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.

A “Critical” Jesus

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The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Luke 4:18-19

This pitting Critical Race Theory against the Gospel is just tiring to me. I do not specifically subscribe to CRT as a coherent belief system, but some of the base ideas underpinning it around how power is constructed and used have helped me name issues in and make sense of this world. At the same time, the Gospel gives me hope in a universal love that is powerful enough to overcome what seems to be impossible odds. 

The Jesus I see in the Gospels is a critical Jesus. He is critical of the order of the day, how the poor are disregarded and the sick uncared for, how people are incarcerated and not rehabilitated, how people groan under the yoke of oppression. I doubt Jesus would subscribe to CRT either, but don’t let binary thinking cause you to believe he would be simply against it. He’d probably have some parable that seemed to have nothing to do with it as a response, but would completely answer the question for those who had ears to hear. 

Speaking of which, when you sit with the parables of Jesus without a dualistic mind, you come out with neither the Supply-Side Jesus preferred by American Evangelicalism nor a Social Justice Jesus that liberal American Christians like to imagine. Read The Parable of the Wedding Banquet (Matthew 22:1-14). Why would people not come to a great banquet put on by the king? Why would they abuse and harm his messengers? Why would the king say “screw it, invite whoever you find on the street”? And why would the guest at the end get thrown out for not being dressed for the wedding? 

Supply-Side Jesus followers see “many are invited, but few are chosen” and think the sinners and critical race theorists are getting thrown into the outer darkness. Social Justice Jesus followers see a banquet full of people gathered from the highways and byways, good and bad, and think that the smiting and exclusion of the powerful is just. Neither have answers for why the “bad” people were let in in the first place though, though I’m sure there’s disagreement about who the bad people were. While I do think Jesus was particularly concerned about the vulnerable, as evidenced by many of the passages where he was speaking plainly, that is not the entire extent of the scope of the Kingdom of God.

I think Jesus is inviting us to contemplate something more mysterious. I’m not even particularly deeply studied, so I won’t posit what that is. But I do think that whatever Jesus is trying to tell us, it’s not as simple as “The Gospel negates the need to be concerned about the world or to act for justice in the world.” This is something that is perfectly well understood by people who say this when it seems that “Christian values” are under threat around LGBTQ+ issues or abortion. It’s less well understood by them when the eye of the society is on the vulnerable, then “God is in control” and we shouldn’t do anything about it as a society. 

If it’s not directly tied to the two great commandments (love the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself), I tend to be suspicious of any “obvious” Gospel answers anywhere on the political continuum.

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

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“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.

A Father’s Day Lament, For The Other Fathers

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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.

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.




“Future-Present” Tension and Gospel Ambassadorship

American Christians, especially those that identify as evangelical, love to “share the Gospel”. In many small group circles and among friends, weekly check-ins may include a delighted, “I shared the Gospel 3 times this week!” or a dejected “I didn’t share the Gospel with anyone. I need to do better.” We keep a scorecard, like golf, or bowling.

I was reflecting with my friend Dan Crain, a pastor and community leader I’ve co-led a Be The Bridge group with and become good friends with, today about what it means to be a peacemaker on behalf of Christ. I had a revelation in that moment. Those of us who profess Christ in this particularly American way think of ourselves as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God, bringing good news to the people of Earth. But this model separates us from the people who we wish to see join us in our understanding of who Christ is. In order to fully understand our purpose, we have to get a bit transcendental. We have to step outside of the present tense and operate with multiple views of time. In this way, we obtain a fraction of the view that a God that lives outside of time has.

Romans 5:6-8 talks about how Christ died for us while we were still weak, while we were still sinners. Christ’s act at one point in time in the past reaches into our present, pulls us out of a present depravity into a future hope of reconciliation of all things. Most of us accept that truth and rejoice. We gleefully report, as Paul did in Galatians 2:20, how “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”

But we don’t follow the next step. As we declare ourselves peacemakers and ambassadors, we proclaim we are already citizens of Heaven, and we’re coming to broker a deal with those unfortunates that haven’t filled out their applications yet. To get a complete understanding of this, we must combine our perceptions into a “future-present” view of reality.

