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No Longer Informed

So I learned from a (liberal) friend that a lot of her (liberal) friends have stopped following the news. Don’t do this. Don’t let your friend do this. We need your courage. We need your intelligence. We need your power. We need you not to be one of the people who insist to your grandchildren, “But nobody knew what was going on!” – Rick Perlstein, Facebook, 12/31/16


And yet . . . We Have Matt Taibbi, an excellent reporter and writer, casting doubts upon the matter of Russian interference in the election. We have lost any grasp of who is and who is not authoritative. We have lost the ability to ensure the right questions are asked. We no longer get have a critical facility, at a social level, to weed out the spurious from the truthful. Paying attention? To whom? Upon what authority? – Me, comment on above post, 12/31/16


The problem with this story is that, like the Iraq-WMD mess, it takes place in the middle of a highly politicized environment during which the motives of all the relevant actors are suspect. Nothing quite adds up.

If the American security agencies had smoking-gun evidence that the Russians had an organized campaign to derail the U.S. presidential election and deliver the White House to Trump, then expelling a few dozen diplomats after the election seems like an oddly weak and ill-timed response. Voices in both parties are saying this now. . . . Matt Taibbi, “Something About This Russia Story Stinks,” Rolling Stone, Dec. 30, 2016

We are at a point where we as a people no longer know who to trust, why we should trust them, and thus we suffer from multiple realities existing simultaneously.

We are at a point where we as a people no longer know who to trust, why we should trust them, and thus we suffer from multiple realities existing simultaneously.

I saw the above FB post from historian and author Rick Perlstein yesterday, and among the many things I read as I went through the discussion that followed was a sense of a lack of any sense of security about what news sources we should trust to offer us some glimmer of reality. There was also a good discussion about what it means to “follow” the news. My comment, citing only one instance of a trusted reporter asking important and necessary questions about the entire narrative of Russian interference in our recent election, could very well have been longer. Taibbi is very clear on the sources for his skepticism: Our recent historical experience with fake intelligence information offered as “proof” of Iraqi perfidy in order to justify war.Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.

Other commenters noted another author accepted as authoritative among many on the libertarian Left, Glenn Greenwald, who has been doing much the same work as Taibbi: questioning the very foundations of this ongoing narrative not, it should be pointed out, in support of Donald Trump. Rather, Greenwald’s position and motives are simpler: He wishes readers to think critically about this story in order to stop what seems a headlong rush toward judgment.

Both authors offer sound reasons for taking care in our over-indulgence in “official” stories precisely because “official” sources should not carry the authority they seem to be wielding. Particularly among a segment of the population – liberals and (some) progressives – who have been skeptical of official narratives for decades, there seems to be something akin to joy in repeating the official line over and over. Despite decades of dismissive comments concerning our national newspapers The New York Times and The Washington Post, our 24-hour news programs on CNN and FOXNews, we now have people insisting these organs of our establishment are somehow engaged in brave truth-telling (well, at least the print sources; the three major cable news channels are still dismissed as either to servile to the Establishment [CNN, MSNBC] or little more than Republican propaganda channels[sometimes CNN, FOXNews]) while doing little more than repeating an official line offered with what appears to be little to no evidence offered to the public.

There’s a story about how FOXNews parrotted a story first reported by Breitbart.com regarding SNAP fraud. The USDA says they have released no recent report regarding SNAP fraud (which is true). Breitbart insists its story was not about SNAP fraud (also true). Somehow, it seems, someone at FOXNews decided to make up a story about SNAP fraud (not exactly a shocker) and the organs of the Establishment found at the contemporary American version of the Volkischer Beobachter a story both about SNAP and that used a figure similar to the one at Breitbart. The evidence, however, just isn’t that clear-cut. Yes, FOXNews pulled the story about SNAP fraud out of its ass; what would FOXNews viewers think if they discovered the standard government estimate for SNAP abuse is around a billion dollars annually (while a much larger number than $70 million, it’s still about 1.4% of total SNAP outlays, so hardly significant)? In the sudden rush of stories concerning  “fake news”, and the glee among right-wing sources labeling mainstream news “fake”, this whole story demonstrates just how difficult it is to untangle the mess of sources, of who is saying what and why, and how narratives – several stories linked together – are constructed.

We should be skeptical of official sources, particularly anonymous sources. We should also be wary of self-appointed meta-journalists like Glenn Greenwald who, not being a journalist, continually tell journalists how to do their jobs. We should also be wary of pretty much anything from a source whose sole or major presence is the Web. We should be skeptical of those whose views on the world are similar to our own. We should also be wary of those whose view of the world is significantly different.

Skepticism, however, should not equal a lack of trust. Evidence matters. The history of a particular news source matters. How one particular bit of news fits into other pieces of news is important. Precisely because we have been swamped, not just in this election cycle but for years (even decades), with what is now called “fake news”, however, we have moved from skepticism to refusing any authority save that which confirms our view of the world. We are living in a time with the total breakdown of any national consensus concerning, well, pretty much anything at all. We all seem to inhabit little conclaves that share only one quality – anything “outside” is not just suspect, but a priori untrustworthy.

We as a people no longer inhabit the same world. We are not citizens of the same country. We are not speaking the same language, regardless of how much they all sound the same. How is it possible under such circumstances to insist one group or another “should” follow the news when there just isn’t any single “news” narrative to follow, but multiple narratives with their own sources, their own presuppositions, their own larger stories into which each piece of new information fits?

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We Are Nothing

Far too often, people are abandoning Christianity because they are looking closely at believers like you and me and finding very little light worth moving toward. They are rubbing up against our specific, individual lives, and instead of coming away with the sense that God is real and worth seeking, they are determining that God must be dead or at best irrelevant—and we probably shouldn’t be the least bit surprised.

