Finding Our Way Back: A Christian Response To The Search For Justice

Photo by https://www.instagram.com/andrewtneel/

“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!”

Isaiah 5:20

Right now, people of faith are wrestling with a simple question. Is God happy with our institutions and personal practices around human equality and justice or not?

I think the hold the church has taken of Critical Race Theory and Marxism as cudgels with which to beat such a simple idea is the most disheartening thing I’ve seen in a while coming from that institution, and it might be why I’ve been a little sterner with the church than usual lately.

A basic understanding of American history shows that every time over the last century people have advocated for greater inclusion and integration, it’s been derided as Marxism, socialism, communism. Go ahead, look up who has historically leveled the accusations at civil rights rallies and LGBT+ protests and women’s suffrage events and see if you want to be counted among that number. Critical Race Theory is just a handy way to dismiss justice as an idea sprouted from the eggheads of academic elites with a desire to destroy the church. There’s an increasingly popular notion that academic knowledge is useless, and it’s faith that tells us the real practical truth. As important as faith is, that’s not how faith works.

Faith is inherently impractical. It’s “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Faith grounds us and connects us with the incomprehensible infinite. But faith is not a golden umbilical cord going from our navel to the heavens that we are meant to gaze at raptly for all our days instead of looking around us. Faith is meant to give us eyes to look at a broken, fallen world and see what is possible, to see the spark of the Divine in the profane, and clear away that which obscures it. Faith is meant to help us see our neighbor as God sees them. When you look through those lenses, justice is an inevitable byproduct.

If you would love to see Black people, or LGBTQ+ people, or women treated better, but you just can’t get with all this Marxist, socialist claptrap, ask yourself this. Why does the idea of radical love for your neighbor feel evil to you? Why do you follow a God-man who walked primarily with the outsiders and who loved radically and with reckless disregard for appearances, but who was despised by the institutions of power, and yet find your comfort and peace in the descendants of those same institutions of power that protect you and destroy others? How do you profess to believe in the exceptional power of the American engine, and never bother to look under its wheels to see who is being ground up and slowing its progress?

Why is it easy to believe that the Founding Fathers’ positive values held from nearly 250 years ago, unshaken in the face of laws and customs that made a mockery of them, and yet the values of inequality and hatred that we just reluctantly shed over the past 50 dissipated immediately?

Authoritarian socialism, which is only one kind, but one we have great familiarity with through our years with the Soviet Union, is a response to extreme, unfettered inequality. Like a pendulum swing, the backlash is only as extreme as the initial state. The remedy is not to gaze harder at your golden umbilicus or tug it in hopes that a few stray blessings trickle down to the people around you. The remedy is to create a culture of compassion for our neighbors and to cultivate a distaste for the injustice and evil required to give us so much prosperity and comfort.

These are big sweeping proclamations that are hard to act on, so what do we do? Pick a thing that increases justice in the world and that moves you, and work on that. And I don’t mean “thing that makes people more Christian” so we get justice by osmosis. I mean daily bread level justice. Volunteering or contributing to food banks. Getting involved with local housing policy. Helping one particular neighbor (with their consent and interest).

And for us Christians in particular, here’s the catch. Do it for nothing. You can and should always be honest about your “why” if it comes up. But this isn’t about you having a chance to add a point to your “Share the Gospel” scoreboard. This isn’t about making a disciple. This is about giving of yourself to make someone else’s way a bit easier, because God told us to love our neighbor as ourselves second only to loving God Godself.

These small, incremental gifts of ourselves, multiplied by the millions of us that there are, are the way back to the Christians being known as a peculiar people, marked by their radical love, as opposed to a domineering and callous people, full of themselves.

On The Dignity and Value of Work

Work does not confer dignity.

Humans are thinking beings. We need purpose, absolutely. We need something to occupy our days that we feel makes meaning of our lives and the world. That purpose does not necessarily come, though, from just any job. It’s not bound up in the holy sacrament of the W-2 or on the parchment a check is written on.

When humanity was young and lived in small villages, some villagers would hunt, and others would gather food. If you didn’t hunt or gather, maybe you helped take care of children. Maybe you told stories by the fire. Maybe you watched the weather and the movements of animals to predict problems. 

Everyone had a purpose, but that’s not the same as having a job. Running the buffalo down’s purpose was to eat, not to define yourself as a person worthy of being fed. “If you don’t work, you don’t eat” is an individualist construct. If you had a broken arm, would you threaten your arm with cutting off its blood supply unless it started healing and got about the business of making itself useful? Would that even be a reasonable ask if you were unwilling to put it in a cast or sling and give it the nutrients it needed to rest and heal?

I’m sure there were lazy people in those early days, too. There were men or women who didn’t want to do much of anything. Their fate was likely loneliness, as people would share food but little else with them. They were not hungry, but they lacked purpose, which is a private hell that needs no external reinforcement.

Today, though, we tell people that work gives us purpose. It’s better to work a difficult job for low pay and currently high risk of illness than to collect a larger check at home. We ask “why should we pay people a living wage to sit at home?”

