My Fathers Sermon on Peace

 

Dad and Leon

Two weeks ago, Feb 26th, was my father’s last Sunday alive.  In usual fashion, he found himself at church around 9:30am preparing to teach Sunday School.  I did not attend his Sunday School class that morning.  I missed his last lesson.  In retrospect, I wish I had not worked so much on the weekends, long Saturdays, and had had more strength to wake up and drag my troop to church for Sunday School regularly.  I’d have liked to sat in on a few more of his lessons, asked a few more questions, and sat more readily at the feet of the singularly most important man in my life. 

Today, is Sunday, March 12, 2017.  My father would have turned 66 in August, he just celebrated 38 years with my mother.  He was just at my daughters 2 year old Birthday party two weeks ago and tomorrow is my 36th birthday.  The first one I will spend without my father writing me a card, telling me he loves, wishing me a happy birthday.  I am not much worried about memorializing my birth this year.  In tribute to what my father did each Sunday, and would be doing today if he were here, I share with all of you a rare thing: One of his sermons.  He preached a handful of times and this is one of them.  It is on a topic he held dear to him: inner peace.

Below is a typed copy of the 4 page handwritten manuscript of my father’s sermon on peace. 

Peace was a central gospel theme for him: peace through trust in God, peace through salvation by faith, peace by knowing it is well with your soul, peace and harmony in relationship to one another as indicative of our love for God.  A Gospel absent the peace of God in Christ is no Gospel.  My father longed for, and lived, with peace and harmony with everyone.  I cannot recall a single person he ever spoke ill of or held in contempt.  Even if he was wronged, he may acknowledge the shadiness of the person but he would never gossip or speak ill publicly of them.  He wanted peace.  He had peace.  And he had it because he believed in God. 

My prayer this morning, is the prayer of Thomas: Lord, help me be like my father, help my disbelief.  In so doing, give me, and those around me, nothing more, or less, than peace.      

“Peace”   by Mitch Napier

Read John 16:33 : “These things I have spoken to you, so that in Me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation, but take courage; I have overcome the world.”

Is there a secret to inner peace?  When you think about peace, what do you think the average person thinks about?  I believe they think of peace among nations on a global scale, generally speaking.  I believe people may also think about peace at home, at work.

One thing that seems definite is that after trouble more trouble follows.  (this is why inner peace is the key.  If we can attain inner peace all others would fall in HIM.  When peace does not abound, trouble is present).  Let’s reflect on the past for examples: WW 1, Depression, WW 2, Korean Conflict, Vietnam War, escalating fuel prices, unemployment on the rise, crime on the increase, the bible taken out of schools, Gulf War, Bosnian conflict, Abortion, and most recently 9/11 and the war on terrorism – and it goes on.  Look in your local paper daily, read about the troubles, again it only seems the thing we can count on is trouble after trouble. 

Yet the thing that keeps us going is the personal Quest for inner peace.  Someone writes a book about inner peace and people flock to it.  A man stands up and says he found the secret to peace, people flock to him.  People have a hunger for peace.  There is no natural peace that comes automatically after the storm has been weathered. 

Have you ever found something that in your heart when it was over you knew everything would be alright?  I have.  I was unemployed [with a family to take care of] for 10 months.  If only I could have found a job everything would be alright.  I got the job to late and lost the house.  If I only got that promotion…yet then would follow more debt.  If I get through this illness, then we have  medical bills.

An example of another family’s situation was Jane Welsh Carlisle, who was working on the 1st volume of the French Revolution.  During his writing, the tension and stress was great in his home (you ever experienced this?)  Finally, the manuscript was finished.  At last he had peace.  He turned it over to John Stewart Mill to read.  A few days passed and John Mill showed up at the Carlisle home with a nightmarish expression on his face.  Jane thought the worst and asked what was wrong.  Mr. Mill stated his maid accidentally burned the manuscript.  Trouble.

But Jesus said in the world you’ll have tribulation.

You see, trouble comes to mankind in all forms due to our freedom and sinfulness.  Most people look to the world and world leaders for peace.  It’s always someone else who can make it better!  But the truth is, we must start at home, with ourselves. 

There is a story about a family in California that put their house up for sale.  They wanted a better neighborhood, better neighbors, more room, a house with no trouble.  So they listed it with an agent.  Several weeks later they were going through a real estate guide looking for a home.  They finally came to a consensus on a home that sounded perfect!  They immediately called before someone else purchased it.  To their amazement, the home they thought sounded perfect was their own home.

Some will say peace is in nature, look at your surroundings and the animals.  Some peace may be in achievement.  Peace can be found through psychology: lack of love, trust, selfishness, etc., as obstacles.  But sooner or later we find that peace does not come by any rational process!  Paul said the peace of God passeth all understanding.  Peace sought for through the world is always temporary!  That promotion, the accomplishments we make, a new car, anew house, a new dress suit—BUT all these are temporary for sooner or later trouble is back and we are searching again! 

Peace comes to us by meeting certain conditions!

1.       We must have faith in God.  Without seeing we must believe on Jesus that he was sent by the Father and died for our sins on the cross and arose the Third Day victorious over sin!!  He overcame the world! & defeated sin!

2.       We must worship God.  Through daily living we let the trouble and trials of the world affect and irritate us!  That’s why worship is so important.  When we truly worship God our focus is on God and his Kingdom, on being a servant not being served.  Then, and only then, can God meet our inner needs!  Worship is vital to a peaceful existence!  We stop controlling things and allow God to control us!  Worship is the whole that includes the all!!

3.      We must be in Gods will.  Only by being in his will is their peace.  This is the most difficult – discerning his will for our life.  But I believe God reveals his will to each of us by his indwelling Spirit- for if we have accepted salvation (and the free gift of God) he dwells within us and directs us.  Does this mean we no longer make a wrong decision?  No- Jesus knows our weaknesses and will direct his spirit to lead and make correction to our deficiencies. We must be willing to listen and obey and grow.

If we do all this we truly are servants and Jesus promised in him we would have peace for he has overcome the world!!  What Jesus has promised he will deliver – we must believe and exercise our faith to have the peace that only Jesus gives! 

Inner peace comes as a result of obeying Christs greatest commandment that we love one another.  When we obey that commandment we are following his will and in his will is power!!

Do you want that peace?  Are your troubles weighing you down?  My troubles were Food Lion.  I wanted peace back.  I called upon Jesus to carry my burden and I claimed his promises that in him I’d have peace because he overcame the world!!  Hallelujah!! 

Jesus is calling on you.  If you have a need, if you need the peace that surpasseth all understanding, please come and let Jesus meet that need!!

*Sing Just as I Am!  But without one plea but that they blood was shed for me.

We Are What We Do

There is an adage oft repeated by professors of history, theology and bible: form and content, form and content…are two sides of the same coin.

To a fledgling student of these disciplines this statement sounds strange, even awkward.  As people in cultures, we have preconceived ideas of the meaning of history, what we believe about God and the world, and whether we even care about the bible.  We are good on the content side; we have content.

But what about form?  How is content affected by form?

Many of us know what we believe but many of us fail to consider how what we believe is demonstrated in our lives, the latter being an expression of the former prior to any sort of verbal acknowledgment.

As philosopher Slavoj Zizek would like to remind us, we are not what we say…we are what we do.

There are many ways to answer that question but I want to answer it from a theological and ecclesiastical position, a classical confession that is nearly as old as the church.  Its dictum can be found in the Latin phrase “Lex Orandi (the way we worship), Lex Credendi (what we believe), Lex Vivendi (how we live).”

Translation? The way worship is reflective of our faith and so in turn is reflective of how we live.

Regarding religious communities this dictum is typically accurate.

For example, a church that has a strong theological conviction (lex credendi) to work for social justice will embody that conviction in their worship (lex orandi).  It will be a church that prays for social justice, that preaches sermons challenging its people to be inclusive in their ministry, and urges people to confront oppressive cultural structures that alienate others.  It will have an open table for all who wish to dine with Christ, a table that will not discriminate based on baptism, sexuality, gender, race, etc.  It will most likely be a diverse church, one that is urban centered where racial, ethnic and cultural differences are spanned by a common urban experience.  It will value community more than individuality.  Its confession and worship being intimately, and intentionally, linked.

Thus, its faith (credendi) is exhibited in its worship (orandi), which in theory should extend to the way its members participate in the world ethically, politically, economically, etc.

Another example might be the relationship of form and content in regard to the average Americans opinion, or convictions, regarding religion.  

Many Americans acknowledge a strong commitment to ideas such as God, even considering themselves religious.  When they are polled we see a fantastically religious group of people in the United States.  However, when we observe actual practices and probe further, we find that the form of their lives does not connect with the content of their confessions.

Recent studies show us that about ¼ of Americans attend a religious service once a month.  Dogma is on the decline, knowledge of sacred texts and traditions is waning, and acts of service seem to stem from humanitarian desires rather than theological conviction.  People are praying but their prayers do not seem to indicate a dependence on a transcendent personality given the prevalence of practical atheism, even among those within a religious community.

Admitting that the above is a general and broad description, it is clear that the form of many American lives is not connected to the content of their confession.  The form (orandi)  is disclosing the real content regardless of what they confess (credenda).

This is a troublesome reality for many Christians who have for so long believed that their confessions “save” them.

Catholics, for example, have believed that the liturgical act of Eucharist can supersede who they are because who they are is lost in an Augustinian abyss.  Imputed grace is the word of the day.  Yet, if the content of the kenotic Christ does not take root in the person than the form (orandi) is anemic, never fully connected to a confession (credendi). 

 To further complicate the issue for Catholics, it is as if there is an artificial separation between publics, one holy and one secular.  In the holy public of the church building confession and worship go hand in hand, yet in the secular public outside its walls lies a huge disconnect between confession and act.
Protestants have it no better.  

Protestants have placed such a heavy emphasis on confession that we have entire traditions of Christians who believe their words, or silent thoughts in their minds at an altar, carry eternal consequence.  With Luther as their theological grandparent, action is eschewed for confession, form becoming separated from content as the Letter of James was from Luther’s theological confession.  

We sincerely hope we can tell ourselves who we are without actually being that person…and all thanks to the generous theological idea of grace.

This should make us all wary.  

It doesn’t mean that our theological traditions, be they Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are poor traditions, mistaken metanarratives of no use to us.  Rather, it is the opposite: these theological worlds exist in the delicate balance between form and content, their very survival and efficaciousness dependent on people able to live them out instead of betray them.

Jesus knew of this delicate balance and of participants in religious systems that seem to have forgotten the necessary relationship between form and content.  He said as much when he said

Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.  You will know them by their fruits.  Grapes are not gathered from thorn bushes nor figs from thistles are they? (Matthew 7. 15-16)

The philosophical issues that surround the relationship between form and content are literally endless.  Entire treatises and lectures have been written on the subject.  

Nuances aside, there is one thing that remains and it is a terrible thing to consider: Say what we will and think what we may, our lives may not be what we say and we may not be who we think.

I leave you with a poem.

The Human Abstract by William Blake

Pity would be no more,

If we did not make somebody Poor;

And Mercy no more could be.

 

If all were as happy as we;

 

And mutual fear brings peace;

Till the selfish loves increase.

 

Then Cruelty knits a snare,

And spreads his baits with care.

 

He sits down with holy fears.

 

And waters the ground with tears:

Then Humility takes its root

Underneath his foot.

 

Soon spreads the dismal shade

Of Mystery over his head;

And the Caterpillar and Fly

Feed on the Mystery.

 

And it bears the fruit of Deceit.

 

Ruddy and sweet to eat:

And the Raven his nest has made

In its thickest shade.

