each tenet describes an aggregate set of societal trends and effects that are broadly demonstrably true, but may not apply to every individual in every situation. In what I like to call the “righteous man in Sodom” fallacy, the single cases where the theory does not hold as strongly are held up to discredit the larger societal effect. This is similar to stating that the lake is warm because you’re standing in a warm shallow in the sunlight, while the majority of the lake is being chilled by ambient temperatures, its own depth, and shade from trees prevents sunlight through. The lake is still cold, even if your spot is warm. Let’s look closer.

Observational Tenets

The first three tenets are what I would call “observational tenets”. They posit things about what’s happening in the world around us without passing judgment on them or making recommendations about what should be different. As we state in our position statement on CRT: “It is important to remember that these academic scholars are not inventing behaviors, but giving name to behaviors that are already in existence.”

ENDEMIC RACISM

Racism is deeply embedded in our thinking and institutions, such that we see any resulting unfair advantages as natural and unchangeable. 

It’s important to read this correctly. It is not saying that these advantages are natural or immutable, it’s saying that our society, in aggregate, treats them as if they are. We see years of unequal outcomes while operating in a culture of silence about racism, and we lose sight of the racist policy and thinking that produces those outcomes. This thinking produces books like The Bell Curve, written in the early 1990s, which asserts a correlation between natural intelligence and racial origin.

CRITIQUE OF LIBERAL MYTHS 

Equal treatment under the law is a myth, which means that meritocracy and colorblindness, the necessary ingredients, are as well.

This is frequently misunderstood as implying explicit and pervasive racist stances are being held at every level of the system, making it impossible for each individual Black person to catch a break. The evidence of fairness at any single point is used as a counterpoint, absolving the system of wrongdoing. In reality, this manifests in things like home appraisals being different based on whether the appraiser knows the race of the homeowner (still happening in 2021) or in people with names that correlate to a racial identity getting called for fewer job interviews despite qualifications.

WHITENESS AS PROPERTY

Whiteness is a commodity that provides benefits to those that possess it. 

This is frequently misunderstood as “everyone with white skin doesn’t have any problem and society treats them all like royalty.” It’s much more accurate to look at the fungibility of whiteness into protection, authority, and financial benefit, and the malleability of whiteness. Italians and Eastern Europeans were not always considered white. Anyone who is multiracial and is sometimes coded differently depending on the environment can also tell you about this difference and the things they have heard when people thought they were safe to discuss them. 

Positional Tenets

The second three tenets are what I would call “positional tenets”. These are arguments that I think the theory is making about how these power dynamics are affecting us and how the world around us can be changed.

INTEREST CONVERGENCE 

POC can only advance in US institutions or society when whatever benefits them also benefits white people. 

This is usually not addressed in the discourse because POC’s lack of advancement is written off as a series of personal failures rather than an inability to overcome a series of systemic barriers. An example of interest convergence in our society currently would be the expansive safety net measures COVID introduced around unemployment insurance. Decades of persistent Black unemployment, underemployment, and unequal pay did not inspire a desire for a better safety net, but when COVID put millions of white workers at risk, the country acted swiftly to put in measures that helped them and happened to help others in the process. The converse is also true: popular support for safety net programs on the whole has declined since the 60s in a direct correlation to the allowance of Black people into the workforce, and the anti-mask/return-to-normal sentiment spiked as the COVID numbers started to come in and POC seemed to be the most affected.

COUNTERNARRATIVE

We should listen to and center POC voices as legitimate alternatives to dominant voices that are usually white, male, and financially well off. 

This belief simply reflects the old maxim that the winners of history tell stories in their favor. Counternarrative asserts that we can only get a complete story by allowing multiple perspectives to weigh in and centering the ones that are not naturally amplified. However, this encouragement to find alternative voices is often weaponized, and dominant voices will find POC voices to lift and amplify that reinforce their narrative as a means of fighting the counternarrative of the majority. 

INTERSECTIONALITY

Multiple axes of power (race, gender, orientation, physical capability, neurotypicality, etc.) work together to produce different outcomes for different people from the same policies. 

As such, a policy to help women get more representation in management, for instance, doesn’t impact all women in the same way. White women who resemble the people who white men know and engage with may get unconscious support, while racial stereotyping may hold POC women back while being accused of not meeting supposedly objective criteria. This is often misunderstood as an “Oppression Olympics” scoreboard of privilege that is impossible to reconcile. 

However, we as bridge builders in particular should understand it as an opportunity to build empathy. For example, I can use my maleness and how it’s shaped my thinking to help me understand how whiteness could shape a white person’s thinking in our society. 


That’s it. That’s all the main parts of the theory. There’s one other thing I would like to cover, however, and that’s how white supremacy through the years has itself affirmed the observational tenets of CRT. Look at the things we’ve all learned about when studying race in America, from the language in the Declaration of Independence to the legal opinions that affirmed the non-humanity or non-citizenship of POC to redlining and deliberate thwarting of laws and treaties to favor white people or harm POC. Take this statement from Abraham Lincoln:

“I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and Black races.”

https://www.history.com/news/5-things-you-may-not-know-about-lincoln-slavery-and-emancipation

This reinforces endemic racism, asserts that there should be no meritocracy or equal treatment, and defines whiteness as a commodity that gives certain rights and privileges, all in one sentence. Prior to 1965, people were pretty clear in their belief in racial difference and white superiority. The language about individual or local cultural defects was only introduced once language of natural racial traits went out of fashion. The CRT model accurately predicts this behavior, though you’d have to go deeper to get into how racism evolved after 1965 to adapt to changing moral and ethical trends. So any time you see a trend happening that someone asserts has an intersection with a power issue like race or gender, you can look at how it plays out up against the tenets above and see whether the model would predict the given result.

