Sunday, July 14, 2013

Who is My Neighbor and the Death of Trayvon Martin

When the news broke, last night, that the jury had reached a verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, facing second-degree murder charges for killing Trayvon Martin, I was on the edge of my seat. I didn't have an optimistic feeling of the outcome, but, still, I wanted to hear it for myself. The words cut through me like a knife--"On the charge of second-degree murder, we the jury, find George Zimmerman not guilty."

I had strong reaction, some of which I expressed within the confines of my home, others which I expressed via Facebook and Twitter, and others which I couldn't find the words to express. Anger, disgust, despair were just a few of the emotions I experienced and expressed. Some others I won't reiterate here because this is a family-blog folks. Okay, not really, but even still--you smart people can likely infer what my other reactions might have been.

Many other people shared very similar reactions. This young man died for no real reason, other than that he was black and George Zimmerman was scared. The jury's verdict of "not guilty" reinforced the notion that black life, particularly young, black male life is dispensable of no value. Many of the people who shared this reaction were my pastor-type friends on Facebook and Twitter, who had already written their sermons but were now confronted with a gross injustice that spoke contrary to the gospel. How should they proceed? This is a particularly challenging task when many of their parishioners experienced the verdict of the trial very differently.

I find it no coincidence that today's lectionary text was the story of the Good Samaritan. As I am unchurched, and have been for a few years, I know this from these pastor-type friends whose whole plans for Sunday morning were shattered. Some frantically rewrote their sermons; others "winged it" and let the Spirit lead. Yet, most agreed that in the death of Trayvon Martin and the verdict in George Zimmerman's trial we saw a real life "samaritan" story play out. They challenged those sitting in the pews to recognize that the black young man was, indeed, their neighbor.

On February 26, 2012 my neighbor, a 17-year-old boy, was tragically killed while returning from the corner convenience store for a snack--Skittles and an iced tea. He was killed by another neighbor, a man who was prompted by fear and prejudice to "stand his ground" and not only shoot but kill this boy. Who is my neighbor? Both the boy and the man are my neighbor. However, the boy never had the opportunity to live his life because racism is alive and well.

Rest in peace, my dear neighbor, Trayvon.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

She is Father: Reflections on the Trinity in Light of My Work in Public Housing

As a feminist trinitarian theologian, I still opt to use "traditional" language for the Persons of the Trinity--Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I make this choice because I have not found an alternative that a) preserves the integrity of the economy of salvation and b) allows me to enter into a conversation with those who do not identify as feminist or who might be coming from a more traditional background.

The decision to use the titles of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are based on the premise that these titles are not ontological titles for God. In other words, God, in God's very nature, is not a Father or Son. Instead, these titles are relational. The Father is only the Father of the Son and the Son is only the Son of the Father. The Spirit is not independently the Spirit, but is the Spirit of.

A colleague of mine would play with language, recognizing the limitations of both language, in general, and the English language, in particular. She would say, regarding God, "Yes, She is Father." In saying this, she was skewing the perception that Fatherhood is tied to maleness, but instead that it is a relational role.

Recently, I started a new job working with residents of public housing. For the last two weeks, I have spent time with kids in public housing, many whose fathers are absent, for various reasons. This phenomenon is not specific to my particular community nor to public housing, as it is often the case in urban areas, particularly (but not solely) in African American communities. However, there are households in all demographic groups where there is no male father.

In these situations, mothers often have to assume the role of mother and father, taking on all of the parenting responsibilities. They have to do it all--as much as any one person can do it all. When fathers leave, or have never been in the picture, or are in jail--mothers step up to the plate to provide for their children, to care for their needs, to ease their fears, and more. The roles they fulfill have nothing to do with gender and everything to do with the relationship they have with their children.

