Evangelical Christianity and “Warfare” (part 3)

evangelicalwar

In this blog post, I ask you to consider that Christianity may be better off by being less central in American culture. After all, Christianity doesn’t have a particularly good record when it’s enmeshed with governmental power. Christianity took a major step forward in influence when it was endorsed by the emperor Constantine; it also took on the basic hierarchical structure of the Roman Empire, enabling the church to indulge in raw authority. The Crusades, the Inquisition, the intolerance of early American religiously-focused colonies, the opposition to the civil rights movement by many white churches: Christianity has a nasty tendency to get distorted when it is officially sanctioned.

Christianity may be more effective when it operates from the margins; when it is synonymous with existing social structures, the salt can lose its savor. Christ said that we are the salt of the earth; he didn’t say that we were the entrée. If your religion depends on being underwritten and endorsed by the culture at large, you’re in trouble.

I think many Christians are mourning a shift in their visibility within the culture. They sense that media everywhere seem to be advocating a less strict adherence to traditional moral codes. If characters with old-fashioned standards do appear on television/film, they are usually the ones who need to “learn” a better way. (think about the dance-hating preacher in Footloose) The best you can hope for in Christian portrayals is often a well-meaning, tender-hearted, but essentially simple-minded soul (Sheldon’s mom in Young Sheldon). The cool, hip, attractive, morally validated characters are those who believe in inclusion and broad-mindedness, not straight-laced standards. Characters with traditional morality are now less likely to be founts of wisdom; it’s more likely that they need to wise up.

I well understand the temptation to make uptight Christianity the “bad guy.” I did it myself when I wrote a graphic novel. I didn’t want to spend a lot of time establishing a villain (that wasn’t the focus of the horror comic), so I needed a fairly stock character to commit a heinous act. For various reasons, I didn’t settle on rednecks, Nazis, gang members, or terrorists; without giving too much of the plot away, I chose a sexually repressive church leader in the Old West. It was easy; no one has ever called me on it. It’s one of the things I regret about that graphic novel.

I recognize that politically conservative Christians do not see themselves and their own corner of the world being honored and valued. I can see, therefore, the temptation to echo charges of “fake news” (even though there’s no way they can have enough insider information into a journalist’s process to determine if there has been intentional “fakery”). Distrust of “the media” (another very useful choice of words that lumps together and generalizes) becomes a stance toward the world. Toss in a good bit of nostalgia for the “good old days,” and you have a fine recipe for conservative politics (which is inclined toward the past and which knows the mobilizing power of fear).

As a media scholar, it’s hard for me not to see this as partly a problem of representation, this inability for evangelical Christians to see themselves in the images created by Hollywood “elites.” It seems to me that this provides an opportunity for evangelical Christianity to understand a bit of what minorities have felt for ages: the pain of misrepresentation and stereotypes, the frustration with a lack of presence in mainstream imagery, the yearning to be seen.

White Christians have never before felt the hunger for images that minorities have. (I think of stories from early television history where the word that a black person was on television would spread like wildfire through an African American neighborhood. White people have never experienced anything like that desire for visibility.) Perhaps evangelical Christians can now get a taste of what it’s like to be represented badly or not at all, and that provides an opportunity for increasing your understanding. (For more about the importance of being seen and on the difficulty of feeling superfluous – among other things – I recommend Krista Tippett’s conversation with Lyndsey Stonebridge about the contemporary relevance of Hannah Arendt’s thought.)

I have long thought that American conservatives are pissed as much by the tone of liberal harangues as much as they are the content. As I have mentioned in a previous blog post, liberals have an unfortunate tendency toward being sanctimonious, and nothing seems to rile people more than a good dose of snooty elitism. Believe me, I understand; this is a blog called Confessions of a Reformed Hick. I know all too well the rhetorical power of an “I’m superior and you’re such an idiot” tone. I’ve heard this from academics, who should know better. Shaming someone’s knowledge is not a useful way to start the process of education. And how exactly do you argue against tone?

So the hick part of me understands evangelical Christians’ problems with liberal “elites.” The reformed part of me wonders if this isn’t a case of Christians reaping what they sow. My wife stayed away from church for a long time (in part) because of her distaste for the holier-than-thou attitudes expressed by many Christians. Smug judgmentalness did nothing to endear her to Christianity. (As the always quotable Alain de Botton says, “The great enemy of love, good relationships, good friendships, is self-righteousness.”)

Members of the church have had near exclusive privileges when it comes to moral self-righteousness, so perhaps it stings more to have that tone used on them, to have their morality dismissed by people’s attitudes. Here’s an opportunity to learn what how infuriating moral superiority can be.

So I ask white fundamentalist evangelical American Christians to consider giving up “warfare” and “attacks” as a framework for their experience. I realize that’s difficult. For one thing, war is exciting; its purpose and energy are addicting.  We Americans love to declare war: on poverty, on drugs, on terror. War is an infinitely renewable political resource as long as there aren’t significant casualties and physical damage. Journalists from William Randolph Hearst (the Spanish American War) to Fox News (the “War on Christmas”) have learned that a call to “war” is great for business. The “warfare” frame of reference is a dependable button to push to garner support.

I encourage evangelicals to reframe this “warfare” as a chance to re-engage in nonsanctimonious discussion with the world. We have an opportunity here to refocus on the fundamentals of following Christ. “Values voters” could organize around kindness, gentleness, and other fruit of the Spirit. Jesus said little about sex, marriage, and reproduction or about taxes and government; he said much about love.

The distinctive “weapon” in the Christian “arsenal” is compassion. “Love your enemies” is Jesus’ explicit reframing response to Trump’s favorite verse: “An eye for an eye.” (Significantly, Trump has chosen the only Old Testament scripture that Jesus singles out as in need of repair: Matt. 5: 38-44)

Compassion is a weapon that disarms both its target and the one who wields it. Followers of Christ have faith that it transforms both sides of a combative dynamic. If we lose that faith, we lose far too much of who we are. If you’re willing to bypass your distinctive way of interacting with the world so that you can hold onto your importance, then you’re in danger of gaining the world and losing your soul.

