Thursday, August 21, 2014

There Are No Sides in Ferguson

August 22, 2014.  The situation in Ferguson, Missouri this week is complicated.  I read that on Facebook and Twitter and was convinced, though actually going there helped a lot with perspective.  There are many competing narratives about Ferguson, and even firsthand accounts vary.  Real witness is best done up close, though.  We usually see what God is doing in our communities by venturing outside of our church walls and our comfort zones.

God is doing a lot of things in Ferguson, and so too are people.  People are doing good things, bad things, complicated things.

What we do know is this:  On August 9, 2014, Michael Brown was shot by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  It appears that he was shot six times.  He joins an ever-expanding roster of unarmed young black men shot by police officers, and his death exposed a community's pain over the way it is treated by the police.  None of this is open to debate.  It's not a "side."  It is the truth.  Mike Brown was unarmed, and he is dead.  There is pain.  It is being expressed.

There was also looting.  And "rioting," which is a word employed to describe panoply of human behaviors, some of them peaceful and some more detrimental to persons and property.  The looting and "rioting," alongside details released about Brown's behavior before and during his brief time in police custody have provided a neat opportunity to describe this situation in the language of Western modernism.  There are "two sides," to wit:  the lawful side, whose primary symbol is the mostly white law enforcement community,  and the side of those who believe that injustices have been perpetrated (and continue to be perpetrated) in Ferguson.  Standing for the latter is a much more diverse community which includes Mike Brown, peaceful protestors, "rioters" and looters, national activists, and people who express their displeasure with the situation on social media and other outlets. 

People expressing an opinion about Ferguson can expect to answer to the charge that they are "taking sides."  

I was there last night, and here is what I heard:
  • Every night, police have opened fire on the protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, and possibly real bullets.
  • Greater St. Mark's Missionary Baptist Church has been functioning as sanctuary space for the protesters, clergy and activists who are witnessing in Ferguson.  The handwritten sign out front says "Safe Space.  No alcohol.  No guns."  People have used the space for rest and respite, and to wash tear gas out of their eyes.  The police learned that the church had been offered as sanctuary, so they began a series of interventions which seem to be aimed at intimidating those inside.  They lined their cars right outside of the gymnasium space occupied by protesters.  They entered and confiscated items, including some Maalox which was being diluted to treat tear gas injuries.  They threatened to remove everyone from the church property.
  • Police have chased protesters, hit them with batons and the butts of rifles, shouted at them, and practiced other forms of intimidation.  People who have engaged in a lot of nonviolent civil action have been shocked by the extreme behavior of the police, especially the Ferguson PD (now relieved of duty) and the St. Louis County police.
Here is what I saw:
  • A community is hurting and angry.  There are still protesters walking and shouting at the police.  Their behavior may not be helpful, but their frustration should be understandable.
  • At least two grass roots organizations have grown out of this continued engagement between protesters and law enforcement.  One is called Clergy United; that group is gathering clergy from the St. Louis Metro, and we were told last night that clergy from beyond the Metro are asking how they might become involved.  The other group is made up largely of young people.  They call themselves the Peacekeepers, and they are doing just that.  Both groups have their names on shirts already.  They are legit.
  • Young people are raising their voices in Ferguson, in largely constructive and courageous ways.  Many were marching peacefully last night, at times chanting, "I'm young.  I'm strong.  And I'll keep marching all night long."  Their energy shows no sign of flagging.  
  • Clergy are present.  I went to Ferguson with my friend and colleague Jennifer Thomas, because we were invited by the PICO National Network, a faith-based community organizing collaborative.  Both Jennifer and I are active with PICO and our local affiliate, Communities Creating Opportunity.  It was an easy decision.  We are called to stand in broken places and offer a word of grace and healing.
  • People are marching because they have to.  I mean that they are compelled to do so by frustration, faith, commitment to social justice.  Also, they are required to do so by the police.  No stopping is allowed.  
  • There were a lot of cops.  A lot.  They were clustered in groups of 5-20.  At least a couple dozen clusters.  There were armored vehicles.  The presentation is very combative and intimidating, which would seem to be the point.
So much remains to be done.  So many words of healing and hope are still to be uttered.  There has been precious little dialogue between law enforcement and community leaders, and the brokenness will continue until that happens in a viable and sustainable manner.  This is going to be a long process.  It will be a complicated process, and will require a lot of folks to stand down and give up some of their power in order to engage in real conversation.  There are no sides.  Just brokenness, pain, anger.  So God is there also.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

