Remixing & Re-vision

My mother passed on to me a recipe for sweet potato pie that her mother, my grandmother Lucille, had likely had passed on to her by her mother, my great-grandmother Civvie. I have memories of my mom baking batches of these pies for both Thanksgiving and Christmas and giving them away as gifts for co-workers, neighbors, and relatives. For a month, our freezer would be filled with these sweet potato pies. As I got older and showed an interest in how to make this delectable creation, my mom brought me into the kitchen, directing me to strain the crushed pineapple, crack eggs, mix in flour. She eventually tested my cooking sensibilities – nothing was ever measured – by having me taste the batter to determine if it was ready yet and if not, what was needed: more brown sugar? more karo syrup? more cinnamon? more flour if it was too soupy? more milk if it was too stiff?

Once I got on my own, I called my mom and asked her for the recipe. I carefully wrote down the ingredients, her guesstimates as to how much of each was needed, her directions on the order in which to add the ingredients in the batter, and finally the proper oven setting and length of baking time. The first time I set out to bake the family sweet potato pie, I hit a homerun. Well, almost. The crust got burnt on a couple (then she told me the foil trick). Nevertheless, they were tasty. I would make them again, but not annually because it was a heck of a lot of work and there weren’t enough people in my life worthy of that kind of energy output. LOL – I’m just being honest.

Those sweet potato pies were glorious. Honestly I’ve never tasted anyone else’s recipe that even comes close to being as good as the Lazarus Family recipe (nope, not even Patti’s!). I want to make them again and really had an unction to do so this past holiday season. But I didn’t bake them this year. Why? Because about 7 years ago, I discovered I was allergic to eggs, pineapple, and cow-based dairy – key ingredients in the recipe [just trust me on the pineapple]. When I first got the lab tests back that showed this, the first thing I mourned for was this sweet potato pie. Ever since, I’ve been thinking of a way to alter the recipe to make it something I could eat and not get sick from (I now understand why I never felt quite right after my annual pie gorging as a kid). I’ve done this with other dishes: I make my macaroni and cheese without eggs and although I use 2% milk, I’ve found homeopathic aids that mute the dairy allergy response (yes it’s really an allergic response, not just lactose intolerance). I have doctored box cake recipes with egg substitutes made with tapioca and potato flour mixed with water. I’ve just cut pineapples out of my life and in recipes calling for it, I’ve substituted with oranges or kiwi or mango or something else instead. I have even discovered that enjoying wine or liquor while eating an egg-based dessert prevents the allergic response that usually comes (doesn’t work for pineapple).

Despite that, I’ve not yet remixed that sweet potato recipe. You may be wondering what’s holding me back? [You may also be wondering where the heck I’m going with this, but just be patient and hang on, lol.] It’s taken me a while to figure it out, but I think I just did today. If you’ll indulge me a bit longer, I’ll explain and tie it to some of the current questions, challenges, and conversations on my Twitter feed.

Some might say that the sweet potato pie isn’t the problem. The recipe is fine as is. I just can’t eat it. So, I should just let it go. Good recipe, just not for me. Leave the recipe alone.

Some might point to the ingredients in a way. If the pie is made with sour milk or rotten eggs, then a whole lot of people would be getting sick, not just me. If that’s the case, then – again – the pie’s recipe isn’t the problem, it’s the quality of the ingredients. If we’re working with good ingredients, then we return to the first conclusion: I just need to leave the pie alone and go eat something else. Like an apple crisp. [Good but just not the same.]

The real issue is that it’s supposed to be *my* family recipe. I can’t eat and enjoy (without putting my wellness at risk) something that is supposed to be for ME. It’s part of my family legacy; it’s my inheritance. The thing that was passed on to me with love and pride and joy. But that inheritance makes me sick. Literally. And changing the recipe to adapt it to my needs means it’s not THE LAZARUS FAMILY recipe anymore. Changing it – using crushed oranges instead of pineapple, the tapioca and water mix instead of the eggs, a sweetened coconut milk instead of cow’s milk – is more than a remix. That’s a whole new pie recipe. I will have re-visioned the recipe as something very – even, entirely – different than it was. Who knows what it will taste like. It may be awful. That scares me too. I think I have good cooking sensibilities (comes honestly from both dad and mom), so that might all work together just fine, but what a risk.

Do I stay with a recipe that makes me sick for the sake of honoring my forebears? Do I put it aside and dare to find a way to come up with something different that incorporates some of what was good and what I learned from that old recipe, but no longer really bears the stamp of my mom, my grandmother, my great-grandmother? Will their cooking wisdom be commuted onto this new pie recipe regardless because I am *still* their legacy?

Similar questions as this confront us about institutions of far greater social consequence than my sweet potato pie. Recently, especially Black Christians, are being asked hard questions of the religion and the God we claim to follow and worship (see Son of Baldwin here on the passing of Eddie Long and Dr. Jonathan Higgins on Kim Burrell); of higher education (see my blog posts here, here, and here and Craig Steven Wilder’s book Ebony and Ivy); of the U.S. political enterprise built as it is on settler colonialism, slavery, rape, theft despite its high-minded treatises on equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness (see my blog posts here and here).  All these pieces confront us with the choice of remixing, transformation as remix, revolution and turning away from the legacy we have claimed as an essential inheritance necessary to bind us to the past as a bridge to the future.

We could say the problem lies not in the institutions themselves but in the people who are made sick by them. They should just leave, these folks would say. Folks have been saying that hence our current (under Obama) and ongoing (under the next administration) deportation, criminal injustice, and Christian fundamentalist terrorist crisis.

We could say that the problem lies in the quality of the ingredients alone. Get rid of the misogyny and fundamentalism and the Christianity can be saved. Excise the capitalist profit motive and the democracy can be saved. The connection between K12 and colleges and universities is simply spoiled and with refreshment, our educational system can be saved. Again, it’s not the recipe that’s the problem. All we need is a remix.

What will we lose if we turn away from these social institutions that have been handed down to us but which absolutely make us sick in ways that have material effects on individuals, whole communities, our nation, and which have ripple effects on the world at large? What will we continue to lose if we don’t?

What will we gain?

Re-visioning the things that have been handed to us requires courage, but it requires creativity, imagination. Our artists – poets, writers, musicians and songwriters – have been showing us the way. Are we ready to let go?

Am I ready for a new sweet potato pie recipe? To try and fail to arrive at something that tastes as yummy and try again until I get something that doesn’t make me sick?

Are we ready – for a new religion? a new education? a new form of government? Are we ready to try at something that might fail in the rhetorical power of what we have had but that doesn’t require our overlooking the sickness of some to enjoy?

We have decisions to make.

