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


"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.


Stories First


Stories First

Stories come before theology.

I know it's ironic to begin this post with a propositional statement instead of a narrative, but that's the dogma that's been running through my brain these days as our life has been plunged into upheaval over the past month.

In case you missed the memo: Josh, Marshall, and I gave away most of our furniture and threw the rest of our worldly goods into a UHaul and moved from Chicago to Philadelphia so that I could start my new job at Red Letter Christians. Our life is still packed away in boxes since we won't be moving into a more permanent apartment until the beginning of October. When I packed most of my books, I accidentally packed away my writing pad, too. I see that boxed notepad as a metaphor for my humanity, which has gone into hibernation for a spell. There’s just no time or space to devote to book writing at the moment, and in the absence of my craft, I feel stymied (though writing this blog helps me to breathe a little).

But back to my propositional pontificating on stories.

It's not that stories should come first (though this is probably also true), but stories do come first. Of course, there isn't always a clean line between story and theology, but I think of theology as reflection–the ordering or explanation–that takes place after the dust settles. We had the experience, but missed the meaning. The reflection helps us to make sense of the experience–to explicate its meaning. Our past experiences collide with the present ones, and our theology is what comes when we begin to sort that out. So theology is important, but it doesn't come first.

I used to think that we start (or should start) with theology and view our experiences through those lenses. Now I realize that we begin with stories, plunged from birth into a world of sensations and relationships that we try to make sense of as time passes.

When it comes to the stories of the Bible, we may want to come with a clean slate, but this is not how relationships work, nor does it reflect the reality of Jesus' incarnation. We come with our stories, our histories, our interpretations. As we read the Bible–or encounter the stories of Israel and Jesus through a friend–we begin to see how these collide with our story, and how our story collides with them. They do not erase our story, nor does our story erase the story of Jesus embodied in scripture and the history of God's people. Jesus' story interrupts ours, and our story interrupts his.

I now work as an assistant to man who is, among other things, a professional story-teller. He travels and speaks, and often begins his messages with stories. And as I hear him speak, I realize that what makes him such a good speaker is that the stories he tells are not illustrations for theology. The stories are the message, whether they are stories from scripture or stories from his life or the lives of those around him (often a mix of both). The theology becomes an explication of those stories, an unpacking of the meaning. The stories are not a stepping stone to the theology, but the root of it.

If God had wanted an uninterrupted story or set of unchangeable propositions–a monolithic narrative or unmalleable theology–he would not have made us creative creatures that make decisions and shape the course of history. If he wanted an uninterrupted story, he would have made us machines that work but have no freedom, or he would have made us free and left us to our own devices. He does neither. He insists that this is not just his story nor is it just ours. He creates the human world and enters it–first through creation, then through his dealings with Israel and then–most intimately–through Jesus, God made flesh.

Stories come first. The Gospel–the ‘announcement’ or ‘proclamation’–of Jesus the Christ (‘the Messiah’) is the height of a series of stories that began long ago. The four canonical Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) contain some of the earliest traditions about how Jesus’ story collided with the story of Israel and how the experiences of Jesus’ followers collided with Jesus. Although the letters of the Apostle Paul were in circulation before the four Gospels were written, these Gospels are based largely on stories that people were already telling in the community about Jesus. Paul takes the stories of Jesus and begins to unpack them for the new faith communities that are springing up across the Mediterranean world, explaining the narrative and theological significance of Jesus’ life–significance that had only just started coming to light.

Stories come first. Stories should not compete with theology, but be the basis of theological reflection–and then that reflection, in turn, begins to shape and re-shape our stories as the stories are told again and again in new ways and in new communities. Stories are not (primarily) illustrations for theology, but the soil where the seed of experience begins to be nourished by the water and sun of reflection.


Divine and Human Space: Shall I Say It Again?


Divine and Human Space: Shall I Say It Again?

It's three weeks until the comprehensive exams, so I imagine I'll spend much of the coming week (Spring break) studying, but I wanted to take this weekend to type up the rest of the handwritten and hand-edited portions of the second draft of my book. It turns out that I've managed to get through roughly two-thirds of this second draft even with all the busyness of school and motherhood, editing out approximately ten thousand words and adding about the same.

The following is the very last section of the book's most recent iteration. I am not sure if I will end up keeping it (it may be a bit too "obvious" for the rest of the book's tenor). I'm not even sure if I agree with all the theology in it. Nonetheless, I'm glad I wrote it, as it is helpful for me to keep the book focused on what I want it to be about.  So, for those of you who asked what the book is about, this is it. Enjoy.

