On a small sailing dinghy, like the one I learned to sail on when I was a teenager, you learn to feel the wind. With the mainsheet in one hand and the tiller in the other, you learn to balance the force of the wind against the resistance of the water. Adjust either the sheet or the tiller, and you can feel the pressure difference in the other. Your arms tell you when they are balanced.
This is one of those major differences between what you can know with your mind and what you can know in your body. If I have to describe how sailing works with words, I say this: ”Boats can move against the wind because of the lift generated by the shape of the sail. Even though the wind may be in your face, you are pulled forward by the pressure differential.” Maybe you grasp this concept easily, but for me, it didn’t really make sense until I felt both the sail and the tiller pulling my hands, and I understood that in order to point the boat in the right direction, I had to balance those forces.
I remember when it clicked. It was exhilarating. I was doing old-school magic, riding the boundary of these two elements, water and air.
Not so with a big boat. The forces are too huge for you to manage them with your own strength. You cannot control the sails with your bare hands. It requires winches, a crew, and language. The idea here is not to balance the forces in your body, but to set the sails and rudder so that the boat steers itself.
That’s why our instructor kept telling us, “steer less, anticipate more.” If you are the pilot, you cannot turn the wheel as if you are turning a car. If you move the wheel, it may take several seconds before you notice a change in direction — especially if the boat is bobbing and bouncing over the waves. I was also learning a different kind of body knowledge: the feel of the boat under my feet. How the boat slid down a wave could predict which way the bow would point several seconds later. I didn’t need to correct every change. I was learning to distinguish signal from noise.
“Steer less, anticipate more”seems like good life advice, too. And good advice for the church.
The early church often talked about the church as a sailboat and the Holy Spirit, the wind or “breath of God,” as the force that pushed the church forward. But I think She also pulls us forward. The waves of time, culture, and circumstance offer resistance, but somehow balancing these forces gives us a direction. Too often we are trying to steer the boat, fighting the waves while our sails flap in the breeze.
Part of my rationale for taking this trip was to learn from history, to anticipate more of what’s coming for our culture and for the church. And, for myself, to steer less. After we earned our sailing certificate, we planned to go to Germany, to see where the Reformation kicked off and where, during World War 2, the world faced deep theological questions about the justice of God.
Prayer: Help me to steer less and anticipate more, trusting in your Breath and the friction of the world to move me in the right direction.
I can’t help think about Harry Frankfurt’s essay, “On Bullshit” whenever I encounter white male pastors talking about a “third way” or being “centrist.” Frankfurt makes the point that humbug (a form of bullshit) is not a claim about reality; it’s a claim about the speaker.
Frankfurt quotes Max Black’s definition of “humbug” — “deceptive misrepresentation, short of lying, especially by pretentious word or deed, of somebody’s own thoughts, feelings, or attitudes.” I suspect this describes many 3rd-way pastors these days.
I want to add that I’m not unsympathetic toward pastors who misrepresent themselves during this rise of white Christian Nationalism. I think there are a lot of pastors suffering from Moral Injury, a form of PTSD.
“Third Way” and “centrist” rhetoric may be a form of self-preservation. It says, “I’m not your target” to angry congregants. For many, speaking truthfully about the rise of WCN puts their families and their careers at risk. Far easier to talk about “polarization” and put the blame “on both sides.” But this silence comes at the cost of moral injury.
“Centrism,” in the USian church at this historical moment is a way of positioning my whitedudeself at the center of two imaginary and equally-obejctionable extremes. It reinforces the norm of binary USian “left-right” politics even as it pretends to offer an alternative. But it’s really just status-quo preaching.
(I have to note that the word “centrist” is very descriptive: it really does *center* white male power in the area of public theology and public policy. In this way it perpetuates material harm for others and moral injury for pastors.)
“I defy classification” is a lie that many church leaders tell themselves about themselves. They lament polarization, demonization, and enemyfying, and praise nuance and perspective-taking. All good. But when it comes to specific policies and questions of power… silence.
A preacher w/out this insight may even identify himself (and it’s almost always a “him”) with Christ, “crucified by both left and right,” as I’ve heard one preacher say, vicariously placing himself in the center not only of American politics, but the f’n cosmos.
3rd-way/centrism is “bullshit” because it’s a claim about yourself, not about reality. The last thing pastors want to do is talk about specific policies or theological claims, preferring to gesture toward the extremes and make apophatic statements about their own (& Jesus’s) identity (i.e. “Jesus is not a Democrat or a Republican.”)
Again, I know this is *moral injury* for many pastors. It’s a trap that leads to burnout and demoralization when leaders are crushed between institutional evangelical-capitalist expectations for church growth and a vocational responsibility for truth-telling.
