Some thoughts on flags, protest, and symbols

American_flag_at_2008_US_Open

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Jephthah

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Daughter_of_Jephthah_(1879,_Oil_on_canvas)
You thought perhaps
it would be someone else—
a servant, or a servant’s child,
or a child’s pet.
You would trade
in someone else’s grief,
while you made sad eyes
and talked about a greater purpose
and collateral damage
and breaking eggs to make omelettes,
and the cost of discipleship
and each of us bearing our cross
and sacrifice.

 

When she ran out of the door,
smiling,
breathless,
almost as tall as you,
long limbs (where does the time go?)
covering the ground in half the time
(where does it go?)
as your wife,
and the servants
and their children
and their pets,
first through the door,
because she was faster than the wind,

 

I saw your face crack;
I heard your heart break.
Only last month
(or was it last year?)
she asked for a story every night,
followed by a song,
followed by a prayer,
and I hoped you would have the sense
to know that God has no need
for anyone to prove their righteousness.

 

When you swore your oath,
to sacrifice the first creature
who ran out of your door
in exchange for victory,
the chance was slim,
you thought;
and if it did so happen
that it was your child,
then you saw yourself as faithful as Abraham.
In your head,
you were already composing the story,
and you were the hero
because you sacrificed so much.

 

(Do not bring God into this.
Your idea
never entered God’s mind.)

 

You told her to go into the mountains
and bewail her virginity, and so
that is what she told you
she did.

 

I heard what she bewailed:
She bewailed a world
where men trade their children
for the image of their own virtue,
where they prize abstinence and virginity
more than life,
where legislators
and preachers
and pundits
and generals
bereave parents again and again and again,
where people in authority
make foolish oaths,
and stupid laws,
and empty promises,
that keep taking the lives
of queer kids,
and straight kids,
and any child
who sprints out of the door,
full of hope, and excitement, and love.

 

Jephthah, God is tired;
tired of parents grieving
so you can prove
how worthy you are
by sacrificing their children
for your holy war.

 

Jeremiah 7:31
Judges 11:29-40

If Paul Wrote “The Love Chapter” Today

handheart
If I speak Christianese, but do not have love, I am just an annoying advertising jingle for Jesus. And if I have a big blog following, and three best sellers, and if I run a big church, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I become a martyr for evangelism or social justice, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

 

Grandstanding is not love. Smarm is not love. Love does not belittle the beloved’s anger. Love does not gaslight, tone-police, or tell victims to reconcile with their abusers. Love does not shrink from conflict, but calls all parties to act like mature adults.

 

Love does not bear all things, because it rejects that which diminishes the image of God in self or others. It does not believe all things; it rejects bullshit, because it is neither naive nor gullible—it rejoices in the truth. It can endure much, but it cannot endure “love the sinner and hate the sin.” See above. Love treats others with the compassion, respect, and dignity we want for ourselves.

 

The internet will end. Politics will end. Blogs, books, and religion will end. Right, now? All this stuff is a pale reflection of the love and justice God has in store.

 

When I was a toddler, I thought “sharing” meant that you give to me. I thought “love” meant you defer to my wishes. I thought Christian paternalism and pity were love. But I grew out of that.

 

I’m not perfect, of course. I’m still capable of self-deception. I’m not as mature as I will one day be, but one day we will all know God’s love inside and out.

 

Sure, faith is important. Hope is important. But you know what’s more important?

 

Love. Mature love.

 

(1 Corinthians 13, for comparison)

Reflection on “The Exodus”

Thanks to everyone who has found this blog by reading “The Exodus.” I’ve appreciated reading the feedback—all of it, positive, negative, questioning, or reflective. I’ve especially appreciated some of the email from folks who shared deeply personal struggles with faith, those who feel alienated by the dominant Christian narrative in our culture, or who simply resonated with the words. I’ve been touched by stories of people who have told me they have left church, but would go to a church if they could find one that said these words.

Thanks to John Archibald and Kissing Fish for helping it to go viral.

I was inspired to write it after reading the Song of Miriam in Exodus. Some scholars believe it may be the oldest text in the Bible.

I just want to offer a few words to folks who have commented, emailed, or shared discussion on social media.

1) In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that friends are those who “see the same truth.” So I am delighted to make the acquaintance of new friends. When I read something that plucks a string in my soul that vibrates for days, or I’m stunned to learn someone else has put into words thoughts I’ve thought or feelings I’ve felt, I feel less alone. It means a lot to me that some of you have shared that these words did that for you, or that they offered courage, comfort, or challenge. Thank you.