 

The Gods of the earth and sea,

Sought thro’ Nature to find this Tree

But their search was all in vain:

There grows one in the Human Brain

 

 

My Confession: God Made Me Do It! Or why I am in a DMin Program

mcafee

It takes very little for many of us to become enamored with intellectualism and knowledge.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  Knowledge is power and when suddenly one acquires knowledge that seems to give you leverage over others…well, not only do you acquire said knowledge but one begins to sense the power associated therewith.  It feels good to know things.  It feels good to be able to articulate ideas, think through dilemmas and forge pathways toward answers.  Knowledge “unsticks” a person and it feels good to get unstuck, even if one is not terribly sure what this new unstuck place is.

Unstuck is awesome because suddenly the world is larger, your mind is open, things are bigger, meanings are deeper and the things you were raised with don’t seem as constricting.  Very literally, knowledge opens the world in a way that was previously closed. It’s remarkable and its impact inestimable on the psyche.

For many of us, this epiphany and shiny new knowledge happens in college.

This is that college kid swagger that T.I. refers to when he raps and the pretentiousness that is often associated with kids who go off to school as student.  Somewhere during the process of learning the student becomes a self-promoting expert (usually before graduation).  It is amazing how naïve we can be as people who think we know more than we do at the ripe old age of 20, our opinions presumably forged in the dark night of our infantile experiences.

I’ll never forget sitting in one of my professor’s office as a junior in college.  I had just been home for the holidays and I was complaining to him about how “closed minded my parents were,” how they “didn’t get it” and how if they were only as smart as me then they’d see the light on a certain issue.

The prof sat there, hands folded across his lap, leaned back, listening.  He grinned, nodded and there were not a few “uh huhs.”  After I was done, he leaned over and said, “well, did you communicate your concerns as a loving son who has a passion for the church and wants to see them grow spiritually or did you communicate as a smart ass?”

Whelp.  He pegged me.  The Holy Spirit used my prof to get real.  After I got over the fact that my prof had just pulled some Pauline vulgarity on me, I realized he was right.  It didn’t quite settle in at that point, but he was right.

The hubris I exhibited in those early years, and in smaller measures through seminary as I began to relax a bit more, set me on a path I was sure ordained by God.  My original intent was to take this knowledge, my unstuckness, and be a preacher, but at this point I knew my life would take on an academic trajectory; I wanted to be a religion professor. All the signs seemed to be pointing in that direction.

I had done well in college and seminary.  I had earned awards for my work.  I had been published during seminary and post-seminary.  I had presented papers, contributed to journals and taught some classes.  I enjoyed reading and writing; I enjoyed teaching, presenting and challenging others to think deeply about God, world and one another.  That is what I wanted to do and more than a few people told me I was right.

To save everyone the details, events had happened in my life that made it clear to me the Spirit had opened these doors and it was my job to walk through them.  I could not have written the script of the actors, institutions and friendships that had been pivotal for my academic journey.

My journey as an academic, however, came to a screeching halt February 2014.  From 2008-2014 material realities that were seemingly carrying me to the land of academic promise (which doesn’t quite seem to be promised land anymore) ended in a cul de sac.

For a while, I mourned the PhD.  I mourned that I did not have the liberty to pursue it at any cost.  It was a distant homeland I would never enter.  It made sense for me.  It made sense for how I thought, the world I liked to engage, and what animated me as a person.  In a very strong sense, it felt like a calling.

Have you ever heard your calling only to be wrong? 

The PhD would have been one the most arduous journeys I could submit myself to, and in the end, prove to myself who I really was.  In my mind, (beginning from the time of my early twenties to just a few years ago) it was the pinnacle of intellectual rigor and I wanted that badge.

Now, that badge would never arrive.

However, I knew what I would never do; I would never take the easy route and get a doctorate as a Doctor of Ministry.  I would rather have nothing than have THAT degree.

Early in my college years I began to look with disdain on Doctor of Ministry degrees…thinking that most holders of the degree were complete jokes.

Dmin’s were practical degrees and I hated my practical classes, except preaching class…I always loved that one.

In fact, many of us undergraduates would make fun of the classes we had in praxis, how shallow they were, how useless, how much they wasted our time.  The reading was boring, obvious and not challenging in the slightest.  We were stuck thinking about Christian education and global missions when we could have been pondering things that really mattered like Barth’s Theology, a proper exegesis of sanctification within a canonical context or the distinctions of Pauline theology between Luther and Calvin.

Why would I want a degree dependent on praxis when there were real degrees worth earning?

Practical classes sucked and seemed too subjective and “touchy feely” for my taste.  I even rid myself of most of my library that was praxis driven as if to purge myself of such useless material and make room for things that really mattered like Lacan and Raymond Brown.

The Dmin was something any village idiot could get online via Liberty University.  Even places like Vanderbilt quit offering them because the degree had been watered down.  One need only pay your money and write a ludicrous thesis to attain such lowly doctoral status.  I had heard folks with DMins speak and preach.  I was unimpressed.  I wanted to create as much distance between myself and them as possible.

These were degrees pursued by pastors not smart enough to do a PhD, so they took the easy way out to get a Doctorate to get the infamous DR. in front of their names.

If I was going to pursue a doctorate it would be the granddaddy of them all, the PhD, or it would be nothing at all.  My MDiv would do just fine.

This was my opinion regarding the Doctorate of Ministry Degree for quite a while. Even while in seminary, many of the DMin. thesis written for graduation hadn’t done much to change my opinion.

But life has a funny way of happening.  Since the life of King David God has been one who often employs irony.

Who am I if I am not going to be a teacher?  What should I do if I cannot do a PhD?  Is this my calling or is my calling different?  How can I be so good at something yet not have opportunity to pursue it?  Am I to be a pastor with an academic tilt or an academic that does church ministry frequently?

These questions animated my thoughts.  The thing is though, I was neither going to be a pastor now, or a teacher, both of those occupations never coming to fruition.  It seemed my life had become totally disconnected from my calling.  Sure, I had done some part time ministry and wore the label “pastor” but I never felt like that was it.  Even after 5-6 years of such I never felt like that was “my place.”  I had been working toward something and now I’d never get there.

“Here I am, Send me”…and yet all that was happening was me standing still…a simple “here I am.”

The few times I needed a church to want me, they didn’t…and when I needed the Academy to take me, it wouldn’t.  Seems I had missed this “calling” thing all along…either as an external voice crying out to Moses or as Parker Palmer would encourage one to “listen within.”  I was tone deaf both directions.

About a year and a half after my PhD dreams had been dashed against the rocky ledges of life and the Church I wanted to serve found service from another, a series of texts messages put me back on the path.  For about 16 months I had been stalled, sitting on the side of the road, making pizza.  It’s ok, it’s a first world problem and I happen to like making pizza.

Into the silence of going nowhere, I hear a voice, “Hey, I am involved with the DMin program here at Mercer.  You should apply…we can do some really cool things in ethnography, wedding together theory and praxis.”

It’s wasn’t God text messaging me but it might as well have been.

Have you heard my opinion of a Dmin?

Asking me if I wanted to apply for a DMin was like asking Moses to lead the people out of Egypt: there’s a million reasons why I shouldn’t.  For starters, how do I reconcile considering this degree with my opinion of it and will I “fit” with the group of folks pursuing its ends?  Is this a “cop out”  to earn a doctorate or is this another moving of the Spirit…moving in others and now toward me?  I’m not even doing traditional ministry…why would a DMin program want something as unconventional as I have to offer?

As I investigated the program and what type of work I’d be capable of doing within it, I knew within 2 weeks it was something I needed to do.  Like all programs this degree would be what I made of it.  If I wanted to take the easy road, go lightweight, and just earn a piece of paper by paying for it, then I could of course do that.  But that’s not me.

This degree opened a window of opportunity to wed theory and praxis in a way I had never done.  It could make me the complete scholar and minister I had never been.

My undergraduate and masters work was all theory.  Yeah, I did ministry, but the work never took strong consideration of developing praxis from within, and out of, a rigorous theoretical apparatus.

Anyone can read a Missions book and follow the Roman Road, or preach a deductive salvation sermon that takes 15 minutes and a lot of shallow opinion to write.  These are not the questions that inspired me…and if they don’t inspire me I’m sure God must be bored with them.

The questions this degree set my mind upon were deep and wide, like how might the work of anthropology inform our theology and help us traverse culture in order to communicate Christ in meaningful ways?  What might Peter Berger have to do with Bible and what might Charles Taylor’s God have to do with the pagans Paul encounters on Mars Hill?  Might there be a connection between missiology and Pierre Bourdieu…and how might fieldwork inform our theology?  How does the incarnation as contextual theology inform the development of our own contextual missiology…and what potentials have yet to be explored?

These are the sorts of questions I am after and the sorts of questions this degree has invited me to ask.  We are not content with letting theology and bible be singular topics that only inform only one another.  If we can say that God is sovereign in any capacity then we must also say it is our duty to engage our work within the full realm of theoretical and practical contributions, and across the full spectrum of theological and secular voices.

This pursuit, the engagement of gospel and culture, is where the Spirit has me at this moment.  Being here at this moment then precludes me being elsewhere and may explain why I am here and not there.  I have wondered many times, and even heard people ask me in church, “surely God hasn’t given you all that knowledge to just sit here.”

Touché friendly lay person, touché. 

Since I graduated seminary some interesting things have happened inside of me.

First, I no longer care if people think I am smart.  I have nothing to prove to anyone.

Second, I have grown to disdain idle debate, metaphysical queries to which no one can possibly know the answer and in which we are simply theological naval gazers.  I simply do not care if God can make a rock that even God cannot pick up.  Don’t ask me if God knows the future because I don’t care.  I commend Augustine for thinking the Greeks were cray cray with all this perichoresis business.

Third, doctrine has lost most of its importance to me.  It is often idle and does nothing to enhance a relationship with God in Christ.  It is simply a dividing line that demarcates who is in and out…something the Gospel seems antithetical towards.  I am interested in real life, real life with God and real life with others.  I will not die on any doctrinal hill.

Fourth, my gift isn’t one that requires me to be stuck in an ivory tower.  Why do I know what I know?  Why have I learned what I have learned?  I believe it is so I can engage the changing demographics of our country, most noticeably having the ability to engage with those who have a strong antipathy toward anything having to do with faith, religion or God.

Fifth, I see a strong need for thoughtful people of faith to be bridges to culture.  There are many negative opinions about the church and it is often because many people never meet a thoughtful follower of Jesus.

Sixth, the role of pastor is not singular.  I am the only bivocational minister with a secular job, that I know of, pursuing advanced ministerial studies in the DMin program I attend.  There is room for a myriad of characters when it comes to living in the new creation.  In a real way, I am living out Wesley’s proclamation, “the world is my parish.”  That is my case…as I have no parish.

Seventh, I want to be involved in an authentic ministry that, to use the words of Miroslav Volf, is characterized by “inclusion and embrace.”  If following Jesus means anything to me nowadays, it means creating a community out of a people who are not supposed to have any place of belonging…or out of people who have been excluded.

Eighth, faith and belief are to be grounded in common human experience and are not things we can ascend to in our understanding.  One cannot attain God by an act of the mind, but rather only through the movement of the heart.

Ninth, I am open to creating a community of faith for those who have no home anywhere but would like a home somewhere.  There can still be church even when one cannot bring themselves to go to church.

Tenth, I believe that God is at work in the secular, present and at work in people even though God is never a conscious reality to any of them.  The vestiges of transcendence are to be disclosed not foreclosed.

Eleventh, for missions to mean anything moving forward, it will mean recreating, reforming and reshaping the institutional church to look less like itself and more like Jesus.

