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"I'm Not Political, But..."

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"I'm Not Political, But..."

I'm a little hesitant to post anything not related to politics on social media these days. I don't have much faith in social media to renew the soul, but I think it can be a really great tool for activists and community organizers. It's useful for networking and disseminating information quickly. So I try to use it mostly for that (and promoting my author page).

Mostly. Sometimes I post other things, but it feels a little schizophrenic given the current climate. I mean: is the apocalypse nigh or are we just so excited about these cutesy cat videos and this triple-thick-gooey-delight chocolate cake recipe? 

Probably both. The world is ending and we lust after that Smitten Kitchen cake of fudge-y goodness. In every age the world has been ending, and this is worth holding in perspective. War, sickness, and poverty are a part of every age.

At the same time, however, this does not make all ages or communities equal. Just because the world is always coming to an end does not mean the fallout is the same for everyone. I don't think anyone is safe under Trump's unchecked authority, but I am among the people least unsafe. I am white. I am straight. I am highly educated. I am (lower) middle class. I have massive school debt, but no other debt thanks to well-endowed relatives. I am not wealthy or financially stable, but I am not in danger of being without a home or unable to pay my bills. I have healthcare benefits through work. I am not in danger of having my house of worship burned down or experience a hate crime because of my skin color. As a woman, I experience many of the negative effects of patriarchy, but still benefit from whiteness. My experience of patriarchy is not analogous to the experiences of women of color.

We are all in this together in some sense, but we're not all equally threatened by Trump's rule. I think all post-evangelicals and many other communities (religious or otherwise) are experiencing trauma because of Trump's ascent--I don't discredit or minimize that. When one part of the body is wounded, it can threaten the whole body. However, people (both individuals and communities) experience traumatic events differently because of their social and historical location. As a white woman, I belong to the group that's always been on top. Historically, I am part of the oppressors and continue to benefit from the privileges of a country structured around the needs of white people (more specifically white men, but the structure still has benefits available to me that perpetuate oppression for people of color). I've written about this a little already (you can read some half-baked reflections here).

I am experiencing trauma, but it not the same in kind as the trauma experienced by people of color or others directly affected by Trump's actions. I should also say that the trauma experienced by people and communities of color will be unique depending on the specific histories. The trauma wrought by the attempted genocide of Native Americans will not be identical to the trauma caused by the African slave trade in America, and naturally individuals and families within each community will have their own unique stories. However, all experience the trauma of the oppressed, which is very different from the trauma of being the oppressor.

My trauma--and I'd venture to say that of many white people--is evidenced either by flat out denial or a mixture of disbelief and horror at what we've done (accompanied by a sense of betrayal). I feel betrayed by the white evangelical community of my youth because I believed that it was mostly good and right about things, and has turned out, in its ignorance, to perpetuate systemic evil. (It's not just white evangelicalism that's the problem, it's whiteness in general, but white evangelicalism turned out to be rich soil for seeds of whiteness to grow.) I feel angry at my own complicity and yet not always sure what to do about it.  I'm still thinking through how best to channel that anger and turn it into something useful, something that can help heal the damage done by white supremacy.

This type of trauma is easy to ignore (though it has and will continue to catch up to us, hopefully before judgment day). Oppressors are allowed the luxury of forgetting. In fact, forgetting is integral to perpetuating oppression. In order to justify oppression, we engage in selective memory. There's a big difference between "The Civil War" and the "War of Northern Aggression." The same war, but remembered very differently. In order to justify genocide of Native Americans, our white ancestors "forgot" that the Native peoples were people, calling them "savages" in order to absolve whites of guilt. The same logic justified slavery in America. Our ancestors remembered only a racialized narrative that distinguished between types of human beings and deemed that only the white human lives mattered. These narratives are still alive today, evident in atrocities like mass incarceration, but white people have forgotten that these narratives exist. We have lost our ability to distinguish them as narratives, and false ones at that, because they support our existence and status in society. For us, these false racialized narratives are just "normal life."

That is the forgetful privilege of being white, why we can blithely say "all lives matter" without remembering the historical context, that historically only white lives have mattered, and that "black lives matter" is calling us out on this. By saying "all lives matter," we fail to acknowledge that "all lives" has historically been shorthand for "white lives," and in so doing reassert that only white lives matter.

I heard one woman say  during the election that, while she didn't like Trump at all, she was glad Trump's candidacy has brought a lot of America's issues to the surface. She's right in one sense. As I heard Mark Charles say at a talk last year, Trump is forcing America to decide whether it wants its racial bias to remain implicit or become explicit. But I wanted to say to her (and probably should have): "These issues were already at the surface. It's us, it's white folks who didn't notice. Everyone else knew we had problems because our "normal" meant their oppression." Now the white man even gets credit for raising awareness of racism--how colonialist is that?

