Memeing Through the Apocalypse

“In a way, the movie “White Noise” has provided a point of grim humor about the situation facing the residents of East Palestine – the joke no one wanted to make.
“Everybody’s been talking about that,” Ratner said of his friends and neighbors who are keeping in close touch through the crisis. “I actually made a meme where I superimposed my face on the poster and sent it to my friends.”
– “After a train derailment, Ohio residents are living the plot of a movie they helped make

I am exhausted watching the apocalypse unfold in various art forms. Growing up, I was an avid viewer of horror movies. My friends introduced me to the menacing nature of slashers, the adventure and terror of zombie flicks, and the silly gore in 80’s body horror. Before the plague, I loved watching interpretations of the end of the world. Movies like 28 Days Later and then 28 Weeks Later presented how governments would respond to an infectious outbreak. My eyes were glued to the climate change horror movies like The Day After Tomorrow where Jake Gyllenhaal gets holed up in the New York City Public Library trying to survive the next ice age or Snowpiercer where a train circles the globe and sections of cars hold different social classes. When you’re not going through an apocalypse, these films are ways to imagine our futures.

Lately, the quality of these apocalyptic tv shows, films, and books has exceeded in their realness, emotional depth, and poetic interpretations. In every episode of HBO’s Station 11, my tears could not be held back as the traveling Shakespeare troupe, twenty years after the start of their pandemic, put on gorgeous plays with musical accompaniment to push through their miserable and dangerous existence. They had etched into the side of their caravan “Survival is Insufficient.” Or the video game adaptation The Last of Us, week after week has brought new fear and adventure as fungus-infected zombies try to extinguish humanity. And lastly, Paul Trembly’s novel and M. Night Shylaman’s most recent film Knock at the Cabin spell out that true love must be sacrificed for the end to be delayed a little longer. These television shows, films, and books are emotionally draining as it’s hard not to recollect the trauma we endured and continue to.

Of course, I could just not engage with the cultural revival of apocalyptical art forms. Yet, it’s difficult to ignore since it’s in the zeitgeist.

And I know I’ve been conflating apocalypse with the end of the world. As a culture, this is how we understand the two. Yet one of the main reasons we’ve done so is because of our understanding of the Book of Revelation, which is both an end of the universe tale/beginning of God’s City and a revealing of the Roman Empire’s utter disregard for all life. Apocalypse means “to reveal” not “last things,” that’s a different word: eskhatos.

The apocalypse of these last three years in the US has revealed a great deal. It has shown that the lives of our elderly are not a priority and the economy is more important (source). We have continued to demonstrate disregard for Black and Brown people and communities as they have died at a greater percentage than White people (source). It has shown us that we would rather have personal comfort than wear a mask for our neighbor’s health. This apocalypse crushed the financial fragility of faith communities since many have closed, especially smaller majority Black attended ones (source). And the list goes on and on with the inequalities and injustices that continue to perpetuate.

It’s easier to meme the apocalypse than to face our current reality,
to watch or read a worse pandemic (Station 11 or The Stand),
to ignore the widening inequalities, especially when they do not affect you,
to only care for those in your immediate circle.

It’s much more difficult to be engaged in your neighborhood and involved in leftist orgs. People can be difficult to organize with! Yet it’s often up to those willing to do the work, to make the calls, and to build relationships, who create movement and movements. Don’t get lost behind your screens. Deepen your relationships. Fight for a just world.

We feel powerless and lost, a directionless people (a re-imagining of Lamentations 5)

During this time of quarantine and protest; of rage and frustration; of confusion and fear, the Bible provides for us a much-needed resource: lament.

Six centuries before the birth of Christ, the Babylonian Empire ransacked Jerusalem in Ancient Judah. Babylonians forcefully removed thousands of Hebrew people from their homes and exiled them. Yet, many were still left behind. The Empire deemed those in the pillaged land as worthless. As the story goes, the Prophet Jeremiah stayed behind and is said to have written Lamentations.

The Book of Lamentations mourns
the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple,
the uprooting of livelihoods,
& the absence of God.

How can we not lament this moment, our moment?

Globally more than 450,000 people are dead from the coronavirus.
More than 100,000 alone are from the US, with our Indigenous and Black siblings suffering the most.