We need to name this bullshit self-centering rhetoric not only for the sake of the people being harmed by these crises, and not only for the sake of the church, and not only for the planet, but for the sake of the pastors who are complicit in it.
Church leaders cannot navigate the crises of climate change, fascism, & disaster capitalism by making nice with wealthy donors whose interests are in perpetuating those things at the expense of everyone else on the planet. If Jesus takes no side here, he’s not merely useless. He’s doing harm.
As a pastor without a uterus, I feel my own voice should take a backseat to those who are more directly impacted, and yet I also have a responsibility to deploy mine for the good of my friends and family. You may have seen that some of my words from a Facebook post in 2018 went viral again. I want to set those words in context with my baptismal vow to “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves” and my ordination vow to uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
The beginning of life and the ending of life are the God-given boundaries of human existence. While individuals have always had some degree of control over when they would die, they now have the awesome power to determine when and even whether new individuals will be born. Our belief in the sanctity of unborn human life makes us reluctant to approve abortion.
But we are equally bound to respect the sacredness of the life and well-being of the mother and the unborn child.
We recognize tragic conflicts of life with life that may justify abortion, and in such cases we support the legal option of abortion under proper medical procedures by certified medical providers.
While they have their flaws (especially with regard to LGBTQIA persons), the Social Principles of the United Methodist Church generally reflect a well-reasoned majority theological and social position on current issues. The UMC has historically viewed abortion as a “tragic choice,” but emphasized that it is still a choice between a woman and her doctor:
Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience. Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral, and other appropriate counsel.
The section on abortion also points out some of the best ways to reduce the frequency of abortion:
We mourn and are committed to promoting the diminishment of high abortion rates. The Church shall encourage ministries to reduce unintended pregnancies such as comprehensive, age-appropriate sexuality education, advocacy in regard to contraception, and support of initiatives that enhance the quality of life for all women and girls around the globe.
It is important to note that while both abortions and unintended pregnancies have been declining for years, many of the United States and Alabama legislators who are restricting abortion access are simultaneously pulling the rug out from under people who get pregnant. In Alabama, for example, we still have abstinence-only education. We have not expanded Medicaid. We are a “right-to-work” state, which means people who get pregnant do not have labor protections, nor do they have parental leave to take care of newborns.
All of these factors combine to make people’s lives harder, to make unintended pregnancy more likely, and to complicate pregnancy and delivery. These policies are at odds with the United Methodist Social Principles. They are also at odds with God’s vision of justice and shalom in the world.
I am continuously awed by the process of new life. I spend hours building birdhouses so that mama birds have a safe place to raise their young. I delight in this time of year, watching fluffy fledglings take their first timid hops out of a nest. I believe all life is sacred, and I long for a world where all of God’s family is aided to flourish. I am “pro-family” for the human world and the more-than-human world.
But I also recognize that evil is a force that warps the most holy things in the world, including parenthood and the Gospel. When our society weaponizes pregnancy against populations of poor people, indigenous people, and people of color, or when religious groups weaponize the language of love and care to oppress others, it is a deep betrayal of the Good News.
All of which has made the last week — and the last six years — exhausting for many of us who identify as Christians who seek liberation and healing for ALL people. On this Mother’s Day, I hope you will take care of yourself and your own mental health. Rest and self-care are radical acts of resistance in a system that demands exploitive labor, which claims ownership of our bodies, and which tries to appropriate our spiritual and emotional energy for its own agenda of conquest and colonialism. We say that we will “resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.” I hope you will join me in sacred rest, sacred lament, and revolutionary, worshipful, self-care.
I want you to know that I spend a lot of time with people who are not Christian, and with Christians of many political stripes. Some are fundamentalists and some are eco-warriors. Some are pro-gay and some are anti-gay. Some are conservative black preachers and some are liberal white preachers. I have had meaningful conversations and life lessons from tree-hugging pro-choice social justice warriors and from end-times-believing hellfire-and-brimstone Trump voters.
We know that secular culture is hostile to Christianity and to the notion of One True God. Secular culture has many gods: Hollywood celebrities, New Age gurus, nature spirits, and so on. And because people believe and follow these gods, that’s why their morality is all over the place—why they change lovers like they change their socks, why they pursue pleasure first and reap the consequences later.
But look: Can you say you Christians are any different? Look at the sex scandals and the abuse that have rocked religious institutions. Why should anyone trust the church? Why should anyone listen to you? Did you read the headlines this summer of the ways Christian boarding schools collaborated with the government to kidnap, kill, and forcibly reprogram indigenous children? Why should anyone trust organized religion? It’s just as the Bible says: “God’s name is blasphemed because of the people who claim to be God’s people.” (see Ezekiel 36:20-22)
The question you have to ask yourself is this: Does my faith in Jesus Christ change my behavior in such a way that people want to know more about him? Or does it make them turn from organized religion in disgust?”
