Some thoughts on flags, protest, and symbols

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• I always looked forward to being on the color guard in Boy Scouts. Learning the flag code and participating in ceremonies with the scouts made me aware that we were part of a bigger American story, even if we were just kids playing steal the bacon and learning how to cook over a fire.

• One of my favorite memories of South Korea was encountering an elderly man on the subway, who asked us, “American?” We said yes, and he spent the rest of the trip smiling and nodding at us. When we reached our destination, he stood up with tears in his eyes, took an American-flag handkerchief out of his pocket and waved it to us, saying, “Good-bye, friends!” It occurred to us that he had probably lived through the devastation of the Korean War, and was still grateful that he was not in a prison camp. The flag meant something to him. 

• In the present controversy over kneeling during the anthem in protest, people often claim that this behavior is disrespectful to the military and veterans. This is a red herring. The American flag is not only the flag of the military—it is the flag of the whole United States. It is the flag of women suffragists no less than the Army, and the flag of Japanese internment camp survivors no less than the Air Force. That’s the thing about the flag—nobody gets to own it, because we all own it. This country is run by its people, not a junta. The sacrifice and suffering of soldiers does not trump the sacrifice and suffering of black men lynched for having the courage to register to vote. It is not elevated to some higher or more sacred platform than the brave sacrifice of ordinary citizens whose homes were bombed for protesting injustice.

• The Armed Forces of the United States of America is not a priesthood, though it is often elevated to that position by chickenhawk civilians. While the military (and its various branches) has its own culture, codes, and customs, its purpose is to serve the nation—not the other way around. The veterans I know from every branch who have served proudly are deeply philosophical about their service. They know their colleagues and the people they command(ed) are human beings—siblings, parents, children—who all have hopes and dreams. They are from all different economic levels, races, and backgrounds, and all have their own struggles. The leaders among them think strategically and understand the value of diversity, the importance of outcome-based measurement, how to set clear goals, and how to discern leadership potential. They also understand that life is complicated. They are not politically homogenous. They are people I am proud to know.

• The flag, and the nation it represents, is far younger than slavery, which existed in this land before our nation did, and the effects of which continue to be ignored, redacted, and downplayed by many white Americans. Citizens owe nothing to the flag that they do not also owe to their ancestors. Again, without slaves, Native Americans, women suffragists, civil rights protesters, abolitionists, immigrants, and organizers, there is no American history, and the flag stands for nothing worth respecting. If one does not know something of this history, one does not know the flag, and any gestures toward this multivalent symbol are worthless.

• MLK repeatedly made the point that protest is not palatable to people in power or to those comfortable with the status quo. He pointed out that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the early Christians were protesters who faced public shaming and death. The people who threw Christians and Jews to the lions also claimed that these people were trouble-makers, ungrateful to Rome (or Babylon), disrespectful, and generally individuals of low moral character. People who protest would not have to protest if everyone agreed with them!

• Nobody’s inferences of disrespect get to have more weight in the public moral universe than someone else’s clearly stated purposes for their actions. Continuing to claim that kneeling is “disrespectful” is an arbitrary judgment. Actions have many meanings: for example, according to the flag code, burning the flag is an acceptable way to dispose of a damaged flag; burning at a protest has a different meaning. If someone chooses to be offended by the proper burning of the flag, or by kneeling at its display, I suppose that is their business. Technically, you are not supposed to applaud at the end of the national anthem, but people do anyway. Nobody storms out of the stadium because people have shown disrespect by applauding. The meaning you attribute to someone else’s behavior is really more about you than about them.

• The commodification of the flag, its use as a bumper sticker, and its appropriation by white nationalists bothers me far more than professional athletes kneeling in front of it. Just as it grieves me that the language of my faith has been appropriated by people like Roy Moore to justify bigotry, it grieves me that the flag has been appropriated by people for the purpose of silencing protest and advancing white supremacy. Those who take the cross and flag as symbols for their tribalism have missed the point of each, and created a national religion that is more about the worship of Molech and Baal than of the God of Jesus Christ, and a patriotism that is more about white supremacy than about civic engagement or support for our shared values.

