Yay World Vision!

This week we saw a damning public display of discrimination in the name of Jesus. Slow clap for World Vision. As would be expected, I have a few thoughts.

First, the events of this week are shameful. From World Vision–a spineless reversal motivated by money. From conservatives–the retraction of perhaps millions of dollars to “help” those who are poor. From liberals–using people who are poor to make political statements. Shame on all of you.

As you may already know, I think the Christians who, in the name of God, insist on bigotry and discrimination against gay people are on the wrong side of history and theology. This week’s shameful Christian outcry against a policy of non-discrimination and World Vision’s subsequent retraction is horrifying to me. In no way am I endorsing their behavior.

But I am thrilled that this all went down. I have never been a fan of World Vision. Their model is untested, with little objective empirical data to demonstrate the effectiveness of their programs. They objectify poor children and market them to support their efforts at development. The dignity, agency, autonomy, and power inherent in every human being is flattened into a pathetic picture of a helpless (black) child who can do nothing without help from the great (Western) savior. Such an image is good for raising funds, shitty for actually fixing the problem. And the events of this week demonstrate this.

If supporting a poor child is merely a marketing strategy when you  make a PR slip that commodified child can be easily replaced by another commodified child from another organization.

But I did not need this week’s events to know that World Vision, a Christian aid and development agency, exists for itself. Their longstanding practice of giving away the Super Bowl loser t-shirts is roundly criticized by anyone who knows what good aid looks like. It looks good to Charity Navigator (often a specious measurement tool) because World Vision can claim that they received a $2 million dollar gift (100,000 t-shirts with a “market value” of $20 each) and then distribute that gift relatively cheaply. But… is the gift really worth $2 million? Those shirts are useless, with no value whatsoever in the US (the NFL prohibits the sale of said t-shirts). The NFL can continue to overproduce things that are unnecessary (do we really need our Superbowl Champion t-shirts the day after the Super Bowl?) and look like really good guys by giving a $2 million donation. World Vision looks like an effective charity with low overhead, rich white men pat themselves on the back. Win-win, right? Except that no one really needs a Super Bowl loser t-shirt in Africa. Yes, World Vision has helped give us the impression that these are helpless, useless poor people with no idea how to clothe themselves. But that is just absurd.

They further lost credibility last year when they actively lobbied against food aid reform. Current policy is that food aid be grown in the US and shipped overseas on US vessels. The inherent waste and ineffectiveness of such an approach is obvious. But it is good for US farmers and shipping companies. And World Vision. So when President Obama proposed that as much as 25% of our food aid be locally sourced, World Vision stood in the way. Even though as many as 10 million more people could have been fed by such a policy.

So now you know why I am glad. I hope they lose millions more and that those millions go to more reputable organizations like Church World Service, Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran World Relief, and other such agencies that respect the dignity and agency of people, regardless of their economic status or sexual orientation.

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Jesus Was Right to Call Us Sheep

So a new Jesus movie is opening this weekend on 3,000 screens. And Christians of many (conservative) stripes are thrilled about it. I hear rumblings about peoples lives being changed by seeing the film. Mega churches are renting out stadiums for church members to bring their unsaved friends. As if no one in the U.S. has heard or seen this hackneyed presentation of Christianity. Jesus, a white dudebro with great hair and teeth and stands up to the evil dark skinned Jews. We love us some White Savior with great teeth.

Dudebro Jesus

News flash: we have heard this story and this understanding of Jesus has little (if any) use for us today. This Jesus has been roundly rejected in the Global North. Not because we are godless pagans (though some of us are) but because the questions of the movie are fundamentally irrelevant to our daily being and doing. Yes, christological debates were huge among the elite in the third and fourth centuries. Today? Not so much. I am daily confronted with the impotence of the church when it comes to the great horrors of our time, especially poverty and inequality rooted in various forms of discrimination. I will spare you the litany. And yet here we find churches expending considerable time, energy, and money… to basically line the pockets of Hollywood bigs. Sheep indeed. Forming new sheep. 

A few other (minorish) beefs:

  1. British accents! WTF??? (Also, WTF with only the bad guys having British teeth?)
  2. Written and directed by people with NO theological training. But Roma Downey did play an angel in a TV series with HORRIBLY SHITTY theology.
  3. The mishmash of all the Gospels into a single story… Doesn’t anyone listen to Irenaeus anymore? (Maybe that is not such a bad thing…)

Thanks to @danielsilliman for his post on the marketing of the film and the many links therein. The vitriol and frustration are my own. Which is perhaps a topic for exploration later.