What does all this have to do with recipes and cat videos?

I grew up in an environment that made it hard to distinguish between ages, both on a personal level and on a broader plane. Because God was "in control" that meant that anything we experienced was a divine appointment, so it couldn't really be bad (ultimately). This was how we viewed sin, too. Since Jesus wiped all our sins away, that meant we never had to confess or deal with anything we did that damaged the world. A blank slate. A carte blanche.

These are slight exaggerations, but not much--my evangelical community suffered from a really bad case of functional gnosticism. It made it really hard to make a judgment call on anything or know what we were supposed to feel. How could we ever be comfortable feeling sad or angry or anything but happy and grateful if God was in charge of our lot and God was good? By pinning everything on God, we abdicated our responsibility to act in the world, and take responsibility for the effects of our actions. We became timeless, unable to distinguish between times, to see cause and effects in history. A communal case of Alzheimer's. The complex legacy of white supremacy found in evangelicalism a space to grow because it already believed in itself as timeless and absolute, abstractly true, good, and beautiful, instead of time-bound and relative.

I'm not suggesting we stop posting cat videos or that our newsfeed must always swirl with head-splitting news and political posts. I think more than anything else we can accomplish via social media, we need people engaged on the ground, for the long haul. But I'm also keenly aware that one demographic of my Facebook (i.e., the white one) is primarily posting Pinterest-y stuff or apolitical humor, and the other part (mainly people of color and LGBTQ+ friends) are following and commenting on every detail of the current political climate. This concerns me not because Facebook actually matters, but because it feels indicative of a larger problem of forgetfulness. I hope that tons of white people are having great conversations off of social media with people of color (the face to face is better anyway), but I'm concerned that the social media silence is indicative of white forgetting. I'm afraid it really means we just don't care about the political havoc because we're the least negatively affected by it on the surface.

When we claim that we are "not political" we are not being apolitical at all. Instead, we are tapping into that privilege that white people in this country have always experienced--the luxury of thinking we are timeless, apolitical, without beginning or end in the broader sweep of history. In truth, we are and have been active and complicit in oppression. The very fact that we say we are apolitical is a political (and, for Christians, a theological) statement. We are saying very clearly that we are comfortable forgetting our whiteness and how it benefits us and disadvantages everyone else. We are once again pretending that we can remove ourselves from the world--away from history, away from cause and effect, away from the dire consequences of white supremacy.

Christians should view this as a bastardization of the Gospel of Jesus. Jesus had no interest in quitting the world or rescuing us out of it, but rather rescues us into it. In Jesus, God chose to become human, time-bound, local, specific, political. His life, death, and resurrection runs counter to a gnostic Gospel message that views the material world and human action (culture, creation, etc.) as irredeemable. Instead, he becomes flesh and affirms materiality, not to whisk his followers away to another world, but to usher in God's kingdom on earth. A kingdom of justice and equity. A kingdom of liberation for the oppressed, freedom from sin and all its effects, including relational ills on all levels: personal, corporate, and systemic.

This gospel challenges us to lean into the present and act in ways that will build up the world. Our hope is not in any of the current political systems or parties, and our allegiance is not to our country's president or government. But let's not forget that our allegiance is to the king whose kingdom may not be from this world, but is still in and for this world. The kingdom from God is no less than a human kingdom, ushered in by a human king.

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

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My Science Textbooks, the Demagogue, and God's Missing Body (1)

Part 1 of a 4-part post. Here are parts 2, 3, and 4.

A demagogue rises to power in my country and begins to quash freedom of the press, and all I can think about is how my science textbooks told me global warming was a myth.

An odd patch of memory on which to fixate. I have other, more pleasant (or at least more interesting) memories of my science education: the warm, enthused faces of my science teachers (moms and dads from my homeschool group), the unnerving dissection of a frog, the thrill of doing research and experiments for a biology project on smell and emotional memory.

Global warming. Our textbooks–I can't remember if they were put out by Bob Jones University Press or A Beka–took great pains to remind us of a fact we already knew: global warming was a myth. Like evolution, there was no real science to back it up, it was nothing but a meaningless speculation. The fact that there was consensus among most scientists about the reality of global warming meant nothing: most scientists did not know God.

There is nothing–I surmise in retrospect–inherently contradictory about these two statements:

  1. God is real.

  2. Global warming is real.

Nor is there any innate philosophical tension between these:

  1. God created the world.

  2. The world was created through the process of evolution.

The first is a statement of origins, the second is one of process. They are not mutually exclusive.