Divine and Human Space

As I near the end of this small book of fragmented narratives, I find Eliot’s refrain from The Four Quartets turning over in my mind: You will say I am repeating / Something I have said before / I shall say it again / Shall I say it again?  To say it again, however, I must determine what I said.  What did I mean to say?  And what have I actually said?  To determine what I meant to say, I must go back to the beginning.

You thought I began with my lineage: the space bequeathed to me by Christianity and Judaism, the religious legacy of my parents.  And so I did.  That is what I said.  But what did I mean?

I meant: if I were to trace my origins, the place of my birth, I would have to go back to my Creator, the divine being who came to earth as a human being.  I was born on his land, in his home.  He is my father, my mother, my resting place.  The God who set up shop in this world is the same God who will renovate it in the end: Jesus.  The earth is God’s temple, but Jesus is his temple, too.

God did not wish to demolish his temple, though it had become a wasteland because of human sin.  So, instead, he tore down Jesus, all the while planning to raise him up again so that the whole world could live in him.

Jesus is where I begin.

But what precisely, what really, have I said?

My point–my life, my hope, my joy–is the simple yet baffling reality that God has built his house among humans.  The Eastern Orthodox Christians have a turn of phrase that sums up the incarnation nicely: “God became man so that man might become God.”

Now, of course, when they say “man might become God,” they don’t mean that humans become the ontological equivalent of the Creator God or that they supplant his unique divine status.  They mean that humans become “deified” in the sense that Adam and Even were meant to be “like God” in Eden–being and doing in small what God is and does in large.  If we put this in spatial terms, we might say: “God lived in human space so that humans could live in divine space.”  Jesus left his Father’s house in heaven to come be with us.

When I was a girl, I thought the story of my life with Jesus was all about sin.  In some sense, it was, but this was not the beginning nor the heart of the matter.  The beginning of the story was not my sin, but God’s act of love in building the world for his creatures to enjoy, a divine house–a temple–where humans could work and dance before the divine.  And there was hope of immortality in God’s good land through the Tree of Life that God planted in the garden of Eden.

And you know the story after that–how our spiritual ancestors were told they didn’t need God in order to inhabit divine space, that they could be gods of their own temple instead of images in Yahweh’s temple. 

And so I was born into the world thinking, like my ancestors, that I could be queen of my own space, the center of my own little world.  I was not beholden to those who came before me or those who would come after me.  I had no obligation to share space with my neighbor or any deep sense that everything I owned had been given to me by someone else–that there was no “my land,” “my house,” “my space,” only God’s space.

But God looked at me–looked at us–shook his head, and said, Not good.  I will show them what it looks like to share space.  I will visit them again.  Though they sought to exile me from this land, to shove me back into heaven, I will come to them.  I will teach them how to live in divine space, how to be at peace in the world again.

And so for years and years he came to us in many different ways.  He spoke to Cain and Noah and Abraham.  He even appeared to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre, Yahweh announcing to the patriarch his promise of a son.  He showed his face to Jacob as they wrestled by the River Jabbok.  God showed himself to Moses on Mt Sinai and disclosed his words to Israel through the giving of the law.  His presence came upon the tabernacle, his glory filled the Israelite temple.  He spoke to us through the words and visions of prophets.

Then, in the fullness of time, he came to us in his son, Jesus.

As I write this, my son dozes beside me in his stroller, his tiny lids fluttering open now and then only to once again close in deep sleep.  How little he knows about the world he has entered.  For nine months, he has known only the compact, comforting space of my womb, where he was always fed, always secure.

For nine months, I shared my body with him, though he knew it only as his own space.  But now he must relearn his dependence on me and learn to participate.  I will feed him, but he must also learn to eat.  Day by day, he will grow bigger and develop a sense of independence from me–that we are two separate human beings sharing divine space.

My mother used to write to us in little notebooks when we were young, hoping to give us a sense of our infancy when we were older.  I carry on this tradition, every so often jotting down short notes in Marshall’s notebook, telling him about himself and sharing with him my hopes and dreams for his life.

I tell him that I want him to be able to pursue the activities that intrigue him the most, knowing that God loves it when we cultivate his good gift of creation and human activity.  I tell him that a full life is a thankful life, a life lived in gratitude to God for coming to live with us.

Most of all, my dear, sweet boy, I want you to know Christ and the re-creative power of his resurrection.  I want you to know the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, in his broken body.  We are dying already, you know–me, you, Dad, everyone.  We will suffer no matter what.  We will die one day, whether that happens tomorrow or one hundred years from now.  But when God came to live with us, he came to die with us, too.  And he promised that if we would suffer and die with him, that we would also be raised from the dead in order to live with him forever on this earth.  This, my Marshall–my love, my life–is my prayer for you.  Christ became like you–may you become like him.