Whether across their kitchen counters or board meeting tables or smartphone screens we are giving people plenty of reason to conclude that religion is a grand failed experiment; a nice, lofty theoretical exercise that falls apart in the practice of actually living. So it isn’t the Church or Jesus that they’re objecting to, it’s you and it’s me. – John Pavlovitz, “Christian The Reason So Many People Are Losing Faith – May Be You”, Stuff That Needs To Be Said, February 8, 2016

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I usually don’t reply to these articles but I am tired of folks blaming Christians and leaders for losing their faith. Nothing or no one will stand between me and my Jesus. There is no excuse for losing your faith. – Comment on FB, referring to the above-linked article

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If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,but do not have love, I gain nothing. – 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

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Why can't we admit that we are part of the reason more and more of our churches look like this on Sunday mornings?

Why can’t we admit that we are part of the reason more and more of our churches look like this on Sunday mornings?

In our ongoing quest to destroy ourselves as a denomination, an enormous part of the problem is the simple refusal to stop, take a moment, and look at our churches from the outside. What do we see? We see mostly older congregations using thirty-year-old books from which we sing 200-year old hymns before listening to a middle-aged man or woman lecture us about what the Bible says. Then right after that they ask for money. Before all that, the few children are invited forward for a simple lesson before being chased out of the sanctuary either for Sunday School or “Junior Church”. This happens each and every Sunday.

The rest of the time, when this endless unexplained ritual isn’t happening, people in the church are either calling people in their local communities names, sitting and clicking their tongues at one or another younger family that might venture in some Sunday; or, they are yelling at one another, whether it’s about money – it is quite frequently about money – or how the pastor’s wife dresses (when I was growing up, the SPRC in my home church actually met because people were complaining that the pastor’s wife wore pantsuits to church instead of dresses; really, I am not making this up) or writing letters to the editor of the local paper complaining about Harry Potter books or gays in the military or how this or that or the other local, state, or national politician is the Anti-Christ.

Those words about which the pastor talks on Sunday? They’re all about love and forgiveness and being willing to sacrifice for others, to give to others until there’s nothing left of one’s self to give. We are told not to judge others. We are told that Jesus fed thousands from a couple fish and a few loaves of bread, yet we wonder how we’re going to keep the lights on because giving is down. So there’s more talk about money, more talk to fewer people who are asked to give more and resent it. “Why is it all they talk about is money?” people outside will say.

This isn’t a caricature, by any means. This is reality not just for the United Methodist Church, but for all denominations (and I’m going to guess some synagogues and mosques, too). People outside our walls look at us and wonder why in the world they should expend emotional energy and family time joining ever older and ever smaller groups of people who seem to find their only satisfaction arguing over one another and complaining about how no one comes to church. All that stuff in the Bible about loving others, about serving others, about being the church rather than going to church sounds like a bunch of nonsense, a long con to separate people from their money to keep open an old building that does fewer and fewer things for fewer and fewer people. People have better things to do with their time, their energy, and their money. As for faith, well, I’m sure there are a lot of folks not in any sanctuary on a given Sunday morning who might wish to believe. The fact of the matter, however, is that “church” as it is actually lived doesn’t resemble what “Christians” say it does. There’s no service or sacrifice for others; the Trustees don’t want the church doors unlocked during the week to help warm the homeless, because someone might steal something – a thing that can be replaced! There’s no multiplying of meager scraps into a bounty that serves many; penny-pinching and whining, refusing to invest in mission or evangelism because they aren’t “priorities” – people know the church is there, after all, and when worship is scheduled! – leaves the hungry unfed, the naked unclothed, the lonely unvisited. We in the United Methodist Church declare our doors and hearts are open; when a local family who hasn’t attended in a while gets withering stares, or a new couple joins and few if any people greet them with smiles and handshakes, there seems little to no reason for them to return.

Let’s face it: We are our own worst enemies. Even worse, however, is we refuse to acknowledge these realities. We refuse to take responsibility for how badly we’ve damaged how others see the church through our words and deeds. We declare “there is no excuse” for others to lose faith, yet have no idea how that is exactly the attitude that turns people away Sunday after Sunday. We do not repent for our sins, spending far more time looking out at the world and telling it it has to repent before being worthy of our time or engagement. When we ask for forgiveness, we rarely think about how our actions reinforce a view of “church” as a place where older people get together to sing old songs and hear boring sermons on the same topics, all the while demanding money and complaining about all the folks who just don’t come anymore.

There are a lot of other reasons our churches are struggling. We need to realize just how much we contribute to that struggle through our many faults and failures.

Donald Trump’s Rent-A-Wife

Now imagine FOX Noise right now, if Michelle Obama had been photographed like this ! Now think about Trump winning the Presidency & this money loving centerfold becoming our First “Lady”……..don’t like my language ? Too bad, I went through 7 years of hearing the right wingers call MIchelle Obama “Mooshell” & many other racist & nasty names !

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I’m not shaming them, I’m just showing magazine photos that were sold in public, that show her publicity seeking & love of attention.

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Spouses are fair game when they could possibly be representing the U.S. as First Lady. She is clearly NOT FLOTUS material. These photos should be shared and shared often.

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[I]t wount be first lady it will be first slut.

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Don’t dare present THIS as one who will represent the United States to the whole world! He knew who she was when he decided to run for president. He knew of these pictures and who she is. I will not overlook it! It represents his lack of judgement and integrity. A damned near bald old man running with THAT as a wife. oh no! – The top is the original accompanying statement, the rest being comments, on FB accompanying the photo below.