Here’s the thing: *These are not my words. They are Paul’s. If you follow the argument of the above paragraphs, you’ve just read through the structure of Paul’s letter to the Romans, 1:14-2:24. Go and read it. Also, stop using two verses out of context from this letter as justification for anti-gay attitudes. If you do, then YOU are the reason people don’t want to hear anything you have to say about God (Romans 2:24).
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.
(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.”)
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 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 do not think most people in the majority-white institutional church have any idea what is coming. Things are going to be radically different post-COVID, and not just because Trumpism has exposed white evangelicalism for the sham it is. Climate change is going to force a reckoning with the toxic theology of creation promoted by Christian colonizers and crusaders. The role of clergy is going to change because both economic reality and the mission of the church will make our jobs increasingly tenuous. New research into the nature of consciousness and religious experience is revealing the wisdom of non-Christian traditions that church leaders have shunned and condemned as heresy. As in the Great Reformation, people are claiming their own spiritual power and authority and the validity of their own experience outside of the church. The Southern Baptist church rejects critical race theory the way certain church leaders rejected the heliocentric model of the solar system, but the message is the same: white Christian men ain’t the center of the universe.
I felt a call to ordained ministry nearly 30 years ago, and answered it with the understanding that part of my role would be to reach folks the church wasn’t already reaching, to provide alternatives to the dominant and dominating theology of the South, to help people meet Jesus in community and in their neighbors in new settings. In many ways, the change that is coming has been one that I have been advocating for my whole life.
And now that it is here, I greet it with fear and trembling. I’m having to rethink my own ministry and how to keep doing the things I feel God calls me to do. I do believe that what is being born will be a better version of “church” than the capitalist suburban Americana we’ve been taught to expect. But the spiritual ecosystem is changing, and what will emerge is anyone’s guess.
I do not want to dismiss the importance of voting and our political activity AT ALL. But I also want to offer some perspective in light of all the political, social, and climate upheaval that exists right now:
Our ability to make it through this next critical period depends on how we build or find alternatives to business-as-usual. Our power structures make it VERY difficult for us to “opt out” of an economy built on fossil fuels, extractive economies, and oppression of Black, indigenous, people of color, queer folks, disabled folks, immigrants, and religious minorities.
The political and social imagination of the people in power is very limited, but the political and social imagination of THE REST OF US is expansive, creative, and generative. We are literally a force of nature, which is always growing dandelions through sidewalks and making mold grow on Twinkies. “Life finds a way,” as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park. You are an expression of life itself. Remember that.
The next two weeks is going to be full of imagination-limiting rhetoric and the words of narrow monied interests. Again, without diminishing the importance of voting or doing harm reduction for a society hell-bent on wrecking itself, please hear the invitation to find meaning outside of this binary bullshit. Crazy emperors and petty tyrants have been denying science and believing they can defy gravity or shout at the tide not to come in for millennia.
But the earth and her relentless move toward more life and greater diversity are not cowed by our myopic stupidity or our death-dealing policies. Jesus told us to look at the birds, who do not speculate on stock markets, and at the lilies, who do not follow social media for likes, fashion advice, or social trends. Our value and our meaning are not derived from the dominant culture’s ways of deciding “winners” and “losers.”
Our political and social imagination is very much the realm of what we call “spiritual,” regardless of whether you are a romantic or a materialist, religious or non. There are those who would limit your imagination. But we are the ones who shape culture through our spiritual lives—not the folks who are on our screens. We give these loonies so much power, y’all, because we give them our attention. The first step to removing their power over us is to turn our attention to other things.
Again, I’m not echoing the right-wing blame-the-media-for-our-divisions machine. I’m saying we give power to whatever we give our attention. And if we collectively give more attention to what is immediately around us, the things that we truly value that give life meaning, we can resist the self- and other-destructive forces of this world that do not have our interest—or the interest of our planet—at heart.
In order to make it through the next few weeks, focus on loving yourself. Loving the planet. Loving your people. Practice those things that you know bring more love and light into the world, like prayer and meditation, growing living things, being tender toward what is stretching toward the sun or snuggling down to hibernate for the winter.
Consider the bird that lingers at the feeder on its way south, and think of the mass human migration that is already taking place. How much longer until climate change forces us to move? What can we learn from the birds?
We need the wisdom of the birds and the flowers. Letting go, acting without attachment to the results of our actions, may be the greatest political power we have. Focus on what’s most important and under your control. Don’t sweat the rest of it.
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.
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.