The future tense speaks of things that will be. The present tense speaks of things that are, right now. As Christians, we live in the intersection of the present, our flesh with its infirmities, the brokenness of the world we see around us, and the future, a kingdom and family that we will be a part of for eternity. Christ mediates this transcendent breach in the order of time’s arrow and allows some portion of us to live in that future as if it were the present! We get to experience glimpses of the full acceptance of God and the completion of our future hope in our present.

This is undoubtedly good news. However, the part that we miss is that we are also still beings of the present. We are not God’s diplomats, sitting at the table overseeing the reconciliation between some sinful “other” and God. We are the rebellious, haughty party sitting at the other side of the table from our neighbor. We have been wronged, yes, but we have also done much wrong. And we are in need of an external mediator to complete the reconciliation to our neighbor and to receive the wisdom our neighbors have.

When we approach mission or literal evangelism in this way, we carry a humility and an openness that allows us to experience more of the fullness of God. We gain the capacity to learn how to more rightly see God from our neighbor rather than educating them on our narrow and limited glimpse and attempting to snuff out their light or make it shine on our particular frequency. We can meet needs without thinking we are the Provider of Good Things. We can carry the layers of our intersectional identity in the present while neither giving them primacy over our future identity nor diminishing them to irrelevance when they shape so much of how our present is experienced.

We are each carrying different, infinitesimal sparks of that incomprehensible glory, and only by recognizing our true position, as a member of a warring faction that is only now learning to lay down their arms, as a humble creature that has far more to learn than it has to teach, can we share a true Gospel laden with future hope that speaks to a present reality.

Anecdotes from The American Healthcare Front

Teacher at exit ramp looking for a kidney donation

I have some issues with my ears periodically, and over the past week, it felt like one was developing a minor infection. It felt full a lot and started to become painful. I knew that I was going to need to give it some medical attention. I thought about going to my primary care team at Emory, formerly Harken Health. In the Harken days, primary care appointments were included in your insurance and you could schedule to go by any time. They also managed patient load so providers would have time to develop relationships, and they partnered with health coaches that could deal with the para-medical stuff so the medical pros could focus on things requiring their specific skill set. Now that Harken’s gone, Emory still has great staff, but works like a regular doctor’s office – scheduling visits always takes a few days, visits are shorter, and the health coaches, where they exist, are swamped and can’t give the individual attention my Harken coach gave.

The ER was out of the question, that’s a minimum of $2K spend and a distraction from people who need truly urgent, serious care. (Don’t believe me? Stop by an ER and try it for yourself. A friend of mine had stress-related chest pain due to the amount he was working and how little pay he was receiving to cope with the other stressors in his life and got slapped with a $5K bill.)

Urgent care is probably the best option, but that was going to run me a bit as well. Not too much, maybe a hundred or so. But of course I already pay several hundred a month for insurance, so that’s frustrating that my insurance is really more “hit by a bus” insurance than health care.

I ended up repurposing some antibiotic ointment I had for a recent eye injury that unequivocally required a doctor’s visit (that I’m sure I’ll get a hearty bill for soon), and it worked. I’ll keep at it for a few days to make sure it’s good.

Now, I have the means to get decent health care, even if it’s not convenient and a little pricey. What are people who have no flexibility in their schedule doing? What do you do when taking a half-day off work means you may be eating ramen next week, or nothing, because you’ll be fired “at-will”? And what happens when you face a real challenge that’s out of your control, like the teacher above who needs a kidney to live? If he can find the kidney, he will probably have decent health care as a state employee, but what if he didn’t have great insurance? Who would pay for that?

Those who support interdependent community do ourselves a disservice by allowing Medicaid for all, or any of the other public options, to be portrayed as an altruistically valuable but optional program, a gift to the neediest among us. It’s not a matter of kindness and convenience, without which life would be a little less pleasant but still bearable. People are choosing between medical bills and house payments, between medical bills and food. And it doesn’t take a significant condition or a bad decision.

