Old White Guy Whitesplains Social Justice

Screenshot of David Brooks’ most recent NY Times column. Link here.

David Brooks has swallowed a big lie. Now he is propagating it:

“…a quasi-religion is seeking control of America’s cultural institutions. The acolytes of this quasi-religion, Social Justice, hew to a simplifying ideology: History is essentially a power struggle between groups, some of which are oppressors and others of which are oppressed.”

Until now, I’ve largely seen the “social justice is a religion” trope from right-wing white evangelicals terrified of losing their political power. Their targets have usually been people like me: pastors who believe Jesus did indeed have much to say on matters of power and oppression. They have simply wanted to discredit folks like me as “not real Christians.” I’m used to this, and have largely let it go.

But David Brooks, who has a much larger platform and sophisticated audience, has now brought this trope into the mainstream. I know a lot of clergy-types and moderates who love Brooks, so I am addressing this primarily to you:

Brooks is giving voice to some of the discomfort you may feel. He’s also completely wrong about activism, and late to the party about symbolism.

Let me start with the obvious bullshit before I come back to the “social justice as religion” trope.

Academics, activists, and organizers ALWAYS point out that symbolic changes are not substantive. This is a truism. A tautology. It’s like saying frosting isn’t cake, or “beauty is only skin deep.” There has been no end of activist writing over how painting “Black Lives Matter” on a street doesn’t change policy, or that “greenwashing” and “rainbow flags” don’t solve anything. “Performative” allyship is primarily about “virtue signaling” (like “politically correct”, this phrase was a liberal self-critique before conservatives co-opted it). And historically-oppressed groups need “accomplices, not allies.” So in pointing out that symbolic changes are… well, symbolic… you are very, very late to the party, David Brooks.

Yet symbols are important, and often most important to the people who say that they *are not*. It is an old, old trick to pretend you don’t care that someone attacks a beloved symbol. Symbols and the rituals around them have power. If they didn’t, most religion would evaporate.

Which brings us back to “religion.”

As a scholar of religion, I need to point out that there are a lot of things that can be called “religion.” Sports, for example, have chants, hymns, rituals, codes of ethics, myths, and sacred texts.

But the rhetorical goal of calling this movement for social justice a “religion” is not to give it importance, but to discredit it. It’s to create a binary choice for people who do consider themselves religious (to support a “false” religion or their own) and for those who do not (to be “religious” or agnostic). It’s to rebuke white evangelicals, some of whom are just waking up to the fact that systemic oppression might be something God cares about, and a call for them to return to the individualistic, status-quo, white supremacist religion of their predecessors.

There is little institutional organization to this anarchic, diverse, grassroots movement we are seeing, so slapping the label “religion” on it is a way to both create a false expectation it can never live up to and to elevate Brooks’ own worldview, which is thoroughly white, male, respectable, and homogenous.

Brooks’ rhetoric also obscures and marginalizes the religious and theological critique of white power. This is especially harmful to womanist, black, and queer theologians and pastors who have been calling us religious folks to take this stuff more seriously for AGES.

There’s a lot more wrong with this article, like the fact that he accuses SJWs of being narrowly focused both on “symbolism” and “structures.” It comes off as argle-bargle from an old white dude. I think he’s anxious that his voice might have less power in the new world that is emerging. “A hit dog will holler,” as they say.

So as one white dude to another: grow up, David Brooks. Take several seats. Read a book. Listen before you opine on stuff you know little about. People have been talking about this stuff LONG before you.

Drug Policy and the Church, Day 1: Start Here

Portrait of John D. Ehrlichman, assistant to president Richard Nixon for domestic affairs, by Oliver F. Atikins. From Wikimedia Commons.

“[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.  

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 26: The City of Nine Gates

 
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Thessaloniki, by Berthold Werner. From Wikimedia Commons

 

Those who renounce attachment in all their deeds live content in the “city of nine gates,” the body, as its master. They are not driven to act, nor do they involve others in action.  (BG, 5:13)

Krishna has been talking about the way the wise person, by understanding and identifying with the Self, can act without being attached to the results. Today I want to spend a moment on this descriptive metaphor for the human body: “the city of nine gates.” There is a fascinating allegory in another scripture, the Srimad Bhagavatam, that goes along with this metaphor, about a king (the Self), his queen (intelligence), their many bodyguards (the senses), and all the bodyguards’ wives (the desires) who inhabit the city of nine gates (the body).