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5 Minute Post: Ken Ham’s Biblical Interpretation Is as Clumsy as his Science

Tonight Ken Ham and Bill Nye will face off to debate the origins of life. The whole exercise is a farce. James McGrath (@ReligionProf) has posted numerous pieces illustrating the absurdity of Young Earth Creationism (the idea that the world was created in six literal days about 6,000 years ago) and I refer you to his blog to explore the multitude of reasons why such a view is entirely untenable. In this quick post I want to simply draw attention to the fact that Ken Ham’s ideas are thoroughly unbiblical. The irony here is that his website “Answers in Genesis” has the proud tagline, “Believing it. Defending it. Proclaiming it.” Well, dear sir, maybe you should actually know what “it” says. As a public service, here is a tutorial.

1) Genesis 1-11 narrates three events of creation. Only one of them is concerned with six days. Gen 1:1-2:4 is a distinct creation story and it is written with theological not historical intent. The author organizes the account around six days of creation to affirm God’s sovereignty (compare this account to the popular ancient creation account, the Enuma Elish, for example) and the holiness of the seventh day. There is no concern with science or history here, these concepts did not even exist as we know them. To read it as such is to impose a hermeneutic that the text itself does not demand (and one that Mr. Ham seems to be oblivious to).

2) The second distinct creation story (Gen 2:4-25) uses a different title for God (LORD God in Gen 2 vs. God in Gen 1), has a different order of creation (e.g., humans early on vs. humans last), and a different mode of creation (molding vs. speaking). The number of days required for the events to unfold are unclear. The original editors of Gen 1-11 saw these discrepancies and inserted a toledoth formula (“these are the generations of”) to announce that we are dealing with different accounts (for other examples of this strategy, see e.g., Gen 5:1, 10:1, 11:27). In short, the Bible itself does not tell a single story of creation in a set number of days.

3) The third account of creation (still in the first 9 chapters of Genesis!) is following the flood when God again makes a wind blow over the waters (Gen 8:1), reissues the command to be fruitful and to multiply (Gen 9:1), and reiterates that humans are created in the image of God (Gen 9:6). Again the time frame is irrelevant and the concerns are theological and moral.

4) Leaving Genesis, we see that creation is described in many ways throughout the Bible. In Job 38, God wrestles with primordial forces (no speaking here!). In Psalm 104 God stretches the heavens like a tent. Perhaps more importantly for the question of time, God continues to create to to the present. In Proverbs 8 God gets help from Lady Wisdom in the ordering of the cosmos (mono-what?). Christ plays a part in creation Colossians 1:15-20. And on and on.

In sum, the Bible has many ways in which creation is conceived. None of the descriptions are concerned with history or science, but with what it means to be human and how we ought to relate to God, to one another, and to creation. Questions of history are foreign to the text. Ham’s “literal” interpretation is nothing of the sort.

Mr. Ham, your biblical literacy is as tortured as your scientific inquiry.

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Privilege Revisited

A few weeks back (!) I posted on my struggles with privilege. There were many helpful replies and suggestions. You can see the various comments on the original post, at The Episcopal Cafe, and in the thoughtful blog post by my former student, Travis Meier. I had many insights shared by my friends on Twitter. Thanks especially to Kelly Baker, Maggi Dawn, and Greg Hillis (psst… follow them!). In this post I want to tackle two issues around power and privilege that are particularly difficult for me. Again, I welcome your insights.

The first has to do with a common theme of using power and privilege in small things. Greg tweeted at me a quote from Dorothy Day that captures this sentiment well:

Young people say, ‘What can one person do? What is the sense of our small effort?’ They cannot see that we can only lay one brick at a time, take one step at a time; we can be responsible only for the one action of the present moment. But we can beg for an increase of love in our hearts that will vitalize & transform these actions, and know that God will take them and multiply them, as Jesus multiplied the loaves & fishes.

Others gave me concrete suggestions places of where I have power. Like treating others kindly, listening to stories of those who do not have power, managing the classroom in such a way that those who are marginalized are given space to share, and so on.

I really like this advice. I know it is true. The bible is full of stories of small acts and marginalized people doing great good (the Christ event, anyone?). And yet my struggle with a suggestion like this is that it feels so small, so insignificant. (As a side note, I really don’t like Mother Theresa quotes.) I blame my dad for my insufferable idealism, but if it is not gonna get at the root of the problem I struggle to expend the extra effort. Privilege strikes again. One of the things I want to work on is doing the small things (and there are so many!).

What about you? How do you deal with seemingly insignificant choices? What strategies for motivation do you have? What small areas of power or privilege are you aware of that would be good for me to remember?

This reluctance to act where I do have power brings up the second issue. I am so quick to give up what power I have. Lauren commented,

Most importantly, you have to fight the feeling of powerlessness. It is the trick of the mind in a racist, classist system. It tricks us all into thinking we have no power to change anything, especially those who have the most power to do so. Amazingly, I find that it is a white men who feel the most powerless. So it convinces me all the more that this is simply a delusion from the master narrative that we have swallowed.

