On Listening While White

I believe that the first call upon those of us who are white is to listen – with humility, without condemning – to the expression of black rage in this moment.

None of us knows what it is like to be black in America.

Not a one of us.

There is much work to be done to address the terrible inequities that give rise to that rage.

We will do that work better if we begin by listening before we speak and before we act.

None of us does that perfectly, but all of us can keep doing it better.

We also can do a better job of listening to the fact that black people are made not only of righteous rage, but also of creativity, joy, love, connection, and meaning.

In other words, black folks are fully human, created in God’s image.

Understanding that is critical work in resisting the impulse toward dehumanization as well.

Here are three organizations doing vital work on the ground in Minneapolis.
Minnesota Freedom Fund
Black Visions Collective
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church

Supporting such efforts in a tangible way is also really important right now.

If you do not have access to a range of black voices to inform your listening, message me and I will share links to some of the public voices that I listen to and learn from.

There is much more work to be done, but the very first work we must do today is not cause more harm.

Amen

Sleeping Gods, Sleeping Demons

I pledge allegiance
to the economy

to the Economy
that hides
behind the flag

of any given
nation

like the
stars and
bars

Oh. Wait.

like the
stars and
stripes

like somehow we
care for people
and rocks and
birds
and trees and
corn and
bread
instead of

for the Dow
for the dollar

for what does,
by chance,
that flag stand for?

I pledge allegiance
to the shred
of privilege

I might find here in
the land of
the free
market.

I pledge allegiance
to the proper
wealth of the
high and mighty
who bought low
and sold high

brought low,
sold high

and who sold
out

the rest
who live
and breathe
and matter.

White Supremacy as a Demon

My kind of theology doesn’t talk much about demons.

I am much more comfortable with an intellectual analysis of problematic systems. I tend to carefully examine all of the constituent historical pieces that, put together, cause such prevalent harm in our society – and I can rationally explain how each of us is bound up in those systems, for some by choice and for many of us unwillingly, but inescapably.

But in reading this morning about the terrible killing of Ahmaud Arbery, who was targeted for #joggingwhileblack in Brunswick, GA . . .

and in thinking about how the federal government is ready to dismantle the COVID task force now that it’s clear that the virus’s primary class of victims are black and brown (or elderly or imprisoned or disabled or otherwise considered disposable in a profit-focused society) . . .

and seeing the video of a black woman slammed to the floor in a local Walmart for non-compliance with a mask ordinance (yes, by a black officer – but we are well aware that the system weaponizes people of color against one another) (and yes, people should absolutely be wearing masks, but non-compliance is widespread and the escalation captured in that video cannot be the answer) . . .

it sits on my heart that white supremacy is a demon.

It is our country’s dearest demon.

It is pervasive and powerful, but it does not have to be.

The problem is that we are much more inclined to exercise it than exorcise it.

As a nation – and as individual agents of white supremacy – we owe due repentance as an active material and spiritual practice.

We have to commit – and indefatigably re-commit – to exorcising white supremacy from our own souls, from our relationships with one another, and from our systems of governance, commerce, and culture.

To do otherwise is to assent to the flourishing of evil – and while I know there are people who gleefully traffic in venality – no one I know – none of you out there reading this – wants to be a perpetrator of evil. I know I don’t.

White supremacy is a demon. It’s a demon when it’s polite and subtle. It’s a demon when it’s seductively comforting. It’s a demon when it’s happily bloody from terrible enacted violence.

White supremacy is a demon.

It’s our demon.

Amen

Rep. Ilhan Omar and the Same Old Questions

I’ve been pondering what to say about the recent/ongoing controversies around the president and Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The problem is that there’s really nothing new to say. These are the same old questions of power and ethics.

However, the lessons remain important – and never more so than during Holy Week, so:

The critically important voices of women of color are massively underrepresented in public discourse in our culture. May we listen and learn from them, recognizing and respecting that those voices are particular rather than monolithic.