Since finishing seminary my work in the church, academic pursuits and secular job have all persuaded me of these realities.  My heart and mind have changed.  I am no longer drunk on my own intellectual abilities nor am I fascinated by the ability of others.  Life is about more than looking smart and beating into submission all the supposed “ignorant” people around us.  When this is our approach we become nothing but asses even as we think we are being prophets.  Balaam comes to mind.  If my participation in ministry is not more than being right, and more than being knowledgeable, than my ministry is nothing more than nothing.

I once thought large portions of my intellect and ability would be poured into creating a new doctrine of God or creating newer postmodern hermeneutics used to interpret biblical texts.  I now believe large portions of my time will be used in a theo-anthropological endeavor as one that seeks to discover the divine that never left instead of convince others of a divine they have never seen.  I hope to map the stories of others in the hope that I’ll be mapping nothing less than the incarnation.

Thus, in an ultimate twist of irony I now find myself doing a degree I had once foresworn and thinking about practical things, like missiology, that had at one time been the subject of my scorn.

And God laughs.

I never imagined I could bridge faith, praxis and theory in a way that would deepen myself while also deepening the church and serving others.  I never considered I’d be investing into the potential of bridging Gospel and culture.  I had never thought I would feel compelled to be a part of the monumental shift that is taking place regarding faith and religion in the West.  It is scary but it is full of excitement and opportunity.  No one knows what will happen as we continue to lift the veil off Constantinian Christianity but I am exhilarated by the possibilities that lie ahead for followers of Jesus.  I am thankful for the possibilities faith and belief can have in a world where these ideas do not represent power or big churches, but rather embody love and salvation for us all.

I had imagined I would stand on the boundary between church and university, but in a world in which both of those institutions are being questioned (and more irrelevant) it seems the boundary I am called toward is the one between faith and culture, institutions and post-institutionalism, ethics and eros.  This the boundary for which my education has, and is, preparing me, and its one in which I am comfortable finding myself even as those on either side may continue to wonder why.

Thus, I do this Dmin, a degree I once hated, thinking topics I once loathed, and discovering in it all why God has me here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thoughts From World 3

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A fool can offer words, a creator can offer worlds

An academic can show you a world, a dreamer invites you into it

Consumers of knowledge are everywhere, generators of knowledge are the rarity

Anyone can summarize the great thoughts of others, yet not simply anyone can have great thoughts

An English teacher can beat a word into submission, a wordsmith can heal its wounds

A protector of doctrine can outline a concept, a lover of the world asks the concept why

A Truth can be hard/concrete or it can be Truth

The beginning of truth is the end of knowledge

Prose can show you the road, only poetry can create it

History can give you a story, the future must give you a home

You can audition for the world or you can make the world watch your audition

God can be your cage or God can be gateway

If God is love than love is our ultimate concern

The letterbox is the world, what do we drop into it

We can use our imagination or we can die thinking we see

Why be busy learning the story of others when you can write the story yourself

Meaning can be learned…might it be better created

Pain cannot be written, it can only be felt

Silence has a voice heard in its speechlessness

Vision is not what you see it’s what happens when you close your eyes

Love is unspeakable; it is the language of her stare

It is not happiness to write, it is sadness to quiet it

Longfellow turned to words, why must you then turn to Law

Thoreau found himself in the woods, after he was lost

Poe saw beauty yet we confuse it with madness

Freud thought the unthinkable and we remain thoughtless

Lacan dared write the real and we confused it with his words

Jesus is the son of freedom and we have preached a gospel of sadness

Faith is never certain and certainty cannot be faith

If you fear nothing than for what do you live

 

 

 

 

 

A Thanksgiving Re-Membering

It was probably 22 years ago when I made the comment that would follow me the rest of my days. I was a 13 year old kid riding in the back seat of my parents car on the way to West Virginia for Thanksgiving.

My mother, always the astute observant one, said, “well today is the busiest travel day of the year.” Her son (me) not to be trumped by her astuteness responds, “What? Wednesday?” My mother looks at me like the idiot I am, the 13 year old boy who was as clueless as he seemed, and said “No you knucklehead, it’s the day before thanksgiving.”

Now, flash-forward 20 years and 2 degrees of higher learning later…I am sure I will be reminded this year, as every year, of what is apparently my dullest intellectual moment.

But this is what partly what holidays are about: those moments of memory making that get lodged in familial consciousness and become part of a larger narrative. Moments that help us re-member the moment when its gone and provide a connection and place of belonging long after.

Last night I watched the Thanksgiving episode of the new TV show, This is Us. If you have been missing this, stop doing so. I rarely watch TV and never saw an episode of Friends until it had been off the air for 5 years…but this show is excellent. The elements at play and the multiple narratives in this family unit transcend the screen and speak to all of us.

Aside further commentary on the show, last night’s episode was about (among many substories) the making of family traditions and how those influence the present. The episode pitched present practice in light of historical happening. We saw characters doing things particular to that family such as the traditional Thanksgiving walk in the woods, hot dogs wrapped with melted cheese and rolled in crushed saltines, and the infamous Pilgrim Rick. We scratched our heads and wondered how this family got here with these forms of life.

The episode unfolded and gave viewers insight into the peculiarity of this family and how they became who they are, how past practice shaped present life. It was also a catalyst for the future, an open ended uncertain one (just like all of ours) but I’ll refrain from going further.

This episode took my back to Thanksgivings I will never again live. They are the dead living Thanksgivings that shape the present yet still provide an entrance into an unknown future.

For the majority of my life, until the passing of my grandmother in 2012, Thanksgiving was always spent in West Virginia. I remember riding north on Interstate 75 to the 64 West junction, the Lexington to Ashland corridor, on the way to West Virginia.

As we would near the end of that stretch of 64 and pass over the river into W.V. I would look up at the interstate sign that welcomed us. It read “ Welcome to Wild, Wonderful, West Virginia.”

As a child, I always understood the “wild” part but it was much later that I understood the “wonderful.”

We would arrive at my grandparents the Wednesday before Thanksgiving.

As we stepped onto the porch and knocked on the door, my grandpa would stomp through the house as only he could; it seemed the pictures inside were most likely hanging on for dear life with every step he took.

He’d open the door with a billowing southern drawl and would say, “Come on in, come on in.” Then, almost like a religious tradition, he would yell at my grandma, “Mom, Mick and them is here…are you hungry? Mom, go to the kitchen an fix’em sumthin.”

My grandma would usually hop up, straighten her shirt, give us a hug and ask, “Are y’all hungry? You’re probably hungry. I’ll go fix ya sumthin.”

My grandpa wasn’t a huge fan of wearing shirts, so he’d often make this greeting shirtless.
Did I mention he liked to give hugs?

We’d walk through the door and the heat from the wood burning stove would smack you in the face. He’d ask if you were cold and if he needed to add wood to the stove. No one ever indicated they were cold…because that was impossible in that home at this time of year.

The evening would ensue with conversation, hugs, grandma making some hot cocoa or perhaps even making the hamburger you didn’t ask for and eating it anyway.

We didn’t stay up long because the next 3 days would find us in the woods. We’d crash wherever we could crash and for kids my age that meant the floor or couch.

You see, my grandparents lived in the woods. It was the kind of woods that lived in the woods, not the kind of woods you could drive out of and be at Wal-Mart in 15 minutes. It took work and a good dose of Imodium to want to go into town from their house.

As my grandpa was not want to say, “You can kiss yourself driving around these hills.” There isn’t the slightest bit of hyperbole in that phrase.

So when we got there for Thanksgiving it was to stay, in the house, in the woods. Most of our time would be spent in the woods as well.

Early Thanksgiving morning we would get up around 5am, put on our coveralls, gather the shotguns, and head into the woods, the cold pitch black night behind their home.

My grandparents lived in a “holler,” a small grassy flat in-between 2 mountains. We would literally walk out of the house and within a 50 yards be walking up a hill. There were no flat places to walk really and no way to use a 4 wheeler either. We did it all by foot, often a 45 minute walk with the ice bitten weeds crunching beneath our feet. We were going into our part of the pitch black where we would sit as the sun rose, hoping to not only see deer but maybe even bring one down the hill.

I’ll never forget those walks up those hills, Thanksgiving after Thanksgiving. It was brutal. I always thought I was in good shape until early Thanksgiving morning every year. Often it made me question my sanity for doing so and it certainly made me wonder how my grandpa got up these hills when my 15 year old body was thinking of a billion other things it would rather be doing at the moment.

Usually my dad, myself and an uncle or two would walk together and then part ways in the dark…being careful to tell one another where we’d be.

And then, as if reaching the pinnacle of Mount Sinai, we’d arrive. Then, we would sit. It was a little anti-climactic. We didn’t use fancy tree stands or fancy hunting covers. We wore camo and sat on the ground or stood beside a tree.

Daniel Boone would have been proud.

Those mornings were characterized by the wind howling through those mountains, shaking the trees overhead. Squirrels would litter the forest floor, making your head turn in multiple directions in hopes that it was a deer. We would sit in these woods for hours, on that hilly 100 acre farm that was my grandparent’s home.

As the sun slowly rose, and the dark gradually give way to the light, there was often a chorus of gun fire as hunters would fall upon unsuspecting deer. The realization that if we didn’t have a deer now, we most likely wouldn’t, had set in…but stay in the woods we did. Hope springs eternal in two places: Baseball spring training and in the mind of hunters.

Then, around 11am if nothing was happening, like Moses we would descend the hill.
It was time to eat Thanksgiving dinner.

Above my grandparents home, on top of the hill, was a large clearing where cattle used to graze. It was a large open field that you could literally look all the way across, several hundred yards long and it least 200 yards wide. My family and I often meet up in that clearing, survey the grassy plain and surrounding woods. We’d discuss how the morning went and would accompany one another down the hill. It was usually a time of laughter and genuflection.

We’d descend down the washed out road, overgrown with thorn and thistle, that led to the house. In earlier days, when I was younger, this process also included dodging the occasional cow pattie.

We’d arrive at the bottom of the hill, pretend we were wrestlers and hold the barb wire fence for one another as we passed through it and trudge to the house.
Climbing onto the porch, coveralls and boots would be removed, loaded guns would lean against the house, and we’d enter the house greeted to the smell of homemade biscuits, canned green beans and turkey.

Grandma had gotten up around the same time as us. We went into the woods; she went into the kitchen. Her time spent working with her hands had usually been more productive than our time in the woods.

We’d congregate in the living room, a small 12×20 space if I can recall, with a stained spackled white ceiling and worn hardwood floors. We’d share stories of what we saw, didn’t see and what we’d hope to see later in the evening when we went back into the woods. My grandpa would then chime in and rehearse the deer equivalency of “big fish” stories and fill our heads with impossible images of bucks with 12 point racks making fun of us as we pretended to be ninjas walking through the leaves.

My grandpa would sit in his recliner like a teenage boy, shirtless, with jeans that hadn’t been washed in a week. He’d have one leg slung over the arm of the seat and the other on the floor usually chewing on a saltine cracker or with a coffee cup in his hand.
He’d smile, laugh, tell us of all the deer sightings he’d had in the past year..or 10, and then grin as only he could and say “yes sir, those deer are up there a watchin you…rolling around laughing at ya as you walk right by em.”

Grandma would then come into the living room, her hair often stuck to her forehead matted from the heat and perspiration generated in their tiny kitchen. She’d say, “foods ready” and then she’d sit on the sofa, relaxing and holding a cup of coffee, as we all entered her office to enjoy the fruit of her labor.

There would often be about a dozen of us or more at their home for Thanksgiving. As my grandma got older (to make it easier on the clean up) we would use Styrofoam plates and eat Thanksgiving dinner in the living room or on the front porch if it wasn’t too cold.

