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.
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.
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.
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.
Prayer: God of Abundance, you fill our every need. Grant us the wisdom to know the things that make for lasting happiness.
49 YEARS AGO TODAY, President Nixon kicked off the so-called War on Drugs with a speech on national television (linked in the comments).
This is what his domestic policy advisor said in 1994:
“You want to know what this was really all about?” he asked with the bluntness of a man who, after public disgrace and a stretch in federal prison, had little left to protect. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.” (citation).
This kicked off a five-decades-long increase in mass incarceration which would disproportionately affect black individuals, black communities, black political power, and black economics. It was a primary driver of racist policy down to the state level.
Please understand: substance abuse does harm. But policies weaponized against black people and the poor of all races do so much more harm. It’s an open secret our president has a substance abuse problem, but he’s not in jail. Nor are wealthy businesspeople in Mountain Brook. Or their kids who are involved in using and selling drugs.
Right now, there are human beings wasting years of their lives in prison, while a disproportionate number of wealthy white boys make money off of dispensaries in states where cannabis is legal.
We need to end this farce: Take money away from enforcement, and give it to treatment. Substance abuse is a public health and a mental health problem.
Anything short of this policy overhaul is white supremacy in action.
I have decided it is important to be bold in sharing that I have had psychedelic experiences for several reasons:
I had the privilege of using them legally, in a safe, therapeutic, research setting. Part of that privilege was obtained by being an ordained religious leader, which in turn was made more likely because of the privilege of being white, male, and middle-class.
I believe in the potential therapeutic benefits of plant medicines, not only for those suffering from various forms of mental illness, but also for “well” people.
I believe in the potential of these therapies to address not only personal, but also generational trauma that has epigenetic effects.
It is absurd that these naturally occurring substances are classified as schedule 1 drugs, and that nearly incalculable harm is done to human lives under the pretense of keeping them “safe.” We warehouse human beings in prison at tremendous cost to society, when it would be more humaneandcheaper to give them free housing and mental health care.
I had two experiences nearly two years ago, and continue to reap the benefits; whereas many people are taking a pill every day for years or decades in order to alter their brain chemistry.
I obtain some of this power to speak for change by virtue of having practiced abstinence before and since. I have never smoked pot or consumed any illegal drug. I am no hedonist; my motivation for changing drug policy is simply the outrageous injustice and harm it is doing to our society.
I started out this week sharing that the War on Drugs is a racist, failed policy, enacted by frightened men desperate to hold on to coercive power. I am very aware that the reason I am able to talk openly about my own experience is because of something known as “psychedelic exceptionalism.” Essentially, when white middle-class people use drugs, it’s okay.
During the 1980’s and 1990’s, crack cocaine became a moral panic. Reflecting Nixon’s original logic in creating a War on Drugs, laws were written to create harsher penalties for drugs that black people were more likely to use. Drug policy was specifically geared to hurt black people worse. But in the current opioid epidemic, which is harming more white people, our national dialogue has changed course. Suddenly we are holding manufacturers accountable and talking about compassionate care for addiction.
All of this is due to white privilege, our society’s tendency to treat white people more humanely, as individuals with backstories, people who are worthy of respect.
Because I had the very rare opportunity to appreciate the therapeutic and spiritual benefits of a substance currently classified as a schedule 1 “illegal” drug, because I am white, not addicted, and hold a position of privilege, I have come to realize that I have a moral obligation to expose the hypocrisy and systemic racism of our nation’s drug policy. As a religious leader with a Ph.D in preaching and ethics, I cannot be silent about this obvious and outrageous harm we continue to inflict upon generations of human beings, especially if that policy is upheld by moralizing from the pulpit.
There are certainly important policy discussions we need to have about decriminalization versus legalization, and how to mitigate the very real harms that substance abuse has on individuals, families, and society. Some drugs are worse than others, and there must certainly be a way to control access, especially for people most vulnerable. Drugs can do harm. But the harm we manufacture must end, and it should not be illegal to grow any plant medicine that God created.
