faith

On choices and Orlando

When I was in eighth grade, I saw a bumper sticker on a car (in Akron, Ohio) that said, “Honk if you support civil rights, religious liberty, gay rights, disability rights, women’s equality…” I turned to my mother and said, “I would honk for the rest of them, but gay rights?” My mother is really smart and so said nothing, knowing I would have to do the math in my head about who deserved rights and who didn’t. Because she had raised me to know that everyone deserves rights and deserves self-determination.

Some folks still talk about homosexuality being a choice. You know what I got to choose every day of my cis-gender heterosexual life? I got to choose whether to acknowledge the basic human dignity of the LGBTQ community as a whole. I got to choose whether to stand with LGBTQ individuals or whether to be silent and therefore participate in violence done to LGBTQ people and the LGBTQ community. Because when I throw the LGBTQ community under the bus (through my words OR through my silence), I’m also doing harm to every individual within the community.

That’s what choice looks like.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe this tragedy is about access to horrifically dangerous weapons. I believe it is about “toxic masculinity.” While I think it has very little to do with Islam or even ISIS, I believe it is about the values cultivated in relationship to craving a role in militarized organizations. Since the instance of gun violence closest to me is connected to two people’s struggle over their sexual identities in relationship to one another, I have no problem believing this might be about the murderer’s internalized hatred unleashing itself on others0cb090198565d4b5fa9c50f5fcfaf2be. And it is about lack of exposure to consistent teaching that God loves all of God’s children and that God never wants to see unmitigated, unrestrained violence against God’s children. For millenia we have failed to teach consistently and strongly that above all things God abhors violence.

But the massacre at Pulse is also about over 100 anti-gay bills in 22 states this year, creating a growing culture of acceptance of contempt for LGBTQ life. And it’s about pastors and politicians preaching hate that creates a culture of bullying and suicide. (More here and here .) And it’s about the ways race and gender identity have been pitted against each other as if there’s only enough tolerance for one, and we might have to choose us versus them…and if you’re both a racial/religious minority and LGBTQ, then there is no room for you. Millions of people helped set the stage for this tragedy. And that’s where my choices matter.

I’m not Orlando. And in all the ways I haven’t fought to reject efforts to legislate against the basic human dignity of LGBTQ people in the past year and for decades, in all the ways I’ve not fought hard enough for LGBTQ incusion in the church, in all the ways I’ve not created space for people to know that they are not bad people for struggling with their sexual or gender identity, I’m the people who let Orlando happen.

A litany on resurrection and Demouria Hogg

At the Wild Goose Festival in Charlotte, NC two weeks ago, I presented a workshop called “Who Killed Demouria Hogg: On race, faith and not seeking the ‘perfect victim.'” I talked about the respectability politics of the church that stops the church from publicly mourning losses that are complicated.

I only know Demouria Hogg through what family shared during the press conference and through news coverage. Colleagues involved in the protests of his death noted that in articles about his death, the fact that he was a good father to his three children came as an afterthought, almost as if it were surprising, since they led with his having violated parole and being found in possession of a firearm, an additional violation of his parole. What strikes me is how during the press conference when Demouria jr’s mother was speaking about him being a good father, Demouria, Jr jumped in and said, “He loved to play basketball.”

photo borrowed from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

photo borrowed from the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization

During the discussion part of the workshop, a man said, “I go to a progressive UCC church. We know how to talk about this. Our consciousness is raised. What do we DO as a church?” And a litany poured out of me.

I shared some of that litany at the Disciples of Christ General Assembly on Sunday afternoon during a workshop on my book and the issue of intersectionality, and someone said, “I want to use that litany in church. Can you share it with us?” And I said that it poured out of me due to the spirit, not from a script. He kept looking at me until I said, “but clearly I’ll be writing a blog post recreating it.” So here it is. Please add other suggestions to this litany. I have not addressed them all, but all of them are things almost any church can do.

Demouria Hogg, African American father of 3, age 30, was killed by Oakland police on Saturday morning, June 6, because he could not be woken up while asleep in his car. The church sometimes feels overwhelmed by how to end police brutality. But the church has a role, and the church has a responsibility, and the church has the opportunity to participate in resurrection.