When Provocation Masquerades as Inclusivity, or Why I Don't Say "Queer" Any More

     I was at a training yesterday--in a CME church.  It was a diverse group--mainly African American and white.  I lamented again that more of our Latino siblings--so often present in the work we do together--were not present at this larger group meeting.  Most folks were Christian, but we also had Muslims and Jews; their presence marks growth for the organization.  We're trying to be more inclusive.
   The funny thing about inclusivity, though, is that it thrusts you out of your comfort zone.  Let me rephrase that:  the funny thing about real inclusivity, is that it thrusts you out of your comfort zone.  I used the word "siblings" above.  This is the direct result of being agitated by a couple of my younger members, who insist (rightly, alas), that the oft-used "brothers and sisters" doesn't include those whose gender identity doesn't fall neatly on the binary.  So I'm working on saying "siblings," though there is a personal cost, as I feel more named by the more particular phrase "brothers and sisters."
   There is always a cost to inclusivity.  Feel free to argue, but I'm quite convinced.  Sometimes it means letting go of language you love, of hearing yourself named in the particular as a "sister" alongside your "brothers" (who used to be named all by themselves, while the sisters stood invisible).  And sometimes it means letting go of your need to control language, to hear only things you want to hear.
   At the training, both the opening and closing prayers were offered to "Father God."  The phrase was repeated throughout the opening prayer.  I had a little fantasy after about being asked to offer the closing prayer and praying "Mother God" throughout.  It would have pleased me, and likely pleased the rest of the people in the room who pray to a less gendered God, a God who is father and mother, he and she.  That God was not named much yesterday.
   God remained unchanged, though.  And my standing to offer a prayer which was mostly intended to stand over against the language I heard earlier would have been much more about me than about God. I would have been sacrificing my desire to be in relationship with the pray-ers to my need to provoke them to think about their exclusive language.  I wasn't willing to do that, and I feel good about the decision.  "Father God" is the language used by that tradition.  If I am to be in relationship with members of that tradition, I will need to sacrifice my need to hear God named in the language I prefer at all times.  Comfort sacrificed to relationship.  Scratch a healthy marriage, or other healthy relationship, and you will find a sub-strata of sacrifice for the other.
   I went to seminary in Berkeley, California.  I came out then, and entered into the joy of Berkeley's Queer Community.  The capital letters are intentional--the Queer Community in Berkeley is singular.  Case in point--pretty much no one is offended by the word "queer."  The first undergrad course in LGBTQ Studies was offered at U.C. Berkeley in 1970.  Today those courses are more particular and tend to have names like "Interpreting the Queer Past:  Methods and Problems in the History of Sexuality" and "Queer Visual Culture."
   "Queer" is a nice inclusive word.  It frees one from what is often called the "alphabet soup" of alternative gender and sexual identity.  I was good with being "queer."  The people I knew who were queer didn't mind being called queer.
   Then I moved back to the Midwest, first for internship in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and then to take a call in Kansas City, Missouri.  In both places, I learned that there are people who find "queer" to be a deeply offensive word.  And maybe we could reclaim it, as they have done elsewhere.  But there would be a lot of human pain in the wake of that reclamation project, and that's a cost too high, I believe.
   So I don't say "queer."  I do the alphabet soup, or I name the particular group I'm referencing.  I refer to myself as a "lesbian" most often, but sometimes even say "gay" now (which would have been unlikely in Berkeley, where people are more sensitive to male hegemonic language usage).
   Living together in community is messy.  Relationships are messy.  Sometimes you have to give.  To get.

