On Statues and Idols

egypt_queen_pharaoh_hatshepsut_statue

The museums of Egypt are not like the museums here. Here, there is so much empty space and clean lines.

In Egypt, giant statues are packed so close together you wonder how the building can hold them all. Four- and five-thousand year-old artifacts are stacked nearly on top of each other. Gods, kings, and queens stare down at you from impressive heights. The weight of history feels overwhelming.

I wonder: “What would it have been like to be a Hebrew slave, looking up at these images?”

Biblical history and archeological history have some fuzziness regarding this point, but humor me for a minute. Imagine being surrounded by these gods and kings all the time and being reminded of your second class status. The gods, you see, look like Pharaoh—not you. The gods put Pharaoh in charge. You? Your life doesn’t matter.

When those Hebrew slaves escaped Egypt, they made their way to Mount Sinai, the story goes, and God told them, “Don’t make any images of gods. I don’t need your statuary.”

Why didn’t the Hebrew God need statues? God didn’t want to be tied to the political leaders. God didn’t want to be remade in the image of the ruling class. After all, according to the Hebrew story, all human beings—regardless of gender—were made in the image of God. Therefore, if you want to see God, look at your neighbor.

It was radically egalitarian. That’s the ethic of people who know the bitterness of oppression and the sweetness of freedom.

In spite of what white supremacists, neo-Nazis, modern would-be-confederates and their enablers say, most public statues are not and have never been about “history.” They are expressions of power and the propagation of myth. It can be a myth about history, sure. But it ain’t history. That’s why Pharaohs had a tendency to tear down old ones and put up new ones of themselves. Roman Emperors had a similar approach.

Outside the Jefferson County Courthouse, there is a memorial to fallen police officers. It is a statue of a fallen gladiator.

Let that sink in a moment. It is not a statue of a police officer. It is not a statue of Blind Justice (which would be far more appropriate). It’s a gladiator. What history is it teaching? What does it say about criminal justice?

Downtown, there is a Confederate Memorial. You do not see groups of school children gather around it to learn history. It has no teaching function. And this year, the Alabama legislature imposed a penalty if our city decides to take it down. What lesson is it intended to teach?

This is not about history. This is about power. Specifically, white power, and the power of the majority-white state legislature to tell cities what they cannot do. It is the power of the 1901 Alabama Constitution, the goal of which its architects explicitly said was to “establish white supremacy in this state.” It is an idol to a Southern myth that there was something noble and virtuous about the Civil War, that “defending our way of life” or “defending states rights” meant something other than championing white supremacy and devaluing black lives.

These statues and memorials are monuments to Pharaoh and Caesar. They are monuments to the divine right of white supremacy.

“So take them down and put them in a museum,” some people say. Fine. Let them gather dust somewhere, along with the other idols to petty tyrant gods and egocentric rulers. Let children on field trips pass by them and wonder what spiritual power they had over those who created it. Or let the statues be melted down and made into liberty bells, and let the history be taught to children by well-compensated teachers in well-funded schools.

And let those children know that they are made in God’s image, and that no Pharaoh or Caesar can take their freedom from them.

White Noise

Update 8/15: I wrote this last month, but it seemed too angry. Now it seems too tame. 
This song is meant to be sung in the sweetly sarcastic folksy style of Pete Seeger. 

A businessman was happy ‘bout his real estate downtown
And he couldn’t understand the fact it made some people frown
And he said with some frustration that if people who were brown
didn’t stop with the complaining it would bring his value down.

 

He said, “there was racism back in 1963;
But racism is over and it doesn’t bother me.
And gentrifizzication occurs naturallifically,
It’s simply market forces just as far as I can see.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Ignore it and racism will just go away
Like shingles, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

Well Black Lives Matter blocked a street and made her late for work,
And she got up in her feelings and said that all of them were jerks.
“If they wouldn’t be divisive they would sure have my support.
Just work within the system and wait for justice from the court.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Like rain clouds give way to a bright sunny day
Like diabetes, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

“Well slightly less than half of us elected 45;
And Beauregard Jeff Sessions wants the drug war to survive.
Some say incarceration is just legal slavery
But we’re number one in prisons here in this land of the free.

