Will the Church Care About Climate Change?

A few years ago, I was chauffeuring my teenage son and his friend to an event. They were in the back, telling stories and laughing about how annoying and hilarious young siblings and little children are. I was eavesdropping from the driver’s seat, but couldn’t help sharing an anecdote or two about my memories of my son as a toddler. We laughed and I concluded with, “What they say is that when you’re a grandparent, you’ll be able to enjoy toddlers for awhile, then give them back to their parents before they get annoying.” My son and his friend were silent for a moment. Then she said quietly:

Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids.

There was no sadness or despair in her statement. She said it patiently, as though she were having to explain to the adult in the car that Santa Claus doesn’t exist. There was something else in her voice—pity maybe? She had accepted it, but she was aware that I was still under the delusion that our human species has a future.

She did not have to say any of these other things out loud. It was all in that one statement: Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids. Don’t you know we are living in the middle of an extinction event? That older generations lit the fuse, handed us the climate bomb, and waltzed off into the short story we call human history? That they got to name themselves the Greatest Generation, and Boomers, and other snappy terms for the ones that followed; but that the generations after ours will remain nameless?

I’ve been in ministry for twenty years. I answered the call to ministry because I was convinced God had put a passion in my heart to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, and that God wanted me to be part of a Reformation or an Awakening or a Great Emergence that was on the horizon. The vision wasn’t so grandiose (usually) to think that I would lead such a change, but that it was coming whether I participated or not; and wouldn’t it be better to be part of it? I’ve always been partial to the notion that some of the most dynamic, important, world-changing movements of the church have been on the periphery and the margins, or even outside of it, so that’s where I wanted to be, so I’ve often seen myself as a reformer and outsider. Yet her statement made me realize how entrenched and institution-bound my vision remained. Though addressing climate change has always been important to me, I couldn’t feel the existential threat that the next generation takes for granted.

I wondered: as a pastor, what do I have to offer my son’s friend? Certainly not Bill Hybel’s notion that “the local church is the hope of the world.” Not a parental figure’s patronizing cliché that everything will work out. Not a scientific assurance from Jeff Goldblum that “life finds a way.” And if I offer her Jesus, she’s likely to hear the name as institutional Republican Jesus who believes in “beautiful, clean coal,” puts immigrant children in cages, and builds oil pipelines through sovereign indigenous territory and over drinking water.

I retain this conviction that “God so loved the world, the cosmos, that God gave God’s only child.” The salvage project God has been working on since the beginning was never about humans only, but the whole created order. God’s movement both in creation and redemption is about self-giving embodiment, sharing with us the divine breath and walking beside us both in human and more-than-human form.

I’ve also taken to heart Gus Speth’s prophetic words: “I used to think the top environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems. But I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed and apathy, and to deal with those we need a spiritual and cultural transformation, and we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

So when I heard the voice from the back seat say Our generation isn’t going to have grandkids, I heard God say to me, this is on you, buddy. Your job is spiritual and cultural transformation.

But this affirmation and valuing of creation is not the theology I see proclaimed and lived out in the institutional church. And I’m not just pointing the finger at right-wing pastors like John MacArthur who claim the earth is disposable. Instead, my home denomination is about to split over how people should be allowed to have orgasms. 81% of white evangelicals and over half of white mainline Protestants have demonstrated they have no problem with white supremacy and fascism. And although there are wonderful churches full of good people who help the poor and offer vacation Bible schools and tell wonderful heartwarming stories, most of them are too timid to acknowledge that a substantial portion of people under 20 don’t expect human civilization to continue.

A still from Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

(For the record, I think my young friend’s view of human collapse is overly pessimistic, but not because I expect Christians to suddenly start loving the world the way God does. I think God’s plan for human survival has more to do with Jeff Goldblum’s quote than Bill Hybel’s. The Good Lord was crafty enough to make human beings tenacious about survival and sexuality, so I suspect “life will find a way.”)

Yet the institutional church is still too much enamored with the success of white male celebrity megachurch preachers like Hybels, who resigned under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, or Chris Hodges, who recently had to walk back his affiliation with white supremacists and fascists, to address a difficult and politically divisive problem like climate change. In the face of declining membership and participation even before the pandemic, our denominational leaders decided increasing worship attendance should be our “wildly important goal,” language we borrowed from the corporate consultants and CEOs who have helped engineer the destruction of our ecosystems.

