An American Problem

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King in Selma

Selma is the most important movie I have seen in a long time. Everyone should watch it because its telling of Civil Rights history holds a mirror to our present day. It’s an ugly picture, but we must confront it because white supremacy is far from being a vestigial remnant of the past. Jim Crow laws may be long gone, but every black life snuffed out by white police officers and vigilantes—who in turn are not called to account for their actions—testifies that racial equality and justice are nevertheless a long way off.

Two lines stood out to me when I watched Selma this afternoon. The first was delivered by Martin Luther King, and said something to the effect of white pastors who preach the Bible, but remain silent on these matters of racial justice in front of their congregations bear their share of guilt. This is a conversation that we must have in our churches, mine included, and it must go deeper than mealy-mouthed platitudes about what a great man MLK was. If we claim to admire Dr. King and what he stood for, but in the here and now find ourselves more concerned about riots and property damage and respectable behavior than about dead black bodies left uncovered in the street, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.

The second line came at the end of the film, as Lyndon Baines Johnson announced the Voting Rights Act of 1965: There is no Negro problem. There is no Southern problem. There is only an American problem.

There is no them. There is only you and me, only us.

Do we have the guts to look in the mirror and deal with what we see there?

Throw-Away Freedom, Disposable People

I

If you’ve spent any time traveling through the rural United States, you will likely have seen a pickup truck belching thick clouds of smoke every time the driver guns the accelerator. While unpleasant, I have always written this off as one of the ills of a poorly maintained vehicle. I can relate; keeping cars in tip-top shape is expensive, and as long as your wheels are rolling, it’s easy to find more important things to spend money on than routine maintenance.

My charitable attitude went out the window this week when I found out that there is a sub-culture of diesel pickup drivers who purposefully modify their trucks to blow as much black smoke as possible. They call it “rolling coal.”

This is what freedom looks and sounds like. I’ll leave the smell to your imagination.

This is throw-away freedom: the opportunity to literally burn the excess of my abundant resources for nothing more than self-gratification and let others pick up the tab. Freedom ain’t free, but I came by mine cheaply and to hell with you. What right have you to tell me anything different? Anyone who dares to disagree is a filthy commie, am I right? Global warming is a liberal conspiracy, cancer is something that happens to other people, and I don’t know how to spell “myopic”.

II

This selfish, short-term view of freedom manifests itself in more than a bunch of rednecks attempting to help their rural communities achieve air quality parity with Los Angeles. It is also evident in the attitudes of many people towards the tens of thousands of children who are attempting to escape gang violence in Central America and find refuge in the United States. There is no denying that 53,000 unaccompanied minors arriving at the border presents logistical difficulties for U.S. government officials at the local level, but there is no good reason why they should present political difficulties at the federal level. The response of the good citizens of this country who took it upon themselves to travel to the border and scream at busloads of frightened children is shameful.

It also reveals a cynical, fearful view of human nature.

America used to be known for its optimism. Millions of would-be immigrants who come to these shores each year still believe it, and share that optimism to the extent they think their lives would be better within the United States than without. Then they arrive at the border and encounter the xenophobic locals who greet them with fences, armed patrols, shouted slogans and a deep-seated certainty that if these people – these Others – are allowed in, these great United States will somehow decline and fall. Give me your huddled masses, indeed.

People with a healthy attitude towards freedom do not regard it as a limited commodity or a zero-sum proposition. It need not run short as demand increases. True freedom does not suggest that I ask what’s in it for me, but rather what can we accomplish together?

When a communal desire for freedom for everyone is fractured into an individual desire to take as much as I can and hoard it for myself, I view other people not as fellow members of the human race but as members of competing tribes. Aliens. Others. Those who are not as important as me. Worth less than me. Less human than me.

When I lose sight of other people’s humanity, their welfare is no longer my concern. I care about them only to the extent that I expect my pet politicians to keep them far away from me and my hard-earned and well-deserved luxuries. Why should I worry about their hardships, or pay for their food or healthcare? They have nothing of value to offer in return, so to me they are worthless. Disposable. Let them die.

III

Once we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s kosher to be indifferent to the suffering of Others, we find ourselves on a diabolical highway to a destination where we actively cause the suffering and death of Others. Humanity has been doing this for a long time. Anyone who ever started a war is guilty of this line of thinking. These Others represent a threat to our god, to our race, to our resources, to our very existence. Let us do unto them before they do unto us!

