I haven’t written much of anything in a particularly long time, primarily because it seems like our world is very much in need of a great many things:
for fully grown adults to stop talking about Pokemon: GO
a sense of humor
to pee in the next 15 minutes if there’s a decent exit
(to name but a few)
but one thing we seemingly have in spades are words.
words about God
Don’t get me wrong, it would be rather tone-deaf, if not mostly idiotic, for a person who has continually trafficked in internet verbosity over the years to then, in a moment of profound national crisis, protest the overuse of words on a particular subject or subjects.
I mean, come on man, read the room, people are dying in the streets.
Which, I guess, is kind of my point.
In my previous life as a pastor, I found that words, while powerful and poetic and occasionally poignant, sometimes subversively end up releasing much of the tension necessary for concrete action to work its way to the surface. As the one who sometimes gave it, the sermon, I believed, possessed power and weight and meaning beyond the words of other people. Like there was this unspoken hierarchy to describing the universal expression of what it means to be a person, and that people had been waiting and wishing and hoping all week that my words would be theirs as well.
So (sometimes with tears in my eyes), I would dutifully oblige by giving them what I thought they wanted or needed. Over time, I began feeling as if my words and my voice and my expectations about what they meant for those receiving them started to supplant the very necessary experiences, hopes, failings, and dreams of everyone else listening in between the hours of 10:30 and noon on the weekends.
Listening became the only thing I asked for and the only thing I recieved.
In this world, my job was to tell, theirs was to hear, and together, we worshipfully, reflectively, introspectively baptized our shared inaction in the world with the weekly blessing of the divine whose seemingly only requirement of us is to come back next week. It’s a bit like how regular meetings about things can end up taking the place of the things about which the meetings were originally called; as the meeting becomes the thing, rather than the thing quietly spurring on new things.
Words can have a similar effect.
Not because they mustn’t be spoken out of a desperate need to maintain civility and a well-functioning society, community, or family system. Those are what we call secrets, and secrets, much like tumors, must always be exposed and excised in order for things to properly heal. Which means, I’m also not downplaying the very real need for people of all races and political affiliations and incomes and ethnicities and zip-codes to stand up and finally say out loud, BLACK LIVES MATTER, because they do. Generally speaking, it isn't very difficult to simply greet someone bravely shouting "I MATTER!" over mountains of evidence to the contrary with a compassionate: "absolutely you do, without question, I'm sorry it seemed otherwise."
Beyond simple human politeness, the reason we must say this is because this fact has been debatable for the entirety of our country’s history including today, so we don’t caustically course correct with something like "ALL LIVES MATTER” or “BLUE LIVES MATTER."
The words I’m describing are those bouncing around the cacophonous echo chambers we've all constructed on the Internet, and in our congregations, synagogues, temples, and living rooms where we hold court on issues as varied as police brutality, the NBA salary cap, and whatever a “fleek” is. Echo chambers where the point of our conversations can only be found in their efforts at showing the appropriate amount of fidelity to our tribe, its power brokers, and its very particular religious, political, and social diets.
In this kind of world, all we end up doing, in the words of Jesus, is straining out gnats and swallowing camels.
I always liked that line.
A man who openly condones the expulsion and brutalization of immigrants and minorities is the leading Republican candidate for president. Christians are some of his strongest and most vocal supporters.
This should give everyone a moment’s pause.
A man legally licensed to carry a firearm was killed by the authorities in Minnesota for having a firearm. The National Rifle Association has yet to make a statement.
This should give everyone a moment’s pause.
A woman who (along with her husband) has seemingly been under investigation for ethics violations over the past twenty years is the Democratic candidate for president. Christians are some of her strongest and most vocal supporters.
This should give everyone a moment’s pause.
Our inability to disagree well is renowned, but not altogether novel. However, what is novel these days is our ability to disagree at all anymore. Because to disagree, you have to be engaged in an actual conversation with an actual person (not simply a faceless issue) who doesn’t share your opinion or worldview. You have to see them as an equal and hear them and speak to them, and they to you, even if it’s difficult to listen to them, even if it means swallowing your desires to shout down their points, even if it means admitting that there’s some wrongheadedness tucked away in the corners of your bombastic, righteously indignant rhetoric, even if it means saying out loud that your tribe, or your side, or your party, or your faith has really jumped the shark this season.
These days we aren’t so much disagreeing with one another as much as we are momentarily pausing from yelling at one another in an effort to gather enough opposition research in order to bring some particularly salacious headlines back to the clubhouse.
So, we scour our tribe's news outlets, we read our tribe's papers, and we watch our tribe's late night hosts. We cull our Facebook feed and eliminate people whose views offend us, whose statuses contain feared buzzwords, whose humor jars us, or whose politics angers us. We worship alongside people who look like us, sound like us, believe like us, think like us, vote like us, and go into debt like us because we’ve been told that our God demands this kind of tribal fidelity.
