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.

Communion, Room 304

“Are you my sister?”
asked the white-haired
woman stretched out
in bed as I
stepped
from the harsh
light of the noisy
hallway to
her side.

Blinds drawn tight.
A pair of highback
wheelchairs parked
on hard tile
against the doors
of dark
wooden
closets,
set as out
of the way
as they
could be.

“No ma’am
I’m from
the church.
I came
to visit.”

She smiled then
returned to
some distress
I could
not see.

Moving a chair
beside her bed
I tried to
reassure.

We spoke of the
sleeping woman
in the
bed next to
her own.

“Maybe she’s
my sister.”

“Maybe
I want
something
to eat.”

“I brought
communion but
that might not
be enough?
We’ll see
I guess.”

I dipped the
dry wafer in
the juice and
placed it in
her mouth.

She chewed
silently for one
moment, then
another.

“How about we pray?”
I asked.

She touched
my hand.
“Your hands
are cold”
she said.

“Yes. I’m sorry.”

“So cold. Let me
warm them.”

She took
my hands
and cradled
them in
hers.

That
was
our
prayer.

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.

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Parenting for a Better World

When my daughter was around a year old, I took her with me one evening to a peace movement meeting. Never one with much patience for quietly sitting still (can’t imagine where she got that from), she wiggled and wriggled and made all the quiet and not so quiet noises that little ones make. We got a couple of looks from people.  I ended up trying – and failing – to slip away silently, reflecting with some sorrow on the seeming incompatibility of parenting and social justice work. It wasn’t just this episode, but that night epitomized the complexity of trying to be dedicated to so many things.

A few days later, I encountered an older-than-me activist friend and I told her about my dilemma. “What am I supposed to do?” I mourned, “I feel like I can’t be everywhere I am supposed to be. There’s so much to do.”

I can still see us standing there on the sidewalk, me in my angst and her with her kind smile and thoughtful energy. “It’s okay,” she said, “take care of your daughter. Do what you need to do. There will always be work to be done.”

While it counts as a tragic fact that the need for social justice organizing may never end, what she said is true. It brought me necessary peace and new clarity about pacing myself for the long haul.

It’s like this – now that I’ve been a parent for 15 years, I can assert with confidence that good parenting is an inherently important, albeit ever-challenging, task. Dedicating our time and love and energy to raising the next generation matters. These are the people – even if it’s hard to see it while they’re in diapers – who will guide the steps of our world long after we are gone.

Our humanity begins at home. It’s the crucible from which we find our place in the world, whether we are 3 or 23 or 53 or 93. Creating a home that fosters love and kindness and justice and mercy is a gift to the world. It is a moral good to do that work and no one should feel guilty about it.

At the same time, It’s a continual invitation to see beyond the boundaries of one’s own family.  You remember the whole “it takes a village to raise a child” concept? It’s true. And we are all a part of that village for other people’s children (and everyone who is breathing on this earth is someone’s child).

Parenting is an intimate lesson in our interconnectedness. It is an immersion course. And while the intensity of daily routines, especially with young children, may consume every waking moment, it is possible to view that work as both intrinsically morally justified and as unique preparation for an ongoing lifetime of loving the world and the people in it.

You don’t have to do all of the work at once. The fact is you probably can’t. That you are concerned about this problem reflects the depth of your commitment to both your family and the cause of a better world. That helps to keep you from sinking into the pernicious view where the only thing that matters is you and yours.

But please let go of the guilt and frustration about what you can’t do in this moment. Just put it down. You’ve got enough to carry without it.

And by all means, when it seems the right thing to do, carry your kids to meetings and protests and lobbying days. Let us as a movement cultivate connections and community among social justice-oriented parents and between parents of young children and the other generations around them.

We as that movement have the obligation to create kid-friendly spaces and to nurture both the young children in our midst and the families that care for them. That is a part of how we offer concrete care for those around us.

What I am saying is not limited to biological and adoptive parents, for there are many ways that people care for others. A lot of parenting gets done by people who are not the actual mother and father of any given child – and that is a huge blessing. We also care for parents and grandparents and others who at any given time may need some extra help.

That too is necessary. It is vital to our very humanity as well as the needs of the moment. It should be seen as a part of the work for a better world, not as a distraction from it. The methods connect on every level to the ends we seek.

These days when we get home after school, my daughter sets herself up at the kitchen table and disappears into hours of homework. Since I’m now the mom of a disciplined and independent-minded high school student, I have a little more time to be involved in social justice work. I’m glad of it.

