I had the opportunity the other night to present Seminary of the Street and our West Oakland Reconciliation and Social Healing Project to a local West Oakland Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council (NCPC). It didn’t go particularly well, and it’s taken me a long time to figure out exactly why and what I could have done differently.
I realize now that the whole framework of crime prevention as it is currently conceived is a framework of preserving and protecting me and mine—my life, my family, my house, my stuff, and in the best instances, my community, understood as the people I know and care about in the neighborhood. The good guys. There’s nothing surprising or unusual about this goal. It’s the predominant goal toward which we are taught in this culture to orient our lives.
But it’s very different from the goal of “loving God with all your heart and all your soul and all your strength and loving your neighbor as yourself.”
A few months ago, I signed up with the good folks at Tikkun to write a post on July 4th. I was hopeful at that time that I could write something encouraging, something hopeful, maybe something about interdependence.
But yesterday, when I sat down to write, I found myself unable to. I had stopped off on my way home from visiting my sister and was drinking coffee in Union Square in San Francisco, my laptop open in front of me. The sunlight was gentle and clear. An art fair was taking place all around me and musicians were playing on stage. Nothing was wrong, or so it seemed.
Behind me, Macy’s department store was draped in red, white and blue. In front of me, the man on stage stopped singing and started talking about Jesus, about how he used to be a heroin addict but was saved from his life of addiction.
“Now, you all may feel like your lives are pretty good,” this clean-cut, all American boy on stage said “You aren’t homeless or addicted. You probably don’t really feel like you need Jesus, but the time will come when you are on your deathbed and you start wondering whether you are going to heaven or hell.”
Usually, I tune this kind of sentimental preaching out – it’s too painful to hear Jesus so watered down – but this time I found myself looking around me at the people with their shopping bags. I glanced at my own expensive cup of coffee and thought about how much I wanted to eat a giant cupcake or write something really profound that would be picked up by the New York Times or just in general be someone much grander and happier and more important than this soft squishy person here in the midst of the shiny city in the bankrupt state of California in the grinding imperial corporation of the United States of America.
Someone asked me recently why I have gravitated toward the church as a context for justice work. Is there something different, he asked, about doing social change work from a Christian perspective, or is it just convenient to work within a body of people who are already assembled?
It’s a good question, and it’s one that both the Christian lectionary of recent weeks and my life have been speaking to in surprising and disorienting ways.
“For to survive in this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings.”
–Audre Lorde, in “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”
The first time I read Audre Lorde’s words, above, they exploded my understanding of my relationship to this life.
At some level, I had known for a while that I HAD NOT survived, not intact, not as a fully alive person. Although I probably couldn’t have articulated all this back then, I knew that somewhere along the way, I had lost my connection to my body, my ability to connect at the deepest levels with other people, my sense of awe and wonder, my ability to hear constructive feedback from others without my world disintegrating, and much of my ability to feel.
“Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free healthcare. You’re thinking of Jesus.”-John Fugelsang
Probably the most tweeted and Facebook-shared quote of the week, this quip from actor, comedian, and spiritual progressive John Fugelsang gives voice to a particularly ironic feature of the current political debate: Many of those who hurled insults at the legislators who voted for health care reform will, on this Good Friday, be mourning in church services over the death of a revolutionary healer whose uncompromising generosity and compassion got him killed.
On Good Friday, Christians remember the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, an event that over the years has become so sentimentalized, personalized, and spiritualized that its political significance has been all but lost, except perhaps among those of us most desperate for hope of an alternative to the violence, exploitation, callousness, and domination of our own current social order. But then, Jesus has always spoken most powerfully to the nearly hopeless and desperate.
How many of us know what it is like to have someone love us enough to go all the way to the wall for us?
I was thinking about this question yesterday, and about how it relates to our struggles for social justice. In the “praise and worship” part of our service, we sang “Everybody Ought to Know,” a song that often makes me squirm amidst our extremely diverse congregation, which draws people from a variety of faith traditions to walk together what we call the “Jesus path” (which doesn’t require that you identify as Christian). The lyrics go
Everybody oughtta know
Everybody oughtta know
Everybody oughtta know
Who Jesus is.
Oh, he’s the lily of the valley.
He’s the bright and morning star.
He’s the fairest of ten thousand, and
Everybody oughtta know.
See what I mean? It smacks of Christian exceptionalism and easily conjures up theologies that threaten nonchristians with eternal hellfire. I’m way too much of a universalist for that.
But yesterday I heard it differently.
Kathryn Bigelow’s film THE HURT LOCKER is an explosive device buried deep in a somnolent country. Marketed as an action movie (“As tense and compelling an action drama as you are likely to see all year,” claims critic Eric Snider in his review on films.com), this intense on-screen portrait of a three-man Explosive Ordnance Disposal unit in Iraq is actually a subtle critique of a deadening and unendurably trivial stateside culture, and it raises some questions we need to be asking ourselves.
I’m praying today for the “Bonhoeffer Four,” a group of four Christians who are playing a game of “hide and seek” on a military base in Australia in order to disrupt war games. Read the story here.
Free market economics has never made sense to me, and now I’m wondering whether it is because I don’t have faith in the basic tenets of the religion. Yes, I said “religion.”
In his latest column for the Guardian, which is titled “Praying for an Economic Revolution,” Andrew Sullivan suggests that neoliberal economics is not a science but a religion based on faith.
This seems to me to open up all kinds of other ways of organizing economies, including Biblical economies. I am particularly taken with this essay by Biblical scholar Walter Brueggeman, who neatly sidesteps arguments between capitalists and socialists, insisting that “[t]he Bible does not linger over such labels, but insists that every available instrument of well-being – government, charity, private sector – must be mobilized in order to mediate the resources of the community for the sake of the common good.” He goes on to suggest an economic transformation from “autonomy to covenantal existence, from anxiety to divine abundance, and from acquisitive greed to neighborly generosity.”
You can read the whole article here.
It was one of those moments that make or break meetings, the kind of moments that cause meeting facilitators to hold their breath and pray. We were “just” checking-in, just getting started with the gathering. The participants–all leaders of one sort or another within nonprofit social change organizations in the East Bay area of Northern California–were sharing what they’d been working on, thinking about, or struggling with in the month since the group’s first meeting: new programs, questions about the tone of a policy campaign, struggles to lead with integrity–that sort of thing. Then, near the end of the check-in round, one woman shared the depth of her agony as she struggled to follow God’s call within the institutional expectations of the organization for which she worked. There was something in the way she spoke, something in her refusal to tidy up her feelings, to be “upbeat” or casual or mater-of-fact, that plunged the group into new territory.