It is beyond reason that a living thing should be illegal.
Jesus said that his mission was to a) bring people abundant life (John 10:10) and b) set the captives free (Luke 4:18-21). While drug addiction can certainly be both oppressive and life-destroying, our social policies have done far worse. Addressing this wrong will require us to acknowledge both the existence of white supremacy and the harm done by the War on Drugs.
Prayer: Lord of Liberation and Life, we are born into oppressive systems which we did not design; but we can unmake them. Give us the courage and discernment to break every oppressive yoke.
“What are you experiencing, David?” asked Bill. “Um… I see some stained glass patterns, I think. There’s some movement and a faint light.”
I was about twenty minutes into a psilocybin session at Johns Hopkins. I was lying on a couch wearing an eyeshade and headphones. My support team sat next to me on the floor. An automatic blood pressure cuff gently squeezed my arm every thirty minutes, monitoring my body for signs of distress.
What I was thinking was, “Man, this is kind of a let-down. If I’ve gone through all this—taking time off work, telling my life story three or four times, filling out hours of screening forms and questionnaires, and this is all I get—I will be pretty disappointed.”
“And what will I do with my disappointment?” The question came floating up from deep inside me.
I looked down and realized I was holding my disappointment. I was cradling it, like a baby. And I was weeping with deep, wrenching sobs. I realized I had been carrying so much unacknowledged disappointment, hopes for ministry and for life and relationships. I had been unwilling and unable to acknowledge it. And almost as suddenly, I realized that God was also cradling me, like a mother, while I cradled my disappointment. She was telling me that it was okay to have hopes, and okay to be disappointed, and that I was loved more deeply than I could possibly imagine. And then she proceeded to show me how much I was loved.
I realized that I could not be truly grateful if I did not acknowledge my disappointment. I could not simply “put a brave face on it” and pretend to be cheery. And once I had acknowledged it, I was overwhelmed with gratitude for all that was right and good in my life.
And that was all in the first 45 minutes.
At the end of a six-hour session, I felt as if I had been through six months of psychotherapy, as though I had lived a whole other life before coming home to my own skin and my own reality. In the days after, I felt more grounded, grateful, and stable. I felt more loving toward my friends, family, and even strangers. I was overwhelmed with appreciation of the beauty and mystery of life. Almost two years later, I still feel the lingering effects and the lessons of that first session. I know in my bones that God does not expect me to act grateful when I’m not, to feel the way I think I “should” feel. And that makes me more free to be truly grateful and to love.
Psychedelic-assisted therapy is an emerging field. It is being tested as a treatment for drug addiction,PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression. It has shown promise in reducing recidivism among ex-prisoners. One friend I know kicked a 30-year heroin habit after one session with an indigenous plant medicine. He has been clean ever since.
There is a lot of hype about psychedelics and psychedelic-assisted therapy, and I think it is important to remain cautious about “new” therapies. People who are chasing an experience may not reap the full benefit of these substances because there is psychological, internal work that needs to happen in tandem. It cannot replace talk therapy. Our capitalist, consumerist, pharmacological approach to physical and mental health is about pill-popping and miracle cures, about “superfoods” and consuming or avoiding the trendy ingredient du jour. Big Pharma, like other industries, only makes money by commodifying wellness. My fear is that psychedelic therapy will experience the same fate.
But its roots are in positive psychology, indigenous practices, and holistic understandings of mental health and human society. Not only does it have the potential to help people who are suffering from mental illness, it has the potential to help “well” people thrive.
I wanted to spend this week focusing on drug policy and the church because this is a prime example of the way racism hurts everybody. These substances have been locked away for fifty years because the Nixon White House—and subsequent leaders—wanted to disrupt Civil Rights and the antiwar movements. Instead of healing people, we’ve been locking them away for decades, creating more generational trauma instead of healing it.
But there is a better way for us to be.
Prayer: God of Salvation, you salve our wounds and heal all our diseases. Help us to be agents of healing in our selves, our culture, and our planet. Amen.
