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stop praying for peace in Ferguson

On Monday night, St. Louis county prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch held a press conference to announce the grand jury’s decision not to indict police officer Darren Wilson for the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown on August 9th of this year.  McCulloch began his prepared remarks by first choosing denigrate and shame (mostly black) social media users, inflammatory journalism, and unreliable eyewitness testimony, then proceeded to proffer a lengthy defense of officer Wilson’s actions.  To many on both sides of the decision, McCulloch’s words came off as a condescending, careful way of crescendoing to a conclusion that had become apparent by his second or third sentence.

I know I am not the only one who sat there that night with tears running down my face, scolding myself for holding a sliver of hope, as I watched the attorney’s rhetorical shifts begin to spiral towards a sentence that seemed predestined from the moment those six lead bullets entered Mike Brown’s black body.

I quickly turned to social media, which was feverishly lit up with demands for justice juxtaposed alongside the familiar boasts of the powerful. Predictably, “I’m glad he got off!” and “see, trust in the system” comments were couched neatly alongside tweets and statuses condemning those scary “angry rioters and looters” who are “destroying their own communities like animals.”  Accompanying and underlying many of these comments were solemn cries from many Christian friends urging people to (stop protest and dissent and) just pray for peace in Ferguson.

notice: protestors=violent they–not white supremacists–are destroying our country

notice how protesters are painted as both violent and anti-God. They, not white supremacists, are what is destroying our country.

I saw Christians of all colors propose prayers for peace, rest, healing, removed and spiritualized calm. Many publicly urged the dispersal of crowds of protesters, telling people to stay at home, to go to sleep, to quell their obviously overblown rage. Many quoted Martin Luther King Jr to drive their commitments home, tossing out some of his classic lines (remember: hate cannot drive out hate!) to suggest that those who take to the streets in protest are only causing more problems for themselves.

Lost in the midst of this wilted discourse is the sacred biblical commitment to communal lament, towards protest and prophesy and social action. Forgotten are the Christian tradition’s clear commands to stand in solidarity with the suffering, to resist destruction, to shout a resounding NO to the powers of death, as Christ did through his resurrection.

Instead, we have a people of faith praying as gnostics for the return to a status quo that continues to dehumanize and oppress millions of American citizens. We have Christians asking God to stick Band-Aids on gargantuan, multigenerational fissures, as pastors and parishioners are making it abundantly clear that they have no other desire than to re-mask the powers, to smooth over the surface ripples and obscure those who are flailing and drowning beneath the water.

The prophet Jeremiah (who is often whittled into safe, digestible chunks as the “I know the plans I have for you” guy) has a strong word for those who practice this kind of myopic behavior:

To whom can I speak and give warning?
    Who will listen to me?
Their ears are closed
    so they cannot hear…

They dress the wound of my people
as though it were not serious.
‘Peace, peace,’ they say,

    when there is no peace.

Peace, peace, they pray for you: go home and calm down and stay quiet and submit to authority (and dress nice!) and keep letting the system strip you of your dignity; don’t march in the streets, don’t fight, don’t release your anger, don’t act like animals, don’t stay woke, don’t remember, don’t cry out for justice in the wilderness.

And yet anyone who has taken a nominal glance around the state of our country’s criminal justice system has seen that there is no peace. Anyone who has heard the voices of the thousands upon thousands of protesters who are marching across our country each night–anyone who has witnessed the masses in Ferguson who have been demonstrating for over 100 consecutive nights–they have surely seen that there is no peace.

Meanwhile, culturally complacent Christians quote Martin Luther King in order to try and placate and shame into silence those who are hurting and rightfully outraged. These believers quickly condemn rioting and looting while paying little attention to the naming of powers and principalities: here, white supremacy and systematic racism.

separate but equal?

I want these Christians to know that Martin Luther King also acknowledged that riots are the language of the unheard – I want them to know that rioting happens when a desperate and battered community believes it has exhausted every other viable form of resistance. Broken bottles are stand-ins for broken bodies. Shattered storefronts and cracked windows become reminders of the forgotten communities that have been systematically deprived, incarcerated, and otherwise preyed upon by those who were supposed to protect them.