When the church helps its school board provide support for young Black and Brown children instead of expelling them at rates much higher than White children for the same behaviors, when the church disrupts the school-to-prison pipeline,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church works with its police department to address implicit bias on the police force,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church supports mental health services and homeless services instead of outsourcing those issues to the police,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church works with new White community members to build relationships with longtime community members of color rather than calling the police out of fear of their neighbors,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church creates job opportunities and housing for returned citizens / previously incarcerated people whose opportunities are almost nonexistent,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church brings restorative and transformative justice practices into the community so there are alternatives to the culture of retribution that is bound up invisibly but inextricably in racism,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg. 

When the church unapologetically claims that all lives will matter WHEN Black lives matter,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg.

When the church, in all of these ways, plays a role in honoring the dignity of Black lives before they are faced with Black deaths,

the church resurrects Demouria Hogg, and in so doing, resurrects the body of Christ.

Amen.

Nonviolence, privilege and grief. Thoughts on South Carolina and a child I love.

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

Art by Demar Douglas, found on pinterest

This morning I sat down to write a letter to a beloved recent teen in my life, a newly minted thirteen-year-old. We go to protests a lot, and museums where we learn about farm workers and the Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement.

This beloved recent teen has been to hell and back, and the amount of resilience that is demanded of her is, to my mind, stupid. By which I really mean unjust. By which I mean I wish I could protect her and it makes me furious that I can’t. And by furious, I mean helpless.

I debated whether to mention the shooting in South Carolina. I debated it because she may not be watching the news these days and I don’t know that it is helpful for her to know about more suffering in the world. Mostly because I don’t want her to have more to be sad about or to be scared of or to hate the world for.

I’ve been reminded recently that it is hard to talk about any issue in a way that speaks to everyone’s lived experience, and when talking about anything related to race, it is that much harder, because we do have the same amount of skin in the game, but the way the game goes does not affect us the same way. (That is, even White people who HATE racism benefit from it, and Black people don’t, and the rest of us have a very complex terrain to navigate.) A great illustration of how privilege and oppression shape our responses to racial issues is that popular Facebook meme about police brutality and Black Lives Matter that reads “Black people are saying ‘STOP KILLING US!’ and White people’s response is ‘But…'”
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More recently, though, (more…)

A call to action for the church(es) after #AMEshooting

Generated by  IJG JPEG Library

Generated by IJG JPEG Library

I sat with a lump in my throat as the people around me stood and waved their hands, singing “How Great Is Our God,” because while I believed it to be true, I was not ready to sing it and was both inspired and puzzled by the dozens around me who could not just sing it but feel it. It wasn’t the only internally conflicted moment I had during the local vigil honoring the nine victims killed in an act of terrorism against Black people. And a few of them got me thinking and discussing enough to step out on a limb and speak to White, Black, and immigrant churches about what might be next for us in the wake of this tragedy.

If you read my writing regularly, you’ll know that I try not to instruct communities more on the margins than I, and I try to be compassionate in my suggestions to the White community. You’ll also know my focus is on bringing communities together rather than separating them. But our roles in the coming days of this work to dismantle racism as a whole and specifically the culture and codification of anti-Blackness will mean different things for different communities. So I ask for both grace and accountability as you respond to these reflections and the closest I might ever get to a manifesto:

To White Churches:

When the Black church says, “It could have been any of us,” that doesn’t include you. And it’s important for you to talk about that. At the vigil last night, the AME pastor hosting the vigil said, “so many of us host those prayer groups and bible studies; it could have been any of us.” So often, White people are ashamed to acknowledge explicitly what White privilege looks like. Here’s an easy one: Talk about the fact that you do not have to live in fear of racially motivated hate crimes by random strangers participating in anti-White organizations or fear that you or your children could be assaulted by those who have sworn to serve and protect you, all for the crime of going swimming, whether you live in Texas or Ohio or anywhere between or beyond. White supremacy protects you. You need to break the silence that keeps white supremacy in place. (And don’t even get me started on the argument that this was an attack on Christianity. Manipulative and dangerous irrationale like that is exactly why the Southern Poverty Law Center recently designated Fox News a hate group.)

Remember that your brothers and sisters died in that church this past Wednesday, and ask your congregation how they will honor the deaths of the six sisters and three brothers going forward. These were your brothers and sisters who were part of a church doing work that your church needs to partner in. They were doing God’s work in your behalf: the work of liberating the captive and freeing the prisoner, not just metaphorically but literally. What is your church’s role in partnering in that work so that they do not have to be alone in good doing? In Christ they are as close to you as blood kin; that is what our faith teaches. How will you respond to the race-based killing of your blood kin, and how will you respond to the culture that shaped the murderer to hate and called his hate part of his culture and knew he plotted violence but did not seek to change his heart? Because as Martin Luther King, Jr said of Jimmie Lee Jackson’s murder 50 years ago, the culture of White supremacy killed our nine siblings just as much as the bullets did.