It has become increasingly clear to me that the church can either pursue its dream of Great Awakening or Reform or Renewal for itself, or it can join God’s project of passionately loving the world and healing or salvaging what we can. It cannot be about both. If we are going to be in a different relationship with our planet, we cannot do so without the help of non-Christians, of people well outside what we normally think of as “church.” If we are to love the world with the self-giving love of God, we will have to submit to learning from indigenous people who have been practicing reciprocity with the more-than-human world far longer than we white Christians been practicing our various forms of extractive capitalism.

Yes, it may be possible that in losing our institutional life we will save it. That sounds a bit like our gospel, after all. But whenever progressive Christians speak hopefully about this Great Ecological Awakening, they sound the most Asleep.

Confronting climate change means confronting — well, everything. White supremacy. Patriarchy. The way capitalism doesn’t actually pay for the real costs of energy and resource extraction, but only shifts the burden of paying for them onto the shoulders of the poor and of future generations. For the American church, these taboo topics are more sacred than God. We Christians don’t mind saying “YHWH” out loud, but these other things must be only whispered in church, never spoken from the pulpit.

I’m still following the call of God, but a young prophet spoke the Word of God to me from the back of my car: Will the church care about climate change? Will you love the world so much that you will give yourself for it?

Our generation isn’t going to have grandchildren. I pray that we will hear this young Jonah and repent. Maybe God will spare us after all?


*(I am grateful to Susan Bond for the giving me a new metaphor for understanding “salvation” as “salvage” in her book Trouble with Jesus.

*I am grateful to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass for such a wonderful description of reciprocity, and to David Abram (whose work I have not yet read) for the notion of the “more-than-human world.”

*I am grateful to Leah Schade for her research and practical work on Creation-Crisis Preaching.)

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 15—Seasonal Affective Disorder

A sun pillar forms as the sun rises over the Arctic plain, by Harley D. Nygren, from Wikimedia Commons


Then the people stood at a distance, while Moses drew near to the thick darkness where God was.

(Exodus 20:21)

You may remember “rods and cones” from high school biology. These are the photoreceptors in your retina that absorb light and transmit signals to your brain. You can think of them like the pixels in your eye camera. Rods absorb low light and let us detect brightness. They are most effective for our night vision, and when you walk by the light of the moon, you see everything in shades of silver and gray. Cones detect color and more subtle differences; when the sun rises, the world is crisper and colors pop.

In addition to rods and cones, your retina contains the melanopsin system. Melanopsin is a photopgiment that was first discovered in light-sensitive frog skin, before we discovered receptors in our eyes that use the same chemical. It is crucial to the function of clusters of nerves called “intrinsically photosensitive retinal ganglion cells” (ipRGCs).

These nerve clusters transmit directly to parts of your brain responsible for your circadian rhythms, interrupting the production of melatonin (which makes you sleepy). One of the odd side effects of this system is that some people who are image-blind can still regulate their sleep cycles to the sun! In other words, they can’t “see” images, but their brain knows when the sun is shining.

There has been a lot written about the way light—natural and artificial—affects our sleep cycles and moods. We are spending more time inside, not only because of the change in the weather but because of the pandemic. Human biology evolved to be outside, and many of our modern psychological problems are made worse by exposure to screens. As our physical activity level goes down (and it’s usually lower in the winter), we get fewer opportunities to produce natural mood boosters. We are not sleeping as well. We are stressed. We are in brain fog. And the darkness exacerbates all of it.

A lot of this seasonal moodiness is natural. Our bodies are responding to a change in the seasons, telling us to conserve energy because wild forage will not be as abundant. We feel more drawn to carbohydrate-heavy foods. We want to snuggle with loved ones, not just for warmth but for comfort. All of this is natural and helped our ancestors stay alive. But it becomes a “disorder” when it makes it hard for us to function.