Let’s accept the premise that $600 a week in unemployment is too much money for a moment, and instead assert that minimum wage is enough for anybody. (Let’s please not do the “minimum wage is meant to motivate you” thing, I don’t really have time to deal with that particular bit of brainwashing in this post.) If minimum wage is enough, then why did Congress pick a number that happens to precisely match the living wage people are asking for? Why did they not just pay minimum wage?

What if everyone was expected to contribute, but everyone wasn’t expected to produce? I have a notion (which may already exist elsewhere) of intrinsic value and systemic value of labor. Intrinsic value of a custodial job is low; it doesn’t really produce any direct money to have someone clean a bathroom. But the systemic value is high; no one wants to imagine the world where janitors don’t exist. On the other hand, intrinsic value for a job like investment banker is high — a lot of money gets produced by what they do. Depending on how they work, though, the systemic value may actually be negative: a rapacious bank that’s buying companies and putting people out of work to maximize profit could be taking more value out of the system than it is converting to cash. 

We recognize intrinsic value but not systemic value. This is why jobs like custodian, customer support representative, and even teacher are low paying. We let someone, usually the business owner who put up the capital and took the initial risk, pocket the intrinsic value and don’t include systemic value in our calculus at all. Then we finger-wag at people for not finding sufficient dignity in work that we do not treat as dignified or important.

I’m less interested in policing how people spend 600 a week and whether they get it and more interested in understanding what we can do to mitigate the distortions produced by people amassing measurable percentages of our GDP as personal wealth, and by allowing companies that produce that kind of wealth to accrete it entirely to the owners of capital in perpetuity and not distribute it among the producers of the intrinsic and systemic value that holds it together, with an emphasis on the people making the least. 

The famous story of Gravity Payments is a primary example of what recognizing the systemic value of your team looks like. The owner, Dan Price, was a millionaire, but not fabulously wealthy. His employees worked hard, but when he talked with them, they were making difficult choices to survive on the incomes they had, while he was pocketing hundreds of thousands of additional profit as the owner of the capital, the risk taker, and the creator. He decided that the minimum wage at his company would be 70,000. For everyone. He took a massive pay cut, rented out his fancy house on AirBnB, and lived more modestly, even driving an older car for a bit. 

So what happened? Employees got healthier because they could move closer to work and had more time to exercise, and they could buy better food. They had more babies because they could afford children. Productivity went up, so the business made more money, and Price was returned after a time to much more comfortable profit levels. His employees even teamed up to buy him a Tesla out of their own funds as a gesture of thanks for the consistent support.

One beautiful epilogue: during the pandemic, he asked everyone what could be done. He cut his pay to zero and his employees agreed on their own to a large pay cut (the more you made, the larger the cut) so that no one need be fired. They got through the worst of it and he reinstated pay with back pay when things got a little better. 

I’m a business owner, and I get the kinds of risks you take to do it. You should be compensated. But there’s a point where there are diminishing returns in most businesses. If you’re making 20 million a year for yourself and you have employees making 25,000 or 30,000, distributing 5 million among a thousand people would make no real difference in your life but could make a massive difference in the lives of the thousand. It would have an incredible systemic value, as distributing a few million did for the employees of Gravity Payments.

I’ve worked hard to get to where I am, which is a place of reasonably comfortable income, though more debt than I’d like. I’m working the angles to become wealthy. I participate in the system I live in, and I don’t find that to be hypocritical. A vegetarian who only has meat sources to eat is not a hypocrite for surviving. A vegetarian who finds soil should plant a garden though, if they can find seeds to sow.

Let us find dignity in how we treat each other, the meaning we make through our creativity, in our faith and in our process of living. Let us approach our work with professionalism and the desire to do our best, but not because failure or error will render us less human or less worthy of whatever it is we think people who work deserve beyond the profit of their labor. And let us find a way to decouple survival from each of us having to run the buffalo down ourselves.

Let’s find a way to be a village again.

Secoreia Turner, When The Walls Fell

Secoreia Turner, a little Black girl, is dead, and I don’t know what to do.

I was going to write some thinkpiece thing, but it’s not important what I think. I also don’t have nearly enough understanding of what the balance is between community activism and warlording is down at that Wendy’s about 20 miles from my house. 

I just know a Black girl is dead, and Black people killed her. And I don’t know what to do about that.

I’m not about the myth of Black-on-Black crime. Looking at intraracial crime in a mostly segregated society is meaningless, especially if we refuse to include ongoing pressures from systems or economic injustice. 

But I’m upset and enraged at the careless and unfocused show of force in the zone around the Wendy’s. I know people feel hopeless, and they feel like they haven’t had control over anything in their lives. I know having guns and fists, the latter of which were used against my Black friend who was trying to do what independent journalists do and learn more about what was happening at the source, make them feel powerful. I know Rayshard Brooks grabbed that taser and ran (and probably went and got drunk in the first place) because he felt like he was trapped in a corner and there was no way out. I know the killers probably feel the same.