At bottom, we’re operating under the belief that the solution for what ills our society is the elimination of those with whom we disagree, even if we have no idea who they are anymore. In this kind of world it becomes rather hard for me to believe that our words still have power, that speaking them still has a point beyond selfish platform building and in-tribe power consolidation. So, whether out of paralysis or anger or both, I haven't been speaking much these days, but long term this seems altogether unhelpful, if not a bit cowardly. Instead, I wonder if a third way between silence and self-important grandstanding might be a realistic option?
One inviting a patient, non-anxious, resolute, tenaciously self-assured voice to work its way to the microphone. I realize that voice might not even be mine or yours, because right now if you’re a white person (like me) you need to listen silently, respectfully, empathically to the words and teachings and lamentations and anger and confusion of our African American brothers and sisters. You need to let them (instead of your preferred news agency, TV personality, or weird paranoid uncle) tell you what they’re experiencing and feeling without allowing your own guilt, or shame, or simultaneous feelings of hopelessness and responsibility to manifest as anger and confusion, thus closing us off to the truth as the conversation comes crashing down around us.
If you’re a civilian (like me) you need to listen silently, respectfully, empathically to the words and teachings and lamentations and anger and confusion of our brothers and sisters in law enforcement. You need to let them (instead of your preferred news agency, TV personality, or weird paranoid uncle) tell you what they’re experiencing and feeling without allowing your own feelings of helplessness, and indignation to manifest as anger and confusion, thus closing us off to the truth as the conversation comes crashing down around us.
This kind of work may feel strange at first.
A bit like we’re tolerating something truly evil by allowing the thought to bubble up in our minds that someone voting for Donald Trump might actually have reasons for doing so that don’t involve setting fire to 200+ years of American democracy. Or, that someone who supported Bernie Sanders during the primary wasn’t just interested in voting for the candidate who gives them the best chance of delaying adulthood for four more years in order to play video games in their folks’ basement whilst drinking code red Mountain Dew from one of those beer-can-helmets.
I know, it seems ridiculous to think this way, but now that we’ve started it's probably best to just keep going, right?
What if we entertained the thought that the people who respond to “Black Lives Matter” with “All Lives Matter” or “Blue Lives Matter” aren’t members of the Ku Klux Klan (sometimes they are, but also sometimes KKK members still shop at Target), they’re just scared and much like your mom during a Thanksgiving political discussion, unhelpfully believe the best way to salvage a meal with people she loves is to passive aggressively make unbroken eye contact with you until you stop arguing with your father.
She’s still you mom, man, even if she poured gravy in your lap on purpose.
Or what if we believed that when your pastor or your neighbor or your friend’s college-aged daughter decides to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community or immigrants denied entrance into our country or African Americans who’ve been backed into a corner, by changing their profile picture on Facebook and sharing a poorly researched hot-take from some bathrobe blogger (like myself) they aren’t attacking everything you stand for, they’re (ineffectively, maybe) trying to leave the door cracked on what is and isn’t true about our world.
They’re still your friends and your kids, even if you disagree with their tone and their posture and their unyielding belief that social change always begins with a hashtag.
Because at the bottom, I’m scared.
And sometimes in the absence of better and braver and purer alternatives, we have to play the song most of us know the words to, and that one these days, is fear. Instead of ignoring our shared fears, or suppressing them, or scapegoating them, or externalizing them, another option involves owning them, expressing them, allowing them to be the white flag we wave in a world that refuses to live with the safety on.
So, as an olive branch of sorts:
I’m afraid and sometimes my fear makes me say and do things I regret. Like when I used to equate the safety of a community and the quality of a school by how many people wore their pants waist-high.
I’m afraid that an increasingly technological world filled with engineers makes someone like me, who loves antiquated sacred texts and the humanities, obsolete.
I’m afraid of snakes, even though I bravely killed one in my gardening shed 3 weeks ago by closing my eyes and wildly swinging at it with a rusty shovel.
I’m afraid that my privilege as a well-educated white dude will be taken from me before I’ve had enough time to save for retirement.
I’m afraid that if my privilege as a well-educated white dude isn’t taken from me, I will do violence to my family, my community, and my faith in order to protect it.
As Lawrence Kushner once famously noted:
"We must not allow embarrassment [of our shadow selves] to distract attention from elements that make us uncomfortable. Disgust and dread are the sorts of feelings we frequently marshal to conceal deeper layers of our psyche."
Maybe we could say, if we're all willing to bring our fears into the light together, to own them without judgment, to show them without embarrassment, and to see them plainly, maybe for the first time, we might come face to face with what the Biblical author of 1 John meant so many years ago when he reminded us that God is light, and in God there is no darkness, there is only more light.
At this point, what else do we have to lose?
*photo credit: Memphis Commercial Appeal.