 

“We’ve worked hard to create a culture that is colorblind;
And we’ve made so much progress that no child is left behind.
The fact that some contest it is truly a disgrace
The problem that we live with surely isn’t about race.”

 

It’ll just —  go away, It’ll just — go away
Ignoring white priv’lege will make it go away.
Like appendicitis, or cancer, let’s just wait and pray
If we don’t talk about it, it’ll just go away.

 

The preacher was offended that I said his God was white.
He said I was unloving and so very impolite.
But the Jesus that I know of wasn’t killed for being tame.
And a gospel without justice is a dirty rotten shame.

 

‘Cause it won’t go away, no it won’t go away.
Just wishing and praying won’t make it go away.
And when folks fight against it, don’t stare in dumb dismay.
You’d best decide which side you’re on before the Judgment Day.

Voting Is Not Consumption

If your vote isn’t important, why are they trying so hard to take it away?

We’ve come to think about democracy as a form of consumption, like everything else, where voting is just a indication of preference. This is what the dominant narrative wants you to think: politics is just like buying a pair of socks. That way, when they place restrictions on that right or take it away from your neighbors, you won’t mind so much.

But democracy is really about what happens on either side of election day. It’s about telling stories, building relationships, and leveraging power. It’s holding officials accountable and showing up at their offices. Your officials don’t represent you if they don’t have a relationship with you.

The forces of domination and empire would really rather you stay home, stay quiet, and let lobbyists and money have all the influence. Even our Supreme Court has declared that democracy is consumption, because money is speech.

That is a lie.

Alabama,* we’ve got elections coming up. Your state has tried to make it as difficult as possible for you to vote — spreading out multiple elections in the same month (senate primaries on the 15th, municipal elections on the 22nd), shutting down registration locations, and most recently, refusing to tell some ex-prisoners that they may actually be able to vote after all.

Your state legislators have gerrymandered you so officials could choose their voters instead of voters choosing their officials. They have sold you the most cynical and hopeless of political narratives, that “this is Alabama, and it’s just the way things are,” because they want you to stay home. They DO NOT WANT you to turn out. They have made that abundantly clear.

If this is your home, fight for it.

1. Make sure you are registered (They may have silently unregistered you if you haven’t voted recently. They do that.)

2. Make sure you know your polling place (They may have moved it, or moved your district. They do that, too.)

3. Join the discussion. Go to the forums and debates. Talk to your neighbors. There are multiple opportunities to hear from candidates before the election, so you don’t have to walk in to the voting booth uninformed. Check out Stand As One and I Believe in Birmingham.

4. If you have a strong preference, join a campaign, or if you’re just serious about your community, join one of many Get Out The Vote campaigns (I’m with Faith in Action Alabama). They have a way for you to help. Work with your congregation or other community organization to get people to the polls.

5. On election day(s), VOTE.

6. After election day, hold your representatives accountable. Stand As One, who represents over 20 justice, advocacy, and service organizations is asking for follow-up meetings with candidates 100 days after their election. Faith in Action Alabama, a multi-faith, multi-racial federation of over 60 congregations all across Alabama, has a multi-year strategy to engage our state legislators and our governor. Write, call, and email your officials about your vision for your community.

Yes, I recognize that having the time to be engaged is a privilege. Making you too tired and overwhelmed to participate, keeping people in a state of perpetual poverty and debt; that is part of the disenfranchisement strategy. That’s why we have to love and support each other. Help your neighbors. Babysit their kids. Make food for each other. That’s also democracy.

Do not buy into the lie that your vote is just an indication of preference. You are not buying a pair of socks; you are shaping our future.