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Donald and  Melania Trump, with some of Mrs. Trump's modeling photos.

Donald and Melania Trump, with some of Mrs. Trump’s modeling photos.

Liberals, it seems, have decided that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Leading Republican candidate Donald Trump is married to former model Melania Knauss. Some enterprising, and morally upright, Democrat thought it would be a great idea to use some photos of Mrs. Trump to point and laugh at “Conservative Christian Republicans”. The meme, however, is more than a little confusing. Is Mrs. Trump’s race actually the issue in these photos?

Of course not. Which is not to say that much of the vitriol Michelle Obama receives isn’t precisely because of her race. She’s an accomplished, professional woman who also happens to be quite attractive; all the same, she is attacked for having “no class” not because of anything she has done or said, but because she is an African-American woman.

The implication of this meme, I think, is that by posing as models do, or appearing in public in a sheer-top dress without a bra, Mrs. Trump is demonstrating “no class”. Indeed, in the original-original status post accompanying this meme, the poster called Mrs. Trump a whore, changing it only because someone called him out on it. While not at all surprised that people are resorting to this kind of sexist, demeaning vocabulary, I think this is a good follow-up to yesterday’s reminiscing post on the SlutWalk movement. Yet again we have an example of the sexualizing of a woman in the public eye. I honestly have no idea why the person in question thinks Mrs. Trump should be ashamed, or be shamed, for these photographs. All the same, there are many – both men and women – who seem to think these photographs indicate  something about Mrs. Trump’s character. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, they might well only demonstrate that, as a model, she had all sorts of photographs taken, including ones that show more than a little skin.

Women are regarded as objects, pure and simple. Conservatives carry on about Mrs. Obama’s appearance, both for its own sake as well as a proxy for racism. Hillary Rodham Clinton has spent the better part of two decades demeaned and insulted for everything from her looks to the sound of her laughter. Sarah Palin is mocked for her seeming inability to speak in coherent sentences. She is judged as “popular” among a certain segment of the public because of her looks. Now it seems liberals have decided to play the moral scold regarding Melania Trump’s attire. They are shocked – SHOCKED! – to find a wealthy, powerful white man marrying a young woman deemed attractive according to certain arbitrary standards. They are shocked – SHOCKED! – to find a model posing for the kinds of photos models pose for all the time. This whole thing would be ridiculous if it weren’t so sexist.

I have no idea what kind of person Melania Knauss Trump is. I certainly gain no insight to her character from these photos. Perhaps she is a shallow person, marrying Trump only because he’s wealthy. Perhaps, however, she really loves him and in his own twisted way he loves her, as well. I just don’t know, nor do I care. I care far more that liberals have decided there’s something bad about adult women making choices about their careers, their public attire, and linking it to her character. Donald Trump offers enough things through his own mouth liberals can use as fodder to discuss. Going after his wife, particularly in this over-sexualized way, is disgusting. Not surprising. Just disgusting.

A God Who Does Not Countenance Abuse Or Oppression

The unfolding of the fight for freedom leads to cries of horror from the Egyptians, and it is a difficult challenge to say how a God who hears the cries of the suffering responded to those cries, especially when those cries were of Egypt’s own innocent children slain on the historic night of the Passover, . . . . I canno resolve the crisis of meeting God as both compassionate and violent in this story. At the very least it requires nothing that the Israelites’ escape – a tale of their cries of terror turned to shouts of joy – comes at an incredible cost. Egypt’s loss inspires a “lament such as has never been and never will be again” (Exod. 11:6). Here we come face-to-face with the complexity of Yahweh, something I will return to below with the lens Jesus gives us to see God as both hearer of cries and present in the midst of the suffering itself, crying out. – Christian Scharen, Broken Hallelujahs: Why Popular Music Matters To Those Seeking God, p.86

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[D]itch your superior, smug attitude and 1) stop hairsplitting (“non-approval” vs “judgement” or “condemnation”) and 2) renounce the gospel of Jesus as you refuse to accept His way of non-violence. – A comment directed at me in a discussion in a private group on Facebook, Tuesday, April 28, 2015

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The angel of death on the night of the first Passover. It is God's action that killed first born, children and adults, across Egypt.

The angel of death on the night of the first Passover. It is God’s action that killed first born, children and adults, across Egypt.

Being the good white liberal young man I was, I had all sorts of untested and unexamined assumptions in my head. Among those were that social change through non-violence was both (a) the only really acceptable Christian approach; and (b) advocates of violence only continued a cycle of violence that would leave more and more people dead. There is an insistent logic to this position that is so attractive. It is the balm in Gilead that soothes the sin-sick soul.

When I arrived at Wesley Theological Seminary, among the first things I read that challenged all the things I thought I knew were true was the black liberation theology of James Cone. In his powerful, prophetic denunciations of the religion of white supremacy, he offered a vision of Christianity that denounced every comfortable middle-class platitude I believed to be true.

Later, reading Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope, I was intrigued by its final chapter, “Exodus Church”, in which Moltmann offered the Exodus story as a paradigm for the church’s existence and ministry. Part of that paradigm includes the affirmation that ours is a God who chooses sides, whose loving action is directed at particular persons, particular groups, and toward particular ends. While never taking a stand on any particular social practice, it was clear that these particular theologies, protest and political, demonstrated a particular Biblical reality that white liberals like me would prefer to skate past as quickly as possible.