So, Sometimes I Preach, Too

I fellowship with a religious community of Episcopalians in Toledo, Ohio – Trinity Episcopal Church. We are in the midst of an interim period after our previous rector resigned mid-summer to pursue a new calling of God on her life (may she and her wife be blessed). Now, as we first search for an interim rector (a priest who is specially called to help churches in leadership transitions), some of our lay members have been called upon to offer the sermon during our Sunday worship services. It befell me to do this on Sunday of this week. I’ve had a number of people ask me to share my words more widely. I do so with no small amount of hesitation as these are not “my” words really, but rather what I believe to be the outcome of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. To any extent that these words bring life, the honor and glory goes to God alone. To any extent that these words bring pain and suffering, the accountability is mine alone to bear for clearly I have mishandled the message of God. Without further preamble and largely unedited except for adding hyperlinks to a couple of things that aren’t necessarily public knowledge, what follows is the message I shared with my faith community last Sunday. I hope it feeds your soul and provokes you to new action.

Sermon for September 13, 2015

Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo

Good morning. I would like to begin by first reading into your hearing the Old Testament and Psalm appointed in Track 2 of the Revised Common Lectionary for today [September 13, 2015]. It was through these lessons along with James’ epistle and Mark’s gospel that the Spirit seemed to be speaking to me most clearly. I humbly offer these meditations to you today.

Isaiah 50: 4-9a

The Lord GOD has given me

the tongue of a teacher,

that I may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning he wakens–

wakens my ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened my ear,

and I was not rebellious,

I did not turn backward.

I gave my back to those who struck me,

and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

I did not hide my face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps me;

therefore I have not been disgraced;

therefore I have set my face like flint,

and I know that I shall not be put to shame;

he who vindicates me is near.

Who will contend with me?

Let us stand up together.

Who are my adversaries?

Let them confront me.

It is the Lord GOD who helps me;

who will declare me guilty?

Psalm 116: 1-8

1          I love the LORD, because he has heard the voice of my supplication, *
because he has inclined his ear to me whenever I called upon him.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the LORD: *
“O LORD, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the LORD and righteous; *
our God is full of compassion.

5          The LORD watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and he helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the LORD has treated you well.

7          For you have rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the LORD *
in the land of the living.

Let the Lord add a blessing to the reading of his word. Amen.

As I read and meditated on each of these lessons from Isaiah, Psalm 116, James, and Mark’s Gospel, I believe that I see the Church as the subject and object of each lesson. When I say “the Church” in this context I mean both God’s Church universal, all of us who claim to be followers of Christ both within and beyond the Anglican Communion. I should pause here quickly to explain myself: We – and I do include myself in this – like to make distinctions amongst ourselves for the sake of our own egos and self-righteousness, but neither God nor those who watch us attend to them. Yet, while I believe this message has relevance nationally and internationally, I am also speaking to this West Mission Area of the Diocese of Ohio, as well as to all of us gathered under the sound of my voice as Trinity Episcopal Church, Toledo.

Let’s hear from that text in Isaiah again, but this time put the Church into the passage (Isaiah 50):

The Lord GOD has given the Church

the tongue of a teacher,

that the Church may know how to sustain

the weary with a word.

Morning by morning GOD wakens–

wakens the Church’s ear

to listen as those who are taught.

The Lord GOD has opened the Church’s ear,

and the Church was not rebellious,

the Church did not turn backward.

The Church gave their back to those who struck the Church,

and their cheeks to those who pulled out the beard;

The Church did not hide their face

from insult and spitting.

The Lord GOD helps the Church;

therefore the Church have not been disgraced;

therefore the Church have set their face like flint,

and the Church know that they shall not be put to shame;

GOD who vindicates the Church is near.

Who will contend with the Church?

Let the Church stand up together.

Who are the Church’s adversaries?

Let them confront the Church.

It is the Lord GOD who helps the Church;

who will declare the Church guilty?

The Church has been given the tongue of a teacher, but we must remain attentive to listening and learning anew every day so that we know how to sustain the weary with a word. Who are they that are weary? God has never been most concerned about those who claim weariness from going to work every day, or having to sit in traffic and construction zones in their air-conditioned, leather-seated cars, or those who are tired already of political posturing and presidential campaigning.

No, the weary who need to be sustained with the words of the Church are those who are oppressed under the thumb of oppressive structures and systemic violence. These weary are Syrian refugees; they are sex workers; they are those who are unhoused; they are indigenous peoples across the globe; they are those impoverished by our greed, materialism, and capitalism; they are Black lives imprisoned and executed by overly aggressive policing. These who are weary are trans* people, who have endured the news twenty-three times this year of our kin being slaughtered in the streets:

  1. Papi Edwards
  2. Lamia Beard
  3. Ty Underwood
  4. Yasmin Vash Payne
  5. Taja Gabrielle DeJesus
  6. Penny Proud
  7. Bri Golec
  8. Kristina Grant Infiniti
  9. Sumaya Ysl
  10. Keyshia Blige
  11. Vanessa Santillan
  12. Mya Hall
  13. London Chanel
  14. Mercedes Williamson
  15. Ashton O’Hara
  16. Amber Monroe
  17. India Clarke
  18. C. Haggard
  19. Shade Schuler
  20. Kandis Capri
  21. Elisha Walker
  22. Tamara Dominguez
  23. Jasmine Collins

Made weary by their deaths and yet at times unable to mourn our dead because they have been misnamed and mispronouned, adding yet another violent erasure to the physical one that took them from us and another weariness to endure.

It is the voice of the weary who narrate Psalm 116. Here, I see the Church this time in the place of the Lord, because as St. Teresa of Avila wrote in the 16th century,

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

Let’s hear Psalm 116 again with that understanding:

1          I love the CHURCH, because they have heard the voice of my supplication, *
because they have inclined their ear to me whenever I called upon them.

2          The cords of death entangled me;
the grip of the grave took hold of me; *
I came to grief and sorrow.

3          Then I called upon the Name of the CHURCH: *
“O CHURCH, I pray you, save my life.”

4          Gracious is the CHURCH and righteous; *
our CHURCH is full of compassion.

5          The CHURCH watches over the innocent; *
I was brought very low, and THE CHURCH helped me.

6          Turn again to your rest, O my soul, *
for the CHURCH has treated you well.

7          For THE CHURCH has rescued my life from death, *
my eyes from tears, and my feet from stumbling.

8          I will walk in the presence of the CHURCH *
in the land of the living.

Would all those who are weary in this country, this city, be able to give this testimony? Can the Church say in truth that we have not turned our backs, that we have given our cheeks to those who slander the name of God? In essence, as Jesus asked his disciples in Mark’s gospel account, “Who do people say that [the Church] is?” Who do people say that Trinity is? [Feel free to insert the name of your congregation here.]