The entire point of Black Lives Matter, though, is to be far more radical than Black supremacy, or even mere Black power. It’s to imagine a world that is not perfect, but greets struggle with mutuality and joy. It’s to imagine a radically inclusive world that creates space for people to find and be their truest selves. It’s imagining a world where the old systems of dominance are not necessary, because we center family, blood or bound, and protect children.

The people in the zone didn’t protect Secoreia Turner. And now we all reap the whirlwind, and blow away another piece of the dream. 

Secoreia Turner is dead, and I don’t know what to do.

A Father’s Day Lament, For The Other Fathers

Photo by Viajero from Pexels

It’s Father’s Day, and I’m thinking today about men who are fathers but do not have their children with them. Not just the fathers of the women and men we’ve lost to police violence and injustice in this country, but the men who were supposed to be fathers, but. . . something happened.

We’ve almost normalized talking about this for mothers, but not for fathers. But men who have suffered through miscarriages with their partners, I see you. 

I am you.

It wasn’t our body that went through it, we think. It’s not the same for us, we try to convince ourselves. Many men are stunted in our expressions of grief and sadness. We are supposed to be strong, and with the exception of a few stoic, “manly” tears that manage to escape the prison of our bodies, there should be no sign of weakness or vulnerability, nothing to be exploited by an adversary.

But we are sad. And we can’t shake the occasional imagery that comes with the years. He would have ridden a tricycle today. She would have done her first recognizable drawing. We would be playing in the yard on a day like today. She would have graduated school today. 

We think about who they would have been, and who we would have been because of them.

For my fellow Christian men, I want to express an extra portion of my love and support to you, not because of our shared faith, but because the community that should lighten your burdens often takes no notice of them at all. The community that pledges such vociferous support for the unborn (at least since about 1980) often has precious little to say when the unborn die of natural causes. A culture that expects traditional and sometimes patriarchal roles for men and women treats this loss as a women’s matter. But women who feel that infertility or loss is a curse or a punishment make poor consolers, and men who have no language of lament cannot cry with you.

My same Christian faith though gives me comfort. The souls that were going to experience life as those children are resting comfortably in the bosom of God. They know that you did your best for them. You were a good father to them and did your best to prepare a home for them. It’s not your fault that things did not work out that way. We can’t know the purposes of it all and may never, but it’s not your fault. And if no one has ever said that to you, I’m sorry, but I am telling you now.

It’s not your fault.

So brothers of all colors who have suffered this loss. I see you. I’ve been there. 

And I wish you, too, a Happy Father’s Day.

Racism Is Not Just A Heart Issue

Lecrae(l), Louie Giglio, and Dan Cathy discuss systemic racism and the Beloved Community

There’s a lot to unpack in the conversation on racism among Louie Giglio, Lecrae, and Dan Cathy. I’m going to skip the obvious ridiculousness of “white blessings” and get to the heart of a Christian issue that is deeply problematic.

For those who don’t know, Giglio is a megachurch pastor of Passion City Church here in Atlanta. Dan Cathy is son of the founder of Chick-Fil-A and the current CEO, who is a devout Southern Baptist and acts accordingly. Lecrae is a Christian rapper known for actually having bars (no shade) and enjoyed great fame and accolades in the Christian music community until he took a stand against White evangelicalism and was “canceled” by much of the community.

I know Passion City because I went to a church that had similar base theology for many years. Both my old church and Passion, along with North Point and several other churches in the area, are non-denominational churches. Not all would describe themselves as “reformed”, which is basically a theologically conservative modern take on Calvinism, but all share a heavy belief in the primacy of a traditional and literal-ish interpretation of Scripture, historical male-female roles, and most of the other things you’d expect from a conservative church, albeit with a renewed emphasis on love and relationship over judgment. I have friends from my old church that rotated between mine, Passion, and a couple of others based on location and personal preference.

Many churches in this system are specifically trying to tackle racial reconciliation, excited by the vision in Revelations of people of all nations bowing before the throne of God and worshipping together, and trying to bring that into the present. You’ve heard the take on diversity vs. inclusion vs. equity. Diversity means you’re invited to the party. Inclusion means you’re asked to dance. Equity means you picked the music.

Well, from my experience, the churches tend to be strong on diversity, marginal on inclusion, and missing the mark on equity. You will see faces of all races on stage and in the congregation, and genuine love and friendships form. But do they get to participate if they are not conforming to the standard culture? Ehh, maybe, a little. And do they get to set the tone and direction? Almost never.

The local White Baptist-Pentecostal cultural understanding of Christianity tends to dominate, even though the language and the hearts may be softened quite a bit. The policy prescriptions may be more progressive than your average conservative church due to people actually entering into other people’s stories, but the culture still comes from that understanding. (For the unfamiliar, we’re not talking Jesus Camp, but we are talking about standards on language, modesty, belief, and behavior that are subtly culturally enforced).

Now that you understand what we’re talking about, let’s look at the problem. In minute 35 of the conversation, Giglio says, “Injustice is about the system, and the system needs help. But racism is about the heart, and only God can change the heart.” Here’s why he, and the many Christians I’ve heard say this type of thing, are wrong.