2) For everyone who has been alienated from the church, who told me it is a relief or a surprise to hear Christian religious language used in a way that was not advancing a right-wing agenda, just know that there is a long, long tradition of religious social justice work. I’m part of a grassroots community organizing group called Faith in Action Alabama, and one of our themes is that what we’re talking about is not a thin veneer of religious language over a political agenda, but a deeply-rooted faith response that claims that God is not neutral about injustice, that all human beings are made in God’s image, and that prophetic imagination is part of our calling. I encourage you to find a group doing such work in your area. I also recommend Common Prayer for daily devotional.

While the piece is titled “The Exodus,” I’m still very firmly part of a church. Even an institutional church. But I totally understand the desire to leave both church and nation for a new land. For me, the Good News is that there is an alternative in our midst. “The Kingdom is among y’all,” as JC said.

3) For critics, know that I appreciate thoughtful criticism and read what you write, even if I don’t always reply. I am happy to debate the finer points of policy, government intervention, evidence-based programs that reduce poverty, and the effects of legislation on things like the health of LGBTQ persons and reduction of abortion. I believe in respectful dialogue and giving folks the benefit of the doubt.

But polemic, art, and imagination—not rational debate—is the proper response to oppressive, bullying, tone-policing, white-supremacist, patriarchal theology. Jesus knew this, and his response to the dominant theology of his day is recorded in Matthew 23. I will not legitimize the dominant narrative by speaking on its terms. Doing so is simply throwing pearls before swine, an activity Jesus admonishes his followers to avoid (Matthew 7:6).

I reject any view of the Bible that limits it to how we behave in our personal lives, or that walls off personal faith from the personal lives of marginalized communities under threat. A faith that is strictly private and does not impinge upon public life, that does not inform how we talk about poverty or injustice in the public sphere, that makes Jesus my Personal Savior but not Savior of the World, is a faith not worth having, in my opinion. There are plenty of Dominionists working in our federal government, and their vision of God and God’s Kingdom is directly opposed to everything I love. And retreat from politics into a privileged sphere of personal pietistic religion is not a luxury I—or the church—can afford.

Jesus told us to take up our crosses. This did not mean giving up chocolate, sex, or beer. The cross was reserved for enemies of the state. If your faith does not lead you to stand with the crucified, with black kids gunned down, with LGBTQ families prevented from adopting, with refugees, then I have no interest in your religion. It simply fails the test. I have no interest in following a Jesus who does not offer the cross. Characterize it as “left wing” if you like. That’s hardly a stinging critique in the world we live in. I have yet to see a martyr of the faith crucified by the state for defending the rights of the privileged and powerful.

4) Here are some books that I’ve been reading recently that inspired my writing:
Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.
Walter Brueggemann, Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.
Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.

Thanks again for reading, for sharing, and for commenting.
“Be a prophet of the resistance, not a priest of the empire.”

The Exodus

Frans Francken I. Hans skola: Den rike mannen och Lazarus. NM 429
I have seen your religion, and I hate it.
I have heard your doctrine, and I loathe it.
Take away your empty praise songs,
your vacuous worshiptainment.
Your mouth is full of religious words,
but your proverbs are salted manure.

 

“The sick deserve to be sick.
The poor deserve to be poor.
The rich deserve to be rich.
The imprisoned deserve to be imprisoned.”
Because you never saw him sick, or poor, or in prison.

 

“If he had followed police instructions,
if he had minded the company he keeps,
he would not have been killed,”
You say in the hearing
of a man hanging on a cross
between two thieves.

 

“People who live good lives
do not have pre-existing conditions,” you say,
carving these words over the hospital door:
“Who sinned, this man or his parents,
that he was born blind?”

 

“It is the church’s job, not the government’s,”
say you fat sheep,
defending your fat shepherds,
shoving and butting with shoulders and horns,
while you foul the water,
grass,
and air,
and scatter the hungry sheep.

 

You watch the melting glaciers and say to the waves of the sea,
“this far shall you come, and no farther,”
as if your will could change the weather,
as if your will could be done in the heavens as it is on this earth,
as if you could drill the sky the way you drill the soil.

 

In your telling,
in the story of the starving of the five thousand,
there are not twelve baskets collected of left-over food;
In your story, God’s abundance becomes scarcity,
and the crowds devour each other.
“Send them into the villages to buy food,”
and let the Invisible Hand’s miracle of the free market sort them out,
the worthy from the unworthy,
while you eat the two fish and five pieces of bread
volunteered by a child.
These ungrateful poor,
the welfare queens
with their anchor babies,
stop before your disciples’ raised palms;
they hear you say,
“The Master cannot be bothered to bless your children.”

 

You see Hannah drunk,
and you jail her for fetal endangerment.

