Over the past few weeks, we continue to hear of the travail of 200 or so girls kidnapped by a “terrorist group”, Boko Haram, operating in Nigeria. The leader of the group has been very public in his intentions – the girls are going to be sold in to slavery. Period. Around the United States have come calls for the Obama Administration to “do something”, so some American Special Forces troops have been dispatched to help the Nigerian military search for the group and the girls. I’m guessing they won’ have a whole lot of success.
For all the horribleness of the story, however, I fail to see why we’re involved at all. Except, alas, I understand all to well why we’re involved. In recent years, I’ve noticed a decided uptick in what I call “do-somethingism”, the desire on the part of the American people to do something about some perceived injustice or cruelty. Far too often, what we the general public think we know about the situation has little to nothing to do with what is actually going on. Our desire to “do something” – rescue girls from modern slave traders, for example – clouds our ability to understand all the dynamics involved and help local officials deal with the problem constructively.
A couple years ago, in the midst of the Arab Spring, there was an uprising in Libya. The Libyan military responded accordingly, reacting to Civil War with violence against those trying to overthrow it. Americans from all over demanded we “do something”. The chorus came to include Sen. John McCain, who always loves an excuse to send other people to bomb far away places about which he knows nothing. Bending to the pressure, Pres. Obama ordered American military aircraft to reduce the ability of the Libyan military to attack targets in civilian areas. Why he did so, in the midst of two other wars, our equipment stretched to the breaking point, our resources and lines of supply and logistics already a tangled mess, and our military too much in need of a respite, is beyond me. Fortunately for us, our participation in this little campaign was not a failure – which overall should be viewed as a shining success – although it was a marvelous example of what Noam Chomsky, in the title of one of his many books, called The New Military Humanism.
Around the same time as the intervention in the Libyan Civil War came the flaming spectacle of Kony 2012. You all remember that, right? Representatives from a group based in California even came to my daughters’s school here in Illinois, instructing the young girls and boys on the horrible things Joseph Kony, leader of the Ugandan resistance force known as the Lord Resistance Army (LRA), was doing, including “recruiting” child soldiers. Except, Kony 2o12 was a ridiculous mess, full of inaccuracies and a kind of American (read white American) narcissism that was so horrible it was kind of funny. The whole thing came crashing down when the maker of the film #Kony2012 was arrested for public nudity, caught running naked through the streets of his city in California and masturbating in a public park. A fitting, even allegorical, end indeed.
At the time I wrote the following:
Standing off from a distance, it is easy enough, I suppose, to become overwhelmed by the situation in Uganda. Kony is an easy enough target for hatred and disgust. Hatred and disgust at an easy target is not a substitute for careful thought, for educating oneself on the facts of the matter, and for constructing possible responses out of a sense both of how much as well as how little one knows about a particular situation. The American response, I maintain, is rooted as much in guilt over our inaction – and, according to areport from the Organization for African Unity released in 2000, its complicity – during the Rwandan genocide of the 1990’s as our concern for the specifics of the struggle between the LRA and the Ugandan military. That the Uganda of today has far different concerns and problems stemming from the heavy hand of the dictator we are currently supporting would, if we were a bit more aware, mock our good intentions.
It is all well and good, I think, to desire to do something to alleviate suffering. It is all well and good to believe and work on the principle that individuals can make a difference in the world. Done without regard to the realities on the ground, rooted in an unreflective, patronizing racism that is all the worse for going unrecognized, the #Kony2012 video is a travesty, a mockery of the very ideals from which it purports to come.
I used the following quote from Guy Debord as an epigram for my post: “To the extent that necessity is socially dreamed, the dream becomes necessary. The spectacle is the nightmare of imprisoned modern society which ultimately expresses nothing more than its desire to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of sleep. I used this quote as a jumping-off point for further reflection directly following what’s quoted above:
As the epigram from Guy Debord makes clear, however, it is easier for us to rely on the spectacle of the video and the equally engrossing possible spectacle that shows us riding to the rescue of the Ugandans; these nightmares have the singular virtue of being those of other people. We can sleep at night knowing that, watching a video, we have done something. The consolations of our detachment keep us from the far more difficult work of actually learning things and doing things.