Even with the pandemic, racism and white supremacy have not taken a day off.

In recent weeks, Black Lives Matter protests and vigils have rose up across cities big and small, and globally. We mourn the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Dominique Fells, and so many more.

At the same time, the current administration continues to strip the rights and protections of trans and queer folx.

The EPA restrictions on pollution are being removed.

Most of us feel powerless under the weight of systems that just won’t let up.

We don’t have the answers, so we lament.

This is a contemporary re-telling of Lamentations 5:

Remember, O God, our devastating situation;
look upon our anger and rage!

Thousands are dead,
and those who call themselves leaders are more like enemies.

We feel powerless and lost,
a directionless people.

Our lives have become militarized and privatized;
over decades, corporations have decimated our public life.

We are under the gaze of white supremacy and markets.
Profits are placed over people and we work ourselves to death.

The State forces its citizens to use charities, instead of creating a social safety net.
Lines for food banks wrap around the block.

Slavery and Jim Crow have supposedly ended,
but the consequences of white supremacy affects us all.

Politics should be the art of the common good,
but greed and gluttony rule our land.

We march and petition for a more just world,
since it’s through participation that change is made.

Millions are still under or unemployed,
and our vision for a better world is getting foggy.

The vulnerable and marginalized are not listened to,
the powerful have the last and only word.

We feel abandoned by good and faithful guidance,
and most of us are afraid to rise up.

Our idea of those who are essential has shifted,
grocery employees, sanitation workers, and doctors have become heroes.

Weariness and stubbornness are setting in,
yet this is not a plague-cation.

The joy of our hearts has ceased;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.

The US is slowly becoming a fallen Empire,
out of the rubble, justice will bloom.

Our hearts yearn for that day,
our eyes are peeled.

We search and pray,
and practice resurrection.

We pray as Jesus taught us, Our God in Heaven,
But why don’t you come down?

Why do you feel absent?
Do you not care about our struggles?

We admit that we have a better imagined past, where the grass is greener.
Shake us up, Holy One, and show us a better future.

We need to hear a word from you!
Don’t go far!

The Empire is Making You Sick: A Radical Theology from the Gospel of Mark

This brilliant piece is by guest blogger Rand Williamson.

Introduction: Looking for the Roots of a Sick Society

With social life in America rupturing like a boil. It seems almost like an understatement to say “the US is sick”. After generations of racism and economic deprivation, months of isolation, weeks of riots, and continuing demonstrations on an almost daily basis, the idea that “something is wrong” is pretty much accepted by all, although the diagnosis of the problem may vary greatly. We all know about increasing deaths of despair, constant mass shootings and various other symptoms of this illness, but as radicals, we want to reach down to the root and know why these things are happening. As radicals who are followers of Jesus, we often look to scripture for inspiration and new ways of thinking about what is happening around us.

This reading of the beginning of the Gospel of Mark is an attempt to do that. How does what was written then relate to what is going on now? In trying to find this relationship, it becomes apparent that Jesus and his apostles also lived in a sick society, and that the movement that would grow to become our spiritual tradition was organized with the social problems of that time in mind. In this reading, we focus on one common and central problem that was present both in Jesus’s day and in the present: how to live, struggle, and stay healthy while under the rule of a violent, authoritarian empire. Jesus and his followers were colonial subjects, and while most reading this are not (most I assume will be from a domestic underclass within the empire), there are still some commonalities we can point out. We will explore the pathologies that arise out of our relationship with empire through the Gospel of Mark and the writings of the anticolonial scholar Frantz Fanon. Through understanding and connecting to the radical aspirations and struggles of Jesus, we can access a spirit that reinvigorates and empowers our own struggles for wellness and freedom for us and our neighbors

Before we begin, I would like to note one thing. Instead of referring directly to either the Roman Empire or the U.S. Empire, I will often refer to “the Empire”. This is intentional. The Empire is a recurring theme throughout history that seems to transcend any specific culture, location, or mode of production. The Empire as a concept is not meant to conflict with the traditional definitions of what an empire is, nor is it meant to supersede any materialist analysis of empires or how they function. Rather, it is an attempt to explore the spiritual and metaphysical dimensions of systems of oppression that seem to repeat through history in different yet similar forms. In my meditations on it, I have come to understand the Empire as a kind of idol/archetype embedded in the human psyche in opposition to God. As of now, that is all I have been able to articulate through introspection and study, but the Empire may be a focus in future writings.

