This Moment/Life in Justice Work

the manipulation of sentiment by power for profit

that’s the ideology of this country – and that is nothing new

dehumanization in service of exploitation is nothing new. Western (ahem) civilization – and the U.S. in particular – was built on blood and bones woven with self-centered ambition and the quest for material wealth

this heinous ideology manifests every single day in many ugly, destructive ways — and it’s really smart, in part because it’s had so much practice and so much success

if we want to accomplish anything more than feeding on the scalding fuel of outrage (making ourselves feel simultaneously awful and righteous), then we have to do better

concentrated power plans decades, even generations ahead, while we do well to figure out the next step

concentrated power is ruthlessly proactive, while we are consistently reactive

its moves fit consistently with its innovative strategies, while we rise up in furor, get (understandably) exhausted, and settle back into letting guilt and anxiety dance in our dreams

It’s made harder by a commitment to ethics and grassroots power, in that our ends do not justify just any means – but to compromise this means that we become like them. That’s ethically problematic – and beyond that, it just doesn’t work in terms of actual social change.

This is not a critique of anyone. It’s a critique of the contemporary movement for justice and freedom for all people and the planet, by someone who has been in that movement for 35 years.

we have to do better.

Let it begin with a clear understanding that what we face daily is the manipulation of sentiment by power for profit

Let it be understood that we must constantly examine the dynamics of power in every relationship (personal and political, our own and at every level).

Let it continue in a daily dismantling of the ideology of patriarchal, white supremacist, ableist, homophobic, transphobic, ageist, earth-destroying, xenophobic practice at every level. We must see and make the connections.

Let us ask – always – “who benefits from this?” (at any level – and whether the actions are theirs or ours) – and continually refine our analysis and our actions

Let us understand that the struggle for justice and liberation is a life-long way of living – and that we must sustain ourselves in joy and community and resilience and courage even as our hearts are continually broken open.

Amen

The Clash of Interdependence with the Ideology of Power

I am staring at the news of the world today and especially at the tragic, infuriating deaths of Nabra Hassanen in Sterling, VA and Charleena Lyles in Seattle and at the effects of the devastating creep of climate change.

In this world where our hearts are continually broken by such wrenching tragedy, I am pondering today some key questions within the following context –

(and these are not actually new questions – I have been asking them and seeking answers to them for 30 years now, but this musing represents the refinement of my framing of them in today’s moment)

I affirm that the well-being of all living things – including me and those dearest to me and the body of the earth – is interconnected.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr explained that “We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied into a single garment of destiny.”

Buddhists (wisely) frame it in terms of the concept of interdependence (pratitya-samutpada).

I get to it in Christianity by (a) seeing the face of Jesus in all around me, particularly in those whom our culture marginalizes, (b) acknowledging that we are all created in God’s image, and (c) affirming that the Holy Spirit dwells within us all. These are central principles in my theology.

I understand interdependence as a simple fact of existence. We are interdependent as living beings and on that basis we ought to care for another.

That is both an ethical stance and a pragmatic one.

We are confronted with a culture – and plenty of people within it – who view living as a game of accumulation of power and material comfort in which the goal is to protect their own well-being (which they believe deserves to be protected even at the expense of the well-being of others).

I admit that I and other well-meaning folk of relative privilege (whatever that relative cultural power is in any immediate moment) are not immune to the lure of this thinking. We are soaked in it and sold it daily, so it takes constant work to scrub it off.

This view renders the majority of the population as disposable beyond their economic value as consumers and as threats to the extent that they are construed to infringe upon the perceived right to accumulate power and material comfort.

These two perspectives cannot exist side-by-side merely as different views of the world.

The second perspective attempts to obliterate and obscure the first – by violence and by constant seduction.

The first perspective floods the second with a demand for justice for all, mercy toward all, equity, care, and compassion. Those who seek to protect the second rightly assess that accepting the fact of our interdependence erodes their fictive claim to deserved superiority.

This is a life and death struggle. Make no mistake about that. It is also a struggle for our souls and the soul of our culture.

Those who would accumulate power in service to their own privilege are prevailing. They have been and continue to effectively shape the world according to their image of it and to their benefit. They adapt quickly and strategically to new challenges.

They are not only not afraid of their own power, they glory in it.

My question is this – how do we who believe in the reality of our interdependence effectively change the game without becoming like those who serve their own power and privilege?

As it stands now, pitting their strategies and worldview against ours, we are losing this life and death struggle.

And yet if we adopt their methods and methodologies (even with different ends in mind) and their tight grasp of power, then we become like them. Or do we?

Surely these are not the only two options – (1) continuing to lose in the struggle for the fully recognized dignity and intrinsic worth of all human lives and all of Creation or (2) becoming like those who so willfully destroy the earth and its people ( or at least callously stand by and allow it to happen).

How do we get beyond this trap of choices?

Finding the Sacred in the Everyday: Part II – Justice and the Other

We’ll begin today with a quote from Father Daniel Berrigan, who passed from this world into the next yesterday after a long life of faithful work for justice-

“Obviously there will be no genuine peace while such an inherently violent scheme of things continues. America will in time extricate herself from the bloody swamps, the ruined villages, the mutilated dead of Vietnam. But nothing will be settled there, nothing mitigated at home. Nothing changed, that is, until a change of heart leads us to a change of social structures in every area of our lives.”