On Statues and Idols

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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.

An Open Letter to My Parents’ Pastor

Important words from a follower of Jesus.

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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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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

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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. 

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:

 

Text of the Day for 2-9-17

Today’s text is from Matthew 5:12-16:

Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before [y’all]. [Y’all] are the salt of the earth. But if salt loses its saltiness, how will it become salty again? It’s good for nothing except to be thrown away and trampled under people’s feet. [Y’all] are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven. (CEB [with my edits])

I’ve heard plenty of salt-and-light sermons calling Christians to do good things. But often it is preached as though this section is divorced from the preceding sentence:

In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before [y’all].

These are not separate ideas, though they are often separated in your printed Bible by verse numbers and section headings.

Jesus is speaking to a community of prophets.

See, it depends how you read this phrase. Most people read with a comma, like this: “…the prophets, who were the ones who came before y’all.” I read it without the comma, i.e. “…the prophets who came before y’all prophets.”

Jesus just spent his prologue telling us that the people who we think are losers are really winners (“happy are the poor in spirit”). It takes a prophet’s vision to see this reality. Jesus is speaking to a community he expects to carry on this prophetic tradition. That is why this community will be a “light on a lamp stand,” letting people see what has been hidden by darkness.

Too often, preachers have focused on simply the last phrase in this section: letting others see your good deeds and giving glory to God in heaven. We have separated good works from the prophetic vision, charity from social justice, and works of mercy from evangelism. The call to be salt and light has a particular context: a prophetic community who is willing to be persecuted for Jesus’ and righteousness’ sake.

We are a prophetic community. That is why we are salt and light.


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. 

Text of the Day for 12-20-16

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Our text for today is from the story of Gideon in Judges 7:4-7:

The Lord said to Gideon, “There are still too many people. Take them down to the water, and I will weed them out for you there. Whenever I tell you, ‘This one will go with you,’ he should go with you; but whenever I tell you, ‘This one won’t go with you,’ he should not go.” So he took the people down to the water. And the Lord said to Gideon, “Set aside those who lap the water with their tongues, as a dog laps, from those who bend down on their knees to drink.” The number of men who lapped was three hundred, and all the rest of the people bent down on their knees to drink water, with their hands to their mouths. Then the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred men who lapped I will rescue you and hand over the Midianites to you. Let everyone else go home.”  (CEB)

This is a story about how God whittles down Gideon’s formidable army from 20,000 to 300 in order to take the enemy by surprise.

God is constantly doing this kind of thing: asking us to win battles with fewer people, or fewer resources, or against uneven odds. Fighting giants with slingshots. Attacking cities with trumpets. Invading our world through a manger.

We miss the point if we think this is just about Cinderella or underdog victories. God establishes a pattern early in God’s history with God’s people that God will not fight according to conventional tactics. God doesn’t want anyone else to take the credit. This is God’s fight, and God’s victory. Our leadership and our actions are simply the methods by which God gets what God wants. David’s hand holds the sling, but the stone moves according to God’s trajectory.

This is one reason I think activists and social justice warriors need to be reminded that we are not the ones bending the arc of history toward justice. We often labor under the delusion that we need bigger armies or better weapons to win, when what we really need is God’s devious strategy—which we only discern by listening carefully.

In Christmas, God is not using the tactics of conventional warfare. God is sneaking in the back door and deploying a biological payload. This package will spread its effects virally, like yeast in bread or a mustard seed in a field, from person to person, community to community, until it transforms the world. The resistance and the victory belong to God.

Text of the Day for 12-14-16

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Incarnation. It’s on my mind because Christmas is coming. I’ve got a few texts for reflection kicking around in my brain today:

Genesis 1:27:

God created humanity in God’s own image, in the divine image God created them

Genesis 2:7:

…the Lord God formed the human from the topsoil of the fertile land and blew life’s breath into his nostrils. The human came to life.