Grandma would ask about how we liked the food and we would eat our fill. She took great pleasure in taking care of her family. She was a child of the Great Depression, so certainly the stereotypes of that era worked their way into my grandparents home, so for better or worse she understood herself as a caretaker. She loved her kids and grandkids. She loved taking care of them, spending time with them, and as she got older and more bold, calling my grandpa on his crap a lot of the times (grandpa was known to exaggerate just a little).
There was nothing better than hearing my grandma laugh as she’d tell an old story or correct my grandpa as he was telling his usual “whopper.”

After supper we’d get redressed and make our way back into the woods, hoping for that illusive Buck we missed earlier that morning…and we’d sit until dark, often times letting the lamp near my grandparents shed guide us back down the hill when the sun was no longer able.

The evening would be filled with stories about what we’ll do differently tomorrow and what parts of the hills need coverage. We’d rehearse what we learned (which was really not much) and how we’d hunt the following day. We’d talk about the gun shots we heard on hills on the other side of the holler or those that were in close proximity. We told lots of stories because that was really the whole purpose of this tradition: continuing the story of Us with each other.

In retrospect, the goal was never bagging a deer; the goal was time, spending time with one another, sharing stories, and being in nature. If we got a deer, great, if not, we still had the experience…and many times the experience is what matters most.

After story time, the next family tradition would begin: cards.

We never used money or real life peanuts, we just kept paper score. Back then, playing was the point. Winning or losing incidental.

Gathered around the kitchen table would be myself, grandpa, my dad, uncles and cousins. On occasion an aunt would play as well. We’d all gather in that tiny kitchen with a hutch too large for its space, and a table that somehow was crunched between a refrigerator on one side and stacks of food on the other. There wasn’t enough room for 6 grown people to sit around a table but there was always room for 6 grown people around the table.

Grandpa would usually begin the ritual with, “You boys want to play cards? Mick, mom’s got the table cleaned up lets go on in there and play some cards. Come on boys.”

My dad would usually shuffle the first hand and he was always the score keeper.

The games of choice: Hearts or Bid 10. Hearts is common enough; it’s the opposite of Spades. Bid 10…well, I’ve never heard of anyone else playing it. Maybe it was made up, maybe it was a thing and isn’t any longer, but for us it was ritual. It was a classic card game dealing cards, revealing the trump suit, and trying to win as many (or as few) hands as possible.

The animation was never lacking at the table. We were all in it for the fun but my grandpa, I think he was in it for the glory.

As for hearts, there was nothing more funny than watching a game of hearts unfold with my grandpa. He’d start out fine. Everyone would be playing nice. A heart here, a heart there. It was as if Oprah was giving out hearts to everyone.

Then, my grandpa would do what he always did: he’d try to shoot the moon. And often it was a success. I don’t believe anyone shot the moon as much as my grandpa…

But, if he tried to shoot the moon and didn’t get it what would ensue would be a dangerous spiral of self destruction. He’d shrug it off, demur its importance and we’d resume play…but then somehow he’d end up getting way too many hearts. His game would fall apart; He’d shoot for the moon again and miss…by 1 card. And we all would just keep feeding him the cards…and he’d get hotter by the moment. (this is where I’d insert an emoji of LOL).

If he was playful, he’d give you a wily smile and say, “Don’t you worry about ole pawpaw, pawpaw will take care of himself.” He’d shrug off the loss and we’d move onto Bid 10.

Bid 10 was a game of chance, skill and pure luck. Chance and luck not being the same in this game. Here, the object was to predict how many hands you would win. If you won that many hands you got positive points. Failure to be a prophet meant negative points. To complicate matters, each game was composed of 20 hands and 20 alone. You start with 10 cards, then 9 and so forth, until you get to 1 card then you go back to 10. Along the way you predict if you will win or lose hands along the way.

My grandpa loved Bid 10. When he was hot and on a roll, he’d even try to cripple the table with the thud of his giant hand against the table placing his card at its center. It was his way of asserting his superiority of the present situation.

My grandpa loved to win but he also loved to see his boys lose.

When he was in it for fun he’d laugh whenever Lady Luck frowned on any of our nights. He’d play it cool, sit in his chair at the tables end, chew his tobacco and laugh. His chair was always close enough to grab the door that led outside, pull it open, spit and resume play. The cool breeze into the tiny kitchen usually didn’t hurt either.

After 2-3 hours of play the card games would come to an end. It was time for bed, time to get rest before we made our way back into the woods.

Thanksgiving Day was over but the Thanksgiving weekend had just begun. The next 2 days would be likewise: Morning walks into the woods, afternoon lunches, front porch or fiery furnace living room conversations, walking back into the woods, then back down the hill for a nightly round of cards.

Throughout our time there aunts and uncles would stroll in and out of the house. Cousins would come and go. Even distant relatives that lived in hollers 10 times removed would make a cameo over the weekend.

If a person could survive staying in woods that were in the woods, in a house that would dry out your sinuses and skin yet keep you warm, and didn’t mind a steady stream of watching Westerns every evening…then you’d love this kind of Thanksgiving. I know I did…and I wish it was the kind I was having this year.

My grandpa never met a stranger and my grandma never harbored ill will. We’d talk about politics and we’d talk about religion. But we never hated one another over either. That’s not to say the family was absent drama; we had it, just like everyone else, but it wasn’t over politics or religion.

These were our rituals. These rituals had the actors of my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. We are part of a large family. I have 8 aunts and uncles so I never understood what it was like to have a small family get together. Each person was unique, offering their own sense of dry, wry humor.

As I got older, had my own family, and started staying closer to home with my kids, I slowly began to miss out on these Thanksgivings. It was one chapter of my life that gave way to another. I took my kids to my grandparents house a few times but my kids staying at a house in the woods that lives in the woods is a recipe for mental breakdown. Not to mention the house wasn’t large enough for adding humans on top of humans. It was crowded enough growing up…without bringing my newly created clan to the party.

I hate that life does this, that it merges into different tributaries keeping you connected yet slowly creating a distance. I knew growing up that one day would be the last, that one Thanksgiving would be the last one shared with my grandparents in that small house that sat between two mountains.

I knew that a day was coming when I couldn’t rely on an uncle for narcissistic wit or an aunt for long lost hug. I knew there would come a time when my grandma would make her last homemade biscuit and my grandpa throw down his last card. I knew it would happen…but honestly, it sucks even though you know you can’t stop history from making itself.

I knew that one Thanksgiving I would say goodbye to my grandparents for the last time. I knew it and now I live with it.

I miss those days.  I wish I could get them back, bottle them, secure them in my memory. I wish I had one more holiday in that house, with those people, and that I’d make more of it than I probably did.

But I can’t go back. We can’t go back. Those days are gone. My aunts and uncles all have grown kids. My cousins have their own families, who have their families. Someone else owns my grandparents old farm. My grandma was buried in 2012 and my grandpa in 2014.

Pandora has left the building.

To my family, those that helped make these Thanksgivings and memories, I say thank you. My life would be much less without you and my memories more anemic. We have created rituals, lived them, and now re-create them as history has taken us here.

I am sincerely thankful for all of you and the rituals that have shaped who I am and what matters most.

This Thanksgiving I give thanks for all of you, all of us, and all that we have shared.

As I close, I want to share the closing lines I spoke at my grandmother’s funeral. I had the honor of giving the eulogy at both their funerals. I am thankful that my family placed such confidence in me.  I have not shared this publicly before but perhaps there would never be a more appropriate time to do so than now.

The hardest part of telling stories and rehearsing rituals is that parts of the story will inevitably come to an end. Endings are endings…it’s hard to give them a more apt description. We know what they are even as we wish they weren’t.

Saying goodbye to this part of the story, to Thanksgivings past, is saying goodbye to the two people that held it together: my grandparents. This is how I said goodbye to one of them for the last time.

“As we say goodbye today, there is an image that stands out in my mind of mawmaw. It’s an image that’s not just mine, its all of ours in her family. It’s an image that we share as children and grandchildren. It’s an image that she would often share with grandpa by her side.

The most difficult thing about leaving mawmaw’s house was seeing how much she loved her family…seeing how much she longed for you to stay longer. And she would always say, “Come back and see me,” “Are you sure you can’t stay longer?” Then, reluctantly, we would all say “yes grandma…yes mom…we’ll come back. We’ll see you again.” We would give her a hug, kiss her on the cheek, and she would hold your hands as you pulled away from her hug. We would carry our luggage to the car, shut the door, turn on the engine and begin to pull off that country property surrounded by tall grass, old hollers and the dense woods that we all grew up associating with mawmaw and pawpaws house.
We’d pull out of the back driveway, hoping our cars had good shocks as we would get a vehicular jolt as our car pulls up onto that narrow road that would slowly ascend in front of their house. We would roll down the windows, look back at the house, and there we would see it. We’d see that image…there she stood, with grandpa’s arms around her waist and her’s around him…there she stood…waving. She was waving goodbye. We’d honk our horn, wave some more, and she kept on waving. And the thing about grandma was…she was never the first one to stop waving. We’d always stop waving, but as I often looked back as a child, grandma didn’t stop waving…I never saw it. I imagine she stood there waving, until we were far out of sight…she may have even walked off the porch and looked down the road, just to make sure we were gone before she stopped waiving. Those times we left, we always had a tear in our eye. It would slowly run down our face as we said goodbye to our grandma, our mother. We drove off, turned to the person beside us and talked about when we were coming back to visit her. We were sad to leave her, she was sad to see us go…but we always knew that there would be another visit.
As we leave this place, I think this is the image grandma would like us to remember. Only today, she is the one that stopped waiving first…but that’s ok grandma. We understand…because we know that you really didn’t stop waiving. You may not be standing on the porch this morning waving goodbye; but we all know why…You just went inside for a while to rest. But we know the end of the story, just like so many visits before…we may not know when we’ll see her again. We don’t know when life will bring our paths to cross once more, but just like the road that always led us back to mawmaw’s house…we know that eventually the road will lead that everlasting countryside…and if I know grandma and if I understand how much she loved her family…I know she’ll be standing on the front porch waving when we visit her once more…only then, we’ll never have to say goodbye again. “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, nor sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Rev. 21.4)

I wish all of my family a Happy Thanksgiving and want you all to know I am thankful for each one of you…and for those who are no longer with us.

In memoriam

 

Don’t Blame Your Vote on the Bible

votethebible

A curious thing has happened this election cycle, the likes of which I have never witnessed in my 35 years of life: Christians are voting for a man that is completely morally bankrupt.

It’s an unusual place for people of faith to find themselves in. Usually, at least where I grew up, the sinner is the democrat, the evil fiend that supports partial birth abortion (which sickens me as much as many of you), cradle to grave financial assistance and condones anything, anyone, wants to do with their body.  The choice, at least in the minds of many, has always been clear.

I literally did not meet my first Democrat Christian until I went to college but that’s because I didn’t know any Democrats in my Republican evangelical bubble.  Until the ripe age of 18 I had no idea a Christian Democrat was even possible…and many still hold this opinion.

Republicans are Christian (family values) and Democrat’s support things that ain’t; It’s as simple as that.

This is what people usually mean when they say “I vote with a biblical worldview” and it usually results in social policy that reflects the Republican Party (since fiscally both parties are the same).

I know, I know, but don’t tune me out yet. I’m not trying to make you mad…I’m trying to make you think.

I am not saying that anyone has the moral high ground this election. I’m not saying that you should vote for Clinton (I’m not) but saying that morality is now relative or that one’s morality is at least better than the others (even though both Trump and Clinton have proven absent) is not an argument for anything.

It’s an argument to justify a decision.

I am stating that for many years now, at least since President Reagan, a large segment of voters have voted based on “Christian” values, and now, faced with voting for someone that doesn’t share those Christian values, but does sit atop the GOP ticket, Christians are scrambling to either jettison the importance of values or make Trump align with values he’s never embraced.

One of the many attempts to do so, and the object of this essay, is to suggest that since God used sinful people in the Old Testament that clearly means God can use sinful people to accomplish his goals and not merely use, but that God chose to implement this strategy.