In yet another Lawyers, Guns, & Money post on Nick Kristof and the scam being run by Somaly Mam (it seems, at least according to a report at Salon.com, that Kristof was complicit in at least some of the grifting going on), we hear, again, that the real work against human trafficking, including sex-work trafficking, is far more boring than it is lurid. The problem itself is rooted in mutliply intertwined systemic problems, from poor socio-economic conditions to misogyny and male privilege, and the real work involves as much grant-writing and fund-matching as spreading hyped tales of childhood exploitation. As the piece at Salon.com makes clear, one of the reasons Mam’s group was so successful was the influx of funds from conservative American Christian groups, who, whether or not they really care about the issue of childhood slavery and sex trafficking, can use their support for groups like Mam’s to demonstrate their work in helping to improve the lives of others, at relatively low cost to themselves, while ignoring the systemic issues that perpetuate the degradation of women and their ongoing sexual exploitation. It’s easy to be against trafficking in underage girls for sexual slavery. It’s much harder, and more mundane, to work to change conditions so that these are no longer live options. One group mentioned by a commenter at the linked LGM article, buys sewing machines for women, providing socio-economic freedom of choice, the possibility of growing economic and power, and breaking the cycle whereby sexual exploitation may no longer be the only route to keep abject poverty at bay. Not as headline grabbing as some white guy “buying” a couple alleged “sex slaves” from a brothel in Phnom Penh. But it at least has the virtue of doing something real.
And this is where I make my plug for the United Methodist Church. With our General Board of Global Mission, we are involved around the world, helping people in all sorts of mundane ways. In northwest Zambia, our missionaries are teaching farmers contemporary animal husbandry techniques, including the benefit of goat-herding, as well as contemporary agriculture. Locals are saving money to purchase modern farm equipment to expand their fields and diversify their crops. The women are being taught crafts and marketable skills that not only help support the local communities but give them a sense of real empowerment, an economic and political stake in furthering the betterment of the community. This is boring work, really, which is why it’s sometimes hard to get the word out. One of the missions our denomination supports is an after-school program in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro. I love this particular work because it’s so simple; an after-school program, a place for kids to go after school in the midst of social situation defined by poverty and controlled by crime tempered with violence.
The United Methodist Church can – and it may, for all I know – go to Cambodia, learn the basics from those already on the ground, including local Buddhist monks and missionaries. They can observe best practices from secular NGOs and local groups working to provide alternatives to families to selling their daughters for sexual favors in order to bring in extra income. The presence of United Methodist Missionaries, practicing our personal and social holiness in ways that might not draw headlines, is a far better way of “doing something” than making a horrid – and inaccurate – film, or worse, dropping bombs in the midst of a civil war about which we know nothing. This is the kind of “do-somethingism” I can get behind because it makes a real difference in the lives of real people. It might even transform the world. Not the whole world. A little tiny sliver, what seems an insignificant corner, might well be changed for the better because of the work we do. Boring work. Mundane work. You know, actually doing something instead of “do-something”.
I suppose I feel a tad defensive at the moment. For the past few weeks, after a silence of six months, I’m writing and publishing almost every day. And almost every post has to do with the United Methodist Sturm und Drang regarding sexual minorities. I feel like I need to offer an explanation before I wear out my welcome. There are several reasons, one of them deeply personal, why I write so often, and they should be set out as clearly as possible.