How should we treat people who use drugs? There are two general schools of thought. The first is that users “should” experience all the negative consequences of their drug use: poverty, homelessness, illness, pain and suffering—in order to coerce them into better behavior. Actions or policies that are not geared toward total abstinence are considered “enabling.” We often call this “tough love.” This is an individualistic approach, and it is what we as a society have been trying for centuries. It doesn’t work.
The second school of thought accepts that drug use happens and is part of human society. While drug abuse does harm to people and society, this approach is about harm reduction: helping people avoid some of the worst consequences of drug use, empowering them to make their own choices about what will ultimately make them happy and productive, and giving drug users a voice in designing policies that will help them. It looks at addiction as a systemic problem exacerbated by poverty, hunger, poor relationships, and homelessness—and not just as the cause of those things. Harm reduction might be providing clean needles to heroin users to reduce the spread of HIV, or giving community organizers training in the use of naloxone to prevent deaths by opioid overdose. It might even mean giving people a safe place to use drugs so that they are not robbed or sexually abused by others, where they can be prevented from harming themselves or others.
I need to distinguish between harm reduction and enabling. Parents of adults, for example, are not obliged to provide their sons or daughters with a safe space to get high, especially if that drug use impacts their ability to earn a living or pay for their own upkeep. In such cases, firm boundaries may be most appropriate. Enabling is making excuses or being dishonest about the harm caused by drug abuse. Harm reduction acknowledges harm and reduces it.
It’s worth asking, though, why a society that has plenty of homes sitting empty (often due to foreclosure) and more than enough food cannot provide food and shelter for all of its citizens. When people who abuse drugs have secure housing and enough food, they are better able to curb their addictive behaviors. Homeless persons who use drugs are better able to get clean and sober if they have a safe place to live. This shouldn’t be surprising! Abraham Maslow talked about a hierarchy of needs. Food, clothing, and shelter are prerequisites to long-term decision making. Making these needs contingent on socially-acceptable behavior—as our current policy does—is a set up for failure.
As I said Tuesday, I tend to believe that people will thrive under the right conditions. Sure, there is a nature and nurture argument to be made about whether our environment determines our destiny, or whether our will and character do. But living things have a built-in drive toward living—not self-destruction, and when we see large numbers of people failing to thrive, it is an indicator that something is wrong in the environment. We do not blame plants for failing to grow without sunlight, or babies for failing to grow without love!
I believe there is more than enough suffering in the world that occurs naturally, but that we—as individuals and a society—manufacture more than necessary. This is a somewhat Buddhist way of describing what Charles Wesley called “our bent to sinning.” It is not so much a moral or judgmental statement as a practical one: we do harm to ourselves. We do not participate in the abundant life God designed us to live.
For followers of Jesus Christ, our primary task is figuring out what embodied love looks like in our world. The Wesleys came up with three general rules for the people they called Methodists: Do no harm, do good, and stay in love with God. While I think there are situations where “tough love” and boundary setting are necessary and appropriate, I think Christians have to be the public voice of “do no harm” in policy discussions. For too long, we have chosen “tough love” over genuine love, and this attitude has lent influence to both white supremacy and greed.
Prayer: God of Abundant Life, help us live according to your present abundance instead of imagined scarcity. Teach us to do no harm.
“[We] had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
This is where we start. This is a quotation from John Ehrlichman, President Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, and it needs to be the first thing we consider. Sure, we can talk about addiction, and harm reduction, and prohibition, and the history of drug use and religion, and a number of other things. I plan to touch on those this week. But when we talk about drug policy in the United States—and by extension, in the world and in the church—we need to start with this quote right here.
We start here because nearly everything in our country has been weaponized for the sake of white supremacy and imperialism: religion, roads, housing construction, banking, marriage, the family, mass media. This is not an overstatement. EVERYTHING. But drug policy has been one of the most devastating weapons contrived.