To say that political and social non-violence are articles of faith – dare I call them idols? – among mainstream white Christians is not going too far. We elevate the tactics of Martin Luther King, Jr. to some kind of Gospel, as noted by a commenter above during a discussion on this very issue. Apparently, even after decades during which the equivocal nature of King’s “victories” have been analyzed, criticized and then re-evaluated again, it remains a capital “T” Truth that, by refusing to respond with violence to the violence of white supremacy, King showed the world change through non-violence is possible. Few things get white liberals all tingly like quoting verses from The Sermon On The Mount to proof-text their stance. The warmth of moral superiority is the best blanket.

Yet, how do we understand the Exodus story? The killing of Egypt’s first-born wasn’t the first time violence had been visited upon them. Flies – that bite and sting, preventing work; frogs – that can kill and eat fowl, eggs; locusts – to devour crops; boils – to leave people ill, unable to work, to exile themselves from the rest of society; turning the river to blood – no potable, usable water in a desert land means death. God’s actions against the Egyptians – including hardening Pharaoh’s heart so that he refused to allow the people to leave, despite the cries of his people to do so – try any comforting vision of the white liberal God. This founding story of the Israelites demands we stare in the face the reality not only that God chooses sides, but is ruthless with those who oppose God’s divine plan. Even when that opposition is prompted by God’s action (“the LORD hardened Pharaoh’s heart . . .”).

I’m not suggesting something like the old and heretical notion that the God of the two Testaments is somehow two distinct entities, or that who God is undergoes a fundamental change at some point between the Testaments. On the contrary, using a reading of Scripture that is both old and new, ancient and post-modern – placing the Christ-event at the heart of the Biblical testimony, stretching back to creation and ahead to the final consummation – we see, again, that God chooses sides. The issue isn’t whether God has somehow changed; the issue, rather, is the odd western insistence on the universality of the Biblical testimony. That temptation to universality, yet another idol best dispensed with, creates a blindness to something I learned from one of my theology professors, Dr. John Godsey: The Scriptural testimony does not move from the general to the specific; rather, it moves from the specific – the Incarnation is nothing if not the Glory of God present in a single person, at a particular place and time – to the potentially universal (“go preach the Gospel to all nations, starting in Judea and Samaria”). I say “potential” because while the promise of world-wide witness is offered, it is a task that continues to this day.

The Passion narrative, like the Passover narrative, is one no less filled with violence and death, betrayal and heartbreak, with that final Easter shout of joy only possible because we have all traveled the via dolorosa with Christ. The way of salvation is not around the horrors and pain of this life. Redemption, Divine acceptance, only comes through blood. That the pain and blood is brought about by God’s actions we too often set to one side, so quick are we to get to the end of the story. We who read the Exodus story, identifying with the Hebrew people and their suffering all the while living as the Egyptians, our national wealth extracted through the toil stolen from slaves and share-croppers, have an obligation first and foremost to remember this story is not our story. When we are confronted by the Passion narrative, living as we do in a great imperial nation, we should remember that death is on our hands. Wanting to identify with the bleeding dying Jesus, or the oppressed and worn-down Hebrews, forgetful of our complicity with ongoing injustice, death-dealing, and oppression does violence to the text; we cannot hear the condemnation of our arrogance, the rejection of our comfort with violence as a tool of national and international policy, and our smug satisfaction that a commitment to non-violence somehow wipes away centuries of genocidal policies toward our Native peoples, African slaves, and others. Unless we recognize that the heart both of the Passion and Exodus stories – related from beginning to end – is a story of God living out preferential treatment. Part of that preferential treatment is the active rejection of those who would thwart God’s designs.

The most potent counter-argument are the words of Jesus from the Cross, “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” Doesn’t that, it is argued, offer redemption to those who kill Jesus? By extension, doesn’t that offer redemption to all of us? Doesn’t the whole notion of God’s preference ignore the reality that salvation is offered to all? The only answer to this valid point is that no redemption, no salvation, no conversion is possible without acknowledging, in the words of Bishop Cranmer, our manifold sins and wickedness. We can only do that if we allow the Divine violence of the Passion/Exodus stories to convict us of our complicity in injustice and violence against those whose cries God hears.

The real truth is so simple: White liberals love non-violence because we are terrified that all the violence visited upon God’s enemies will be directed at us. God chooses sides. We need to remember whose side we’re really on.

Thinking We Understand Without Thinking

I was trying to see if I understand what the commenter meant by “love relationship.” As you know, the English word “love” has three or four Greek equivalents. – FB comment, Sunday, June 28, 2015

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This morning I commented on this Roland Martin post –

“It trips me out how mainstream media is stunned to see what a Black homegoing service is like. I’m listening to @JoeNBC talk about Friday.”

I simply said –

“And it’s this failure to understand Black culture at a level deeper than hearsay, stereotypes, bad movie representations, and sound bites, which is a significant part of the problem.”

Of course, it’s nice if a few people “like” your comment, but I must have struck a chord, because I’ve had 46 likes so far today. I also had one disagreeing reply –

“I disagree! ‘Mainstream’ media is well aware of our culture and who we are; that is the problem!! Don’t assume they don’t understand us!”

I didn’t respond. Didn’t think it would be productive and also didn’t think it’d be appropriate in Roland’s thread.

However, I think the main stream media doesn’t get us of the darker persuasion. They imagine us against the prevailing dominant narrative and try to reconcile us to that narrative, but they don’t get us. – FB, Darren Joseph Elzie (used with permission)

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Into each life, it is said, some rain must fall. Some people have bad horoscopes, others take tips on the stock market. McNamara created the TFX and the Edel. Churches possess the real world. But Indians have been cursed above all other people in history. Indians have anthropologists. . . .