Prejudice and tribalism are natural human behaviors. We identify in-group and out-group for our safety, and we socially bond with our in-group for our mutual good. A notion of superiority is also to be expected — my group is good, your group is bad is a logical outworking of the fear-based relationship to the “other”.

Racism, however, is not a natural human behavior. The notion that specific phenotype traits indicate intelligence or capability or evil in scientifically measurable ways is only about 500 years old, created by Johann Blumenbach and used to assuage the cognitive dissonance being created by the brutality of European colonialism. His theory stated that Adam and Eve came from the Caucasus region of Central Asia and produced the European race, while other races are basically degenerate versions. With this binding of bad science to the cross of Jesus Christ, Europeans had all they needed to comfortably subjugate most of the world and call it, well, a blessing.

Racism is not prejudice or tribalism. Prejudice and tribalism give way to relationship, every time. Tribes can form alliances when proof of safety is assured. Individual prejudices melt away when one actually gets to know the “other”.

This “scientific” racism that Blumenbach created calcifies in laws and customs. It creates false tribes where there is no common ground. Even when the beliefs of individuals go away, if there is no reckoning, it can go on and on, continuing to grind bodies under its wheels. Racism isn’t a bad idea or an individual selfish notion like a typical sin. It’s a cancer of the soul and of the society, and it must be cut out and diligently monitored to ensure no regrowth, like a cancer.

Along with patriarchy, it’s what I would call a second-order sin, a malignancy born out of a natural trait. Men and women are different, but the notion of a natural inferiority, while much older than the pseudoscience of race, is something we made up to assuage the sins of our cruelty and abuse of relative physical strength. For me, it was transformative for me when my old pastor preached that the term for Eve in the ancient Hebrew, עֵזֶר (ezer, but I don’t read Hebrew so those that do forgive me if I copied something crazy), which is commonly translated as “helper”, does not mean “sidekick” or “assistant”. It means something closer to “the one who strengthens and protects”, she who guards your soft and vulnerable places. My wife is definitely that for me, so that resonated. And that is a distinctly different dynamic than what is commonly preached in conservative churches.

(I’ll briefly acknowledge the heteronormativity of this whole thing, but that is beyond the scope of this discussion, so please bear with me.)

In the same way, it is natural to distrust the other, and common to view the unknown other as inferior. Both behaviors may be sinful, but it’s part of our wiring. It is the making of sin into science that is the injustice that Giglio generously says “needs help”, but that I say needs to be completely broken. And any theology that has it woven into it needs to be broken down to the studs and rebuilt.

We must name racism not as a malignant prejudice of the heart, but as a pseudoscientific lie enmeshed in our systems of power and designed to divide, kill, steal, and destroy (does that sound familiar, Christians?). And as a lie enmeshed in our systems of power, we must relentlessly excise those parts that uphold it. If that means tearing the police force apart and rebuilding it from scratch, so be it. If that means honoring our broken treaties to Native Americans at great expense to the country, or calculating the cost of Black reparations to restore some portion of the stolen wealth even since slavery, let alone before its abolition, so be it. Until we do, individual hearts will be mended and individual relationships will continue to form, but we won’t see true justice done at scale. We’ll all be standing on the wall at the party, but the music will not change, and not nearly enough of us will dance.

Revelation 21 – An Open Letter To A White Friend

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”

Revelation 21:5

Things are not getting worse.
They are getting uncovered.
We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.

Adrienne Marie Brown

Dear White Friend,

It’s been an exhausting three weeks.

You’ve done a lot of introspecting. You’ve talked with your Black friends and your friends of all races. You’re hearing the same things that some of them have been saying for years, but in a new way. You’ve cried. You’ve lost sleep. You’ve looked in the mirror and not always liked who you’ve seen. How could you not know? How could you not see?

And you’re tired. You’re tired of talking about race. Tired of talking about other people’s pain when you know there’s already so much pain in the world to go around. You’re tired of trying to figure out the right language, and who should be blamed for what, and what a society with no police could possibly look like other than a hellscape.

You feel like a child that used to go into an old relative’s closet to snuggle in their clothes and wrap yourself in their smell, but then one day discover that the smell is fetid and wrong, and the closet is full of spiders. And it’s been that way the whole time.

America’s fragrant smell of liberty and freedom is fetid and wrong. America is full of spiders. And it’s been the whole time. And you’re frantically dusting yourself off and desperate to run from the closet to go somewhere and cry and get that horrible creeping feeling off of you.

I know how you feel. I was educated in the same school system you were. I was told the same stories about the triangular trade and mercantilism that brought knowledge but no understanding. Slaves. Raw Goods. Finished Goods. Slaves. Raw Goods. Finished Goods. Around and around and around, a cool, soulless equation, as if the slaves were merely additional variables rather than human bodies and souls with dreams for their children and animosity against an annoying neighbor and a weakness for pepper soup and a funny laugh and an uncle with the best stories and an aunt with the best hugs.

Despite my family’s best efforts to educate me on the true history as they knew it of my people, I once believed much of what you believed. I was aware of much of the history that is not emphasized, but I did not have language for or understanding of the headless formal and informal systems that would persist after the unseating of overtly racist laws and customs. As a Christian, I thought that if one man could pay for the sins of the entire world, it was easy to imagine one man paying for one great sin of one nation, and so I left Martin Luther King on his own cross and went forward to imagine the New Nation he had so graciously died to create for us.