White imperial capitalist patriarchy perpetually reacts with violence to challenges to its ill-gotten hegemonic power. The intensity of reaction generally mirrors the intensity of the perceived threat. This power is unambiguously harmful to people and the planet.

Cultural pluralism is one of the greatest gifts of life in the contemporary United States. In that context, religious differences ought to be a site of blessing and respect. May we who are not Muslim hold Muslims in our hearts as our friends and neighbors.

Our lives are suffused with holiness — of time, place, and being. We must actively, daily choose to grasp that reality, to live that way rather than drowning in the transactionalism of contemporary society, that system of dominance that reduces all worth to that of economic production and consumption.

Let those of us who claim an ethical principle of living, rooted in religious faith or not, do our best to embody compassion, justice, respect, and love in ways that reject exploitation, dehumanization, and commodification of all living beings and the whole of Creation.

That is the work of living in this age.

We do this work and walk this path together.

Amen

On Identity and Wholeness and the Gifts We Bring to the World

I haven’t been posting much on here lately, but I’m aiming to do a better job of at least including here some of the longer format things I write for other spaces (from sermons to Facebook posts).  On that note  . . .

During last week’s concert at Beloved, Gaelynn Lea took some time to talk about disability, artistry, and identity.

She spoke of not wanting the label of ‘disabled musician’ in that the qualifier somehow sets her apart (generally meant in a diminished way) from being a ‘musician.’ And yet at the same time, she explained how her disability is also a defining gift of her humanity and of how she engages with her music and with the world.

Her points echo with a post I shared yesterday about women pastors (worth a read if you missed it – great piece). Women pastors are simply pastors. Yet for nearly all whom I know, their gender is a part of what makes them so very good at walking in their calling.

I definitely see it my own experience. As an out lesbian, to the extent that I am skilled at being a human being and a pastor, it is because of who I am – and my embrace of who I am – not in spite of it. Ideally, there is a dual, entwined respect for me for my own particular (queer) expression of humanity and yet also for the universality of me as (among other things) simply a pastor.

It’s simultaneously an appeal to universality and to particularity. Neither alone captures the whole of the experience – and it’s a reductionist (even violent) move to try to make it do so.

The problem is with the norm – we talk about a man and a black man – or a pastor and a woman pastor – or an musician and a disabled musician – or a writer and a trans writer – or . . .

With such a move, we posit a norm around gender, race, (dis)ability status, sexual orientation, gender identity and so on. Reinforcing norms of whiteness, patriarchy, heteronormativity, biological essentialism, ableism, and so on is the daily practice of the dominant discourse, in which we all often participate.

At the same time, tropes of color-blindness, erasure of LGBTQ+ identity, glossing over disability status, and other refusals to acknowledge difference reinscribe that same norm. So – ‘ah you black people are really just like us white people’. Or ‘you queer people are really just like us cis-het people’.

Umm . . . no. It’s not true and it’s not a kindness to assert it – because it disregards the gifts born of diverse experience (and of course it does – because the dominant discourse does not see those gifts as gifts, but as threats).

Undoing this is hard. The tendency to frame a universal goes back as far in Western thought at least to Plato. And we are constantly soaked in our culture’s intentional racism, ableism, homophobia and transphobia, sexism, and so on – because that’s how the culture makes money and preserves power. Assimilationism is the same move in a different guise.

Let us do better.

Let us recognize the universal humanity of each person, while at the same time understanding the markers of identity that form their own particular being.

Let us interrogate the norms rather than accepting them as a given (let alone a natural or God-inspired given – because they are neither).

It will make us better people and grant us a better world. And it is work that we can do daily, both in decolonizing our own thinking and in creating a more genuinely inclusive practice in the world.

Amen

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 

The Problem of Daniel Holtzclaw’s Tears

Yesterday former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw was found guilty of 18 counts of rape and other forms of sexual violence. His victims were poor black women, age 17-50, in the community he was charged with protecting.