I think it’s important not to pathologize these natural experiences of being human, but at the same time to recognize some of us are especially sensitive to this seasonal change. There are some things we can do to help, and you may be familiar with them: getting outside, especially in the morning, to let the morning sun regulate our melatonin production. Staying off screens a few hours before bed. Using special bright lights to give us an artificial “sunshine boost” —again, especially in the morning. We purchased a “happy light” last year and I think using it makes a difference.

But I think it’s also helpful to reframe the darkness, to see it as a friend. There has been a trend in theological circles lately to rescue “the dark” from its religiously negative connotations. In the passage above, and in several Psalms, the authors describe God as dwelling in “thick darkness,” a darkness so deep you can feel it. These mystics describe the darkness as the place of germination, where buried seeds send out their first tender filaments to probe the rich, dark soil. It is the darkness of the womb, where we first hear our mother’s heartbeat. It is a place that forces us to rely on other senses besides sight. Darkness can be healing. Darkness can be welcome. It is in the “valley of the shadow of darkness” where the author of Psalm 23 says God guides us with rod and staff, giving us comfort.

If you feel thick darkness around you this season, in this winter of COVID, remember that it’s in the darkness that God does some of God’s best work.

Also, put on a coat and get outside.

Prayer:
Dweller in Darkness and Source of All Light, walk with us in both night and day.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 14—When I’m Sick of Gratitude

Signs of gratitude for firefighters fighting the Grizzly Creek Fire, by White River National Forest (U.S. Forest Service). From Wikimedia Commons.

I give you thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart;
before the gods I sing your praise;
I bow down toward your holy temple
    and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness;

for you have exalted your name and your word
above everything.
On the day I called, you answered me,

you increased my strength of soul.
(Psalm 138)

During the month of November, we are bombarded with admonishments to “be thankful.” Sometimes I find the constant barrage of sanctimonious advice irritating. It can actually put me in a foul mood: I don’t want to be thankful, and I don’t particularly want to be reminded and told and preached at by greeting cards, shared memes, and news articles on the mental health benefits of gratitude addressed to everyone and no one in particular. This year, in the midst of a pandemic, reminders to be grateful grate on my nerves!

This irritation is actually a reminder of how gratitude works, because gratitude is a function of attention, and in our advertising-saturated world, our attention is commodified. Billionaires like Jeff Bezos and Mark Zuckerberg make money by manipulating our attention, capturing our eyeballs and measuring our attention in milliseconds. Facebook and Twitter and Instagram know exactly how fast you scroll, and use algorithms to make you linger over advertisements. Advertisers may use the word “gratitude,” but they make their money on our restlessness, boredom, and dissatisfaction.

The irritation I feel at having a multibillion-dollar company tell me to slow down and smell the roses is more than mental anger at its hypocrisy. My frustration is biological. My Grinch-like attitude is the function of a distracted mind.

It doesn’t change the truth of the importance of gratitude, though. David Steindl-Rast says that gratitude is the foundation of spirituality. In order to be thankful, to feel gratitude, we have to refocus our attention. It is difficult to be grateful when we are in a state of distraction.

This is why simple disciplines like meditation and keeping a gratitude journal are so effective. They are the complete opposite of the endless scrolling of social media. They are tools that help us to refocus our attention on the simple pleasures of being alive: I woke up today. I can take a deep breath and smell the air. I can see beauty in a fallen and decaying leaf which leaves behind a fragile, skeletonized system of veins.

The author of the psalm above says that an answered prayer “increased my strength of soul.” We don’t know what the prayer or the answer was, but pausing to be grateful, to focus our attention on the goodness of the gifts we receive—bidden or unbidden—makes our souls stronger. Gratitude increases our resilience and helps us make it through tough times.

If we want to feel grateful, it helps to go somewhere quiet and away from screens. I invite you to do it now.

Prayer:
Giver of all gifts, Source of all grace, I am grateful.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 13—Religion and the Brain

image by Mikael Häggström, M.D.

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
(Psalm 139:14)

I’ve been interested in the neuropsychology of religious experience since I first read William James in college. As a pastor, I’ve talked to plenty of people who wonder if their mystical experiences, transcendent visions, or sense of calling are “genuine” or simply “all in their heads.” “Did God really speak to me, or am I going crazy?” is a common question.