You can ask anyone who is critical of CRT in your circles to define it. If they can’t, you can share Dr. Anya’s commentary with them and ask them which parts they disagree with. If you are not presented with vague claims of socialism or anti-Christian rhetoric, the most likely complaint will be around its lack of accommodation for the individual. The refusal to process systemic injustice is one of the barriers you may be familiar with in your work thus far anyway. But just like I don’t need to understand quantum effects of time dilation to predict how long it will take you to drive to my house, whatever model we use doesn’t need to explain what’s happening to every atomic individual of a society to identify trends that should be of concern that we can address as a society.

Whether you agree or disagree with CRT as a model, it’s undeniable that many in the church and on the current political right have held it up as an insurmountable barrier to bridge building. I hope this post and Dr. Anya’s commentary in particular helps you feel better informed about CRT and able to assess to what degree the model is useful both in navigating this society and building bridges.

Original Thread

Voter Security or Suppression? A Closer Look at the New Laws in Georgia and Elsewhere

There is much consternation about the recent voter laws passed in Georgia and being evaluated in other states. Why are people so upset about a simple ID law? Doesn’t it make sense to verify that the person in the booth is authorized to cast the vote? And how is requiring identification racist?

In order to understand the discontent around voting laws, like many acts of policy or protest in America, the policy must be placed in the appropriate context. Before we get into that history, we must first define election fraud. The term as currently being discussed typically refers to people illegally voting multiple times or voting when they are ineligible, something we should more accurately refer to as “voter fraud”. This is contrasted with after-ballot tampering, miscounting, or tactics that prevent people from being able to vote in the first place, which is all conducted by agents of the state and reflected in most of our voting history in America. When we dispute the charges of election fraud currently being leveled by the Republicans who are pushing nationwide for stricter voting laws, we are specifically disputing the question of whether voters are acting illegally and not the states that count the votes. 

The story for Black voting in the United States starts at the end of the Civil War with the 14th and 15th Amendments. Having abolished slavery except for prisoners with the 13th, the United States Congress went on to ratify the 14th Amendment, which gave Black people citizenship, and the 15th Amendment, which made preventing voting based on race, color, or former slave status illegal. (It was still illegal for women to vote.) In the South, Black people made up nearly half the population in several states, and so a number of states sent Black legislators to the state houses and to DC.

In Georgia, 33 Black legislators were duly elected in 1868. They were subsequently expelled by white supremacists, with some of them being attacked or killed. The newly formed KKK backed the move with a terror campaign where a number of Black Georgians were killed. This subversion of the legal electoral process led to Georgia being kicked back out of the Union, and it was not readmitted for nearly two years. The Confederate remnant in the Democratic Party managed to re-secure control and engaged in an orchestrated terror campaign similar to what happened in other states in the South to eventually disenfranchise Black voters by the 1890s. The politically dominant Democratic Party even went so far as to have White-only primaries. 

Jim Crow kept most Black people out of the voting booth until the 1960s. Poll taxes were in place from 1877 to 1945. All-white primaries were banned in 1946. However, literacy tests and “tests of personal character” were also common, with the passing determined by the voting registrar in the county, nearly guaranteed to be white. Regardless of federal and state laws, local registrars did what they wished, and the state would generally look upon malfeasance with a wink and a nod. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was crafted to target the aggressive voter suppression in the Deep South and affected specific states, and finally allowed Black people to safely vote, at least in urban areas where terror or intimidation tactics could not be as easily applied. 

Thanks in part to the Voting Rights Act, the ideological home of Southern conservatism switched over the next 30 years from the Democratic to the Republican Party. In 2005, after Republicans took control of the legislature and the governor’s seat from Democrats, they passed a law reducing the number of valid forms of ID one could vote with and making provisions for no-excuse absentee ballots, with the knowledge that the absentee ballots would skew rural, white, and Republican. Democrats at the time made some of the same arguments Republicans are making now, indicating fear of fraud, though not alleging that fraud had occurred. Republicans continued to win statewide elections for the next 15 years, and there were no suggestions to change the law. While there did not appear to be malfeasance in the counting of the absentee ballots, catering to the demographic they hoped to obtain seemed to work. Along the way, Georgia also chose electronic systems that came under fire for glitches and possible tampering that favored Republicans.

Stacey Abrams, through her efforts with the organization she founded, the New Georgia Project, registered nearly a million voters over 6 years — 200,000 before the 2018 governor’s race, and 800,000 more after. Those voters were disproportionately historically disenfranchised and disengaged Black voters. Despite this, in 2018 she lost the governor’s race to Brian Kemp, who in his capacity as secretary of state presided over the election as well as being a candidate. The election itself was plagued by allegations of miscounts and problems with the equipment. In the end, the voter registration efforts paid off for Democrats as newly engaged voters who skewed Democrat voted in the election, giving Georgia 2 new senators and giving the Democratic presidential candidate the state’s electoral votes. 