He preyed on these marginalized women because he thought no one would take their allegations of wrongdoing seriously. Apparently since there were 13 known victims, it took quite a while before anyone did.

I noticed Holtzclaw cried yesterday at the reading of the jury’s verdict. I wonder if I have ever had less sympathy for someone’s tears.

Nope.

However, I am praying for him today, that his heart and his soul might be healed of whatever horror possesses him. And I am most certainly praying for the women he terrorized and harmed, particularly after Holtzclaw’s attorneys predictably centered their defense strategy on defaming the victims.

In his violence, Holtzclaw brutally denied the value, the dignity, and the humanity of his victims – in a world that already systemically conveyed that message to them because of who they are.

I am working hard against my own temptation to view him as a monster. For the minute I do so, I strip away not only a sense of his humanity, but I also shred my own conviction that I must recognize the full humanity of all people. All people. Even the ones who commit monstrous acts. Even the ones who are so damaged that we (and they themselves) cannot see how they too are made in God’s image.

I am glad that some form of justice was done, whether or not it was complete (apparently the jury did not believe some of the complainants). I am glad that Holtzclaw will be sent to prison for his deeds – and hopefully with the full force of the law will serve a long sentence. I still have no sympathy for his tears. I have a whole heart of sympathy for his victims.

And I keep reminding myself: our casual cultural impulse to dehumanize is a part of the root problem.

I must thus continue in my effort not to dehumanize him in my own heart and mind.

An important task, but not an easy one.

Sample Interfaith Statements of Affirmation and Welcome

In preparation for a recent conference, I assembled some sample statements of affirmation and welcome from various faith groups around the country. While the conference focused on faith and LGBTQ+ issues and inclusion, most of these statements are much broader – and wisely so.

The challenge to us as people of faith and ethics is to create ways to ensure that all people – across all categories of difference – are not only welcomed in each of our communities, but included in its full life and leadership. An explicit statement to that effect, backed up by in-kind actions and behavior, makes a difference.

These statements offer some examples. I am always interested in collecting more, so feel to send others my way.

John Street Church (UMC), New York City –  Learning from 250 years of ministry, and following Jesus Christ today, John Street United Methodist Church invites into its fellowship all persons seeking to live in the Christian environment of the Church, and to receive its nurture and assistance throughout the course of their lives. This invitation is extended without regard to one’s economic status, education, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, political beliefs, ethnic origin, or the present state of their spiritual journey. We publicly affirm that we welcome all persons to participate fully in the worship, fellowship, educational, and service life of our church.

Open Table UCC, Mobile, AL   From its beginning, Open Table has been a radically welcoming faith community. Following the radical message of Jesus, we affirm the worth and dignity of every human being, and we extend extravagant welcome to all persons. We affirm our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender brothers and sisters, and acknowledge the suffering they have endured in the context of the larger society. Not only do we welcome them into our congregation, but into the full life, leadership, and ministry of our congregation. As we grow in our understanding of God’s good gifts of human sexuality, gender, and relationships, we stand firm in the Biblical message that all people are created in God’s image and thus are loved and blessed equally by God.

Temple Beth Zion, Brookline, MA  –  We think of our community as a diverse shtetl, a modern incarnation of those vibrant Old World villages, towns and centers of learning which nurtured and evolved our Jewish heritage. Today, our shtetl is populated by an extraordinary mix of passionate people, including singles and those on single-life paths, alongside newly-married and longtime couples; college students; families with young children; single parents; elders; spiritual seekers; GLBT Jews; Jews by choice; and interfaith and multi-cultural families.  Our members come from a wide variety of spiritual- and life-paths. Some of us were raised in observant families. For others, TBZ is the first shul we have ever joined. Our weekly services are populated by former twice-a-year-Jews — men and women who, after b’nai mitzvah, attended services only on the High Holy Days. . . until they discovered Temple Beth Zion. Others among us had regularly attended synagogues, dutifully (if passively) following along in the prayer books, reading responsively and standing when asked, only to discover that something — anything; everything! — was missing. But at TBZ, as one of our members has noted, “I have found connection, authenticity, home. . . .”