I’ll go further in my unsolicited friendly advice to evangelicals. Don’t fight to regain your losses. Rejoice in your marginalization. Embrace the insights that come from being on the margins. Marginalization, through the upside-down logic of Christianity, can be a gift. As the Sermon on the Mount tells us, therein lies not persecution but blessedness.

Evangelical Christianity and “Warfare” (part 2)

evangelicalwar

In spite of the fact that I have largely left this tradition (or that it left me), I hope I still have enough credibility to say to evangelical Christians: this is not war. You are not under attack. You are not being persecuted. If you step away from that language, you will discover that Christianity is being criticized, that it is less central to culture than it once was. That’s not the same as “war,” and it is a damaging overreaction to speak that way.

Christianity does have a long relationship with persecution (both on the giving and receiving ends), but to call our current state of affairs “persecution” is to do a disservice to those who were truly persecuted. A brief reality check: no American is barred from worshiping God as they please. No one is prevented from praying to God. No one is told to leave the country because of their Christian faith. No one is jailed in America for their Christian beliefs. No Christian is barred from voting or owning a business or serving as an elected official. We are at the point where some Christian businesspeople are being asked to compromise their personal beliefs in order to provide their goods and services (decorated cake, for instance). Christians are encouraged to think about whether “Merry Christmas” is a one-size-fits-all greeting. This is a long way from warfare.

I am fine with organized Christian religion being criticized and challenged. Churchgoers listen to messages that point out our shortcomings every Sunday. We are extraordinarily practiced at taking criticism. We should be in the lead in demonstrating how to receive it gracefully. If we can’t take criticism, we’ve got no business interacting with the world.

Nowadays the American cultural mainstream does not focus on Christianity in the way that it once did. As an example of the fruit of that good old Baptist (and other) heritage of the separation of church and state, we are moving away from “prayer in school” (an interestingly loaded turn of phrase). No one is interfering with individuals’ ability to pray privately in school; that would be a true invasion of privacy. We are shifting away from a very specific form of prayer: the oral mass prayer in public school settings.

This form of prayer was front and center and officially sanctioned, and those words mattered. They sent the message that Christianity was still at the heart of society. When people say we should “bring back prayer in school,” I say that it never left. It just left center stage.

I have heard conservative Christians use the phrase “attack on the family” as a basic statement of how things are today. Again, I would encourage people to pay attention to the words they use and to the arguments packed into pat phrases. People today are questioning the old faith in the traditional mother/father/children conception of the family. If you truly believe in the superiority of the dominant understanding of the nuclear family, you should be able to voice an effective argument in its favor, not sequester yourself with like-minded folks. Engaging with questions from those outside the faith can help you to find your own answers and to own those answers more firmly instead of simply inheriting them from others.

“Attack” language justifies barricading yourself in with those who agree with you, not explaining yourself to those who think differently. I witnessed one of the early modern examples of bubble-formation as I grew up in the Seventies in an evangelical family. As cable media blossomed, certain members of my family started mentioning The 700 Club, James Dobson (of Focus on the Family), and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in almost every conversation as if these figures were part of their social circle.

I began to realize how it was possible to spend most of your day engaged with such media, to send your children to Christian white-flight schools, to patronize businesses that proclaimed they were Christian owned and operated, and to listen to contemporary Christian radio. Evangelical Christian media were on the forefront of building a world where you could “protect” yourself from outside influences. This was a long way from Christ’s injunction to be “in the world but not of the world,” a long way from a prophet who had dinner with sex workers.

Around this time another buzzword — “family values” — came to into prominence. I’ve always found this phrase quizzical as a stand-in for “Christianity” because the Gospels aren’t particularly pro-family; in fact, Jesus tends to act in ways that explicitly de-emphasize family. When preaching to a crowd, he neglects to go see his mother, and she and her brothers seek him out. When informed they are visiting, he smacks them down: “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” (My own mother would have tanned my hide for that.)

When asked what the most important thing in life is, Jesus answers that we are to love God and love our neighbors. Focusing on the family doesn’t appear on the list. Jesus says that he has come to set a son against his father and a daughter against her mother; “anyone who loves their father or mother more than me is not worthy of me.” (Matt. 10: 37) Whatever you make of this, it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the centrality of the family. Whenever “family values” substitutes for the more radical message of the Gospels, be suspicious.

The word “Christianity” also becomes easily allied with the prominent display of the Ten Commandments (including that one about honoring your father and mother), which ignores that there’s nothing particularly “Christian” about those ten. They are (mostly) moral injunctions about behavior that makes social interaction more possible. Some version of these rules appears in virtually every society and every religion; without some sort of warning against lying, murder, theft, and adultery, it’s difficult to maintain a community. Not all discussions of morality are Christian.

The American Founders shared this set of common moral beliefs, but they shied away from explicitly mentioning Jesus in governmental documents to avoid the notion that America was a Christian nation. (They preferred a broader deist notion of “God.”)  I know that the wonderful thing about the Founders is that you can find some quote to back up almost anything you say, but for me it’s hard to get around John Adams declaring in the Treaty of Tripoli (1797) that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Once again, notice how we can imbed arguments within a couple of strategically chosen words. By proclaiming America a “Christian nation,” by foregrounding the Ten Commandments as an explicitly Christian heritage as opposed to seeing them as articulating broad moral rules held by most religions, by making a specific vision of “family values” important to Christianity, by worrying about the disappearance of “prayer in school,” we choose words that attempt to keep Christianity central in American society. Or rather these words attempt to keep the form of Christianity in society’s limelight.

Christianity’s world-turned-upside-down values are too strange to fit comfortably in society. It is entirely reasonable to strike back when you feel threatened, but Christ’s message is not reasonable. The admonition to give your life away instead of holding onto it; the idea that there is strength in weakness; the belief that wealth is soul-endangering and not a universal motivator; the commandment to love your enemies instead of attacking them: these are principles that upend the status quo instead of preserving it.