In the wake of the closely contested 2020 election and runoffs, Republicans asserted foul play and again moved to change the laws. The same absentee ballots that were valid 15 years prior were now allegedly sources of substantial fraud. Despite lack of substantial proof, anecdotal allegations and unfounded claims won much of the day in the public discourse. A Republican-dominated state legislature adjusted the voting laws and made several changes. The most notable changes were:

-The state can now intervene and take over county election boards

-The secretary of state can no longer preside over the state electoral board, replaced instead with a person chosen by the legislature

These changes determine who gets to count votes in the large urban counties in Atlanta where there is a significant enough Black population to sway the statewide result. They also ensure that even if a secretary of state is elected from a different party than the legislature, they will not have sufficient influence to determine how the state sets election policies and rules within the laws drawn. A number of other provisions were put in place, including the infamous food and water provision, requiring copies of ID, and restricting absentee ballot drop-off to poll hours.

Restrictions like limiting drop-off to poll hours are intended to make it harder to vote. Georgia gained notoriety as well for uneven distribution of polling equipment, producing hours-long lines in many predominantly Black districts while other districts breezed voters through. The laws are specifically designed to create more hurdles to voting under the guise of solving a problem with voter fraud that has repeatedly been proven not to exist. (The Heritage Foundation alleges over 1300 instances of voter fraud but they appear to be looking at over 2 decades of data nationwide and do not seem to distinguish between malicious intent and people who made honest mistakes.) But why?

Just as the Voting Rights Act was able to target the South without saying “the South” by looking at the percentage of registered voters due to successful suppression during Jim Crow, these new measures are targeting Black voters without saying “Black voters”. There are a number of ways to validate that a person is authorized to cast a vote. We could make state IDs free, and in this digital age, even make them easy to get via manned mobile stations. We could allow voting on Sunday (the new Georgia law makes that optional for counties to disallow, targeting Black churches’ “Souls to the Polls” efforts). We could mandate that any county polling place with the equipment make complimentary photocopies of ID. None of that is being done. 

The economic damage of centuries of enslavement followed by nearly a century of racial terror and disenfranchisement means we see Black people disproportionately represented in jobs that make less money and have less flexibility. Our “essential workers” may not be able to get out of their jobs during election hours. Federal law mandates 2 hours of time off (not necessarily paid) to vote, but in an at will state where you can be fired for any non-protected reason, do you take the chance? Even if you get the time, if you are reliant on public transit, it may be too inconvenient to get to your polling place.

Yes, these hurdles are surmountable. Yes, a sufficiently motivated person can still vote in person, albeit with an hours-long wait time in some areas. However, we should ask ourselves why we are putting up hurdles in the first place if they have been proven to not protect us from anything. When we again lay the list of actions and expected outcomes against a nation that has a long history of racialized policy decisions, the results become problematic, and we’re faced with the choice to either mitigate the racialization or avoid it in the first place by choosing policies that are just and maximize access without compromising security.

Our nation deserves secure elections. And we deserve sufficient access to the tools required to secure them, and sufficient resources to run elections in such a way as to avoid hours-long waits to exercise the fundamental right of a democracy. 

——————————

Additional Reading:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Original_33

https://www.todayingeorgiahistory.org/content/poll-tax-abolished

https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/gallery/2020/nov/01/georgia-voter-suppression-in-pictures

https://www.brennancenter.org/issues/ensure-every-american-can-vote/vote-suppression/myth-voter-fraud

https://www.heritage.org/voterfraud

Lil Nas X and “Where The Devil Reside”

Silhouette of man with wings standing on a hill. The sun is rising or setting directly over his head.
Photo by Rakicevic Nenad from Pexels

Lil Nas X recently released a video for his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” that features him in a CGI garden making out with a serpent and later giving the devil a lap dance. He followed this up by releasing a custom-modified set of sneakers with a Satanic theme and even one drop of human blood in the air pocket mixed with the red dye. Naturally, large parts of the Christian community are up in arms.

I am a product of the particular form of Christianity practiced here, so I won’t assert that I was completely comfortable watching Lil Nas X cavort with demonic-looking figures. But art isn’t supposed to necessarily be comfortable. (If your initial response to that is “but that’s not art”, I’ll gently remind you that while not every expression is art, the range is probably broader than what any one person would accept.) I did notice two things though.

First, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a mainstream music video where a man sexualizes himself the way a woman might be expected to for the benefit of men the way we’ve seen in countless videos. That alone was interesting, and for the LGBTQ+ community, possibly groundbreaking. We’ll set aside for the moment the question of whether that sexualization is a good thing, and focus on the fact that it is bringing other sexual identities out of the shadows. (It’s also possible that not being a member of that community and being at an age where I’m rapidly entering the lawn-guarding stage of my music appreciation career, I am not aware of other work that’s been done.) Second, I didn’t realize his real first name was Montero. Singing an eponymous song while literally wrestling with his demons sheds a whole new light on the meaning and intention behind the work.