First, as I’ve said many times, this particular “discussion” in our denomination is neither new to me, nor are the stated positions of those insisting on maintaining the status quo. Because of the rapid legalization of same-sex marriage, however, it seems the schismatics need to get the word out now, to prevent any change that might actually make the United Methodist Church relevant in a world that is moving beyond the odd obsessions and prejudices of a shrinking minority even within our own denomination. Part of my reason for writing so often is to change the terms of the discussion. For decades, it’s been dominated by appeals to a few verses from Scripture combined with an unscientific, dehumanizing understanding of who our gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans brothers and sisters are and how we as Christians should be in community with them. The only way to move forward is to stop talking the way they want us to talk. Thus – we need to alter the categories, put the onus on opponents of full inclusion to make clear what is happening and why, always with our theological, hermeneutic, and experiential ducks in a row. You can’t change the terms of a debate that’s dragged on this long unless you are willing to put yourself out there as often as possible, making clear what the terms of the discussion are, what is at stake not only for the United Methodist Church, but for the people to whom and with whom we are called to live as brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is so much happening, that we need to remain on top of the discussion. I don’t have the resources of Good News, the Confessing Movement, or the IRD. I’m one person, sitting at home, using what meager intellectual, spiritual, and internet resources I have to prevent the discussion from continuing its current fruitless path. I feel an obligation to do as much as I can, knowing it will never be enough due to lack of access to money and power, influence and the ruthlessness of opponents of full inclusion. What else, however, can I do? This is about human beings told they are “incompatible with Christian teaching.” I cannot stand by in silence and allow it to continue, regardless of the resources stacked against me. I use what I have. If I turn people off because I write and publish too much, all I can do is what I do, praying the Spirit will move us all forward.
Finally, writing daily is therapy for me. I recently had what can best be described as a small nervous collapse. Finding myself in need of something to occupy my mind outside the narrow confines of my own problems, I find writing and sharing that writing with others helps lift me out of the depression and anxiety that for too long kept me trapped in my own head. Writing about my beloved United Methodist Church, being one small voice trying to save us from the worst of ourselves makes me feel . . . well, it makes me feel good. Getting positive responses from others, I only wish I could thank each of you in person for how you’ve helped lift me from where I was. You never know how folks are going to read what you toss out for the world. The last thing an emotionally vulnerable person needs is that kind of risk, yet I took it, and have been handsomely rewarded. So, again, thank you all.
And remember – if you think I write too much, there is much ground to make up, and always those who will stop at nothing to maintain our denomination’s discriminatory position. I only do what I can. I hope you each and all do the same.
After the explosion of the New Theology after the First World War, Karl Barth, along with his good friend Eduard Thurneysen, and later Friedrich Gogarten, began a theological journal entitled Zwischen Den Zeiten, which means Between The Times. The purpose was to highlight the tension within which we Christians live “between the times” of the crucifixion/resurrection and parousia/eschaton. With the rise of the Nazis and their Christian sympathizers (including, for a time, Friedrich Gogarten) and those Barth in particular considered unconscious apologists (specifically fellow Swiss Reformed theologian Emil Brunner), the journal collapsed. Nevertheless, the perspective at the heart of Barth’s project is one with which we just don’t wrestle enough. We Christians are people who live in constant tensions between the promise of the resurrection and coming consummation and transformation of the New Creation all the time immersed in this reality of sin, evil, and death.
This tension does not just have an ethical, evangelical, or dogmatic dimension. It has liturgical and ecclesial dimensions as well. We experience this in our churches when conflicts arise, and conflicts arise all the time. There are two main things that cause more conflict in local churches than any other: money, and music. Money is a constant worry, an existential threat to the ongoing work of the local church. While certainly a sign of the tension within which we continue to live, the conflicts over music in worship bring out that tension in surprising, sometimes hurtful, ways.
Often, the conflict revolves around demands that music and hymnody remain “traditional”. Yet, it is precisely this word – tradition – that creates so much confusion. The history of music in Christian worship is as old as the Scriptures; St. Paul exhorts the Christians in Corinth to include hymn singing in their worship. As the church spread, then engulfed, Europe, and as music composition and musical literacy spread and codified harmonic and melodic relationships (the birth of the tempered scale was a real breakthrough in the west) offered opportunities for creating compositions not only of subtle complexity, but transcendent beauty.