I would add that for a long time I used power unintentionally and I know that I hurt people as a result. It has made me leery of power in general. I am not sure if this is simply a justification to avoid action but I am honestly nervous about unintentional harm. There are so many variables, so many ways that my perspective will be limited (we all know how annoying well-intentioned people with privilege can be–speaking when they should listen, acting when they should empower, etc.). Again, I am curious about how you deal with this tension. If you are in a position of privilege, how do you use your power constructively? Do you have questions you ask before deciding on an action? Do you have checks on your power? If you are a person who has been marginalized in any way, what advice do you have for a person with power? Am I asking the right questions? Is the tone appropriate?

As always I welcome the conversation.

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Rock and Roll Jesus

Last week I took to teh Twitterz to crowdsource popular songs about Jesus. I compiled the songs into the following list. I will be adding hyperlinks to the YouTube songs and videos for easier access over time. For now, here is the list (another fabulous list can be found at Pop Culture Christ). Glaring omission? Let me know in the comments! Thanks to all who helped!

Bartender (Dave Matthews Band)
Christmas Song (Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds)
Crucify (Tori Amos)
Down by the River to Pray (Oh Brother Where Art Thou)
Gloria (Patti Smith)
God (Tori Amos)
Godspell
Human of the Year (Regina Spektor)
In the Name of Love (U2)
Jesus (Velvet Underground)
Jesus Came to Tennessee (Will Hoge)
Jesus Christ (Big Star)
Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Was an Only Child (Modest Mouse)
Jesus Is Just Alright (Doobie Brothers)
Jesus of Suburbia (Green Day)
Jesus Take the Wheel (Carrie Underwood)
Jesus Walks (Kanye West)
Jesus Was an Only Son (Bruce Springsteen)
Mrs. Jesus (Tori Amos)
My Hero (Foo Fighters)
One of Us (Joan Osborne)
Opiate (Tool)
Personal Jesus (Depeche Mode, Johnny Cash)
Picture of Jesus (Ben Harper)
Power of Gospel (Ben Harper)
Rebel Jesus (Jackson Browne)
Sober (Tool)
Spirit in the Sky (Norman Greenbaum)
Suzanne (Leonard Cohen)
The Man – Modern Jesus (Portugal)
The Transfiguration (Sufjan Stevens)
The Troublemaker (Willie Nelson)
When the Man Comes Around (Johnny Cash)
When You Were Young (The Killers)

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5 Minute Post: Would a Poor Person Ever Say That?

This morning on Twitter @Hope Jahren cleverly tweeted, “‘The poor will always be with us’ — said no poor person evar [sic].” I quickly dashed off a considerably less clever (though is seemed more so at the time), “‘Cept Jesus.” But then I got to thinking…

As I expressed earlier, I am not so confident that the Gospels always give us a reliable picture of Jesus. This particular saying, one that if I had my way would not be in our sacred text, is recorded in three of the Gospels: Mark 14:7, Matthew 26:11, and John 12:8 (Luke, as perhaps would be expected, omits the saying). I get that the conclusion of the saying is an exhortation to give when one “wishes” (a wholly unsatisfying suggestion). I also understand that this can be read as an allusion to Deuteronomy 15:4-11 which clearly states that there shall be no poor among the Israelites and gives specific commands about taking care of those who are. There is also the happy liberation read of the text, which I blogged about in my former life when I was an anti-hunger educator: the verse is best understood as a command to always be with those who are poor, i.e., walking alongside and working with them as they seek justice.

All this said, I am still unsatisfied with the thrust of the text and Hope is right to ask if a poor person would ever say such a thing. Are our Gospels so removed from Jesus’ experience as a poor person on the margins that they could imagine him saying something no poor person would ever say?

 

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5 Minute Post: Wrestling with Privilege

I’ve been grappling with my privilege a lot lately. I find that in nearly all my circles I have a leg up without having really done anything. I am a white (though I am well aware of the many sacrifices my Mexican grandfather endured to give my mom her future), male, straight, educated, Protestant (broadly defined). I live in the most powerful country in the world. In my chosen career I am one of the few (roughly one in four) who landed a tenure track gig (at a place I like, to boot!). All of these give me immense advantages to others and I cannot say without significant qualifications (sometimes at all) that I am responsible for any of them.

At the same time I am very sympathetic to those who are marginalized and disenfranchised. I spent four years thinking hard about the issues that keep people from flourishing. Often, those who are privileged are active participants in a system that keeps people marginalized, and in the worst cases poor and hungry. I hate the injustice of it all and I want to see it change.

And yet, because I too participate in the system, I am complicit. But I sure don’t know how I ought to respond. Ostensibly I am in a position that can help change an unjust system. But I feel so powerless against the marginalizing forces that I participate in. I often try to listen and amplify voices from the margins. Sometimes I chime in. Other than that I am mostly a passive (and sometimes active) participant. 

What about you? How do you respond to structural inequality? How do you respond to your privilege or lack thereof? What power do you and I have?

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