Category Archives: politics

Wisdom from MLK

In his sermon “Shattered Dreams,” (you can find it in Strength to Love, pp. 87-98) Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us of the sad final years of the Apostle Paul’s life.  At the end of his letter to the Romans (15:23-29), Paul expresses his desire to come and visit the churches there so that they may be mutually encouraged. He had finished his work in Asia Minor and Greece and was ready to head westward to Spain. He was planning his visit to the Roman churches after a quick stop in Jerusalem to drop off the offering that the Gentile churches had collected for the church. If we take Acts at face value, instead of the long awaited visit to Rome, Paul was instead arrested in Jerusalem and eventually sent to Rome in chains. Tradition has it that he was never released from prison and was ultimately beheaded by Nero in the persecution of Christians that followed the great fire in 66 CE.

King reflects on this painful end:

Paul’s life is a tragic story of a shattered dream. Life mirrors many similar experiences. Who has not set out toward some distant Spain, some momentous goal, or some glorious realization, only to learn at last that they must settle for much less? We never walk as free people through the streets of Rome; instead, circumstances decree that we live within little confining cells. Written across our lives is a fatal flaw, and within history runs and irrational and unpredictable vein. Like Abraham, we too sojourn in the land of promise, but so often we do not become “heirs with him of the same promise.” Always our reach exceeds our grasp.

I have long known that there are many forces working against the just world we seek. Tuesday reminded me just how far “our reach exceeds our grasp.” I guess it’s time for us to extend a little further.


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Filed under bible, justice, politics, religion

The Morning After

Some thoughts as I process last night…

Ian was in tears about the result. He asked if he could miss school today because he is worried about what his classmates might say. Since we’ve just sent a clear message that bullying and hate are totally ok–even rewarded–I don’t blame him.

I worry about Ela. The glass ceiling is fully intact and I worry that she will not be given the opportunities that she as a smart and resilient person should be afforded. I’m also worried about her safety because we apparently don’t mind powerful (and not so powerful) men grabbing women by the p***y.

Dylan seems unfazed. I’m glad. As he gets older we’ll continue to work on a hunger for compassion and justice.

I’m listening a lot to this song: A lot.

Apparently I need to keep at it with justice issues. We are so much further away from our ideals than I had imagined. I am doubling down on my commitment to walk with and amplify the voices of those who are marginalized and vulnerable. I will be doing some thinking about my strategies (maybe you have some suggestions for me).

I’ve been reading Paulo Freire with my students. Two ideas he expresses seem apt: 1) Those who are oppressed never do violence first. It is always a response to the oppressors. Whites and Christians did great violence last night. 2) The oppressors cannot liberate anyone. Those who are oppressed are the only ones who will bring liberation, to themselves and to their oppressors. I defer to the wisdom, resilience, and agency of Women, Muslim, Black, Brown, LGBQT, poor, and other marginalized people (we disenfranchise in so many creative ways, it seems that the above have borne the brunt in recent months).

When I was in high school and college I raced road bikes. I loved the hills. I thrived on them. The pain and willpower required to conquer them energized me. The next four years (and beyond) look like a big fucking mountain. Bring it.


Filed under culture, politics, Uncategorized

Because you’ve not read enough posts expressing Christian thoughts on homosexuality this week

As I was expressing relief about the SCOTUS decisions this week (Prop 8 and DOMA, the VRA is another story) I had a friend ask me how I dealt with 1 Corinthians 6:9-11. Here is my (lightly edited) response:

On 1 Corinthians 6 (and on the issue of sexuality in the Bible, in general) there are a several ways I work with the text.

The first problem is that both of the words in the list (malakoi and arsenokoitai) are really very difficult to translate. The NIV’s translation makes it look clear but the words may or may not be taken that way (the RSV opts for the more ambiguous, “sexual perverts”).