Can't the same thing be said, then, about God? While our categories of knowledge and our language--particularly English--limit our comprehension of God and our ability to articulate our understanding of who God is, real life teaches us that the role of father is not solely a male role. Circumstances and contexts necessitate evolving understandings of these roles. Therefore, just as women--mothers--are fulfilling the role of fathers each day in the lives of their families, the fatherhood of God is also a fluid and relational role, not bound to an androcentric understanding of who God is. It is because of this we can say--She is Father.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Rapture And Why Nothing We Do Will Ever Be Enough

A little back story. I was raised in the Church of the Nazarene. There was talk about rapture. We were shown the film "A Thief in The Night" in youth group. When I was a child, and I could not find my mother, I would call out her name. She thought I had attachment issues and called me her "shadow;" I thought the "rapture" happened and I had been "left behind." I would lay in bed at nights, replaying the entire day in my head, praying for forgiveness for any and every sin I may have committed, fearing that I may have missed something that, again, would leave me "left behind." Growing up, the idea of the rapture brought fear, nothing but fear.

Flash forward to today. I don't subscribe to rapture theology; I find it unbiblical and without basis in theological and ecclesial tradition. However, with tomorrow being the day a small group of people are declaring "Judgment Day," there is a small part of me that is still fearful and anxious.

Brad asked me, hypothetically, why I would be left behind if such thing existed. I responded, "I cuss too much." When I say it aloud, I realize how ridiculous it sounds. However, consider this: growing up I was told, by a youth pastor, that if I were in a car, about to crash, and my final word was "shit," I would "go to hell." In that moment, I would lose all grace and salvation that had been offered to me in Christ Jesus. Brad responded in disbelief. His upbringing was different. He did not hear of "the rapture" until he reached high school, and salvation wasn't something dependent on doing the right things or not doing the wrong things. Then, I thought about it more, and I said, "I don't love people enough. I don't go to church enough. I don't...enough."

The more I think about it, the more I realize that nothing I do will ever be enough. I could do every act of piety imaginable, yet, I would still be in need of grace--the grace that is given freely to me (to all of us!) in Jesus.

When I think about it like this, much of the anxiety fades. I still don't buy into "rapture theology" or the idea that tomorrow, May 21, 2011, is going to be any different than any other day. However, when I recognize that the pressure is not on me, but is fully dependent on the grace of God, I have an eschatological vision that is not dreadful or full of doom. I have hope.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Christians and Osama Bin Laden

This note is mainly for Christians. If you do not identify yourself as a Christian, this note is not specifically for you. You are welcomed to read it, but the thoughts and questions that are running through my mind are particular to my identity as a Christian, a Christian theologian even.

When I first heard the news that President Obama was going to be announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed--that he was dead--I felt like crying. I'm almost ashamed to say that my tears would have been tears of joy; Osama Bin Laden is the closest thing to evil incarnate in my lifetime, thus far. I felt relief that he was no longer living and would no longer be able to kill others or influence others to kill others.

Yet, as I watched the footage of US Americans cheering in the streets, waving flags, and chanting U-S-A, my feelings suddenly turned. Something was not right. These images were reminiscent of 9/11, yet with a twist. People were celebrating in the streets the death of a person, something that would have been (and has been) considered vile and inhumane if the tables were turned.

What should the response of Christians be? Depending where you look, you will find very different answers. Some Christians are celebrating the death of Bin Laden, along with a large majority of US Americans. Other Christians are denouncing the death of Bin Laden, emphasizing that death does not equal justice. Other Christians are somewhere in the middle, feeling conflicted, uncertain, and cautious to react. This is the camp in which I find myself.

When I look toward Christian scripture (aka the Bible), I find the following verses:

"Do not rejoice when your enemies fall, and do not let your heart be glad when they stumble, or else the Lord will see it and be displeased and turn away his anger from them." (Proverbs 24:17-18)

"For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, says the Lord God. Turn, then, and live." (Ezekiel 18:32)

"Say to them, As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?" (Ezekiel 33:11)

"Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:17-21)

"‘You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer...‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax-collectors do the same?And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:38, 43-48)

These seem exceedingly clear to me that my response should not be to rejoice and to celebrate in the death of Osama Bin Laden. As a Christian, I am called to love. So, while I am grieve the lives lost at the hands of Bin Laden, I also grieve the loss of the life of one who never knew faith, hope, and love.