In the form of the Romans, The Empire is an antagonist in all of the Gospels. Jesus and his ministry are the latest stage of an ongoing anti-imperialist struggle, one with the power to heal people of the spiritual rot imposed on them by contact with the Empire. What makes Jesus’s branch of the anti-imperial struggle unique is its deep understanding of the Empire and how it affects the health of those under its thumb. While others may have focused exclusively on the occupied land, which is important, Jesus understood clearly that the minds and spirits of the people were also occupied and needed to be freed.

John the Baptist Begins a Movement and the Solidarity of Jesus Christ

The Gospel of Mark begins with the proclamations of John the Baptist, who had organized a community critical of the Romans and collaborators under the sway of the Empire like King Herod. John understood the mental and spiritual effects the occupation was having on the people and, while his views were radical, his ministry was more passive in that it’s primary tactic was a call for withdrawal from society so that a process of repentance and cleansing, symbolized with a baptism by water, could be started. Despite this, it is mentioned in other Gospels that John was still seen as a threat. This leads us to one aspect of Empire thinking: the Empire demands that everyone identify with the Empire first and foremost. Any identity existing outside of the rules and sensibilities of the Empire must be either destroyed, or if that is impossible, co-opted for the benefit of the Empire. They need to be controlled. For this reason, it was not necessary for John to move to challenge power directly to be seen as dangerous. He had removed himself from their centers of strength and began cultivating something different that they couldn’t understand.

John’s rejection of them was total. He violated all their standards of respectability and essentially regressed to a primitive hunter gatherer state in order to sever any reliance on them. He strengthened his mind to resist the comforts of their civilization because he lived in fear of the corruption that was connected to it. To be a part of John’s ministry, you needed to know you were sick and that you needed to get better. You had to have some sense of where that sickness came from as well. You had to be a little “woke”.

John the Baptist created holy ground where other radicals could gather to attempt to purify themselves. To put it another way, John created and tended a garden for resistance. While he didn’t know exactly what fruits that garden would bear, he knew that it would be bigger than himself. In Mark 1: 7, he declares “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”. This statement exhibits a self awareness that is truly rare. Additionally, it beautifully contrasts him with his opponents in the Empire. John has suffered great hardships to build a radical anti-imperial ministry motivated, not by a need for control, but by love and a desire for righteousness. His willingness to sacrifice control for the good will allow what he built to be transformed and grown beyond his wildest imagination. It is into this scene that Jesus enters.

Jesus comes to John’s community with a new vision even more radical than John’s. Where John kept his movement set apart from the larger society, Jesus would take the movement confrontationally right to the seats of the powerful. He would actively heal the corruption of the Empire in the villages and towns where it had taken the tightest grip. Despite this difference in resistance tactics, Jesus’s first act towards redirecting the movement was an act of solidarity with John. In Matthew 3:15, Jesus says of his baptism by John “it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”. In getting baptized by John, Jesus legitimizes what John has built and creates a link of solidarity between their two movements. This allows for a more effective movement for justice against the Empire. With this coalition in place, Jesus sets out fulfill the work given to him by the Father.

The next several stories in Mark involve Jesus traveling with his new disciples and healing different people from illnesses they have acquired. While the gospel does not spell out exactly why these people have become ill, it may be enlightening to consider the societal corruption which John the Baptist fled.. What was happening in the villages and towns that John felt he needed to flee to the wilderness to build a community?

The Effects of Empire: from Galilee to Algeria

In short, the Empire was happening. The people of Israel were undergoing a process of colonization imposed on them by the Romans. Galilee, with its proximity to Phoenicia and the major Roman port of Ptolemais, was at the epicenter of this colonial occupation. Ptolemais was a major trading hub in the region and was the port through which Roman armies entered the region to crush revolts on more than one occasion. This close proximity to the major infrastructure of the empire had to have had an especially profound effect on the psychological and spiritual health of both individuals and Galileean society as a whole..