The second would be a time and culture specific argument. If Paul is speaking about homosexuality as we understand it today (which I don’t think he is, I’ll get there in a minute), we have to wrestle with the other things he said (even in 1 Corinthians!) that we do not find authoritative any more. Why is this issue the one we focus on? We no longer find it necessary that women cover their heads in prayer, for example. We also allow women to speak in church (at least in my denomination). Even in the list itself (1 Cor 6:9) we ignore the line about greed which is far more widespread than homosexuality. If we turn to Paul’s other letters, we no longer find the implicit acceptance of slavery in the household codes compelling. In short, there are many places where we recognize that Paul was addressing specific issues that were directed to specific people at a particular time. They are not always timeless truths (I am pretty sure that Paul was not consciously aware that he was writing scripture).

Moreover, when we talk about homosexuality in antiquity, we are dealing with something quite different that homosexuality today. Often homosexual relationships were between men of different power, often men with boys. In this way it was a fundamentally abusive relationship. The one in power took advantage of the one who was weak. This, as with many other sins in the Bible, was about injustice. Today, homosexuality has social and psychological factors that no writer in antiquity would have ever conceived of. I am convinced that Paul was condemning an unjust relationship of power and abuse, something that does not define homosexual relationships today.

Finally, I think that it is not the role of the civil government to enforce “Christian” values. I advocate out of my Christian call, but at the end of the day, the role of the government is to ensure equality and liberty for all. Culturally, homosexuality is not problematic for the vast majority of our citizens. In a democracy we should honor that. At the same time, those places where the majority opinion seems misguided (as in our constant saber rattling and corporate greed) I will continue to speak out against it.

What are your thoughts? What works about these arguments? What doesn’t?


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Memorial Day conundrum

flagMemorial Day (and other days like it) dredge up deep ambiguity in me. On the one hand, I am grateful for all the men and women who gave everything to preserve a country that affords me great privilege. I am grateful for their families that have suffered great loss. Their sacrifice should not go unnoticed.

At the same time, and again there is a bit of ambivalence here, I see the great harm that our military has caused in the world and I am not convinced that our causes are just. I enjoy the privileges of being an American citizen but those privileges come at great cost to many innocents.

These holidays could be problematized in many other ways. How do you deal with the tensions? What other factors influence your thinking?


Filed under culture, justice, politics, violence

No room to talk

FE_DA_130507sanford620x413In the wake of Mark Sanford’s (re) election to congress I hastily tweeted that conservatives have no credibility when it comes to moral questions. I was (and still am) disgusted that men like Sanford can be so blatantly hypocritical about the “sanctity of marriage” or “family values” and yet still be popularly elected. It is embarrassing (and maddening).

I also find it annoying that his “redemption” is framed in some sort of Christian piety. Sanford humbly proclaimed at his victory party, “I am one imperfect man saved by God’s grace.” This morning he compared his return the Lazarus rising from the grave. And this is somehow OK? Patriarchal and misogynist religious institutions are so quick to decry the evils of same sex marriage and equally quick to forgive men who shatter lives (I’m looking at you, Roman Catholic Bishops) and wreck marriages (hello Mr. Sanford and Mr. Gingrich) with their penises.

My immediate reaction was to make this a conservative problem. Then I started thinking about my own political leanings and the people who represent them. It is true that liberals have similar indiscretions and recover from them (Anthony Weiner for Mayor!). The difference is that they don’t run on a platform to protect marriage or decry the evils of our secular world. What they do focus on is the need to strengthen social networks to protect poor, marginalized, and vulnerable people. Here’s the rub–liberal leaders suck at that too. The recent scandals that have rocked Albany, New York, the incredible dysfunction and cronyism of the Chicago machine (and Illinois in general), the failure of the Senate to pass background check legislation, and on.

This is how I see it–conservatives focus on individual responsibility and thus by definition flout social responsibility. But it is not like they are living individually responsible lives either. Liberals, on the other hand, focus on social responsibility and therefore pay less attention to individual culpability. And at the same time they behave in ways that wreak havoc on social support systems. Both sides blatantly disregard all forms of morality, all the while pointing out the flaws in the other sides’ values. What. The. Fuck.