Justice for the Other is a sacred task.

It’s a humbling thing to be talking about justice here today because I know this is a congregation for whom a desire for justice is woven into the fabric of your faith – we can see how it says so right there in your bulletin.

We talked last week about connecting with the sacred in ourselves – and I suspect for many here that’s a more challenging concept than the notion that we would find the sacred among others and especially among the Other – those whom our society marginalizes for one reason or another.

Today we are talking about how people in the spring of 2016 living in Birmingham Alabama, participating in the life of this congregation – how can you encounter the sacred in the lives of others and live out a path of justice?

First of all, I know that many of you already are doing so. Let us take a moment to celebrate the consistent witness of this congregation and you among it on so many vital issues. Let us be grateful that you create and hold a progressive, inclusive faith space in an environment where those can be difficult to find.

Do you do this perfectly? I suspect not. I’ve never known any congregation who did. But from what I know you strive to make the connections between how we ought to live and how we do live – and how we treat one another, both individually and systemically.

Thank you for that. That is a calling and it is a gift to you and through you to the broader community.

That ought to be said.

And because I know you take this commitment seriously, today I’m going to offer to you a few further reflections rooted in my own years of social justice engagement and in my sense of your community – each of you on your individual journeys and along your path together.

I am going to make 4 points (and don’t worry, I’ll make them briefly) –

1)  let us realize that we are not all called to do the same sort of work. This was the message I offered the young people – and let me reassert it now. Any work for justice is built on a variety of tasks. Some people are good at critique. Others create. Some people are the logistics folks. Vision and practicality. It takes all of us. Often we devalue our own roles. Or we criticize others because they are not just like us.

Don’t get me wrong – accountability is important and we need to examine critical words to figure out if we can learn something from them. Or to offer some critical words – from a place of love, not ego. But we’re in this together – and we do the work best when we do what we are called to do and support others in what they are called to do.

That acknowledges the sacred in ourselves and in the others whom we struggle alongside.

So that’s first. In the struggle for justice, let us keep building one another up.

2)  we know there is a constant struggle for justice and against oppression across difference.

We can name forms of oppression –

Systemic racism
Sexism and patriarchy
Homophobia and heterosexism
Ableism
Ageism
Colonialism
Militarism
Materialism

Systemic discrimination because of economic status or class, national origin, religion (or lack thereof). There are others.

And today we especially honor International Workers Day. We remember the long history of labor demands and the ongoing needs for wage justice across the globe. The obstacles to minimum wage legislation locally are just one example in the ongoing demand for dignity and a fair wage for all working people, for all who want and need to work.

Today is also International Family Equality Day, a world-wide celebration of the LGBTQ parenting and family community and a time of recognition that many parents and their children continue to face discrimination and the threat of violence. In a week that has seen Oxford threaten to jail transgender people based on bathroom use and Chief Justice Roy Moore publically reiterating his claim that same-sex marriage violates state law, we must celebrate loving and caring family in all of its formations.

Each of the causes, each of these demands for justice and experience of injustice bring their own specific conditions.

We can acknowledge that no paths are the same while we at once recognize that the forces of oppression have something in common.

Our culture continues to set forth a particular norm. And with that norm goes power in society. And across that norm – on the other side, you find less power, less value.

Across that norm, we move from subject to object. And if we look around the room, there are ways in which we all cross that norm – you might be a black straight woman or a low-income white man. You might be a Latino man with dementia. Or a trans Muslim youth.

We flip across the continuum of power in all of our identities – and we owe it to the quest for justice to recognize the ways in which we are granted power, even as in other ways we are denied it.

And further to understand that the intersections of those layers of identity render people especially privileged. Or especially vulnerable.

That is the reality of our world. The question to us is what we do with it.

IT DOES NOT HAVE TO BE THIS WAY. This is not some natural order. We have constructed a society in which difference is viewed with suspicion and denied full humanity – or the full respect of creation if we look beyond human life into the health of our ecosystems and the future of the planet.

This is human-made.

Injustice is persistent and pervasive but we always have choices. We always have the capacity to assert that the system as we know it is wrong.

We are not all the same. But our differences can be viewed as a source of richness, as the vibrant texture of our full humanity, as the opportunity to come to come into relationships of mutuality.

We have that choice. To embrace and assert the value of a pluralistic world, one that celebrates rather than erases differences and yet strives for full justice and full value and the recognition of the full humanity of all people and indeed the value and meaning of all creation.

This requires us continually to educate ourselves. No matter how much we know, there is more to learn. Change is a constant. And it is not the responsibility of people at the margins or those whom we have made vulnerable in our society to educate us. We must not assume that our good intentions entitle us to relationship. When we’re in the position of privilege – we have to do our own work.

We can learn to respect people as the subjects of their own lives rather than as the objects of our derision or mockery OR our charity or aspirations for them.

When we bring our open hearts and our open minds – and when we leave our defensiveness and our egos and our need to be the good white person/straight person/ally/and so on back at home – we can find the room to do meaningful work.