The massive volume of useless knowledge produced by anthropologists attempting to capture real Indians in a network od theories has contribute substantially to the invisibility of Indian people today. After all, who can conceive of a food-gathering, berry-picking, semi-nomadic, fire-worshiping, high-plains-and-mountain-dwelling, horse-riding, canoe-toting, bead-using, pottery-making, ribbon-coveting, wickiup-sheltered people who began flourishing when Alfred Frump mentioned them in 1803 in his great wor n Indians entitled Our Feathered Friends as real?

Not even Indians can relate themselves to this type of creature who, to anthropologists, is the “real” Indian. Indian people began to eel that they are merely shadows of a mythical super-Indian. Many anthros spare no expence to reinforce this sense of inadequacy in order to further suppor their influence over Indian people. – Vine Deloria, Custer Died For Your Sins, pp.78, 81-82

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A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed "Linear A". It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

A Minoan tablet with writing in script dubbed “Linear A”. It is currently indecipherable, thought to be the semi-syllabic script of the ancient court and temple of the Minoans on Crete.

One of the great conceits of Western Civilization (such as it is) is that we understand. Since the ancient Greeks first started arguing whether the world was made up of fire or earth or water; since Heraclitus and Parmenides offered contrasts between the reality of constant change and the illusion of constant change; since Plato insisted ours is a world reflective of perfect, geometric forms while his pupil insisted that forms were real things that gave reality to indistinct matter; all of this, when rediscovered in the 10th and 11th centuries, offered the West a vision of itself as those who seek to understand.

The success of our varied attempts to understand the world, using a particular method that means knowledge has led to the sprouting of all sorts of ways to understand. Sociology, anthropology, psychology, political science all claim to observe “the scientific method” as their practitioners go about the grunt work of gathering data, testing hypotheses, creating theories, all with the goal of understanding how we live, how other societies live, how societies now dead and gone lived, and how the human “mind” – whatever that may or may not be – operates.

Biblical studies have been no less prone to the attractiveness of understanding. With the growth of philology, historical and linguistic tools were used to take fresh looks at the Biblical texts. As theologians and philosophers, following Schleiermacher, Feuerbach, Dilthey and others, discovered the necessity first of acknowledging the gap between these ancient texts and current reality, which necessitated a second move they called “hermeneutics” – interpretation in which text and current reality meet and inform one another – as a tool for “correct understanding” of what scholars increasingly understood to be opaque, often poorly edited, ancient texts. The spread of varieties of Biblical criticism has created rival schools of thought as how best to read, understand, and (most important) apply this understanding to our lives. It is more than a little bewildering.

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Science is a great tool for getting at how the world works. In the 17th and 18th centuries, that success led people to misunderstand what was going on. Folks like Immanuel Kant (for example) thought that science was so successful because it arrived at truth. For a philosopher, that didn’t leave much space for what he was up to, which is why he wrote three extremely opaque, dense, partially unreadable volumes on what was left to philosophy to do. Truth was the province of the sciences; things like how we know, what are the good and beautiful, these more or less rest upon ways the mind interprets and understands (see that word again?) the world. Precisely because reason leaves the mind with what Kant called “antinomies” – contradictions due to the unfalsifiability of their premises – the best thing for philosophy to do was figure out how science gets at what’s really true.

All those words, all that valuable brain-time, and Kant never got that science works so well only because it is limited both in the questions it can ask and how successfully it can answer those questions. There’s nothing magical, certainly nothing metaphysically special about science. It’s just a tool, an extension of what human beings have been doing for tens of thousands of years to survive. Our survival depends upon our understanding the world. Once upon a time that meant figuring out an animal’s habitual movements, when bet to hunt, etc. Now, it’s about whether we can know both what an elementary particle’s position and spin are simultaneously (the answer continues to be no, by the way). Understanding is great. It also has its limits. The temptation to truth continues unabated.

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When I was in Seminary, a good friend of mine and I were talking about the on-going AIDS epidemic. This was at a time when the death toll and infection rate continued to be staggering. He mentioned that there were troubles within the deaf gay community, partly ones of understanding, partly of trust, due to an inability to communicate properly as well as deaf person’s wariness regarding the hearing population. I sat and pondered not so much the ways these people continued to face obstacles in getting information that would protect them; rather I pondered that there was such a thing as a community of deaf gay folks who faced their own unique struggles distinct both from other deaf folk and other gay folk. My ignorance didn’t render such a community unreal; it just made me ignorant.

Seminary was a time I came to understand just how limited my understanding of the world really was. Reading James Cone’s A Black Theology of Liberation was, the first time, a trial. I found him and his work to be unnecessarily hostile; I found his tone confrontational rather than inviting. After all, I thought, he was writing in the wake of the reality of Martin Luther King, Jr.! It was only when I realized, with something like revelation, that I was being offered the opportunity to see the world through a set of eyes that weren’t blue, from a skin that wasn’t white, within a history filled with dehumanization and death at the hands of a system bent on violence that I understood Cone. From that moment, I realized I had to set to one side what I thought I knew about the world. I know more knew stuff about the world than I could waltz. All I had was my own fairly limited, extremely limited perspective. The work of Cone, of Gustavo Gutierrez, of Mary Daly, of historians like Henry Louis Gates, of sociologists like my own sociology of religion professor James Shopshire while providing new understandings, were even more a precious gift: the gift to see the world from different angles, places the light refracted in strange ways and lives were lived that were fully human yet so different I could only consider with awe the simple ability to exist within a larger framework bent on diminishing these people (and others like them) and their accomplishments.