I am sure that this needs to be more carefully nuanced. I also think that this critique could be extended non-political folk (I already mentioned the church). Why do we struggle so deeply to live in healthy, constructive relationships with one another? Why is it so hard to do the right thing, whether as individuals or as a society? Finally, in the midst of all this, is there such a thing as transformative grace?


Filed under culture, politics

I Am a Christian Terrorist. And Likely You Are Too.

cross-bloodAnd now, thanks to this post, I am on an FBI watchlist. I should not be, and maybe I won’t be. My terrorism is the good kind. The Christian kind.

As the details around the religious background of the Tsarnaev brothers come clearer into focus a familiar narrative is emerging–that dangerous and violent religion, Islam, motivated these men to terrorize the city of Boston. And despite the valiant efforts of the good folks at The Atlantic (“The Boston Bombers Were Muslim: So?”) and  The Huffington Post (“Even if It Was a Muslim, So What?” and “Boston Bombing Suspects’ Muslim Identity Provides Few Clues to Motivation for Bombing”), who question the relevance of the men’s religion to the question of motives, this hackneyed narrative is taking hold. In this post I do not wish to argue out how the ghastly acts of the Tsarnaevs are reprehensible to the vast majority of Muslims (though this is true–this fascinating study demonstrates that American Muslims are far more likely to condemn violence against civilians than any other religious group, including Atheists). I also do not wish to argue out how we in the United States are participating in the radicalization of Muslims (this article makes makes many important observations on this front). Finally, I will simply let this piece demonstrate that although we in the U.S. are obscenely violent, we only see outsiders as the real monsters. Rather, in what follows, I hope to show that, too often, Christianity, far from a benign force for good, is dripping in the blood of the innocents.

Christianity from the start was rowdy and seditious. If we are to take studies on Empire seriously, its founder, Jesus, was an apocalyptic prophet who put God’s kingdom at odds with Rome. This should be no surprise, the inhabitants of Judea were incredibly restive in the first century and just over 30 short years after Jesus’ death engaged in a full revolt against Rome. Jesus’ assault the religious establishment (which was supported by and supportive of Rome) proved to be the catalyst for Jesus crucifixion (a penalty reserved for brigands and rebels). There is some question as to whether some of Jesus’ earliest followers could have been affiliated with the Sicarii (knife wielding terrorists—see Josephus’ Jewish War, 7.253-74; on the usefulness of a sword, see the enigmatic Luke 22:36-38 and the Gospel of Thomas, Saying 98) or the Zealots (see Luke 6:13-16 and Acts 1:13).

After Jesus’ death, the first followers of “the way” continued to cause trouble. In 49 C.E., some 16 years after Jesus’ crucifixion, the emperor Claudius was moved to expel all the Jews from Rome, on account of Jews making “disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus” (see Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars 5.4; the episode is also mentioned in passing in Acts 18:2). Scholars are in general agreement that Chrestus is a variant of Christus. The conflict about Jesus had apparently become a nuisance to the populace. Some 15 or so years later, Tacitus (Annals 15.46) tells us that Nero was convincingly able to blame Christians for a towering inferno that consumed nearly the whole of the city (Tacitus, Annals 15.40, reports that only four of the fourteen districts were untouched). Tacitus is clear that Nero started the fire. What is compelling to me is that Christians could be plausibly identified as the culprits. It is only after they are mercilessly punished and put on display that pity from the general populace arises.

It is perhaps in the wake of the horrible failure of the Jewish revolt against Rome that Christians realized that rebellion and sedition were not the way to bring God’s kingdom. It is after the Jewish revolt that the New Testament is written. (I will have more to say on this in a moment.)

Now this historical reconstruction may not be plausible to you (I honestly am a little nervous to put it out there). Perhaps the first followers of Jesus were simply a persecuted minority who held beliefs contrary to the majority, who also held absolute power. Perhaps this fact led to suspicions and outright bigotry and persecution (sound like something happening today?). In this case, we can turn to the earliest Christian articulations of belief which are equally horrific. They nearly universally suggest the bloodlust of a Father who kills his Son to atone for the wrongs committed by humanity. Language of sacrifice is ubiquitous. Christians celebrate this good Father by ritually drinking the blood of the Son and, in the words of the Gospel of John, munching on his flesh (see John 6:54). Violence is the way in which God “redeems” the world.

