Insert Clever Title Here

I’ve had a few things I’ve written “go viral” and get tens or even hundreds of thousands of shares (which is still not much in internet terms), but what amuses me is that the single most popular blog post I’ve ever written *over time* is this one on biblical insults. It has never gone viral, but about 20-30 people read it each day, which means that it eclipses all other posts on my blog. Apparently most people find it from google searches.

None of these—either the quick “viral” pieces or the slow-and-steady accumulators—are what I consider my best writing. There are several lessons in this for people writing in public: 1) Try to write well consistently, because you don’t get to choose what will be read the most, and you don’t want to have regrets over careless mistakes if/when something explodes. 2) Popularity has little to do with quality. 3) Descriptive titles are important. I definitely don’t give enough thought to titles.

A Few Ways White Supremacy Hurts White Folks

White supremacy hurts everybody, including white folks. How does white supremacy hurt white folks?

1) The racist war on drugs has led to mass incarceration. Although it disproportionately hurts black folks, most people in prison are white.

2) The racist war on drugs has locked away psychedelics for fifty years, which could have been used to treat generations of people with addiction, PTSD, and treatment-resistant depression.

3) When you [white folks] buy a home in a “nice” neighborhood with a “good” school system, you are paying real estate premiums to maintain segregation. The education you are buying for your child with your rent/mortgage is an education that should be available to all kids. How much a year do YOU pay in property taxes, sales taxes, or rent to maintain segregation so that your child can get the education that should be available to all?

4) Huge proportions of city budgets are going to police departments that could be used to lift people out of poverty—and most of the poor in our country are also white.

5) Voter suppression disproportionately disenfranchises black folks, but it also disenfranchises the elderly, those without transportation, the poor, and those in rural areas—many of whom are white.

6) The criminalization of black folks impoverishes our public life and our relationships. Our young black siblings are less able to use their talent and promising futures for the benefit of us all when society steals their hope. The fact that so many DO rise, succeed, and contribute their substantial gifts to the world is a testimony to their resilience, grit, and grace.

7) White supremacy causes moral injury and spiritual harm to white folks. We cut off and stigmatize portions of ourselves in order to maintain the fiction of “whiteness.” We create and then suppress the shame of whiteness.

I say this not to reinforce the sinful notion that white people should only care about white people, but to point out that there is a financial, social, and personal cost to everyone—including white folks—for maintaining this bullshit system.

We have metaphors for this: “cutting off your nose to spite your face,” and “shooting yourself in the foot.” White supremacy affects the body politic. Saint Paul said that they hand cannot shun the eye, but that’s what we do every day. It is a voluntary self-inflicted wound. If you consider yourself white, it is in your SELF-interest to dismantle white supremacy, to end it NOW, to refuse to let it continue for one more generation.

We need to understand it not simply as a character flaw, or an evil system, but a deep psychological and social wound. I say this not to diminish the generational trauma inflicted upon black folks, but to get people who think they are white* to wake up to the harm that has been done to US by white supremacy.

I want you to feel this urgency not out of altruism, as though you are doing something nice for your black friends by supporting this movement. I want you to hate white supremacy for what it has done to YOU. This is about YOUR liberation from a hateful, exploitive system that the oligarchs and white supremacists among us want to maintain.


*This is a phrase coined by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

**There is a double irony to this list that I have shared, because some white folks use these things as evidence for their claim that systemic racisms does not exist. I even read one ex-prisoner claim that there is no such thing as white privilege because most people in prison are white—as though mass incarceration itself isn’t a byproduct of the criminalization of black people.

On Bullshit and Confederate Memorials

Some folks get offended when I use the term “bullshit.” “Bullshit” is actually a wonderful word, explored in depth by philosophy professor Harry Frankfurt, which describes a language trick we employ that is not *quite* an outright lie. The goal of bullshit, he says, is not to deceive someone about facts, but about your *self*. I can say something that we BOTH know isn’t true, and my goal is not to deceive, but to *perform*.