Hell has a checkered story. The Bible doesn’t talk about Hell as we know it. Jesus in the original untranslated text talks about Gehenna, which was a valley in Jerusalem that was considered to be cursed because ancient kings of Judah sacrificed children by fire there. Rabbinic literature talks about it as a kind of purgatory, but one’s stay there is seen as temporary. Other faiths’ concepts, such as the Greeks’ Tartarus, a place of torment that corresponded to one’s sins in life, later influenced Christian conceptions of what Hell is. Gnostic beliefs about the separation of the spirit and the body, also influenced by Greek philosophy, fed the frequently taught notion that the body and the world the body lives in is corrupted. The word Hell itself comes from the Anglo-Saxons that were converted several hundred years after the life of Christ. And the medieval artistic imagination completed the vision as we see it: a burning, desolate realm, where a goatlike humanoid supervises while legions of abominations roam free and torture the souls of the wicked.

American Christians are also very afraid of Satan. Satan comes from Semitic language roots as a word for “adversary”. Theologically, depending on one’s reading of the Bible, he’s both the one who is the prosecutor arguing before God why you should be locked away in Hell and the undercover police officer setting you up to commit the crime. Americans have a particularly literalist interpretation of Biblical text, and as such tend to believe in a personified being. There have been times when I’ve referred to some of the more fundamentalist practices of Christianity as “devil worship” because they spend more time in practice expressing their fear of what the devil is doing or what will do next than their faith in God. The Gnostic-influenced dualism ascribes nearly as much power to the devil as to God, making him god-like in his reach and capability. In their eschatology, God will ultimately prevail, but only after a pitched and difficult battle.

Many of the more conservative forms of American Christianity continue to look at our “fallen world” and see evidence of the devil’s work throughout. They are deeply concerned that the mainstream society and culture, as it grows increasingly tolerant and expresses broader points of view, will at least turn its eye away from God altogether and at most explicitly worship God’s adversary, granting him more power. To maintain the purity of the Church, many small-c churches have forgotten how to love people as they are and create a welcoming refuge from the fallen world. Instead, they construct an ever-increasingly-complex set of rules and practices, and in order to be a part of the community, your beliefs must line up just so. Otherwise, while you may attend and even volunteer your talents in service to the body, you will not be fully allowed to participate in the life of the church, lest you lead others astray. I experienced some of this in previous churches due to my willingness to even hold explicit uncertainty rather than accept literal interpretations of Scripture. LGBTQ+ parishioners have experienced it all the more.

The stereotypical conservative position is portrayed as “gay bad, stay away until you decide to live the way God intended.” I have attended churches with a more nuanced position, but still one that in practice did not let people fully participate in the life of the church without choosing celibacy and singleness. If they do choose that, they’ll then still often be pressured to find a heterosexual partner and marry, as official leadership and unofficial authority is primarily only available to married men, and to women only indirectly through their husbands. There’s a whole separate thing about how celibacy and singleness should be first-class concepts in the church regardless of one’s identity and orientation, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.

All this context is the place from which Lil Nas X is drawing this song. He grew up outside of Atlanta, the son of a gospel singer. He tried to “pray his gay away” and couldn’t. I do not know the exact church framework he grew up in, but it stands to reason based on his documented handling of coming to terms with his sexuality that he grew up in a conservative Christian context that saw no place for him as he was. His supporters, and many LGBTQ+ people that I have seen express opinions on it see it clearly as him embracing the things about himself that his upbringing told him would send him to Hell. Some gay people who were raised in a conservative Christian context struggle with the imagery as well, but hold the tension and understand the message.

Let’s get back to the latest Satanic panic. American Christians are concerned about the devil, or as many call him due to some choice lines from Paul, the god of this world, taking over the mainstream culture and ruling over all except the small remnant who choose to profess Christ. Videos like this to them are just evidence of attempting to corrupt the children directly, normalizing worship of the devil and practice of evil. Variants of these ideas are informing cult practices like QAnon that have infested white evangelical spaces.

in my experience though, I have only met 3 kinds of people Christians would call “devil-worshippers”:

  1. People who practice pre-Christian faiths (with a partial exception made for Judaism) in as close to their original form as possible
  2. People who practice reconstituted faith systems drawing from pre-Christian beliefs like Wicca or Thelema
  3. People who don’t believe in anything and who are trolling Christians (the Satanic Temple is a good example of this)

I’ve had personal relationships with people in all three categories. None of these people are plotting to take down the Christian God or corrupt God’s followers for the benefit of their own deity or pleasure. Evangelism is not a universal religious practice, and they are not seeking converts either. Only the most militant atheists, who ironically are often backlashing against a fundamentalist Christian upbringing, are concerned about ending belief because of the great harm they’ve seen believers do to each other. Most atheists and believers in other deities or systems just want to be left alone to live their lives as they see fit.

My own afterlife theology is evolving. I don’t know exactly what happens after this, though I think the Hell we constructed out of burning trash heaps and medieval visions isn’t how it works. I am also not sure I believe in an incarnate adversary-in-chief, though I have experienced spiritual warfare firsthand and know there are malevolent forces out there beyond our scientific understanding.

