it’s become painfully clear to me reading comments tonight that most people don’t have a fucking clue what Transgender even is!! Just sayin… – An old school friend of mine, on Facebook
I’m going to say it up front and out loud: I’m uncomfortable with trans people. This isn’t due to any ideas about what makes men and women real. Mostly, it’s because I haven’t spent much time around them. It’s also ignorance about the complexities of gender identity confusion, something that I have been trying to learn but, honestly, there are other things I am doing which is a lazy person’s excuse, I suppose. In any case, yeah. The notion of people transitioning from one gender to another makes me uncomfortable.
My discomfort, however, doesn’t mean I think they’re weird or odd or anything else. The problem isn’t with the trans folks. The problem is most definitely mine, an unease borne of a combination of ignorance and few contacts with trans people. It isn’t up to them to show me they’re “just folks”. It’s up to me to understand trans people are just people, people who live with a difficult, sometimes debilitating confused sense of identity. The target of violent harassment, out trans people demonstrate courage in ways that most of us wouldn’t have the guts to demonstrate. Even though I’m uncomfortable, I’m not asking for help getting over that discomfort because that’s my cross to bear.
As far as “knowing” what trans people look like . . .
This is a trans man. If he wasn’t wearing that shirt, would you even know? Would you even dare ask him his gender identity without his self-identification? I thought not.
This woman on the other hand, what, exactly about her threatens so many men they want her to use a public men’s room? How many of you, not knowing she was trans, would be at all comfortable with her walking in while you’re standing at the urinal?
These aren’t pedophiles, looking to use restrooms to entice somebody’s precious child into sex. These aren’t people who are “obviously” any gender in particular. They’re just men and women who would prefer to go about their lives without ignoramuses like me speculating about what they have in their underwear, or claiming they’re weird perverts.
And they serve in the military. I read several places yesterday claiming there are currently 15,000 active duty trans in the military. Perhaps. Even if it’s only ten percent of that number, Issuing an order demanding their immediate separation from the service for no other reason than who they are – without regard to questions of readiness, troop moral, and security – isn’t exactly supporting our troops. The only reason Trump cited for this order was cost; specifically, the cost of gender reassignment surgery for active duty troops. I found out this morning via Twitter that House Republicans were looking to remove this line item from this year’s NDAA. They had no intention of removing trans troops from the ranks; they just wanted Trump to support their bigoted parsimony. Considering the President gave no notice to anyone, civilian or military – many in the military feared, based on the wording of his first Tweet and the lengthy delay between it and the second Tweet, that he was announcing a strike against North Korea via Twitter, which would be horrible – and only cited “cost” as the reason for ordering separation.
I’ll be honest. I’m guessing that some in the ranks weren’t happy about openly integrating trans people. I’m sure units were angry and confused, if for no other reason than changes like this can be unsettling, just like racial integration was in 1948 and moving women in to front line combat units was. While I tend to believe reports that these actions haven’t altered military preparedness or readiness, I’m quite sure there are some, perhaps many, for whom this action last year was shocking and disconcerting. Had there been any disruptions in preparedness, troop readiness and effectiveness, and unit cohesion, surely that information would have leaked long ago. So, these folks who weren’t happy about the change were, in essence, like me: Uncomfortable with trans because of ignorance and a lack of interpersonal contact.
I cannot stress this enough – if some or even many people in the military were unhappy with this change, not because it disrupted unit cohesion or effected the willingness of troops to serve together, but just because they have something against trans folks, it isn’t incumbent upon the military or anyone else to accommodate their personal feelings. If you, dear reader, just “believes” trans people don’t belong in the military that is certainly your right to believe that. That belief, however, shouldn’t be raised to the level of national policy. Remember, there are die-hard bigots in the ranks who believe people of color have no business integrating with white troops, and I don’t see or hear the brass demanding an end to racial integration.