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One of the conceits of Biblical theology is that understanding the original languages of Scripture offer a unique understanding of the authors and their worlds. Contemporary understandings of language as historical artifacts rooted in real, historical communities hold as one of their theses that understanding another language – living or dead – offers an understanding of the society and culture that speaks or spoke it. A corollary, of course, is that “translation” is never a one-for-one match up between words in one language and words in another. Something as simple as “chair” in English does not have a correspondent across other human languages. Our word “chair” is embedded within a history of designations of particular pieces of furniture and their development; of skilled wood craft work; of distinct types of chairs and the uses to which they’re put. Knowing “chair” is “silla” in Spanish, “stuhl” in German, and “karekla” in Greek doesn’t offer readers the history of the word, how it relates to other words and other historical and cultural and social developments within those language-users. Believing that it does is one of the great misconceptions of our time, leading to all sorts of problems.

One of the best known, and over-used, bits of knowledge regarding the koine Greek of the New Testament is that the Greeks had three different words that correspond to the English word “love”. These are usually understood as “philia”, the kind of love that friends share; “agape”, or the selfless, self-giving love often demonstrated between persons with far deeper bonds; and, finally, “eros” usually considered as physical or sexual love. All this is true as far as it goes. I am quite sure philologists and specialists in Biblical language understand that these simple – and simplistic – equations hide all sorts of nuance and variety, that the words reflect no only distinct understandings rooted both in Greek thought as well as social practice but subtleties that are, by and large, opaque. Translation, we are often reminded, is interpretation, leaving the depth, the shadows shooting this way and that, of the original largely unseen and ungrasped.

We in early 21st century America face the daunting reality that our majority society and culture just doesn’t understand the variety of sub-cultures; we don’t understand how they see us, how they see the larger society, or even that they exist at all. We in the majority take for granted that whiteness, maleness, and religious Protestantism (both secularized and sacred) are the norm to which others “naturally” conform. When we discover this is not the case, the usual reaction is confusion. Why don’t women or black folk, our Native populations or the fast growing Latino population see the world the way do, or at least begin to conform to that way of understanding and living? Mutual mistrust and misunderstanding, fear and anger, and social and cultural acceptance of violence as a reaction to difference continue as barriers to working through our social pathologies.

With this being the case for people who work together, live side by side, worship together, do business with one another, I continue to wonder at how it is possible we believe it possible to understand a society buried under 2000 and more years of dirt and dust. How, for example, can we insist we understand the practices and relationships bound by words like “philia”, “agape”, and “eros”? How does that claim make these words meaningful for us – by far the more important question when appropriating Biblical texts?

At what point do we acknowledge that our understanding of other human societies, both contemporaneous and long in the past, is limited; that as much as we can learn about them, there will always be an opaqueness about them? When will we acknowledge, when it comes to reading and understanding and appropriating Biblical texts as sources for our current living, we should honor our ignorance as much as our understanding, remember the very real human lives hidden behind words whose fullness we will never understand? I mean, we living here in Rockford, IL refuse to understand the lives of folks who live a few miles away from us across the river; why do we think we understand the world of the authors of the Bible?

On Being A Christian In America

The idea that religion and politics don’t mix was invented by the Devil to keep Christians from running their own country. – Rev. Jerry Falwell

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It is becoming more and more difficult to consider oneself Christian and American. – FB comment

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See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves. – Matthew 10:16

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No church should feel safe to those who fear its message. Which might be why they are targeted by arsonists.

No church should feel safe to those who fear its message. Which might be why they are targeted by arsonists.

Nine people gathered to study the Bible are gunned down without mercy or remorse. Three churches housing predominantly African-American congregations are set ablaze by arsonists in three states in five days. As the  Supreme Court extends marital rights and responsibilities to all persons, many Christians rend their clothing, some declaring their willingness to martyr themselves in defiance of the law of the land. As our public mores continue to change, the role of the churches in shaping those mores seems to decline ever more. People of the Christian faith are nervous, wondering if being a Christian and an American is even possible.

We have always been a people of diverse faiths. Massachusetts may have been offered to the TULIP Calvinist Puritans, but Maryland was a Roman Catholic colony. The official religion of the Commonwealth of Virginia was the Church of England long after the War of Independence. Rhode Island was founded on the principle of freedom of conscience regarding religious belief. We have had Jews and pagans, Muslims and Japanese Shinto and Chinese animists and, of course, the variety of Native religious beliefs and practices, sometimes intermingling and cross-fertilizing with Christianity and other faiths. Still, our predominant civic faith is rooted in a secular version of the Calvinism that was at the heart of the Massachusetts Bay Colony when it was founded in 1620. In the centuries since, despite being officially secular and allegedly neutral in practice, our laws and public morals have walked hand in glove with a predominantly Protestant Christian sensibility. In my lifetime, most small towns were closed up on Sundays. Divorce, sex outside of marriage, the rights of women and minorities (including religious minorities such as Catholics, Jews, Orthodox, and others) were curbed by a legal system that reflected the preferences of the male, Protestant majority. We were, in many ways, a Christian nation in practice if not in name.

The past two generations have seen vast changes in that social, legal, and cultural landscape. While a vast majority of Americans claim some sort of religious allegiance, that number has dropped eight percent in a decade. While religious belief in some bland sense – an affirmation of the existence of God, however personally defined – continues, religious practice, adherence to even the most basic dogmas of the Church, and Biblical illiteracy are more the norm than the exception. We in the old mainline Protestant Churches – the United Methodists, the Presbyterians, the ELCA, the Disciples of Christ, the UCC/Congregational Churches – bemoan the graying of our congregations and continue to flail about as we search for something, anything, that will bring younger people back through our doors. The appeal of the church, it seems, is waning in tandem with the increasing separation of our social and cultural life from its influence.

