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.

Stuck and Unstuck: A Lenten Reflection

A gracious, wide crape myrtle stands in our yard near the street.

During certain times of the year, leaves and seed pods from that lovely tree fall in just such a pattern as to block a few critical inches of our driveway. The drainage path to the curb gets clogged up.

And then I find myself pulling up during a rainstorm to step out of the car into ankle-deep water. I slosh across the driveway to that one corner and, in my already sodden shoes, kick the minuscule, problematic bundle of leaves, seed pods, and twigs out into the water flowing along the gutter.

As I make my way inside to shuck my wet shoes, the driveway begins to drain.

We could pull all sorts of lessons out this story, but there’s one that really interests me during Lent.

Every one of us gets stuck sometimes. Sometimes it’s a huge thing and we have to figure out an appropriate way to address that. At others, however, it’s something small.

Sometimes we get stuck on the small things.

They might mess with our capacity to show compassion and kindness in the world. They might keep us from seeing the pain of a neighbor. They might cause us to get mired in a muddle of self-condemnation. Or we might just feel stuck and not even know why.

This time in the Christian year allows us the opportunity to slow down and pay attention. Somewhere in that process of prayer and practice, we might notice what’s got us stuck.

Lent invites us to consider the small things that could make a big difference. Sometimes it’s exactly those small things in our lives that block us in our quest to follow Jesus.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37 

Beyond the Usual: On Lent and Black History Month

Easter comes early this year. As a consequence, so does Lent.

For that reason, Lent coincides to a substantial degree with Black History Month.

As a white person, I understand Black History Month as a time for me to listen and to learn. It’s a time to hear stories and bear witness.  There are notable figures, overlooked by conventional history books, who have contributed to science and art, to politics and philosophy, to education and to faith. These accomplishments matter to black people and they matter to the rest of us, often far more than we know. They enrich the whole of human existence.

By the end of February, if I’m paying attention, I will know more of the triumphs and joys as well as the sufferings and sorrows of the history of African Americans in this country. It takes intentional effort to see beyond my own whiteness and the lens that comes with it. It takes looking beyond the history I’ve been taught and beyond the white experience that is used as the default in education and popular media.

The call of Lent and the call of Black History Month have a lot in common.

Lent is a season for listening and for learning. It’s a time to hear the stories of others, especially others who are different from us – and most especially a time to listen to the voices of people that our society places at the margins. It’s a time to try to understand the lens that we use to see the world.

Lent offers us the opportunity to repent not only of our individual sins but of our collective cultural sins. We can open our hearts to the triumphs and joys and the sorrows and sufferings of others. We are called to stop long enough and listen closely enough to hear the stories that get drowned out because they disturb or disrupt or threaten to upend our comforts.

Black History Month is a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

Lent is also a chance to look beyond the usual stories we are fed by the world.

I pray we do so.

*this was first published as a part of Beloved Community Church’s Lenten Reflection Series. Check out the site to see past reflections and sign up to receive future ones – http://us8.campaign-archive1.com/home/?u=b0ec53794d5302e54ac84ec3b&id=9ea25a5d37 

A Statement of (My) Faith

Different people come to these pages for different reasons.

The people who read the blog are often not the same as those check out the Home or About pages to learn more about my work.

So while I recently added a new theological statement to the Home page, I don’t figure that folks who read things here will necessarily see it. I make small changes on the other pages regularly, tweaking a word or an idea as my own understanding or efforts grow and change.

Those are important, but they’re details. The statement I added last week is more than a detail. It has always been implicit in my other words, but I haven’t in the past stated it online this directly. Because I think it might be of interest to those who follow this space, I offer it here as well –

What I Believe: 

We are made by God in God’s image and charged with the care of all creation.

Contemporary culture in the service of material power and profit dehumanizes us. This is the narrative of empire. Rather than seeing our differences as a source of strength and interdependence, it divides us – often violently – across them. It attempts to commodify the whole of existence.