Friday, September 13, 2013

McJustice

            The last week of July was a wild one at my church.
At our church, which used to be pretty quiet during the week, about three hundred people streamed in and out at all hours of the day and night, from late July through early August.  And then again, some three weeks later.
As recently as three years ago, our church lay fallow for most of the hours between Sunday coffee hour and the following Sunday’s worship on any given week. Then there was a merger, and a new mission of “building hope and proclaiming peace on the Troost Corridor.”  Our first real test of the integrity of that mission came a few months later, when we were asked to provide a home for Occupy Kansas City over the winter.  We said yes and coughed up a large office on our third floor.  Thus began our relationship with what is now the Midwest Center for Equality and Democracy.  MCED formed the Worker’s Organizing Campaign of Kansas City, and that’s how we found ourselves at the center of a labor rights movement unlike any seen in decades—the campaign to alleviate some of the pain of low wage workers.
The recession has been good for fast food restaurants.  Theirs is the segment of the industry which has grown since 2007.  According to Bloomberg, McDonald’s saw its profit rise 135% between 2007 and 2011.  It’s CEO made $8.75 million last year.  None of that largesse has trickled down to workers, alas.  The median salary for a fast food worker was $18,564 in 2012.[1]  Nearly all of them start at minimum wage, and raises are slow and difficult to come by. 
There are lots of moving parts to this campaign, but the its primary thrust has been provided by a pair of nationwide strikes meant to highlight the plight of workers making poverty wages.  In Kansas City, the strikes meant a whole lot of people in our church building.  And out.  And back in.  We began at six a.m. on the strike days, and went into the evening, layering actions at fast food restaurants with rallies and even a bar-b-que.  Then the walk-backs begin.  For days after, the workers were accompanied by teams of community leaders—elected officials, organizers, faith leaders—as they returned to work.  It was the job of the walk-back team to let managers know that their workers had been part of a legal job action, and that any retaliation would be unlawful.
Then we watched and waited.  When workers were threatened, phone calls ensued.     It is still too soon to know how effective the movement has been so far.  We know that some workers have actually seen an improvement in working conditions and hours.  There is still a mountain of work ahead to ensure a just and living wage for the workers, most of whom are over twenty years old, and many of whom are supporting families.  But we are proud of the movement so far.
And I am proud of St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church.  It is not easy to host a labor movement.  The day it rained, our floors looked pretty awful.  There were many bags of trash and boxes of recycling.  It was hot and humid, so our electric bill wasn’t pretty.  And we didn’t pay attention to the folks going in and out of the fridge, so we didn’t notice until Sunday that some hungry body ate the communion bread.  We used a hot dog bun a member brought from Chubby’s Diner after a frantic phone call from the communion assistant.  I hope we never have to do that again, but I wonder if it wasn’t rather appropriate.  A simple, even pedestrian representation of Christ’s body, on a week when we simply walked alongside the least of our siblings in Christ.  A wild week in which God gave us so much more than we gave away, and in which we were indeed building hope and proclaiming peace.



[1][1] Bloomberg.com, December 11, 2012.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Decorum Est...Not

     I like politics.  I do.  I find the whole thing fascinating, and I am very interested in the leadership of our country, state, and city.  But I'm about over this election.  I don't want to see any more glossy ads asking if I "know what Todd Akin has said now."  I'm sure it is offensive.  But if people are still voting for that guy, they obviously don't care what he says.  Maybe if he burned a flag or offered to raise taxes on billionaires--that might get their attention.  Another round of sexist statements just means it's Tuesday.

     I watched the debate last night and felt as unconnected to both candidates as I ever have.  Both went on and on about how strong the military would be under their leadership.  Both went on and on about being "tough on Iran."  They'll also be tough on China, the country we love to hate, whose exports keep Walmart in business.  We all hate the trade imbalance with China.  Most of us have homes full of Chinese products.