There’s some ambiguity in how humans understand the body and our relationship to it. Are we a soul in a body, like a ghost in a machine? Are we our body, with our consciousness created simply by chemical reactions in our brains? Are we a “psychosomatic unity,” with body and consciousness intertwined?

I love the notion of the body as a city, with traffic constantly coming and going, with many symbiotic and competing processes going on inside. The “gates” are the places traffic comes and goes: sensory data, food, waste, reproduction. It is so much different than the “machine” metaphor which arose during the European Enlightenment, that looks at the body as simply a collection of parts. A city, by contrast, is only a city because there are many living creatures in it. It is hub of ceaseless activity, even when it appears to be still.

I’m reminded of another metaphor used in the Bible: “…don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you? Don’t you know that you have the Holy Spirit from God, and you don’t belong to yourselves?” (1 Corinthians 6:19, CEB). We who never saw the Temple in Jerusalem might think of the temple as a simply a beautiful place of worship, but it was likewise a hub of activity, with gates, a courtyard, and different kinds of holy spaces for different kinds of tasks.

In both the Gita and the Bible, the question is this: do we really inhabit our bodies and treat them appropriately, or do we allow our desires and passions to rule us? Do we mis-identify the Self with the body, ruled by the notion that every desire must be gratified, allowing just any traffic in and out of its gates? Or do we manage our bodies as if they are whole ecosystems, treating them with reverence and love?

I have to note that the phrase “your body is a temple” is often used to shame people. There is enough body dysphoria in the world! Fat-shaming and slut-shaming are two particularly pernicious ways this metaphor gets used in our society. But there are so many different kinds of temples and cities in the world, and if they were all the same there would be no point in tourism! The metaphor is intended to help us: you get to live in this city, with all its quirks and beautiful spaces, its unique characters and particular spirit. Learning to love our city and manage it well is part of becoming a mature and wise human.

Revering the body as a temple, or a city, also means that we must do justice to other bodies. Incarceration, police brutality, violence enacted against other bodies is violence against God.

Prayer: This body is the container, the vehicle, the temple, and the city of my human experience. God bless my body!


NOTE: Because of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the heightened consciousness of systemic racism, I’m going to take a brief intermission from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita next week. I will spend a few days talking about Drug policy and the Church. Drug policy and criminal justice are some of the main vectors of systemic racism in the United States.

I hope you will stick with these devotionals for this intermission. We’ll return to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita on June 15.

The Bible and the Bhagavad Gita 25: Interlude: Non-dualism, Non-attachment, and Social Justic

 
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As we go through this study on the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible, I’m struck by how applicable some of the lessons are to our current moment. We are living during a mass extinction due to climate change, in a global pandemic, in Depression-era unemployment, with non-existent federal leadership, in the midst of civil unrest over systemic racism, police brutality, and surging racial and economic inequality.

An exploration of consciousness may seem abstract and metaphysical, but remember: all of the dialogue in the Bhagavad-Gita takes place in the moments before a great battle. This is all preparation for a fight. Awakening and enlightenment are not about escape from the world, but about engagement with it. Krishna tells Arjuna to “act without attachment to the results,” to practice “non-duality and non-attachment.”

When we feel helpless and don’t know what to do, this is what the Bhagavad-Gita says to return to: see the Lord of Love present in every creature; recognize that we all come from God and all return to God; marvel at the mystery of life; reject simplistic binaries of right and wrong or black and white; understand that even your enemies are on a journey; and finally, without selfish desire, act courageously for the sake of life and the world.

For me, that means standing up to bullies and showing up for the oppressed. It means addressing white supremacy and systemic injustice. I may lose the fight. I may win, but at enormous cost. I may win, and still do harm I regret. I may make mistakes. I may sometimes feel that no good deed goes unpunished. I may be criticized and publicly shamed. I may get accolades and feel hollow.

None of that is the point. Overcoming our timidity about love and justice is. We need not act with a divided mind if we are not attached to the outcomes. Winning or losing is not the point. We shouldn’t even be too attached to “being right!”

Martin Luther, in his letter to Philip Melanchthon, wrote “God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and sin boldly, but let your trust in Christ be stronger.” He was not exhorting people to sin, but to recognize that we do not earn rewards by picking the “right” behaviors. We may sin, intentionally or unintentionally, but it is better to own it and trust God’s mercy than to tiptoe through life.