In answer, many of us may want to set ourselves apart from the likes of Kim Davis or Westboro Baptist Church.  Yet, to the world, if we call ourselves Christians, we and Kim Davis have more in common than we do different. To those who watch us, Trinity and Cedar Creek and Cornerstone and First Church and St. Paul’s are all cut from the same cloth. A cloth that either smothers or comforts, chokes or covers. But as James writes in the lesson from the epistle for today, we who are called to teach – and we have already learned from Isaiah that the Lord has given the Church the tongue of a teacher – are held to a higher standard. Indeed, we ought to be because we are God’s representatives on earth. If even but one part of the Church has rejected that morning call of Isaiah to wake and to listen and learn, then we are all guilty. We must not be so smug as to be content with our own progressivism, thinking ourselves safe from criticism. No, God calls us all to account for each other. The apostle writes, “From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. [People of God], this ought not to be so.” From the same church, people come to stay and people leave with bitterness in their mouths. People of Trinity, this ought not to be so. We must commit to the hard work of consistently clarifying who God is for a world in pain, standing in open opposition to those who, like the Pharisees and Sanhedrin of Jesus’ time, use the Name of God to inflict all sorts of misery and provoke to weariness the most weak and vulnerable among us.

To speak a word to sustain in the face of weariness is to deliberately and intentionally set oneself against what is easy, popular, or comfortable. As we walk this Via Media[1], let it not become a Via Wishy-Washy, let us not compromise delivering a truly sustaining word that is full of compassion, which rescues lives from death, dries tears and steadies feet to run. Let us not be ashamed of Christ’s call to give it all away for the sake of attempting to save our own lives.  Instead, let us rather set our faces as flint and dare to be criticized, to be ostracized, to lose members and income and buildings, while we allow the holy fire of the Spirit to compel us ever onward. To deny that this is necessary, vital, and yes even commanded by God is to be like Peter in today’s gospel lesson, holding on to our own security and comfort content to watch the world go to Hell in a handbasket.

To take our message to those who are weary, we must not just leave the building but also bring others with us into the building to receive help, strength, and encouragement to go on. To be spat upon and insulted, the Church, like Jesus our Savior, must be first willing to speak the Truth that inflicts discomfort on the comfortable and wounds those who are whole. Through our building and through our outstretched hands and uplifted voices, let us be CHRIST who is loved and walked alongside of. We must see ourselves as ONE with those who are oppressed and marginalized, not us and them, not church and unchurched, but all in need of the water of everlasting life. As the Church stands up to BE the Church, not just go to church, the Lord GOD will help us and vindicate us.

Let them who have ears to hear, hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.  Thanks be to GOD.

[1] This is an Anglican/Episcopal Church thing. You can read one perspective on it here.

Bad (Christian) Theology

In the wake of the unspeakable tragedy that befell Newtown, CT last Friday, people are attempting to make sense of what happened, offer some solace and comfort to the grieving, and reassure themselves of the central tenets of their beliefs. I imagine that this is being done by people of all convictional beliefs, not just Christians. However, as this country’s dominant voice of religion and meaning making, Christian theology is taking center stage. You wouldn’t know it from the media, but not all those who died claimed Christianity and people of other faiths have also mourned and spoke out of the truths of their beliefs to comfort, make sense, and recall the tenets of their faiths. For example, at this past Sunday’s interfaith vigil, voices representing the Muslim and Jewish communities were also present.

In the face of such unspeakable tragedies, what we really believe about G-d (by whatever name we call the Divine; click here for what spelling G-d this way signifies) is often revealed through our words and actions. In the midst of truly beautiful messages of solace and empathy, I’ve seen people speak of the G-d of Christianity in ways that I can only call idolatrous because I do not believe them to represent the truth of what is revealed about G-d in the Bible or in my own experience and that of others I know. I call these idolatrous representations of G-d “bad theology” and I’ve seen them all over my social media feeds (by people either laying claim to them or as the objects of derision). I have even heard them uttered by the POTUS himself at the end of what was otherwise a powerful and moving speech.

These idolatrous views of G-d pain me, not only because they don’t reflect the G-d I serve despite claiming to do so, but also because they drive people away from faith and belief. I have seen people respond to this bad theology with comments like, “that’s why I stopped going to church” and “this just makes Christians look worse than they already do.” I have no problems with those who choose other doors toward faith and meaning making. However, I am deeply pained by someone rejecting a door because it has been misrepresented.

So, here are 5 images of G-d that I’ve heard in the last week since the lives of 28 people were lost (yes, 28 – I’ll get to that in a moment) in Newtown, CT. I offer my understanding of how I see G-d and why I see these images as problematic and reflecting “bad theology.” I’m not a theologian, nor am I a priest or a bishop. However, I have walked with G-d long enough to have learned a thing or two about how She operates and how I believe She wants to be known in and through my life. Maybe something here will help somebody else (at least that’s what my fiancée told me when she said I needed to share with others what I shared with her a few days ago).

1. G-d as The Grand Puppet Master.

I keep hearing people try to make sense of this tragedy by saying “it must have been G-d’s will” or “G-d allowed this to happen” or “G-d used this to achieve His will.” I’ve seen people try to walk this tightrope of explaining the difference between G-d’s “permissive will” and G-d’s “perfect will.” Like academics whose jargon ostracizes the general public, language like this from Christians just makes other folks confused and frustrated with our inability to make sense. In the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, there is a line that asks for “Thy will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” It doesn’t say that G-d’s will IS done on earth as it is in heaven. Moreover, the instruments of G-d’s will are US. WE are G-d’s hands, feet, voice; WE are Her instruments of peace, mercy, justice, love, etc. If WE don’t act in those ways, then G-d’s will – which is for justice, mercy, and peace (see Micah 6:8) – is not performed in the earth. What we witnessed last Friday was humanity – represented by Adam Lanza – usurping the will of G-d to assert his own will in the earth. G-d is not a grand puppet master, manipulating us in keeping with some grand design that is only known by Him. That would violate our free will. I believe that She wants certain things for our lives that have been made known (justice, peace, love, mercy) and has equipped us with everything we need to manifest those outcomes in our lives. I believe that the Lord has called each of us to fulfill certain purposes in our lives. I also believe that those purposes can be disrupted, cut off, and derailed – sometimes permanently, other times temporarily – by our actions or the actions of others. We can’t look backwards on someone’s life and decide that the purpose of their life was ultimately fulfilled by the time they were violently snatched from this earth. What kind of G-d would determine that upon a person fulfilling their purpose on this earth that they should die in a hail of bullets at school one day anyway? That just doesn’t square with G-d being compassionate and full of mercy.