Screenshot of AL.com, reporting on the removal of Birmingham’s Confederate Memorial. Click for source.

When Lost Cause Apologists say, “These monuments teach history,” these white supremacists aren’t lying about a fact. They are performing. Everyone knows busloads of school children do not go to see these monuments and learn anything about history. If anything, the monuments are about *erasing* history, about substituting the Lost Cause Mythology for the pain and suffering and trauma of multiple generations of enslaved black people. No, the Lost Cause Apologists are lying about THEMSELVES. “I’m not a white supremacist—I’m just concerned about “history.”

Alabama has THREE state holidays for the confederacy, and ONE for MLK day (which is co-opted by Robert E Lee day). Nobody sends greeting cards for Jefferson Davis’ birthday, or Confederate Memorial Day, and there are no parades or speeches on these days—at least, none for people who aren’t White Supremacists. These holidays are not about history. It’s about reminding state employees—and everyone else—that we live in a white supremacist state, with white supremacist legislators.

Neither the monuments nor the official state holidays are about HISTORY, preserving it or teaching it. They exist ONLY to announce who is in charge, to remind us all of the Theology of Whiteness.

Case in point: just after Selma elected its first black mayor, white supremacists put up a monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Dragon of the KKK.

Lost Cause Apologists want to claim these monuments are about history because they want to have their cake and eat it, too: to advance an agenda of White Supremacy without being called “White Supremacists.” Claiming these are about “history” is not a “lie,”—but it is bullshit. It is a way for someone to claim they are concerned about something that they would PREFER TO IGNORE.

You want history? Visit the Peace and Justice Memorial in Montgomery and the Legacy Museum. Visit the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham.

There is an effort to bring memorials for the thousands of racial terror lynchings to every county where they happened. This would, in fact, be about teaching the history that has been erased by these monuments to white supremacy.

But anyone who says the bland, featureless obelisk in Birmingham was about “history,” is full of BULLSHIT. It was a blight. And the fine imposed on the city by our white supremacist legislature is a reminder of white supremacy, too. It is fitting that white folks pay the bill for white supremacy.

On Tantrums and Leadership

Photo by VanessaQ, from Wikimedia Commons

A kid is throwing a tantrum in Wal-Mart. He’s tired, and hungry, his feet hurt, and his daddy is getting increasingly angry. Eventually the daddy yells, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” and proceeds to grab and shake his son violently. Bystanders shake their heads, and a few rebuke the father. He cusses and proceeds to haul the child out of the store. The kid alternately goes limp and hits back, resisting the only way he can. It becomes clear in these situations that it is the PARENT throwing the tantrum. He is out of control, responding in fear and anger.

We know when you put your hand on the child, you increase the odds that the kid will cry, scream, kick. You may “win” the fight, because you are bigger and stronger. But you will not “win” the relationship, or future behavior. In fact, you increase the chances of future tantrums. “Shopping” becomes a trigger for resistance, fear, and resentment.

This approach doesn’t work with CHILDREN. So why do elected officials think it will work with ADULTS?

This is an imperfect analogy, of course, and it is unfortunately paternalistic. Protesters are not children. But I use the example because WE WERE ALL CHILDREN, and many of us are parents. Human behavior, regardless of age, is predictable. Violence is reciprocal. Whatever “lesson” you think you are teaching, when you spank a child, what you teach them is that the strong dominate the weak, and that violence is how we communicate what we want.

We also know that when people of any age are stressed, afraid, and angry, they become less able to make good decisions and more prone to violence. So what do we do? We give police guns and pepper spray and tell them to stop a tantrum by throwing a BIGGER tantrum. With weapons. Just like an abusive parent.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Children want what everyone wants: empathy. Understanding. Their physical needs met. It is the job of parents and leaders to help their people get what they need to thrive.