We turn now to the biblical text. Now, I would never equate the Bible with God (though some do, if not in belief, in practice). But the biblical text has authority in Christian communities and it is littered with divine sanctions of violence. As a part of the contentious dispute about whether or not homosexuality as we know it is clearly condemned in the Bible (in my opinion, it is not), Dr. Robert Cargill has recently been writing on those uncomfortable parts of the Christian Bible. We can add violence to his list of things the Bible explicitly condones and even encourages.

The first followers of Jesus, as good Jews, turned to the Jewish scriptures for inspiration. The first Bible (that some will quickly dismiss as “Old”) that Christians of all stripes used speaks of God’s deliverance by way of the divine annihilation of the firstborn children of the Egyptians. Later, in the Exodus, those Hebrews who stray from the path are ruthlessly cut down. As the people enter and occupy the “Promised Land” they are commanded to kill everything—man, woman, and child. In fact, according to Judges, the problems that the fledgling nation faces are the result of their failure to do just that. In an earlier post, I discussed how 1 Samuel 15 continues to affirm this practice into the monarchy (and the New Testament book Hebrews implicitly condones the act too!). In Psalm 137:9, the writer laments the loss of Jerusalem and declares, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” The joyous tale of Esther (whose inclusion in the canon at this time is debatable) delights in the massacre of Persians. Many early Christian Bibles included the Apocrypha with all its sordid tales of rebellion and violence (read 1 Maccabees for a good sampling).

The New Testament is not immune. In spite of the failure of violent overthrow of the Roman Empire, Christians still penned gruesome images that tacitly endorse violence. We have already looked briefly at the way in which Jesus’ death is interpreted. We can also point to Paul’s wish that those of the circumcision party in Galatians 5:12 would go ahead just lop the whole thing off! The bloodbath that is the Revelation to John graphically describes for us how God will finally bring God’s kingdom.

The text as it was received and then written thus endorses and even encourages violence. This is the text that was ultimately adopted and became canon. And the violence that is sanctioned in the Bible becomes the norm for Christian behavior. We can perhaps point to Constantine as the villain here (he was, after all, the first to make the cross, a symbol of death, the emblem of Christianity and of the Roman Empire).  The cross went before him and led him to victory.

I suggest, however, that violence was already inherent in the faith (witness all of the above, as well as the preoccupation with “martyrdom”—on this, see the important newish book by Candida Moss, The Myth of Persecution). The vitriol that is reserved for those who are not of the emerging early catholic faith is astonishing (and the road goes both ways… and I suppose some things never change). Spend some time with the Letters of John (late 1st-early 2nd century) or with Tertullian. These are not exactly paragons of pacifism. Moving closer to Constantine, it is well documented that Jolly Ol’ St. Nick punched a fellow bishop over a disagreement at Nicaea. Bishops on the losing side of the debate were banished and exiled (poor Athanasius… who himself could be a bit of a prick). Violence and mutual disdain is the norm in early Christianity.

The subsequent history of Christianity is littered with religiously sanctioned violence. The Crusades (some eight [?] of them). The Great Western Schism. The Reformation. The Counter Reformation. The Inquisition. The 30 Years War. Bloody Mary. Even bloodier Elizabeth. Colonization. Manifest Destiny. Nazism. KKK. Westboro Baptist Church. And on.

To this day many breeds of Christianity sanction violence (thank you Brethen, Quakers, and others for showing us another way). And if you are the United States, and you pay your taxes, you participate in acts of terror. Secret drone attacks (I am still twistedly enamored by this piece that argues from a Christian perspective that drone attacks are moral). Israel’s occupation (motivated by absurd Christian Zionism). Colombia’s war on drugs. The predictable marriage between Christians and gun rights. I have not even mentioned our complicity in propping dictatorships in the interest of “national security” and the imposition of policies that keep people here and abroad hungry and impoverished.  And, perhaps most pertinent to this post, senseless acts of violence against Muslims (or people who look like Muslims) who are our neighbors and friends.