We may not always be setting the agenda. Maybe we just need to show up and listen and then take what we’ve learned back to our own communities and circles.

And there, even in the most hard-hearted places of ingrained racism or sexism or homophobia, maybe we find that through our commitment, our compassion, and our ever-growing wisdom maybe we find the opportunities to chip away at oppression at its source.

That is difficult and delicate work – and if we wield our truths like an angry hammer – well, sometimes we have to do that – but most of the time, if we look, we can find ways to speak truth to power has a chance to be heard. And a lot of times, it may not even be about the person you’re speaking directly to. Even if you are just disrupting the illusion of consensus, you may be speaking a truth that someone needs to hear – and doing what’s right because it’s right.

3) Okay, so having talked about justice as own specific identities and at the intersections, let’s widen the circle a little. The way that we do community can be a radical act of justice. In a world of commodification and consumerism, creating spaces of intentional genuine community – community that has porous borders, so that it’s open to all – community where people can join in relationship – that is a justice act.

And it is from that community and from those relationships that we come to understand the visceral realities of the structures of power and privilege. These connections can be counter-cultural. They can interrupt norms.

And I know y’all know that.  This congregation is one of those places.

But I also know that – as I said earlier – no gathering of human people is perfect. And I know that times of transition are hard. And the world that we live in today encourages us to harden our edges. So as a friend to this community, I want to take this opportunity to reiterate the importance of building real, non-exclusive, mutually-accountable, open-hearted relationships among yourselves.

This takes commitment and patience. It is active and evolving. We bring the world with us – and all of our own stuff – when we walk through these doors. But in your willingness to do this work, to dedicate this effort, you create something that is greater than the sum of its parts.

4) Finally, I know we could spend all day talking about layers and levels of injustice and the struggle to achieve justice, but I will close with one other matter that takes us out another level into the community.

One element of my own current work is a focus on how we regard the question of economic development in our city and in our state. There are a lot of wonderful things happening in Birmingham right now. But in some cases they are happening – as these things have ALWAYS happened here – on the backs of the poorest among us. I’m talking about what, depending on how you look at it, is described as neighborhood revitalization or as gentrification.

I’m all about cool places to eat and fixing up dilapidated housing and craft beer – seriously, we can say that in the UU church, right? Good beer is a great thing.

But once again it comes at a price – and it does not take much digging at all to realize that this is absolutely a consistent pattern over the whole of the history of this metropolitan area — we put the interests of business and of the relatively affluent above the needs of the poor.

In Birmingham, this is always a racialized narrative as well, so that we have the needs of poor black and brown people subsumed to the profit and pleasure of the affluent, who are predominantly, though not exclusively, white. Poor people of color are displaced in the name of so-called economic and neighborhood development. We see it decade after decade in the history our city and it is happening now.

Unfortunately, the sides on this argument have come to a point where everyone more or less knows what the other is going to say.

Add to that that these are complicated, nuanced issues, where the economic engines involved have become ever-more sophisticated in their presentation and the methods.

Add in the persistent pernicious ideology of globalization which is constantly soaked into our outlook. Gentrification is globalization made manifest at a local level.

If we take it out another level, we see the ways in which the economic development rhetoric in our state tends to happen at the expense of the natural environment.

Disposable people, disposable ecosystems.

Collateral damage laid on the altar of profit and productivity.

I raise these issue here today not because we can fully address it – I myself often have more questions than solutions, but because I would like to invite you as a religious community to participate in a broader religious dialogue on gentrification. This is not a centralized conversation, but instead a grassroots effort to bring our lens of faith to examine such questions as

Who benefits from economic revitalization and neighborhood (re)development and at whose expense does it take place? and

How should we as religious communities and individuals respond to the fact that current models of economic and neighborhood development do little to disrupt systems that marginalize significant groups of people – because they are rooted in neoliberal economic approaches and top-down strategies that reinforce outsider hierarchies rather than grassroots participation.

Make no mistake that they are more sophisticated than past blunt tools of legalized racial segregation and so-called urban renewal. But they are this century’s face of our continued neglect of the most vulnerable among us in the service of a cultural narrative of economic self-sufficiency and continued accumulation of wealth and power for a sliver of the populace.

In a world that does not now and will not ever IN the current economic system have enough living wage jobs for people to gainfully support themselves, I would argue that it is of great relevance on International Workers Day to question the status quo – and the violence it does to people on the economic margins.

If this question of a religious dialogue on gentrification and how you might bring a UU faith lens to examine these issues has any interest to you – either as individuals or as a community, please let me know. This is an organically evolving dialogue and I would love to discuss at some point in the days, weeks, or months ahead how we might productively generate such a conversation here and what sort of action might come out of it.

As we conclude these meditations on finding the sacred among us in everyday life, on living out a path of justice, I offer more words from Daniel Berrigan:

“For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth.  In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly. It is all one.”

An Orlando Massacre Journal of Reflection and Action

Most of my conversation in the immediate aftermath of the massacre in Orlando took place on Facebook in communion with people in my community. This post documents those reflections as they unfolded that day and since, forming something of a journal of grief and sense-making.