2. G-d as Vengeful Quid Pro Quo Arbiter 

There’s a meme going around Facebook of someone asking why would G-d let something like this happen and “G-d” responding with “you wouldn’t let me in your schools.” Other versions of this say that we since we kicked G-d out of our schools (by not requiring everybody in the school to pray to a G-d in whom they may or may not believe in a manner that may or may not resonate with them), we shouldn’t be surprised that this kind of violence has stepped in to fill the void. I think this falls into the category of “His thoughts are not our thoughts and His ways are not our ways” (Isaiah 55:8). I don’t believe in and would not serve a G-d who played a tit-for-tat game with humanity. What do we think G-d is saying here, “Well, you wouldn’t force me on other people, so I’m gonna take your children?” No. Just no. Hell, no, in fact. This makes G-d look like some kind of petulant toddler (no offense to toddlers), who throws a temper tantrum because he didn’t get his way. Never mind the fact that forcing people to believe a certain way or to pray a certain way isn’t very G-d like in the first place. And never mind the fact that this very thing could have happened in a religious school and has happened in places where G-d was very much present (e.g., Sikh temple massacre in Wisconsin this year; the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963). For more on how this happens, I direct you back to #1.

3. G-d as the Canaanite god, Molech. 

In the Hebrew scriptures, we see Jehovah warning the Israelites not to worship Molech, one of the divinities in the land of Canaan. Worshippers of Molech believed that their god required child sacrifice in order to be appeased. We see Abraham nearly sacrifice Isaac in this same way (being tested by G-d) and then be stopped by an angel of the Lord. I have heard this idol raised in the last week when people say things like “G-d sacrificed our children because of our disobedience.” Lifting up this idol usually involves blaming gays and lesbians for every natural disaster that comes along and it has been raised in the wake of the shootings in Newtown. Mike Huckabee, Westboro Baptist Church, and other folks have come out in the last week blaming marriage equality, abortion rights, and other “sins” for Adam Lanza using his mother’s guns to kill her, 26 innocents, and then himself. Yea, I see the connection there, no problem – NOT. Without even wasting my breath to debate whether marriage equality and a woman’s right to safely access means to terminate her pregnancy are actually “sins,” I will simply decry the characterization of G-d as a child killer to assuage his judgment. I know this simply because the Bible teaches that the death of Jesus Christ on the cross at Calvary was atonement “once for all time” (1 Peter 3:18, NLT). According to Christian doctrine, there is no more a need for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins (Hebrews 9:12, 10:4) and there was NEVER a call for child sacrifice even when the slaughter of animals was necessary. G-d didn’t take Abraham’s son Isaac and God didn’t take those Newtown sons and daughters or anybody else’s son or daughter who was claimed by violence or illness or starvation as a propitiation for sin. To say that G-d did is disgusting, unholy, and unChristian.

4. G-d as the Perpetually Cheerful, Slightly Addle-brained, Amusement Park/Cruise Ship Social Director

This is the image of G-d that pictures some grandfatherly guy with a big smile who joyfully greets all these children into a great big playground otherwise known as heaven. Another version of this says, as our POTUS did on Sunday, that “G-d called His children home,” as though the street lights had just come on and it was time for supper. This idol seems very innocuous. After all, it matches the image of G-d that many people grew up with – an old White guy with a long white beard and a great big smile whose got the whole world in His hand. But here’s the problem with that: G-d isn’t always happy and rejoicing at the death of one of His children (regardless their age). Jesus wept at the death of his friend Lazarus and I wholeheartedly believe that G-d wept bitterly at the death of those children and their teachers (and Nancy and Adam Lanza, but that comes next). Yes, I believe that G-d received them into Love, but not as though that was His perfect timing. The heart of G-d was broken last Friday, just like so many of our own hearts were broken. It was too soon, that was not G-d’s design or plan, and if His will actually had been done that day, they would be with their families right now being tucked into bed after the street lights came on. Owning this means recognizing that the full manifestation of the Kingdom of G-d on earth as righteousness, peace, and justice is largely about our own inability to get our acts together and surrender our wills and our egos.

5. G-d as Human.

This is the most insidious misrepresentation of G-d in some ways because it seems to make the most sense. I hear this idol being lifted up when people recite only 26 names of those who died last Friday and sometimes leave out Nancy Lanza and just about always leave out Adam Lanza. Only the names of the “innocents” are read aloud; only 26 candles are lit for the dead; when even the teachers are ignored and only the children are lifted up as worthy of remembering and mourning, as an impetus for calls to social action to address gun violence and mental illness (see my last blog post to address those issues). Perhaps Nancy Lanza is excluded because once it was discovered that she owned the gun licenses for the weapons used in the massacre, she lost her sympathy as the unsuspecting mother of a child who departed from the way she taught him to live. We don’t want to extend her sympathy or mourning because we believe, some of us, that she brought it on herself. It’s obvious perhaps why people leave Adam Lanza out. Of course we should not mourn his death; doing so would sully the memories of those he killed. Or would it? It is completely human to make determinations about who is more or less deserving of G-d’s grace and mercy. But it is just that – human, not Divine. If we believe in a G-d of mercy and compassion and that Jesus gave his life for all because we couldn’t deserve such grace and mercy, then we cannot believe that G-d is any less brokenhearted over Nancy and Adam as She is over the children, teachers, and school administrators who were killed. G-d mourns all those lives lost; we who claim to be followers of the Way should also and extend forgiveness to those responsible.

If you’re still reading this, G-d bless you and give you peace. In the end, what happened last Friday was unconscionable and incomprehensible. We will likely never know why Adam Lanza did what he did. And when faced with questions we cannot answer or whose answers seem to bring more confusion and pain than peace and comfort, we are best served by saying, honestly and openly: “I don’t know, but let’s pray for peace, for comfort, and for wisdom to know how to console those who are grieving, those whose faith has been shaken, those whose future is now dimly lit.” And then let us wait in silence, seeking and serving Christ in everyone we meet, for the answer to our prayer to come.

Home is Where

*EXTRA, EXTRA* This is what I intended to write about for Monday. I didn’t want to put it off until Friday, so here’s a special Tuesday edition of my What Remains blog for your reading pleasure.

Complete this sentence, “Home is where…” Umm, “the heart is?” I know, I thought the same thing initially on Sunday when our rector, the Reverend Liddy Hoster at Trinity Toledo opened her sermon with that not-at-all rhetorical question, and so did she, so she made us dig a little deeper and really consider how we would complete that sentence.

