Wise Neighbors: What Christians Can Learn from World Religions

I was inspired by Barbara Brown Taylor’s Holy Envy and Huston Smith’s classic World Religions to launch this series I’m calling “Wise Neighbors: What Christians Can Learn from World Religions.” Here are the first three videos:

1: “Primal” and Indigenous Religion

2: Hinduism

3: Buddhism

News That is Good

I know the news seems bleak,
and some days seem without hope,
which makes it hard to remember
that everything in the universe is made out of love;
everything is held together by love;
and the end and purpose of everything is love;
and when it’s time to tally the scores,
we will be full of laughter
because the points have always been irrelevant
and the only thing worth keeping track of
is love.

Deals With the Devil

In the classic stories, people who make deals with the devil get exactly what they want, but find out later that it’s actually a curse. Midas gets the golden touch but finds out he can’t eat gold. Faust gets the girl but destroys his chance at happiness with her.

This is how it is with oppression. People are fighting to build walls and maintain their positions of privilege in systems of oppression because they have bought into the lie that they have a good deal, as if they are winning something. Like it’s worth ingesting your daily dose of toxic masculinity so you can not go to the doctor and die earlier of heart disease? So you can have fewer friends than the women in your life do? Like it’s worth sucking down your daily dose of white supremacy so you can live in the prison capital of the world? So you can pay billions of dollars a year to disenfranchise people of their vote and maintain de facto segregation? Like it’s worth maintaining sex-negativity and purity culture in order to make LGBTQIA people feel like 2nd-class citizens? As if that’s not going to have an impact on straight folks’ ability to have intimacy and authentic relationships?

There is a cost to maintaining oppression for those who “benefit.” I am deeply suspicious of narratives that make it sound like oppressors are getting what they really want.

They are not. Most of those who think they are thriving are simply succeeding at distracting themselves from the poverty of the hell they are building for themselves. Sure, they may enjoy their net worth, their McVacations, their ability to get praise for mediocrity, and the constant simmer of jealousy or suspicion that someone, somewhere, is getting away with more than they have.

I am not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, but I do think hell is real, and I think a lot of people would prefer it to a heaven they had to share with those they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding or oppressing.

Only those who see through the lie can be free.

Condemning White Supremacy

While I’m encouraged to see more white clergy naming the sin of white supremacy, I just want to point out to the church that speaking out against mass shootings is a really low #$%!! bar.

Trace the sin and the language of white supremacy back further; it is in the criminalization of black and brown people, in the incarceration and deportation of black and brown bodies, in excuses made for vigilante executions and lynchings through “stand your ground” laws, in the leaders we elect and the dog-whistles they use, in functional apartheid through redlining and gentrification, in anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric, in white apathy over disproportionately dismal health and economic statistics for black and brown people, in our collective shrug whenever we think or say, “that’s just the way things are.”

White supremacy is simply the formal doctrine of the folk religion of whiteness. It’s the church you automatically join when you are born white (or passing) in this country. You may not attend regularly, but you have been tithing to it and enjoying its blessings your whole life.

Mass shootings, like lynchings, are a white sacrament: the visual representation of our invisible policies. It’s the sacrifice our religion requires. It is what our inaction looks like when it becomes action.

So yes, preachers, please condemn white supremacy for the heresy and idolatry that it is. And please go ALL the way in.

Social Justice isn’t as Dangerous for Evangelicalism as White Guys

Maybe you’ve seen that there is a conference scheduled for Birmingham. A bunch of white guys are going to talk about “Dangers of Social Justice for Evangelicalism.”

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detail of panel from event page

Maybe you remember Mormon white guy Glenn Beck saying that social justice was a perversion of the gospel, and that you should leave your church if they used that phrase.

Maybe you remember white guy Supreme Court Justice Powell, before he was a Supreme Court Justice, writing a memo in 1971 to prominent white guys in business. Among other things, he told them that they needed to wise up to the threat posed by social justice preached from pulpits.

Maybe you are aware that for fifty years, coalitions of mostly white guys have been trying to root out social justice from mainline denominations, or destroy them from within if they cannot.

All of these white guys are right. Social justice IS a threat to evangelicalism.

Of course,  #Not all white evangelicals. Some, I assume, are good people.*

The danger of social justice to evangelicalism is that people might begin to see clearly that white evangelicals do not speak for Jesus. Or Christianity. Or God.

That people might begin to see the connection between a violent atonement theology and violent systems of oppression.

That people might see that the doctrine of hell, and the notion that we all deserve it, gives those in power an excuse to inflict hell on others, either personally or through policy.

That people might begin to realize that a great theological starting point to subjugating a continent, enslaving people, and committing genocide, is defining sin as rebellion.

That white guys might lose something.

Yes, unless white evangelicalism can reckon honestly with its past and define itself as something other than a tool of white supremacy, social justice is a danger to evangelicalism.