Next time: The advantages of speaking from the margins.

Evangelical Christianity and “Warfare” (part 1)

evangelicalwar

I’m always interested in reading news/opinion articles that seek to unravel the mystery of evangelical Christians’ deep, paradoxical, and seemingly unshakable support for Donald Trump. How can evangelical Christians endorse someone whose personal conduct and style is so much at odds with Christian principles?

I’ve heard Biblically-grounded arguments that God can use ungodly kings/leaders for divine purposes. I’ve seen Trump linked to a desire for black-and-white explanations of the world and to a need for authority. I’ve read discussions that separate personal character from policy, but none of the explanations work that well for me. A lot of these articles have “I’m an anthropologist exploring this strange foreign land” feel to them as opposed to the sympathetic investigation of the phenomenon that I’d like to see.

For whatever reason, this article by Elizabeth Bruenig led me to write this blog entry, my first one that focuses on religion and politics, not religion or politics. Perhaps this article sparked questions and comments because the author (like me) grew up in an evangelical environment but ended up a liberal. I feel the need to put my upbringing into conversation with my adult politics and the current state of politics, and I need to do so without demonizing the tradition in which I was born. Even though I have largely left this tradition, I’m enormously grateful for being raised in it. I fully see the gifts it brings, and I value them.

I was raised in devoted Southern Baptist family in a small Southern town. I participated in “sword drills” (which isn’t as exciting as it sounds, but it does prepare you in case you need speedy non-internet access to, say, Obadiah 2:7); I went to Vacation Bible School. Throughout my teenage years I either played piano, organ, or led the music on Sundays for my small home church. I played piano for a teen gospel quartet called “Cornerstone.”

I would call my upbringing unabashedly “evangelical” without necessarily being “fundamentalist.” I’ve been to funerals so wholeheartedly evangelical that the preacher made an altar call for people to be saved before it’s too late. My mother would automatically tear up whenever she thought about those who were lost and in need of salvation. Evangelism was a watchword for my early church years.

But “fundamentalism” was not. Baptist theology as I was taught it in the 60s and 70s had a strong emphasis on individual thinking. I have heard Baptist leaders criticize fundamentalist black-and-white approaches to the Bible (I remember one striking turn of phrase: “The problem with fundamentalists is that they’re ‘damn mentalists’ with no ‘fun.’ They’re more concerned with the rules in their heads than the love in their hearts.”) There was a proud connection to the “priesthood of the believer,” the notion that no one (not even an ordained minister) could tell you how to interpret the Bible. Everything pointed back to the authority of scripture, but in the end the only arbiter of “what the Bible says” was you and God.

My father was the Biblical scholar of the family, and his individual study led him to some interesting places. His favorite branch of theological study was eschatology, and the majority of the books weighing down our bookshelves were studies of the Book of Revelations. If pressed, I can still reconstruct a pretty good timeline for the Rapture, the Seven Year Tribulation Period, Armageddon, the Thousand Year Reign, Judgment Day, and the New Heaven and New Earth.

As I have noted in a previous blog entry, my autodidact father believed so strongly that everyone was equal in the eyes of God that he opposed the ordination of deacons (even though they’re clearly there in the New Testament). In spite of Paul’s commandment for women to be silent in church, my father came to believe that women should be ordained as ministers (having the approval of an old church stalwart like my father was very affirming for a female Baptist minister friend of mine). These aren’t exactly radical progressive insights, but they were definitely demonstrations to me of how a committed Christian scholar could find his own path.

When I was taught Baptist history, we proudly celebrated the Baptist contribution to the separation of church and state in America (Roger Williams and Maryland). This fierce independence influenced church structure. Although our church belonged to the Southern Baptist Convention, there was no central organization that either chose or recommended a pastor for a church (unlike Catholics, Presbyterians, or Methodists). Each local congregation was free to call whatever pastor it thought was best for them. Looking back, there’s certainly a “states-rightsy” feel to all this (undoubtedly part of being Southern Baptist), though I never noticed it at the time.

I won’t pretend that my small town Baptist church in the 70s was a hotbed of liberal progressive thought. It was, after all, a small town with necessarily conservative values on tradition. Fairly early on I strained against those bonds, leading me to leave that town. Only as an adult did I discover the advantages of that tradition. (I also discovered there’s a weird secret society of lefty academics who came from fundamentalist/evangelical homes, which does make an odd kind of sense. Once you decide that it’s worthwhile to study The Book in deep detail, it’s not that far away to think that maybe other books could be studied in that intense manner, too.)

My experience in the Baptist church was always a mix of local conservative values/rituals and potentially liberal theology. The theological message that came through to me was about a community of believers each seeking to find her/his path to God through Scripture, and that vision is still a big part of who I am. I watched at a distance as the Southern Baptist Convention tacked doctrinally to the right in the 80s. Perhaps the breaking point was an official repudiation of the idea of the “priesthood of the believer” as a group of strongly minister-centered churches came to power in the denomination. And there’s been no turning back after that. In my eyes (although I’m a Presbyterian), I never left the Baptist church; the Baptist church left me.

And so I’ve viewed from afar as “evangelical” (meaning “wanting to extend the Kingdom of God,” an impulse shared in differing degrees by all Christian churches) and “fundamentalist” (meaning “an overt return to a perceived core set of values”) apparently merged and took on a coherent new politics. And here is where I begin to be unable to recognize the version of the Gospel that circulates among the community that used to be my home.

If you look at the Elizabeth Bruenig article (and here’s a related one), there’s a consistent set of positions voiced by evangelicals. At least in the realm of politics, fundamentalist evangelicals are portrayed as united around opposition to abortion and climate change explanations; they favor lower taxes; they prioritize immigration; they focus on a conservative approach to gender, sexuality, and marriage. (There is no question raised that perhaps these policies are not embraced by large numbers of evangelicals, so I assume that this is correct. I would love to hear if that depiction in the press is an oversimplification.)