Sunday, June 12 7:58 am
‘THIS IS NOT GOD’S LOVE!!!!’ screamed a protester (who shames the name of Christ by claiming it) an arm’s length from me during last night’s Pride parade. I thought ‘you got that right.’

That is among the more printable of the things that this small, loud group hurled at us as we walked past in last night’s Pride parade. They were particularly incensed by the row of churches that showed up to proclaim the (genuine) inclusive nature of God’s love.

We don’t yet know many of the details about the shooting in Orlando – a shooting that took place in a nightclub much like the one in which Phyllis and I were hanging out into the early hours the other night.

But I do know these things, which I had planned to say today anyway and which take on a particular poignant, painful significance in light of this horrible event:

When you see us LGBTQIA folks celebrating Pride, realize that we are fighting for not only for dignity and inclusion, but for life itself.

We are celebrating our integrity and our full humanity in a society that that often denies it.

We are calling for a world that embraces our diversity and that understands this example of diversity as instructive – for we can help teach the rest of our culture that difference is a source of strength and wonder instead of fear, judgment, and hatred.

Even in this day, there is no shortage of people who would deny us the right to simply live as ourselves. The play we saw Friday night included a wrenching video clip of cases of physical violence to LGBTQIA people. This is not uncommon. And countless more lives are broken by the rejection and stigma that we face daily. That is the sinful behavior here.

There is nothing wrong with us. There is nothing related to our sexual orientation, gender expression, or gender identity that needs to be fixed or changed. We are proud of who we are because of who we are, NOT in spite of it.

I would not choose to be other than I am.

The day that we as a global culture learn to live and let live and to treat people with dignity and respect will be a grand day indeed.

We don’t know yet what led to the slaughter of a score of people in Orlando last night and the injury of many more, but it certainly has the marks of a hate crime. We certainly do know what leads to physical violence, awful insult, and soul injury to LGBTQIA people EVERY SINGLE DAY in this culture.

Please consider this morning if your words and your attitudes and your actions contribute to that. There is no neutral ground in this matter. We are fighting for our lives.

11:47 a.m. – Further news brings us the information that this club was the heart of the scene for Orlando’s Latino LGBTQIA population. LGBTQIA people of color face the dual brutalities of society’s racism and homophobia and it would appear they have born the brunt of this senseless slaughter. There are no words to convey what I feel.

8:06 p.m. –  I wrote this as a comment earlier, but it was buried in the long thread of my first post today – and I think it’s worth foregrounding (so I quote myself):

‘Fundamentalism comes in all forms. It can be found in religious and secular settings. It is a mechanism of power – human power, which has nothing to do with the power of faith or divine power, though it often claims that. It is the opposite of pluralism and dedicates itself through a range of violent exclusionary tactics (which include sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated social discourse) to the eradication of pluralism.

I am a pluralist, though I also operate with joy and intensity from my own social location. I respect the right of fundamentalists (whether they be Muslims, Christians, atheists, political ideologues, or any flavor) to live and believe. Their rights end when they move into broader cultural space because their dearest intent is to suffocate pluralist society by sucking the air out of it with their noxious ideological commitments.

My commitment to respond to dehumanization leads me to speak and act against fundamentalism in all of its forms. I have lived long enough, however, to recognize that it comes in far more forms than we commonly name (i.e., far beyond the Islam and the Christianity that we typically associate with extremism).’

I will add to that now: peace and prayers and love to all who – in myriad meaningful ways – counter the forces of dehumanization. It is essential work.

Monday, June 13 11:59 a.m.
Dear God, today I pray especially for all of those working in LGBTQIA service and advocacy organizations and groups, for they are dealing with their own grief while also trying to love and serve the whole community. Give them strength of soul and peace of heart and wisdom of word in all that they do – and rest and well-being for themselves. We offer our gratitude to them and to you. Amen.

Tuesday, June 14 9:56 p.m.
A reminder to my LGBTQIA friends – you can turn off the news if you need to. It’s okay. You can walk away from it for a while. Take care of yourself. The struggle and the honor of memory will still be there when you get back.

Wednesday, June 15 6:42 a.m.
May we remember today that kindness and advocacy need not be mutually exclusive.

May we be filled with both compassion and a whole-hearted commitment to justice for all.

May we honor that which is holy within each person and on this earth, even as we ask for accountability and discernment.

May we be wise.

8:10 a.m. –  If you are ally or friend of LGBTQIA people and especially LGBTQIA people of color – or want to be – or just respect people period – I have a suggestion.

Our cultural space is really, really noisy right now.

The LGBTQIA community is not of one mind about where we go from here (and that’s okay), though we’re pretty universal about taking note of and condemning individual and cultural homophobia.

So while we’re not monolithic, one way you can support people is to make room for our voices. You can listen, ask respectful questions (NOT devil’s-advocate, opinions-disguised-as-questions, or argumentative questions) IF the person welcomes questions, and research and read what’s being said by LGBTQIA people about all the different issues.

This is about hearing, not about being heard yourself.

When you help to create that space where LGBTQIA people’s voices are made central, you are helping (even just a little bit) to shift the power in our cultural conversations. No one speaks for the whole community (ever – for any community), but there’s good learning in seeking out a range of perspectives.