A couple things that happened yesterday did bug me. First, one of the cable networks – I can’t remember if it was CNN or MSNBC – had on a Naval Lt. Commander who is trans to speak on the matter. I found this disturbing because our service members shouldn’t be put in the position of questioning, on national television, the orders of the Commander-in-Chief. This person wasn’t in uniform, but that doesn’t make it any less discomfiting. There are plenty of vets who spoke out both for and against Trump’s order yesterday available to any network for interview. Getting someone, an officer no less, to speak out in this way was . . . it was wrong, OK?
The other thing that bugged me were all the people insisting that if critics hadn’t served in the military, they shouldn’t speak out. The last time I checked the military was under civilian control in this country: Their C-in-C is a civilian, the secretaries of the services are civilian, the Congress that determines how much money they can spend, on what, and for how long are all civilians. And, yeah, your run-of-the-mill person on the street with no military experience not only has the right but the duty to speak out. I’m actually quite tired of people being silenced, or at least the attempt to silence critics, because “we don’t know what it’s like”, yadda-yadda-yadda. We either engage actively on these matters or we turn control of military matters over to the military, which is a truly horrible idea. Claiming a privileged position in a discussion based on personal experience is really tiresome. While vets and troops certainly should be listened to, they shouldn’t have some kind of automatic veto on what is and is not acceptable in discussions over military policy. There was a time, not that long ago in fact, when the civilian public actually distrusted the views of vets and the military. I’m not suggesting we return to such a time, but all things should be met with a healthy skepticism. We need more, not less, public engagement.
So, yeah, random thoughts bearing on the matter. My problem is not only with the order and the way it was announced; my problem is with so much talk about the issue that’s divorced from any reality people actually encounter. And if you’re uncomfortable with trans people, like I am, I suggest you follow my lead and not let that personal discomfort become some universal truth that guides your life.
Yesterday, I had a post planned on the series of New York Times articles concerning Donald Trump, Jr. meeting with people he believed to be agents of the Russian government. Monday afternoon the Times published a story online that claimed there was an email in which it specifically stated just that. The problem with that article was the email itself wasn’t disclosed and the article stated the reporters had only the word of three sources such a monstrosity existed. At that point I thought the Times had jumped the shark. I was highly skeptical for one simple reason: I refused to believe anyone involved in this kind of high-level nonsense would be so stupid as to write such things down so clearly. So, after completing some work I needed to get done, I was sitting down to write about my skepticism.
Before I did that, however, I was going through Twitter and discovered my feed had exploded with news that Donald Trump, Jr. had released the email chain that included precisely the email about whose existence I was so skeptical. I quite literally spent the next ten minutes sitting with my mouth hanging open, aghast at just how stupid Donald Trump, Jr. really is. I honestly felt like I’d been punched in the gut. Even though I was seeing it, and reading the emails, and reading what others were saying (including one independent journalist whose shock was personal; he’d spent a year on this story and Trump, as this journalist wrote, “just tweeted it out”), I just couldn’t wrap my mind around just how stupid these people are.
So my post yesterday was out the window.
Today I just want to offer some reflections on the reactions to this story. I’m not talking about Trump, Jr or his father carrying on about how innocent Junior is in all this, because the emails pretty clearly incriminate not just him but Jared Kushner and then-Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort as well. I think it should be obvious that many people see this quite obvious evidence – at the very least – of attempted collusion with a foreign power as not only shocking but bordering precariously on treasonous behavior. Now in the US, “treason” is the only crime defined in the Constitution:
Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.
As we aren’t at war with the Russians (although one could easily make the argument, as many have, that their cyber attacks on our major political parties constitute an act of war), I’m not sure that, legally, anyone should be charged with this specific crime. I do, however, believe it has the same general stench, a willingness to act against both the laws and best interests of the United States and receive information from a hostile foreign power during a national election. This is appalling and, one would think, indefensible.