Or perhaps the real danger to evangelicalism is white guys. 


*The defensiveness around these statistics is interesting. Several evangelical authors try to spin these numbers in a positive direction. Christianity Today says that white evangelicals saved the day in Alabama’s senate election by not showing up, effectively giving credit to white evangelicals that should go to black women. The authors at CT and The Gospel Coalition object to the framing that 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. It isn’t true, all of these authors argue, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for these candidates, only that 80% of voters who identified as white evangelicals and showed up at the polls did. Yet nearly-identical percentages voted for both Moore and Trump, and in surveys, 70% continue to view Trump favorably. So while it may be true to say “not all white evangelicals,” it misses the point that there is something specifically about being white and evangelical in this historical moment that only white evangelicals can deal with.

If they actually cared about abortion…

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If Alabama politicians and preachers really cared about preventing abortion, we’d have comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in schools. This new bill criminalizing abortion is entirely about controlling sexual behavior and taking away bodily autonomy.

A few years ago, some conservative clergy proposed a resolution in our local denominational body about defunding Planned Parenthood. The resolution was tabled until we could talk through it. I offered to meet with its authors to see if we could craft a resolution we could agree on.

None of them showed up for the first meeting.

Since they chose not to participate, those of us who did show up kept the goal of the original resolution—reducing or preventing abortion—but chose to focus on a policy that actually applied to our state: comprehensive, medically-accurate sex education in schools.

That got their attention. They showed up to the second meeting to oppose this change. They would not even consider a resolution that included comprehensive sex education. Abstinence was the only choice. The only compromise we reached was withdrawing the resolution.

I asked if any of the authors had met with the people at Planned Parenthood whose jobs they were trying to defund. They had not. I offered to facilitate a meeting between representatives of Planned Parenthood and the clergy who drafted the resolution. They declined.

I don’t know how they could have made it any clearer: They didn’t care about preventing abortion. Nor did they care about even hearing from the other side.

Alabama politicians likewise have made their goals and values clear: In addition to rejecting exceptions in cases of rape or incest, they are entertaining a bill which makes false accusation of rape a felony. This is intended to intimidate women in light of the #metoo movement. All of these policies taken together are about subjugating women.

I support the right to an abortion, and see religious justification for restricting that right as a failure of empathy and imagination. Ethics requires us to imagine situations in which we have to apply our norms or policies—to put ourselves in someone else’s place, to “do to others as you would have them do to you.” If we create a rule or law, we have to imagine what it would be like to be subject to it.

I believe there are people of good faith who disagree with me about public policy, and are sincere in their desire to reduce or prevent abortion. I just haven’t met many yet.

Good Friday

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A friend who attends First United Methodist Church in Dallas said that at tonight’s Good Friday service, anti-LGBTQIA protesters gathered outside their church to condemn the church for being an inclusive congregation. He said it felt appropriate, and I agree. But I also felt moved to write the poem below, made up almost entirely of scripture references.

Good Friday

Jesus said his yoke was light
But you make it look too easy
Galloping with joy, entirely too unburdened.
So we said you were abolishing the law
Instead of fulfilling it. 
We tied up heavy burdens for you
That we did not have to bear.
We locked the kingdom of God to you,
afraid to go in ourselves.
We crossed land and sea to make converts
And told them to write unjust laws and oppressive decrees
To kill the gays in colonized lands.
We made your yoke unequal to ours;
While we enjoyed every permitted pleasure
Of marriage, family, divorce, and adultery,
We laid our sins upon you,
And pierced you for our transgressions
Insisting you take up a cross that was never yours,
A yoke none of us had to bear,
Of celibacy, of mortification, of violence,
A circumcision not of the flesh or heart,
But of the soul, of the brain.
You bright and shining ones, Children of light
Who dared to love because God is love,
We called you gluttons, and friends of harlots and drunkards.
Even our own children we smashed against the rocks,
Exiled them to strange lands
And stifled their songs,
Sacrificing them to our angry gods
Though it never entered Her mind to do ask for such.
(How could She forget her nursing children,
or show no compassion for the children of Her womb?)

The pastors among us
Talked of welcome without affirmation,
Betrayed you with kisses,
Said “peace” when there was none offered,
And dressed your wounds as though
They were not serious.

Yet wisdom is proved by her children.

You did not accept a cross
Foisted upon you by unbelievers,
You refused to be the sacrificial lamb,
To give us the catharsis we wanted,
You opened your mouth to say a mumblin’ word
About dignity
And humanity
And love

And eventually
We began to find
Jesus.