We in the middle class especially make the mistake of thinking that we are where we are because of good decisions. The rich are lucky, sure, accidents of birth, right place, right time, but not us. We scrimp and save. We plan. We forego instant gratification for the long term, and look at our lives as a result. If we can do it, anyone can.

The truth is, we make the same bad decisions as the poor all the time. We buy a car that’s a hundred a month more than we should be paying. We spring for that dessert, or that hotel upgrade, or that extra night out on the town. The only difference is that we are not on the line between sustainable and unsustainable, and have a bigger cushion to absorb those mistakes. If you are making just enough to live on, springing for dessert could make you miss a payment. Missing a payment causes you to hit fees that push up your effective interest rate into triple digits. And the spiral begins.

I listened to a couple on NPR a couple of years ago that ran a food truck in Wisconsin. They were struggling, as the spouse with a corporate job had lost it, and lost their benefits along with it. When asked how they would deal with the cost of health care as they aged, they shrugged (with indecision rather than indifference) and finally stated that their children would take care of it.

I don’t believe this couple was intentionally so selfish as to burden their children with such a responsibility. But the language of American self-sufficiency has backed us into a corner. We cannot conceive of a world where a public good is actually, well, good. However, we readily imagine that a giant corporation motivated by profit will take care of our needs as well as our consumer desires. We respond with a sort of Stockholm Syndrome, where anyone on the wrong side of a law that protects the right to profit without regard to human cost deserves nothing, deserves to be cast aside. We are the worthy ones, because we currently have what appears like favor, but instead is simply utility to a soulless, unfeeling set of economic machinery.

As usual, any critique of the current order by an American must be met with “but I’m not talking about socialism!” So let’s get that out of the way. Public goods controlled by elected or especially appointed authorities who are not accountable to the people is just authoritarianism. This is what we saw in every single country that we love to hold up as inevitable outcomes of socialism. So no, I’m not talking about turning America into a giant commune or turning everything over to the government, certainly not while we have an apathetic republic that won’t hold its elected officials accountable in any consistent way. I’m also not talking about eliminating inequality. Human nature is to be rewarded in a proportion to effort, and any system that doesn’t allow that will eventually be overthrown by one that does.

But why do we think that this relentless pursuit of profit is the best of all possible worlds? We generate money printing machines that consume the landscape and crush the spirits of the people, and aggregate more and more for the machine’s makers. More importantly, we have created a mythology around poverty that causes us to see it more as damnation from a god that has refused your feeble sacrifice, while wealth is a blessing and a reward from a god that respects your hard work. This mythology is why we have the IRS losing money to chase small debts while corporations that evade billions in taxes are ignored. It’s why we won’t pay for Medicaid for All and are trying to dismantle food programs, quality public education, and other portions of the safety net, even though evidence keeps coming back that these investments are cheaper than the alternative.

Where the Christians have it right is that this is a heart issue. America loved the social safety net when it primarily benefited white men in the New Deal era. When the program was expanded to benefit more Americans through the Great Society, subsequent administrations quickly set to work dismantling them. Beyond the cost savings many properly implemented programs could bring, we have to ask ourselves what intangible cost our individual lack of accountability to our community brings. Are we safer when everyone is on their own financially? Are we less stressed when everyone has to work long days in cold environments? Are we happier when our neighbor cannot be counted on to care for us if we’re in need? Are we freer when every gift we give has conditions?

Who is my neighbor? And what is my obligation to them?


“Your nigger dead.”
Checkmate. A King just got shot.
“Your nigger dead.”
I had to shoot. He was smoked out on that pot.
“Your nigger dead.”
He had a gun, crowbar, toy, a cell phone.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have carried that in front of his home.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was twelve, but he looked like a grown man.
“Your nigger dead.”
He left me no choice. It wasn’t my plan.
“Your nigger dead.”
She shouldn’t have mouthed off at that cop.
“Your nigger dead.”
If you weren’t a criminal, the violence would stop.
“Your nigger dead.”
He shouldn’t have tried to run away.
“Your nigger dead.”
He was a threat, even still as he lay.
“Your nigger dead.”
Selling loosies is a crime.
“Your nigger dead.”
It’s better that we skipped the judge this time.
“Your nigger dead.”
Stop saying you didn’t do nothing, you lie.
“Your nigger dead.”
You come for me, it’s gonna be “Die, Nigger! Die!”
“Your nigger dead.”
You can’t treat Samaritans with respect.
“Your nigger dead.”
She’s a slut. We stone. What else did you expect?
“Your nigger dead.”
Talking about some, “I am”! Who are you?
“Your nigger dead.”
He should spend some time with real Jews.
“Your nigger dead.”
Enemies of the state get crucified.
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”
“Your nigger dead.”