Just find a random religious thread on Facebook or Twitter, a thread that uses the Bible to justify voting Trump, and you will find this argument.

I literally read in a thread (and since I have heard it countless times in various forms) that “since God used the midwives of Pharaoh, Samson, and the Assyrians to accomplish his will it is possible that God can use Trump as well…and he’s better than Clinton.”

So let me get this straight.

The reason we should vote for Trump is because he shares commonality with Assyria, Babylon, Egypt and Old Testament Heroes that were narcissistic? That’s the argument we are working with here?

We are not in Kansas anymore.

God “used” these “evil” or “sinful” realities to administer world history, therefore, we should vote for someone of the same character for God to continue to do so? A character the likes of which God’s prophets continually warned against using?
If this was the case, and Christians for so long have not voted democrat for EXACTLY that reason (evil, sinful, depraved policies) then why haven’t Christians been voting Democrat all along?

Maybe we could have expedited this whole American Exile thing that many people believe we have entered.

If there is any thread that runs throughout the scriptures it is not one of obedience, but one of a called, chosen people, disobeying God, repetitively being disciplined, corrected, and then redeemed.

Israel never “gets it” so to speak. God has to use that which is not sanctified because sanctified Israel is hardly of use. But it’s not like the Bible tells us that was pleasing to God.

But since the Bible says God used those things that weren’t holy to do his will we are now ready to embrace those unholy things because the unholy is the only choice we have…

The only issue I have here is that we don’t want to admit that. We want to justify it with our faith in order to sleep at night, but the result of doing so is damage to that very faith construct.  The damage of which will be felt long after any election.

Personally, I do not care about the morality of my president (no I am not voting Trump). There was a time when people of government and official administration were mannered, polite and self-deferential for the common good. That time has long passed.

Recent American presidential history (at least from JFK to the present) gives us a cast of characters that set the bar very low when it comes to morality.

I wrote here during the primary season that it’s absurd to vote on values any longer. I argued we should vote on political principles and philosophy instead. This is how a Christian, like myself, can embrace the political philosophy of one Thomas Jefferson (an agnostic I would argue but some say atheist). We share different faith lenses but that doesn’t keep me from being persuaded of his political philosophy.

The very last thing we should do, however, is justify a flawed character because we believe the bible justified flawed characters.

This is both the problem, solution and brilliance of scripture.

Scripture has no recourse but to use flawed characters because that is literally all that it has. And that should make us all feel a little better about ourselves.
There is no biblical character, no hero of the bible, that is perfect. None of them are holy and contrite in every intention. The great heroes: Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon…they are all messed up people.

So the point is, yes, God uses flawed people because we are all flawed people.

But there is also an irony when you compare those flawed people with the cast of characters known as Assyria, Persia, and the rest: Those characters are NEVER used in the bible as exemplars of the kinds of people or nations God WANTS to use. 

This is the large message of all of these Books in the Old Testament: Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Kings. In these books, the people of God FAIL to live as Deuteronomy instructs them. The bible heroes in these stories are tragic displays of unfaithfulness that God continues to work around, so in an ironic twist, we see them behave like Donald Trump, disobey commands, get themselves in precarious situations. 

They are not exemplars of how to be faithful to God. God wants to use THESE people but because they are so dense he outsources to the nations and to characters who are not part of God’s people (in the narrative).

The message is: Don’t be like these people…it will not go well if you do. Samson committed suicide, Moses never entered the Promised Land, David never ruled a united Kingdom and Israel eventually went into Exile. All Bad stuff.

The fact that God has to use these other characters (Assyria, Persia, Pharaohs midwives, just pick your villain or non-Israelite cast member) is not a justification of them; it is an indictment against Israel. It is tongue in cheek.  

It is not a “go and do likewise” commandment of Jesus.

Through them scripture teaches us this lesson: so you won’t fulfill the calling I have for you? Fine. Moving right along and this way may take a bit longer.

It’s never God’s preference to use Assyria, or the Philistines, or whomever. This is what ends up happening because God’s people are of no use.

This is why we find many stories in the Old Testament in which the least suspected characters are servants of God: God didn’t set out for Israel to be misguided but misguided it has been so God has to use other actors in history, not as a first resort, not as a vote FROM his people, but because there is a mission to accomplish.

At least this is what we find in the biblical narrative, the narrative that gives us theological justification for why history happened as it did.

The Bible records events years after the events themselves. Its authors have spent copious hours trying to understand, justify and make sense of the movement of history.  What we find in scripture is the result of that process.

God using evil as a first choice, however, is never condoned. God’s people selecting kings that were blatantly antithetical to their principles as a people never happened intentionally (though one could argue that their initial intentions were flawed and such happened regularly such as King Saul or some of Solomon’s sons).

It makes little sense to use the Bible in this way, to suggest that because an event happened in the Bible and God used it, that that is God’s preferred way of doing things.

It makes even less sense to suggest that we should be implicated in wrong doing because God can use it anyhow.

Something about Jesus saying “it is written you shall not test the Lord your God” comes to mind here…

Sometimes the Bible is not a prescription for how we are to act. Sometimes it is a warning against how not to act. It teaches us what to prevent through its witness and what to avoid embracing…which is why all the Christian justification of Trump is so puzzling.

You want to vote for Trump, that’s cool, but don’t blame it on God or the Bible.  Own it yourself.

Same goes if you want to vote Hillary.  She’s not the benevolent government administrator one finds in Jacob.

I feel like we have fully become biblical Israel in this election because we have forgotten who we are and justified a vote for depravity with our faith. I’ve never seen anything like it.

Sounds a lot like another story I know, a story that finds God’s people doing what they thought was right even as a golden calf was being fashioned right before their eyes.
And we know what they did for the next 40 years after that vote was cast.

Back to the Future and Syria…some lessons we must unlearn

back-to-the-future

I’ll never forget one of the opening scenes in the movie Back to the Future.  Doc and Marty have gathered in a mall parking lot to experiment with Doc’s new time machine.  This is the setting for the first test run of a machine that will travel through time and space.  Einstein will be vindicated.

As Doc and Marty unload the Delorean and back it onto the pavement, Marty is recording the entire episode with one of those old school hand held vhs recorders (can you believe we used to haul those things around to capture a memory???)

Then, out of the corner of his eye, Doc sees something disturbing.  He notices a white van armed with heavy artillery machine guns careening in his direction…and at once, as the audience is still trying to figure out what’s happening, Doc yells with a squeaky high pitched tone, “The Libyans!”

Marty is lost.  Why should they care about Libyans?  Doc quickly explains that the time machine needs powerful fuel and the only fuel powerful enough for time travel in 1985 is plutonium…and Doc stole the plutonium from the Libyan Terrorists!

The Libyans crash into the scene shooting up Doc’s car and making Marty duck for cover.  Doc himself is caught in the fire and is presumed dead after being riddled with bullets.  Unbeknownst to Marty (and the audience) Doc isn’t really dead.  He had a silver try on his chest because he knew the Libyans would show up.

As the scene is coming to an end, the time machine eventually has a successful flight “back to the future,” Marty is left recording it all and the Libyans crash their van in a wreckage of fiery misplaced glory as they chase after the Delorean.

And that is how a generation of Americans were introduced to Libyans and Middle Easterners of similar ilk:  Terrorists who smuggle arms, money and chemicals on the black market. 

I vividly remember as a child of 7 years old watching Back to the Future the first time and having this very subtle impression lodged in my consciousness.

Some things never change.

Millions of Americans, if not a majority, continue to have a biased opinion against  Middle Eastern Islamic countries.  The images projected upon us in 1985 from Back to the Future have found a similar place in our collective geopolitical consciousness.  This despite the fact that millions of the same Americans have never visited these countries, lived with its people, studied it history or asked hard questions of our governments approach.

The contemporary hatred for Syria is a fine example of this stereotyping. 

Many steretypes exist around Syria and thinking its government to be akin to Nazi Germany or theocratic Iran has been fueled by the Bush Administration’s ability to turn Syria and Assad into a molten pariah and has been continued by Obama’s pathological desire to want regime change in Syria regardless of the geopolitical consequences.

Obama’s stance has been so hardened that it led him to declare what many of us remember as his “red line” if you will.  The Red Line was Obama’s arbitrary designation that prohibited Assad and his military from using chemical weapons in its war with Free Syrian Rebels.  If Assad used chemicals, then Obama would act with a swift military campaign.

In 2013, it was believed by the administration that that had in fact happened.  A series of attacks in March and April of that year were launched in a small village around the city of Aleppo.   Chemical weapons (a type of sarin gas) were deployed and at least 19 civilians, and 1 solider were killed while scores of others  suffered injuries.  The Obama administration was hot and it began to make preparations to neutralize Assad.

The attack was supposed to happen no later than September 2, but on August 31, 2013, Obama gave a press conference at the Rose Garden and announced the attack would be put on hold as he would seek the approval of Congress (even though he did not seek this same approval in Libya).

Long story short, it is now well known that the Al-Nusra front and the Turks both have the ability to make and proliferate the type of Sarin used in the attack at Aleppo.  Assad’s army did not have that type of Sarin at its disposal.  Obama was being punked, set up, in order to fight a proxy war for Turkey and the Rebels.  The Rebels had released the Sarin on civilians in order to induce an American attack.

Luckily, at the behest of the joint chiefs, the attack never occurred and Obama eventually wised up.  Though his neurotic Syrian policy remains the administration’s stance and few Americans know the truth about chemicals used in Syria…even fewer care to discover the truth as it is much easier to hate Syria than not fall victim to cultural group think.

As Americans, we should ask ourselves, “Should we allow images of Back to the Future and our government’s policy against Syria to be projected onto us?”  Should we embrace it?  Or might it be better to ask a few questions of the government many of us already distrust?

There are actually several reasons to not hate Syria and I would like to propose a few here.  The situation is complex and fraught with the danger of painting too broadly or not considering the many facets of discussion.   Nonetheless, a corrective step in our thinking about Syria is in order.

No doubt, the Assad family rose to power as the result of government take over.  Those are rarely pretty and they are rarely done without exacting causalities.  Bashir Assads father, Hafez, was a shrewd politician and came to power via the Corrective Revolution of 1970 as he took his Ba’ ath Party to power.    He arrested and imprisoned much of his opposition and appointed men of similar religious and political persuasion to positions of power in the new government.

What would result would be a police state and the president (a president by force if you will) was established as a national icon and allegiance to him (or at least not against him) was expected.  This is similar to many other Middle Eastern countries by the way.

There are several occasions of brutality and political maneuvering during Haffez’s presidency that would appall Americans.  Attempts to overthrow the government were the harshest offenses.  Those are well documented and you can search for them yourself.  Despite those attempts, the Assad’s have held onto Syria for nearly 50 years.  Hafez groomed his son Bashar to become president and Bashar has now been president since 2000 (the year his father died).

What I want to point out is not how we got here, but now that we are here how we might think more clearly about Syria and an Assad “regime.”

Is our current opinion and policy warranted?  Should we desire Assad’s ouster because of its historical trajectory or might the world be better off to support his presidency as Westerners even though we may wince at the political culture itself?

First, we should support Assad because he espouses religious toleration.  Anyone that replaces him, such as the folks that now run Iraq, Libya or Egypt, will not espouse religious toleration.

Assad is a member of a unique religious minority that is a mixture of Christian mysticism and Islamic practice.  He is an Alawite, a minority in Syria (less than 5% of the population) that has been persecuted and targeted by the larger Sunni presences for the majority of Syrian history.  As a religious minority and from a family that had experienced religious intoleration, Assad provided (and would provide) a safe space of Muslims, Christians and other minorities to practice their religion.  Syria is one the historical birth places of Christianity and the early church had a strong presence there.  There are convents in Syria that can be traced back to the 3rd and 4th centuries and these Christians, though a minority, have been free to live and practice their religion in Syria without persecution.

