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Public Theology in the Digital Age

I had hoped to video call into a seminary course that my friend Kyle is teaching on public theology, online engagement, and how/why Christians might responsibly drive these nascent digital conversations. Due to a flight, I unfortunately wasn’t able to join the class live, but I still want to reflect on the questions that Kyle shared with me. I hope these reflections will be as helpful to the course as they were to me, and to other interested readers.

What motivate(d/s) you to bring your theological studies into the public sphere via social media? 

I’ve found in the Internet much of what many relatively lonely people, from LGBTQ teens to white nationalists, have – a place where I can connect with others from a wider community that reminds me I am not alone. A place to build momentum and find fellowship that extends beyond my local community.

I started to use social media in the same way that many young people do: without thinking critically about it, just imitating how I saw others acting. As I began to pivot towards using online spaces to engage critical questions of theology and power, I was forced to start thinking more intentionally about my practice. But there certainly wasn’t always a critical reflection embodied in my engagement, lacking sound theory there were certainly more thoughtful ways I could have contributed. We know that what we put out there is always out there, and that’s a scary thought: my great, great grandchildren will have full digital access to my well-intentioned half-truths and mistakes. I hope my children and future generations think more critically about this stuff from the outset.

It wasn’t until college, through participating in online video call book clubs, swapping blog platforms, tweeting, and then co-curating my own projects like the Theology of Ferguson and #StayWokeAdvent anthologies, I began to realize the organizing power of the web.

At first, I really didn’t think that anyone would really care what I was writing or talking about. Questions of representation have influenced how I see myself occupying space online. Knowing that there weren’t many Japanese American or queer or mixed race theologians being read or discussed in general, I became more interested in lending my voice in a public way. I think being present in online spaces is also healing for me, given my years of participation in traumatic forms of Christianity that didn’t really invite authenticity.

How would you describe the relationship between your local community of formation and your broader online community? How does each contribute to your studies and your theological identity? 

I was formed by Christian traditions that tended to share a healthy skepticism for positive uses of the Internet: we were encouraged to think of social media with metaphors of temptation and wildfire. These days, through seminary community and my work at a local Episcopal church, I feel lucky to have a community that honors my public witness. I don’t feel as much like I must hide who I am anymore, which is enormously healing…I have met many other people online for whom local community is toxic or otherwise lacking, which can make for a profoundly isolating journey of faith.

I’ve made many intimate and rewarding friendships online, many of whom even across distance by technology have been actively diffused into my “local” and daily emotional life. Sometimes, though, fusing these two realms has been difficult for me. I know in-person witness and online activity would both be greatly improved if I were able to figure this out better.

What is challenging about hosting and participating in theological conversations online? What is exciting about it?

Many things excite me here: the ability to participate in progressive theological commentary in the public square (not just micro-echo chambers), how this space can help infuse values of ecumenism, feminism, antiracism, and the friendships that can emerge from this cataclysm of pixels and passion.

I was in what I would now call a spiritually abusive faith community in college – when I was eventually placed under discipline for my “spirit of division,” I was asked to sign a contract asking me to stay off of Twitter and my blog for 16 weeks while I read church-selected texts instead. Looking back, their fear really reflects what can actually be a liberating dimension of these spaces, sharpening each other, broadening horizons.

Throughout history, Christians of different traditions were never able to engage each other so immediately. This can bring insight, but also venom…of course, much of the world’s poor is still without Internet access, and for them joining many of these “exciting new” questions is not an option…

There are plenty of other dangers. Of course our culture’s hyper-individualism is a constant threat. I know many people who embody compulsive and extremely unhealthy activity encouraged by constant beeps and pings of news somewhere else. Disputes online are often quickly vicious. With the bridle of personal responsibility clouded by anonymity, people aren’t often as accountable for our words. This manifests in hate speech very frequently, especially directed towards women, people of color, LGBTQ folks, sex workers, etc.

You think and write a lot about the intersection of race, sexuality, gender, theology, and the public sphere. What have you learned about the practice of online discourse and community around these particular topics? 

For one, I see learning from others through pointed conversations on social media as an active part of my own theological training. Twitter in particular has supplemented and improved my ability to think theologically by introducing me to the work of many diverse and faithful people with whom I otherwise never would have encountered. Given the racial insularity of most Americans’ social networks (especially true for whites, especially true in worship and church spaces), by connecting with the theological insights of other people of color online I have been able expand the tiniest bit further outside of my own social/ethnic bubbles.

In my experience Twitter, as a digitized urban space where anyone is able to connect with another without shared physical location (in-person) or prior relationship (Facebook), serves a unique and educational purpose, as well as a movement-building space for those interested in doing theology online in a just way. Again, this engagement has been personally helpful for not uncritically producing unconsciously racist white or myopic theology in my own life and work.

