Link

1) The linked article is for those who choose to engage.
2) Frequently it is not worth your time, energy, or mental health to engage.
3) I continue to resist the false, often implicit claim that persuasion is the only value of rhetoric on social media, or that the only merit in engaging is converting someone to your point of view. As Jesse Williams said, it is not your purpose in life to tuck ignorance in at night. Vituperation is an ancient and important rhetorical form. 
4) Still, it’s important to know how to talk to someone who has gone off the deep end, especially of that person is important to you.
5) And I persist in the belief that everybody can be saved from our tendency to harm ourselves, each other, and the planet.
6) And I persist in the notion that people with certain forms of privilege are the best suited and most obligated to speak to those who will listen.

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 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)

How Not to Ask a Question

I’ve been told “not to feed the trolls,” and Jesus tells us not to “throw our pearls before swine,” because they will simply “trample them under foot, and then turn and maul you.” I probably don’t follow this advice often enough. I think the identity of the pig or troll really depends on which side of the fence, bridge, or screen you are on.

Still, I think these kinds of interactions can be instructive.

From John Lomperis, in the comments of his blog. I will not link to them, because there are some pretty awful comments posted there:

Thanks for your reply, Dave. I’ll try try to make this easy for you: Are you willing to simply say, without any dodges or word games, that you believe that “monogamish” relationships and all extra-marital sex is inherently sinful, and that RMN should not suggest otherwise?

Here is my response:

Hi, John,

While you say you will make it “easy for me,” your question is a rhetorical trap. You start off with a fairly straightforward shibboleth, but you tag an additional clause which asks me to join your accusation of RMN, which I will not do.

It’s a bit like asking, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” That trap is called a “loaded question.” It makes it impossible to answer “yes” or “no.”

In your post on the Facebook group “The New Methodists,” you introduced your article with admonishments that nobody should use straw man or ad hominem attacks against you. I take it you have some familiarity with these logical fallacies. Perhaps you have been accused of them before. Considering that your article that mentioned me was one long amalgamation of ad hominem attacks, straw man arguments and slippery slope logic, perhaps you felt that if you beat people to the punch, you could get away with what you forbade others to do.

In the same way, you lead this question with admonishments not to play “language games.” In the very next sentence, you are playing language games. How should I take that?

I don’t read enough of your stuff to know if this is an intentional strategy on your part or not. For my part, I’m willing to give you a charitable reading: Maybe you’ve made a mistake.

Even so, considering this repeated rhetorical pattern in all two of our online interactions, I am not inclined to think of you as a trustworthy dialogue partner. I suspect you are more interested in scoring points than having a discussion, and are merely looking for more fuel to stoke a rage engine. So, as a preacher and educator, while I am always interested in having a discussion about the nature of sin, sexual ethics, and Methodist polity, I must decline to answer your question. You are welcome to read my follow-up, “What Good is Monogamy?” which is posted on my blog. There are several sentences there which I cannot prevent you from taking out of context and writing whole new pieces on, if you so desire. It is rather long, and there are a lot of words in it.

I still think your question is interesting, and I’d love to have a conversation about what it means for something to be “inherently sinful.” Is war, lying, or contempt inherently sinful? Do these things alienate us from God? I’d love to hear what you think about Abraham and Sarah being half-siblings, and if their incest is inherently sinful or not. (I do, actually, think that their marriage was sinful in this and many other ways, but I think that’s much less interesting than God’s covenant relationship with them.)

Anyway, sorry that I can’t answer your question without language games. But if you want a straight answer, you’ll need to ask a straight question. Thanks for trying to make it easy for me.

I wish you the best.
Dave

—————–

There is a lot more I could have written in my reply, if I felt that my interlocutor was genuinely interested in conversation. While I believe infidelity and promiscuity do alienate us from God, categorizing extra-marital sex as sinful while simultaneously forbidding marriage to gay people is, in fact, a greater sin. If heterosexual marriage were forbidden, I suppose I’d have to live in sin, too.

Forbidden marriage has been a theme of literature throughout history, and it’s why we have stories where protagonists marry in secret. Romeo and Juliet were not “technically” living in sin, because they were married, right?