“Promote the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because your future depends on its welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7)

 

*I’m focused on where I live. If you’re reading this in another state, a lot of this same stuff applies! Look up “get out the vote” campaigns in your state.

An Open Letter to My Parents’ Pastor

Important words from a follower of Jesus.

A Rebel Table

You don’t know me, and I’m not usually in the habit of writing open letters, but this is a special occasion.

You’ve been the pastor of Alliance United Methodist Church for two Sundays now. Last Sunday you gave a sermon about the authority of Scripture. About halfway through the sermon, you said some things that hurt a lot of people very deeply. Towards the end, you mentioned that you don’t care about hurting people’s feelings (which doesn’t strike me as very pastoral, but that’s another letter).

Long story short, my parents are leaving Alliance.

Here are some things you should know: we’ve been members for 13 years, since I was ten years old. My brother and I were confirmed there; I preached for the first time there; until recently, I thought I would get married there.

Another thing you should know: I am a lesbian. I came out this year,

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Prayer for the Resistance

This is a version of the prayer I prayed last Friday, which marked the end of a five-day sit-in for health care.

“What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.” (Micah 6:8).

Intro

I am grateful for your witness. Like Joshua marching outside the walls of Jericho, y’all have been laying spiritual siege to this fortress.

The resistance has two parts. The first part is political, and it consists of issues: health care, mass incarceration, a failed war on drugs, tax cuts for the rich, sanctuary and mass deportations, the exploitation of the environment, and the list goes on and on.

But the second part is spiritual. It’s a dominant narrative that we must resist, a narrative that says racism is over, but some people’s lives don’t matter; that corporations are people, but real people’s votes don’t matter; that money is speech, so if you’re poor and sick your voice doesn’t matter.

Some people tell me they don’t much care for the Bible because of passages about violence and the wrath of God. But those passages were written by people who were oppressed. The reason people wrote about the wrath of God is because of BS like this health care bill.

I’m not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, but imprecatory prayers are in the Psalms. So today I offer an imprecatory prayer about the authors of this terrible health care bill.

Prayer

Good shepherd,
you tell us that the job of our leaders is to care for your flock:
to bind up the injured,
to tend the sick,
feed the hungry,
and to seek out the lost.

But our bad shepherds
have enriched themselves
at our expense.
The fat sheep
have butted and shoved,
not only drinking the best water
but fouling the rest;
not only eating the best pasture,
but trampling it down for others,
destroying your creation
and polluting our world.

Therefore, God, we ask you
to frustrate the plans of these bad shepherds.
Jam their copiers;
make their printers run out of toner;
make them miss appointments and misfile documents;
confound them with communication problems;
and let their immaturity
create conflict among their teams.
Make their work on this bill
like the Tower of Babel.
Confuse them and shame them.

But, God,
let their fax machines
and phones
and mail work perfectly
so they can hear
from each and every one of us
who text
and fax
and email
and write letters
and show up at their offices
to unsettle their comfortable corruption.

Let there be a spirit of love and unity among the resistance.
Let us dismantle racism
and white supremacy,
sexism,
ableism,
homophobia,
and transphobia,
not just in our world,
but in ourselves.

Give us grace to be gentle with ourselves and each other,
persuasive in speech,
wise in discernment,
and courageous in action.
Give us encouraging voices,
fearless resolve,
and love that is real love,
and not just paternalism.

We ask this, Good Shepherd,
in your name,
on behalf of your flock,
and your people.

Amen.

Karen, Your Faith Isn’t Worth Sh*t

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If you’ve got a problem with this title, take it up with Jesus. He said salt that has lost its flavor isn’t fit for the soil or the manure pile (Luke 14:34-35). Maybe that doesn’t strike you as offensive. Maybe you are mindful of the wonderfully fertile qualities of shit. People refer to worm shit (“castings”) as “gardener’s gold.” Chicken and cow poo is good, too. But salt without flavor is mostly good for killing things. Even shit has redeeming qualities.