Song of Songs 1:16-17

Look at you—so beautiful, my love! Yes, delightful! Yes, our bed is lush and green! The ceilings of our chambers are cedars; our rafters, cypresses.

Luke 1:34-35

 Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.”

Incarnation is one of the most important—and least appreciated—aspects of the Christmas story. The word “incarnation” shares the same root as “carnal.” It literally means “flesh.” The scandal of the incarnation is that God loves flesh and material existence so much that God put on our flesh in order to save and heal us and our broken world.

There is no single Christian attitude toward the body. The theology of the body has covered a wide spectrum of beliefs and metaphors. But it’s safe to say that Christian theology has often spiritualized the body. Many Christians have talked about salvation in terms of a soul becoming free of the body instead of talking about a resurrected or transformed body.

But part of being made in the image of God is being rendered in material and temporal clay. In humanity, God chooses to “get God’s hands dirty.” God has carnal joy in squishing the fertile mud through God’s own fingers. God shares God’s own breath with us in an intimate kiss of life. In the creation of humans in relationship to each other—socially, sexually, politically, religiously—God also shows that we are interdependent, like the rest of God’s material creation. There are no tides without the pull of the moon and no rain without the heat of the sun.  In the Song of Songs verse, humans rejoice in their love for each other and see themselves as part of God’s natural world.

We have several theological choices when it comes to talking about the Virgin Birth and what the story means for Christian theology. Some see it as a sex-negative reinforcement of patriarchal theology. Some see it as a feminist declaration of independence and God’s solidarity with the oppressed. Some see it as a radical reframing of “fruitfulness.” Some see it only as a demonstration of God’s power (“Look! God can do magic!”).

I think the incarnation and the Virgin Birth gives us an opportunity to reflect critically on our theology of the body and how it affects the way we live. How does it affect the way we think about justice for the poor? About hunger? About sexuality? About the material conditions of people’s lives? About the baby born in a manger? When we spiritualize the message, we miss out on God’s concern for the material conditions of human existence.

If the incarnation is just a story about the miracle of birth, it is sweet and inspiring, but not redemptive. I believe it is a story about God’s embrace of the whole complex human being, full of contradictions: pain, pleasure, hope, loneliness, sin, grace, and vision. The body matters, and we cannot tell our faith story in such a way that we ignore real bodies.

Here are some quotes for further reflection:

Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The soul is part of the body. The mind is part of the body. When folks do physical violence to black people, to black bodies in this country, the soul as we construe it is damaged, too – the mind is damaged, too.”

George MacDonald: “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul. You have a body.”

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin: “We are not human beings having a spiritual experience; we are spiritual beings having a human experience.”

Karl Barth: “Born of the Virgin Mary means a human origin for God. Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”


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

Text of the Day for 12-8-16

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Today’s text is from Exodus 23:1

Don’t spread false rumors. Don’t plot with evil people to act as a lying witness.

“Fake news” is in the news a lot right now. Its power has changed our culture. I took the above photo in line at the grocery store last week, and I realized that these tabloids are now exemplary for what passes for “news” for about half of the population.

Lots of people see this through a cynical lens. “You can’t trust anyone,” they say. “There’s no such thing as truth—only spin.”

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the word “truth.” It evades responsibility for our own critical reading and thinking, because it’s simply “too hard.” And while I’m skeptical of our ability to completely grasp truth or discern God’s perspective on reality, what we can affirm is this:

Some claims are lies. And some claims are more true than others.

The gospel is “Good News,” and in order for it to be good it must have some claim on the truth. It offers a counter-narrative to the dominant one(s). The Good News gives us reason to resist the powers that be, to affirm the existence of truth in a world that tells us such resistance or affirmation is futile.

For us, truth is not merely about a set of facts we agree or disagree on. It’s about a relationship with the Ground of Being, an orientation to the Source. The Truth, the Way, and the Life calls us away from cynicism to pursue certain objective goods. “Seek first the Kingdom of God, and God’s righteousness.”

Good News is always the enemy of fake news. And fake news is always the enemy of the Good News.


Each 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