What was once taken for granted is no longer the case. What once seemed an easy enough match up between our professed religious beliefs and our practiced social moral code now seems miles apart. We are, in the as Robert Heilein wrote, strangers in a strange land.

Which is as it should be.

When being a Christian is easy; when the state offers a silent nod of approval to the beliefs and practices of a particular religious faith; when we forget that our mission and ministry is rooted in conflict between the powers of this world that sent Christ to his death and the Spirit of God who raised Jesus from the dead; when these things occur, being church is no longer a matter of being ekklesia, those called out. Being an Episcopalian is no different from being a member of the Chamber of Commerce or Country Club; being a Methodist is no different than being police chief or mayor; being a Baptist is no different than being a teacher or plumber. To be a Christian is just to be. Our sense of separateness, our understanding of ourselves as those who are in faith through grace no longer has the emotional and spiritual power it should.

None of which means we should love our country, or our fellow citizens whose lives and beliefs and mores may be very different – even diametrically opposed! – a whit less. This is our home, this beautiful, baffling, contrary country of ours. I know my life is enriched by all the different people I have known, by the friendships I continue to cultivate, and the conversations and arguments I will always have with people who are very different than I am. That some of my friends think Christianity is kind of silly, well, that doesn’t have anything to do with me. That some practice their beliefs in ways very different from my own practice helps me see how limited my vision continues to be. I hold those I know who are Jewish or Muslim or some other faith in as high regard as my fellow Christians. Perhaps a bit more, knowing how difficult it can be to be observant of a minority religion in a society that more than occasionally is actively hostile to them.

Those African-Americans I know who live out their lives in faith humble me; attending worship with them reminds me of the singular power of Christian faith: the affirmation of humanity in the face of systemic dehumanization. African-American worship, at least in my experience, is rooted in joy and celebration because it is as the gathered people of God they become a people, people, not whatever the dominant society says they are. Black churches have always been targets for racist violence. White folk know it is here, in this place, all the things whites say about African-Americans – their fundamental evil,  their laziness and shiftlessness, the threat they pose to white society – is not only denied, but their humanity is affirmed. Nothing is more threatening to principalities and powers than a people who believe themselves to be a people.

I find irony in the sign on the burned church pictured above. A church building should always be considered a dangerous place. To be a Christian should never rest easily with our other social relationships. We should always be troubled in our secular life by the insistent demands of the faith. Whether we call ourselves liberal or conservative or whatever, we should never forget our primary identity as Christians forms a filter through which we observe and live out that secular life. Entering worship on Sundays should make us uneasy; leaving worship on Sundays should remind us why we are uneasy. To be Christian and American is to be a sheep among the most dangerous wolves imaginable: they aren’t just in sheep’s clothing, but in the clothing of the sheep from our own flock. Lest we ever get complacent, we should always remember those who have been murdered in places of worship over the years; remember the church buildings set ablaze; remember that, increasingly, to be a Christian is to be thought someone who considers him- or herself better than others, rather than someone who is a servant to others.

Ours is a world filled with hazards. Our faith calls us to love and serve that world in humility. The transformation for which we work will never be voted upon, nor negotiated. It is the slow, steady work of millions of hands over many years, under the power of our loving, saving, ever-creating God. If that doesn’t make folks uneasy, I don’t know what will.

No One Ever Listens

Michael, Rena, Nalin and I are praying for the victims and families touched by tonight’s senseless tragedy at Emanuel AME Church. While we do not yet know all of the details, we do know that we’ll never understand what motivates anyone to enter one of our places of worship and take the life of another. Please join us in lifting up the victims and their families with our love and prayers. – South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, Statement on Charleston church shooting

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Why can’t we simply grieve and pray for the families of the victims of the shooting in South Carolina? Instead, whenever one of these tragic events happen, we are immediately inundated with polarizing political punditry from both the left and the right. I don’t want a “conversation” about race, guns, or whether more mass murders are left wing or right wing. If your first thought isn’t for the victims or their families, then maybe you should remain silent rather than rush to make your political point while standing in a puddle of blood. – Post from a Facebook friend (and childhood neighbor)

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Violence is a part of America’s culture. It is as American as cherry pie. – H. Rap Brown

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I heard someone on the news say, “Tragedy has visited this church.” This wasn’t a tornado. This was racist. This was a guy with a Rhodesia badge on his sweater. You know. So the idea—I hate to even use this pun, but this one is black and white. There is no nuance here. And we’re going to keep pretending, like, ‘I don’t get it, this one guy lost his mind.’ But we are steeped in that culture in this country and we refuse to recognize it. I cannot believe how hard people are working to discount it. . . .

Nine people were shot in a black church by a white guy who hated them, who wanted to start some sort of civil war. The confederate flag flies over South Carolina and the roads are named after confederate generals and the white guy is the one who feels like his country is being taken away from him. We’re bringing it on ourselves. And that’s the thing. Al-Qaeda, ISIS, they’re not shit compared to the damage that we can do to ourselves on a regular basis. – Jon Stewart, The Daily Show

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I sang this song a hundred, maybe a thousand years ago.

No one ever listens. I just play my song and then I go. – Kansas, “Miracles Out Of Nowhere”, lyrics by Kerry Livgren

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We would so much prefer not to see victims of gunfire. Sorry, but we have to.

We would so much prefer not to see victims of gunfire. Sorry, but we have to.

I didn’t want to write this today. In fact, I thought long and hard before sitting down to put down on screen what I am thinking. Everyone and their brother’s sister-in-law will offer opinions, views, make declarative absolute statements about everything from race relations to Second Amendment rights to a preference not to “politicize” such horrible violence. There will be millions of words pouring on to computers around the country that plea for all of us to turn away from the violence, not to look at what happens when human bodies are cruelly violated by bullets, to just shut up and cry and forget everything else. We are really good at that, we Americans. We are so well trained to glance away from violence, to turn our ears from the wailing and screaming.