It doesn’t help that so many mental health problems are related to religion. People do have religious delusions. Sometimes their anxiety or obsessive-compulsive disorder attaches to a religious idea, and they fear that they might accidentally sin or incur God’s judgment. People who are depressed may feel that God hates them or is out to get them. LGBTQ people have been subjected to so-called “conversion therapy” that leaves lasting trauma.

But religion can also be associated with good mental health outcomes. People who have supportive religious communities are often more resilient in the face of trauma. Adolescents have lower probabilities of risky behavior. LGBTQIA folks who have supportive religious communities often report high levels of life satisfaction. And William James pointed out that having “saints” and mystics to emulate and aspire to benefits humanity as a whole.

There are certain ways that religious practice changes your brain. We know from studies of Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns that contemplative prayer and meditation—what the researchers call a “self-stimulating brain reward system“—can alter the function and even the physical structure of the brain. Mindfulness meditation is often prescribed as an intervention for anxiety and depression.

The prefrontal cortex, responsible for attention, is one of the places most clearly affected by prayer and meditation. Some areas of the parietal lobe respond differently: they relax. These areas are responsible for the distinction between ourselves and the rest of the world, the barrier between “self” and “world.” When this area relaxes, it may help us feel connected to the rest of the universe or to God. Attention and connection are two areas of our brains we can train with practice.

Moreover, prayer and meditation seem to quiet the “default mode network,” the systems in our brain that are often responsible for the story-telling function of our brain. The DMN is what keeps us thinking about the future and the past and often keeps us ruminating or worrying.

When stimulated, the temporal lobe sometimes creates a sense of presence, as though someone is in the room with us. People who are about to have seizures sometimes report this feeling. It’s not clear to me that this is necessarily a particularly religious experience, but it certainly could be.

Certain neurotransmitters are also associated with mystical-type experiences. DMT (dimethyltryptamine) is a psychedelic compound that appears to be produced naturally in our brains. It may be responsible for some of our more trippy spiritual experiences, but it, too is associated with changes in our default mode network, feelings of connectedness, and heightened attention and fascination.

So when people ask me about whether their religious experience is “real” or “all in their heads,” I shrug. ALL spiritual experiences are also brain experiences—at least for human beings. We cannot imagine having an experience without our brains. When you see a beautiful painting or fall in love, your brain gets involved. You may even feel it in your body, as a warmth or pressure in your chest, or goose bumps on the back of your neck. It is a biological as well as a spiritual experience.

We still have so much to learn about spirituality and the brain.

Prayer:
Creator of the Cosmos and my brain, I give you thanks that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Spirituality and Mental Health: Day 12—Being Outside

Two Paths Diverged… by Ché Lydia Xyang. From Wikimedia Commons.

On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
(Revelation 22:2)

The pandemic has forced more people to stay at home, but it has also forced more of us outside. We are going outside to lessen the monotony of being indoors. Meeting others outside lessens the chances of passing on covid-19. The sun disinfects us.

Collectively, we are experiencing the benefits of being outside at a time when a flurry of research is pointing to how nature-deprived we are. It turns out we needed this healing for a long, long time. Covid-19 has forced us to confront it.

Below is just a sampling of the recent research into the physical and mental health benefits of being outside. We’ve learned that bacteria in the soil and aromatic aerosols from trees affect our brains and bodies. We’ve learned that forests communicate and act as one large organism. We’ve learned that interacting with that organism gets us out of our patterns of ruminating and into our sense in the here-and-now. We’ve learned that being outside and getting our hands dirty lowers our heart rate and stress levels. We’ve learned that walking in forests boost our immune systems, increases our ability to pay attention, and even fights cancer.

All of these mental and physical health benefits are important. Most of us could benefit by spending more time outside. But nature is not just something that we take, like a drug, so that we can increase productivity and be more effective indoors.

As we intentionally spend time outside, a more profound shift can happen in our state of being. We begin to understand that human beings and nature are not separate. Our culture tends to think of “human beings” and “nature” as two distinct realms, in part because of the way we objectify the earth and conceptualize our place in it. But the truth is we are part of both a tamed “human world” and a wild “more-than-human world.” This term, coined by author David Abram, helps us consider ourselves in relation to the rest of the planet.