What I do know is that our church that is so deeply concerned with the devil has so much molestation and abuse of all kinds in it, either in the homes of parishioners or in the offices of leaders, that it’s not even considered a stop-everything moment when yet another leader or priest or counselor or parent is exposed for what my friend rightly calls “spiritual murder”. I have seen churches manipulate and emotionally abuse people as well, causing great damage and distress, and driving people away from a faith whose only face for them is the church leadership. And let’s not even get started on the horrors of genocide, slavery, segregation, and colonization that were justified by twisted forms of faith that have still not fully been unwound.

I remember watching an episode of “College Hill” of all things, a reality show where Black college students live together in a house with the expected ensuing drama, and during a trip to the woods where everyone bonded, one girl talked about how she was molested weekly downstairs at the church while service was going on upstairs. And while she was supported and received sympathy, no one even saw that as surprising or remarkable. No one went to the church with pitchforks and torches. It’s just the way things happen, so watch your kids and good luck. The problem is so endemic among Catholic priests that it’s become a distasteful joke. Even our secular religion of sports is now showing itself to be a center of abuse from the same coaches that pray with young athletes on the field.

I do not believe that there is something fundamental about Christianity as a system that causes this. I think, and the world shows, that this is a universal human capability. Part of the ability to choose between good and evil is the ability to choose evil, and in that regard, we need no devil to tempt us. The power is its own temptation. I do believe that fundamentalist praxis that brooks no dissent, no understanding of metaphor, and no reflection, and that forgets the core revolutionary charter that Jesus set out, opens us up to calling, as Isaiah 5:20 says, “evil good, and good evil”. The repression of fundamentalism allows no escape for our evil urges, no way to put them in disinfecting sunlight, so they sit inside, fester, and grow.

Despite the fact that it’s not Christianity itself that is broken, but its practice here, we are not excused from the duty to change the practice where we can. We are not excused from welcoming our neighbor as they are without qualification. We are not excused from protecting the vulnerable and casting down the haughty and those who would abuse their sacred responsibilities. Something is broken in a faith practice that shakes its fist at a young man dancing on another man in red makeup while it sits mute, shame-faced, and silent while children are broken and women are murdered both spiritually and literally for the warped desires of men.

Lil Nas X is mocking a practice of faith that failed him and finding freedom in that. We need not celebrate it if we don’t personally connect with it, but we have nothing to fear from it either. The onus is on those who believe to create a practice of faith that is so full of love and justice that there is nothing to mock.

Schedule Change

in the style of Dr. Seuss

We all remember Dr. Seuss,
as famous now as Mother Goose,
with rhyming stories full of facts
about the Grinch, Who, and Lorax.
The famous stripey-hatted Cat
And Sam I Am’s big breakfast spat.
Most of the books were full of rhymes.
A few had art from older times,
when we thought foolish things about
what humans are, inside and out.
We held them closely anyhow,
those books from then brought into now.

But Seuss himself was known to say,
“Those books weren’t written the right way.
I thought I’d have a bit of fun,
but realized I had hurt someone.”
So now dear Dr. Seuss is gone,
his children left to carry on.
Not a matter of compromise,
but them deciding what was wise.
To pull the books that did the harm,
and push the others’ special charm.
Private decisions shouldn’t irk,
we have to let them do their work.

No public bans would we abide,
but it’s their call. They did decide.

-C. G. Brown

Reflections on the Ravi Zacharias Findings – A Follow-Up

Preface: The following is me processing some of the responses to my take on Ravi Zacharias. If you found it triggering, please exercise care in reading this. I’m processing my own errors and problematic reads of the situation, which hopefully will benefit people in a similar place. But it’s my primary wish that I do no further harm, hence this warning.

The TL;DR is that some parts of my take were insufficiently clearly targeted, are problematic, and I’m sorry that that caused harm to some readers. One person spoke up, but I assume I have other harmed friends that did not.


I recently wrote my thoughts about the Ravi Zacharias findings, where basically everything awful he was accused of was true, and it was in some cases even worse. I had a specific audience in mind for that piece, though I don’t think I was explicitly clear about that. I was thinking about people who had received beneficial spiritual formation from the hands of toxic or problematic people and/or organizations. While Zacharias was not a meaningful part of my spiritual formation in any direct way, he probably was through the people he influenced. But for me, it was an arms-length problem.

I can tell you who I was not thinking about directly, and that’s survivors of abuse. 

Rachael Denhollander, a well-known survivor who also works with organizations to root out abuse culture, and who is in fact working with RZIM, had this to say about the many thinkpieces being produced:

She goes on in the thread to talk about the Monday morning quarterbacks out there who applaud the right steps being taken but had nothing to say while women were being harmed, or worse, sided with the abuser.

I thought that this was concerning and wondered if my comments would be considered that way. So I quoted her tweet with this:

I checked in with my emotions and didn’t feel defensive, but was a little concerned. Still, I went by the old Southern maxim “a hit dog’ll holler”, so I figured if I didn’t want to holler, I was okay.

My piece was generally well-received. Several women I know read it positively and said so. I even had a man with similar experiences to me contact me privately and say it was helpful to them in processing their own experiences with spiritual abuse. I felt good about that.

Then, another friend challenged me on the Facebook page where I had posted the original piece. Facebook is a notoriously difficult medium to read emotion, but she sounded angry and upset to me, and described how she thought my recommendations about the ways that we should process these findings were problematic and contributed to abuse culture. I responded to clarify, but it seemed to make it worse. She even took words I had written the same day about how the Republican Party’s fealty to Trump makes me not trust people who call themselves Republican and align with party leadership but say they have my interests at heart and threw them back in my face, essentially saying I no longer felt like a safe person.