Why then do we point out the religion of these two men? Why is their faith highlighted as the violent one?  Why do we not look to the religiously tinted language that pervades the notes of Timothy McVeigh? As Mark Juergensmeyer has argued, violence is inherent in many religions, and Christianity is not immune (see his book, Terror in the Mind of God or listen to this excellent podcast, courtesy of Per Smith). Islam is no more inherently violent that other faiths, and certainly not more than Christianity (Dr. Dawkins, please hang up your bigoted screed).

I am a terrorist and my faith is bloodied, just like the Tsarnaevs.


Filed under culture, dark side, politics, religion, violence

On heavy and hairy virgins

White_ribbonIn an amazing confluence of Lenten disciplines, my reading of Elaine Pagels (Adam, Eve, and the Serpent: Sex and Politics in Early Christianity) and Michel Foucault (The History of Sexuality: An Introduction) and my participation in Lent Madness (though this is not really a discipline, it is just good fun) have led me to reflect on sexuality. Yay for Lent! A brief summary of what led me here:

A few weeks back, St. Lucy, a virgin martyr, was matched up against John the Baptist (in a stunning upset, in spite of a smidgen of voter fraud and a good deal of umbrage, she tackled the man who prepared the way). The most delightful (yet truly horrific) part of Lucy’s myth (I leave you to learn more about her story) is that as the guards came to take her away to be defiled in a brothel, the Holy Spirit so filled her that she was too heavy to be moved. So heavy, in fact, that even a team of oxen could not make her budge. Somehow she was finally moved but in the meantime her prosecutors decided not to have her raped first but to simply execute her.

Last week, I learned about Agnes of Rome who also was a virgin who was a victim of the Diocletian persecution. Also, like Lucy, prior to her martyrdom, she was to be defiled in a brothel. On the way to the brothel, as she prayed, hair grew all over her body thus clothing her. Upon arriving at the brothel, anyone who tried to rape her was struck blind, thus protecting her virtue. Again, the assailants tire of the effort and finally decide to lead her straightway to her execution.

Both of these stories (with all their brutality) raised important questions to me about gender and sexuality. I outline here some (yet to be fully developed) thoughts. I appreciate any insight that you may have to offer.

  1. What are we communicating by venerating victims of sexual assault and gender based violence? How do we share our story in such a way that it does not valorize subjecting oneself to abuse. This is a vital issue–the host of the Oscars and The Onion reminded us that violent sexism is alive and rampant.  The  vote to renew and update the Violence Against Women Act passed the Senate with moderate resistance and the GOP in the House is working to eliminate provisions that protect certain groups of women (so those women deserve to be abused?). How can we ensure that the church is not part of the problem (which sadly, too often, it is)?
  2. How exactly does it work that a woman loses her virtue when she is victimized? The logic here seems incredibly backward. The myths implicitly accept this framing in their explicit demonstration that God miraculously protected the women’s virtue. The stories in all their strangeness led me to question the logic yet I know that even still today this is commonly how the issue is framed (hello honor killings and massive wartime rape).
  3. Why are female virgins lifted up as examples? How many male saints are notable because of their sexual purity? What is the message we are sending here? Some earlier female martyrs, Perpetua and Felicitas, are both sexually active and have families. Their story is still frightfully horrific. How did other types of Christianity in the 2nd-4th century deal with sexuality?
  4. Finally, the issue of body image in these texts is noteworthy. As I was tweeting I playfully (and perhaps too irreverently?) referred to Lucy as “the heavy” and Agnes as the “hairy preteen virgin martyr.” As I tweeted I realized that these epithets tapped into two current struggles that women may have when it comes to body image (Did that stop me? No. Should it have? Maybe.). Do the stories today reinforce unhealthy conceptions about the ideal woman’s body? Is this an older problem than I had previously realized?

So there you have it, my thoughts. I’d love to hear yours!


Filed under culture, feminist interpretation, justice, politics, religion