     I am over the hypocrisy.  I am over the decidedly unChristian values on display from people who profess deep faith in Jesus.  And I am over the coarseness of our rhetoric, especially as it pertains to the president of the United States.


     Last night after the debate, super-conservative talking person Ann Coulter tweeted"I highly approve of Romney's decision to be kind and gentle to the retard."


     I hesitate to quote that directly, because the final word is highly offensive.  It's a playground word, one that schools are symbolically burying in order to help kids remember not to say it.  And little kids are learning.  Perhaps someday Ann Coulter will attain the enlightened perspective of a typical second grader.


     You cannot say that about anyone.  You must not say that about the President of the United States.  There is still a certain level of decorum and respect owed to the highest office in this land.  If you want to claim any gravitas in speaking about who should be the next president, you might try according a little dignity to the current one.  


     And if you're going to insult him, at least pick something that makes sense.  The president's high level of intelligence is undisputed.  Even people who don't like him grudgingly admit that he is smart.  So along with being a terrible insult to people who struggle with mental and learning disabilities--a word that second graders have learned not to say--your comment was ridiculous. It was a word meant to offend, one which you just grabbed out of your bag of "words no one should say."  The same way the schoolyard bully calls a kid "gay," even though the child's sexuality isn't in question.


     I was already over Ann Coulter.  But I think I'll be glad when November Seventh gets here.  Then I can generally avoid being offended if I stay away from The Learning Channel and Fox News.  Assuming we all vote based on actual research, and not things we see in glossy advertisements or read on Twitter, or Facebook, or somebody's blog.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

What's That About?

Saw this bumper sticker the other day.  As I drove past the car, I exclaimed, loudly, "For God's sake!"  Which was rather ironic, I suppose.

I searched the interwebs and read a few explanations about this bumper sticker.  There was a whole conversation on the Austin, Texas Yelp site, which had the flavor of most anonymous internet conversations:

Lovely Lady:  I saw this bumper sticker the other day and wondered what it meant.

Wish it was Friday:  I was wondering that, too.

Big Dog:  I did an extensive search on Google.  There was a lot of BS, but I found this:  "This sticker originated at blah blah munitions company and they are praying for the safety of our snipers.  Those snipers save lots of lives, since they can make surgical strikes."

Fabulous Frank:  That sticker is not very Austin-y.  Give peace a chance, y'all.

Lovely Lady:  Oh, thanks.  I googled too and didn't find a good answer.  You rock, Big Dog!

Big Dog:  Frank, that's the problem with Austin.  We don't allow alternate opinions.

Barry the Welder:  Frank, you are an idiot!

Fabulous Frank:  I was being ironic.

It goes on.  I changed the excellent screen monikers and paraphrased the dialogue, but that captures it pretty well.  There was much more, but I didn't feel like reading to the point where the conversation devolved to pre-verbal grunting.  I no longer read the "Unfettered Letters" section of the Kansas City Star website, because it is simply a depository for hateful discourse, with the occasional salient comment.  I'm not willing to  sort through that much poop hoping for a pony.  There seem to be people with a lot of time on their hands these days--a lot of time, and not much love in their hearts, or at least in their fingertips, which is the problem here, exactly.

We have a multiplicity of opportunities for coarse discourse at our fingertips, and on our bumpers.  I'm not sure what motivates someone to put a bumper sticker on their car that says "God bless our troops...especially our SNIPERS!"  I do know that it is not a benevolent wish for the protection of American soldiers and marines who happen to be snipers.  The punctuation makes that abundantly clear.  This is a "prayer" for those who locate and destroy our "enemies" with precision.  It is a prayer for killing.  One could support it with a biblical argument, but not a gospel argument.  Yeah, I'm Lutheran--I get to make that distinction.  Thanks, Martin Luther!