Because of its historical distance from the present, it is hard to know that impact for sure. We can, however, look to the writings and thoughts of people more recently colonized for clues. One 20th century scholar, who has written extensively on the psychological impact of colonization, is the Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon. In his books, Wretched of the Earth and Black Skin White Masks, he explains how the imperial colonizer does not only invade the land but also invades the mind and culture of the colonized. In reference to the relationship between the colonizer and the colonized in Africa, Fanon states “The Negro enslaved by his inferiority, the white man enslaved by his superiority alike behave in accordance with a neurotic orientation.” Fanon, who himself was a victim of colonization, describes imperialism as a disease. He claims that it “leaves behind germs or rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land and from our minds as well.” Fanon’s prescription for this disease is the creation of a new national culture for the colonized that separates them from the dehumanizing myths of the colonizer and empowers. I do not want to overstate similarities between the experiences of the Galileeans under Rome and the Algerians under France, but this strategy is at least cursorily in line with what Jesus did as he traveled and preached about a new “Kingdom of God”.

It is not unreasonable to believe that colonization was having a similar effect on the Galileans as what is described above by Fanon. Going back to the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s first acts after assembling his disciples is to go out and begin healing the sickness caused by the dehumanizing conditions created by the occupation. Fanon largely characterizes the sickness as a kind of inferiority complex that develops from the colonized viewing themselves and the world as the colonizer does. The gospel of Mark also gives us a picture of the specifics of this illness as it manifested in Galilee. To better understand the ways in which the empire makes us sick, let’s follow the good doctor, Jesus, as he sets out.

Jesus as Doctor and Anti-Imperial Radical

The first healing Jesus undertakes is the cleansing of the man with the unclean spirit covered in Mark 1: 21-28. In this story, Jesus is preaching his new radical message at a local synagogue. The people there are amazed at the “authority” with which he teaches, and this eventually prompts a man with an unclean spirit to begin heckling Jesus. “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?” it calls out. To everyone’s further amazement Jesus easily dismisses the spirit. They marvel at this new teaching that has authority over the unclean spirits and Jesus’s fame grows.

This healing speaks to the insidious way in which the culture and ideas of the empire can possess us. The Empire always seeks to get individuals to identify themselves with the Empire. It creates myths to propagate the idea that its interests are your interests and to justify its role as lord over your life. These myths serve as a lense through which the Empire wants you to see the world. Once you begin to look through that lens, the next step is to normalize the lens so that it becomes invisible. At that point, the ideologies and assumptions of the Empire take on a “common sense” character in the mind of the possessed. Anyone, neighbors, family or friends, can then easily be othered or seen as foolish if they criticize or act out of line with the expectations of the Empire. We see this when the man with the unclean spirit asks “What have you to do with us …”. In his possessed mind, he identifies more with the unclean spirit then he does with his fellow Israelite, Jesus. It doesn’t matter that Jesus has his best interests in mind. The fact that Jesus’s teaching could cut through this man’s conditioning and cast out the unclean spirit is a miracle indeed!

The next story of healing we will focus on is the cleansing of the leper told in Mark 1: 40-45. In it, A leporus man approaches Jesus and begs “ If you choose, you can make me clean.”. Jesus is moved by the man and declares “Be made clean.”. The newly healed man then runs off, against Jesus’s wishes, to proclaim what had happened and Jesus’s fame grows to the point where he can no longer openly enter the town.

The Empire makes everything it touches unclean. Under occupation, Galilee and all of Jerusalem was made unclean by the imposed inferiority of colonization. The imbalance of the relationship cuts off all involved from their true humanity and makes them subservient to the Empire. Both oppressor and oppressed behave according to a “neurotic orientation”. Jesus, in this story, reveals that his authority has the power to redeem that which is corrupted by the filth of this imbalance.

Immediately after making the leper clean, Jesus returns to Capernaum. Jesus’s message and deeds have become so popular that there is not enough room for the crowds that gather for him. Due to this, one group climbs onto the roof of the building where Jesus is staying and somehow makes a hole in the roof so that they can lower down a paralyzed man who needs healing. When Jesus sees the man, he tells him “Son, your sins are forgiven.”. This sparks a controversy among the scribes in attendance. Jesus takes a moment to address his critics assuring them that his choice of words was deliberate. Then, he tells the paralytic to get up. The man can move again and Jesus’s power is again demonstrated.