In the movie Princess Mononoke, the main character, Ashitaka, is cursed and forced to leave his home. He can only be cured by finding the source of the pollution, a war with many competing factions that is destroying the forest. In order to discover the cure, he has to “see with eyes unclouded by hate.” He stoically accepts his fate and wades into the conflict, showing all the virtues of a Buddhist warrior-monk.

Knowing the “Self” helps us to act. And by acting, we come to know the “Self.”

Prayer:
Let my contemplation lead to action. Let my action lead to contemplation.


NOTE: Because of the protests around the murder of George Floyd and the heightened consciousness of systemic racism, I’m going to take a brief intermission from the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita next week. I will spend a few days talking about Drug policy and the Church. Drug policy and criminal justice are some of the main vectors of systemic racism in the United States.

I hope you will stick with these devotionals for this intermission. We’ll return to the Bible and the Bhagavad-Gita on June 15.

“Change is slow, until it isn’t.”

“Change is slow, until it isn’t.”

This has been part of my mantra about social change for years. It’s the kind of wisdom that only comes with several decades of life experience or by listening to elders.

We are in one of those “isn’t” moments that is accelerating many kinds of social change. It’s going to be hard to see more than a few months ahead for awhile. There are certainly forces of oppression seeking advantage, to solidify their power and crystallize inequality for many more generations.

But there are just as many people who are sick and tired of being sick and tired. Don’t, in your cynicism, write them off. They are creative, they have been sharpening their skills, and they are hungry and thirsty for righteousness and justice.

I believe the promise that they will be fed until they are full.

Deals With the Devil

In the classic stories, people who make deals with the devil get exactly what they want, but find out later that it’s actually a curse. Midas gets the golden touch but finds out he can’t eat gold. Faust gets the girl but destroys his chance at happiness with her.

This is how it is with oppression. People are fighting to build walls and maintain their positions of privilege in systems of oppression because they have bought into the lie that they have a good deal, as if they are winning something. Like it’s worth ingesting your daily dose of toxic masculinity so you can not go to the doctor and die earlier of heart disease? So you can have fewer friends than the women in your life do? Like it’s worth sucking down your daily dose of white supremacy so you can live in the prison capital of the world? So you can pay billions of dollars a year to disenfranchise people of their vote and maintain de facto segregation? Like it’s worth maintaining sex-negativity and purity culture in order to make LGBTQIA people feel like 2nd-class citizens? As if that’s not going to have an impact on straight folks’ ability to have intimacy and authentic relationships?

There is a cost to maintaining oppression for those who “benefit.” I am deeply suspicious of narratives that make it sound like oppressors are getting what they really want.

They are not. Most of those who think they are thriving are simply succeeding at distracting themselves from the poverty of the hell they are building for themselves. Sure, they may enjoy their net worth, their McVacations, their ability to get praise for mediocrity, and the constant simmer of jealousy or suspicion that someone, somewhere, is getting away with more than they have.

I am not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, but I do think hell is real, and I think a lot of people would prefer it to a heaven they had to share with those they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding or oppressing.

Only those who see through the lie can be free.

Good Friday

Christ_and_the_Abbot_Menas_Louvre_E11565_n02

A friend who attends First United Methodist Church in Dallas said that at tonight’s Good Friday service, anti-LGBTQIA protesters gathered outside their church to condemn the church for being an inclusive congregation. He said it felt appropriate, and I agree. But I also felt moved to write the poem below, made up almost entirely of scripture references.

Good Friday

Jesus said his yoke was light
But you make it look too easy
Galloping with joy, entirely too unburdened.
So we said you were abolishing the law
Instead of fulfilling it. 
We tied up heavy burdens for you
That we did not have to bear.
We locked the kingdom of God to you,
afraid to go in ourselves.
We crossed land and sea to make converts
And told them to write unjust laws and oppressive decrees
To kill the gays in colonized lands.
We made your yoke unequal to ours;
While we enjoyed every permitted pleasure
Of marriage, family, divorce, and adultery,
We laid our sins upon you,
And pierced you for our transgressions
Insisting you take up a cross that was never yours,
A yoke none of us had to bear,
Of celibacy, of mortification, of violence,
A circumcision not of the flesh or heart,
But of the soul, of the brain.
You bright and shining ones, Children of light
Who dared to love because God is love,
We called you gluttons, and friends of harlots and drunkards.
Even our own children we smashed against the rocks,
Exiled them to strange lands
And stifled their songs,
Sacrificing them to our angry gods
Though it never entered Her mind to do ask for such.
(How could She forget her nursing children,
or show no compassion for the children of Her womb?)