And let me tell you a secret, White Friend. I am still learning too, and sometimes, I still want to hide, too. When I received the EJI Calendar of Injustice, I couldn’t hang it up, because every day I would be forced to learn about a new indignity my people or others endured in the name of white supremacy. I still carry with me the images from the memorial, where I found out far more Black people were lynched for their wealth than for real or imagined relationships with white women. And because of our greater demon of sexism that hides in the shadows while racism takes all the credit, I do not even have language for the degree of horror Black women have endured as unchecked power begat untold sexual violence.

It makes me want to hide, too. My closet is full of spiders, and I just want to run away and never go back there. I feel as helpless as a child, and so tired.

But we are only 21 days into this walk together, White Friend. Your Black friends have been walking this stony road for their entire lives, as their ancestors did before them. Some of you have intertwined stories that know hardship, that know injustice. Instead of using those stories as proof that your work is complete, use them as a place to begin, to grow your empathy. Find the strength of those stories and use them to give you the strength to keep going, to keep cleaning, to keep deconstructing the comfortable lies that we built our lives around.

You will want this to be about you for two reasons. First, you’re human. Every parent knows that a child’s favorite story is one that centers them. What’s worse, our strange, panopticon future increasingly involves algorithms ensuring we have exactly what we want in front of us at all times, or within easy reach. Our technology is building a world of lotus eaters, blissfully unaware of anything outside of their immediate view.

Second, it’s been about you for quite some time. If your family was wealthy, the rules were written for you. If your family was poor, you at least had the psychological benefit of believing that you were better than Black people, which had the convenient effect of leaving you disinclined to make common cause with people you had more in common with than your feudal lords. And, like parents do for children to keep them engaged, our media and storytelling apparatuses target you and keep you the center of the story.

So you’ll want to give up, because you’re tired and this story isn’t about you. Worse yet, maybe the story is about you. Maybe someone in your family is, or, horror of horrors, you are, one of the villains. This realization can cause you to completely reject everything you’re seeing and retreat back into the lies. These are someone else’s problems, right?

No, they’re your problem when you don’t confront your bias and underpay or don’t promote your Black employees. They’re your problem when you pastor your church or counsel people from a race-blind perspective and render yourself unable to enter into the pain of others or advocate for justice on their behalf. They’re your problem when you see the output of systemic injustice in the legal system as an attorney or judge but have no language or tools to process what’s happening, and so you assume there must be a social or cultural problem and prosecute, defend, or rule accordingly.

They’re your problem when you have a social media page and a yard full of Black Lives Matter signs in a city full of Black people but you and your children have no Black friends. Those children will grow up with only the stories that the existing machinery and patterns tell, without personal experience of an alternative. And as the older parts rust out and wear down, they will find themselves taking their place in the machinery of systemic injustice.

And know this, White Friend. Though I get tired, though I want to give up just like you, I do not have the choice. If I forget, I will be reminded at the most inopportune time. Perhaps when I am pulled over. Perhaps when a neighbor mistakes me for a possible criminal. Perhaps at a job that always manages to find me just a bit wanting, even though they can’t quite put their finger on it, when it comes time to promote me or give me the compensation that my peers get. Even if I manage to insulate myself in enough education, money, and luck to be able to forget, I’m only one person. I have too many people that look like me, in my family and beyond, that are in a vulnerable position after literal centuries of looting of their and their ancestors’ wealth and dignity who will not be able to forget.

I am of the firm belief that this is a season of revelation. We must face the subjugation and generational abuse of Black people. We must face the genocide and erasure of and the broken covenants with Native Americans. We must deal with the othering and erasure of Asian and Latinx immigrants. And we must do these things in an intersectionally sound way that breaks the oldest wheel of all: the myth of male supremacy.

If we are brave enough, if we can face the spiders and clean that horrid smell from the closet once and for all, we will have a new nation, with liberty and justice for all. For every one of us, regardless of sex, gender identity, orientation, race, creed, or color. The Book of Revelation (Apokalupsis in Greek, from which we get the word Apocalypse) concludes with the time of trouble yielding way to a “new heaven” and “new earth”. I do not propose that these are the end times predicted in those books. But even in times like these, God can make something new.

Dear White Friend, are you prepared to enter into tribulation with me? Will you engage in the difficult work of imagining a new nation? Make no mistake, there’s no more water, there will be a fire this time. But the question of whether it will leave ash or clear away death to leave something new is up to you.

Keep going.

Love,
Corregan

27, 8, 13 – For Breonna Taylor

When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause.

Isaiah 1:15-17

It’s Breonna Taylor’s birthday. She should be alive. She should be 27 years old, celebrating with family and the man she loved. Instead she is dead, killed by 8 shots fired by police in a no-knock raid. And no police have been arrested. Have any been even fired, other than the chief who was ultimately fired when his officers were not using their body cameras and killed a local restauranteur who was a bystander while trying to quell protests?