Naw, death’s gon’ die. We still alive.

-C. G. Brown
4-5 April 2018

“God Is In Control.”

Advance Note: You’ll see me use the word “conservative” a lot in this. While there is overlap with the political meaning, I intend it less as opposed to politically liberal and more specifically referring to the traditionalist and fundamentalist perspective of the conservative Christian church in America. I’m doing my best to look at a conservative witness against itself and against the Gospel rather than against a liberal witness or liberal view on the Gospel. 

I recently had an exchange with a friend about the current state of politics in America. Like many, even though she’s not a Trump fan, she downplayed my concern about Trump’s authoritarian leanings, citing that he was just one man. I said “sure, but the Republican Congress is moving in lockstep with him from a policy perspective.” She said, “not always.” I responded, “Name one major policy area where they haven’t. ACA? Consumer Protection? Deregulation? Immigration? Foreign Relations?” We could not identify an area off-hand, and I’m also not aware of any Republican-led initiatives that prompted Trump to use his veto power.

She responded to my restatement of concern about where America could end up with a favorite phrase of comfort among evangelically-minded people: “God is in control. God is sovereign.” I was reminded in that moment of an exchange I’d had in 2016 on social media with a friend who was pretty much diametrically opposed to me politically, where she responded to my fears of a then merely-possible Trump presidency with the same statement.

Another friend with whom I was conversing pointed out that that comforting phrase about God’s sovereignty is seldom used to assuage fears of cultural change, or immigrants, or crime. It only seems to appear when people are expressing concerns about conservatism going too far. Regardless of intent, the phrase can seem to the listener to be saying, “God is in control because I am comfortable, and it doesn’t matter if you are not.”

Like Paul, I can claim the title “chief among sinners” in seeking my own comfort and convenience, though I actively work against it. However, the Church is supposed to be a place where we support each other through the incredibly rewarding but often quite uncomfortable and countercultural life of Christianity. What is this desire that has taken hold in the American Church for comfort above witness? Comfort above compassion?

“God is in control.” is a phrase that reminds me not to worry or obsess about temporal matters, however massive they may seem at the time. It breaks me out of my navel-gazing social media loops and friend circles to recognize that both problems and solutions are bigger than I am. It reminds me to recognize that the arc and scope of God’s goodness is not limited to my narrow view, but expands and unfolds at the periphery and beyond.

Much of the American evangelical church uses this powerful phrase now as a blindfold, a gag, and binding rope. It blinds the speaker to human needs directly in front of them. It silences those that complain about social injustice by telling them that there is a problem with their faith if they don’t see how God’s point of view is aligned with the speaker’s, even if it is hurting the listener. And it ties the hands of both, telling them to be passive and let God’s wonderful plan finish playing out without meddling.

If God’s sovereignty means that I should not take any action to protest against conservative policies that seem to be literally killing people either through hostility or inaction, then why does God’s sovereignty not equally apply when I see abortions being allowed, or cultural changes that I don’t agree with spreading, or when immigrants come across our border to seek a better life? Why is it that when it is a conservative point of view that needs assurance and patience, we need to take action in protest or policy change? But when the concern is that the conservative perspective has become Pharasaic, or that it has become a hypocritical, compromised witness, then God’s sovereignty becomes a call to be still, silent, and show a passive grace.

God is in control. Yes. God is sovereign. Absolutely. But if you’re saying it to reinforce your comfort, your culture, your understanding to someone else who is challenging those things, then it’s time to re-examine your heart. Would you still say God is in control if it were you who was uncomfortable? If it were you who were being persecuted or treated unjustly? And if not, who is?