All the same, almost immediately, Trump supporters online, including on my Facebook page, have been out in force slinging all sorts of mud in the form of what’s called “Whataboutisms”, as in “What about when Obama worked to defeat Benjamin Netanyahu?” or, “What about when the DNC worked with Ukraine during the last election?” or, among my favorites, “Since the Russians didn’t offer any actual information, no crime was committed.” I like this last one because it elides the reality that Junior not only believed such information would be on offer, but responded enthusiastically – “If it’s what you say it is I love it” – to the offer. Now, any other campaign would immediately have taken this information to the FBI. Why? Because you don’t meet with agents of a foreign adversary trying to influence a campaign for the Presidency!
As to the matters of the US interfering in the domestic politics of Israel and dozens of other countries, all I can say is conservatives used to love all those CIA front groups, invasions, and assassinations. People such as me who were outraged by them back during the Cold War were frequently called unAmerican and communist sympathizers because we thought it was pretty horrible that the United States would, say, kill the democratically elected leaders of Iran and Chile, say, or work with dissident military officials in Greece and Cyprus to overthrow their civilian governments. Now, however, the fact that the United States has acted this way means it’s perfectly fine for the Russians to do the same to us.
That’s not even close to being anything other than nihilism, pure and simple. These alleged superpatriots (at least according to many of their self-descriptions) are somehow down with the Russians attacking the United States during an election. I’m just dumbfounded that anyone calling themselves a patriotic American would ever say anything like this.
We are at a crucial point in what is clearly the biggest – and let’s say it, the stupidest, most venal – corruption story in American history. President Trump really does have the power both to fire independent investigator Robert Mueller (and not a few of his allies are insisting he do just that) as well as pardon anyone convicted of any crimes. Trump is both unstable and really quite idiotic, so we might just see these things, although I make no predictions. Were he to do so, however, this would constitute a very clear act of direct interference in an investigation (his firing of former FBI director James Comey looks more and more like just that), and would most certainly create an even deeper Constitutional crisis than the one we’re currently embroiled in.
I say we’re in a Constitutional crisis because the Republican leadership in both Houses of Congress have abdicated their responsibilities under the Constitution to act in their oversight and investigative capacities. Both House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are refusing to act, for very different reasons, even as Democratic members in both Houses are demanding action. Which brings me to a point about which I want to be very clear: the willingness of elected Republican officials to defend both the President and his idiot child make this a partisan issue. The Republican Party’s willing acquiescence in acts like these should become a Scarlet Letter any Republican seeking office should wear for a very long time. The Democratic Part, after the Civil War, was often characterized as the party of rebellion (along with rum and Romanism, but that’s for another post), hindering their ability at rebuilding a national party base; there were only two Democratic Presidents between 1865 and 1932, sixteen out of sixty-seven years. I believe the Democratic Part needs to begin right now to make clear the entire Republican Party establishment is tainted by these events. They’ve proven themselves again and again over the past nine years unfit to govern. With their acceptance and defense of Trump and his son, they should be labeled the part quite willing to work with foreign powers against the United States. These events should be painted on their foreheads, worn on their arms, and called to mind each and every time a politician with an “R” after his or her name is mentioned. To pretend otherwise is to invite more such actions in the future.
Events are happening quickly, and – who knows?!? – by the time I hit “publish” this whole piece may well be mooted just as yesterday’s was. All the same, I think Americans need to speak out about these events. Our civic institutions, from the federal bureaucracy to our national elections, are and have been under attack and been seriously damaged by less than six months of a Trump Presidency. These are things worth fighting to preserve. Calling out people willing to put family and Party above their country is an ugly but necessary part of ensuring nothing like this ever happens again.
When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bonds which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any form of government becomes destructive to these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. —
Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.
He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.
He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.
He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only.
He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual, uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.
He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.
He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without, and convulsions within.
He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.
He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.
He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.
He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.
He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislature.
He has affected to render the military independent of and superior to civil power.
He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:
- For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us:
- For protecting them, by mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states:
- For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world:
- For imposing taxes on us without our consent:
- For depriving us in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury:
- For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses:
- For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule in these colonies:
- For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments:
- For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.
He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us.
He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.
He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.
He has constrained our fellow citizens taken captive on the high seas to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.
He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.