I am currently in training to be a Nature and Forest Therapy Guide, in part because I believe it is my responsibility as a pastor to help the 21st century church turn away from a toxic theology that treats the earth as if it were disposable. I take very seriously these words about protecting life on this planet:

“I used to think that top global environmental problems were biodiversity loss, ecosystem collapse, and climate change. I thought that with 30 years of good science we could address these problems, but I was wrong. The top environmental problems are selfishness, greed, and apathy, and to deal with these we need a spiritual and cultural transformation. And we scientists don’t know how to do that.”

Gus Speth

Spiritual and cultural transformation is my job. It’s what I’ve been called to do. And too often, Christian pastors have scorned the creation God loves. This toxic theology has practical consequences, leading not only to terrible policy that harms the planet, but to a population of people who increasingly feel sad, alone, and hopeless.

If we want to develop a public health policy that takes mental health seriously, I believe we need to help people fall in love with this planet and with the more-than-human world. I think the authors of the Bible knew that the leaves of trees could heal the nations.

Prayer:
Creator and Lover of the World, we tell the story of how you so loved this creation that you would even enter it yourself. Help us to do the same thing, to enter creation fully and bodily, so that it can teach us how to be more human and more alive.

—Rev. Dr. David Barnhart, Jr. 

Carrying Water for Pontius Pilate

Église de Saint-Thégonnec, Notre-Dame. Photo by Weglinde, from Wikimedia Commons

I’ve written and deleted so many words about Jacob Blake and the young murderer who shot protesters in Kenosha. I don’t know how to address the toxic stew of vigilante fantasy, aggrieved whiteness, and domination theology that afflicts our culture. As tired as I am of preaching about state violence against black people, I know it is not nearly enough, nor am I nearly as tired as people who live under this threat every single damned day.

While I am particularly angry at racist man-boys who like to play soldier, while I am generally angry at the pundits who stoke the vigilante fantasies of snobbish white couples defending their gated communities against nonviolent protesters, while I am furious at Hoover citizens who advocate running over my protesting friends with their cars, I recognize that they are living out the Dirty Harry and Batman stories that I have also eagerly devoured my whole life. They honestly think they are the good guys.

That’s no excuse.

White clergy often feel like they have to thread the needle when addressing these major issues, because many in their congregations will latch on to some irrelevant detail in order to justify the criminalization and vigilante execution of black men and women: “He had a knife. He didn’t comply. He had a record.” When some of us clergy posted a video two years ago in which we said, “Black lives matter,” I even had clergy colleagues who said that I was advocating or inciting violence.

In order to make peace, too many Christians reach for “both sides” rhetoric. “Jesus transcends politics,” they say, ignoring the fact that Jesus’s incarnation was itself a political act, God’s own statement that bodily life matters, that how we wound or heal bodies, how we incarcerate or set them free, how we neglect them or provide them with food and water matters. How we subject them to manufactured poverty and affect them with policy matters. Jesus doesn’t transcend politics. He gets his hands and feet dirty with it when he becomes human, when he heals, eats, hurts, rests, and dies.

When he marches into Jerusalem with his followers on Palm Sunday, with the religious leaders scoffing and admonishing him to be quiet, with the Roman and temple riot police looking for an excuse to crack some heads, he shows us that God takes to the streets even when God knows the outcome is failure.

Preachers who proclaim “third way” politics from the safety of air-conditioned pulpits, who avoid protests and have never marched for anything that might put their bodies or reputations at risk, are lying to themselves and their congregations when they scorn politics and speak of the “revolutionary love” of Jesus. You can only proclaim a “third way” from the streets with the people whose lives are being threatened. That’s where the credibility of what you preach will actually be tested.

Black lives matter. Black bodies, health, dignity, votes, and mental health matter. Black political, economic, and social power matters. Black children matter. Black education matters. Black gay and trans and queer rights matter. The whole of black lives, mental, spiritual, and physical—matters.

The white church, and white clergy in particular, need to stop carrying water for Pontius Pilate. He’ll just wash his hands and dry them on your robes.