Something to watch out for is that all the dynamics of race, gender, sexuality, and power as manifested in physical interactions between people are all still at play in virtual spaces – often without being named as such.

What advice do you have for other faith leaders who want to participate in public theological conversation?

Hop in, with both feet! Ask questions and create content that you are passionate about, that engages pressing theological issues. (This could look like collaborative projects like @ThirtySOL or public conversations like #PresbyIntersect or #SlateSpeak or something entirely different). Form relationships, do not just push your project. Especially if you have a larger platform, boost and share content from people who are experiencing harm in concrete and overlooked ways. There are plenty of people with a public platform that will influence many people who have less than nothing to do with helping create imaginative and liberative theological content.

As encouraged in your course syllabus, I would suggest reflecting on and creating a personal “rule of life” around social media engagement/consumption to limit unhealthy behavior. This is an area in which I struggle, and would like to grow further. I would be eager to hear from others how they are able to increasingly honor their own physical community as well as lend a voice to broader conversations.

There is something unique that you have to add to this conversation. The cosmic cocktail of DNA consciousness flesh ancestors spirit that produced you has never before appeared, and never again will. You can bring your unique perspectives to the living questions of how to heed the call of Christian discipleship in the midst of awful social woes. You can help keep the same voices from dominating the theological conversation. Each of us is impoverished to go the journey without you.

Nikkei Theology: Untangling Barbed Wire

In my dreams I am frequently met with all manner of bodily calamity – teeth falling out, piping hot lava, exhaling steam pipes swallowing me up in fine, chalky mist. These dreams have been accelerating lately – there have always been zombies, but now they’re butcher-proof, the triggers on my pistols don’t work or the barrels spray only water.

I would be surprised if this back-order of spontaneous nightmares had nothing to do with last month’s election, or with the wider climate of fear and hatred that seems to be only growing around us. I preached a couple of weeks ago on the marked increase of hate crimes affecting Muslim, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities since the election. Last week, Japanese Americans in Chicago held a press conference with Arab and Muslim American groups condemning recent rhetoric seeking to justify a mass detention or profiling of these groups on the basis that, well, “we did it to those Japs.”

If you haven’t seen the Broadway Musical “Allegiance” yet, I would highly recommend it. I had the chance to travel to New York City last fall to watch the play and meet some of the cast. On Tuesday, I saw the theatrical one-night release of the show’s film with some friends in the Chicago area.

I can’t tell you how many times I was brought to tears in that room, especially in light of EO 9066’s approaching seventy fifth anniversary this February. Of course I thought of Uncle Clark and Joe, forced out of college and into concentration camps (not the kind that help you study). I thought of Uncle George, whose now-wrinkled hands once gripped a cold metal fence at Dachau, liberating its prisoners as his own family remained behind bars.

Whenever I let my mind revisit this history, I am also tuned into the screeching demands for patriotic “loyalty” that were so key to this process of strip-mining our humanity. We weren’t allowed to serve in the armed forces, live outside of barbed wire, our worship spaces and language schools were forcibly shut down.

These histories of forced adherence to Patriotic Orthodoxy on pains of exclusion and death cannot be mentally divorced from modern inquisitions into Theological Loyalty. These legacies violate and clamber through one another.

In short, I am no longer able to understand the accusations of “you’re not a real American, you damn traitor Jap!” wielded against my ancestors as qualitatively different from the “you’re not a real Christian, you damn deceiver heretic!” I received as I was being excised from white evangelicalism. Coming to terms with this has been incredibly healing in terms of recovering from spiritual abuse at the hands of vigilante theological “gatekeepers” – a pointed term for my people.

Leaning into my heritage as a Japanese American has been complicated: I have actually changed my name(!), I have messily broken up with conservative and liberal church communities that have internalized the Gospel of White Supremacy, burning bridges not through malice so much as fear, benign and panicked arsons. None of this has been without pain.

Sometimes people ask about my family’s history of immigration to the United States. I try to explain that we never came to America: America came to us. It bowled us over, conquered the Kingdom we lived in – questioned, interrogated, and incarcerated us, spirited our children towards grotesque whiteness, sent us to camp and abroad to water the fields of the American bloodlust with our lives.

These are stories that I cling to in times of pain. Now, more than ever, we will need to lean into the traditions and ways of our ancestors, drawing strength and witness from their lives. Our communities can help us resist oppression and see the face of God in unique ways.

cross

Last February, sean miura tweeted that as an organizer working among communities of color, he is “in a constant state of untangling barbed wire.” Few things have struck me as so profoundly true. Creating Nikkei theology in a world where I am often marked with suspicion and fear has, for me also, been a constant process of untangling barbed wire.