In Jefferson’s draft there is a part on slavery here
In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms: our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.
Nor have we been wanting in attention to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which, would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.
We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by the authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare, that these united colonies are, and of right ought to be free and independent states; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor.
The more severe the wrongdoing, the more likely we are to react rather than respond, to act toward wrongdoers the way we feel like acting rather than the way we should act. – Miroslav Volf, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly In A Violent World, p.8
It was the evening of the first day of the new Administration, January 20, 2017, when newly installed Presidential Press Secretary came to the podium and, rather than welcoming the press to a new Administration, harangued the alleged misconduct of the press by presenting as fact the relative smallness of the inauguration crowd when the Trump Administration insisted it’s crowd was far larger than either of his predecessors. Of course, everyone in the room, presumably including Sean Spicer, knew it was bullshit. The gathering for the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the United States was comically small, made even more ridiculous by the days-long obsession with denying this very obvious reality.
In the months since, we have come to accept that no words from this Administration or those who have roles of authority within it have any value whatever. Our 45th President has not even a glancing acquaintance with the truth and feels no need to improve his eyesight. We are nation gaslighted on a daily basis by a small group of (mostly) men who believe that reality is so malleable that mere repetition of falsehoods somehow makes them true.
And this is no odd occurrence. It is, rather, the outcome of nearly two decades of FOXNews presenting its alternative reality to a shrinking cohort of Americans who just want to count. Few things are as threatening as the complicated reality within which we live, a reality that less and less abides a single narrative voice speaking from one perspective to offer any authoritative commentary upon it. Building upon the manipulations of one of Richard Nixon’s original rat-fuckers, Roger Ailes, and aided and abetted by the spread of toxic “talk radio” in the voices of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Laura Ingraham, and others, there are millions of Americans whose view of the past two decades is not only radically different than the majority’s; it is a castle floating in the air, supported by the comforting tones of white men repeating a mantra that everything can be good once again, once we silence those other voices that aren’t white, aren’t male, aren’t like us.
That the past is contested space isn’t a new idea. That’s precisely how historians present the ethical dilemma of their work: as best as possible to present the past as it was for those who lived and moved and had their being in the past. Rather than history, however, our reactionary fellow-Americans are far more content with a noxious nostalgia stripped of any humanity or meaning other than to bolster the fading power of a white cultural and political voice. Particularly with the rise of African-American history, feminist historiography, histories that bring to light hidden realities from the past whether that be the treatment of the native nations of North America or how Chinese immigrants living on the west coast were treated as viciously as African-Americans by a nation ungrateful for the labor they provided building our continental railroad system. We don’t like to hear or see things that upset our tranquil view of America as a beneficent provider of freedom and opportunity to the world. Such histories, however, darken the far too clean edges of our official memories.
I was sitting down to read Miroslav Volf’s The End of Memory, already disturbed by the subtitle, Remembering Rightly in a Violent World. The idea there is “one right way” to do the necessary individual and social act of remembering is an idea that no longer carries any weight. Individual memories, as psychological studies have shown over and over again, are malleable things, sometimes presenting us with false memories either to console or disturb us. That our collective memory has long been contested space is something historians take for granted. To offer, then, a view of “remembering” as something to do “rightly” seems difficult to sustain. Human communities, including religious communities, are not immune either to the false god of nostalgia or the weakening of hegemonic discourses leaving confusion about what is and is not true and right. We in the churches find ourselves struggling in the midst of rapid social and cultural changes for which the assertion of “should” has no moral or pedagogical weight. There are only communities and the various ways they embody remembrance, including most especially the remembrance of violence, injustice, and persecution, as part of their practice of faith. Whether it’s in the liturgy, the pastoral, the missional, or theological expressions of the faith, we can no longer pretend there is a single answer to the question, “How should we Christians deal with memory in all its variety?”