There’s also an illustrative Bible story in Genesis 38. It tells the story of Judah, who accused Tamar (his daughter-in-law) of “playing the whore” (which was “inherently sinful,” apparently). Judah, by his own admission, was in the wrong. Tamar was “more righteous” because he denied her marital rights. (Judah stays mum on his own extra-marital shenanigans). I think Genesis 38 is a great story for our own time, when plenty of self-righteous Christians loudly condemn sexual sin in others while working very hard to make marriage inaccessible to others. Judah was willing to burn her alive for her infidelity. He was not willing to let her marry. That’s quite a double standard.

I do not think most anti-gay people are very interested in these kinds of stories or this kind of discussion. John is interested only in the right answer, or more specifically, any answer that allows me to be discredited. I have found that in discussions with anti-gay Christians, not many are very interested in the Bible or the actual stories it contains, or the kinds of questions they raise. It is far easier to deal with abstractions than actual cases, with ideas rather than people, and with “what the Bible says” than with the actual stories the Bible tells.

As I said in my earlier post, rules and vice lists can be useful. But when they are maintained by people hell-bent on supporting a double standard, they are simply tools of oppression. I don’t see value in accepting their terms of conversation or the way they frame the issue.

The Pot and Kettle

At least I’m not a hypocrite, like you are.

Your kind always makes sweeping generalizations about other people.

Who, me? Sarcastic? Oh, never!

You make ad hominem arguments because you are an evil, twisted person.

You’re attempting to undermine my position by psychoanalyzing me. Was your mother this condescending to you as a child?

You are a bully who accuses other people of bullying.

I’m not going to argue with you, because you’re wrong for the following reasons.

You are being redundant and repetitive.

You believe we should kill old people and eat babies. That’s why you make these straw-man arguments.

One of your kind was prejudiced toward me once.

Modern Parables 9: The Good ______

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A preacher stood up to test Jesus: “Level with us, Rabbi: Who gets into heaven?” Jesus said: “A man was beaten and bloody on the side of the road. A Southern Baptist preacher passed him by. An non-denominational pastor passed him by. Finally, a Muslim stopped to help him. She bandaged his wounds and took him to the hospital. When they asked about insurance, his doctor, an agnostic Jew, paid for his care in cash. Which of these demonstrated their desire for heaven?” The preacher mumbled, “The ones who helped him.” Jesus said, “Go and do likewise.”

 

Then the religious leaders went out and plotted how to destroy him.

Modern Parables 8: Late to Work

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

To what shall I compare the reign of God? It is like a maid who apologizes to the lady of the house for arriving late to work. “And why were you late?” the wealthy woman demanded. “Please, ma’am,” said the maid, “my old junker wouldn’t start, so I had to take the bus. That is why I did not arrive until after noon.” The wealthy woman gave the maid the keys to her own car and said, “You may have my car. And come, marry into my family. Take my oldest child’s hand in marriage, and live with us, so that you will not be late again.” The gardener overheard this exchange, and grumbled about it. “This new girl has the easiest job of all the staff. I have worked for you for years in the heat and the snow. Why should this irresponsible girl be given an expensive car, and your daughter’s hand in marriage, when I’ve given you years of faithful service?” The woman replied, “Friend, you never asked. You are welcome to sleep in the shed any time you like. But now, get to work: I need flowers for a wedding.”

 

Modern Parables 7: Beach-Front Property

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

Climate change and rising sea levels began destroying a wealthy industrialist’s beach-front property. So she sold that house and bought a mountain cabin. “I feel closer to God up here,” she said. “And one day, this will be beach-front property, too.”

 

Modern Parables 6: Round Up

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

The kingdom of God is like dandelions spreading across your lawn. You can spray with herbicide, but it kills the grass, and the dandelions spread even more.

 

Modern Parables 5: The Escape

I love the parables. I think they give us insight into Jesus’ personality as well as the character of God. They are carefully crafted to shock the religious assumptions of his hearers. So I thought I’d try my hand at writing a few:

A Wall Street banker encountered an angry mob, so he invited them into his home. “Take whatever you want,” he told them. While they ransacked his house, he and his family fled to France. “But we don’t even speak the language!” said his wife. “At least we’ll have decent health care and will eat well,” he replied.