Do not fall prey to the manipulative rhetoric that the church should not be political at a moment like this. The White church is political when it ignores racially motivated hate crimes, when it ignores disparate sentencing for drug offenses, when it ignores mass incarceration, when it turns its head from police brutality in America. The church participates in the politics of White supremacy. It undergirds the politics of anti-Blackness. The political sin of omission is as destructive to lives and souls as the political sin of commission.

To Black Churches:

Editorial addition: A beloved Black clergy friend asked me to make explicit for non-Black people this caveat in case we are not clear that this was my intent: Black people in America walk around everywhere with a target on their back. This was true during slavery, during Jim Crow, and it is true today. Therefore, these are points for reflection with an awareness that the mere act of survival and coming together once or twice a week to love and support each other may be exactly and only what a Black church needs to do to contribute to the movement. With that caveat…

When you say, “It could have been any of us,” pay attention to how that is both true and untrue. Mother Emmanuel AME Church holds a special place of honor in the Black church because of its revolutionary heritage, its commitment to honoring the dignity of Black lives as part of how it lived the gospel. From among many Black churches, on the anniversary of Denmark Vessey’s revolt, a young White supremacist targeted that particular church for attack. None of us should have to live in fear of such an assualt, and there is unquestionably an assault on Black lives in America. But the people at the greatest risk are the people putting their lives on the line for the movement. Last night at the vigil, I did not see the same Black leaders (for the most part) that I have seen in the streets risking arrest and battery and abuse as they fight against police brutality and the stripping away of their civil rights (in Oakland, there is a curfew on gatherings after sundown, but while it was enforced fiercely against nonviolent Black protests, it was not enforced during the impromptu celebration of the Warriors NBA championship win). When the people in the streets and in the strategy meetings are not the same people in the pews, God may have found some new folks to work through, and that is worth paying attention to.

When people say “The Black Church is the only thing that can save America,” no matter how validating it feels, wrestle with how true it is. A Black clergy colleague shared with me as we talked about respectability politics in the church that in Bible study the other day, some of his members started getting high and mighty about gays and lesbians going to hell, and he just sat back, thinking of our mutual shero Alicia Garza and her faithful, powerful, unapologetically queer Black leadership, and he said, “As long as y’all are comfortable being the Pharisees in the scripture, because Jesus was hanging out with exactly the kind of folk you’re always complaining about.” (With profound apologies to any Jewish readers — the church has turned the pharisaical movement into something different than its actual historic role.) Respectability politics has a huge cost to the prophetic legacy of the Black church. And it has a huge cost to the role the Black church will play in saving America. The irony is that the people fighting for change look like the people Jesus hung out with, but they don’t always look like the people the church wants leading at or on behalf of the church.

Honor the legacy of Emmanuel AME in your actions, not just in your words and prayers. That historic church played a role in ending slavery. Rev. Pinckney played a role in standing up against modern day segregation and slavery by serving in political office. That church rose from the ashes when White supremacy burned it to the ground, but it did something that truly threatened White supremacy in order to go through that cycle in the first place. LGBTQ and allied Christians joke, “Live your life so that Westboro Baptist Church will picket your funeral.” In extreme language, at a time when Black lives are threatened daily, would you rather be remembered as martyrs for God’s justice or as victim’s of this nation’s injustice? At the very least, though, how can your church, honoring the legacy of Emmanuel AME, be a threat to White Supremacy?

To Immigrant Churches:

DO NOT OPT OUT. This conversation on its face is so not about us. No one is talking about our role in the shootings or in the conversation about gun control or race. And that is so often the case: we avoid the controversial issues in public, because church is a safe place for us in a world that can be threatening. But church was a safe place for the nine people who were killed on Wednesday, until it wasn’t. Even if we are not being invited into the conversation, even if we would rather not navigate our way through the complicated issues of race where our own role is not always clear, we have an obligation. We have an obligation to understand and share with the rest of our church how Black people in America are treated. It may actually help our churches understand why we get treated the way we do. We have an obligation to honor our Black brothers and sisters in worship on Sunday and to call them brothers and sisters, even though we have also been shaped by the anti-Black culture of America even as we are marginalized also. In fact, honoring them is an important step in shifting our churches’ silence on violence towards Black people, so that we can move towards Christ’s vision of how all of us are equally wonderfully made in the image of God. And it might help us remember that we are wonderfully made in the image of God, also, even though America undermines that teaching. We have an obligation to tell the story of Emmanuel AME, so that we might find strength from their history of courage and faithful resistance to evil and injustice; perhaps we can learn from them how to stand up ourselves against injustice in our adopted land. And we have an obligation to reach out to the Black churches we are connected to, to let them know that we are praying for them and grieving with them, and that as Christians, we are also angry at the sin of racism that took our siblings’ lives. You have no idea how infrequently Black churches hear that message from Asian and Latino churches.