Even more troubling, however, is Volf’s stated intention to present an ethic of memory that “goes beyond” justice (p.10). It is in remembering that the hunger for justice is kept alive. Memory is the enemy of any official statement, be it sacred or secular. The messy realities of human life, too often denied by our national or church leaders, are the one thing that keeps us from succumbing to the constant barrage of falsehoods either from secular leaders creating a false narrative and reality, or some in the churches who would insist that only doctrinally approved memories are fit grist for our theological mills. In a time when the very act of remembering denies the truthfulness of our public officials; when some would silence the memories of faithful lives lived outside sanctioned lifeways; living in such a moment when the very fabric of reality seems, at times, to be the main battleground, to demand an ethic of “right” remembering, rather than celebrating the varieties of remembering that keep alive identities too long denied and never fully satisfy the hunger for real justice that can only come by a transformation of our institutions. This doesn’t mean the past will somehow cease to be contested space; it will always be such. It is only to assert that remembering is a contested political act and contested act of faith. To declare the contest over by the mere assertion of how we “should” act, including remembering as an active ethical concern of real individuals and communities is a kind of religious imperialism that can only land within the already contested areas where memory and history, where real human lives and communities struggle to assert their full place within our collective consciousness.
I don’t regret not being able to get much beyond p. 12 or 13 of Volf’s work. The entire premise – there is a single ethical stance Christians should take regarding memory – is a house built on sand. That this sand is the all-too-popular idea of a transcendent, peaceful, “liberal” Christian “tolerance” (always a disparaging, derogatory stance) of The Other, even when that Other has done violence to oneself or one’s community, it is easy to watch the beautiful house crumble as the bloody flood of history rises and destroys it. To claim that we as Christians need to move beyond justice rather than always hold it before ourselves as a necessary part of true reconciliation is a blasphemous attempt to silence those whose history is one of official repression, denial, and murder in order to keep our histories and memories clean and male and white.
Now I just need to find something else to read . . .
I remember a time when churches were full on Sunday mornings. I remember when my home church, now dead and gone, had so many in attendance they’d set out extra chairs for people to sit in. The mighty sound of a full and full-throated choir bouncing off the hardwood and stained glass was powerful. People greeting one another after worship in long queues, across generations, smiling and thankful to be together.
I’m not saying I remember some golden age to which I wish to return. I’m just saying I remember a time when faith, a life of faith, the practice of faith still meant something. More than anything, such memories mark me as a bit older than I’d care to admit.
When I started Seminary, it was at the point in our local and national life when the decline of active church membership, and church membership at all, was starting to be noticed. Even as there were whispers and guarded discussions about what was happening, by and large our education was preparing us for a world that was disappearing far more rapidly than we could imagine, let alone wanted to admit to ourselves. There’s a saying that our military is always preparing for the last war. I guess it’s true with training our pastoral leaders: We’re getting them ready with old tools and skills for a world with new challenges, new dangers, and always always always the promise of something new happening.
Like anyone else entering middle age, the world around us is becoming less and less about us. The things we knew when we were younger are as dead as the past from which we dredge up memories of overflowing pews on Sunday mornings and a louder voice in our local and national affairs. Of all the new challenges with which we must deal, perhaps the most perplexing is the reality that for more and more people, the whole church-thing, God-thing, all the trappings of a bygone era are no more relevant than are tail fins on cars or touring with the Grateful Dead. It isn’t so much militant atheism with which the church must contend as it is a growing number of people who just don’t see what all the fuss is about. Meaning? Purpose? These things can be found in all sorts of organizations, life-ways, occupations, without all that weird metaphysical baggage that no longer makes any sense in our post-modern, post-Christian, post-secular age. We in the churches speak of Good News in a world that just no longer thinks it needs it.
A lot of churches, local and denominational, fall back on upholding old truths, drawing far more strict lines about who’s in and who’s out, demanding even greater adherence to doctrinal formulae and theological methods that, for all they once fed the multitudes are no so many empty baskets, ignored by those fed by other means. We now not so much invite as demand people come and see and hear and adhere and submit and their lives will have an overarching meaning, purpose, and telos that extends beyond the fragmented eternal nows that are the hollow substance of post-modern time. There are some, perhaps many, who find comfort and strength within such gated church communities. Upholding the past as true and the present as false offers a rock upon which to stand, someplace solid upon which to build a life of verities in the midst of a world that no longer cares about such things.