I’m a peacemaker by nature, which when undeveloped becomes people-pleasing. I don’t like to make people upset, and I like to find common ground. So I sat with the horrible feeling in my stomach from hurting my friend and tried to separate my own prideful indignation at being challenged and being accused of being a friend to people like Zacharias, my desire for her to not be mad at me, and my desire to understand whether I had legitimately gotten something wrong. 

I do racial reconciliation work with the administrative team at Be The Bridge. We recognize that our white participants have a steep hill to climb, coming from a society that for generations has unreasonably centered them, coddled their whims, and stunted their empathy. Seeing that work up close has caused me to have more empathy for white people who are in that process, though I do not excuse failure to try to get better or to humbly receive correction.

As a cishet Christian man, in conversations about spiritual abuse, especially those with a sexual component, I’m the white person. I’m the one who has had my sinful behavior ignored or encouraged and had my empathy stunted. So when people tell me that my words are problematic, I try to listen. I know that no matter what I say, I will not please everyone, and that’s the hard part. As my friend was the first to say, “we can disagree”. But people who are on the lower end of the power dynamics axis get a lot of say about whether something is problematic. 

I want to quote Louis C.K. here and say “if someone says you hurt them, you don’t get to tell them you didn’t.” But, well, you know.

In my reflection, I asked my wife to help me understand what about my post is problematic, or at least what could be read that way. She mentioned some comments I made about allowing his books to stand in response to a “what’s next” question as possibly giving the impression that I thought his legacy should stand. I agree that that was a problematic take. The most challenging part of my post, about holding the good and the evil people have done in quantum superposition, was meant to be challenging, but not to survivors. It was meant to challenge the people that throw the whole church away over that kind of corruption, or those that were spiritually formed in positive ways by his work and don’t want to fully acknowledge the evil of the person that produced it, or process what that means they have to change in themselves to decouple themselves from it. I’m not a person that’s going to tell you to try to remember the great work Hitler did with the trains. But, I have found that that quantum holding, as I describe it, allows me to remember my own humanity and how I am not above anything evil a human has done, and thus better guard against it. It also helps me process perpetrators of harm who are themselves survivors of harm, which is important but not relevant in this particular context.

I think speaking into the American evangelical context sympathetically causes people to make assumptions about the theological underpinnings of where I’m coming from. That context is sadly known for preservation of power and marginalization of voices. So let me say a few things to clarify:

  • I believe forgiveness, repentance, and repair are distinct processes. Forgiveness does not mean re-entry into relationship with a harmful person, and it does not mean that you are okay with what they have done. And you can be heartily sorry about something you did and yet do nothing to make sure something like that never happens again.
  • I believe women can be called to serve the church in any capacity, including leadership or head of household.
  • I do not believe survivors are obligated to view things any particular way beyond what they need to heal and find wholeness.
  • I am not asserting that we “love the sinner” and “hate the sin”. Causing earthly harm demands earthly consequences and those consequences should be paid. If we are talking about radical love of people, it is unloving to deprive someone of consequences for their actions and thus allow them to fall further away. Put more simply, God’s grace doesn’t give you a get out of jail free card.
  • I do not know the consequences of an unrepentant life in the afterlife, but I believe there are some. My understanding of God leads me to believe those consequences, while painful, would be on a path to restoration rather than damnation, but that’s for the unrepentant sinner and God to work out, not me. My job is to not be that person when I die.
  • I do not believe we need to hold up the good someone has done in a public conversation about the evil they have done.
  • I do not believe we need to preserve the work of Ravi Zacharias and continue to teach or share it.

In the paragraph that was problematic, I was trying to find a way to help people reconcile the beneficial spiritual formation they’ve received with the behavior of the person they received it from. I do see how that challenge to hold tension could be read as insisting survivors forgive the perpetrators of violence against them, or otherwise engage in work that they are not obligated to do. I also see how someone could read my comments as a call to keep the work he did and throw out the person. That is how that read, but that is not what I intended to say. My wife gave me a useful metric: how would you process this in the secular world? Thinking about the cases of Bill Cosby and R. Kelly, how would you tell people to process their work? 

In answering that question, I had to admit that I feel differently about R. Kelly than I do about Bill Cosby. R. Kelly was so blatant and contemptuous in his predatory actions that I “canceled” him a long time ago before that was a phenomenon, when he released The Chocolate Factory and called himself the Pied Piper of R&B, from the fairy tale about the man who leads the children of Hamelin to ruin. Cosby however, was a trickier case for me. I believed the women who spoke out. I think he should be in jail. But I wasn’t super excited about them canceling syndication of his show. It was, in fact, spiritually formative for a lot of us. 

So what does that mean? Am I okay with predators who move in secret and have the “decency” to not throw it in our faces?

As I was preparing for bed, I was jokingly singing an old 90s rap in a mid-century American musical songbook style (I know, I’m a weirdo). I stopped myself when I realized that the lyric I was about to say was also the title of the song. “Bitches Ain’t Shit”.