I volunteered with “Home is where you are loved.” Another responded with responses like “where if you go there, they have to let you in,” quoting Robert Frost. Others responded with “where you have secrets,” “where you have no secrets,” “where there is peaceful chaos” from a mom with four children under 5, and someone who has experienced living on the streets said, “Home is where you don’t go because you can’t.” It was getting deep fast and then another response came from one of our teens, who said “Home is where I can be me.” Okay, that hit me right in the chest. I am not really sure I heard most of the rest of Liddy’s sermon (sorry, Liddy) until the very end when she told us that God’s message to us was that we were his beloved ones and that we could come home.

I had been totally absorbed by this idea of home being where you can be yourself as you really are. Home is where you can be authentic, where you can be real, where you can be flawed, where you can be doubtful, where you can be anxious, where you can come with all your issues and your dreams and your funny clothes and funky hairstyle, and be accepted, and loved, and wanted.

What if we carried that idea of home further and considered what it means to not have that kind of home. It caused me to think about homelessness in a different way – not to undermine or trivialize the experiences of people who don’t have a physical roof over their heads – but actually to deepen my understanding of it.

Consider how many of our youth who live on the streets are there because “home” wasn’t a place where they could be themselves. According to some agencies who track these numbers, a high percentage of youth living on the streets are LGBT. They ran away or were put out by parents who couldn’t accept them as they were. They were not free to be themselves. “Home is where I can be me.” In other words, they are now un-housed because they were first made homeless.

LGBT folk and others who have been deemed to be “too much,” to be beyond the confines of normalcy, respectability, and our own provincial familiarity are also suffering from the homelessness of non-acceptance in their families, on college campuses, in their local communities – and in their churches, synagogues, mosques, and other places of worship and fellowship.

Having a place where you can be you is so vitally important to our self-esteem and to healthy growth and development. It’s mandatory for our children. Young people need space to just be whoever they happen to understand themselves to be in that season. I’m not talking about letting children run free without discipline. I am talking about nurturing children’s passions, finding creative outlets for their interests, and supporting their experiments with how they want others to see them (dress and hairstyles), so long as they are not putting themselves or others in danger. This is how we figure out how to create the adults we want to grow up into. Restricting authenticity doesn’t protect our young people, it shuts them down and turns them dangerously inward like a turtle pulling its head into its shell. Growth doesn’t happen in the confines of restrictions.

Are you homeless today? Are you without a space (physically and psychically) where you can be yourself?

Are you creating homelessness for someone else by not accepting them for who they are, inclusive of all their strengths and limitations? Are we creating institutionalized homelessness in our colleges (see this story about Hampton’s business school’s 2001 policy banning male students in their leadership MBA program from wearing their hair in cornrows and locs)?

Are you someone’s home-space, that place where they can be authentic?

Are you seeking to create a home and to push that sense of home into all the nooks and crannies of your life? Are you eliminating from your life those places you call “home” but really are not because you cannot go there, because there is no one who will let you in?

I think these are questions we all need to consider for ourselves and those around us, especially for the young people whose lives we parent, mentor, and educate.

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Read more about my thoughts on Hampton’s policy and other institutional policies in this week’s #higheredWed post.

Rape, Pregnancy, and Non Sequitors

*WARNING: You’ll likely be ticked off by the end of reading this by something I’ve said. If you are deeply wedded to life-begins-at-conception beliefs, you really won’t like this. So, if you don’t like having your beliefs and the ways you’ve always read your Bible challenged, then you should probably stop reading now. And if you are going to be annoyed because they are not a bunch of links to allow you to verify what I’m saying, then you might want to stop reading now also. I figure it’s late, I’m tired, and you are fully capable of Googling all this if you doubt its veracity. I don’t mean to sound mean or hostile, I just want you to be prepared. Smile.*

Rep. Todd Akin, who is running for a Senate seat in Minnesota Missouri and sits on the House Science committee, went on record last week saying that in cases of “legitimate rape” the female body has ways of shutting down to prevent pregnancy – ergo there’s no need for a rape or incest exemption from more restrictive abortion laws. While the Republican Party is fighting like hell to get Akin to drop out of his Senate race and is distancing the party from Akin faster than Usain Bolt from his competition on the track, the reality is that Akin’s ideas are not that different than the Republican Party platform. Congressman Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney’s vice presidential pick, co-sponsored a bill with Todd Akin that would drastically redefine rape to be limited only to “forcible rape.” Moreover, the Republican Party platform will announce abortion policy that would make abortion much more difficult to access while NOT exempting rape and incest.

My outrage over this has been building since Akin’s comments went viral over the weekend, but what provoked me to write this post was Mike Huckabee’s, former candidate for president, response to Akin. He has claimed that since there are people who’ve done great things that were the product of a rape, there shouldn’t be a rape/incest exemption because we don’t know what “God” might do with that life to redeem the horrible circumstances under which they were created. Sigh. I’ve got 4 issues with this that I’ll run down right quick. These four issues are in addition to the idiocy and ignorance that led to Akin’s comment in the first place. Basically, I find these comments to be about as ludicrous as the DirecTV commercials but not nearly as comical.

Issue 1: I take issue with the ideology that every conception is a blessing because God is present at every conception. Okay, I know I just lost about half of you. Hear me out, please. In the Bible, it is written that when 2 or 3 are gathered together in my Name [God’s], there am I [God] in the midst. Well, I simply do not believe that rape –any kind of rape, stranger, date, forcible, deception, manipulation, incest, incapable of consenting – sets up the conditions that meet the criteria for God’s abiding presence. Just saying. Therefore, every conception isn’t necessarily a blessing. Besides, blessings don’t just exist inherently. To name an experience, event, circumstance, or situation is a blessing or not is to engage in constructive meaning-making of that experience, event, circumstance, or situation. Basically, what may be a blessing in my eyes, may not be a blessing in yours and I can’t push my interpretation on to you.

Issue 2: I take issue with the ideology that says that the ends justify the means. To make it sound religious, I’ll use a phrase I grew up hearing: “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Now, I just lost about a quarter of the rest of you still reading this. If you’ll bear with me, I think you’ll see what I’m saying. I do believe that good can come out of evil, however, that is not a justification for abetting the evil. You do not use what *might* happen that could be positive as justification for continuing to victimize the woman who’s been raped. She did not consent to the sexual act, she therefore did not consent to the pregnancy, and therefore she should not be forced to consent to give birth. Period.