For every family that finds refuge within such seemingly solid structures, however, there are five, perhaps ten, that see these attempts at reconstructing a dead age for what it is – not a fortress within which one is safe from the world, but a Potemkin village, empty of anything other than those who admire the beautiful facades without caring how flat and false they are. Seeing this in abundance, all too often they look upon all churches as such false fronts, holding no promise, no message, no possibilities that cannot be found far better elsewhere. What these growing number of people see and hear isn’t so much Good News as it is a bunch of old words and promises for something no longer thought possible – safety and security in the midst of our chaotic world.
Is it necessary, or even possible, to reach such people? How do we in the churches who do not accept the crumbling sand of the same old thing and the incomprehensibility of so much of our talk about ourselves and our God still answer what we feel to be a call to tell the world there really is Good News? How do we live and practice our faith in a time when the very idea of “faith” is something about which fewer people care? These are the realities our churches face, the wall that separates us from those around us: we recognize the irrelevance of emptiness of so much of our talk, our ways of worship, our ways of living yet understand ourselves caught up in something the compels us to declare that God is, God is love, and God’s love extends to all creation.
I know I wasn’t educated or trained for such a world; I think our church leaders, those of my generation, weren’t either. We still read Bonhoeffer and Barth, Tillich and Niebuhr as if they were contemporaries, rather than oracles to a world that, even as we read their words, were receding more and more quickly. We thought Cone and Daly, Reuther and Gutierrez were radical when in fact they were no more than prophets to institutions unsuited to the challenges their messages announced. Ours is a world – truly a world – made up of neighborhoods. Whether we call them countries our states or even our local towns and villages, any global view always ends up zooming in on our increasingly nonhegemonic society, in which white and male faces no longer dominate; where love is greater than we thought, watching as same-sex couples celebrate blessed unions and state-sanctioned marriages; communities where the ravages of centuries of racism, of economic exploitation, of imperialism of all kinds have left indelible scars, requiring more than just good intentions and open minds and open hearts not only to overcome, but to accept the scars as a permanent part of our social, cultural, and political landscape. These and more are the new realities which confront our local churches, demanding an answer to the challenge, “With all this, why should I care about what you have to say and do?”
I’m not sure we yet have the tools to even begin searching for an answer, beyond recognizing the reality of the urgency of the question. I know our current generation of leaders weren’t given the tools with which to work toward anything like an answer. At the same time, I also know this is where we are, this is what our churches face, and if we do not even recognize the irrelevance of our claims to having something called “faith” that is vital to our lives and identities, we may very well wither and die. Falling back on false “timeless truths” is no answer, not really; it’s a reaction born of fear. We need to do and say something new in new ways, trusting that something beyond our own fears is giving us the ability to keep going.
When we lose our awe and humility toward the impenetrable mystery “surrounding all existence,” and our concomitant sense of the failure of ideas and words to articulate divinity, the qualitative gap between human language and divine ineffability collapses. God then erroneously “becomes father, mother, lover, friend.” – Heidi Epstein, Melting the Venusberg: A Feminist Theology of Music, p.13
In the summer of 1986, long before I had any inclination to attend Seminary, an old friend of mine who was in the midst of her own Seminary training told me that the first year of Seminary is like a wrecking ball: People’s confidence in their own understanding of the faith is destroyed, with the rest of the time being one of the faculty offering tools not so much to reconstruct a new faith structure but to move forward confidently without such a structure. I don’t know if I’ve told the story before – I’ve been writing blog posts for 11 years; it’s nearly impossible for me to keep track of everything I’ve ever written – but after about four weeks of her first semester in Seminary, my wife experienced a kind of acute crisis of faith that many people experience around the same point in their studies. No matter how open one is to learning about the faith, understanding new ways of reading the Bible, thinking about the Christ-event in our personal and communal lives, the impact of a great deal of new information in a relatively short period of time can shake even the strongest of faith-foundations. I saw a few folks walk away at this point; they were far too uncomfortable having their sureties challenged this way*. Most, however, ended up like Lisa, sitting and crying from a combination of mourning and fear. They were mourning the loss of what felt like anything solid upon which to stand. They were terrified that, having lost that solid rock of understanding there would never be anything to take its place.