Men, yes, even us “good” ones, are so thoroughly indoctrinated in our hatred of and disregard for women that it feels like breathing. When I contemplate where I actually am standing and look up, the well seems so deep that I am not sure how I’m going to climb out. I don’t think my empathy and care muscles are completely atrophied. I may even be reasonably well-developed, but that’s only comparatively speaking. That’s not an assessment based on what we need to get out of the well. This internalized, pervasive misogyny is a bigger problem than what’s going on in the church, and I frankly don’t know what to do about it other than continuing to stumble, be corrected, and trying to become the kind of person that does not cause such harm anymore. My responsibility, my obligation is to keep grabbing the slippery, mossy stones, and to press upward toward the light until the day I die, even if I never make it out.

It’s hard, though. I learned these songs when I was 15-17 years old. I got fed imagery and behavior through multiple modes of media from much younger than that. I was raised to love my mother and sister, to respect women. And there are a lot of white people out there who were raised to speak kindly to Black people as well and treat the ones in their lives well. It doesn’t mean you are clear. It will show up in who you acknowledge first when they come into a room, in your assumption of who’s in charge, in your mentoring a young man, but merely managing your attraction to a young woman that you aren’t even practically interested in.  This is the work for the “good ones”: to realize you’re not so good and not to rest complacently in the truth that “everyone’s a sinner”, but to press toward the mark of treating all the image bearers of God, male, female, non-binary, with the dignity, respect, and care that is warranted by their very existence.

I am sorry that insufficient care in my analysis led to harm for some readers. I will exercise more care in the future when touching on subjects involving abuse and survivors.

Reflections on The Ravi Zacharias Findings

Photo by Julia Volk from Pexels

NOTE: I also wrote a follow-up post that you should read after this one for further clarification.

I’m thinking about the complete mess that is the Ravi Zacharias situation. Quick primer for the non-aware: Zacharias was a Christian apologist, a formal philosophical and theological argument maker of the first degree, who recently died. Some accusations late in his life that were originally treated as slanderous have subsequently been proven true, and his ministry is taking steps to repent and repair. The answers for what to do are simple to find and hard to live out.

Believe women and other marginalized people.

Ask why the church is marginalizing so many people.

Set up mutual accountability and frameworks to allow parishioners to challenge power without power closing ranks to protect itself and slander earnest complaint.

I believe in primus inter pares complementarianism, where there is a first among equals, a chair of the joint chiefs. Someone’s got to make the call in a two-person decision. But that lead should be based on skills and gifts. My wife is better at reading people, so I defer to her on those decisions. I’m better than her at procedural thinking, so she defers to me on that. But we’ve earned that from each other through trust building and sometimes through our mistakes. I can only lead well by recognizing and engaging the full capabilities of my partner. Leadership is a service role, not a dominance role.

There is a deep theological shift, however, that needs to happen in our Christian understanding of women and their role in the human story that we assert God is supervising and allowing us to co-write. Too many strains of Christianity have women as second-class, valued for childbearing and holding up mighty men of God, but otherwise useless as productive citizens. The hardcore complementarians among you will dispute this and say that women’s roles are Very Important. And yes, child rearing and supportive marital roles are critical. Women who have the desire and gift to do those things should do them with joy and pride. (There is a whole other conversation beyond the scope of this discussion about how the dissolution of the extended family and village model combined with our brand of corporate capitalism and history of sexism has created the need for the harried homemaker who does it all alone, because it doesn’t have to be that way either.) But what happens when the desires and gifts the women in our lives receive are not designed to be part of a man’s story? What if they prophesy, or exhort, or shepherd, or strategize better than anyone we know?

We are fools if we throw half of God’s bounty away because we don’t like the container God shipped it in.

No one, not me, not you, is immune to the selfishness that causes what Christians call sin and everyone calls wrong. Zacharias may have had his sin play out in a different way if he had come to prominence in a different kind of Christian culture. Or maybe his particular temptations wouldn’t have fired. We can’t know.

What we do know is that the kinds of things he was accused of that have now been validated are individual manifestations of systemic problems. Purity culture creates a poor theology of the body that makes us hate our bodies and our desires yet gives us no place to put them into context. As a result, our desires leak out in perverse ways. Sexist teachings encourage and reinforce a secular objectification and devaluing of women so they are not heard or believed. And we end up here.

There is one more thing to say, and this is in defense of Zacharias’s contributions, even though I am not convinced I agree with him theologically. The man can have done all of the horrible things he did, for which he should face the full consequence to his reputation and ministry, and still have contributed to the faith. Whether churched, unchurched, or dechurched, we tend to operate in a kind of dualism, where the evil one does negates the good, or where the good one does blinds us to the evil. There is not a scorecard that can be balanced. All the good is there, and all the evil, occupying the same space in a kind of metaphysical quantum superposition. And we have to hold both, uncomfortably, and together. That holding, that opening opens us to other possibilities and more expansive, whole ways of being.

I am thankful that the organization he founded expressed a commitment to unqualified repentance, cultural analysis and change, and actual, meaningful repair and restitution to the harmed people. That is all that can be done for what has passed. For the future, all we can hope is that they become the kind of entity that does not allow this to happen anymore. May that be so, and may God tear it down if it is not.