 

Like Haman, you hide behind the skirts of the king;
you make laws and pay bribes
that allow vigilante violence
and private discrimination
against those you hate,
sheltering underneath plausible deniability.
“It’s not a Muslim ban,” you say one day.
“It’s about religious liberty,” you say another.

 

This Bible you wave, this word you claim,
it is sharper than any two-edged sword.
You wield it poorly; it slices you on the backstroke.
You know neither the scriptures nor the power of God.
You tie up heavy yokes for others
whose burdens you do not bear,
but you will not lift a finger to help them.
To some you say, “Do not marry, but burn.”
You lock them out of the kingdom of God.
You cross sea and land for your missionary work,
and teach others to be as hateful as you.

 

Your kingdom is not the public park of Zechariah,
where children play in the streets
and old men and women lean on their canes for very age.
It is not the land where every fearless household
has its own vine and fig tree,
their own means of production and shade for their rest.
It is not the land where everyone has a home.
Your kingdom is the one with gates,
where homeless beggars have their sores licked by dogs,
where people who have the audacity to grow old
pay a premium for their insolence.
Like Ahab, you covet all the vines, all the fig trees,
letting your domain stretch as far as your eye can see,
adding house to house and field to field
until, in your gentrified land
there is room for no one but you and yours.
Like Pharaoh, you call those who refuse you “Lazy, lazy.”
You build walls, and walls, and walls, and walls,
and you stuff your ears to the sound of protest songs
that will shake those walls down.

 

I have seen your christ, and he is my antichrist.
He is the herald of a violent god,
a god of fertility but not fruitfulness,
a god of embryos but not emancipation, pro-birth and anti-life,
a god of war and retribution but not of justice,
a god of order but not of peace,
a god of might but not of mercy,
a god of marriage but not of love,
a god of sex but not of pleasure,
a god of platitudes but not of wisdom,
a god of work but not of sabbath,
a god who demands sacrifice from the poor but luxury and reward for Pharaoh.

 

Your religion is the religion of pyramids pointed heavenwards,
towers built to reach the heavens.
Supported by their flat base, built by slave labor,
they are stable monuments to wealth and death.
You fill their secret rooms with gold so that
in the afterlife,
you may cross to paradise
on the backs of the oppressed,
and live in forgetful pleasure for eternity.
Your gilded gospel is rusty ruin.

 

You are why the ancient Hebrews
seldom talked about an afterlife,
weary as they were of working
for Egypt’s dead heaven.
Your idols and your religion
are why those slaves left the yoke of heaven,
the land of binding,
for a wide wilderness,
for a nameless, faceless God
who told them they—even they—
were made in God’s image.
You are why your churches are empty
of those who love and believe in freedom.
You are why the Gentiles blaspheme the name of God.
You are the reason for the Exodus.

 

And if you pursue, may God throw you into the sea.
And the horse you rode in on.

 

References:
Amos 5:21-24
Luke 14:34-35
Matthew 25:31-46
Luke 23:33
John 9:1-12
Ezekiel 34
Job 38:11
Matthew 13:14-21
Matthew 19:13-15
1 Samuel 1:12-20
Esther 3:8-11
Hebrews 4:12
Matthew 22:9
Matthew 23:13-26
1 Corinthians 7:9
Zechariah 8:4
Micah 4:4
Isaiah 65:21-25
Luke 16:19-31
1 Kings 21
Isaiah 5:8
Exodus 5:17
Joshua 6
Genesis 11:1-9
Exodus 15:21

Incarnation

Giovanni_Bonati_-_Madonna_with_the_Child_-_Google_Art_Project

God does not condescend.
God does not step down, putting on flesh.
God does not stoop to our level.
Incarnation is not demeaning.
It does not bring God down.

God lifts us up.
God steps out, taking off abstraction.
God slips from binding garments.
Incarnation is a cosmic strip tease,
ignoring our blushes and ahems.

Incarnation is God, naked.

This fragile flesh craves life,
suckles and whimpers,
inhales the warm animal smell of a stable
and doesn’t know enough
to wrinkle its nose.

God brushes aside antiseptic theology
and grasps skin with both hands.

In a body meant for touching, hurting, healing,
pleasuring, sleeping, waking, dying—
and resurrecting—
God becomes the forever in the now
and waits for us to notice.

When we see,
we gasp,
and we call our
speechlessness
worship.

Advent Reflection: Numbness

I’ve been kind of numb this week, walking around in a fog. While I want to be immersed in the season of Advent, preparing for Christmas, my mind won’t let go of the names of Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, and John Crawford. I suppose it’s appropriate, given that all of the scriptures that lead up to Christmas are calls for justice and liberation, but I’ll be honest: I’m tired. I feel small, and helpless, and that my voice is barely a drop in the ocean, and that my prayers often go unheard.