I believe this to be good solidarity practice across the board, but today let us keep in mind the context of LGBTQIA people, Latino/Latinx folks, and the intersections of sexual orientation and gender identity, race, and ethnicity.

11:13 a.m. –  An update about tonight’s Religious Memorial Observance for the Victims of the Orlando Massacre (let me know if you have questions) –

we will gather tonight at 8:00 on the first floor of Beloved. After an opening welcome, there will be 5 separate spaces for prayer and reflection in honor of the lives lost and disrupted at Pulse in Orlando. You will be able to move among them according to your own needs. They are:

1) downstairs at Beloved – a diverse group of faith leaders from around the community will offer their prayers

2) upstairs at Beloved – a space for silent prayer, meditation, centering prayer, and silent worship. this space will also be open before the service beginning at 7:00.

3) at The Abbey – names and images of those who were killed

4) at The Abbey – a memorial creative art space

5) at The Abbey – a place to talk and pray individually with ministers and chaplains

We hope that all will feel welcome and that all can find a forum for their own grief and healing.

Thursday, June 16 7:06 a.m.
Prayer versus action – this is a false binary.

It’s not either/or. The best action is grounded in prayer*.

And the lessons of action give clarity to prayer.

These are complementary means, not opposite ones.

*as a Christian, I pray to a gracious and loving God in the name of the Incarnate Christ, but I’d certainly never say that is the only meaningful form of prayer. Translate for yourself and your own traditions or non-traditions accordingly.

Friday, June 17 7:06 a.m.
Sweet friends and family have been reaching out since the Orlando shooting to offer words of comfort, affirmation, and love. That’s meant a lot. And many of them (many of y’all 🙂 ) will also include a concern about safety. ‘Be careful.’ is the refrain.

Here’s the thing – I don’t feel any less safe after Orlando than I felt before it. That, sadly, is because I didn’t feel safe before Orlando. And I know very few LGBTQIA people who do feel wholly safe. And – with no disrespect intended at all – I think those few who do are probably not staring at the reality of things.

We construct communities of love and relationship – or at least the fortunate among us are in a place to do so – that provide for support and meaning in the rhythms of life.

But there are a lot of people that hate us, that consider us sinful, or find us disgusting. There’s an entire spectrum of dis-affirmation and down at the far end of it is a small violent group.

We are harmed by that whole spectrum – and that’s why I keep repeating that there’s no neutral ground. I want people to get off of that spectrum and locate themselves in a place that at least embraces ‘live and let live’ and eschews rhetoric about sin or anything less than the full humanity and dignity of LGBTQIA people.

But we are all – and always have been – at real risk of significant harm from genuinely dangerous people. The reality of that has been magnified by Orlando, but it was no less true before. People often remain closeted in whole or in part not because they are ashamed but because they are afraid. And they ought to be.

The awful murder of British MP Jo Cox yesterday further illustrates the vulnerability of good people to those who are willing to make their hatred manifest in the most brutal ways. That wasn’t about LGBTQIA issues, but it’s a related form of extremism that from all reports led to her death. I am 100% aware that in every public presence I claim as an out lesbian – and this is true for all of us – that it is good fortune that my path and that of some violent hater doesn’t cross. I am especially aware of that in terms of a pastoral presence. I am never not aware of it.

I want every-body to feel and be safe from needlessly inflicted harm. Queer bodies. Black bodies. Brown bodies. Disabled bodies. Poor bodies. Women’s bodies. Old bodies. And all of the intersections of those things. Every body. Every body to live knowing that their inherent worth as human beings – their right to live, to love, and to face each day with the integrity of a whole self – is fully respected by all.

That’s the world I strive for. It is not the world we have now. And I know it.

There is no neutral ground. Either you stand with love* across all our differences or you are somewhere on that spectrum that tips downward to the most horrible of places.

(* and some conservative Christians – will say “Oh, I love everybody. I just . . .” STOP RIGHT THERE. Where that sentence goes from there indicates that they really don’t get what the radical love of Jesus Christ is or means or demands of those of us who claim to be his followers. They do NOT love everybody because THAT.IS.NOT.THE.LOVE.OF.CHRIST.)

9:17 p.m. – It has been a week of horror and grief, including today the anniversary of the white-supremacy-driven killings at Mother Emmanuel Church in Charleston.

It has been a week of human connection that embraces and celebrates our diversity and our innate capacity for joy and relationship. We bear witness to the brutality, but all around me, people are responding with love. Real love and care and concern.

Amen and Amen.

Tonight Temple Emanu-El invited both the LGBTQIA community and the Muslim community to worship and grieve in a memorial in their Shabbat service. It was heartfelt, inclusive, and deeply resonant with the spirit (Spirit) of promise for a better world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, June 18 7:54 a.m.
A word I need to say:

if anyone were ever to come for my Muslim friends, they would have to come through me.

And I’m small, but I’m mean when people mess with my peeps.

Please don’t think you know anything about Islam if you are not in personal fellowship with any Muslims.

(and yes, that’s a dramatic statement, but given the nature of our sociopolitical discourse these days, I wanted to say something equally unequivocal)

(and yes, I feel that way about my other friends too, but this is the claim that is called for in this particular moment)

Sunday, June 19 7:59 a.m.
In a week where I have been critiquing the violent culture of toxic masculinity, it’s lovely to have a day to celebrate all the good men in this world.