Issue 3: Now for the other half of what’s wrong with this idea that if you abort the fetus that is the result of rape, you might be depriving the world of its next great thinker, scientist, freedom fighter, etc. I have three words for you: Get. Over. Yourself. Let me expound. As much as I have grown to love the movie, I blame “It’s a Wonderful Life” for this narcissistic belief that the world would be irreparably damaged if you (or anybody else) weren’t born. One thing I do know is that God will find someone else to fulfill your role in His divine plan (if there is such a thing – personally I just think that the grand plan is to get us to treat each other with justice and equity and we experience things that we can choose to allow us to push toward greater equity and justice or push us away from it). Besides, in the movie “The Butterfly Effect,” it’s eliminating someone from Ashton Kutcher’s character’s life that finally sets everything right.

Issue 4: I take issue with this ideology that a woman shouldn’t have the right to choose what happens with her own body and more so that she should not elevate her needs over that of the fetus inside her. In the words of moral development theorist Carol Gilligan, higher levels of moral development centered around an ethic of care, involve women seeing themselves as morally equivalent to others instead of continually sacrificing themselves for others when doing so results in self-harm. What I see in the Republican Party’s anti-choice platform (because let’s be real, they’re not pro-life), is a denial of women’s moral equivalency. And that is just oppressive.

P.S. – I know I’m missing a #higheredWed post, but that will have to come tomorrow. I’m still trying to get the hang of keeping to my writing schedule while I’m doing my archival research. :/

#higheredWed: This is Our Business

On Sunday, August 5, Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh Gurdwara (temple) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin during worship services and opened fire. After the shooting ended and the suspect was among the dead, it was discovered that he had killed 6 and wounded many others. It’s another in a long history of hate-motivated crimes against Sikhs in the US that has spiked since 9/11. I’m grieved and disgusted by this latest act of violence and domestic terrorism, committed by yet another white male. I am equally grieved and disgusted by the response of some to this hate crime: Some have been distressed that Sikhs were “unfairly targeted” and mistaken to be Muslims (RT I saw the day of the shootings) and Pat Robertson has gone on record wondering if perhaps this massacre happened because “atheists hate God.” Besides the reality that no one is fairly targeted by hate-motivated violence and the fact that disbelief doesn’t equate to hatred, both Page’s actions and these examples of responses to it have reminded me of how vitally important it is that higher education get right in the middle of the work of promoting religious and secular pluralism and interfaith cooperation in this country and around the world.

I’ve been interested this week by the absence of discussion of this incident in higher education news outlets outside of reader forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website (I double-checked as I was writing this post just to be sure). I firmly believe that this incident is as much about higher education’s responsibilities to use education to promote understanding, cooperation, and equity as it is about the need to discuss our nation’s gun laws.

I have been engaged with advocating for higher education and student affairs to take a more central role in promoting religious and secular pluralism, supporting faith development, and creating inclusive campus climates that can sustain interfaith cooperation. Through my involvement with ACPA’s Commission for Spirituality, Faith, Religion, and Meaning (CSFRM), membership on the Interfaith Youth Core’s higher education advisory council, and my own publications, I have consistently argued that higher education, particularly student affairs, has an opportunity and a responsibility for improving people’s literacy in their own and others’ convictional beliefs, enhancing their competence with interfaith dialogue, and creating campus environments that reflect the inclusion of convictional beliefs as part of its social justice mandate.

There are three reasons why I believe that higher education and student affairs need to be right in the middle of conversations about why tragedies like this past weekend’s massacre happen and how we can move on from there. First, college environments are the crucibles for development and growth around issues of difference and diversity. A student’s time in college, regardless of age, provides opportunities for rich, substantive engagement with others across lines of difference and the space to practice how to build and sustain real relationships. Second, higher education institutions have been and need to ensure that they are taking active interest in the local communities in which they sit. Whether the institution is a community college, liberal arts college, or research university, all institutions ought to provide opportunities for community members to engage in dialogue about critical issues with the benefit of the knowledge wrought by active research, teaching, and service about these topics. This leads to the third reason higher education needs to have a seat at the table about interfaith cooperation and equity: faculty and student affairs professionals working together can equip people, both enrolled students and engaged community members, with the tools necessary to lead and support interfaith dialogue and cooperation, religious and secular equity, and promoting religious and secular pluralism. When faculty and student affairs professionals collaborate on these issues disciplinary knowledge is combined with deep knowledge and understanding of how people learn, develop, and grow. This is necessary for successful and effective collaboration in applying principles of equity and justice to real-world practice.

To my higher education colleagues, faculty and administrators, let’s not be silent at this time of all times. Let us speak urgently and clearly about what we have to offer and how we can help stem the rising tide of violence in this country targeting those who are different. This is our business. It’s time for us to get involved.

#higheredWed: Top 10 Don’ts for Diversity Workshops

This week’s #higheredWed blog post is about the diversity trainings and workshops that are going to be part of incoming students’ orientation experiences during their first few days on campus and mandatory elements of most trainings for new and returning residence life staffs. I’ve participated in a number of these trainings either as a student, RA, or professional staff member and have had to plan and facilitate a fair number as well. From my own experiences and conversations with friends and colleagues who facilitate these sessions, I’ve learned a number of pitfalls that seem to beset a lot of these trainings. I’m hoping this short list of cautions might make these important and necessary sessions better and more effective for all involved.

10. DON’T ASSUME KNOWLEDGE. Many of us who work in higher education and student affairs talk about issues of diversity, inclusion, and social justice on a regular basis. We are familiar with the terms, know the lingo, and are comfortable with the concepts regardless of whether we are of like-mind regarding how to implement them. However, as I was reminded this summer teaching the students in our university’s leadership scholars program, most other folks don’t share this familiarity with the language of social justice. Concepts such as pluralism, social justice, and inclusion, as well as distinctions between sex, gender, gender identity, and gender expression are not part of most folks’ everyday conversation. Take the time to explain what terms mean and how they are being used in the context of your institution.

9. DON’T FORGET TO MAKE CLEAR, REASONABLE LEARNING OUTCOMES. Start with the purpose of the session and your institutional context. Are you working with incoming first-year students on a residential campus who will need to learn how to live together effectively across lines of differences which may be unfamiliar to most of your students? What have been the major fault lines around diversity at your institution and in your local area in recent history (the last 5-10 years moreso than the past 25-30 years)? Are you training staff who will have to do educational programming and be prepared to mediate conflicts around issues of diversity? What are the specific foundational skills the RA staff need to effectively serve as first-responders and to build awareness and foundational knowledge through active and passive programming? For RA staffs, keep in mind that you’re asking them to do a lot of cognitive development and emotional maturity by putting them in the position of educating their peers and mediating conflicts about issues that they themselves may have only been introduced to a year ago. Meet them where they’re at, not where you need them to be; build the bride that will get them there. And then remember that people in your group, even that incoming class, may be at different places in their knowledge and understanding. Know what you need to accomplish with the group in this session and then plan to build on it later through successive workshops and programs.

8. DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE EMOTIONAL LABOR INVOLVED. For first-year students, this may be the first time they have ever been asked to think and talk about issues of race, sex, gender, sexuality, ability, social class, and/or religion and faith in a formal setting. For some students, their college experience may be their first real, extended engagement with others who don’t share their race, gender identity, sexuality, social class, ability, or religious beliefs. Remember what it felt like when you first had your paradigms about what you had been taught and had assumed to be “normal” challenged and upended. These conversations bring up feelings of confusion, frustration, anger, sadness, guilt, shame, doubt, fear, and anxiety. As Sherry Watt has discussed about difficult dialogues and privileged identity exploration, people’s egos are often threatened in the midst of these discussions. You must prepare for that and make room for it in your learning outcomes and as you plan structured experiences.

7. DON’T SHORTCHANGE TIME FOR REFLECTION. I remember being formally taught this in class with Dr. Bob Rodgers during my master’s program at The Ohio State University. I remember really learning the value and importance of applying this caution after failing to apply it more than once in diversity workshops and trainings. I would have the group of students, or staff, do an activity and only leave 15 minutes to process it when usually at least 45 minutes were needed. This goes along with #9 and #8. If you only have two hours, you can’t try to squeeze in 2 activities that are going to be not only cognitively challenging, but also emotionally fraught and expect to get through them both effectively and with people’s hearts and minds still intact. If you only have two hours and can’t extend the time, you probably have just enough time to do some kind of short introduction activity and one structured experience.

6. DON’T GIVE IN TO THE BLACK-WHITE BINARY. I think particularly in predominantly White universities in the U.S., race and ethnicity easily become the lightning rods for diversity workshops. Racial and ethnic diversity are typically the most easily visible differences within a group and because racism is embedded in the foundations of this country, race easily takes all the focus. Moreover, discussions about race, especially in certain parts of the U.S., become only about Blacks and Whites, while other racially marginalized groups are ignored. Latin@s, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Native American and indigenous peoples, and multiracial folks all share histories of racial segregation, exclusion, and discrimination in the U.S. Moreover, systems of oppression affect myriad people on the basis of other social identities other than and intersected with race (e.g., sex, gender, sexuality, ability, age, social class, language, nationality and immigration status, convictional belief systems, to name just a few). There is no value in running an oppression Olympics; there’s no prize for being the “most oppressed” group and every system of oppression is equally unjust, hurtful, damaging, and destructive to developing and sustaining inclusive, pluralistic communities. Helping students understand the dynamics of oppression generally also helps avoid the next don’t, #5…

5. DON’T FORGET THE INTERSECTIONS OF PRIVILEGE AND OPPRESSION. Another consequence of getting trapped in the black-white binary or only discussing racial oppression, is that the White folks get the message that they have not experienced any form of oppression and the people of color in the room tune out of the conversation. First of all, as my friend and social justice mentor, Rev. Dr. Jamie Washington says, “just because you are doesn’t mean you understand.” Everybody has a learning edge in these discussions; people of color are not inherently more sophisticated about how privilege and oppression work just because they may be more likely to be recognize and acknowledge the affect of racial oppression. Second, most everybody in your workshop or training session is the member of one or more groups who receive privilege (i.e., unearned advantages and conferred dominance ala Allan G. Johnson), including people of color. ALSO, most everybody in the room holds group membership in one or more groups who are targeted by systematic and structural oppression, including white folks. The result is that everybody has privilege that needs to be examined and challenged and everybody can probably connect an unfamiliar knowledge about one system of oppression to another system of oppression with which they are more familiar. You may have to help folks see their privilege by getting them to reflect on ways they are NOT privileged first. Being transparent about your own intersections of privilege and oppression as a facilitator can go along way toward helping everybody understand on a deeper level.

4. DON’T MAKE GETTING ALONG AND HAVING FUN THE ONLY GOALS. Educating for diversity and social justice and teaching people about privilege isn’t about labeling some people bigots and other people victims (see #5 above). It’s also not about challenging whether people are “nice” people who can “tolerate” difference. You can be a nice person, donate your time and money in the service of others, bake a mean apple pie, and show civility to everyone in the room and still collude and enable systems of oppression to hurt, harm, and demean others. Moreover, getting people not to use offensive language and to hang out together in diverse groups is not the end goal of social justice. Multiculturalism is not achieved because you’ve got mixed race friendship groups in your residence hall or the jocks came to the Safe Zone Workshop and signed the pledge to be allies. I would hope our goals in higher education would be a little higher. We need people who are able to recognize and challenge oppressive practices and systems, advocate and make change, and to do so while building and sustaining relationships across lines of difference by practicing building trust and rapport founded in the active belief that every person is worthy of dignity and respect. Just because people seem to “get along” doesn’t mean that they are committed to pursuing equity. And, yes, I’ll say it, using “celebrate diversity” paradigms that put the focus on type-cast food, music, dancing, and festivals while ignoring education about structural inequality won’t lead to substantive, enduring change for social justice.

3. DON’T CONFUSE BEING SAFE WITH BEING COMFORTABLE. Also related to #4 is this caution about safety and comfort. We talk a lot in student affairs about “safe spaces” and creating such spaces for learning to take place. But being safe doesn’t mean you’re going to be comfortable. In fact, if you’re really learning anything, you’re going to feel pretty damn uncomfortable at some point in the process. Learning provokes discomfort, especially when the learning concerns diversity and social justice (see #8). Safety is about creating an environment where people feel that it is going to be okay for them to be vulnerable, to feel afraid, to experience discomfort and know that’s not going to be mocked, held against them, or judged by another participant in the session or by the facilitator. Safe spaces, yes. Comfortable spaces? Let’s hope not.

2. DON’T FORGET TO TAKE TIME BEFORE AND AFTER TO PREP AND RECOVER. This one is for those of you facilitating these workshops and training sessions. Even if you’ve done these trainings for a dozen years or more, it’s better to take the time to get yourself in a space to function as a tutor, mentor, guide, and support for these conversations. As another friend and mentor, Dr. Kathy Obear has discussed, you need to manage your triggers. What are the things that set you off? Prepare yourself ahead of time to deal with that trigger effectively so that the learning goals for the session are wrecked because you didn’t have yourself in check in advance. And then, once it’s over, give yourself time to recover. After I’ve taught a class session or run a workshop about these issues, I have learned that I must take time before and after to get centered, to remind myself of who I am and what I know, and to allow myself to feel whatever hurt, pain, or offense may have been inflicted unintentionally during the course of the session by a participant or co-facilitator. And that reminds me, if you’re working with someone else and facilitating the session together, take some time – a good deal of time – beforehand doing prep together, sharing each other’s triggers, and developing strategies to help and support each other during the session. After, schedule a time to debrief the session and again, help and support each other’s recovery process.