My question in return is (and this is now an outsider’s question): how the hell did these get to be the central values of the Gospel? I can understand believers coming to individual conclusions about each other those political issues. I could see the evangelical Christians of my upbringing having different opinions about these matters. How did evangelical Christians as a whole come to adopt these political stances as central to the faith, as something that unites believers?

The thing that really clicked for me in this article about evangelical support for Trump was the preponderance of “war” language. Christianity is under “attack” from an “incursion.” “Persecuted” Christians have been forced onto a “precipice” on the verge of a “catalysm.” They need to erect a “fortress,” and so they need a “protector” to look out for their interests. This wartime mentality means that you might have ally yourself with a “bully” in order to “defend” yourself.

War rhetoric calls for an all-out effort. It suspends our standards of decency while the fighting is ongoing. We use another set of (martial) laws that bypasses our normal rules for how we treat each other. War doesn’t tolerate dissent; you’re either for us or against us.

If you are in a war, then you can’t be picky about your protector. Criticisms of that protector aren’t going to matter much to you; in fact, they may remind you of how persecuted you feel. You thank God you have a bully who will attack and not just defend, because this isn’t just warfare; it’s a battle against unseen “principalities and powers.” It’s a battle on a cosmic scale with Armageddon surely around the corner.

As the son of self-taught Biblical prophecy scholar, let me tell you that nobody does stakes like Christianity can. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is a bunch of secular johnny-come-latelys compared to us. We invented the apocalypse (which might be our most widely marketable product these days). If the end of the world is nigh, you’re just grateful that someone is fighting for you in a good Old Testament “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” manner. Your enemies need some good old-fashioned smiting, and it’s good to have someone who isn’t bound by “cheek turning” principles on your side of the war.

And thus we return to one of the continuing themes of this blog: the power of words. On the religious side of the blog, I’ve advocated for calling yourself a “follower of Christ,” not a “Christian.” I’ve talked about the benefits of calling God Father and mother. I have asserted that calling each other by our preferred names is helpful for creating dialogue. Words frame our experience. Reasserting that you are in a war creates that war, even if external circumstances do not support that claim. You find supporting evidence, and this colors your world to make the war emotionally real.

In spite of the fact that I have largely left this tradition (or that it left me), I hope I still have enough credibility to say to evangelical Christians: this is not war. You are not under attack. You are not being persecuted. If you step away from that language, you will discover that Christianity is being criticized, that it is less central to culture than it once was. That’s not the same as “war,” and it is a damaging overreaction to speak that way.

(More on the pros and cons of “war” next time….)

Bootstraps and Blame

bootstraps

In my next few blog posts, I’ll expand on some of the terse statements in my Declaration of Interdependence. We already have a Declaration of Independence, but it seemed to me that today we need to counterbalance the American ideal of independence with a bit more awareness of our interdependence, and thus the counter-proclamation:

“Personal independence and individual effort are vital, but no one is totally self-made. Most of us get where we are through a combination of work and advantages, but we frequently misremember that. It doesn’t diminish our story to acknowledge our interdependence. Each of us owes a debt to our society.”

In American politics we repeatedly tell one of two stories about how individuals become who they are. One is a tale of independence and self-reliance: “I worked hard to get where I am; I earned everything I have.” The alternate story emphasizes external forces — personal trauma, poverty, racism, sexism, class, history: “I am where I am because of what happened to me.” The former is usually a narrative of success, the latter of failure; one is pitched as an empowering tale, while the other is about powerlessness.

Stories of being on the bottom make us squirm, unless of course the person hits bottom and bounces. We’re fine with hearing about failure – in fact we like it — as long as it leads inevitably to success (a narrative so sellable that some call it “failure porn”). We can’t get enough of stories of disability as long as they get turned into inspirational narratives, as long as those external factors get transformed into character-building hurdles to overcome in the race to success, as long as they avoid unhelpful, self-defeating talk about “blame.”

In the political sphere, the “blame” narrative and the “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” story are typically phrased as an either/or: either people wallow in their victimhood doing nothing or they need to pull up their big boy panties and work their way out of their circumstances. That has always seemed like a false choice to me. Why can’t you acknowledge the harsh reality of discrimination and trauma; call for change to those realities; and acknowledge that individual action is also necessary? Why isn’t this a “both/and?”

Why is it so hard for conservatives to focus on the soul-wounding forces of racism/sexism, as opposed to nodding toward them briefly before preaching about the importance of individual hard work? Why is it so difficult for liberals to acknowledge that perhaps not all poor people are industrious and noble, that the poor can be just as lazy and as unmotivated to quit bad habits as any of us, that effective social programs require individuals to buy into them?

The bootstraps story tends to treat disenfranchisement as backdrop. It’s an escape tale. Nothing changes except the individual’s position; everything else about the situation stays the same. The situation is simply an inevitable part of “the way things are.” You can’t eradicate poverty, after all. Even if politicians like LBJ declare a “war on poverty,” we know we can’t win that war. This provokes some Christians to pull out the Bible verse about “the poor ye have always with you” (out of context, by the way) instead of talking about Christ’s consistent advocacy for the poor. And all societies have been racist and sexist, of course; we’re no different. People will just have to accept that we will have poverty or racism or sexism with us always and then try to rise above those problems through individual effort (maybe with the help of a “hand up” – not a handout — extended by charity).

It is true, of course, that we can’t utterly eliminate poverty/racism/sexism, but as I note in the Declaration, “the perfect is the enemy of the good.” Just because we lack a perfect solution doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be working to make things better. Just because other societies have been racist/sexist doesn’t excuse our own bias. Instead, we need to take responsibility for our own particular history of prejudice. Poverty, racism, and sexism are not immovable, excusable, tolerable backdrops.