And yet global warming and evolution were both seen as threats to Christian faith by the evangelical community of my youth. If embraced, they would poke holes in a very intricate, locked system of how we read the Bible. Because we equated true faith with adherence to that system, if the system fell, faith would, too.

So we bunkered down and waited for the apocalypse. For some, apocalypse was quite literally imminent, and they literally bunkered down. For others, the bunkering mentality manifested itself as a refusal to engage with any ideas or people outside our circle unless it was for the express purpose of "witnessing" to them to convert them and bring them into the fold. And that kind of interaction isn't real engagement, isn’t a posture of turning, seeing, and knowing–it's a posture of control.

Accepting global warming was dangerous–a concession to the atheist scientists who crafted their godless theories of evolution to prove that God was dead.

I write about these memories knowing that people and movements are complex, and North American evangelicalism is no different in that respect.  But it's the very complexity, and the ease with which we all became subsumed into the monolith of ideas that makes me angry. We can perpetuate lies simply by inhabiting systems and never challenging them. 

Anger at institutions–religious, political, collegiate or otherwise–is a tangled mess to unravel because you know there are individuals within this broader body who both represent the body and at the same time rail against it. Their very presence within the body is like new wine in old wine skins. They threaten to make the whole thing burst, collapse.

I know many thoughtful evangelicals, both leaders and lay folks, who speak out and prophesy against untruth and injustice. People who denounce the demagogue and urge those who worship him to turn their eyes from this idol.

And I know that even some of the less thoughtful folks are more than this terrifying spectacle.

But the problem of the monolith remains: the great mass that was instrumental in Trump's ascent.

I am livid. White-hot rage. Blood-spitting anger.

I don’t know why people are surprised by evangelical support of Trump’s ascent. "We threw a bunch of gold in the fire, and out came this graven image!"

No, Trump didn’t come out of nowhere. Trump was waiting to happen. It was only a matter of time before a god of glittering gold arose, a god we shaped to look like us, to embody our values, to show our true hand.

A friend asks me why I am still a Christian. This question leads to so many more. What is a Christian? And whatever that is, am I still that? If it means inhabiting a corporate religious body, can I justify being a Christian?

What is a Christian?

The catechetical answer to what is a Christian might go something like this: anyone baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is part of the covenant community of the church. (The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches might view the other major branches of Christendom as “brothers in error,” but still kin in the faith.) Most Christian traditions have a public affirmation following baptism when a person comes to a certain age, something that expresses that person’s willing commitment to continue participating in the covenant community into which they were initiated through baptism.

In liturgical traditions, this is called “confirmation,” a sealing of the covenant that was created in holy baptism. In anti-liturgical traditions like the ones I grew up in, the public affirmation is often the baptism itself (“believers’ baptism”), sometimes accompanied by a verbal testimony of how the believer came to faith.

These practices recognize and try to remedy an inherent tension in any body, be it social, religious or political (or a mix–it’s always a mix, isn’t it?): the individual’s participation in (and conflict with) the larger structure. We live and move in relation to social bodies, but also exist as individuals, distinct persons, and cannot be reduced to the bodies we inhabit. Individuals participate in systems, but are not always true to them (I’ll talk a little more about what being “true” means below). Confirmation and other public affirmations of the faith attempt to express the individual’s willingness to try to be true to the communal body which they have entered, whether that entry was by choice (believer’s baptism) or by the choice of your family (infant baptism).

This tension between the individual and the larger frame of the corporate body was present even in the evangelical tradition in which I was raised. We railed against the externals of the Catholics (who we believed were trying to work their way to God), but at the same time had our own sets of external motions that were needed to verify and legitimize “true faith.” We all knew individuals, Christians who “talked the talk” without “walking the walk,” and viewed this as a divergence from true faith as defined by the values of the corporate body. One side of our rhetoric denied the necessity of individual action, while another side of our rhetoric created its own web of moral hoops through which to jump to achieve true faith. You didn’t need to dress a certain way, refrain from using curse words or watching certain movies to please God–God would accept you. But if you wanted the church body to accept you, you most certainly did.

God was weirdly wed to his body and estranged from it all at once. We could create our own body and rules for it without explicitly pinning its creation on God, but still wield the rules as divine authority since it was through us–in our communal body–that God was to be found in the world. God would still love you if you were outside the body, but if you wanted to encounter God, you had to get past us, jump through all our hoops. If you wanted to experience God, you needed to go to the True Body, and to get there, you had to be true to that body.

This was the conundrum of God’s body. I couldn’t meet with God apart from his body. But I’ve always been at a loss as to where exactly God’s body is to be found.

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