I do have a few theories on what the motivation for this sort of hateful discourse might be:

Theory #1:  We really do believe that an American life has more value than an Afghan life, or a Pakistani life, or the life of anyone else who might be found in the crosshairs of a sniper's rifle.

Theory #2:  We no longer feel that anyone truly listens to what we say.  So we say it in such a way that it cannot be avoided.  We speak in sweeping generalizations, in shocking language, in profanity--in much the same way that a six-year-old will smack another child just to get attention.  We'll take the negative if we can't get the positive.

Theory #3:  We are becoming an increasingly polarized people who turn to hateful discourse out of anger at our lack of power, or perceived lack of power.

It could be any of those, or something else.  It's likely a hybrid of all three, added to the convenience of sharing our thoughts anonymously, semi-anonymously, or at least at a distance, on so many digital formats these days.  Like this blog, for instance.

So we have a problem and it is perhaps merely attributable to sin and therefore a part of the human condition, but I'm inclined to think there is a solution.  First we have to ask a few questions.  I would pose these:

-->How do we recover peace in our discourse?

-->How do we learn to speak out of love and not anger?

-->And when anger is unavoidable--when there are children going hungry in a prosperous country (or any country, for that matter), when American soldiers and marines are dying for reasons that seem abstract or fictitious, when the gap between rich and poor passes "obscene" and heads for "absurd"--when injustice is the order of the day, and we are obligated by faith and/or reason to speak out, how do we do so in a way that doesn't alienate those who really need to hear our message?

I am increasingly convinced that we need to stop and answer those questions, before we're going to solve much else.


Friday, September 07, 2012

A Briefly Curved-in Jesus

I actually wrote an hour-long presentation under that name, which began with the story of a Gentile woman and Jesus, found in Mark 7 and Matthew 15.  The idea was to talk about welcome in our churches, specifically welcome of LGBTQ folks.  I spent a really long time talking about the passage, though, which is, for me, the most challenging text in the gospels.

In case you don't know the story, here's the brief recap:  Jesus is traveling up in Tyre, a big coastal region on the Mediterranean.  He goes into a house for a little quiet, but he can't get it; a woman follows him in.  She has a daughter with a demon, and she begs Jesus to cast it out.  Important detail:  "Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin."  (In Matthew she is called a "Canaanite woman," which doesn't change the meaning.)  At first, Jesus refuses to help her, saying “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  She responds that even the dogs get to eat the crumbs on the floor. 

There are so many things to say about this story.  There are so many ways to feel about this story.  There are  dozens of ways of reinterpreting the story to save Jesus from his humanness.  I've read them.  Here's one:  the word isn't really "dogs;" it's something more akin to "puppies."  I guess it's a little better to be called a "puppy" than a "dog."  I guess.

So here's what I'm thinking this morning, because I am postmodern enough to know that the space in which I read affects the text:  Jesus is human.  We proclaim that in the Creeds, and we talk about it at Christmastime especially (since our Lord being a "baby" is a little easier to take than him being a "man").  God became flesh and dwelt among us and every once in a while that fleshy human being did or said something dumb.

He wanted to be alone.  He was tired, having been followed through hill and vale and wilderness and lakeshore and into houses and up mountains.  He wanted a moment and he didn't get it and so he whined.  A moment of selfishness.  Been there.  Ooh, I have been there.  A few minutes ago, in fact.

It's a rare moment, and serves as the exception that proves a rule about Jesus, which is that he is not so selfish.  When the disciples wanted to send away the great hordes who followed Jesus so that they could all get something to eat, Jesus caused food to appear for all of them.  Then he got in a boat and crossed the lake, where people commenced to bring all of the sick people to him to be healed.

He healed them, because that's what he did.  He healed everyone who came, and he preached when he was weary to the bone.  He was Jesus, and that's what Jesus did.  He healed the sick and he proclaimed the kingdom and when he had given away his power and his voice, he laid down his life.