After the shooting in Newtown, CT, I did something really stupid. I started demanding we repeal the Second Amendment the Constitution. Circumstances that day, however, brought out the worst in me. I sat in my office that cold December day, trying to work while also trying to stay abreast of events. I refused to consider the worst was the case. When the news broke that 20 small children were among the 26 dead, I went numb. That afternoon, when I go home, I hugged my daughters and fought back tears. I was enraged. I was terrified. The thought that still haunts me, families burying their small children the week before Christmas, presents that would never be opened, voices of happiness singing carols and laughing when the best present ever were opened falling forever silent, was in the front of my mind. I reacted, and for that I apologize.

The problem, really, isn’t the Second Amendment. I will say right here and now that firearms aren’t an issue. Not really. Like hammers, they’re just tools. They’re not magical devices that make otherwise sane, rational people suddenly decide to kill. Nor are they talismans in the hands of the insane. They’re just tools. Some of these tools were made for the sole purpose of killing other human beings, to be sure. That does not mean, however, they are the problem.

We’re the problem.

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Many societies believe that names are powerful things. A person’s name tells others who that person is. Ancient Hebrew religious belief placed such a high value on names the God of the Hebrews refused to offer such a name. Reference to the God of the Hebrews was oblique, referencing what God did without ever saying who God was.

In the same way, long-standing Roman Catholic practice in the Rite of Exorcism is to demand the demon give the Exorcist it’s name. Once the demon has surrendered its name, the exorcist has power over it and expelling it becomes far easier. Names have power, you see.

We Americans, by and large, refuse to name our demons. We won’t look them in the eye. We’re terrified that saying the name will only make them appear. We would far prefer mundane words are used, that no one says anything that might bring to light the horrible monsters that eat at our soul. Many of us demand silence from those who insist we need to invoke the names of our demons. For the most part, we don’t want an exorcism. Isn’t it terribly modern to insist demons don’t exist, that Exorcism is the residue of some kind of magical thinking that no longer applies?

The terror behind all this is fear the demons are all too real. We see them all the time. We hear their voices. We know what evil they wreak. Too many of us feel helpless, scared these demons might find their way to us, leaving us strangers to our better natures. The faces we see are just too familiar for us to rest easy these creatures will pass us by.

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A young man comes to a Wednesday night Bible Study. Of course he is welcomed. Why wouldn’t he be welcomed? An hour passes. What goes through that young man’s mind, well, we’ll probably never know for sure. Was he building up courage? Was he waiting for some particular moment? Do these things matter in the end? You see, in the end, he pulled out a firearm and killed nine people. He killed them because they were black and he white. He killed them because black bodies have always been targets for white people. Black women can be raped by white men at will and whim; a black man would pay for his life by speaking to a white woman. Black men were strung up, emasculated, burned, beaten, their deaths the focus of community gatherings, a kind of rite of social purification at which people took photos, fighting for a place by the corpse. To pretend these realities played no role in what happened Wednesday night in Charleston is to refuse to see our national demon.

People who don’t want to see this demon, well, I get it. Who wants to look at our national ugliness so clearly? Who wants to admit they share in our on-going national mental illness? Who wants to be tagged racist or bigot? Who wants others looking at him or her with fear or disgust? As long as we continue the pretense that we are good people, that we Americans are A Good People, then we can dismiss events such as the shooting in Charleston as unfathomable tragedy. As long as we don’t see the black bodies pierced by bullets, their beauty disfigured by violence and hatred, the blood everywhere, we can mourn without really knowing what it is to die as an African-American in America. We can mourn, we can pray, and then we can forget all about it because making fun of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian – a black man marrying a white woman, something that offends our national sensibilities to no end; let’s not forget he’s a black man who refuses to be silent or humble like we expect black men to behave, and she is portrayed as a whore because only a whore would be willing to marry a black man – is so much more important than considering how it might be possible that these folks might not have died in vain.

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Our history of racial violence is not something that ended with Lee’s surrender at Appomatox Courthouse. It didn’t end with the Supreme Court decision Brown, et. al. v Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Folks didn’t suddenly embrace African-Americans as equals when Pres. Johnson signed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Too many people dismiss the realities of the daily humiliations and fears of our fellow Americans as the creations of fake demons we call “race hustlers” and “reverse racists”.  There are so many people who will console us with the false peace of easy answers, or refusals to talk about what’s going on, or who will point at a young white person killed by an African-American. These are all actions of our national demon. That demon doesn’t just kill; it lies, it offers us blindness masquerading as comfort, and tells us stories with just enough truth to keep us from asking difficult questions.

This isn’t about some “Other” who is racist, as opposed to we well-intentioned and certainly good white folks. This isn’t about making distinctions between “black thugs” and “innocents dying in Church” so that our conscience isn’t troubled by the need to mourn all the deaths by violence of African-Americans. Until we all say this demon’s name, own it, and say that it possesses all of us, we are no closer to being able to get rid of it than any other time. Until we can look at photographs of bodies torn apart by bullets and see our brothers and sisters lying there, surrounded by their life-blood spattered everywhere, we are going to continue to hear stories of more people dying. Because black bodies have always been the property of whites, rage and fear will push others to destroy that property. Racism and all that is bound to it; violence as American as cherry pie; our refusal to name what ails us, to confront it without fear; these are staring us in the face from Charleston, SC.

Do we look away?

I have a feeling we will.