In the face of massive systems of oppression, it is easy to feel small. It is easy to feel like any actions you might take are meaningless in the big picture. This can lead to a paralysis: one more sickness through which the Empire can maintain control. If the mind cannot be possessed, it can perhaps be intimidated into complacency. Additionally, as systems that allow for independence are removed, individuals are increasingly forced to cooperate with the Empire in order to survive. In this way, the population is forced not only into complacency but also complicity. The sins of the Empire become your sins, and the guilt associated with this also contributes to paralysis. In this story, Jesus demonstrates his ability to dismiss the fear and sins which keep us stuck in complacency.

This story also starts off a series of conflicts between Jesus and other more traditional cultural authorities of the time. In his writing, Fanon notes that the intellectual class of a colonized people is often targeted to be co-opted by the colonizer. They are allowed to keep their relatively privileged positions in society in exchange for becoming spokespeople for the occupation. Even in cases where the relationship isn’t so cut and dry, the cowardice of this intellectual class often serves to stifle revolutionary movements like the one Jesus is building. As far as the Scribes are concerned, their own paralysis stems for a rigid interpretation of the Law. They use it to protect and isolate themselves from their own failures in the face of the Empire, and they use it to attempt to challenge and discredit Jesus on topics like forgiveness of sins, treatment of sinners, fasting, and recognition of the Sabbath.

Jesus, however, is not trying to re-establish an old national culture/identity. The anti-imperialist work he is setting out to do requires a new reimagined culture that takes what is best from the old while leaving behind its limitations. To quote Jesus in Mark 2: 27 “The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”. Jesus refuses to allow their concerns to stop his work, and because he has demonstrated the ability to liberate and empower through his healing, his movement continues to grow as he pulls in an ever more diverse group into his coalition of solidarity.

The last story from Mark that we will cover is the healing of the Gerasene Demoniac. While we have already discussed possession as a tactic for imperial control, the images and symbolism in this story are too blatantly political to be left outt. This story begins the 5th chapter of Mark. In it, Jesus is confronted by a man, the demoniac, who is possessed by many unclean spirits. He is too strong to confine with chains and shackles, and has been living in/around tombs where he is constantly “howling and bruising himself with stones. When he encounters Jesus he initially behaves similarly to the other possessed man asking “What have you to do with me …”. When asked, the spirits in the man say their name is Legion, and they beg for Jesus not to send them out of the country. Instead, they ask to be put in a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus casts them out into the pigs who then stampede down a steep bank into the sea and drown.

The possession of the Gerasene Demoniac has many elements that directly point to its radical anti-imperial meaning. The spirits have made the man incredibly strong to where he is unable to be bound, and they identify themselves as Legion. A legion was the largest organizational unit in the Roman Imperial Army with an average size of around 5,000 soldiers. A single legion was a force too strong for any armed group in occupied Israel to fight head on. The spirits beg not to be sent out of the country because they represent an occupation force. The pigs they were cast into were considered unclean animals according to judaic law. The spirit of the legion being cast out of a local man into the swine herd represents the casting out of corrupting imperial influence. This corruption, now in its proper place, is driven back into the sea. Earlier, we talked briefly about how Roman legions entered the region via the sea port of Ptolemais. This story is a very thinly veiled political commentary meant to inspire anti-imperial sentiment among occupied populations.

Connecting with our Anti-Imperial Roots

We see through these stories from Mark that a radical anti-Empire message is a core component of the Christian tradition. The movement that would later become Christianity was grown and tempered by this struggle against the Empire. In all times across the world, where the Empire rules people become sick, and where the Spirit rules, they are cured. This is great news. The radical revolutionary spirit is foundational and can never be fully removed. This may also create problems for some. As christians from the belly of the beast, in the very heart of the latest and greatest incarnation of the Empire, how can I relate the founders of the tradition which I seek to continue?