But some things don’t change. When my daughter, having a hard week in the way that can happen with GEOMETRY-HOMEWORK-IS-IMPOSSIBLE-I-DON’T-KNOW-HOW-TO-DO-IT (yeah, that’s a quote) wanted me to stay home last night instead of attend a community event that was on my calendar, I had no trouble making the choice. Balancing obligations can still be tricky. I continue to regularly examine my own priorities and their effects on the people close to me, on my broader community, and on my commitment to justice in the world.

But I long ago put down that parental guilt (well, at least that part of it) to claim the challenging and satisfying role of social justice parent. I invite others to do the same.

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 

Social Justice and the Healthy Self: Starting the Conversation

Social justice work is supposed to be selfless, right?

We’re out there trying to make the world a better place for everybody. The work demands all that we have to give – and then some.

For those of us driven by a passion for social justice – whether our work is religious or secular –  the needs of the world are so great that they tend to eclipse any focus on ourselves, on our own wellbeing and balance.

Organizing and activism and protest and movement building.
Speaking and arguing and writing and fundraising.
Issues and outrage.
Showing up and showing up again
and showing up again.

Caring.
Caring a lot.
Caring so much,
even when it’s frustrating,
even when it seems futile,
even when the world feels like a bleak, dark, mean place.

It’s the work we do.

And when we’re tempted to set it aside for a minute to tend to our own needs or our family’s needs, it’s mighty easy to feel guilty about that. For most people I know, that guilt is self-imposed (‘but I’m not doing ENOUGH’). Yet if we happen to escape the self-imposed guilt, there’s usually someone around to raise an eyebrow. We’re supposed to be selfless.

Except there’s a problem.

We can’t be selfless. We are always our own selves. I carry my physical body, emotions, spiritual life, mental processing and cognition, personal and professional relationships, personality quirks, and history and experiences with me everywhere I go.

All of this is a part of me. I can ignore it – until something happens and I can’t ignore it any longer. Or I can work with it with in community with as much honesty, grace, and wisdom as I can muster and develop.

I am not suggesting feeding our own egos just for the sake of their insatiable ego-appetite. I’m talking about equilibrium. About integrity – not integrity-honesty (well, that too), but integrity as in structural integrity. Something that’s not going to fall in on itself when the winds or waves pick up or the ground starts to tremble beneath us.

There’s always a danger of self-indulgence. It can happen. But it’s much less likely to happen when we find equilibrium and stay both nimble and grounded. Most of us operate in communities that help keep us accountable. That also means that those communities need to recognize the need for the care of their members.

We work best when our mandate to care extends to ourselves and to the others around us. Better work – more honest, wise, and skillfully executed – comes from a better place.

Our selves are our strengths – they are our wit and wisdom, our intelligence, intensity, and insights, our willing hands and reflective consciousness. It’s our laughter and our joy. It’s our role as friend, parent, partner, spouse, cousin, neighbor, congregant, or student.

If we don’t take care of ourselves, we can’t take care of anybody or anything else.

I’ve been a part of many conversations over the last few months and years that have dwelled on issues in the social justice community of physical health, mental health, burnout, despair (both personal and global), financial insecurity, family stress, nagging guilt, and spiritual melancholy. I hear how we’ve made an idol of busy-ness (a problem endemic in the larger culture as well). I hear how people are tired, aching physically and emotionally, overwhelmed with worry, and utterly joyless, how they mean to but don’t address their own spiritual malaise and critical health needs.

I bear witness to the transgender activists who have committed suicide over the last year and to Ohio Black Lives Matter organizer MarShawn McCarre who shot himself on the state capitol steps last week. We don’t take time to eat right, move our bodies, and kick back and enjoy good company. And if we do, we worry that we’re not doing what we’re supposed to do. I heard 3 different parents in one day lament that they feel like they’re neglecting social justice work because they are (wisely, rightly) tending to their young children.

We need to fix that. We need to change the narrative. The work will continue. It must continue. But we must also create a sustainable paradigm for social justice work. We must make a priority of our own health and wellbeing, our own deep joy, and our life-giving relationships with others.

There’s much more to say about this multi-faceted topic. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing in greater depth about different aspects of the problem. I’ll be posting other things as well, but these posts can be found  under the ‘social justice and the healthy self’ category.

I’d love to hear from social-justice oriented organizers and activists and clergy and academics about their thoughts and experiences on this topic. The About/Contact tab at the top of the page is one way to get in touch with me – and folks who know me can also reach out by other means.

Let’s work on this – for our own sake and for the sake of the causes we care so deeply about.

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.