The pastors among us
Talked of welcome without affirmation,
Betrayed you with kisses,
Said “peace” when there was none offered,
And dressed your wounds as though
They were not serious.

Yet wisdom is proved by her children.

You did not accept a cross
Foisted upon you by unbelievers,
You refused to be the sacrificial lamb,
To give us the catharsis we wanted,
You opened your mouth to say a mumblin’ word
About dignity
And humanity
And love

And eventually
We began to find
Jesus.


 

scripture references (roughly in order of appearance, though I may have missed some):

Matthew 11:28
Matthew
 5:17
Matthew
 23:4
Matthew
 23:13
Matthew
 23:15
Isaiah 10:1
2 Corinthians 6:14
Matthew
 5:32
Isaiah 53:4-5
Acts 15:10
Romans 2:29
Ephesians 5:8
1 John 4:8
Luke 23:26
Matthew 11:19
Psalm 137
Jeremiah 19:5
Isaiah 49:15
Luke 22:48
Jeremiah 6:14

Upper Millstones and the Debt Trap

Deuteronomy 24:6 forbids taking “an upper millstone” in pledge for a debt. The idea is that taking away someone’s ability to make money, to trap them in a deepening cycle of poverty, is immoral. Both states and private businesses (especially payday lenders) collude to make money off the most powerless: the poor. This court victory in Tennessee, which restores driver’s licenses to those who have had them revoked for being too poor to pay fines, is a huge win, and it illustrates the importance of the federal judiciary, from top to bottom.

On “Zero Tolerance”

“Zero tolerance.” Let’s talk about that concept a minute. What does that actually mean?

Does it mean denying due process? Setting bail so high for a misdemeanor that you can’t pay, so that you’d plead guilty in order to get out and keep your job? Because that’s what has happened to countless poor people.

Instead of cash bail, this administration has decided to use family separation in the same way: coercing folks to plead guilty rather than being separated from their kids.

Also: recognize this is what the cash bail system does to poor people all the time: it holds families hostage. If someone is not dangerous, and flight is not a serious risk, they should not be kept in jail. People plead guilty on a regular basis in order to avoid losing their jobs, homes, and kids.

“Zero tolerance” is a myth. We all want due process. That’s why we have courts in the first place: because circumstances matter.

Women of the Bible (Lyrics)

http://www.wga.hu/art/v/valentin/judith.jpg

I don’t actually have a verse about Judith (in the picture above), but I should write one. I’d envisioned this with a sassy lounge jazz tune, minor key for the verses, major for the chorus (so the chorus sounds a bit like “Jesus loves me.”)

I was inspired to write it because the main thing people know and want to discuss about Bathsheba is whether she was David’s victim, seductress, or paramour; but one of the most fascinating stories about her is how she and Nathan hoodwinked the Old Man into making her son the heir to the throne. I was trying to figure out how to disrupt and refocus the narrative in the fewest words possible, and that led to this song.

Bathsheba
Very pretty
Know her story?
Just a little bitty:
Pulled some strings and she got her son
Sitting on the throne; now he’s king Solomon.

Miss Naomi
Was a widow
Taught Miss Ruth
How to use eye shadow
Instructed Ruth in feminine wiles
Now she’s singing lullabies to her grandchild.

[Chorus]
Strong women, these I know
For the Bible taught me so
Mothers, sisters; royal, tribal
Don’t you mess with the women of the Bible.

Queen Esther
In her palace
Had to deal
With ethnic malice
Saved her people from Haman’s plans
Now he’s swinging from a rope tied by his own hands.

Martha and her
Sister Mary
Education
Was primary
Now they’re sittin’ at Jesus’ feet
Buddy, make yourself a sandwich if you want to eat.

Chorus

Listen up now
brothers, sisters,
We got to have some
strong resisters
You don’t have to take any more malarkey
The day’s gonna end for the patriarchy

Chorus

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