For one, we are united across time and circumstance by our need for the good doctor Jesus. They were made sick by their exposure to the Empire, and how much more have we been made sick by our formation within the Empire. We need the spirit’s help to remove the racism, the wrathfulness, our addictions to complacency and comfort and control. We can start to relate when we understand that, in order to occupy others, we first need to occupy ourselves. We needed to erase our own history and cultural identities and replace it with whiteness. We needed to internalize authoritarian points of view that justified our place under the boot of state violence and glorified those who are exploited and maimed to carry out that violence. We needed to beat our children’s minds into a shape that would allow them to become the building block of the Empire. We needed to let even our churches be possessed by the Empire’s unclean spirits.

When we begin to relate to the radical roots of our community, we become empowered by its spirit. We gain more of the wisdom needed for the process of healing, and we gain more of the fierce boldness needed to combat the specific systems of oppression which exist in our time. It strengthens us and prepares us to “fulfill all righteousness”. It provides a map for us to find the place of unending solidarity that is the Kingdom of God.

A Prayer for Pentecost #BlackLivesMatter

O God of raging fires
O Jesus, who looted the Temple
O Spirit found amongst grief and protest
We come before you in anguish

We remember this weekend the day of Pentecost, when the Spirit roared into that upper room and breathed new languages on the tongues of the apostles. It’s a time of celebration for the church, but most of us don’t feel like a party.

Recently, another one of your children, George Floyd, had his breath forcefully removed, O Lord.
We are tired and frustrated and angry. How long O Lord will you continue to do nothing?

We understand that the Spirit breathes into the Church life and love, but we’re hyperventilating and can’t focus. George Floyd is only one of the many Black people the State and white supremacists have killed this year including Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor. May we be the Church who shows up to protest and in vigil.

O God, on Pentecost Sunday, we also remember that after the new converts were baptized, they immediately joined the work of mutual aid. Help us to continue this tradition: mutual aid as the means of intentionally sharing resources so that all may benefit. With what we have, may we donate to bail funds and other organizations who support People of Color.

As the world has been quiet because of quarantine, racism and state violence continue to wreak havoc on the oppressed. But you, O God, shout Black Lives Matter alongside protestors. And you, O Christ, understand the suffering of People of Color and stand in solidarity with them. And you, O Spirit, sit with the grieving families of Floyd, Arbery, and Taylor.

Continue to remind us: the Church is not a building, but a gathering of people demanding and living out another world. A world without violence. A world where mutual aid is our economy, not capitalism. And a world where everyone and everything is loved unconditionally.

May this prayer, and every prayer, not be the end of our work, but the beginning.

We pray this in the name of Christ, who walks alongside us in the struggle, Amen.

The Shock Doctrine and COVID-19

We are currently living in a void, an empty space, a space of potential, not a blank page, but a jumping point. We are adapting to our “new normal,” one where measuring screen time is rendered irrelevant because of our need for connection with friends, family, and co-workers. We are anxious, scared, sad, and lonely. We are looking for some semblance of what was. We miss physical touch, belly laughs, and hugs.

The even worse news is that this is exactly when those in power enact their schemes. In our states of distraction and self-involvement, conservative think tanks push through legislation that diminish our public services. This is well documented in Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. She writes,

“Believers in the shock doctrine are convinced that only a great rupture—a flood, a war, a terrorist attack, [a virus]—can generate the kind of vast, clean canvases they crave. It is in these malleable moments, when we are psychologically unmoored and physically uprooted, that these artists of the real plunge in their hands and begin their work of remaking the world” (25).

Basically, while the rest of us are in shock by COVID-19, the right-wing/neo-fascists have prepared for this moment. This pandemic is a US fascist’s fantasy: closed borders, frightened population, and a void where privatization can rapidly happen. While other countries have been nationalizing industries, the US will bail out the airline industry, dump 1.5 trillion into the stock market, and we can assume more bailouts will be on their way for restaurants, hotels, and other service industries.

Since the CDC has told us to self-isolate and self-quarantine, technological organizing of mutual aid has been on the rise, thankfully. People caring for one another through their own funds and means is encouraging. Possibly more than 25 million people globally will become jobless because of this pandemic. This shows that the capitalist economy is, and has always been, fragile and weak.