The Incarnational Christ calls us to honor and experience God by honoring one another and the Earth. To that end, I seek to both contest the narrative of empire and recognize the sacred in the everyday and in every person. I aspire to enact and embody this theology by seeing through a lens that acknowledges all time as holy, not just Sunday mornings or other designated Sabbath and worship moments.

My practice of this faith emphasizes conversation, care and presence, prayer, learning, curiosity, collaboration, meditation, creative expression, respect, humor, imagination, liturgy, and the building of porous, meaningful communities.

Critique and Creation: Why Social Change Requires Both

In a couple of different conversations on social change last week, I brought up an idea that I can neither lay claim to as an original thought nor attribute to a specific source. It has been said by many in any number of ways. However, it’s a fundamentally important practical point for community organizing and creating change in our world – and thus bears repeating, especially in our current climate. Even when we know something, we sometimes need to hear it again.

Effective social change work requires articulating a critique of the status quo and working to dismantle the structures that support that status quo.

Effective social change work also requires articulating a vision of alternatives to the dominant paradigm(s) and working to make those visions a feasible reality. It can be multiple visions of alternatives. Or a vision of multiple alternatives. One solution is probably not going to fit for everybody – and that’s okay as long as we can find a way to work within genuine pluralism*.

Sometimes we treat this work as either/or. We attack or we build. We create or we destroy. Such an approach has inherent limitations.

If all we do is critique, we risk leaving people in despair. We feed a climate of doom that forces others to look away so that they can function in daily life. We get bitter and frustrated and turn on one another. It burns out those who care and diffuses the energy needed to take on the powers-that-be.

If all we do is create a new path, we also limit our effectiveness. If people don’t understand the problematic nature of old institutions and patterns, they are much less likely to abandon the security the old system offers (even when it works against their own interests) for the uncertainty of something new. Familiarity is comfortable. Change is hard.

Without the component of active and articulated (not just implied) critique, it’s also harder to resist being co-opted – or crushed – by dominant structures. Compassionate and clear self-examination function best in a context of critical awareness. It helps keep us honest.

Not everybody is going to be good at both strands of the work. That’s okay. But the conversation as a whole has to include both components – and people of different gifts doing this work must listen to and respect one another. That’s not just head-nodding listening. That’s listening in such a way as to allow the other person’s insights and experiences change you and what you do and how you do it.

We have to do both. The conversation has to integrate both critique and creation. If it doesn’t, we make things harder than they need to be. And this work is difficult enough already, right?

 

* okay, that’s not at all a small caveat, but it represents a tangent here. We’ll come back to that another day.

Among Us

A quick story for a busy week –

Running late
as usual
one block
after leaving
my house
traffic stopped.
A man
stood in
the street
asking each
passing car
for some
unknown need.

I started
to cross
to the
other side
But then
saw his
body turn
toward me.

Ah hell,
I’m late.
I don’t
have time –
“What do
you need,
my brother?”

“A lugwrench.
Please. We
got a
flat right
up there.”

Sure enough
in the
worst bend
of the
road sat
a red
car, tire
flat, and

another man
with a
Falcons cap.

Oddly easy
to help
once it’s
decided. One
quick reach
behind my
Jeep seat
and with
rare flourish
I could
help this
time, this
one clear
time.

“You
drink beer?”
the first
fellow asked,
an offer
to repay,
a trade,
as I,
barely slowing,
could not
wait for
the wrench.

“Yeah, man,
but no
worries. I’m
good.”

Nowhere to
keep beer
in a

Jeep. I
hollered into
the wind
where they
could leave
the wrench
if they,
two black
men at
dusk wished
to wander
my labyrinthine
white neighborhood.

No surprise
at no
wrench on
my porch.
(I had
warned of
dogs). but
it’s okay.

The gift
was these
angels on
the corner
with one

flat tire.