Her death was not the personal, hands-on death Floyd got. But it’s the inevitable result of bad, racialized, hyper-militarized police policy. We must engage in radical and comprehensive reform of our police system as part of this season of truth-telling, so that no more women and men die in their beds, in the streets, or in jail cells by police misconduct or mishandling.

I find a lot of my fellow Christians, though, are invested in Romans 13 theology. “Submit, submit,” they demand. No critique of the President is allowed. No critique of the governing authorities. Verses written to keep Christian zealots who were among the most marginalized in the empire of their day from foolishly avoiding their taxes or rising up in full rebellion and then getting murdered by the state are now being applied to demand submission to and compliance with the whims of the new empire.

I never see Romans 13 trotted out for the powerful who insist on their rights. When Cliven Bundy stood on federal land in armed and open revolt against the US government and endangered a number of law enforcement officers, no one told him to submit. When his son and an armed militia took over a federal building, no one told them to submit. And when the protestors in Michigan stormed the Capitol armed to the teeth, no one told them to submit.

Why is it that when the powerless or the oppressed stand up and demand justice, their methods are raked with a fine-toothed comb? Don’t think I’m talking about riots or actions that are as illegal as the ones described above. I just blocked a guy I don’t personally know on social media because he unleashed a rated-R rant on me for asking him to articulate why Colin Kaepernick knelt instead of sat during the national anthem, and answering the question simply and directly for him when he refused and deflected. We critique his defiance, his socks, his methods, but not the system that made a man who could have had an easy life so angry that he would risk his wealth, reputation, and possibly life to change it.

When men like Bryan Stevenson stir up old wounds that have not properly healed to dress them with justice, the same types of people wring their hands and complain that he’s inciting division. When women like Latasha Morrison start faith-based conversations that simply encourage us to tell the truth to ourselves and each other, she and her followers are accused of inciting division and preventing healing, as if any disease of the mind or body ever healed through neglect.

Why does Romans 13 apply only to the powerless and never the powerful? And why, when the Bible is full of calls to tend to the powerless, and when the Gospel is so full of calls to overturn systems of power that do not do justice or show mercy, are we so attracted to the lines that seem to justify the status quo? If the power-centered American interpretation of Romans 13 is the way we should conduct our lives, why bother with democracy at all, since whoever gets put in charge should have free rein? And why did the Senate not submit to President Obama, but has submitted to President Trump?

The Bible can be a good guide for how we should conduct ourselves. As much as all of us like to take clips from it for our purposes though, we must understand it as a whole document. We must understand it’s something that even with our best interpretations is seeing “through a glass, darkly” as stated in 1 Corinthians, and not an aircraft soaring on prideful winds from which we can drop verses on people’s heads like bombs and then return to our airfields of indifference, silence, and complicity. And importantly for many of us, the Bible is not a fourth person of the Trinity. God’s inspired word, however philosophically true, is not a deity to be worshipped. Our flawed and narcotic interpretations? Even less so.

In the Old Testament and the New Testament alike, God takes the side of the oppressed, the lonely, the one without a defender or a friend. Why do so many of us who call ourselves worshippers of such a deity then delight in taking the side of the enforcer, the leader, the potentate, the emperor? We are called to weep with those who weep and mourn with those who mourn, yes, but we are also called to “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression“.  Let us never forget that the term “God of justice” appears many times in the Bible, but the term “God of law and order” appears exactly zero times.

Seek justice.

 

 

 

Imagining America – A Fictional Presidential Speech in the Wake of the May 2020 Events

I was asked in a political Facebook Group what I would do if I were President to address/stop the riots. Here was my response.

My fellow Americans,

I am watching with shock, horror, and sadness the events unfolding here in Washington and across the nation. I know our people are tired, and enraged. I am calling for an end to all violence. But I will not speak of violence without speaking of the conditions that have led to that violence.

We have denied our own history, our own errors, so long, that we can’t even see simple truth anymore. This warrants our shame, our reflection, and our repentance. Let me say to you unequivocally: Black Lives Matter, because all lives matter. No one needs to be reminded of the second half, but too often, our individual, corporate, and governmental actions deny the first.

A number of policy advocates have called for sensible police reform so that the police in our cities act as servant leaders and protectors rather than soldiers fighting an enemy. That is why today I am calling on the Attorney General to convene a task force with the head of the FBI, selected police chiefs from small and large jurisdictions across the country, and activists such as the creators of Campaign Zero, to institute a set of national guidelines for comprehensive police reform. We will identify the categories of problems that lead to injustice and apply solution patterns that have worked. We will use our unique federal model, where we have 50 great states, 50 great crucibles of justice, to apply these recommendations and to learn from each other.

We recognize that there is anger, and underneath that anger, grief. We mourn with you today, protestors and mourners. Let me say clearly, I do not condone violence in any way, and those caught in the act of committing crimes will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. Let me say again, I do not condone violence in any way, and police caught escalating violence will be fired, and if necessary, prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. I am reminded of the words of America’s great architect of justice, Martin Luther King, Jr. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

We also recognize that there are elements of our country that would have us go deeper into the darkness from which we are only now emerging. We know that some of these elements are infiltrating peaceful protests and stirring up discord and doing damage. These evil people are motivated by the sin of white supremacy, which we must name. It is a sin that has infested our country like a plague since before its inception.