To multicultural churches:

Do not buy into the myth that worshipping together is your contribution to the movement for racial justice. Many multicultural churches are still shaped by dominant culture systems and structures, and multicultural worship often comes at a cost to the people of color who worship there — the cost of getting to be in a space where they can just be themselves without translating themselves into another culture (code switching), or the cost of worshipping in their own language or colloquialisms or their own family foods after worship. They do so willingly. But a multicultural church that is not both brokenhearted and determined to stand up against the culture of racism in America after this shooting, it’s a multicultural church that is not really in touch with God’s vision of the Beloved Community; it is only interested in creating something that makes people feel good…well, makes some people feel good at the expense of others.

To all churches:

Find ways to become “co-conspirators” (as the Dean of American Baptist Seminary of the West said to us last night at the vigil) in ending White supremacy and birminghamthe assault on and commodification of Black lives and Black bodies.

If St. Teresa of Avila is right and Christ has no hands on earth but ours, Christ needs our hands right now, all of our hands, to tear down the White supremacy that really has made us many churches instead of functionally one church. And Christ needs our hands to build up a Beloved Community where all of our gifts are honored, all of our needs are met, none of our bodies are exploited, violated or commodified, and none of us need live in terror or fear because of how God made us.

 

“An Obnoxious Peace”

Image from Urban Cusp, taken in Baltimore on April 23, 2015

Image from Urban Cusp, taken in Baltimore on April 23, 2015

Preached April 26, 2015 at Rockefeller Chapel, Chicago IL, dedicated to the people of Baltimore.

In the days following the Michael Brown verdict, that cold Thanksgiving week, there emerged a debate among my friends regarding the uprisings happening in my hometown and around the country. I called it the debate of the Kings. That is, my friends would quote these two Kings in defense of their positions.

On the one hand was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who said in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, I am still convinced that nonviolence is both the most practically sound and morally excellent way to grapple with the age-old problem of racial injustice.”

On the other hand was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, who said in 1966: “I contend that the cry of ‘black power’ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for Black people. I think that we’ve got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.

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When #BlackLivesMatter, when #BlackandBrownLivesMatter, and when #AllLivesMatter

We really missed Pastor P___ at the interfaith breakfast two weeks ago. He has a powerful spirit and he’s involved in EVERYTHING in our community. And I was looking forward to hearing him talk about the Black and Latino clergy group that meets to talk about their shared commitment to one another’s communities, both under assault.

But Pastor P____ had to be with family. The night before, his mother-in-law had died at the border at the hands of a Coyote, a smuggler of immigrants.

We grieved, but I don’t know how many Americans grieved with us about another victim of the US-Mexico border. And I wonder how much Brown lives matter in America, even though Brown labor fuels the American economy.

yeshua

Yeshua by John Bonifacio Moreno

In a faith community celebrating resurrection, I am not sure my community really wants to see a Brown Jesus rise.

 

Walter Scott shouldn’t have had to be famous. He shouldn’t have been chased and killed and framed. Unlike Pastor P____’s mother-in-law, we will all know his name soon if we don’t already.

In his Easter sermon, Rev. Osagyefo Sekou said that the blood of Michael Brown might ultimately be our salvation: we might find redemption in creating a world where no more Michael Browns will be slain. But today, unable to watch the footage of the hunting and killing of the father of four, I wonder whether that feels as unlikely to Rev. Sekou as it does to me.

In a faith community celebrating resurrection, I am not sure my community really wants to see a Black Jesus rise.blackjesus66

 

On Good Friday, I joined a worship/public witness in front of the courthouse and jail. We prayed ten stations of the cross, recognizing their intersections with the cruel treatment inflicted on Black people and Black communities, joining with the whole #ReclaimHolyWeek community. We chanted, “In Jim Crow America, the body of Christ is Black.” The leadership and coordination was mostly although not all Black. One of my sheroes from the Black Friday 14 personed the megaphone so we could hear all the speakers. (I participated in communion, offering the blessing over the cup.) And one of my favorite pastors led the opening invocation. She is proudly Black (and proudly queer) and she is fiercely committed to advocating for the dignity of her people.