One of the things at least my own Seminary professors kind of pounded into our heads was the reality that God’s revelation is not a “once-for-all” event; even should one adhere to some kind of strict Christocentrism a la Barth, denying the efficacy of other avenues of revelation, we human beings do not and cannot ever have the whole of divine revelation. Revelation includes not only a revealing but always a simultaneous concealing; there is always mystery, always more to see and hear. Were it not so, what the hell are we doing, anyway?
Over the past few days, I faced a true crisis of faith. It’s something that’s been building for a while, to be honest. The crisis within the United Methodist Church, the dishonesty and exclusivism of those who oppose opening our denomination to sexual minorities, and the narrow, stingy orthodoxy of those self-appointed arbiters of orthodoxy within our church have left me confused and angry. Matters regarding my current home church are also a problem, ones that leave me unsure of how to address them. Finally, reading a book about music and death over the weekend pushed to the forefront of my own mind the reality that our deaths, whatever else they might mean, certainly mean the annihilation of our personhood. In an instant what was will disappear, never to be again. Essentially, I spent part of the weekend wondering, “What the hell does anything matter?”
Yesterday, however, it occurred to me that this crisis was precisely the kind of thing that should happen periodically to all believers: We must face new information, new situations and contexts, new ways of thinking about the Christ-event and its meaning in our lives. When we do so, we should find ourselves unable, at least initially, to integrate all this into how we understand the God revealed in Jesus Christ. We should wonder what the hell any of it means. Having spent my adult life studying and thinking about the faith that informs my life, if I hadn’t experienced something new, then I was believing in the wrong God.
No matter how faithful we are; no matter how sure we have a handle on this whole faith-thing and God-thing, we should never be so arrogant as to assume we always have it all (something I tell other people all the time). One of the central meanings of the Christ-event is something theologian Jurgen Moltmann pointed out over and over again in his work: Our God is the God of New Things: New Life, New Creation, New Community constantly refreshed by the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit. Refusing settle for that which the Church Universal has already said regarding the content and meaning of the Christ-event is a necessary way for the church and its members to remain healthy, open to all the possibilities yet to discover about who our God is and what God is doing.
As for my personal “crisis”, I’ll just say that it was a good reminder that I cannot rest confidently upon all that I have already learned. Our doctrines, our theologies, they are always and ever prolegomenna to that new thing that is yet coming from God. When we forget that, when we insist upon aged formulas in dead languages and thought, we keep Jesus buried in tombs we construct in our arrogance and lack of faith. Unless we’re willing to allow past be prologue, our doctrines to be the beginning of our theological exploration rather than the end, and allow for the possibilities that, as the Bible says repeatedly in both Testaments, that God is doing a New Thing, we shall wither and die on the vine.
God is never what we wish. It is always the case that we are told who God is. We must always remember that the canon is not closed, revelation is not exhausted, and God really does do new things all the time, whether that’s in our denominations, our local churches, or in our individual lives.
*During my first year, on the very first day of classes during a class on the Hebrew Scriptures, when the professor reminded the class there were two conflicting and contradictory stories of creation in the first two chapters of Genesis, two people got up and left the room, never to return.
For those not “in the know”, PostSecret is this amazing website where people from all over the world anonymously send in their secrets to share with the world. There are PostSecret events, too, where people are invited to put their secrets in a box to be shared – again, anonymously – with the audience. There are books. There are people who are alive today because of PostSecret. PostSecret helped raise money to keep a suicide prevention hotline open. Some of the secrets are funny. Some are heartbreaking. A lot revolve around sex. Today, however, this secret appeared.