So the president, in his immaturity and incompetence, is talking about using the military to “dominate” space and “dominate” protesters. Leaders sometimes use the phrase “make an example” or “teach a lesson.” These are signals that adults are throwing temper tantrums: “I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Good leadership and good parenting are actually the same thing. And authoritarian parenting and authoritarian leadership come from the same source. This is about an orientation to the world, a spiritual value.

You have responsibility to people’s lives and well-being. Do you treat them like the people you hope they will become? Do you engage them and find out what they are going through that makes them act out? Or do you dehumanize them with violence and contempt? Do you delegitimize their experience and their needs? Do you make a bad situation worse by adding physical pain to the emotional pain they already feel? Can you take a step back and ask, “What is my desired outcome?”

Authoritarian leaders, like Trump, Mubarak, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin et al — these fragile men were/are simply abusers with the emotional maturity of toddlers. They are throwing tantrums with military weapons. They do not have the ability to reflect or imagine their desired outcomes. They are like the abusive daddy trying to control a tired and hungry child.

It is way past time to put these immature men in time out, and put mature people in charge who will model the behavior we expect from ourselves.

A Note on a Recent Megachurch Controversy

I try not to complain about COTH, because it’s like complaining about Wal-Mart: it’s too easy and it’s a big target. People I know and love shop at Wal-Mart and attend Church of the Highlands. But because this controversy is emblematic of a larger issue, here is all I will say on the Chris HodgesCOTH controversy:

• It takes NO courage to say something as banal as “racism and bigotry are bad” from the pulpit.
• It takes SLIGHTLY MORE to say “racism is bad, and in spite of our good intentions, we are often complicit.”
• But anyone who can say to tens of thousands of white Alabamians, “Systemic racism exists, and the world you see is not the world your black siblings see” — that pastor is telling the truth.

Preachers spend their whole lives working with rhetoric, honing their craft, learning how to say something without saying it, how to persuade subtly, how to push their congregations just far enough without alienating them. But in that process it becomes easy wimp out, to presume that your people can’t handle the truth, and that it’s more important that they come back and not worth the risk of making them uncomfortable.

Chris Hodges could preach ONE sermon on systemic racism, and reach more people than I or most clergy ever could. True, he might lose a few thousand people. But there’s no shortage of racist churches they can attend.

But any pastor who says “racism is bad,” and continues to support policies and rhetoric that disproportionately harm black people, that deprive them of political, economic, and physical power, has chosen the bullshit of white fragility over gospel of Jesus Christ.

We ALL KNOW hatred and bigotry are bad. These are elementary Sunday school lessons. What white Christians need to hear is
1) that unequal criminal justice, voter suppression, and poverty are sin. That racism isn’t just about your heart, but policy.
2) that all our claims about “not being racist” are invalidated if we cannot listen to or sit under the leadership of black women. This is how you know if your heart is truly changed.

Preach THAT, and you won’t have to say something as embarrassingly banal as “racism is bad.”

You might even encounter Jesus.

Tell a Better Story

Rick Santelli rants about “losers” during the 2009 financial crisis.

I want to remind you of this.

This was in February of 2009. The housing bubble had burst. Financial speculators and banks crashed the economy. Unemployment went up to 7.5%. The jobless claims, highest in 26 years, climbed to a whopping 600,000. In the midst of what became a global financial crisis, this man, Rick Santelli, in what became a viral rant, rejected the idea of a stimulus to people who were losing what little wealth they had accumulated in their homes. He called them “losers who couldn’t afford to pay their mortgages” and balked at the notion he should “help pay for their extra bathrooms.”

In comparison to the crisis we face now, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 seems almost quaint.

We know what happened: Somehow, in the midst of a recession, people whose biggest hurt was losing a little bit of value from their stock portfolio shifted the blame from speculators onto people who didn’t own stocks, whose biggest dream of financial security was owning a home.

I’m glad that the term “gaslighting” has gotten some traction in the intervening years, because this is exactly what that moment was: gaslighting on a massive scale. It takes some gall to blame a crisis manufactured by rich people on middle-class and poor people. Not only were they pissing on us and telling us it was raining—they were blaming us for not bringing an umbrella.