If individuals can work their way past the disadvantages of their bad situation, that allows us to believe that maybe things aren’t so bad after all. Such individual success stories therefore provide a great excuse for political inaction. Maybe we don’t need to be that concerned about combating racism/sexism/poverty. Maybe charity will be enough; no need for a commensurate push for justice.

We can even work ourselves around to say that disadvantages are really advantages, that our children are too soft today, that they would be better if they had gone through the school of hard knocks like we did back in the good old days. And there is something to be said for the “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” theory of character development, but we only halfway believe this, and then only as a nostalgic abstraction.

No one really chooses the harder path. No middle class parents send their child to an underfunded school so that they can go through some hard knocks. We believe that advantages are advantages and that we should play the system to give those benefits to our loved ones. (The Declaration acknowledges “the temptation to save ourselves and our loved ones and no one else.”) Judging by our actions, we don’t really believe in the character-building power of disadvantages except in the past.

One could argue that the focus on self-reliance is actually kinder than encouraging people to dwell on their victimhood. This is “tough love.” Blaming your situation isn’t going to help anything, after all. The only thing that will benefit you is the decision to rise above, to take responsibility for yourself, to turn your back on your situation and get over it.

There are several problems with the “just say no”/”just do it”/”get over it” advice. First is that word “just,” which makes the decision to change sound easy. I do believe that the individual decision is crucial; nothing changes for you until that moment when you make that choice. But when you’ve got the weight of society/history on you, it does a disservice to focus solely on “just” flipping a mental switch, no matter how crucial that switch is. That’s only part of the story.

Another difficulty is that such advice does no good unless the person is ready to receive it. Actual change is a difficult process, and timing is crucial. Hearing the message to “move on” is only part of the solution; being ready to hear that message is probably even more important. And the source of that targeted advice is important as well. Usually it takes a trusted friend who knows your particular circumstances to intervene at the right time. Individual change is a highly personal matter.

But broadcasting that people should “get over it” is the opposite of personal. It instead sends the message that people aren’t being listened to, that they are being given one-size -fits-all advice by someone with inadequate perspective. If you’re a man telling a woman that she should ignore sexism and move on, good luck with that. If you’re a white person telling black people that you don’t think race is such a barrier anymore, that’s a tall order. If you don’t have standing within the community, why should members of that community listen to you?

(Communicating across communities is difficult, particularly if you truly want to do something more than hear yourself talk. Even well-meaning “inspirational” content from outsiders can sound very different when it lands within the community. When a person with a disability receives a bootstraps story sent from a well-meaning, able friend, that is often accompanied by an implicit challenge: “This person overcame their diabetes/dyslexia/disability; why can’t you? What’s wrong with you? All it clearly takes is will.”)

If conservatives are truly trying to get people to rise above their circumstances, then they’re not being very successful at getting their message across. The disempowered receive the message as uncaring. If this is tough love, it’s not working. It sounds like self-justification, congratulating oneself on one’s own success.

If it’s all about individual effort, if difficult circumstances can be transcended on the way to success by “just getting over it,” then we can apply a kind of reverse logic: our own success must therefore be earned. We got where we are because we worked harder than others, and so hard work is really the moral of our story. This allows us to downplay – or better yet, forget — any assistance we got along the way. We renarrativize our story with ourselves as the lone hero. If we made it without assistance (structural or otherwise), why should anyone else get any?

Again, let me be clear: I do believe in hard work. I believe that determination, drive, and discipline are crucial. But I don’t believe that those of us with some financial security can congratulate ourselves on being necessarily more worthy. Yes, persistence is required for success, but being in a precarious position doesn’t mean you haven’t been working hard. We tend to blame the poor for their poverty because the alternative is unthinkable: maybe if things had been different, we would be the ones living precariously.

It’s pretty easy for me to make my own story all about me. I started as the child of working class parents with a high school education, and I went to public school. I worked hard, both in school and outside, to prepare myself for an upper echelon college. I bought books on SAT and ACT preparation and drilled myself on vocabulary words I never heard in rural Tennessee. A book called Success in High School laid out the literary canon for me (from Hardy to Huxley), and I tackled a classic a week, determined to make up for my perceived deficiency in not having a prep school education (I later learned that this “catching up” exercise made me more well-read than virtually any of my Duke classmates). Hard work in college, followed by hard work in the corporate world, in graduate school, in academic publishing and teaching, in administrative service. I have no doubt that my drive and ambition led me to my current position.

And yet in this story of the meritocracy at work, I think about the numerous advantages I had along the way, particularly early on. Having parents who had an almost religious faith in education and reading was a huge benefit. The same is true for some key teachers showing an interest in me. Some of my privileges were small but vital. My auto bodyman father was able to provide me with my own car (a ’72 Oldsmobile Delta 88, back in the days when you could sleep in your car but you couldn’t drive your house). I never made a car payment till I was married, in my 30s, a father, and a homeowner. My first wife had bought a house before we were married, so she was comfortable with the terrifying process of getting a mortgage, which gave me the confidence that we could buy a home while we were in grad school, which turned into a financial windfall for us.

It’s easy to forget these advantages (of knowledge, of material goods) when telling the story of my path to one of the most economically stable jobs in Western civilization (a tenured university professor). But at the time these were significant privileges that not everyone had, and I materially benefited from each without really earning them. I was either born into them or married into them. Entering an elite university from a rural public school was probably as close as you’ll get to pure meritocracy, and I benefited from that diploma for years afterward. I saw how the word “Duke” opened doors for me, a great demonstration of how privilege works.

Most of us have a great deal riding on our own bootstraps story. That narrative is fundamental to both our understanding of who we are and our construction of how the world works; that’s why this material can be so politically touchy. I can see why discussions of white class privilege can endanger a sense of our personal identity as being fought for, won, and deserved (and we on the left need to keep that personal investment in mind when we address privilege). My message here is that it doesn’t diminish our story of hard work if we also acknowledge the advantages we had along the way. If you’re going to tell your bootstraps story, it’s ok to mention the things that gave you a leg up. In fact, it is honorable and honest to do so. And it doesn’t destabilize your own political identity.