Permaculture Church

Permaculture design illustration, by Arthur Nanni, from Wikimedia Commons

As I’ve been reading about permaculture, I’m more aware of how the industrial-age church was conceived of as a factory farm. Like a factory farm, it applied pesticide, fungicide, and herbicide to keep out all the undesirables—(people, practices, and so-called heresies)—instead of intentionally cultivating diversity in order to strengthen the spiritual ecosystem.

And like a factory farm, it has left us with a fragile monoculture: great for shelf-life and for export all over the world, but not great for flavor. It is resource-intensive, and requires importing vast quantities of artificial fertilizer to replenish the depleted soil.

Its architects were inspired by the parables of the sower and seed, and the parable of the talents. Its goal has been to create high yields, and it has done that remarkably well. But it has done so at a great cost to the planet and to our physical and spiritual health.

The church needs a permaculture spiritual practice instead of a monoculture one. It requires more observation and less busy-work. It measures success not in bushels brought to market but in how well it balances life, increases resilience and diversity, and shares nature’s abundance with neighbors.

Heroes and History

The far right has few heroes.

That’s why so many of these climate-change denialists act like they are Galileo. All these jingoist Christian nationalists try to claim they are like Martin Luther or Dietrich freakin’ Bonhoeffer. Many closet white supremacists use the name of Dr. King or Rosa Parks. Co-opting the names and messages of great people is necessary to present terrible ideas as palatable.

In private they may praise the name of Hitler, or Nathan Bedford Forrest. But publicly, they have no inspirational fighters for truth and liberation, and that’s why they have to appropriate the words and images of famous people they would have burned, shot, or hanged.

Whenever they try to lay claim to some aspect of inspirational history, some selfless act of bravery that made humanity better, they whitewash and obfuscate. (This is why John Merrill had the temerity to justify voter suppression in the same breath as he mentioned Dr. King and Rosa Parks, claiming that automatic voter registration “dishonors their legacy”.) Their rhetorical acrobatics tell a funhouse mirror version of history. They envision a world where statues of slave owners teach history, but actual curriculum that teaches about slavery is “divisive.”

(This is pretty much the same thing they’ve done with Jesus: Worship the man. Ignore the teaching.)

And that’s why their name dropping of heroic figures stops with the top tier, with the Dr. Kings and the Galileos. They don’t talk about Oscar Romero, or Angela Davis, or Sojourner Truth, or Hypatia, or Martin Niemoller, or Dorothy Day, or Bayard Rustin, or Cesar Chavez.

And this is why we need to lift up the voices and names of those who are not instantly recognizable, to broaden our scope of heroes, to move away from the “Great [white] Man” approach to history.

Have yourself a lot of heroes. And make sure most of them *aren’t* famous.

Old White Guy Whitesplains Social Justice

Screenshot of David Brooks’ most recent NY Times column. Link here.

David Brooks has swallowed a big lie. Now he is propagating it:

“…a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed.”

Until now, I’ve largely seen the “social justice is a religion” trope from right-wing white evangelicals terrified of losing their political power. Their targets have usually been people like me: pastors who believe Jesus did indeed have much to say on matters of power and oppression. They have simply wanted to discredit folks like me as “not real Christians.” I’m used to this, and have largely let it go.

But David Brooks, who has a much larger platform and sophisticated audience, has now brought this trope into the mainstream. I know a lot of clergy-types and moderates who love Brooks, so I am addressing this primarily to you:

Brooks is giving voice to some of the discomfort you may feel. He’s also completely wrong about activism, and late to the party about symbolism.

Let me start with the obvious bullshit before I come back to the “social justice as religion” trope.

Academics, activists, and organizers ALWAYS point out that symbolic changes are not substantive. This is a truism. A tautology. It’s like saying frosting isn’t cake, or “beauty is only skin deep.” There has been no end of activist writing over how painting “Black Lives Matter” on a street doesn’t change policy, or that “greenwashing” and “rainbow flags” don’t solve anything. “Performative” allyship is primarily about “virtue signaling” (like “politically correct”, this phrase was a liberal self-critique before conservatives co-opted it). And historically-oppressed groups need “accomplices, not allies.” So in pointing out that symbolic changes are… well, symbolic… you are very, very late to the party, David Brooks.