The Middle East has an especially rich history of people doing unto each Other. In the narrative favored by the evangelical Christian West, Israel is the scrappy underdog: a beacon of democracy, surrounded on all sides by neighbors who are hostile to its very existence. Militarily, however, any nation that has enjoyed the support of the United States for the entirety of its history is never the underdog. Whatever the proximate reasons (or excuses) for its current actions in the Gaza Strip, Israel cannot credibly claim to be acting proportionally or morally when the body count after six days of Operation Protective Edge is 167 dead Palestinians, of whom 70% are civilians.

But to the Israelis, and by proxy to their American supporters, the Palestinians are Others. Worthless. Disposable. Let them die.

I have a modification I need to make to my truck.

Eclectica: my favorites from the week of June 30, 2014

I think I’ve settled on a title for this weekly link curation, and this was an eclectic week indeed, ranging from a homily about how God is a bad farmer, to touching personal stories, to investigative commentary about the recent Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision, and more besides!

Dirt is Resurrection and God is a Bad Farmer (Homily for the Parable of the Sower)David Henson

Somehow, though, we’ve managed to warp this parable from this good news about God’s love of dirt into a parable of judgement on the soils that simply aren’t good enough. But if you notice, there is no judgement and no condemnation in the story. The soil exists as it is. The sower doesn’t spend any time wondering whether the rocky, or the hardened, or the thorny soil measures up or is worthy of the sower’s seeds — the very source of his life and livelihood.

The sower simply sows without judgement and without expectation.

On Our Tenth Anniversary, One Year After the FactBethany Bassett

We didn’t so much celebrate our tenth anniversary as we did survive it.

This was crushing to me. I had always thought of tenth anniversaries as milestones, gold-plated “You Are Here” signs along the paths of successful marriages. After ten years, we couldn’t fail to have our relationship figured out. After ten years, our exotic Hawaiian vow-renewal ceremony would practically write itself. After ten years… well, we definitely wouldn’t be staring down into our anniversary sangrias to avoid meeting each other’s eyes.

Expectations are the cruelest pranksters.

The GuestMicah J. Murray

I told him we didn’t have any orders waiting to be picked up, and asked what phone number he had called to place the order. As I suspected, it was for one of our other locations, twenty minutes away. That restaurant was closed by now too, the to-go order long gone.

With disappointment and hunger in his voice, the guest looked toward the kitchen and said, “I guess it’s too late to get a cheeseburger, isn’t it.”

And another one from Micah, with an altogether less pleasant flavor:

Hobby Lobby, the Duggars, and Bill Gothard

I often hear Christians dismiss Bill Gothard and his teachings as legalistic, fundamentalist, bizarre, and dangerous. Rightly so, especially in the wake of his alleged sexual misconduct. But many of these same Christians support Hobby Lobby or the Duggars for their “Christian values”, perhaps not realizing how closely they are connected to Bill Gothard.

This week, I’ve heard Christians hailing Hobby Lobby’s Supreme Court win as a victory for religious freedom. It’s a narrative of good Christian business people going up against the bullying of a tyrannical government — and winning.

Throughout this all, I’ve heard one phrase over and over again: “sincerely held religious beliefs”

I’m not going to wade into the issues of constitutional law or religious liberty involved in this case; others have addressed those points better than I ever could. But I do want to talk about those “sincerely held religious beliefs”.

And Micah is far from the only person who is uneasy about the Hobby Lobby decision:

The Hobby Lobby Is A Disaster For The Truly “Pro-Life”Benjamin L. Corey

I’ve always considered myself “pro-life” though I have distanced myself from the modern pro-life movement as I disagree with the goals (abolition instead of actual reduction) and because it’s not actually “pro-life” in any holistic sense; it’s simply pro-gun, pro-war, and pro-birth.

Most of those still culturally entrenched in the modern pro-birth movement have hailed the recent Hobby Lobby decision as a huge victory for the pro-life movement, but I think it’s a total disaster for anyone who is more than pro-birth. For the pro-birth folks however, this is a clear victory, because the only practical outcome is that we’ll see more births– at least in the short term.