Likewise, Alawites, Druze, and Ismallis also experienced religious toleration.  To be sure, such was not the case at the beginning of the Corrective Revolution when suspicions were high of any religious expression that could usurp the new Alawite controlled government, but today toleration was the modus operandi.

If Assad is removed such will no longer be the case and we could see the eradication of minority religious sects, including Christianity, from Syria.

Second, Assad provides stability.

The largest point of contention during Bush’s administration was the proliferation of weaponry through Syria to Hezbollah, and other terrorist organizations, in attacks upon Israel.  The previous administration felt as if Assad was not doing enough to control their borders and stop the trafficking of weaponry.

How times have changed.  With Isis active in the region, the issue is now just to get rid of Assad for the hell of it.  This administration has made no good argument to oust Assad except the false chemical narrative and to continue the narrative of Bush’s axis of evil.  With multiple examples of what attempting to inaugurate “democracy” in the Middle East has actually done, how is this argument still a good one?

Otherwise, why do we want him to leave when it is now clear that the rebellions in other Middle Eastern states have NOT produced the kind of democracy we had hoped?  Is anyone in the government so foolish as to think this is a rebellion of civilians against their government in search of a more democratic way?  In fact, the opposite has shown itself to be the case.  If Assad is deposed, mass instability will ensue into every facet of Syrian life, and the Syrian refugee crisis will disclose itself as the tip of the iceberg.

As Seymour Hersh states, “the so-called moderates had evaporated and the Free Syrian Army was a rump group stationed at an airbase in Turkey…The assessment was bleak: there was no viable moderate opposition to Assad and the US was arming extremists.”

We may not like a Syrian version of democracy, but is the alternative really that much better?

Third, Assad has cooperated militarily with our government even though the public is unaware.

The US and its allies have the best intelligence gathering agencies in the world.  Sryia does not.  However, in unauthorized protocol and communication, there is strong evidence to suggest that Sryia has cooperated with distributing military intelligence about the locations of Isis and Al-Nusra within Syria to the West and its ally in the east, Russia.  Further, Syria provided information about its capabilities and intentions through various military channels with the understanding that it would reach the US.  In exchange, the US military has also put out actionable information that it knew would reach Syria.

In addition, and despite our national amnesia, Syria has cooperated with the US under the Bush administration as well.  After 9/11, Assad was “extremely helpful” according to a former consultant in the intelligence community.  Seymour Hersh notes the extent of cooperation with the US after 9/11.

“In 2002 Assad authorized Syrian intelligence to turn over hundreds of internal files on the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria and Germany.  Later that year, Syrian intelligence foiled an attack by al-Qaida on the headquarters of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and Assad agreed to provide the CIA with the name of a vital al-Qaida informant.  In violation of the agreement, the CIA contacted the informant directly; he rejected the approach and broke off relations with his Syrian handlers.  Assad also secretly turned over to the US relatives of Saddam Hussein who had sought refuge in Syria, and – like the Americans allies in Jordan, Egypt, Thailand and elsewhere- tortured suspected terrorists for the CIA in a Damascus Prison” (104-105)

Like Washington, Syria believes Isis must be stopped.  Yet we remain churlish toward their historical overtures.

Fourthly, countries we know that support extremism want him gone.

Some of these countries are our allies such as Qatar, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.  In fact, these countries have been conspiring with our own government to traffic weapons into Syria in order to exact regime change.  Why would we, as Americans, support the same regime change of a country with no evidence to ever suggest it  (Syria) is an existential threat to America when we have documented mountains of evidence that the few nations mentioned above support, fund and have provided haven to people who are hostile to America, the west and any other religion but their own?

There are existential threats but the Syrian government is hardly one of those.

Why would we be motivated to partner with the devil in order to get closer to the Anti-Christ?  Seems to me there’s much more at stake (money, ideology, silent promissory notes, etc.) that is driving this decision.

Why is the US not directing its attention toward these countries?  Why have we not stood on our moral high horse, our Reaganite “city on  a hill” and demanded more from our NATO pals?

It’s not that the US is not cozy with regimes.  We are very cozy with dictatorships that provide stability so long as we have a piece of the pie.  Due to our frigid rhetorical flourishes toward Syria we have not been allowed to share in any of the pie they distribute.

We are the quintessential bully of the world’s militaries:  We create fantastic narratives about how our violence is justified in order to hide from the reality of our misuse of power.  We pick on countries we know we can defeat while we sleep with countries that have our babies…even though they are cheating on us every second they get.

And like one of my seminary colleagues who served in the armed forces was apt to say: We have to have conflict.  If we don’t have conflict we cannot try out our weaponry, we do not know our full capability and the military cannot promote officers.  Conflict and American Militarism go hand in hand.

Lastly, I have experienced Syrian hospitality first hand.  In 2007 I was able to visit the belly of the beast, Damascus, and spend 4 days within the country’s borders. I visited sites that have been held by Isis such as Palmyra and I have seen the beauty of its people and its geography.  I walked in downtown Damascus and I honestly felt safer there than when I was in Israel, where it seems guns are everywhere in public.  The Syrian people were kind, informative, hospitable, and proud of their country.  I shared Q & A sessions with Christian Syrian doctors, was given a tour of the country by someone that is now a Syrian refugee who has endured hardships and relocated his family to Scandinavia, shared meals with Syrians proud of their heritage and enjoyed the stability of the Assad government when I was there learning as a student and Christian pastor.

I loved Syria when I was there.  I loved its people.  It has a special place in my heart and I wish I could share that experience with each American I come into contact with everyday because I know if we could have passed the peace with Syrians together there would be less hatred toward the country, more empathy for those lost in its war time tragedy and more understanding for a government that might not be our favorite but may be doing the best it can.

Thus, with this overture I ask you to reconsider your opinions on Syria, its government and to caste an opinion that is informed.  Study the situation.  Read some investigative journalism.  And by all means, think for yourself. Do not let your opinion be persuaded by Obama or Fox News…let it be persuaded by the sometimes ugly, and hard choice, that comes when we make decisions based on fact rather than feeling.

I know what we all learned from Back to the Future, but maybe it’s time to rethink that impression.

*The extended Hersh quote and other small quotes are taken from essays in his recently released, Seymour Hersh. The Killing of Osama Bin Laden. New York: Verso, 2016.

 

What is “White Privilege?”

privilege

There is a video going viral of a 14 year old boy making an apology tour for “white privilege.”  The video shows a young middle school aged kid reciting a poem at school in which he derides white privilege (thus bringing attention to it) while also refusing to abscond his privilege.

Yes it’s a problem, but no, he’s not voluntarily giving it up. Rather he hopes for the day when no privilege exists.

The video is weird to watch because the kid is 14.  What 14 year old could possibly have been walking around in his own skin self-reflexive enough to understand that his interaction in society is markedly different than people of color?  How has he lived long enough to explore the experiences he recites in his poem?  The parents say they have not “coached” him but it is really hard to imagine all of that came out of his head.

It’s almost like watching a Republican try to speak on behalf of a refugee; it’s just odd and conceptually anachronistic.

After a few minutes of internet trolling this kids poem, it became clear there is a huge disagreement about the topic of the poem: privilege.  Besides all the negative comments about the kid, his parents, and the puppetry that seems to be taking place, privilege is a central issue of disagreement.

Everyone is using the same word but many people are using it differently.

I do not wish to debate the merits of the young man’s poem.  I do, however,  want to look briefly at the concept of privilege because when white people and people of color use this term it is clear we are not sharing in the same Wittgensteinian language game.

First, when people say “white privilege exists” they do not mean that life isn’t hard for white people.  I have heard radio hosts and read many comments wherein this is the interpretation.  This is what has been outraging white people, that the black community, minority communities or the media, seem to be implying that “white privilege” is synonymous with “white ease of life.”

This is simply not the case.

I know many many white people who have hard lives.  I have friends with college degrees who work their butts off and make personal sacrifices to make ends meet for their families and themselves.  I have white friends who are veterans and whom do not have a place of their own to sleep at night. I have family that lives in the Tennessee Appalachia and I see that clearly white privilege doesn’t mean all white people have an easy life, get everything handed to them or that they do not experience discomfort because they are white.

No one is arguing that white people do  life do not suffer.

Life is hard.  It is complex and it can be a tribulation regardless of your skin color.  The term “white privilege” doesn’t negate that your life may be very hard, even if you are white.   All people can have a hard or difficult life; it seems to be an innate part of creation post Adam and Eve.   No one is saying you have an easy life because you are white; you can keep your scars.  No one is taking them from you.

Arriving at that acknowledgment, however, does not now render term “white privilege” meaningless.

Second, the term “white privilege” does not mean you are given first dibs on all the good stuff.  It does not mean that you can skip all societal loops of accomplishment.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get the best pay, the best job, the best spouse or the best neighborhood.  It doesn’t mean that you automatically get promotions or that you by default are given good grades.

If you have worked hard and accomplished a lot in life…that is great!  You most likely sacrificed time with family/friends for those accomplishments.  I too, am white, and I have spent many hours in study or at work doing what others wouldn’t in order to achieve what others won’t.  I get it.

No one is trying to say you didn’t work hard when they use the term “white privilege.”

President Obama’s comments  “you didn’t build that” made me bristle as much as it did you.   I know what it is like to have employees that want the reward without the work, that want the status without the effort and the notoriety without the sacrifice.  It’s just the country we live in now.  I understand why people of any race react when someone says they have a privileged status yet they have worked hard for everything they have.

I grant you that.  Privilege has not meant you have never had a hard life or that you haven’t worked hard to climb from that life.

These concessions aside, the term “white privilege” is still not meaningless.  It just doesn’t mean what white people think its means.

By “white privilege” one usually means that a person who is white is under less suspicion and given the benefit of doubt in many circumstances.  That’s it. 

It means that you have never felt disadvantaged or been looked at with circumspection in routine daily activities because you are white.  Your whiteness, and mine, have given us different life experiences because we have been looked at differently due to the color of our skin.  The worst is never assumed because I am white and driving at midnight; such is most likely not the case for the typical black male.

Simply put, it means there are no societal obstacles to understanding who I am as a white male.  Society allows me the privilege to show who I am by how I act, what I do and the character with which I live my life.  Nothing about me is assumed because I am white. 

I’d be willing to bet that even the poor Appalachian white person would also be given the benefit of the doubt when they are in public.  They may not feel privileged but in that regard they are.  They are poor, but they are white, and in our society that is usually better than being poor and black.  It’s the difference between assuming the white person may have a WIC voucher in their pocket to buy milk while the black person may be watched for theft.

“White privilege” doesn’t mean that black people can’t find work, get equal pay, apply for the same opportunities or even have the same success.   Black people can do everything white people can do in our society and they often do.   It simply means that because of the color of our skin, consciously or unconsciously, the worst is not usually assumed just by looking at us.

“White privilege” also means not having the pressure of being representative of my entire race.   Black men especially don’t have this luxury.

As a white male, if I commit a crime, am rude in public or commit domestic abuse that act stays with me, and me alone.  I bear the responsibility.  My neighbors, fellow church folk and colleagues at work won’t cast my behavior over all white men everywhere.

This simply won’t be said, “Well, Nathan acted like a complete jerk in public and the cops came out to his house to settle a domestic issue…see, just another example of what’s wrong with white people.”

Most people will understand that my actions do not speak for the majority of white males.  Any white male friends of mine will go to work and the grocery store the next day and most likely not experience any suspicion or staring faces because of what I have done. 

 I’m the crazy white dude, not them.

Black men don’t have this luxury.