Phyllis Tickle said that society goes through periodic 500-year cycles of revolution and reformation, a “rummage sale” where old ideas are brought out into the light, and we decide what to keep and what to throw away. Our approach to drugs is one of these areas that is up for review. Drugs and drug addiction regularly appear in sermons and prayers, even though these modern terms never appear in the Bible, so it is appropriate for us to consider them.
I grew up in the 1980’s, during the “Just Say No” campaign. I have practiced abstinence from illegal drugs my whole life. As a pastor, I’ve seen the devastation wrought by opioid addiction—and who profited from it. But I’ve also walked in the Amazon with indigenous people who told me, “God has put a cure for every human ailment in this jungle.” Plant medicine from the rainforest, they believed, could heal the world—if the descendants of Europeans could only stop destroying it.
We need to acknowledge the harm that drugs can do to individuals and society, certainly. Alcohol and nicotine are responsible for tremendous social harm. Prescription drugs are the newest form of a long-term drug problem. Yet we often blame drugs instead of their antecedents: poor quality social relationships, being stuck in meaningless jobs, self-medicating for depression and anxiety. There are behavioral and biological components to addiction. Yet our policies are not about addiction: they are about disrupting communities and targeting certain people.
I start with the above quotation because we need to understand that the stigma associated with addiction and drug use is very intentional. Drug policy is responsible for the massive swelling of our prison population: The “home of the free” imprisons more people than any country on earth. The War on Drugs launched on June 17, fifty years ago, and its purpose was always to delegitimize the anti-war and Civil Rights movements. In order to weed out these toxic policies and attitudes, we need to pull them up by the roots.
Prayer: God of Justice, we so often do the wrong things for the right reasons, or allow unjust harm because we are convinced of a greater good. Give us wisdom and discernment to know truth from lies, and to be ruled by love rather than fear—in our personal lives, as well as public.
June 17th is coming. This is the date Nixon declared a War on Drugs.
John Ehrlichman was Nixon’s domestic policy advisor. In 1994 he said in an interview that the administration “…had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”
It has been widely documented how this War on Drugs led to America being the incarceration capital of the world. The State of Alabama has the fifth highest incarceration rate in the world.
While most of the people we lock up are white, incarceration disproportionately affects black people. According to Alabama Appleseed, black folks are four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white folks, even though we know drug use is the same across race, class, etc. There’s just as much, or more, drug use in Mountain Brook as in West End.
And while pro-prison legislators in Alabama will point out most long-term prisoners are in for violent crimes, we need to ask about how our awful drug and mental health policies LED to those violent crimes. Alabama prisons are the largest provider of mental health care in the state!
As people begin to turn from protest to thinking “What Now?” I want to say again that POLICY needs to change. There is bipartisan support for prison reform, but I want to ask you to look at some of the arguments for prison ABOLITION. You don’t have to sign on. Just LISTEN.
(Even the American Enterprise Institute, who produced the graphic attached, supports changes in policy. The AEI is a conservative capitalist institution.)
Incarceration has add-on effects: many convicted persons can no longer vote. While in prison, census data records them as residents of the (mostly white, rural) counties where they are serving their time. Both of these effects create taxation without representation, and decimate the political power of black citizens. 15% of African-American adults in Alabama cannot vote.
All of the wasted money in prisons could be funneled into things that actually improve people’s lives. Treat addiction as a public and mental health problem. Move cannabis to lowest enforcement priority. Take psychedelics that show therapeutic promise off Schedule 1. Invest in harm reduction programs. Reduce economic inequality, make the world less awful, and people will spend less energy trying to escape it.
Remember, the Nixon administration knew there was a link between white supremacy and perpetual war. They made a strategic 50-year investment in subjugating our nation, creating a permanent carceral state and modern plantation system. We are now seeing the war machine being used on us in our own cities, as police with military hardware treat protesters like a prison population.
June 17 is coming up. We should mark the date by calling for an end to the failed, racist, militarized War on Drugs. Two days later is Juneteenth: a fitting day to celebrate freedom, and recognize that slavery and white supremacy are still very much with us.