Untangling shame, silence, and complicity in gargantuan structures of violence that are deep-rooted and tentacled beyond imagination. Unspooling the precarious perch of slipping on the silken mask of whiteness, which at any time might once more slip into a noose. Unwinding vaulting beauty standards and our peculiar presence on colonized lands and our gnarled role in this faith tradition often seeded to our ancestors by brutality or Western fervor.

These are the kinds of questions that theology issued by Japanese American Christians will need to address in the coming decade, if we are not to fade into the mist of polite religion or quaint historic anecdote. And now more than ever, we must speak out against the sinister values that our country’s next President is determined to enflesh. Donald Trump embodies everything I believe people of faith and conscience are called to resist: white supremacy, sexual assault, bodily disownership, separation and pride.

Speaking honestly is an integral part of this process. Our theology must diagnose the essence of things, or it is lying. So enough: Trump does not have a “black” heart. He is not heralding “dark” times. Truly, he is not a “tribalist” or even a “Nativist,” but the opposite – a sterile and crystallized product of Western Civilization, whose “success” is only possible by an anti-indigenous violence that is the extinguishing of tribe and native.

We can all do something to resist. If you dance, sing, paint, or play, don’t give it up to fight for freedom – do more of those things. If you write, please write, and hold their conquest at bay with your words. Blog, tweet, start a book club, form a small group with loved ones or church members. Be patient with those who don’t “get it” yet in the way you do. And, always, care for yourself. These are white times we are headed for, friends, and we need each of you.

Crushing Liberating Theologies: From the Vatican to InterVarsity

I wanted to join InterVarsity when I was in college.

As a fresh-faced evangelical student newly arrived on campus, I signed my email up for half a dozen Christian fellowships on Quad Day: Young Life, InterVarsity, Cru, Christians on Campus, and local Catholic, Baptist, and Pentecostal mailing lists and student groups. When I eventually visited InterVarsity large group, I heard worship in four languages, saw a plethora of people of color, and witnessed someone of my ethnic identity preaching for the first time.

A few weeks later, my Campus Crusade for Christ (Cru) assigned mentor listened quietly as I recounted my excitement at visiting these new groups of Christians. He listened attentively and paused before responding quietly: “well, whatever group you choose, just stay away from the Korean and black churches…their theology is weighed down by cultural baggage, and isn’t as pure as what you might find in our fellowship.”

I felt pressured, and chose to stay in Cru. I’ve written before how I was later forced to leave that ministry over my LGBTQ family structure and issues of queer and transgender inclusion on campus. I try not to relive the days when I was physically threatened by my Driscoll-wielding mentor, shunned by my closest friends, sent Bible-quoting blogs written by fellow Cru members asking for our community to pray for my death. As that loss opened up fully before me, I would look longingly at the multiethnic, questions-welcome sort of community that my friends in InterVarsity seemed to have, and I would weep, lonely, feeling like I had fucked myself over by making the wrong choice.

* * * * *

Five hundred years before my birth, conquistadors in gleaming armor landed on the shores of the islands and lands we now call “the Americas,” and began a centuries-long campaign to plunder, enslave, mutilate, rape, and ethnically cleanse this land’s original inhabitants, justifying it all with a theology that proclaimed the godliness of the empire. Countless stories of religious resistance and complicity, faithful hope and prophetic undoing, have indelibly marked these lands in the many decades since.

During the mid-20th century, members of the dominant religious tradition in Latin America (Roman Catholicism) began to more explicitly articulate a way of talking about God (a theology) that challenged economic inequality, which always seemed to make sure that wealthy politicians, priests and bishops went well-fed while poor masses teemed in squalor.

Priests and laypersons began prophetically interpreting the Christian story in light of the suffering of the poor, the colonized, and the oppressed. Figures like Gustavo Gutiérrez voiced a theology of Catholic conscience that demanded broad, structural changes and an end to international colonial exploitation rather than simply maintaining traditional pietistic practices of charity; no longer would the disenfranchised be the cheap outlets for the rich to periodically purge their consciences by on occasion sending the hungry away with a few crumbs.

Instead, God was now described as actually having a “preference” for the poor, whose exploitation is an insult to Jesus Christ. Salvation, argued these prophets, wasn’t God saving your “soul” and whisking you off to some lily-white, country club heaven after you die, but God literally liberating the marginalized from social, political, and economic oppression in this world as an anticipation of Christ’s ultimate deliverance.

Broken pot with water pouring out

TIME Magazine recently reported that the parachurch ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) is now explicitly asking all staff members who support same-sex marriage to leave the organization (including employees at their publishing house, IVPress). This decision is so heartbreaking. I count dozens of LGBTQ IV students and staff as beloved friends­: fellow believers with whom I’ve fellowshipped in dining halls, in our homes and churches, in clubs and bars, and at Urbana Missions, Reformation Project, and Gay Christian Network conferences.