How many of you have been in class with lots of white people and maybe two black people?  Has there not been a time when the teacher, or a classmate, looks at one of the black people and asks for “the black perspective?”  This happens all the time in campuses across this country.  We all listen intently, many of us gleaning insight into the feelings of someone with a different perspective.  It is an enriching experience, one from which I have benefited.

The problem with this, however, is that it is assumed that the opinion given by one black person is constitutive of ALL black people.  We have a multiplicity of white views but ONE black view.   This is the working assumption.  White people understand that lots of white people think differently, but far too many white people assume all black people (or LGBTQ people for that matter) think the same.  When one black person speaks it is the absolute on the “black experience.”

How can any person be responsible for something so weighty?  I have no idea what it is like to be a black male and know that when I open my mouth people assume I am speaking for, and representing, an entire race of people.  For black men that do this well, kudos, because I cannot imagine how difficult this is socially.

This is what is meant by “white privilege”: it is the privilege to be seen as you are without any assumptions simply based on the color of your skin.  This is it, nothing more, nothing less.

The trouble is white people don’t see this as “white privilege” because they are not aware it is happening (for a fuller expose on whiteness see my other post here).  We just assume all people are looked at the same, treated the same and experience things like us…we don’t know we are privileged in these ways…and honestly, it is hard for white people to even get outside themselves enough to concede this.  Ironically, this is exactly what it means to be privileged.

This does not mean that “white privilege” exists everywhere, all times and with equal proportion but it does mean that as a culture we have presumed ideas that enter our minds when we encounter certain people.  It means that there are nascent assumptions at work in all of us, the production of literally hundreds of years, that silently creep upon us whether we will it or not.

The terminology isn’t about taking anything away from the hard work of white people or their hardships.   Obversely, it doesn’t take away from the fact that just because you are not “privileged” doesn’t mean you can’t work hard and be successful.  Many can and do.

It simply means that when you walk out the door to enter the world, the world will judge you totally and fully by the content of your character and not the color of your skin.  No assumptions.  No stereotypes.  No universals.  You are free to impact the world through your action and the world will only respond to you in kind.

It’s really not a question of whether or not it exists; it’s a question of whether when you sense in yourself this hint at privileging some over others (without any reason or purpose), that you pause and make a choice to change how you will act toward people of difference.  This is the only way the world will change, when people who can act, know to act and then act differently.

It would  be fantastic to limit the labels black, white, etc., to cultural discussions, but until our rhetoric matches our action (and thoughts) we are only deceiving ourselves.  It easy to say you believe “x” until something other than “x” pops in your mind when that different person enters your space, walks near your car, or is seen in your church/neighborhood.

As a Wise man once said, “Do unto others as you would them do to you” (Luke 6.31)

 

Have You Ever Woke Up White?

MLK POST

Have you ever work up and realized you’re white?

I don’t mean have you gotten out of bed in the morning, brushed your teeth and stared at your Caucasian skin, noting blemishes, razor nicks or an unsightly new hair.

I mean, have you ever woken up and REALIZED YOU ARE WHITE?

Well.  I haven’t either…until this week.

Last Wednesday, July 6, I was running late for an appointment.  I was driving, not recklessly, but a little too fast for the speed limit posted.  A police officer clocked me, quickly got behind my vehicle, turned on his lights, and directed me to pull over.  I was doing 55 in a 45.

The officer, who was white, pulled behind my car, parked and delayed approaching my vehicle.  After a few minutes of gathering his thoughts, or perhaps running my tag, he makes his way to my window, stands slightly out of sight and over my left shoulder and asks “How are you doing today sir?”  I could see him from my peripheral vision because he avoided standing directly beside my car, presumably to protect himself not knowing whom he had just pulled over.

My reply was instant and without concern, “Well officer, I was fine until I was pulled over.”

The officer looked at me and replied, “Well, I understand that.  Have a good day and be safe.”

I replied, “Thank you officer, I’ll watch my speed”

This entire encounter took maybe 60 seconds.  It was the fastest interaction I have ever had with an officer.  At the time, I was thankful for its brevity.

Tuesday evening, July 5, news broke about the altercation between police and Alton Sterling, a black man hustling outside a convenient store in Baton Rouge, LA.  The altercation resulted in Mr. Sterling’s death and an unsightly video of interaction went viral.

Later Wednesday evening, the nation would witness another altercation between a black man and police, which resulted in the death of one Philando Castile.  As with the Louisiana shooting, this one in Minnesota went viral with a video and commentary from his girlfriend that sat next to him as he was shot and dying.

Immediately these events started to shake the foundations of America and the quiet undercurrents of prejudice and violence once again erupted before our eyes.  It’s as if a latent existential crisis had now burst onto the national stage front and center, demanding the attention of everyone.  The shock waves of this violence were instantaneously enormous and threatened to swallow the nation in a race war with endless violence as five Dallas police officers were shot by a black man whose motive for killing them was revenge for the brutality he had recently witnessed, as well as the historical witness of police brutality against the black community.

We are not yet out of the woods.  More violence could be on the way, as one alleged plot to kill police officers has already been foiled.

In an attempt to be peacekeepers and healers, Presidents Bush and Obama spoke at a memorial service for the police, each one offering powerful words of hope and admonition for the future. Town hall meetings are taking place to discuss the tensions between policing and minority communities, protestors are clamoring with their city officials and entire communities are mobilizing to peacefully respond to the current injustices.

It’s not just black people that are seeking change, but many white people are busy advocating for their brothers and sisters in the black community as well. 

As all of this unfolded I began to ask myself, “If I were black would the police stop I encountered Wednesday have been different?”  Can I honestly say that if I were a black man (with all the historical baggage and stereotyping I would be carrying) the officer would have released me in a matter of seconds or would this ordeal have involved a bit more questioning and a longer stop?

Of course, this is hypothetical.  I am not black and there is no way of knowing what the officer would have done if I were, but I don’t think it too far afield to assume that if I were black I would have been detained a few minutes longer, I would have been asked a few more questions, and might have even walked away with a ticket rather than an exhortation to “be safe.”

I really hate writing about this.  I don’t want to comment on race.  I want to ignore it and pretend it isn’t an issue.

I don’t want to write about it.  I don’t want to talk about it.  I want to stay out of the fray.

It is safer to be quite and not say anything.

Yet, how can I not speak up when there is clearly a higher level of suspicion against those with black skin than those with white skin, even when it comes to routine traffic stops.

We do have a race problem in this country and the only people saying otherwise are privileged white people who have never experienced a racist sentiment against them in their lives.  Trying to be white and say race doesn’t matter is like telling someone who’s been abused emotionally it doesn’t matter that they are abused because you’ve never been abused emotionally by anyone.  Their abuse is obviously their misperception of what is happening; it’s not the truth of the matter.  The truth of the matter is they have behaved badly and they most likely deserve the emotional abuse.

Who’s going to say that to another person who has EXPERIENCED ABUSE?  My non-experience cannot negate the experience of another.  It’s simply a different witness but it doesn’t nullify someone with a contrary witness.

That logic doesn’t make any clear sense.  Yet this is exactly what white people do to black people.

We discount their experiences because our perceptions of their experiences are not the same, therefore, they must be misguided and if they’d just drop pointing out to everyone that they are black this whole thing would be better…but isn’t this the epitome of bigotry and racism, thinking ourselves better than others?  Thinking our WHITE ideas (since they happen inside our white bodies) are more exact than BLACK ideas or experiences?

If our ideas are only ideas that would occur to WHITE people, and no black person within our sphere of influence would share them, should that not cause us to pause and say “hold up, maybe my idea isn’t as objective as I thought…maybe I have this idea because I am White??”

In other words, it is not that our whiteness or blackness makes the ideas; It is our skin color that allows us the experiences in life that often give formation to the ideas.

This is a distinction that even the most brilliant talking heads fail to make.

The experiences that ingrain skills, dispositions, and habits into us are usually unconscious; it happens to us without our knowing.  In academic terms it becomes what Pierre Bourdieu calls our habitus.  But there is good news; we are not doomed to our habitus forever.

Bourdieu notes, “Habitus is not the fate that some people read into it.  Being a product of history, it is an open system of dispositions that is constantly subjected to experiences, and therefore, constantly affected by them in a way that either reinforces or modifies its structures.  It is durable BUT NOT ETERNAL [my bold].  Having said this, I must immediately add that there is a probability, inscribed in social destiny associated with definite social conditions, that experiences will confirm habitus, because most people are statistically bound to encounter circumstances that tend to agree with those that originally fashioned their habitus.”

To break this down further, one might say we think, act and are disposed in particular ways because of our particular histories.  Our history provides us with normative habits we can live by and use to make sense of the world.  Our habits also usually decided for us in that they are the result of our social/linguistic conditions (religious, economic, political, sexual, etc.) and experiences therein. Further, this means that one is most likely to encounter the world in ways that agree with those already framed dispositions or habits.

In other words, you think like a white person because you are white and all that goes along with that…even if you fail to realize it.

The silver lining to this, however, is that habtius is an OPEN SYSTEM OF DISPOSITIONS that is subject to our experiences.  As that which forms due to our experiences, it can also be re-formed by new ones.  We are not stuck being suspicious of certain groups of people.  We are not stuck with certain opinions or views.  The goodnews of Bourdieu is, while habitus can provide insight into why we do what we do, and who we are, we do have the possibility to change when we encounter new experiences that challenge our current habitus!

Did you hear me, we can change!  We are not doomed!

This week, I sat in a room with black colleagues who shared their experiences. Their experience didn’t attempt to negate dead police officers.  Their experience didn’t attempt to say cops never kill white people.  It was just their stories and how these events impacted them.  It wasn’t an either/or; it was “this whole situation sucks…here is why I am.”

One black mother shared how she has to give her sons the talk about how to behave in a car for fear of being pulled over because they are black young men.  She spoke of the fear of when her 15 year old will get his license and whether she should make him wait a few more years to drive for fear of what can happen to a young black man in a car alone.

A black father spoke of the pain this produced inside him, how this impacted his community and how he was paying for his kids to talk to a counselor to make sense of all this.

An older black woman said, “I know this is a new problem for many of you, but I have been living with this problem for 60 years.  This is not new…and in our community we have known this.  I am glad many of you are now finally getting to see what we live every day.”

These comments were in sharp juxtaposition to comments I was seeing on facebook and twitter, all by white people.

Rather than see their status as white people, as privileged people, who will never have to fear that their young boys will get pulled over or fear of being followed through a grocery store because of their skin color, they commented as if they were sages…pronouncing objective truth from inside their white bodies.

Comments such as “it doesn’t matter if you are white, black or blue, we don’t have a race problem in this country, we have a death culture”…Ah, yes, spoken as only a white guy can who has never experienced racial profiling.

On the radio, hosts scream at the top of their lungs about why the President and others keep talking about white this and white that, black this and black that, ostensibly saying we only have a race problem because you all keep talking about it!  Again, only a white person can say something like this.  It’s not that black or white people want to have race as a central issue; it’s that it is a central issue regardless of what we want…and it seems that the only class or race saying it’s not a problem is the race that has never suffered persecution in this country because of their skin color!  Shouldn’t this cause white folks to pause and ask “Why are we the only ones saying this?”

Another great white response is to deflect attention from this violence and pin it on other issues, such as black single parent statistics and children raised in single parent, poverty stricken homes.  This move simply keeps the white person from actually taking a stand against brutality or racism and says that the real problem isn’t “you all” or “them” getting profiled, it’s the black community having so many dead beat dads.

Again, only a white person can say this.  It lacks any sense of empathy to relate to black people and their history with police.