I know a LOT of them and I’m sure you do too. Not only in my own biological family – my father, step-father, grandfathers, and uncles – but among my friends, the fathers of my friends (and now days the sons of my friends), and countless other men who put their energy into caring for the people around them and for the world.

I critique the culture of patriarchy, but I do so in the hope of freeing us ALL from the pressures that cause some men to miss the joy of living, the capacity to care, and the pleasures of non-conforming individuality. I count a bunch of non-conforming, open-hearted men as my chosen brothers in this world and the world needs more like them (even though they are nothing alike on the surface).

Keep fathering, good men, whether you are a biological father or not. The world needs you – and I’m grateful to travel in it with you.

9:59 p.m. – I’ve been thinking about how the victim total for the Orlando shooting was reduced from 50 to 49. The 50th fatality was the shooter, Omar Mateen.

Something bothers me about that. I had the same reaction about Newtown when Adam Lanza was removed from the count.

Now if I were an injured victim or a loved one of those killed or injured, I doubt I could manage any equanimity about these men. I would not make this argument to those people.

But most of us are not those people. We are a step or many steps removed and our perspective can be different. We can carry some of the load that those closer to the tragedy cannot.

I suggest that a part of that load is grieving for the man who did the killing and whatever happened in his life to turn him into the person who committed mass murder – and analyzing with some compassion (rather than just polarized vitriol) the factors that led to it.

None of us can know what peculiar alchemy turned Omar Mateen into killer, but we can look for the causes and try to deal with them. And we can pray for his soul and for the souls of other damaged people out there.

There are no simple answers – and we won’t find answers with simple judgments. I am not in any way recommending that we excuse the behavior or fail to hold people accountable.

But hurt people hurt people. And maybe if we can figure out what about our culture and our individual lives within it harms people to the point of their doing harm to others, we might make a difference.

Tuesday, June 21 2:53 p.m.
After I prayed last week at the Central Alabama Pride/City of Birmingham vigil, I was quoted in a local NPR-affiliate interview as saying “Our responses are what teach us how to live,” *

Tragic moments remind us that we want to live lives of genuine meaning.

We want lives that matter.

It doesn’t have to be on any grand global scale.

It’s really about living with integrity and commitment in whatever context you find yourself.

This is counter-cultural. Our culture insists that we must purchase something to bring ourselves that sort of contentment and connection. The system depends on our always wanting (convincing ourselves that we need) something more.

But the horrible moments, along with the truly joyous ones, reveal that for the fiction that it is.

Everyone of us can live a life that matters. That’s a choice we make in our engagement with one another every single day.

In this contentious season, I pray that we all remember this basic truth.

*(otherwise I probably would have forgotten I said it – but I’ve been reflecting since I read them on those words, which I did indeed say)

Sunday, June 26 2:28 p.m.
Been catching up on a couple of back yard chores this blazing afternoon and thinking about a book by the noted American Buddhist Jack Kornfield. It’s called ‘After the Ecstasy, the Laundry’ and it’s a skillful reminder of how we live in the realm of the daily even after moments of enlightenment and insight.

What I’m working with this afternoon – two weeks after waking up to the news about the Orlando shootings – is more the concept of ‘After the Tragedy, the Laundry.’

For those who are personally touched by horrible events, sometimes things are never the same. Our lives are surely as shaped by our losses as by our joys and triumphs. But often from a bit more remove we bear witness to the terrible things that happen in this world and then we move on. What else are we supposed to do?

Getting stuck is never a good option. The meaningful choice, I believe, is in how we go about moving forward.

It’s easy to get caught up in the cause-of-the-moment. It becomes a lightening quick grief fad.We can move on from that to the next awful thing – or to ignoring the next awful thing or to ignoring the chronic misery of many in our world. Or we can acknowledge that in this interdependent world we are all changed by the suffering of others. Then we choose to let that embitter us or open our hearts.

That’s our fundamental choice – slide right on by, turn ugly, or keep letting our spirits grow with a heart of compassion and care.

It’s really up to us. The laundry still has to get done. The backyard still has to be mowed. It’s really all about what we bring to it and what we give back into the world around us. That comes after ecstasy and it comes after tragedy – and it’s one better measure of the meaning of our time on this earth.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Measuring Education for Living

It’s the season of grades and graduations and celebration by students and teachers alike at the end of a long school year. I’ve been reading about honors accumulated, understandable parental pride, and the amount of scholarship money earned by graduating senior classes.

I join in the rejoicing at the transitions that mark  new life chapters and the beginning of summer.