When Karen Handel says her faith “leads her to a different place” on gay adoption, I’m not playing with this toxic manure. Faith that leads you to prevent gay parents from adopting does not bring life. You aren’t “saving” kids from becoming gay, or increasing the probability of them having healthy childhoods, or reducing the suicide rate of LGBTQ youth. Quite the opposite. It isn’t spreading the Good News. You’re doing harm in the name of Jesus, and that’s some serious bullshit. Not the good kind.

And don’t give me this hypocritical tone-policing humbug that has a problem with the word “bullshit” either. I’ve got LGBTQ friends and church members who have adopted kids, and straight parents who have adopted LGBTQ kids. This is not a difference of opinion. This is an attack on people I love. There are much, much stronger words that are appropriate, but they can articulate them better than I.

Mixing your flavorless faith with bullshit doesn’t make it worthy of our community garden. You and Roy Moore can keep that manure in your own yard. I don’t need the stink.

For further reading:

On Bullshit, by Harry Frankfurt

Text of the Day for 5-30-17

136.The_Prophet_Amos

Today’s text is from Amos 2:6-7:

Thus says the Lord:
For three transgressions of Israel,
and for four, I will not revoke the punishment;
because they sell the righteous for silver,
and the needy for a pair of sandals—
they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
and push the afflicted out of the way… (NRSV)

This is one of those passages that packs even more of a punch when you read it in context. Amos starts in chapter 1 by addressing all the surrounding nations and city-states: Damascus, Tyre, Gaza, Edom, and so on. He uses the same phrase: “For three transgressions, and for four…”

It’d be a bit like if I wanted to deliver a prophecy to the United States, but I started with North Korea, and then Iran, and then Russia, describing all their failures. I’d get my audience nodding along with me, but I’d save the best for last: “And as for you, you United States of America…” The repetition is a set up for a surprise.

Amos says that the guilt of the Northern Kingdom, Israel, is oppression of the poor. I’m going to stick with Amos for a few weeks, and later on we’ll get to the passage Rev. Dr. King made famous more than 2500 years later, but right now I just want to leave you with this perspective on Amos:

First, he lumps Israel in with the other nations in order to make a point: Israel’s special, but they ain’t that special.

Second, their main sin is oppression of the poor. Whatever else you may have heard about God’s judgment of Israel, Amos wants to make it clear—it’s not because of their lack of religiosity. It’s their mistreatment of the poor.

Which raises this question: “How are the poor mistreated?” And how can we avoid doing the same thing?

 


Twice a week (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Dear Jephthah

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Daughter_of_Jephthah_(1879,_Oil_on_canvas)
You thought perhaps
it would be someone else—
a servant, or a servant’s child,
or a child’s pet.
You would trade
in someone else’s grief,
while you made sad eyes
and talked about a greater purpose
and collateral damage
and breaking eggs to make omelettes,
and the cost of discipleship
and each of us bearing our cross
and sacrifice.

 

When she ran out of the door,
smiling,
breathless,
almost as tall as you,
long limbs (where does the time go?)
covering the ground in half the time
(where does it go?)
as your wife,
and the servants
and their children
and their pets,
first through the door,
because she was faster than the wind,

 

I saw your face crack;
I heard your heart break.
Only last month
(or was it last year?)
she asked for a story every night,
followed by a song,
followed by a prayer,
and I hoped you would have the sense
to know that God has no need
for anyone to prove their righteousness.

 

When you swore your oath,
to sacrifice the first creature
who ran out of your door
in exchange for victory,
the chance was slim,
you thought;
and if it did so happen
that it was your child,
then you saw yourself as faithful as Abraham.
In your head,
you were already composing the story,
and you were the hero
because you sacrificed so much.

 

(Do not bring God into this.
Your idea
never entered God’s mind.)

 

You told her to go into the mountains
and bewail her virginity, and so
that is what she told you
she did.