I try not to mix the political side of my blog with the Christianity side, but it has always struck me how similar the language of “privilege” and “blessings” are. Christians often talk about being “blessed,” which is an acknowledgment that their situation is not entirely based on their own efforts, that their lot in life goes beyond what they “deserve.” Talking about your blessings is an attempt to reorient yourself toward your environment, to see the good things in your life as coming from God, to remind yourself that you participate in an economy of supernatural forces that goes beyond your own individual exertion. Remembering your blessings is a way to guard against pride, against seeing everything in your life as your own creation (lest we should boast).

This humility seems not that far from acknowledging the privileges and advantages that were important to your life story; the big difference is that privilege lacks the religious underpinnings of blessedness. And yet many conservative Christians who talk about being “blessed” balk at the idea of white class privilege. If you can accept the religious version of undeserved grace, why not at least recognize the logic of the secular version?

If life can be thought of as a race with “success” (however defined) as the finish line, then we should acknowledge that the racers have very different starting points. Certainly it requires effort for all to complete the race, but some have a lot farther to travel. We all know this; no one chooses a disadvantaged starting point. What we need to do is both admit that the race is hard and that it is not fair. One admission doesn’t cancel out the other. We need both stories, particularly in the political realm today. We need to acknowledge, understand, and combat racism, sexism, and poverty, and we need to encourage individual effort. There is little progress without both.

God the Father and Mother

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Images of God as Father permeate both Old and New Testaments. God’s fatherhood is baked into Christian theology (in the Trinity) and the language of worship (the Lord’s Prayer ain’t called the “Our Father” for nothin’). This language is so omnipresent that it’s easy to forget that it’s primarily metaphorical; it’s a way of bringing a part of the enormity of God into focus. An infinite God is so incomprehensible that we need ways of anchoring the divine in our human experience.

And so we use language to grasp one aspect of God, and we shift language to take hold of some other characteristic of God. Language is a useful simplification; it allows us to see the many faces of God one after the other. Language doesn’t define or limit God as much as it allows us to interact with God in more familiar ways. (One of Jesus’ crucial and controversial interventions was a tendency to call the God of the universe “Daddy.”) Thinking of God as parent is both useful and comforting, but obviously God does not have a gender.

Referring to God as Father gives me a certain earth-grounded specificity for conversation. Yet I worry about language that makes the face of God masculine. On this Father’s Day weekend, I think about all the sermons being preached about fatherhood. I’ve heard a number of them over the years, and they almost always foreground a normative understanding of what a father is.

I sit in these sermons, and I think about all the people around me whose fathers provided poor examples of parenting. What about children of abusive parents? What good is this father imagery to them? In spite of my family attending church whenever the doors opened, my father (who was the child of an emotionally unavailable father) duplicated the emotional abuse of his upbringing when it came to my older brother. To his great credit, my father changed and became a loving and supportive father to me. To my brother’s great credit, he has made peace with the father who raised him.

All of us now know how much more widespread family abuse was and is (sexual, physical, emotional, substance-related). How many of us have experienced the idealized version of a father who appears in Father’s Day sermons? Or rather, if we are supposed to use our earthly father as a rough draft of a heavenly father, for how many people is that an obstacle rather than an aid? And why don’t we say that out loud in church instead of pretending that fatherhood is a natural good?

I also think about the number of family configurations that do not include a father (single parent families, children of two mothers, children raised by a grandmother, and so on). How is all this talk of God the Father helpful if you don’t have a physically present father to begin with? In such instances, children learn about fathering from popular media. Each generation finds its preferred versions of pop culture fathers: Ward Cleaver, Bill Cosby, Gandalf, Dumbledore. But I worry about a fictionalized depiction of a father being the primary image of God the Father.

Let me be clear: we are all composed of factual and fictional experiences blended together. And fatherhood is both conferred and chosen. You may or may not be given a physically present father; along the way you may find a father (and a family) of choice, and a fictional father of choice has much to recommend him. He often has advantages over a piece-of-crap biological father. But a fictional character is necessarily simpler than a warts-and-all human being, and the changing relationship with a flesh-and-blood parent has advantages in modeling the evolving relationship with God. Just as your view of a parent changes as you age, our understanding of God needs to be reevaluated. Parents are not as frightening or powerful as they may seem when we are young. Similarly, God may present a different face to us as adults (rather than the combination of Santa Claus and traffic cop that can inhabit childhood imagery) if we allow that relationship to grow.

I also worry about putting up unnecessary barriers for people to engage with religion. Why do we expect that women will respond to the idea of a masculine Godhead? Because we have always expected women to accommodate, to perform the mental gymnastics of interpreting a generalized masculine word (as in “all men are created equal”) as really meaning “men or women.” And yet we know now that people don’t hear “he or she” when someone simply says “he.” The actual words are important. What is to be gained (other than linguistic simplicity) by referring to God as “he?”

Referring to God as something other than “Father” is awkward at first to practiced Christians, but that awkwardness is part of the point. It makes you stop and think: why should we automatically think of God as masculine? What new parts of God could we discover by thinking outside of old linguistic patterns? Thinking of God as something other than masculine is a useful exercise in making God new again.

Established Christians are often the ones who oppose such change. The “I like things the old way” attitude is contributing enormously to the decline of mainstream Christian churches. On the contrary, I believe that older Christians should be leading the charge to remake Christianity in ways that open up the faith. After all, well-established Christians aren’t likely to abandon the church after a life of service; we’ll still be there if and when the church changes. We who are committed to the church need to see how the familiar, comforting language and rituals we use can be a hindrance to establishing a relationship with God. Rather than requiring others to change in order to feel comfortable in our religious community, maybe we should change the community interaction to remove unnecessary barriers.