Don’t hear me attempting to justify the actions of those brazen, disturbed few who take advantage of these protests in order to fuel their own personal fetishes towards thrill, arson, unfettered chaos. But hear this: there are few things more despicable and unhelpful for Christians to be doing right now than condemning the “violence” of protestors while simultaneously ignoring the violence of the system.

That is, if you are more worried about preventing property damage than you are about unequivocally affirming the fact that black lives matter, your priorities are hopelessly skewed. If you decry those who march angry with God in the streets, if you share photos and lament the horrid destruction “they’ve” caused while glossing over the fact that these people have reason to be angry, you have chosen to reject the gospel by supporting a racist system that applies the death penalty to human beings made in God’s own image.

By all means, pray for God’s shalom and lasting peace to fully reveal itself in our nation, and in Ferguson. But if your praying for peace means silencing righteous outrage, then it means praying for the continuation of a status quo that has repeatedly proven itself to be destructive to black lives.  If that’s what you mean by peace, then you are literally praying for more violence.

Because praying for peace without protest means praying for more white supremacy.  Praying for silent grief means advocating for an established anti-Christ agenda – asking God for more death, more dehumanization, more destruction of your fellow image-bearers.

This is what your God asks of you: fill your ears not with imposed silence, but with the cries of the oppressed. Do not condemn black Americans for daring to reassert their humanity in the face of a system that leaves them uniquely disenfranchised; rather, realize that the brutalists have been shaking, poking and prodding at this soda can of a situation for centuries.  Admit that maybe shouting is sometimes the only way to be heard.

Those crying peace, peace and appealing to higher things easily forget that their Martin Luther King also taught that “any religion that professes to be concerned with the souls of men and is not concerned with the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a dry-as-dust religion. Such a religion is the kind the Marxists like to see—an opiate of the people.”

How do we faithfully reject this weak-willed, dry-as-dust, opiate-of-the-masses kind of Christianity?

We might start by forcibly divorcing Christ from Caesar, by admitting that as disciples of Jesus, our primary loyalties lie not with the empire of the United States, but with our citizenship in the kingdom.  We might remind one another that while Caesar breaks our bodies and spills our blood and calls our neighbors gangsters and thugs, Christ breaks nothing but his own body, spills naught but his own blood, and calls us only to the margins.

How might we know if we’re getting closer to the answer, if our triune God is actually stripping away our prejudices and privileges and keeping present with us in these thorny spaces?  What sort of journey might we begin to expect?  The answer has something to do with action, corporeality, incarnation, and protest.

God present with the crucified, the dispossessed.  This is what theology looks likea grieving father lost in pain; a child swinging from Auschwitz gallows; a black body left burnt and hanging from a poplar tree; a ragged figure nailed to a Roman cross; a young man shot six times and lying broken and bleeding in the street.

on (liberation) theology and (white male) privilege

Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently posted about the intersection of theology and privilege:

I’m not saying white, educated men are uniquely biased. I’m saying we’re ALL biased (myself included!), and that our theology is made richer when we engage it with a diversity of people, especially those to whom Jesus first brought the gospel. The problem is, in our culture, white/male/Western is often considered the “default setting,” with other perspective relegated to niches or discounted as too personal/emotional/biased..theology matters and belongs to everyone, not just the privileged and not just those who do it for a living.

I think her point is a salient one, and I find the conversation about where privilege intersects with theology to be fascinating, so I wanted to write a few thoughts and observations here.

As Rachel observes, being a white man is often treated as the “default” setting in society.  Notoriously, whites and white men are simply seen as “people,” while everyone else is a “______ person,” with a variety of other “secondary” signifiers branching out from there.

While I agree that no one approaches the Bible with an entirely unbiased lens, I think it’s too generous to suggest that the most privileged groups are not “uniquely biased” in their approaches.  That is, there remains something particularly dangerous about the potent combination of privileged identities (male, white, etc) when it comes to teaching theology as Christ demonstrated it.

As Christians, we have been taught to look to white men to teach us proper theology.  Historically, our most popular and intellectually-acclaimed religious thought comes from male theologians working in European settings and entirely white contexts.  Theological “contributions” from Asia, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and other regions of the globe have not been centered, but dismissed and “contextualized” as important to their own particular time and place, shelved as secondary for not being as objective and Enlightened as White thought.  (Thinking here of the time my old Bible study leader told me to avoid “the Korean and black churches” because their theology was “not as pure” as Bill Bright’s.)