And finally, the #1 DON’T for diversity workshops…

1. DON’T FORGET THAT THIS IS JUST ONE STEP IN A LIFELONG PROCESS. You’re not going to transform that group of green first-year students into powerhouse social justice activists in one session. That group of RAs is not going to be able to effectively develop a diverse community on their floor, design compelling and provocative educational programs, and resolve every conflict like a thirty-year veteran after your day-long training. This is step one, or step two, or step ten, but it’s just one step. Becoming competent with diversity and social justice is a lifelong process. I’m still on my journey. So are you. And so will they. Use this session to plant a seed, or water the baby shoots, or do some weeding, or prune the branches. And then trust that another experience will come along to keep the process going; trust that they will seek opportunities to grow and learn more.

A Fair Balance

It’s only July, still about four months before the November elections, and I’m already tired of the political ads from both sides. Contrary to much of the current discourse, this isn’t new. Check out this 21st century retooling of the negative campaigning that happened in the 1800s where candidates attacked each other’s physical appearance, sexual appetites, and questioned their biological sex (yes, “hermaphroditical” was used to describe John Adams by Thomas Jefferson): Attack Ads, Circa 1800.

Ugh.

Another thing that isn’t new is the debate over how much tax the wealthy should pay, support for the poor and working classes, and the rights of corporations to pursue unlimited profits – at the same time, the purpose and value of higher education was questioned as proponents of a classical curriculum emphasizing breadth of knowledge meant to “discipline the mind” defended themselves against those advocating for a more utilitarian curriculum that would be directly connected to training for specific trades, particularly mercantilism (aka, business); see the Yale Report of 1828 and this article by Jack C. Lane in 1987. These same debates were also seen in the 1800s as neo-republican ideology swept the country advocating for the freedom to pursue individual success without the constraints of government. Wrapped in what Frey has called a mis-reading of Puritanical ethics, neo-republicanism was as much a religious ideology as it was a political one.

Frey argues for a closer reading of Puritan ethics that would reveal that individual success was always meant to be constrained by investment in the common good. Perhaps, but a close reading of the Bible itself would reveal that the current polarization of the right to pursue wealth against a populist support of poor and working class is far afield from the Christian ethics preached by the religion’s earliest followers.

The Common Lectionary for July 1st used in many liturgical denominations, including Episcopalians and Anglicans worldwide, Lutheran churches, and Catholic parishes used Paul’s second letter to the Christians in Corinth as the epistle reading for the week. Here’s a portion of the passage (if you want to read more – the selection begins at verse 7 – click here):

“For if the eagerness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has – not according to what one does not have. I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” 2 Corinthians 8:12-15, New Revised Standard Version

The passage is about voluntary giving or donations, not taxes imposed by the government in fairness to biblical exegesis, but I think there’s a larger point that is transferable between the two contexts. In Paul’s time, the government couldn’t be counted on to take care of the poor. In fact, poverty often led to enslavement. So the new communities that were forming to follow The Way – that’s what the earliest Christians called themselves as they attempted to practice the way of life that Jesus lived on earth – had to create their own structures of organization and oversight – what some might call government. There were leaders and representatives, folks (like Paul) who traveled to spread news about new policies and practices to be adopted. And during this time, the government – Rome – did impose taxes on its citizens and surrogates and typically the surrogates were under a heavier tax burden than the citizens, even though the citizens were usually far wealthier. So when Paul writes this letter to Corinth, pleading for them to give more because they had more, so that they could help the Christians in Jerusalem, he’s trying to teach them another means of following The Way. Later in this letter, Paul cites the Macedonians’ giving, which was greater than that of the Corinthians even though they were poor themselves. Again, Paul wasn’t asking for the Corinthians to become destitute in order to help some other folks, so that everybody would be poor, nor so that those being helped would end up with more than them. Paul wasn’t even asking for everybody to have the same amount either in a communistic (different from communitarian) economy – a common accusation by those who reject calls for higher taxes on the wealthy. Equal (a = b) and fair are not the same thing. Fairness and justice don’t always call for things being the same (sometimes they do though). Neither hard work nor inherited gain give anyone the right to hoard their wealth. What is the fair balance? I don’t know, but I know we don’t have it when there are people who are going into bankruptcy due to healthcare costs, who don’t have enough food to eat, who are living out of cars or on the street, while others have so much they literally don’t know what to do with it.

For me, it’s just that simple. I’m not asking for our government to be run according to my Christian ethics (we aren’t a theocracy you know), but I do allow my Christian ethics to guide my political stances and how I vote.1 I also want others who claim to be using Christianity to guide their political stances and voting records to think carefully and reasonably about their orthodoxy using the best biblical scholarship and thinking we have access to. I don’t hear that from most of the folks who are howling over how unfair it is to raise taxes on the wealthy and on highly profitable corporations.

This premise that no one has too much or too little isn’t unique to Paul and Christianity; indeed you can find it as a central premise in any communitarian ethic across religious and secular traditions. It’s also an ethic this country has practiced at times throughout its history and during those eras, we were a stronger nation that began to realize some of its greatness (see my thoughts about being a great nation in my earlier blog post from July 5th).

I want the “fair balance” that Paul calls for to become a reality in this country and right now, we don’t have it. We have a lopsided balance that I sincerely believe will threaten the future of this nation if left unchecked. Paying attention to European history (amongst other places around the world) will show that when things get so lopsided, the poor and working classes revolt and some folks in power lose their heads. Just saying – something to think about. I happily pay my taxes (although I don’t happily fill out the forms because those things are a headache) and would happily pay more if I earned more. It’s my responsibility to the common good, to be invested in the success of my whole community, not just myself.

“A rising tide lifts all boats” – at least it should anyway. But more so, when some boats are allowed to run aground while others sail on, safe harbor for anyone becomes hard to find.

A fair balance for our nation and a fair balance for our world. That’s what it means to live in community with one’s neighbors, whether down the street or across the ocean.

Notes:
1 If you think you know what those are based on what you hear in the media, think again. I am comfortable identifying myself as a “progressive Christian.” For a short clip on what that means, check out Fred Plumer’s explanation (7:16 clip) or go to the website for The Center for Progressive Christianity.

References:
Frey, D. E. (1998. Individualist economic values and self-interest: The problem in the Puritan ethic. Journal of Business Ethics, 17(14), 1573-1580.

Lane, J. C. (1987). The Yale report of 1828 and liberal education: A neorepublican manifesto. History of Education Quarterly, 27(3), 325-338.