It is time to cure the disease. Let me say to you unequivocally. White supremacy has no place in the United States of America. I am also calling on the Attorney General to launch a special task force in conjunction with the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center to identify violent white identity extremists and dismantle their organizations. This is a free country, and you are free to speak your thoughts, however loathsome. However, when those thoughts turn into violent, hateful acts, you will be met with the full force of the justice of the United States.

For everyone whose heart is hurting, who has taken to the streets tonight: we are with you. We hurt with you. We are mothers and fathers, we are brothers and sisters, we are sons and daughters. We ask that you go home tonight, and rest. And in the morning, your mayors and city councilors and county commissioners and police chiefs and district attorneys will be ready to listen. Together, we will shape a more just America. We will not wait for the arc of history that Martin Luther King told us about to bend towards justice. We will grab it with our hands together and pull with all our might.

God bless you, and may God bless, and God forgive, the United States of America. 

Mask Off: Thoughts on The Language of Violence in the US

Imagine a world where non-violent unarmed protest in the streets is met with stoic and calm police the way that non-violent armed protest was met at the Michigan state capitol.

Here are my problems with the complaints about rioting. And if I ever become publicly relevant, I’m sure some of this will be taken out of context, so hear me know when I say I’m not advocating for riots, and don’t be disingenuous, future diggers. We are also not going to spend energy focusing on the bad apples, the ne’er-do-wells and others who take advantage of a vulnerable situation for their own benefit. Take your #NotAll and apply it to the people in the streets for once instead of the people who already have power.

The USA has never been about peace and nonviolence as a nation. From the riot that colonists staged where they looted a ship full of tea and dumped the tea in a harbor to the war they waged, to Shay’s and the Whiskey riots which are listed politely as rebellions in our history books that crumbled the weak Confederation and formed the current federal union, to the conquering and erasure of Native nations, to the imperial expansion, militarily and economically, across the globe, the United States has always, always made its desires known by force.

Violence is the language that the United States speaks fluently and understands. We speak non-violence to the United States again and again and it is met with the United States cocking its head to the side, then speaking its native language louder. Ask the Minneapolis rebellion. Ask Standing Rock. Ask the Baltimore and Ferguson uprisings. Ask a hundred places before.

Ask Reverend Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.

The people that speak the United States’s language, even with gestures and body language, get heard. That’s the Michigan protestors. That’s the Malheur takeover in Oregon. That’s Cliven Bundy. That’s also MOVE in Philadelphia and the Black Panthers in the California State Capitol, though the United States didn’t expect that language coming from those mouths, so they shut them decisively, with aerial bombing in the first case and arrests and law changes in the second.

The focus is often on looting. Why are they looting and burning their own community, people ask. The answer is simple, because they don’t feel it’s theirs! In many cases, they don’t own the property, and significant portions of that are due to racist housing policy that is well documented that prevented the acquisition of generational wealth. The police contain and control rather than protect and serve, so they may be stopped on the street at any time as if they’re in an open air prison. People get injured by police and can say nothing. People occasionally get “disappeared” like in an authoritarian nightmare. People from outside the community establish wealth beachheads for themselves in the form of local and corporate businesses and siphon resources out of the community. Even the civic institutions get in on the act; one of the findings of the DOJ when investigating Ferguson was an exploitative moving violations scheme where people were ticketed excessively and court fees and sometimes jail time was piled on.

One side note about the Target in general in the Minneapolis rebellion: the Lake Street Target is apparently where Target corporate tests new loss prevention and security technology. It was apparently a bad and criminalized shopping experience as a result, and locals hated it. That’s why it was such a big, er, target.

Looting is a radical act in a hyper-capitalist society. It’s a symbolic redistribution by force of goods that in many cases have been unjustly distributed, and typically only appears after all other means have been exhausted. It is an assault on a society that cares more about property than human lives.

However, when we see rioting, we typically run looting through the lens that keeps our cognitive dissonance at bay. We see people without resources, and we run our circular logic program that says “our society is inherently fair, so they must have not because they worked not”. We then ascribe bad traits on to them to blame them entirely for their plight. They’re lazy. They don’t follow the rules. They didn’t do things the right way.

So when in desperation they destroy and loot, we mock them for foolishly destroying their own neighborhood. We don’t ask why someone would feel no ownership over their neighborhood or why a few items out of a store might bring some hollow, brief sense of justice. We assume they always wanted to steal and they’re just exploiting their chance. We can’t understand their accent, but they’re fluently speaking the US’s language.

The US can understand non-violence some, when a white face presents it. This is why the protestors in Michigan were not greeted with tear gas, SWAT teams, and run out of the capitol. However, the right to peaceful assembly comes in the Constitution before the right to bear arms and has equal weight. No matter what you are being told by Stormfront or Fox News, the rebellion in Minneapolis started peacefully, with mourners in the streets demanding justice unarmed. The US’s local expression cocked its head and yelled in its own language louder. So the people switched languages and spoke back to it.