InterVarsity has meant so, so much to these people over the years. For the LGBTQ women, men, and nonbinary Christians who have loved or been loved well by IVCF in the past, this news isn’t some abstract, quaint new source of outrage. They don’t have the luxury of claiming objective distance here: this conversation is the intimate text of their lives splayed out in increasingly sharp and painful ways. This is flesh and blood: real loss and public shaming, broken and strained relationships, bruised faith and lost financial security. It represents the culmination of so many nightmares and dashed hopes.

* * * * *

Before long, these new currents of Latin American theology, themselves influenced by global movements of resistance to totalitarianism, began to uniquely flourish. As this movement of the poor, campesinos, women, merchants, laborers, indigenous leaders, and tentmaker-priests began to challenge their status quo of religiously-justified political oppression, the Vatican took notice.

Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) was one of the movement’s harshest critics. Ratzinger declared that these theologians were fundamentally corrupted in arguing that Christ’s teachings on the poor could be applied to current social situations, rather than serving as metaphors for judgment after death. He accused the third-world-driven movement of “cultural imperialism,” and wielding the Vatican’s influence prohibited Catholic seminaries and theological schools from teaching this kind of “Communist” God-talk.

The Vatican began to decisively legislate life out of its own ranks. Sri Lankan, Brazilian, and Indian priests were excommunicated and silenced for politically deploying the Eucharist and the Bible against the cheap grace and disembodied wealth of European colonialism. Indigenous leaders were pushed out of their beloved churches by higher-ups afraid of what this “liberating” theology would mean for their claims to trickle-down power. Others fared much worse: many liberation theologians were incarcerated, tortured, disappeared, dismembered, and murdered, often on orders from colonizing powers who went so far as to inaugurate new reigns of military terror to quell this movement.

* * * * *

Being raised in the US evangelicalism of the 2000s, I have grown up only knowing the Southern Baptist Convention as a bastion of right-wing, literalist, and exclusionary theology. The story of the denomination’s late 20th century shift rightward via a national takeover by fundamentalists who systematically eliminated more measured voices from church leadership goes too often untold. The spiritual homes that many had previously found in the Southern Baptist tradition were bulldozed, caked over with no-cracks-here theological concrete, leaving millions of believers unmoored and adrift.

In that same spirit, it grieves me to think that entire generations of college students will be deprived of the opportunity to know IVCF in the way some of my peers have known it. InterVarsity’s calculated purge designed to systematically root out latent support for same-sex marriage among its staff is the theological equivalent of the #Brexit. What thousands of untold future friendships, kinship relationships and “Jesus encounters” will be missed out on as a result of this move?

* * * * *

Any theology that insists upon the total dignity and inclusion of LGBTQIA people, in a context of institutionalized heterosexism, is a liberation theology. To affirm the validity of queer identities in a setting that is attempting to legislate them away is to participate in this challenging, life-saving theology.

There’s nothing more terrifying to comfortable purveyors of doctrine and power than a home-grown theological movement, nurtured right under their noses, which in advocating for those most pushed to the margins challenges existing discrimination. As the historical record shows, those who are talking about what God is doing in Christ in liberating ways are quickly cast as a threat. They are silenced by (para)church leaders, cauterized as cancers, swept aside by a proud system unable to see the very harm it is inflicting.

Faithful dissenters, themselves motivated by the testimony of scripture, are seen as dangerous radicals infiltrating the flock with an outside agenda. “Communists! Liberals! Heretics! Wolves in sheeps’ clothing!” This is why my Cru peers were able to tell others in good conscience that I had been deceiving them all from the outset, merely pretending to be a Christian.

Remember that those attempting to ebb the tide of God’s liberating spirit are fighting a losing battle. As the scripture says, “we have this treasure in clay pots so that the awesome power belongs to God and doesn’t come from us. We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out. We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies.”

May God burst forth in our midst, keep our treasured faith and protect these sacred clay jars that we call our bodies. Our wonderful, physical, fleshy, soft and embodied, queer and colored bodies. May God’s liberating spirit be born anew among us in these days of turmoil, breaking walls that bind, liberating us from captivity to power and exclusion.

* * * * *

I wrote this post only after speaking with LGBTQ staff, current students, and alumni of InterVarsity to make sure sharing my thoughts here would be helping and not hurting. These people are the ones whom this conversation most affects. Let’s center their voices in this time of grief, challenge, and lament.

Below are voices of a few such leaders, for whom I offer my prayers, love, and unqualified support. I will continue to update this post with resources and the latest campaigns related to the #InterVarsityPurge conversation.

Alexis

Haley

Bethany

Bianca

Kathryn

Michael