The primary failure is this: this case attacked the very cure the pro-life movement should be seeking: access to contraception.

There are a lot of people raising eloquent voices in search of social justice, both within the church and at large. The following pieces have given me a lot to think about this week.

The Line Between a Heretic and a Prophet is ThinSuey Park

As I said earlier, faith in action is more of a beginning than an end. I’m still in the very beginning stages of figuring out what transformative justice looks like within the church, or if it’s even possible to organize in the margins within an institution that is married to the state, but what an amazing force we would have if the church began to do what it was meant to do and centered the voices and needs of the most marginalized. Imagine how much change could happen if the church stopped interpreting God’s will to mean unchecked institutional power and instead as a rejection of it?

Op-Ed: How My Conservative Religion Almost Killed MeConnor Brassington

Having grown up in the SDA community, I knew what the Bible said about homosexuality. I knew the verses, and I knew the arguments. For years I used them to convince myself that what I was feeling was wrong, and to act on my attractions was the fast track to hell. I spent years trying to “pray away” my attractions, often crying myself to sleep at night, my head whirling with hopelessness and self-loathing.

AcceptanceBen Moberg

I was born into this faith. I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer at five years old and I believed those words of prayer would encircle like a charm. As if this promise held the power to protect me from anything bad in the world, from anyone that would want to hurt me. I believed in the Church, I felt safe in the Church, and I felt all the more held to be officially part of her people.

Then I found out I was gay.

In those preteen days, the whole realization felt impossible. I couldn’t be both a Christian and gay, I had to be one or the other. And yet the feelings stayed… but I said the prayer first. Questions blew through my mind as I tried to make sense of it all until I came upon a terrible, terrible thought: What if… God didn’t choose me back?

My “Affair” With a Youth PastorMarie Jensen (via Samantha Field)

I have told my story directly to the churches he bounces to. They never believe me, despite the fact that I bring backup, references from therapists I’ve seen, contact information for my peers in the youth group, people still in leadership at that original church. He tells a story when he’s hired of this poor, deluded girl who tells lies about him. And so they choose not to believe me.

Or perhaps they do. Perhaps they believe me but choose to value his redemption over the safety of the girls in their church. I’m guessing they also minimize the gravity of what he did. A fifteen-year old is old enough to say no, isn’t she? Perhaps they see me as complicit, as he must when he is honest with himself, and they extend him the grace that seems so freely given in these situations. But grace comes after repentance. And this man has never admitted a single thing, much less repented.

The previous two pieces are inspiration for a dark, angry song that I wrote about abuse in the Church. I’m going to share it this week with my local songwriters’ group, and hopefully after their critique I’ll be able to polish it up to something that is worth sharing here.

Thy Kingdom ComeTony Woodlief

I don’t think they love their children any less than I love my own, which tells me something about what their lives must be like, to send their babies away. Their children stream northward in droves—as many as 60,000 this year—and we don’t want them. We don’t want their skin lesions and their hungry bellies, we don’t want their parents and aunts and uncles likely to follow, we don’t want them taking our jobs and clogging our classrooms and driving without insurance on our roads. We have no place for them in our country and certainly not in our hearts.

Let’s Worship Money Together!April Fiet

We’ve known for a long time that creating a shrine to our money would be frowned upon. After all, Jesus said some things about doing that. But, after chipping away at our deeply held religious convictions for a long time now, we’ve finally found a way to couch our money worship in thinly veiled Christian language. We’ve found a way to worship the almighty dollar in the name of the Bible’s Almighty God.

It’s a win-win, really. We can profess a faith that opens the door to being elected to political office. We can honor Jesus with our words on Sunday morning – or at least in our Facebook rants – and then do whatever we want for the rest of the week. We can claim to serve a servant Savior, all while buying our way into the positions of power and status and prestige that insure we’ll never need to serve anyone other than ourselves again.

Varieties of Heritage InterpretationJonathan Wilson

Together, these two exhibitions turned Independence Mall into a weird paradox: a holy site that was also shot through with evil. The effect on visitors seemed … misleading. Someone there with me commented that the Founding Fathers “never should have done it”—they never should have compromised their principles to allow slavery. As much as I would like to agree, I think that’s wrong. It’s thinking of slavery as if it were a strange sediment in the elixir of American liberty and not part of the recipe.