He did have a moment, up in Tyre--a very human moment, the sort of moment that people like me have all of the time.  He had a moment and then he bounced out of it and cured a Syrophoenician woman's daughter and doggone it, that's a really good lesson for all of us who give in to the tendency to be what the reformers referred to as incurvatus in se.  That phrase, attributed first to St. Augustine and used by Luther in his commentary on Romans, refers to the human tendency to be "curved in on ourselves," instead of out toward God and our neighbors.  For Augustine, it was a sign of original sin; for Luther, it spoke of our need for God's grace (no, those are not mutually exclusive--very good!).

It is so easy to turn in on ourselves.  It's easy for our needs to overtake the world's.  It's so easy to feel as if our troubles are insurmountable.  It's easy to check out, to crawl into a dark hole of despair and dare our friends and family to pull us out.  Sometimes we need that help, because our despair is chemically induced, and we simply can't manage it.

And sometimes we need to follow Jesus.  Wait...always we need to follow Jesus.  Sometimes we need to follow his example of being incurvatus ex se--curved out from ourselves and toward God and neighbor...even when we're not feeling it.  It might even wrench us away from the tendency to see our troubles as insurmountable, which they rarely are.


Tuesday, July 17, 2012

I Coined a Word!

When I writes, I pours.

In the course of attending to my blog today, I found that I had five comments awaiting moderation.  One of them was on a post called "How about 'Sortadox'?" in which I was complaining about the need for a name for the folks in between the Pope and Christopher Hitchens.  David Brooks had used the term "quasi-religious" to describe the folks in between; that term is quasi-awful.  So I suggested "sortadox."  And a commenter, one jules the bassist, wrote to say that s/he had Googled "sortadox," and my blog was the first thing that came up.

I just did it, and its still true.  How fun.

Hope and Peace Pastor

So a few things have happened over the past two years--since I last posted on this poor neglected blog.  I'm thinking it's time to fix that...though I've thought that before...

Abiding Peace merged with St. Mark, which already had members from Fountain of Hope, so now we are St. Mark Hope and Peace Lutheran Church. Yes, it's a long name.  We're part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which has fewer words but many more syllables.  We kept it to monosyllables as best we could.  So do pronounce the "Hope and Peace."

The world needs more hope and peace.  There is a ferocious cynicism in our public discourse.  Russ Douthat's recent column "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?" is a good case-in-point.  Douthat is a conservative, so one would expect him to be critical of "liberal Christianity," by which he means whole denominations like the Episcopal Church (United States) and most certainly the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my denominational home.  We are fair game, of course, having both (Episcopalians and ELCA Lutherans) made some progressive moves in the past few years, most notably on the issue of gay clergy and same gender unions.

But Douthat is way over the top in declaring that the Episcopal Church has become "flexible to the point of indifference on dogma, friendly to sexual liberation in almost every form, willing to blend Christianity  with other faiths, and eager to downplay theology entirely in favor of secular political causes."  That link will take you to a column in Christianity Today (which describes itself as "a globally minded evangelical magazine").  The article is about concern about Episcopal syncretism, which Christianity Today apparently defines as openness to the possibility of salvation through means other than adherence to Christian doctrine and dogma.  


Read Douthat's column.  He makes some interesting points at the end, about losing our grounding.  I'm not prepared to argue with him on that one, though he overstates once again.  The civil rights movement was able to proclaim Christ while demanding social change.  It's harder to do that today, when that declaration is often considered quaint.  Then read Diana Butler Bass's book Christianity for the Rest of Us, which describes mainline Christian congregations which are thriving, and are also rooted in some traditional practices and a clear understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  Read them all today--you'll thank me.

You might also enjoy the response of Episcopal Rector Matthew Lawrence, provocatively titled "Russ Douthat Is a Fruit Fly."  He links a great response that Butler Bass has provided.  Go to his to get to hers.  That's the way this thing works.

Hope!  Peace!