However, I’m also reflecting today on what we laud as worthy educational achievement. Thought I might suggest some additional alternative measures for our educational institutions – I’d like to know how many of your students:

are genuinely kind?

can pay bills on time, shop for groceries and prepare meals, rent an apartment, and file their own taxes?

can balance ambition with human connection, work with the other stuff of living?

see value in the process or journey as well as the end product?

understand the complexities of the governance system in our country and how to participate in it?

engage with respect and sincerity across differences, especially where differential power is involved?

are dedicated to devising creative solutions to care for the earth and halt the rush of climate change?

can drive a car without putting themselves or others at risk of either physical danger or road rage?

can competently care for another living thing, whether that’s a plant or an elder or a pet or a child?

understand that vocational choices need to be made in the context of a realistic assessment of what day-to-day life in that field actually consists of rather than idealized images of any given profession?

know to treat people below them in society’s food chain with respect and dignity as well as those above them?

can locate a reliable auto mechanic, plumber, tailor, dentist, worshiping community, primary care provider, and mental health practitioner?

can identify the ways in which they are always vastly interdependent with the rest of the world?

These things are difficult to measure, you say?

Well, sure they are. But we presume to measure intelligence, aptitude, and achievement as if they were single, easily quantifiable constructs. I don’t think we get that right either, so why should that stop of us from attempting to grade our schools on their capacity to do teach these essential life skills?

Or better yet, forget about measuring them altogether and just teach them as a priority, as a requirement for dignified, decent, and capable human living in the 21st century.

Why can’t we do that?

 

On What is Required of Us

My grandmother quoted many things to me when I was a child, but one of the most oft-cited sayings came from Luke 12:47, which in the NRSV reads “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required.”

While I appreciate the inclusive language here, older texts use a (masculine generic) pronoun, suggesting that this is not a general, easily dismissed “everybody” but indeed an actual individual person. That’s how Grandmama said it and that’s the mandate I heard.

I believe she set this passage before me regularly to sing into my soul a dual sensibility: that I was blessed in many ways and that I in turn needed to share those blessings with others.

The communal responsibility of us all, one for another, is so clear in this verse. I suppose you can hear it as a endorsement of individual ambition, but such an interpretation does not do justice to the Gospel message.

I’ve spent my life not only trying to live up to that call, but also continuously refining my understanding of how to do so skillfully. Good intentions are a necessary but not sufficient condition. The desire to love the world and to be a blessing in it requires not only intent, but knowledge, insight, and relationship. It’s always an ongoing journey.

However, I often see in our culture – then, in my childhood, and now – a refusal on two counts.

The first is of the very idea that we are responsible one for another, that in what we have been granted in this world (and yes, that for which we have worked very hard), we are called to share and love and give, to carry each other along. And that our responsibility increases proportionately with our blessings and freedom.

The second involves going beyond the good intention – so that as we take seriously the requirement to care one for another, we pay attention to the vast web of complex structural forces in play in our culture. We will all make mistakes – and there has to be room for that – but we can at least do our best to treat people not as objects (even as objects of our care and concern), but as subjects in their own lives and deserving of our respect as such.

It’s a start. I think we can do better on both counts. I really do.

My South

Southern states – and most especially Southern state legislatures – are rightly getting a lot of negative attention these days because of a series of regressive moves. Those stories feed the caricature that serves as the popular image of our region. The reality  is more complex, as realities always are. The South belongs to the rest of us too – and we belong to it. So I add this portrait of my South in this moment to the mix.

My South has –

  • dogwoods in bloom outside my window as I write this.
  • people fighting to protect Medicaid for our most vulnerable low income residents.
  • awesome Mexican/Vietnamese/Southern/Chinese/haute cuisine/chain restaurant/meat & 3/Waffle House food. We have boiled peanuts and grits and barbecue and farmers markets with watermelon and tomatoes and sweet corn.
  • excellent art museums and public gardens and small & community theaters and opera and dance  and poets and essayists and novelists – all a part of an artistic community with incredible vision and unparalleled talent.
  • one hell of an ugly history of racial oppression – and it’s not just history, it’s now – systemic and individual-level racism are horrifically real.
  • black and brown and white people doing our damndest to rid the world of racial oppression – (and yes, even when we are really trying, we white folks still get it wrong, time and again, because we are so soaked in this from the time we are born. But some of us are determined to get beyond that and will keep at the work of addressing systemic racism at its white source until we either succeed or breathe our last breath).
  • gay bars and LGBTQ+ community centers and Pride fests and passionate, powerful QTPOC (queer & trans people of color) who might yet succeed in teaching us all how to live without crushing the souls of others.
  • plenty of money for prisons, but never enough for teaching children or ensuring access to healthcare or making sure that no one goes hungry.
  • churches – tons of churches – a church home for you no matter what you believe or how high church or Spirit-breathing you’re looking for – (and a whole bunch of sincere, God-loving LGBTQ+ Christians – we are faithful people too).
  • not just churches – we have mosques and synagogues and temples and meditation centers – there are people practicing their faith in myriad ways and Sunday brunch and picnics in the park for the humanists, agnostics, and atheists among us. In my South, we practice live and let live and we learn and work together.
  • no frickin’ public transit to speak of – it’s a shame.
  • music in all forms and venues – songs worth singing and musicians worth listening to – music that moves the soul and the body.
  • undocumented people in indefinite detention in harsh conditions and a general climate of suspicion toward people for whom English is not their first language – and committed, multi-ethnic coalitions of activists working to change that.
  • the most incredible ecodiversity and stunning beauty – these ecosystem treasures that we often don’t even realize are there until after we’ve destroyed them.
  • people who will come get you in the middle of the night when you’re stuck on the side of the road – even if you disagree with them on about absolutely everything.
  • coffeehouses and craft beer and public libraries and parks and bookstores and cafes.
  • far too many people who do not understand the conditions of their own oppression and who thus consistently speak, act, and vote against their own interests.
  • Alabama football – Roll Tide!
  • activists staring at the evils of environmental racism and organizing to overcome it.
  • some of the most assbackward corrupt politicians on the face of the planet, looking after their own power and profit rather than the true public good.
  • my people – blood kin and family of choice and (some of) the friends I’ve made across a lifetime – and an incredible community that cares about all of the above.