And as Ravi Zacharias’s soul flies on to wherever is next, I hope he finds repentance, repair, and wholeness, even as he faces whatever unknown cosmic consequences there are for our unresolved sins in this life.

The Epiphany The Lie, and The Feces

Image from Twitter user @walterdellinger

I keep thinking about the feces.

Last week, angry Trumpists stormed the United States Capitol building. The police were overwhelmed and were not given additional support. (It’s beyond the scope of this post to speculate about their heroism, complicity, or the reasons for the lack of support.) Once inside, the insurgents posed with statues, stole artifacts, and smeared feces on the walls of our chief legislative federal institution.

The smearing and throwing of feces is a symbol of defilement and disrespect that probably pre-dates humanity, as any scientist who studies ape social behavior can tell you. I cannot think of a more disrespectful thing to do that doesn’t involve violation of a body or destruction. But the feces was merely a footnote in this story.

I think of a man with a lucrative and promising career who lost it all for having the unmitigated gall to kneel before our flag instead of standing for it, as a protest against police brutality that still showed respect for soliders, as he was asked to by his military friend. I think of the off-duty police in the mob who showed their badges to the Capitol Police, saying “We’re doing this for you,” as they pushed past them to get their mayhem and defilement campaign going. I think of the bombings of 1921 and 1985, in Tulsa and Philadelphia, where domestic perceived threats in Black skin were bombed away. I am not aware of other domestic bombing initiated by government entities, though I am aware of ones initiated by domestic terrorists and insurgents.

All I can see is The Lie, naked and brazen, shameless and flamboyant.

When a Black person is harmed or is killed by a police officer or a self-appointed deputy, we are told that they should have behaved in an orderly and compliant way and they wouldn’t have gotten hurt. And it’s important to talk about harm, whether that’s actual physical injury or psychological terror. We center our language around those who have been killed and have no language to talk about the persistent humiliation and fear cultivated in boys and girls growing up in overpoliced and underresourced neighborhoods. We are tracking the spending of our dollars but not our cents, and the bills add up.

Before anything, Black Lives Matter is first a call for empathy. “Can’t you see that my life also has meaning? Can’t you see that I’m a full human, too? Can’t you see that your callous treatment of my life and well-being is hurtful?” We are somehow, as a society, always able to find this empathy for a rural white farmer or factory worker. We can even find this empathy for the disaffected Trumpists who masquerade as salt of the earth but are actually petit bourgeoisie with second homes and sport boats or pickup trucks. We ponder how we can help them be less sad about the election as they take leisure time from their small businesses, steady union jobs, or comfortable white collar jobs to storm the United States Capitol with weapons and hostage-taking materials. We’re even able to find this empathy for rioters who tear up their cities after sports victories, surely a matter of the least significance to the state of the nation.

Yet, here we are again, facing The Lie and the shards it produces as its fragile frame disintegrates all over the floor. 

We pretend that there is a logic to this. We pretend that the rules are evenly applied and that what we care about is compliance and order. We pretend that there is equal justice in this country despite reams of data to the contrary. We pretend that any differences in outcomes have nothing to do with compound interest dividends on injustice and everything to do with cultural or individual failings. And then, when Black bodies get unruly, we meet them with overwhelming force, and if necessary, smear them across the pavement.

White men are killing themselves at higher rates than any other group in the country, and researchers can’t seem to figure out why. We talk about our increasingly impersonal society and the decline of religion as possible causes. They can’t figure out why Black people, with the stressors they have and the discrimination they face, don’t have higher numbers. While causes are complex, I posit that one major contribution to this disparity is that the people of African descent who were enslaved and made into “Black people” always have known The Lie was The Lie, so while we have fought generation after generation for a better truth, we haven’t placed our hope in the lie that things were fine and that no significant introspection or reconstruction needed to be done. Because of the numbing and confusing influence of The Lie, the people of European descent that were made into “white people” have been left in the wake of The Lie’s demise with a truth that they cannot face.

This January 6, this Epiphany, there was no hiding from the awful, horrid truth. Blue Lives Matter, until they get in the way of white supremacy. All voices are welcome, until they get in the way of white supremacy. Compliance, law, and order matter, until they get in the way of white supremacy. Our institutions of power matter and should not be tampered with, until they get in the way of white supremacy.

The American flag matters, until it gets in the way of white supremacy. 

The only animating force or principle to this movement is the preservation of white dominance through the tools of white supremacy. This is why Pence can be a hero one day and Public Enemy Number One the next for choosing his Constitutional authority over the whims of the mob. This is why even their icon, Trump, can be seen as a betrayer for choosing to comply with the demands of the legislators and administrators that keep a check on his power. The political cults that have risen move the goalposts freely and change the rules at will, because whatever they say they care about is a lie. Dominance and control are their only desires. The spirit of the evil age when the truth was able to move freely and without shame fights to live, and it carries on in our unexamined hearts and in our unreformed institutions.

The truth remains silent, but it persists, smeared across the halls of justice of our country, smeared on our neighbors’ homes, in our banks, on our streets. The truth is smeared across our pulpits and pews, obscuring passages in our holy texts, sticking the pages together so that context becomes impossible to glean. The truth defiles the values we say we hold dear and ruins the complex interwoven fabric of the tapestry that is our nation at its best. 

The truth stinks.