Was it wrong of the government and/or military to kill Bin Laden? I honestly do not know, and I think it is okay for me to sit with some uncertainty about it. Ultimately, the decision was not mine to make. If it were, I can't say I would have done it, but I can't say I would NOT have done it, either. I am reminded of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pacifist, who signed on to a plot to kill Adolf Hitler. He did not think that, in doing so, he was doing what was good or righteous; he recognized the evil in his own actions, as well. However, he believed his actions were a necessary evil to stop one who had already killed millions. (The plot of Bonhoeffer and his cohorts ultimately failed)

Reinhold Niebuhr is the original author of the serenity prayer. The original text of the first stanza is as follows: 

God, give us grace to accept with serenity 
the things that cannot be changed, 
Courage to change the things 
which should be changed, 
and the Wisdom to distinguish 
the one from the other.
What has been done cannot be changed. However, how I react--how we react--to it can be changed.

God grant me the grace, not to celebrate or rejoice in death, but the courage to examine the evil within me and the world around me, so that your light will prevail. Amen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Confession: I am Evangelical

I have a confession.  I am evangelical.  No. I am not evangelical in the sense that the word is often understood, today--synonymous with fundamentalism.  I am far from a fundamentalist.  I'm not even evangelical in that I don't care much about "personal conversion," or "biblical authority" (as Wikipedia describes the tenets of Evangelicalism) nor do I necessarily believe that Jesus' death saves us, at least not in any traditional sense.

However, even while I don't fit into these categories or boundaries, I am not ready to surrender the word "evangelical" to those who want to apply it narrowly.  Consider the root of evangelical--evangelion--meaning "gospel" or "good news."  I am all about the good news, the good news that:

  • No height nor depth can separate us from the love of God. (Romans 8:39)
  • Blessed are the poor for they will inherit the kingdom of God. (Luke 6:20)
  • There's neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ (Galatians 3:28)
  • God loved the world so much that God sent his son, so that we might have eternal life (John 3:16)
 I will not let those who think evangelical means subscribing to certain dogmas have a monopoly on the good news. I will not let those who are quick to decide who is in and who is out--forever damned to "hell"--hijack the term evangelical when that understanding is really not good news at all! 

I believe in God whose love reaches to the highest heights and the lowest depths. I believe in God who doesn't reinforce the power structures of patriarchy, racism, wealth, etc., but rather sides with those on the margins. All of this is good news--this is evangelion--and this is why I am evangelical.

Monday, April 4, 2011

The Limits of Empathy and Why Men Can't Be Feminists

Recently, during a class session when we were talking about theologies that were different than our own, I started thinking about empathy. Some students were quick to identify themselves in those theologies, to which I cautioned them not to be so quick to "find themselves"therein. For example, James Cone, one of the leading African-American liberation theologians, has been influential in and instructive to my own theology.  However, when he was writing in the 1960s and 1970s, he was not writing for me or any other white person. White theology had already been done repeatedly; he was doing something new.

This led to the conversation of: can we empathize with those who have experiences different from our own? Can we situate ourselves in a theology that is drawn from experiences radically different than our own? How do power dynamics and power differences affect our ability to empathize?

I read Cone's theology. I appreciate his theology. Yet, I would not dare say I "see" myself in his work. I have no idea what it is like to be judged, based on the color of my skin. I cannot imagine what it is like to be more likely to be suspected of a crime. I cannot imagine the systemic racism, partially overcome and yet still battled, by African-Americans, today. That is not saying Cone's theology is self-serving or has a scope limited to only his context. His theology has a broader message, as all theology should. However, while the message is one of hope, that God is on the side of the oppressed, it is convicting at the same time to those of us who are not on the side of the oppressed, but are, rather, the oppressor.