Yet Advent is about holding on to the last shred of hope, believing that a tiny light will shine in the darkest night in the darkest part of the year. I think part of faith, faith-in-the-midst-of-doubt, is the intuition that even after our faith is gone, God can still work—that God doesn’t wait on us to believe to act in tangible ways in human history. Christmas is the sign that hope can be born in the midst of our cynicism, our despairing resignation to business and life as usual, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and nothing ever changes. Our scripture and tradition says that change is already happening—and we can be part of it. In the fog and numbness and darkness, this is the hope I cling to. It is not sentimentality. It is desperation. And it is the raw material out of which God works best.

O come, O come, Emmanuel.

The Hostess with the Toastess

I always enjoy hearing This American Life, but this past weekend’s story on “Home” was particularly poignant. My favorite was the last act, “The Hostess with the Toastess,” which begins with an investigation of the trend of artisanal toast, and ends with an affirmation of our common humanity. It’s about how a young woman struggling with schizophrenia finds a sense of normalcy and community using coconuts, coffee, tattoos, and (of course) toast. She creates a support network for herself and, surprisingly, a working business model.

I think this has a lot to do with church. Honestly, that’s what I’d like to see happen with Saint Junia. We don’t have to be a full-service restaurant with a lengthy menu. We just have to do about four things really well: coffee, coconuts, grapefruit juice, and toast.

“Frozen” and the Gospel

Our worship team sang select verses from “Let it Go” from the Disney movie Frozen during worship on Sunday. I couldn’t help smiling as I imagined what some of my clergy colleagues would think. I have friends who are worship snobs (of both the liturgical and contemporary varieties) who would be horrified. But as I reflected on the message of the song and of the movie, I thought it was entirely appropriate as we enter more fully into this Lenten season, especially with a congregation of people who have been hurt or burned by churches in the past.

I’ll share that I’m someone who is highly critical of the Disneyfication of culture, but I also really appreciate Walt’s original vision and, doggone it, Disney just does so many things so well. For me, knowing and appreciating Disney is part of cultural literacy, and for us homeschooling parents, visiting Disney World is just as important as visiting Washington, D.C.

So I was amused to see a news article about a pastor who got his nose out of joint about the movie. (Although I also wonder, How hard is it to find a right-wing pastor somewhere in America who isn’t foaming at the mouth about something? This is news?) The big issue, of course, are the casual ways the movie refers to a gay relationship and, he argues, bestiality.

(Regarding bestiality, Rev. Swanson is apparently seeing something I’m not—either that, or it’s just another way to casually link consensual gay relationships to something nonconsensual and abusive).

I’m not the only one who sees that Frozen may be the most Christian-themed movie Disney has released since Pinocchio. I’m impressed that Disney had the courage to poke fun at past Disney tropes of falling in love, marrying, and living happily ever after. Someone on their creative team obviously paid attention to feminist critiques of the role Disney plays in the social education of girls (and boys) over the last several decades. (This movie definitely passes the Bechdel test). The overarching message of the movie is that “true love” isn’t about the hormonal rush of finding your sexual mate, but the self-sacrificial agape love that one sister has for the other. Both heroines overcome their separation and shame through the power of love. I think it’s a great illustration of the Good News.

As for the song “Let it Go,” I don’t agree with Garbarino’s assertion that it represents Elsa’s “fall.” I believe her “fall” was the years she spent locked in her room with her parents’ well-meaning but wrong-headed teaching that her feelings and her power were meant to be closeted. Her answer—self-imposed exile—was not freedom either, but when she sings, “no right, no wrong, no rules for me” she’s not denying the existence of morality. She’s celebrating the fact that her gift is no longer subject to the moral judgment of others. She’s a woman claiming power that she has been told to hide her whole life. I can see why that would make Rev. Swanson uncomfortable. It’s too much like Tamar in Genesis 38 turning the tables on her slut-shaming father-in-law and the double standards of his culture.

More than any other Disney movie, this is one where we see both the light and dark side of community and social life. Community can be judgmental and censorious, but it can also draw us into life-giving relationships. Even when Elsa thinks she has run away, her actions continue to have an impact on the community. There’s probably a great sermon in there, too.

Finally, the conventional Disney hero, Prince Charming, becomes the villain. The movie shows us the way some people use social and political power and ginned-up moral outrage to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others. I’m sure this message wasn’t lost on Rev. Swanson, either. The moral and spiritual messages of this movie do not look like the Christianity he believes.

But they look like what I believe.