If you are white and want the violence to stop, put your own bodies on the line while the protests are non-violent. There was a beautiful example of this in Sacramento. Stephon Clark’s brother began to rant in rage and grief for his unarmed brother’s murder while he was minding his own business in his own yard, as well as his own mistreatment by police, at a City Council meeting. The police came forward to detain him, and white people put their bodies between him and the police to stop it.

The United States does not want to harm you. It might anyway, if it wants to harm non-white people badly enough. That’s what we’re seeing now with the pandemic. Once the consensus was that people already made vulnerable by racist health and wealth policies would take the lion’s share of the pain and suffering, reopening calls began in earnest, and they didn’t care if a few white people, or more than a few, got killed along the way. After all, like the White House economic advisor Kevin Hassett said, we’re all “human capital stock” anyway.

So if you want non-violence, find out where to show up and get between the police and black bodies and other bodies of color. If you want to speak the US’s language more fluently, partner with non-white gun clubs and stage a multi-racial, peaceful gun protest outside the Capitol (don’t go inside, that’s a bit much). If you dare, you’ll see what many of us have seen all along.

The United States’s mask is off.

The Stress Dream

I had a nightmare last night. Don’t worry, this ends well.

Work and my extracurricular activities have been picking up a lot lately, and I have begun to worry that I was going back to the hectic life that I was relieved to get a break from in this involuntary Long Sabbath. Then a water main broke in front of my house. It broke at a point before anyone’s home supply line on the county-owned part of the front yard, so the county promptly came and fixed it, but it flooded the street, my front yard, and my neighbor’s yard, crawlspace, and pool. It was quite unpleasant and stressful.

My brain processed the stress the way it usually does, with a stress dream. The dream I had was particularly realistic, in that I was strongly in touch with my feelings and senses and there were lots of unrelated flourishes. I could smell the breath of one person I was talking to. A friend was going through a rough time and began to cry, and I gave them a hug. But I had my own rough time to go through.

My typical stress dream is that I am back at Princeton, where I did my undergraduate education. It’s usually late in the semester, and I realize there’s one class I’ve just been blowing off. A feeling of terror builds in my solar plexus as I try to figure out how I’m not going to fail. The outcome beyond having to retake the class is never clear, but I’m always certain this means that something Very Bad is also going to happen.

So I had this dream again, with the attendant additional details. My professor who I had blown off was Mr. Lieu and was from China. He was teaching some complex math class which I saw in my mind as discrete math. He was difficult to understand in the way I found professors difficult to understand in my real-life freshman year. (My Dutch physics professor who I mistook for German, a language I actually spoke, was my real-life linguistic nemesis then because I hadn’t had any exposure to different accents.)

Mr. Lieu’s class was at 10:30 am, and I hadn’t been going, as I was dealing with the lives and loves of my friends from the dream, and also moving this guitar case-sized, shrink-wrapped container around my childhood home while my neighbor could be overheard tearfully talking about leaving her husband through the window. (It was a dream, after all.)

So the moment of realization hits, and I realize that I’ve been blowing off this class. But this time, rather than wringing my hands, I decide on a different plan. I go to the lecture hall where the exam is happening and climb down the steep stairs, maneuvering around some of the tiny fixed desks. As I approach, the professor is providing instruction in what sounds like Thai or Cambodian, a language he also apparently speaks, to a student who is asking a question. I ask for a word in private, and I can see mild exasperation in his eyes, but a willingness to talk.

We go behind a curtain, and I tell him that I wish to abjectly apologize for missing his class. I tell him it wasn’t because I didn’t think it was important or I was being lazy, but it was because I had a block and just became too afraid to go. He was surprised and his demeanor changed. He said, “I thought you were just sleeping.” I said, “no, I don’t have trouble making any of my other classes. I just have a block with this one.” He told me that I have to have an appreciation for art and beauty to be able to enjoy math, and then we made a plan for how to bring my love for my other subjects into his class when I took it again the following semester.

I awoke from a stress dream feeling relieved, which was a disorienting feeling. I got out of bed and looked out of the window. The yard was completely patched up and the water was flowing again. The yard will need some TLC in the section near the main, but the real-life nightmare was also over.

Grabbing a stress dream by the horns and going through felt like a message. We are in something that feels very much like a stress dream right now, and Very Bad always feels like it’s around the corner. But what I think my dream was telling me was that stress might rise, the Very Bad Thing might even happen, but it will be okay. Until we are called on to the next phase of this cosmic journey, the sun will rise. This thing keeps moving at 186,282 miles per second through time, regardless of what we do.

There are problems we have no control over, like the water main break, and there are problems we can control, like my slowly repacking schedule. For the former, we can find equanimity and acknowledge the difficulty without being consumed. For the latter, we can decide to accept our consequences from the mistakes we have made and move forward, or we can allow the current to carry us away and feel powerless in our own story.

Sweet dreams, y’all. But if they’re not, I hope they’re at least enlightening.