What is unfortunate about the constant re-centering of exclusively male (and white) writers by the mainstream Church is this: when people in relative positions of societal power offer their theological reflections, as brilliant as they are, their readers receive a very limited package.  Not only are a) other diverse voices absent from the conversation, but b) the very idea of trickle-down theology simply isn’t the way Jesus went about things.

claudio

Earlier this week, I interviewed Brazilian American liberation theologian and liturgist Claudio Carvalhaes for the Theology of Ferguson project.  Many parts of our conversation stuck with me.  One thing in particular that Professor Carvalhaes–who grew up “a shoe shining boy in São Paulo“–continued to insist upon was this idea that “theology starts where it hurts.”

Liberation theology (which notably did not emerge among white European theologians) echoes this commitment to searching for the lost voices when it comes to beginning theological discourse.  Some call this logic God’s preferential option for the poor–primarily fielding the concerns of the oppressed before airing the complaints of society’s upper echelons.

For liberation theologians like Claudio, scripture’s polemics against the powerful aren’t simply trite cautions against excess or flashes of ultimate eschatological hope.  Rather, declarations like those found in Mary’s Magnificat–God’s promises to scatter the proud, cast down the mighty from their thrones, exalt the humble, and send the rich away empty–represent God’s commitment to starting theology with those on the margins.

This must remain core to what the Church teaches when we’re having modern conversations about privilege and who’s instructing us on how to live.

This is why I believe that (contrary to traditional wisdom) classically-trained white men might be among the least capable of teaching sound theology.  Those who hold positions of unqualified social privilege must naturally be counted among the last to declare freedom from outside influence when it comes to proclaiming the good news (which centrally, in Christ’s own words, is “good news for the poor“).

While many individuals (especially LGBT persons, immigrants, people of color, women, and those with disabilities) are traditionally disadvantaged in numerous spheres of daily life, white men since birth have been soothed and affirmed by American society at every turn.  They don’t “start at the bottom” of the social ladder, so they’re spared bumping up against the grain of dehumanizing scandal and humiliation.  Instead, they can remain “impartial” and begin at the top of the food chain, already with a seat at the table.  In this, they are indeed “uniquely biased” to talk about a kingdom where the first become last, where the honored guests are the beaten and disenfranchised.

Think of how many of our highest-lauded preachers and teachers fit this mold.  Think how few exceptions there are to this rule (and here, progressive churches have been performing as atrociously as conservative ones).  I’m not doubting the talent, earnestness, and intelligence of white men in teaching theology, but I am calling for them to a) make room for other voices and b) examine how their social advantages might uniquely blind them to the struggles of the poor and the maligned (read: Christ’s own people).

What would it look like for (educated, straight, English-speaking, able-bodied) white men to humble themselves by intentionally stepping aside and creating space for traditionally marginalized perspectives in theology?  This move should not be motivated by outside pressure (or by some misguided sense of liberal guilt) but because the homogeneity of the privileged in Christian theological discourse is literally distorting the beauty and application of the gospel.

When we gather around the pulpit or the communion table, it is our imperative to ask: who is missing here?  What voices are being talked over?  More importantly: who might we need to move aside (the answer may be ourselves!) and what tables need to be flipped (once again, it may be ours) in order to welcome the dispossessed into the body of Christ?

Instead of privileging (maleness and) whiteness above all other theological perspectives–a philosophy sometimes called white supremacy–may we learn to follow God’s heart in showing preference for those who are poor and despised; not only for their sake but also for ours.

a small smattering of words I hate

It’s been a really busy couple of weeks.  I’ve been swamped with work, classes, event planning, and trying to tread water in the complicated soup of human relationships that is life.

I thought I’d write a little fluff post to allay some of the anxiety that crops up whenever I don’t write frequently enough (who decides what “enough” means is beyond me).  Below are a small collection of words that, over the past few months and years, I have begrudgingly learned to hate.  If interested, one could probably tease out the trajectory of the various ideological groups (eg. hardcore, wrath-fetishizing Calvinists, swaths of ignorant w**** folks, homophobic schoolyard bullies, grammar blunderers) that have contributed to my current discomfort with many of these terms.  But I’ll admitthat although the way many of these words are applied is enough to make me cringe whenever I hear them, each of these words is innately valuable and can be redeemed through reframing it in proper discourse.