And it didn’t take much to turn “taxed enough already” into some catchphrases for white resentment. Our oligarchs found common cause with white folks who resented a black president. And of course, it affected historically marginalized people—black folks, single women, immigrants, and children—disproportionately. Just like now.

I need to point out that this was an *engineered* crisis. Human beings created it. It was not caused by a virus. Now we face a new crisis, and although it wasn’t engineered by wealthy people playing with money, it has certainly been compounded by them. Because we do not have universal health care, guaranteed time off, and other worker protections, people are forced to work in dangerous conditions, cannot get tested, and do not have the means to self-isolate.

For the last few decades, whenever the notion of universal health care is brought up, they ask, “Who is going to pay for it?” We’re ALL paying for it, right now. We are going to be paying for NOT having universal health care for decades.

This principle has never been clearer: that if my neighbor is not able to thrive, it affects me. Our mutual interdependence means that if my neighbor lacks health care, my own health is endangered. It has never been clearer that blame for this crisis cannot be pinned on the people it hurts. This is not about someone buying “an extra bathroom” they can’t afford.

It has never been clearer that a “social safety net” is not just for my neighbor who is down on their luck — it is for me, for my protection, because it is better for all of us if things like education, health care, and a basic standard of living are available for everyone. It doesn’t make sense for us to pay $30,000 a year to house a prisoner if we could subsidize a drug treatment program for $2000 a year.

“Extra bathroom” my ass. We are ALL paying for not caring for our neighbors.

By the way, in March, Santelli suggested just letting people die from the virus. So yeah. A tiger and his stripes, and all that. They are going to blame us for not bringing an umbrella AGAIN. The only modern industrialized country in the world without universal health care has become the epicenter of preventable death and unnecessary suffering.

Like Pharaoh, they are going to say the reason we don’t want to make bricks with straw, or hamburgers without PPE, is that we are “lazy, lazy” (Exodus 5:8). They do not know the story—that leaders with hardened hearts bring MORE plagues upon their country.

As a person of faith, I understand that we live by certain stories. This is the only script they know.

We have so many better ones.

The Sermon on the Plain: The Inner Self

Fig_tree_leaves

A good tree doesn’t produce bad fruit, nor does a bad tree produce good fruit. Each tree is known by its own fruit. People don’t gather figs from thorny plants, nor do they pick grapes from prickly bushes. A good person produces good from the good treasury of the inner self, while an evil person produces evil from the evil treasury of the inner self. The inner self overflows with words that are spoken. (Luke 6:43-45)

  • Do you remember the “tree and fruit” metaphor from Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount? (You can read about it here and here). There, it was about being able to identify “false prophets” who are “wolves in sheep’s clothing.” Here, Jesus is illustrating something different.
  • Jesus has just said, “Don’t judge” (Luke 6:37-38), and he followed up by cautioning us against aspiring to spiritual leadership of other people, because we are lousy at getting splinters out of others’ eyes (Luke 6:29-42).
  • So these words about “good trees” and “bad trees” are not intended to be a tool for evaluating or judging others’ worth or their spiritual progress.
  • If anything, it is a reminder to let people be. Are you after figs? Don’t go seeking them among thorns. Are you after grapes? Then go handle grape vines, not poison ivy.
  • On the other hand, seek fruit from fruitful people.
  • Don’t miss that the distinction is not just between good and bad fruit, but between different kinds of fruit. “Each tree is known by its own” The emphasis is also in the Greek. To extend the metaphor, why would you expect figs from a grape vine, or grapes from a fig tree?
  • If Jesus is still riffing on the “don’t judge” idea, he may be inviting us to ask, “Am I seeking the wrong kind of fruit from this person?”
  • Notice that there is also a distinction between fruit trees and plants that cannot be expected to produce fruit. It is senseless to blame a thistle for being a thistle. People do what they do. Why do we presume to fix them?
  • For the second metaphor, I like the CEB’s word choice here: “the good treasury of the inner self.” Older translations say, “the abundance of the heart,” which is a beautiful phrase, but we tend to sentimentalize “heart.”
  • “The inner self” — I’ve been pointing out how some of what Jesus says relates to Eastern traditions. Hinduism and Buddhism reflect deeply on the nature of the Self. Judaism’s prophetic tradition focuses more on social and political relations. But Judaism’s wisdom tradition does delve into the dynamics of our internal world and our character. Psalm 51:6 says, “…you want truth in the most hidden places; you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.”
  • Jesus talks about “the inner self” because our outer world is a manifestation of our inner one. Jesus has moved from talking about “judging others” to focusing on what’s going on inside us. It’s easier for us to ascribe suffering and conflict “out there” to the external world. But the reality is that we hate most what is inside of us. We cannot find peace because we are not at peace within.