Why shouldn’t we make it easier for women to see themselves in God and to see God in themselves? Many churches have experienced how transformative it is for a woman to be a priest or a pastor. It’s one thing to say that God works through men and women; it’s another thing to see and work with women in positions of spiritual leadership (particularly given the church’s long patriarchal history). And maybe men need to see feminine spiritual authority just as much as women do.

In this blog post I’m advocating for thinking of God as Mother. There’s nothing particularly new in Christianity about a feminine aspect of God. Catholics early on recognized the power of being able to pray to a figure of a woman, and so Mary rose from a relative bit player in the New Testament to a central figure of devotion, earthly comfort, and heavenly advocacy. Ditto with saints, who multiplied the image of the divine. When those early fundamentalists called Protestants decided to throw out the church’s accumulated baggage, Mary and the saints (men and women) were sidelined along with indulgences, incense, and gory crucifixes. But we Protestants lost something along the way: the ability to approach the throne of God with a woman in our minds and hearts.

And so I pray to my Heavenly Father and Mother, and I encourage other followers of Christ to give this a try as well. Seeing God as both mother and father allows me to see the divine as powerful, comforting, authoritative, understanding, demanding, forgiving, and righteous all at the same time. (It’s certainly no more difficult than conceptualizing of God as a Trinity.)

If you need scriptural justification for this, I will point you to Matthew 23:37 where Jesus compares his desire to love people to that of a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings. Is this cherry-picking the Scriptures? Oh yeah! There’s certainly an overwhelming reliance on masculine imagery throughout the Bible. But I’m not going to let the fact that the Bible was written in a patriarchal culture spoil the opportunity for me to know God more broadly and widely.

There’s a temptation to assign qualities to God the Mother and Father along standard gender lines. God the Father becomes the judge, the all-powerful, the keeper of strict standards, while God the Mother comforts and understands us. It’s easier to think of the creating, life-giving aspect of God as feminine. There’s usefulness (always my standard for good spiritual practice) in splitting God along these lines. But yet I’ve grown to blur those lines over the years.

By thinking of God as mother and father at the same time, the boundaries around masculine and feminine have eroded. You can think of God the comforting Father and God the powerful Mother. Again, real life fathers and mothers (of origin and of choice) are useful stand-ins here. Real life parents have different qualities to share with their children, and they rarely adhere so rigidly to our standard gendered assumptions. Thinking of God as both Father and Mother helps me pray. It allows me to access the full range of fathers and mothers I have had in my life. It also gives me a way to rethink what masculinity and femininity are.

If you have liberal-leaning theology, you’ve probably already worked through most of this. Good for you. The next frontier may be to contemplate whether we really need to use a gender lens for God. As we revisit and rework both the legacies and the shortcomings of masculinity and femininity in our society, maybe it becomes useful to think of God as queer.

God is, after all, the queerest imaginable being, the ultimate defier of categories (whether gendered or otherwise). I’ve spent this whole blog entry arguing that God is nonbinary. On the face of it, it makes more sense to think of God as being without gender than it does to assign God a masculine or feminine name.

Maybe. Could be. I leave you with this idea in case it’s useful to you. I’m not there yet, however. As I work on my own understanding of gender, I recognize that those categories of masculine and feminine are still emotionally important to me. Gender is the sea that we all swim in; it’s difficult for me (a cisgendered man) to navigate those waters without some version of masculine and feminine. Addressing God as Father and Mother works for me in ways that gender-neutral terms like “divine Parent” simply don’t.

In a time when we are engaged in a large conversation about gender, it’s certainly fair game to include our language about God in that discussion. I believe that queerness has much to teach us about following Christ; Christianity has been far too “straight” (in every sense) for far too long. Again, I think we need to shut up and listen, to be open to seeing God’s many faces, to find the images of God that connect to our lives and that show us the world afresh.

A New Commandment: Listen and Empathize

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 As part of the continuing drive to expand the Gospel, I propose a new commandment: that we listen to and empathize with each other.

Jesus gave a pithy summary of Jewish law in Matthew 7:12: “Do to others what you want them to do to you.” This “Golden Rule” is a foundational moral principle for multiple ethics systems. It guides you to think beyond your narrow self-interest, to envision what it would be like if you were on the receiving end of your own behavior.

The wrinkle in this commandment is that it still places you at the center. You are the measure of things. You are to imagine how you might feel in someone else’s shoes, which might be fine in a society where everyone wears sandals. But what if some people feel very differently from how you think you’d feel in their place? Your life experience has shaped who you are; what if their life experience has given them a perspective that is difficult for you to imagine? The Golden Rule makes it all too easy for us to substitute a version of ourselves for the raw fact of another person’s life. If other people react differently than we would in a situation, then they are alien, wrong, and in need of correction.

This has all kinds of ramifications for do-gooding. This encourages us to substitute our obviously superior understanding for the perspectives expressed by others. We can feel compassion for others without ever really hearing them. We can provide charity with a parental hand, trusting that we know their needs better than they do themselves. We can feel sympathy for them without feeling empathy with them.

The first part of that new commandment is to listen. Through my involvement in an organization called Stephen Ministry, I have grown to understand both how healing it is to be heard and how rare. The preponderance of the training for lay Stephen Ministers involves simply learning how to listen. The training lasts for forty hours, which underlines just how difficult listening is for most of us. Although we are told that we shouldn’t judge, it’s all too easy for us to look at another person’s situation, recognize what we think they should do, and give advice. That feels like we’re helping, but often we’re simply overriding their perspective with ours.

True listening is inefficient (in our speeded up, quick fix society). It takes a long time, but it shows true caring. I have discovered how hungry people are to be heard (rather than being told what to do). There’s no shortage of advice (religious or otherwise) in our society; there’s a shortage of the time-consuming commitment to listen. When we give quick, easy, unasked-for advice, we are belittling the other person’s capacity and effort to deal with their own problems. “Judge not” is the negative version of this commandment; I suggest that the positive version begins with listening.