And finally, here is a laundry list of comments by white people that attempts to deflect issues of race, “I didn’t own slaves, I don’t know what they are so mad about…that was 150 years ago, they should get over it…if black people wouldn’t talk about race than race wouldn’t be an issue…This is not my fault…the cops wouldn’t have shot him if they didn’t have good reason…don’t be in the wrong place and bad things won’t happen…black on black crime is the real problem, not police brutality…why do just black lives matter, don’t all lives matter…why do they have that chip on their shoulder anyhow, it’s just a crutch to keep race an issue…why do they keep complaining, if they would go find jobs and get off government they wouldn’t have these problems”

And these same white people that make these comments say we don’t have a race problem.  Uh huh.  And on and on and on.

I have heard all this and more, in person and online.  And I, admittedly, used to think of some of these same responses…but I did so, not out of attempting to empathize with the black community, but because I was white and I was unable to see the world outside of my white experiences, and therefore, my white habitus.

But this past week, I woke up and I realized I am white.  It had been a long time coming, but I have finally saw myself in a very literal way, as the skin that covers who I am.  Of course I am not just my skin color, but at the least whatever I am does involve my skin color.  I can no more separate my person from my body than my body from my person…and this means my whiteness and my being are linked…but that doesn’t mean I can’t change.

But Nate, you seem like a thoughtful guy, how could you have held even one of those ideas as an opinion???  First, I am sorry that I have not always thought rightly about race.  Since living in Atlanta and Nashville I have actually enjoyed the difference and it is what I miss about large cities.   I have not been prejudiced for a long time, but I have also never seen my whiteness as clear as I do now.  I have never knowingly done a racist thing but I cannot say I have never had a racist or bigoted based thought.  For these unspoken sentiments I ask for forgiveness.

I believe Jesus once said something about seeking forgiveness for thoughts of the heart and not just actions of the hands.

Why would I have ever had those ideas?

Well.  I’m 35 and I am white.  I’m Protestant.  I am old enough to have had grandparents that referred to candy as “n#**#r toes” not as a conscious attempt to be mean, but as a subconscious linguistic association about black people.  I am old enough to have been told when I was younger to not go to certain parts of town, “where the blacks live…in boogeytown.”  I am old enough to have ridden in cars and been told “lock your doors, we are going through a bad neighborhood.”  The only people I saw on the corners were black people.

I am white enough to have not had much interaction with black people except on school sports teams.  My family did not have any black friends growing up.

No, I wasn’t raised to hate black people.  I wasn’t raised to hate anyone, but I was raised with a subtle racism, inculturated within me, so that fear of black people and difference was part of the story as a child.

That fear shaded my adult life where it bred my inability to see my own privilege as a white male.  Now, at 35, I’m still white, but it’s worse, I am white, educated, have a good job, have a position in the church, and I don’t have any close black friends…only acquaintances.  Given all this how would I see otherwise??

The problem, however, is that this fear can breed misunderstanding.  Misunderstanding can breed apathy, or even worse, it can breed hate and bigotry.

Privilege doesn’t mean that society gave me stuff or that I didn’t have to work for what I have.  I did work hard; no one gave me anything.  All my degrees and work based accomplishments were earned.  Privilege simply means I did not face any societal obstacles or experience public disadvantages or scrutiny because of my skin color.  I was, and am, free to move about the country.  From what I understand, this is also what black people want, the ability to work hard and move about freely, providing themselves and their families with a good, secure life.

As a white man (who usually votes libertarian), I am now aware of my privilege.  I couldn’t see it before, but now, with the help of black and white colleagues, I see it.  Yet I do not understand how being aware of that privilege and acknowledging that black people in general do not enjoy that same privilege is a liberal or conservative observation.  Why is this a republican or democratic issue?  Seems to me this is just finally seeing the elephant in the room.

I am not black.  I am now aware that my experience cannot speak for or in place of a black experience.  It is unfair of me to impute my white eyes over a situation and impute that understanding on black people that have a much different experience.  I’m aware that I do not see the world as my black colleagues.  I don’t fear for my three sons growing up that they will be stopped and harassed by police.

I can speak of equality as an ideal because I am white.  I can criticize my black brothers and sisters for making a big deal of this or that police brutality and I can point to the “facts of the case” and justify why officers did what they did, but all that does is tell the black community (who has suffered these recent losses as well as many losses we will never know) that I am blind, deaf and therefore too dumb to speak as an advocate for a community that bears the brunt of police violence at the hands of white silence.

I want to be a partner and neighbor with all people, but at this time especially with my black colleagues.  I want to insure that their children can grow up feeling safe.  I want my fellow black Americans to feel safe when they are stopped by police.  I want police to feel safe around black people and not assume guilt when they make a traffic stop or question kids on the street corner.  I want an equitable world that looks like white people and black people sharing in this nation and helping one another achieve rather than pointing at the others deficiencies.  To quote MLK, I too want to see a world where children and people will not be “judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

We are not there yet…we are not there yet.

I used to think this country didn’t have a race problem, but as I have watched and listened to stories and media I have come to an epiphany: We do have a race problem and denial by those who have NEVER been marginalized doesn’t solve this problem…it just means they are clueless and it places our collective societal goals at risk in order to assuage a white peace of mind.

Hillary Clinton, Prophet of the Anthropocene

Anthropocene_Era

Today, as I listened to Hillary Clinton on the radio, I heard something profoundly more troubling than rote populist verbiage or party line politics.  I heard her tout this statistic, and I paraphrase, “Our Economy is a 70% consumer economy; therefore, the more expendable income everyone has the better the economy can be for everyone.”

Of course this comment surfaced while she was waxing eloquently about black employment rates, the disproportionate pay of men to women, the lack of good paying jobs post the “great recession,” the role that employee unions play in securing benefits and pay for their members, etc.  It was a speech on the economy she gave while campaigning in North Carolina.

Besides the ideology she seemed to be dousing upon herself , the statistic she shared was abruptly disturbing.  So disturbing, in fact, that I listened to little else she was saying.  The statistic took me back to David Harvey’s text (see my previous analysis) The Enigma of Capital and Richard Heinberg’s text The End of Growth.

To provide a little context to this, earlier today I read about the bleaching of the world’s coral reefs.  It was shared by one of my more intellectual facebook friends who never fails to recommend a thoughtful read.  Thanks for the read Ashton.

I don’t know if you know this, but, we are apparently in one of the largest bleaching events in recorded history.   Bleaching is the means by which coral attempt to save themselves from rising water temperatures or other changes to their environment that threaten them.  To do so, they release the algae that grow on them and provide them with life. If conditions do not change, the algae is released and never returned.  The coral will die.

As best as scientists can tell, the bleaching is a result of rising water temperatures across the globe.  For ecosystems as fragile as coral reefs, even a half a degree rise in water temperatures can make a sizeable negative difference.  Coral reef bleaching is not new.  In fact, it has been around as long as coral have been around, presumably thousands to hundreds of thousands of years.  What is new is the scale we are witnessing and rapidity with which it is being repeated.

The culprit scientists are suggesting?  Carbon.  Our world, functioning as a greenhouse, is causing these temperature fluctuations and in return can also cause fragile ecosystems to become disequilibrialized and in return die.

What generates Carbon? Well, lots of our machines and manmade activity causes carbon.  The issue isn’t carbon per se; the issue is too much carbon.  Nature cannot adequately deal with the amounts we are now producing.   Yes, there have always been cow flatulence and forest fires and other natural phenomena that can cause carbon.  The issue is not that since cows cause carbon we should therefore kill cows or keep them from farting.

The issue is we are producing too much carbon for our existing carbon reducers (aka Forests) to handle and the over abundance is causing the world to heat slightly more than multiple ecosystems can sustain.  I really don’t understand how this is a conservative or a liberal issue but I do see how ideology can blind a person to the common sense of this.

This rise in ocean temperatures is one issue, nevermind the acidification of oceans and pollution that is causing changes we have yet to feel as land sharks.

Bleaching of coral reefs are not the only issue we have in the oceans.  Apparently, garbage can form islands the size of Texas and who really knows how bad or good all that garbage is for the oceans.  Just google “garbage island.”

Back to Hillary’s quote.  We live in a 70% consumer economy.  70%!  Do you realize how large that number is and what it means?

What it means is that the only way our economy can grow and the only way wealth can be grown, redistributed, whatever, is for the human race to make more things, buy more things, waste more things, dispose of more things, and deplete natural resources for more things.

There is no other way.  All matter has mass and takes up space…and the production of things to consume will follow this law as well.

As a consequence of all this “making” we will be producing a lot of carbon.  Machines make things.  Burning forests allows us to make things.  Creating toxic chemicals that cannot be absorbed into the earth is the result of making things.  Making things requires industry, especially if we are talking the scale that is 70% of the US economy and this not to mention what all this making would mean for the economic demands of the rest of the world.

A byproduct of all this making? Carbon.

The United States Gross Domestic Product last year was roughly 17.8 TRILLION dollars.  GDP is how we measure our economy and its health.  It is the measure of everything our country makes and sells, either at home or abroad.

GDP is also built on the assumption that infinite growth of 3% each year is “normal” and “healthy.”   Politicians, particularly those infatuated with Ronald Reagan, love to bandy this 3% around as if it’s as absolute as John 3:16.  Forecasts  for 2016 is a 2% growth rate OVER that 17.9 Trillion, so around 18.4 Trillion.  Astonishingly, the forecast of GDP by 2026 is a whopping 27.6 TRILLION GDP. Just take a look at these CBO projections for yourself. Wow.  Just wow.

There is nothing to scale that can sustain our global economy in a carbon free way and do so at such percentages.  The technology simply isn’t there.  In order for America to continue on this trend we will be making lots of things, running a lot of machines, creating a lot of waste, and in turn, having an even larger impact on the planet then than we do now.  To think we can just recycle everything as some infinite remainder that can be dealt with really means we do not understand what an infinite remainder is.

I know the naysayers: The planet has always changed.  Seasons come and go.  Etc.  Thanks for the anecdotal nursery rhymes Sean Hannity…

This is true, but it’s also equally true that this planet has never had as many people on it as it does today.  There has never been as much global activity as today.  It doesn’t mean we’re special or that we have to buy into some weird notion of manifest destiny.  It’s just a fact.  There is simply nothing analogous about our current global situation to the past…thus all analogies must fail.

They may, however, allow you sleep better at night.

Thus we come full circle with Hillary’s statement and the reality of a world where coral reefs are bleaching and garbage islands appear ex nihilo, both as a product of human activity and a planet changing faster than anyone can comprehend.

Welcome to the Anthropocene everyone. (If you don’t know what the Anthropocene is, this may help)

May we ask a few questions at this point?

What exactly is the consequence of putting all of our marbles in this economic model that requires we CONSUME in order to live?  What have we done to ourselves to place ourselves in such a tragic situation?  A situation that doesn’t seem to have many large scale answers OTHER THAN RUIN!  What happened to a time when people USED things for needs instead of consumed things out of desire?  And is this economic model, as taxing as it is on natural resources and the economic strophes it creates, not somehow also akin to what it means to say the world has fallen from grace?  Could it be that this unbridled desire that has “created wealth” is actually a wolf in sheep’s clothing?  Are we finally seeing the eclipse of Andrew Carnegie?

Yet for some sins, even forgiveness will not be enough.

We most certainly are not in Eden any longer…and in fact, a great irony has occurred.  We long for Eden, yet in order to get back to Eden we are seemingly hell bent on destroying it in the process as we quest for what Eden is supposed to look like.  We are so far removed from a sense of Edenic contentment that all our quests now are simply idols.

70%.

70% consumer economy.

I fear for the world my children and their children will inherit.  Those percentages at compounded rates and those rates compounded by population growth should cause us all to pause and consider our daily routines and contemplate what a 70% CONSUMER economy really means.

May God help us because I fear there is no turning back from this precipice especially if the world continues to lack the global will to change it.