Prayer:
Wisdom Beyond the Universe, I am often caught up in the world of blame and judgment. Teach me to bring my inner self in harmony with you.

Lent, Day 29 — The Golden Rule

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
The Golden Rule

In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets. (Matthew 7:12 NRSV)

  1. Immanuel Kant called this the categorical imperative: Act in such a way that you would want your action to be a universal rule. It’s an ethical principle that many of us figure should be self-evident. But if it truly were self-evident, we wouldn’t have to keep teaching it!
  2. The Common English Bible (CEB) adds a “therefore” to this sentence. You won’t find it in the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV) or the New International Version (NIV). The translators add this therefore to tie this sentence to the paragraphs before. I like this addition, even though the therefore isn’t in the Greek, because I think Jesus is still following the thought with which he began this chapter: “Do not judge others, for with the judgement you make, you will be judged.” And, in my reading, he’s telling us to trust that other people are doing their best: asking, seeking, and knocking. So it makes sense to wrap up this section by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
  3. But I’ve chosen to share the NRSV version above because of one word: Panta, “In everything.” I think it calls back to Pas, “Everyone who asks, receives.” Again, I think Jesus is asking us to remember that we are all on a journey, but that those journeys may look different. It isn’t up to me to critique others’ seeking, asking, or knocking, no matter how helpful I think I’m being.
  4. I find it helpful to read this chapter beside Matthew 18, which talks not only about correcting a straying member of the community, but forgiving “seventy seven times.”
  5. “The law and the prophets” also calls back to chapter 5: “Do not think I’ve come to abolish the law and the prophets,” which was his opening argument. Jesus has come full circle. Although he has a few more instructions for his prophetic community, he’s beginning to wrap up.
  6. Rabbi Hillel summarized the Torah (Law) this way: “What it hateful to you, do not do to another.” Hillel also operated in Galilee, and I’d wager Jesus heard him as a child.

Lent, Day 27 — Of Pearls and Swine

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Of Pearls and Swine

You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs; and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you. (Matthew 7:5-6, NRSV)