Simply put, there are limits to empathy. I have always understood empathy to mean that you can understand someone's experiences because you share that experience. Therefore, there are many things with which I cannot empathize. I cannot empathize with the plight of African-American people. However, I can sympathize. When I say "sympathize," I mean more than pity, feeling sorry for them, patting them on the head and giving them a look or shrug that says, "Sorry." However, I cannot empathize because not only have I never experienced racism, but I am also a participant in it, as a white person. I benefit from systems of white privilege, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

This leads to what, perhaps, will be my boldest claim. The limitations of empathy is one of the reasons why I believe men cannot be feminists. There. I said it. So far, on this blog, I have been called a "church snob." This may now lead people to call me a bitch.

Men cannot be feminists because they do not know what it is like to be a woman. Much of feminism is based on women's experiences, while also recognizing that there is no singular experience. However, men have never experienced what it is like to be a woman. Yes, men can be feminist sympathizers--working to promote systems of justice, working to upset systems of patriarchy, etc. Yet, while doing so, men will continue to benefit from male privilege, whether they like it or not. You can strive to be a "non-hegemonic male," but when you walk down the street, when you apply for a job, when you take your car into to be fixed, etc. You are still a man, are treated as a man, and function as one in society.

A lot of men get their feelings hurt when I tell them that they cannot be feminists. "But...but...," they say.  Ready for the really bitchy kicker? I think a lot of men want to claim the title "feminist," in an attempt to absolve themselves from the guilt they feel as a man. The guilt they feel from benefitting from male privilege, sometimes inescapably, and other times willingly. Calling themselves feminists make them feel better. Yet, their experiences are so dissimilar--even from the non-universalized, vastly different women's experiences--they can't empathize with what it means to be a woman.

It was once suggested to me that you can feel empathy toward anyone, depending on the strength of your imagination. However, I disagree; imagination only takes you so far.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Timely Lectionary Gospel Lesson: God And Money

Jesus said, "No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

"Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you-- you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, `What will we eat?' or `What will we drink?' or `What will we wear?' For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

"So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today's trouble is enough for today."
 This is the gospel message for this Sunday's lectionary. I had no idea, prior to today, and yet this passage has been on my mind a lot recently. As someone who struggles with anxiety--worrying even when there is nothing to worry about--I remind myself often that Jesus instructs us not to worry about tomorrow.

This passage also goes along with something else about which I've been thinking. Wealth. Jesus makes a pretty powerful statement at the beginning of this passage: "You cannot serve God and wealth." Perhaps this is why I am so uncomfortable with the idea of wealth, money, and being rich. It conflicts with my ability to serve God faithfully, as wealth comes at a price.

Recent research has come out to show the gross inequality in wealth distribution within the US. From this, I draw the conclusion that there is only so much wealth to be had. So when some--a small percentage--have the greatest percentage of wealth, it comes at the well-being of the larger population. Wealth and economic success most often comes at the expense of other human beings; it is earned on their backs.

Jesus commands me to love God with my heart, mind, soul, and strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. I do not see how I can love my neighbor if my acquisition of money deprives them of money or other material necessities. Perhaps this is why I have no desire to be rich. I know you aren't supposed to say this, living in the United States. The "American Dream" is to have money and lots of it. Yet, when I do have any sort of excess money (which, I admit, is rare), I am always inclined to give it away. I cannot desire to have a lot, while others have so little. Nor can I live faithfully to Jesus' desire for me if my acquisition of money and/or stuff is an obstacle in loving my neighbor. I don't want to be poor. I would like to have enough money to meet our basic needs, make decisions as consumers that are more sustainable, and extra only to help others. However, beyond that? Not important.

I'm sure people will point to people who have lots of money and do great acts of philanthropy. Recently, the world's billionaires have committed to giving half of their wealth to charity. Good for them, but half of a billion still leaves them with half a billion, which could still make a huge difference in the world. 

So, then, just how seriously do I take this "don't worry about tomorrow" stuff, coupled with inability to serve both God and wealth? What does this mean for planning for the future? 401k's? Nest eggs? Retirement? I'm not sure, yet. However, I am inclined to think there is another way.