I wish I could talk to this person. I’d deal with the easiest question first: “What do I do with this information?” Whatever you want. You can forget about it. You can spend your life secretly puzzling over its meaning. You can deny the event ever took place. You can make a macrame of whatever it was God said and hang it on your wall. Because of that whole free-will thing, you can do or not as you see fit, and the truth is, it doesn’t matter.
We might as well go in reverse order: “Why ME and not a really religious person.” If you pick up your Bible, there is a little book in the Old Testament, an old old story called Jonah. It’s about a very religious man who had the same experience: God told Jonah to do something. And this very righteous, religious man did the exact opposite, ending up tied up and tossed overboard, eaten by a fish to be vomited on a beach where he ended up doing what God wanted him to do anyway (although in hardly a good humor; if you read to the end, after following God’s instructions to a “t”, he sits on a mountain above the city and waits for God to smite the Ninevites. When it doesn’t, he actually pouts! So much for your “really religious person” getting a message from God. God tends to use nonreligious people because they don’t have a whole lot of crap cluttering up their brains telling them what the best way to understand such a call might be.
The only question that really matters, then, is “Now what?” Because this is the first question you asked, you recognize, even if only subconsciously, that the moment was real, an event that happened in your life about which you have to do . . . something. I often wonder how many people hear such messages and ignore them. Or perhaps explain them away in one way or another. Then there are those to whom such moments occur for whom they are just too much. I wonder how many of our mental health facilities have people inside for whom the fact God spoke to them – regardless of content – is just too much to handle. Doesn’t seem quite fair, right? Shouldn’t God know whether or not people are or are not strong enough to deal with such things? Finally, there might be people who accept it as a rel event in their life, a real thing. Then they go on with their lives as if it doesn’t matter in the least.
You, however, asked the most important question first: “Now what?” I could have you running off to one institutional church or another, and I will confess I believe that most ordained clergy in most mainline, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox churches would be able to help you; they might even enjoy helping someone who is wise enough to ask, “Now what?” All the same, I think you need to turn to people you trust. It doesn’t matter if they’re religious, atheists, choir members, or whatever. Shoot, they don’t have to share the same religious beliefs you do at all! They should, however, be people in whom you place tremendous trust and faith. Talk with them.
The thing is, what comes next is up to you. It’s totally, completely, utterly, and irrevocably your decision. Just as the message is completely yours, so how you choose to integrate this particular event into your life is your choice. God doesn’t demand. God doesn’t give orders. In fact, God just speaks to particular people at particular times and those particular people are then free to do as they wish.
One word of caution, however. God doesn’t usually stop with just one such event. I’m not saying you’re going to hear God’s voice for the rest of your life. That doesn’t mean you won’t feel that little tug, the occasional nudge. It’s never a bludgeon. It is also never a demand. It is what it is. There’s something God wants done and God wants you to do it. You can run away, like Jonah; just remember what happened to him. My recommendation – and that’s all it is – is that, now, you find one or two people you can trust and talk about it. Hear what they have to say.
Or you could choose to find some official from some organized body and have them help you work through it. That’s certainly an option, and one as I said such clergy might welcome (despite what the popular media might say, the fact is most clergy accept the reality of such moments, if for no other reason than they have usually experienced the same kind of thing in their own lives.
The important thing, however, is that you’ve asked that question, “Now what?” first. You want not only to know how to move forward with this event a part of your life; you’re going to move forward with this event a part of your life. All the other stuff, the “Why me?” question, the question of the practical usefulness of such a moment, that’s the stuff other people tell us we should ask. Which doesn’t mean they aren’t important questions; it just means they aren’t as important as that first question: “Now what?”
Everything else hinges on how you choose to answer that question. But just know, God knows you, sees you, and most of all God wants you to do something. Perhaps it’s a small thing. Perhaps it will change the world. Whatever it is, it’s yours.
Now what? I suggest you figure out how to get to Nineveh, pack enough supplies, and head on out. The rest, well, it’ll take care of itself.