The Abbey (Episcopal), Birmingham, AL – Who can come? And what should I wear? Anyone. Seriously, anyone and everyone. Kids, teenagers, young adults, adults. Everyone is welcome at The Abbey, regardless of race, ethnicity, faith tradition, class, age, political party, education, gender, marital status, physical or mental ability, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression. Our service is a relaxed environment. Wear what makes you feel comfortable and invite anyone you think would be interested.

Zen Center of New York City –  In the Mountains & Rivers Order, we endeavor to foster a welcoming atmosphere free of prejudice that is open to all people sincerely interested in exploring and practicing the Buddhadharma. We are committed to co-creating a practice environment in which all individuals are recognized as possessing a fundamental dignity, and are therefore treated with respect without regard to their ethnicity, skin color, language, age, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, physical ability, religion, political views, or economic circumstances.

Gethsemane Lutheran Church, Seattle, WA –  From the pastor: I’m glad you’re here and hope to meet you in person. Since 1885, Gethsemane has welcomed people for worship, community time, service, and learning. All these years later, we remain a downtown church committed to connecting to our neighborhood. We are a progressive, GLBTQ-affirming congregation that welcomes all: people who have been to church (any church) their whole lives, as well as those who never have been or have been away for a while; people filled with doubts or questions and those whose faith and hope run deep; people longing to find a community of belonging and anyone who may simply be “passing by”… This is a place open to you wherever you are in your spiritual journey.

Baptist Church of the Covenant, Birmingham, AL –  Baptist Church of the Covenant was established in 1970 to be a racially inclusive congregation. Since that time, it has ordained women to the ministry and affirmed openness to sexual orientation and gender identity. As Christ accepts all who believe, we do likewise. All are welcomed.

Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society, Los Angeles, CA –  Against the Stream Buddhist Meditation Society was founded by Noah Levine, author of Dharma PunxAgainst the Stream, The Heart of the Revolution, and Refuge Recovery to make the teachings of the Buddha available to all who are interested. We wish to create and sustain communities of healthy, accountable, wise and compassionate people from every walk of life. We welcome people from all racial, economic, sexual, social, political and religious backgrounds and believe that the path of awakening is attainable by all and should be available to all. We strive to create a safe environment for all who come to practice.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA – Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church is made up of children and elders, families and singles, straight and gay people, lifelong Christians, interfaith couples, converts and seekers. We join in worship and service, creating a community that shares the unconditional welcome offered at Jesus’ Table.

St Junia United Methodist Church, Birmingham, AL – Becoming a diverse community:  Our goal is to become as diverse as the Kingdom itself. Since God shows no partiality (Acts 10:34, Galatians 2:6), and since all people are made in the image of God, our desire is to become a community in which black, white, and Latino, gay and straight, old and young, rich and poor, male and female are welcome to the table and invited to use their diverse gifts for worship and ministry. We want to be a witness to Birmingham and to the world that the Good News is for all people.

A Short Sunday Meditation

We have conditioned ourselves to accept violence done to others. And in some ways we do so in order that we may live – so that the deaths of Turkish peace activists, the shooting of Tamir Rice, the campus killings in one state after another, the countless acts of brutality near and far do not jolt us from the necessary stuff of our daily lives.

But sometimes we need to let it touch us. We need to let it touch us not so that we get mired in despair but so that we let it change us. Not so that we are changed toward bitterness and fear, but so that we are changed toward love and compassion and a drive for justice. So that our hearts are more open and more determined to engage one with another in ways that interrupt bloodshed as the price of doing the business of life.