  1. It’s important to connect this famous phrase “pearls before swine,” to what comes immediately before: a command not to judge.
  2. This is the second of two analogies. The first was about taking a speck out of someone else’s eye, and the second is about giving away something valuable. Both are ways we try to help! It’s like Jesus anticipates our objection: “I’m not judging! I’m just trying to help!”
  3. Trying to correct a neighbor may be like taking a splinter out of their eye: You may have good intentions, but your own issues make you unsuitable as a surgeon. On the other hand, your neighbor might not be a willing patient! Maybe you do have something good to offer, but they won’t be able to appreciate it. You may think you’re offering something holy and good, but it’s not likely to be received well, and you’ll only bring pain on yourself.
  4. So even if you don’t see yourself as judging, even if you see yourself as helping, there are two problems: you aren’t qualified, and people don’t want your help.
  5. Jesus has said not to judge, and not to call people fools. But he calls people dogs and swine, both of which were fightin’ words in the ancient world. Is this another case of “Do as I say, not as I do?” Or is it okay for him because he’s Jesus? Neither: he’s getting into our heads.
  6. I’ve seen a quote floating around the internet: “Jesus never gave up on anybody.” Whoever said this has never read the Bible, especially Matthew 10:13, or all of chapter 23. In the first case, Jesus tells his disciples not to waste their time on people who will not welcome their message, and to “shake off the dust” from their feet when they leave town. In Matthew 23, he tells religious leaders that they are worthless, “Tying up heavy burdens for others and not lifting a finger to move them.”
  7. While theologically, I do not believe that God gives up on people, I am not God. And while everyone is worthy of God’s infinite love, not everyone is worthy of my finite time, energy, or attention. Jesus knows this, and tells us to behave accordingly.
  8. Since I am called to work with people who feel alienated from church, these verses mean a lot to me, because I face criticism and obstacles both from church folks and from non-church folks. Sometimes I need to leave people alone. And sometimes I wish religious people would consider me swine and leave me alone!
  9. The Bhagavad Gita says, “It is better to strive in one’s own dharma [duty, truth, or path] than to succeed in the dharma of another. Nothing is ever lost in following one’s own dharma, but competition in another’s dharma breeds fear and insecurity” (3:35)

Lent, Day 22 — Treasure

Jesus’s Manifesto: The Sermon on the Mount
Treasure

Stop collecting treasures for your own benefit on earth, where moth and rust eat them and where thieves break in and steal them. Instead, collect treasures for yourselves in [the heavens], where moth and rust don’t eat them and where thieves don’t break in and steal them. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matthew 6:19-21 CEB)

  1. Before we talk about these verses, let’s summarize: Jesus is still talking about how his followers need to be different from the rest of the world: More invested in changing their hearts than their religious leaders are (“y’all’s righteousness must exceed the scribes and Pharisees”), but not for the purposes of showing off (“as the hypocrites do”). I believe that one reason people claim to be “spiritual but not religious” is actually because we’ve done a good job teaching the previous part of the Sermon on the Mount! They look at the institutional forms of religion around them, the fundamentalism and hypocrisy, and say, “That ain’t Jesus.”
  2. Here he pivots to talk about money, and spends the next half-chapter telling us how to relate to it. While I think many people hear and understand Jesus’ critique of institutional people-pleasing religion in the previous sections, we are all challenged by this next section.
  3. Stop collecting treasures, or “You can’t take it with you.” These verses are not just an abstract theological statement. The ancient Egyptians and Chinese, for example, believed that you certainly can take it with you. Their tombs were filled with treasures that the dead would need to conduct business in the afterlife. Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried with eight thousand terra cotta soldiers to protect him. King Tut was buried with a golden chariot.
  4. Moth, rust, and thieves. Three kinds of destroyers for three kinds of ancient wealth. Back in the day, all clothes were handmade and expensive. Jesus’s tunic was valuable enough to be gambled over. But moths chew through clothes, rust ruins weapons and tools, and thieves take money, jewels, and gold. That pretty much describes anything in the ancient world worth hoarding. Today Jesus’s destroyers might include hackers and financial bubbles. Much of our society’s wealth is virtual and conceptual—it doesn’t even really exist!
  5. Hear this phrase: “Collect treasures for yourselves in the skies.” Say it with me: “Heaven” is not a place you go when you die. Jesus is inviting us to remember that we are citizens of the universe. We don’t need to invest ourselves in things we put in a closet or vault, but in the expansive skies.
  6. Some religious people hear this literally. Every good deed is a star in your crown, an extra room in your mansion, another number in God’s ledger. But we don’t need a transactional God.
  7. Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Wow. What a sentence. Every time I read it I wonder what it would mean to meditate on this line every day. How would my life change?
  8. This is a core principle of the spiritual life. It doesn’t tell you what do, like “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and body,” or “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Instead, it describes a spiritual law, like gravity. What you pay attention to grows in importance. Who you are becoming depends on where you are investing yourself.