Yet symbols are important, and often most important to the people who say that they *are not*. It is an old, old trick to pretend you don’t care that someone attacks a beloved symbol. Symbols and the rituals around them have power. If they didn’t, most religion would evaporate.

Which brings us back to “religion.”

As a scholar of religion, I need to point out that there are a lot of things that can be called “religion.” Sports, for example, have chants, hymns, rituals, codes of ethics, myths, and sacred texts.

But the rhetorical goal of calling this movement for social justice a “religion” is not to give it importance, but to discredit it. It’s to create a binary choice for people who do consider themselves religious (to support a “false” religion or their own) and for those who do not (to be “religious” or agnostic). It’s to rebuke white evangelicals, some of whom are just waking up to the fact that systemic oppression might be something God cares about, and a call for them to return to the individualistic, status-quo, white supremacist religion of their predecessors.

There is little institutional organization to this anarchic, diverse, grassroots movement we are seeing, so slapping the label “religion” on it is a way to both create a false expectation it can never live up to and to elevate Brooks’ own worldview, which is thoroughly white, male, respectable, and homogenous.

Brooks’ rhetoric also obscures and marginalizes the religious and theological critique of white power. This is especially harmful to womanist, black, and queer theologians and pastors who have been calling us religious folks to take this stuff more seriously for AGES.

There’s a lot more wrong with this article, like the fact that he accuses SJWs of being narrowly focused both on “symbolism” and “structures.” It comes off as argle-bargle from an old white dude. I think he’s anxious that his voice might have less power in the new world that is emerging. “A hit dog will holler,” as they say.

So as one white dude to another: grow up, David Brooks. Take several seats. Read a book. Listen before you opine on stuff you know little about. People have been talking about this stuff LONG before you.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 29: Anger and Lust

 
Jheronimus_Bosch_Table_of_the_Mortal_Sins_(Luxuria)2

Detail of The Seven Deadly Sins and the Four Last Things, by Heironymus Bosch, from Wikimedia Commons

 

Pleasures conceived in the world of the senses have a beginning and an end and give birth to misery, Arjuna. The wise do not look for happiness in them. But those who overcome the impulses of lust and anger which arise in the body are made whole and live in joy. They find their joy, their light, and their rest completely within themselves. United with the Lord, they attain nirvana in Brahman. (5:22-24)  

We’ll pause on this text for a couple of days, because there are some important parallels to the Sermon on the Mount. Anger and lust also feature in some of the most memorable parts of Jesus’s dialogue. They are the first two sins in what I call his Commandments for the Heart:

“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment.” (Matthew 5:21-22, CEB)

“You have heard that it was said, Don’t commit adultery. But I say to you that every man who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28, CEB)

(You can read my commentary on these passages here and here.)

I think warnings against anger and lust feature in so many religious traditions because they are passionate feelings in which we lose ourselves and our perspective. They are some of our most primal emotions, and they can distort not only individuals and personal relationships, but also communities and policies.

I am quick to point out that there is both righteous anger and holy sexual desire. Anger can be a gift that alerts us to a healthy boundary being violated or to the presence of injustice. Sexual desire can bring more life into the world, both in terms of babies and in terms of pleasure and fruitful relationships.

But anger is more often a fragile ego’s response to being disrespected: someone cuts in line, or says something mean about me, or twists my words. Lust is likewise often a desire to possess, or an evaluative gaze that measures human bodies as objects of relative value: this one is an “8,” and that one is a “10.” This is why Jesus advises gouging out your eye or chopping off your hand to avoid it.

For primitive creatures, these emotions are about survival—this is why Krishna says “they arise in the body.” For humans in community, though, they are more about social status. We react so strongly because we feel our very survival is at stake, which is usually not true. They distract us from who we really are. We become attached to things that have no lasting value: getting revenge or satisfying our craving. 

We have even come to institutionalize these passions. We can look at the news and see white supremacy, capitalism, and colonialism as anger (violence) and lust (greed) embodied in police brutality, mass incarceration, wealth inequality, and environmental destruction. Many fragile egos, struggling like crabs in a bucket, create harmful systems in which people and the planet cannot thrive.

More tomorrow.

Prayer:
God of Abundance, you fill our every need. Grant us the wisdom to know the things that make for lasting happiness.