 

scripture references (roughly in order of appearance, though I may have missed some):

Matthew 11:28
Matthew
 5:17
Matthew
 23:4
Matthew
 23:13
Matthew
 23:15
Isaiah 10:1
2 Corinthians 6:14
Matthew
 5:32
Isaiah 53:4-5
Acts 15:10
Romans 2:29
Ephesians 5:8
1 John 4:8
Luke 23:26
Matthew 11:19
Psalm 137
Jeremiah 19:5
Isaiah 49:15
Luke 22:48
Jeremiah 6:14

The Captain Marvel I Remember

The Captain Marvel I remember was a black woman. I started collecting the Avengers comics in the mid-80’s. In 1987, Monica Rambeau (as Captain Marvel—she later became “Photon”) was chair of the Avengers. I remember Storm being leader of the X-Men. And in the New Mutants (my favorite team), Danielle Moonstar was the leader. As an adolescent white dude in the mid-80’s, comics were about the only pop culture media in which I remember seeing women of color in leadership.

I stopped collecting for awhile, and I missed the major Carol Danvers story. So “Captain Marvel” for me has always been Monica Rambeau. If I were to pick a superpower for myself, it would have been her ability to transform into multiple kinds of energy. When they introduced Monica as a little girl in the recent Captain Marvel movie, I couldn’t help elbowing my wife and whispering “she’s going to be badass.”

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Captain Marvel gets nominated to lead the Avengers — The Avengers 279, May 1987, page 5

I’m not in any way saying that this deprogrammed me or counteracted the enormous implicit bias I was trained to have. Nor am I dismissing all the sexism and lookism and tokenism that comics geared toward adolescent boys often reinforced. BUT these stories embedded themselves in my imagination and subconscious. 

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Doctor Druid and Thor showing their fragility.

I’m sharing this because I remember this stuff from my childhood. It reinforces the importance of representation in our imagination and the stories we tell. Superhero movies, as Mr. Glass says, are our modern myths—they tell us who we aspire to be. When we are doing science fiction or fantasy or superhero stories, we’re engaged in subtle acts of resistance to the dominant narrative. We’re imagining that the world could be otherwise.

And the reason it causes so much backlash among fragile white dudes is that they correctly sense that it threatens the status quo. In the above panel, Doctor Druid and Thor both react in predictable ways, questioning Monica’s ability. Later on in the story, She-Hulk confides to Black Knight that she prefers a less hierarchical and more egalitarian form of leadership, and she hopes Captain Marvel will step up to lead the group. 

The comics I collected seldom mentioned race as part of the storyline. Danielle Moonstar’s Cheyenne heritage in The New Mutants is far more explicit than Monica’s blackness in The Avengers. In that sense, my favorite comics promoted the false narrative of colorblindness. But it also shows Monica talking with her parents about sidelining her desire to start a business. The story gives her a past, a family, and an internal life.

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Internalized oppression is a thing. Monica feels she needs permission to lead because she’s a woman. (The fact that she’s black is never mentioned).

It’s a comic book from the 80’s, so there are some dialogue choices and storyline choices that make me cringe. But I remember that these comics expanded my imagination in ways that I only now can appreciate. I am looking forward to seeing the Captain Marvel that I grew up with transform into a living beam of light and burn a hole through steel.

What Christians Do

It’s interesting to me that there are few descriptions of what early church worship was actually like. We have fragments, sure: they met in homes and broke bread with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46), sometimes discussion dragged on so long that someone fell asleep and fell out of a window (20:9). But the book of Acts doesn’t spend a lot of time detailing what the order of worship was.

Most of the action happens outside of worship. The apostles get dragged before religious and city officials (Acts 4 & 5) and they speak boldly and get killed for it (7). Philip proselytizes an Ethiopian eunuch (8), Peter extends the reach of the church to Gentiles (10), and so on. If Acts is the story of the early church, most of that story is not worship.

I want to be careful here: As Will Willimon has said, there is a tendency to downplay worship, as if the real activity of the church happens outside of worship, as if the important work of the church is whatever those outside of the church deem worthy. I happen to think worship orders the life of the church. Worship is central. When Paul sends greetings in his letters, he sends them to the church that meets in Nympha’s house or Prisca and Aquila’s house. Apparently meeting together for worship was a regular feature of life for the early church. We just don’t know much about what actually took place there.

The public life of the church, the stuff that Acts records, is about disciples doing the kinds of things that Jesus did: meeting with the wrong sorts of people, scandalizing religious and political leaders, getting in trouble, and seeing God do amazing things.

I am struck by the discrepancy in what Acts describes and what church professionals describe. For most of my ministry, I’ve listened to church professionals talk about how to get more people into a sanctuary and how to get more people involved with the stuff the church organization is doing. I just don’t see that emphasis in Acts. I don’t see mega-churches; I see micro-churches. I don’t see programs; I see practices. There are a few situations in which the apostles speak to large crowds, but those are usually tense situations where they are as likely to be killed as to be celebrated. Most of the situations that are recorded in Acts are meetings with just two or a handful of people. Most of the activity of the church is in the streets and around tables.