 

I heard what she bewailed:
She bewailed a world
where men trade their children
for the image of their own virtue,
where they prize abstinence and virginity
more than life,
where legislators
and preachers
and pundits
and generals
bereave parents again and again and again,
where people in authority
make foolish oaths,
and stupid laws,
and empty promises,
that keep taking the lives
of queer kids,
and straight kids,
and any child
who sprints out of the door,
full of hope, and excitement, and love.

 

Jephthah, God is tired;
tired of parents grieving
so you can prove
how worthy you are
by sacrificing their children
for your holy war.

 

Jeremiah 7:31
Judges 11:29-40

Why Should People of Faith Care About Mass Incarceration?

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I just completed an essay for FaithLink on Mass Incarceration. I did a huge survey of recent research, news articles, and opinion pieces. Some of the best are below.

Why should people of faith care about mass incarceration? It is a quiet genocide. Justice demands a response. Scripture also demands a response, and is skeptical about claims of invincible ignorance:

Proverbs 24:10-12
If you show yourself weak on a day of distress, your strength is too small. Rescue those being taken off to death; and from those staggering to the slaughter, don’t hold back.

If you say, “Look, we didn’t know about it,” the one who weighs hearts—doesn’t he understand? The one who protects your life—he knows. He makes people pay for their actions.

Stats on Mass Incarceration:

Stats on Homicide Rates by Country:

Conservative Support for Prison Reform:

Causes of Mass Incarceration:

Film Documentaries & Videos About Mass Incarceration and Slavery:

Primary Sources:

United Methodist Sources:

Different/Opposing Views:

Organizations Working to End Mass Incarceration

For Further Reading:

 

The Orwellian Christianese of “Love”

V0041892 An auto-da-fé of the Spanish Inquisition and the execution o

Too many Christians confuse pity and paternalism with love.

Actually, “confuse” may be too generous a word. For some it can be Orwellian Christianese, where “love” or “forgiveness” is simply used as a tool to demand submission, or to silence complaints. One of the most common negative responses to prophetic language is Christian tone-policing—saying that it is “unloving” or “hateful” to use oppressors’ own rhetoric to disarm their religious weaponry, or to criticize those in power who use religious language as a political tool of domination. In this reading, much of what Jesus himself said is unloving and hateful.

It is a kind of weak rhetorical ju-jitsu to take the words of the prophets* and the complaints of those who are oppressed and describe them as “hate.” As if protesting the disproportionate slaying and imprisonment of black children is “hate.” As if objecting to for-profit sick-care is “hate.” As if decrying Christianese support of militarism and fascism is “hate.” As if championing the rights of “widows, orphans, and aliens” against the abuse of political leaders is “hate.”

There is something I gladly admit to hating: this kind of language. This condescending, paternalistic, bullying and bully-enabling language that uses the words of Christ for cover. (There is a difference between hating the sin and the sinner, right? Or does that only apply to gay folks?)

Rather than get tangled in endless psychologizing or spiritualizing about the inward state of debate partners, I’m much more interested in the effect of our language, practices, and policy. Where do we see the oppressed being freed? Where do we see widows, orphans, and aliens valued as fully human and made in the image of God?

That’s where love is.

I appreciate that Christ loves me, and I have full assurance of salvation through the Holy Spirit. I appreciate that Christ also loves the bullies and fascists of the world, the Torquemadas and Roy Moores and Bull Connors, and that where I’m unable to love I can intercede that Christ love for me while shaping me into someone more loving. I can acknowledge my own failure to love.

But I have no interest in a “love” that does not rejoice in the truth. Nor do I have interest in a religion that can only speak of “good news” if the oppressed are silenced.

There is difference between paternalism, pity, and love.

*(Of course, there is a critique of the less-than-loving attitude of the prophets in the Bible itself. It’s called the Book of Jonah.)

Jonah_and_the_Whale,_Folio_from_a_Jami_al-Tavarikh_(Compendium_of_Chronicles)