(You may have noticed that my recommendation to followers of Christ about interacting with others is remarkably similar to my main suggestion about praying: “first, shut up!”  And yes, I recognize that I’m giving advice here, but I think that the suggestion to listen is different. It’s advice to stop advising so quickly.)

The second part of the commandment is to empathize. This is a step beyond the liberal emphasis on “tolerance.” I understand why we liberals no longer talk so much about tolerance. It’s a namby-pamby goal; it’s hard to muster much passion for mere tolerance (I am reminded of Sean Penn’s award acceptance speech: “You tolerate me! You really tolerate me!”). Part of me says that I’d be happy with more tolerance in these divisive times, but another part believes we need a higher goal. And so even though tolerance is in short supply these days, I advocate for empathy.

As a film and television scholar, I have thought a good deal about empathy, since film and television are basically empathy machines. Part of the reason I was attracted to the field was the belief that film and television are ways for us to vividly, powerfully put on someone else’s perspective. I still believe that is true; I also see the both the power and the limitations of that idea. I see how perspective can be commodified and packaged in ways that alter it by making it more palatable, and I understand we can flatter ourselves for how tolerant we are by accepting a commercialized Other in film/TV.

The well-established rules of screenwriting tell us that to make us care about a character, it’s best to establish that the character is a “person like us,” that even though they may appear to be different, we share some basic characteristics “under the skin.” There are many, many cultural assumptions about what qualities are potentially sharable qualities and which aren’t. We are engaging in many interesting narrative experiments today about empathy with characters, and that is doing undeniably important cultural work. However, empathy with characters isn’t quite the same as empathy with real people who haven’t been shaped for public consumption. As important as media are for broadening our understanding of others, they aren’t a substitute for interactions with the raw humanity of someone different from yourself.

Media are empathy technologies, yes; but I neglected to realize that they are also judgment machines. By watching so many films and so much television over the years, we have become expert at calibrating degrees of empathy with characters; we have also become quite good at the judgments required by storytelling.

Toht

One of my favorite examples is the first time that Raiders of the Lost Ark shows us Toht, the Nazi. We don’t know anything about the character, but before he even speaks we are immediately expected to read him as a villain based on his beady eyes behind his reflective wire-rim glasses, his thin lips, and his overall smarmy appearance. To get the full rollercoaster pleasure of Raiders, we need to know how to judge bad hombres by their appearances in an instant. We are now very practiced at doing this, and we do it in film, television, social media, politics, walking down the street.

I entered the field of film/television studies with hopes about how media could enlarge our perspectives, and I still believe in that. I also now recognize how good we have become at the counter-tendency: snap judgments. I remain hopeful about empathy, though I wonder if we need a better basis for empathy than discovering that we’re “all the same underneath.” That feels to me a lot like substituting my own experience for others.

If you’re a follower of Christ, maybe the right basis for empathy is the same unearned basis we all have to lay claim to God: that we are all God’s children, not because of our actions or values or experiences. We don’t have to find ways that the other person is like us before we extend our empathy to God’s children. This empathy looks for the God within, even when the person makes choices or says things that are inexplicable to us. God is the measure for empathy, not our limited human experience.

One might say that empathizing with others (the disenfranchised and disempowered) would be a bad idea for anyone trying to create policy for those people. Policymaking requires the ability to make tough decisions, after all. I would assert that listening and empathy are vital to good policy. One may make tough pragmatic decisions, but you have done so after truly hearing other people’s perspective, not mansplaining or Christiansplaining their experiences for them. Empathy may make it more difficult to make policy decisions, but those decisions will be grounded in people’s lives, not simply in narratives of our own choosing.

Empathy is not weakness; it requires bravery and effort, particularly for those in positions of power or authority. This blog post is not focusing on the political side of things, but if I were to give advice to Republicans (yes, unsolicited advice! It is a difficult habit to give up!), I would say that the public perception of your decisionmaking is remarkably lacking in empathy. Empathy is not at odds with “toughness” and “pragmatism.”

As I discuss ways to expand the Gospel today, many of these expansions (such as Nadia Bolz-Weber’s revised Beatitudes) have to do with how to follow Christ in a diverse world. This goes far beyond not judging others (which is difficult enough!) for being different. It goes beyond assuming that others are like you (allowing you to bypass the tedious, frustrating, inefficient task of listening to them). It recognizes that other people’s lives may be so different from your own that it never occurs to you that there can be another way of being-in-the-world. If we need a miracle today, we need God to cure us of our own blindness and deafness to the experiences of those unlike us.

An Affirmation for God’s Children

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“I am a child of God.” The first words of this affirmation have their origin in a former minister’s baptism ritual. When Nibs Stroupe baptized an infant at Oakhurst Presbyterian Church, he (like many pastors) would introduce the baby to the congregation by walking through the sanctuary. He might say “This girl will be told that she is valuable when she is attractive to men;” or “This boy will be told that he needs to dominate others in order to feel good about himself;” or “This is a middle class child who will be told that he/she is entitled above others,” and so on. He would conclude: “Our job as the church is to remind her/him of her/his true identity: a child of God.” It was a powerful ritual.

Like any good ritual, this one has variations that reinforce an underlying theme. The world is full of identities that are pre-made for us to occupy, but our status as God’s children is a foundational spiritual birthright. Before we were anything else, before we became linked to our job success or failure, our gender, or our race, we were the recipient of God’s radical grace. We didn’t do anything to deserve being a child of God; no child gets to choose her/his family of birth. And so that unearned identity is unshakable; nothing can separate us from God’s love (just as nothing can truly break the link between parent and child). We need a ritual reminder of that central identity.

We also need to recommit ourselves to the activity of following Christ. As I have noted in the previous blog entry, following Christ is less about what we believe and more about what we do.

And so I offer this affirmation of identity and activity as an alternative to traditional creeds of Christian belief. You may not do all of these things this affirmation says; you may not yet be the person these words describe. But these aspirational words are my gift to you, a reminder of the habits of mind and body that lead us to understand who we truly are: a child of God.