This my South.

Crucify Whom?

Today is Good Friday.

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

Black bodies?

Transgender bodies?

Undocumented immigrant bodies?

Muslim bodies?

Poor bodies?

Disabled bodies?

Lesbian bodies?

Addicted bodies?

Refugee bodies?

The body of the earth and its non-human living things?

Whose bodies will we crucify today?

 

On Why It’s Hard to Be a Christian in Today’s World

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could retreat into my little bubble of middle-class privilege and really not give a damn about the suffering of poor people and the ways in which our economic system benefits the very few at the expense of the many.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I and my white self could hide behind some vague notion of colorblindness and ignore the very real violence being done to black and brown bodies in this country and around the world. I could refuse to see and refuse to change a system that feeds on fundamental inequities in the distribution of power and wealth, that enshrines racism as a means of divide-and-conquer.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could skip the outrage at our ravaging of the planet for the sake of human profit, our disregard of life beyond our own, our denial of our complicity in past, present, and future environmental disasters.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could tell homophobic people – all of them – to just fuck off rather than to continue to work toward mutual relationship and meaningful dialogue.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stare at people with disabilities and think there was something wrong with them instead of with a culture that denies their full individual humanity and refuses to embrace them for their diversity and their contributions.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could think that people who disagree with me are stupid rather than working to value them as fellow precious children of God.

It’s hard being a Christian – because otherwise I could stereotype, judge, and dehumanize Muslims and Jews and Buddhists and Hindus and people of any other faith or no faith at all and do my best to keep my distance from them.

It’s hard being a Christian – because then I could see people dying across the globe from preventable wars, preventable diseases, and preventable hunger and thirst without losing sleep over it. I could see those problems as some fault of their own rather than of a global system that has for centuries robbed entire nations of their assets and their autonomy, often with the approval and even the assistance of the Christian church.

God, it is hard to be a Christian in today’s world.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Christianity – or any religious perspective – is not the only reason people care about these things. I’m not saying that at all. I’m just talking about where I come from. I fully affirm the idea that non-Christians and non-religious people can have grounded and nuanced ethics. If that’s you, all props to you and peace and strength to you for your work.

And there are certainly Christians who disagree with what I’ve said here – to y’all, I say . . . I say . . . I say that you are my family in this faith and I hope we can be in conversation about what living out that faith looks like in our contemporary world. I will listen to you with an open heart. I hope you will receive me in the same spirit (Spirit).

Globalization and the Value of Life

I’ve been thinking about an interview I heard the other day on the radio with a union worker who, defying his union leadership, supports Donald Trump (note: this is NOT a post about a particular candidate – this is a systemic problem and that’s what I want to emphasize).

His rationale was that illegal immigration is the cause of the weak job market. He believes that Trump is the man to fix that and thus restore us to an economy filled with well-paying working class jobs.

That this gentleman blames immigrant workers rather than globalization for the gutting of the earned wage economy in this country points to a central problematic narrative – one which is expertly manipulated – in our national discourse.

If this gentleman’s analysis did extend to globalization, it’s not unlikely that he would blame fellow workers around the globe rather than the system that pits his labor against theirs to detriment of both (and the planet) and for the enrichment of the people who created the system.

Modern globalization of world capital really began with the establishment of the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade (GATT) in 1948. It was further fertilized by the Uruguay Round of negotiations that took place from 1986-1994, resulting in the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Look at those years – that’s Reagan, HW Bush, and Clinton. This is a BIPARTISAN doing. The Doha round of negotiations began under W Bush and continues to this day under Obama. NAFTA started under HW Bush and was signed by Clinton. CAFTA has been signed (and almost certainly the TPP will be) on Obama’s watch.

The result is the concentration of wealth through the accumulation of capital by the very few. In the process, many of the rest of us have been literally invested in the system enough (think 401Ks over pensions) to have a stake in its preservation, but we should be under no illusion that we are its real or intended beneficiaries.

And the rest of the people – the millions of people in this country who will never have a decent paying job and who have no accumulated wealth to fall back on and the billions of people around the world whose national economies have been violently stripped of any residual capacity they had to be self-sustaining in the wake of colonialism – those people are desperate and in the cold light of globalization, they are disposable.

The majority of the world’s population has value only to the extent that they are consumers (whether they earn, borrow, receive, or steal the funds to support their consumption habit). And our ecosystems have value only as economic commodities.

This represents the height of dehumanization and crushing mechanism of environmental destruction. It is a political problem, an economic problem, and an environmental problem. It is a moral, cultural, and theological problem.

We cannot address if we do not see it for what it is.