So here is a small smattering of words I hate:

holiness

sovereignty

depravity

unbeliever

elect

submit

help-meet

lifestyle

ex-gay

queer (when it’s being used in the bullying, old-fashioned way)

sissy

homosexuals (PS, looking at you, Gagnonhomosexualists and homosexualism aren’t words)

exotic

colorblind

all-the-facts

self-defense

creationism

divisive

birthright

reverse-anything

snitch

civility

broken

trickle-down

should

slut

thug

fat

not-all-_____!

crusade

microinvalidation

proud (when referring to Native people)

hardworking (when referring to Asian Americans)

inspirational (when referring to people with disabilities)

“normal”

re-ocurring

ickspecially

redirection

* * *

Hmm, that’s all I can think of for now.  How about you? What are some words that you hate?

10 distinct pleasures (and pains) only an RA knows

I wrote this post last August but forgot to publish it for whatever reason.  It’s still appropriate, although this year I have fewer residents and I’d like to think I’m a bit more seasoned to the wise ways of the RA.  Here’s the post – may it serve as a snapshot of my mind approximately one year ago today.

floor

my old floor. love each one of these guys.

It’s easily been one of the most stressful weeks of my life.

I haven’t gotten a lot of sleep lately, my skin is breaking out, I’m failing at being a good brother, my classes are moving forward and I’m still struggling to catch up.

I’m wondering how to balance being a resident advisor on top of all my commitments.  But I’m soothed by some things I’ve noticed on my floor lately, so I wanted to write about them here.

Here are ten distinct pleasures only an RA knows, ten reasons I know my residents and I are going to get along just fine:

  1. Brushing your teeth and one of your residents walks in to the bathroom and stops and starts looking at you.  You’re like “what’s up?” and he’s like “oh, I gotta take a huge dump but I don’t want you to have to smell it so I’ll wait for you to finish.”
  2. Walking down the hall and seeing residents who stop in their tracks to read your new bulletin boards.
  3. Seeing residents out and about on campus and having them give you not only the acknowledging up head nod but also the respectful down head bump.
  4. Knowing you have early classes tomorrow but hosting around 15 residents in my room to either play cards against humanity or fishbowl and having a blast anyway.
  5. Getting to practice the things I’m learning in my social work coursework with my floor: how are you feeling today?
  6. Small talk.  Hearing lifelong friendships begin to seal and cement in real time.
  7. Being a role model.
  8. Not having your door decs torn down or vandalized.
  9. Meeting so many international students – I have residents from Japan, Australia, Spain, China, and Korea.  There are so many languages going around, and we have even created stickers to label items on our floor for our Japanese student Kazuhiro.
  10. Seeing all the random objects – shoes, socks, trash bins, scotch tape, and shower caddies – that residents use to prop open their doors, as you proudly walk down the hallway.

As a fun addendum to this article, I’ll add 10 distinct pains and annoyances only an RA knows, which I wrote just now:

  1. When your residents try to sneakily keep (weird) pets – gerbils, frogs, ball pythons – in their rooms hidden under their beds.
  2. Hearing echo from the bathroom that persistent, annoying hrrrrrcgh clearing-of-the-throat sound.  Having it infect your dreams. (This may happen more on male floors)
  3. Paper.  Work.  They misbehave – and you have to write a detailed incident report about it.
  4. The sickly sweet sour smell of freshmen frequenting fraternities vomit.
  5. Knocks on your door at 3am for the most absolutely asinine reasons – my pet died! I’m locked out of my room in a towel!
  6. Finding unflushed toilets and piles of body hair in the showers.
  7. Getting severe written redirections from your supervisors for giving charitable interviews to your school paper (just me?).
  8. Planning an exquisite, creative floor event and marketing for it for weeks only to discover that no one shows up.
  9. Having to send your significant other six floors away to find an opposite gender bathroom.
  10. Learning to distrust more than anything else the smell of fresh Febreeze on a Friday evening.
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