After the Protestant Reformation, there was an explosion of hymn-writing, in particular from the Lutherans (Calvin and the Reformed traditions preferred lining Psalms, not feeling the need to create new songs of praise). In Britain, after the religious wars settled down, with the rise of the Wesley’s reform movement that came to be known as Methodism, there was yet another explosion of hymn writing. Charles Wesley wrote thousands of hymns, some of which continue to be beloved by congregations of many traditions.
In the United States, religion and slavery spread together, and converts to Christianity heard the theme of resistance to evil, and created their own set of hymns and songs of praise, defiantly singing their demand for freedom, and the dream of a real place of freedom in this world, away from the tyranny of the slaveholder.
When we hear people who wish to keep our “traditional” songs in worship, it is these last that are often meant. Songs that comfort through familiarity. Songs that bring us back to a time when our faith was untroubled by the worries of life. Songs through which we feel the Spirit touch and speak of comfort in the face of change and trouble.
And there is nothing wrong with this. This is a service of the healing work of God in the life of the congregation that cannot and must not be ignored. At the same time, it is not only the purpose of Christian worship to soothe our troubled hearts, or provide only a space of comfort and rest. If our liturgy only comforts without confronting us with the reality of our mission, then we have not heard the Good News that God will be with us.
The rise of so-called “praise music”, a commercial product from the song-writing factories of Nashville, certainly fills part of the gap in the need to sing that new song the Psalmist repeatedly tells us we need to hear.
There is no reason to reject this out of hand, despite it being primarily about making money for Nashville-based song-writers. It feeds the hearts and is watered by the Spirit in congregations across the land; no one should gainsay its power for all its earthly and earthy origin and intent.
All the same, there is, quite literally, a world full of music and types of music that can and do speak to people where they are, asking the questions we don’t hear asked often enough; saying the things that need to be said, yet aren’t out of fear of offense.
We in the churches need to be open to the movement of the Spirit singing, playing, rapping the Word to us, even in ways that don’t comfort. Maybe in words that make us acutely uncomfortable. Precisely because we live in between the times, we cannot rest in any one place because both comfort in the presence of the Spirit and discomfort by the risen Christ exploding our assumptions about who and what we are and what we are to do. This is our lot. No, more: This is the call to us as those baptized in the blood and raised in the water of eternal life that is not yet ours. For that reason, we need to hear all these, and so much more, as we worship the God who gives the power to give them voice.
So. This is the new place. This marks the third time I’ve started this whole writing thing. I’ve taken the jump to WordPress because I’m tired of Blogger. I wanted a real new beginning. Going back and trying to jump-start what I had just seemed like too much heavy lifting. So, start fresh with a new site, a new name, some new rules, some new opportunities, and maybe – just maybe – the whole experience will not just feel better, but be better. In all honesty, the last months back here seemed like drudgery. I got tired of the nonsense. I just . . . got tired.
In order to keep the nonsense, drudgery, and exhaustion to a minimum, I’m instituting some new rules. For one thing, there won’t be any comments. Commenting has become toxic, and toxicity should be at a minimum. You don’t like what I’ve written? Why, it’s as easy as starting your own site to take me to task. Just don’t expect me to care all that much if you do.
I’m going to try to keep this place a bit more interesting to look at. I know I neglected that a bit too much before, both from naiveté and a bit too much focus on words. Of course, I know the value of images. I just spent too much energy on what I was going to say, I neglected the possibilities of showing it, too.
It’s a new place, a new start, but I’m still me, with all my preferences, bug-a-boos, hang-ups, quirks, foibles, and interests. The content might not seem that different than before, but there’s a good reason for that: The same person is doing the presentation. If what I do isn’t your thing, the exit button is a click away, and don’t think my feelings will be hurt. I only want folks here who want to be here.