And she said, “Black Lives Matter.” And she followed it with “All Lives Matter.”

Which is a controversial thing to say within the movement, because “All Lives Matter” is usually used to reject the campaign that says “Black Lives Matter.” And because until we live in an America that acknowledges that all lives will matter WHEN Black lives matter, we still have a long way to go.

But my radical and prophetic sister in Christ said it.

Because it was Good Friday.

And because salvation is for all of us.

And those of us gathered already knew that in America Black Lives don’t matter as much as White lives. And most of us also know that the American economy relies on cheap immigrant labor and forced prison labor so that Black and Brown output matter even while Black and Brown lives do not.

And we knew that we gather to worship a savior who rejected that kind of paradigm, and that is part of what landed him on the cross.

And we knew that all of ours souls are at stake because systemic racism misshapes all of us.

 

I wished in that moment that all of my brothers and sisters who are hurt and offended by the Black Lives Matter campaign could have seen what I saw and felt what I felt in that moment: that part of the Black Lives Matter movement is done for the salvation of everyone, saving us from the fear of Black people we are trained into in order to keep us divided, saving us from broken relationships where we cannot fully know one another and therefore can at best imperfectly love one another, saving us from a militarized police state where the people who join the police force to serve and protect us are trained to view many of us with suspicion and fear, saving us from not being who God made us to be.

 

I used to love that oft preached Good Friday sermon, “It’s Friday, but Sunday’s a’comin’.”

It doesn’t feel like a Sunday world right now. It does not feel like a world ready to embrace a risen insurrectionist any more than it can embrace a Mexican woman longing for family and hope long before she is strangled at the border, any more than it can embrace a Black Coast Guard veteran and father of four long before he is shot for no reason.

The only consolation I find as a person of faith today is that while in a faith community celebrating resurrection, I am not sure my community really wants to see a Black or Brown Jesus rise, He rises nonetheless. And despite my heartbreak yet again, I see Him rising in us.

May we be an Easter people, a people of the resurrection for all people, because Black and Brown lives are at stake, and because that means that everyone’s life is at stake.

How Marcus Borg gave me hope

Renowned liberal theologian and Historical Jesus scholar Marcus Borg passed away yesterday at the age f 72. In honor of his life, here is my brief reflection on how his wisdom helped me in my ministry.

I only got to hear renowned theologian Marcus Borg speak once. It was interesting. I was grateful for the chance to reflect on my relationship to the divine through new eyes. But I came across his work after liberation theology had already broken my world apart and connected me to God in ways that would leave me changed forever. I deeply appreciated how he reconnected many of my friends to a relationship with God and the possibility of a relationship with the church, but he wasn’t my guy the way James Cone or Gustavo Gutierrez or Emilie Townes or Kwok Pui Lan were.

Until I heard a story, third hand, about the way he answered a random question at a lecture. And that story allowed me to remain hopefully engaged in the work of congregational transformation for almost a decade. More than any of the countless books I read or courses and workshops I attended, this one story continues to give me hope.

I tell this story almost everywhere I speak on congregational transformation (if I think the audience won’t be hurt by it), because at moments I feel defeated by the church’s struggle to change, I am reminded that of the privilege I have of living in this moment where the church is turning into something phenomenal and powerful, whether I want to be a part of that or not.

I didn’t even hear him say it, and it wasn’t the kind of thing he was famous for saying.

My friend Russ told me that a friend of his went to a Marcus Borg lecture, and someone asked the following question:

“Dr. Borg, what is the future of the church?”

Almost without hesitating, he responded, “Right now, the church is made up of two groups of Christians. There are conventional Christians who go to church because that’s what you do, who were shaped by an era where church was a typical part of the culture. And then there are the intentional Christians, the ones who don’t experience church as the norm but are craving spiritual community and are willing to invest deeply in the relationships and the rituals and the interactions with what is transcendent; they are also driven by the desire to be in deeper relationship with the community around them. In fifty years, all of the conventional Christians will be dead. The church will be much smaller, but it will be much more alive.”

Thank you, Dr. Borg, for giving me the hope necessary to do the work of congregational transformation even when it felt like Jesus himself would have struggled to effect change.