The point that Klein brings across in The Shock Doctrine is that many of these think tanks believe that when catastrophe happens that they now have a “clean slate” or a “blank page.” For example, one of the massive overhauls of privatization that happened in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina was the diminishing of public schools for private and charter schools. Instead of rebuilding public schools, they were either abandoned or destroyed. And something like this could happen again nationwide.

I’ve been thinking about these questions:

  • How might we organize ourselves through social distancing?
  • During this time of turmoil, how can we better care for one another?
  • What new fascist policies will be put in place during this pandemic?
  • Cell phone companies have been in talks with the federal government as to whether these companies will share our location data with them (not that they don’t already do that) to track the spread of COVID-19. If this does happen, will the policy then be for the government to have access to our locations in perpetuity?
  • How might we disrupt new policies from being implemented?
  • New procedures are being put in place for “the sake of safety and well-being” at prisons, such as using Zoom to talk to friends and loved ones. Are these going to continue to be in place even after the pandemic?
  • How might we fight against any idea of “a clean slate” and do as it reads in Isaiah 61: “build up the ancient ruins, raise up the former devastations; repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations”?

At the moment, I don’t know these answers (nor would many care if I did), but I also don’t want to be passive while the elite do their bidding. What I do know is that, including myself, many of my friends do not have the brain space to think about big picture ideas during this crisis. And this is totally understandable. I hope by quarantine week 4 we might muster up some radical creative energy.

For the sake of community: Please continue to wash your hands, not touch your face, to stay home, keep social distancing, and pay attention.

Let’s fight for a better world, even if our marching has moved to our kitchens.

Uncrowning the Bramble

I wrote this reflection for Presbyterians for Earth Care.

The trees once went out
to anoint a king over themselves.
So they said to the olive tree,
‘Reign over us.’
The olive tree answered them,
‘Shall I stop producing my rich oil
by which gods and mortals are honored,
and go to sway over the trees?’

Then the trees said to the fig tree,
‘You come and reign over us.’
But the fig tree answered them,
‘Shall I stop producing my sweetness
and my delicious fruit,
and go to sway over the trees?’

Then the trees said to the vine,
‘You come and reign over us.’
But the vine said to them,
‘Shall I stop producing my wine
that cheers gods and mortals,
and go to sway over the trees?’

So all the trees said to the bramble,
‘You come and reign over us.’
And the bramble said to the trees,
‘If in good faith you are anointing me king over you,
then come and take refuge in my shade;
but if not, let fire come out of the bramble
and devour the cedars of Lebanon.'”

Judges 9:8-15 (NRSV)

One of the unluckiest lectionary-forgotten texts is the Parable of the Trees, found in Judges. This was the first parable in all of the Hebrew Bible. It has a strange and ecological edge to it. The trees are looking to be reigned over. The text does not share why the trees are looking for a ruler, but it is assumed that they are foolish in their pursuit. The trees speak to an olive tree, fig tree, and vine. They each respond that they are too busy providing vital nourishment and support for ‘gods and mortals.’ When the trees eventually speak with the bramble, it seems to mock their aspirations, saying: “If in good faith you are anointing me king over you, then come and take refuge in my shade.” Trees, as we know, offer more shade than any bramble bush could. The next line though is even starker: “but if not, let fire come out of the bramble and devour the cedars of Lebanon.” The parable ends abruptly. I can imagine that after the bramble bush said that, the trees anxiously gulped.

What might this parable mean for us? First, God is enough. The Book of Judges and the first chapters of First Samuel spell out to the Hebrew people that God is their king and they do not need human overlords. God speaks out of love and justice, not out of domination. Second, there’s a beautiful ecological meaning to it. The Earth is enough. It provides what we need when we need it. When we push the Earth to its limits, all suffer. Lastly, we are enough. We do not need to look for controlling and strong leaders. God has given us the abilities and the Scriptures to discern how to act justly and live out compassion. May we do so. 

Prayer: O Loving God, through this Lent help us to trust you, knowing that you are enough. Direct us in treating the Earth as our sibling and not as something to be controlled. And guide us as we follow you, reading your Scriptures, and loving our neighbors. In Christ’s name, Amen.

“Go to the Limits of Your Longing” by Rainer Maria Rilke

God speaks to each of us as we are made,
then walks with us silently out of the night.

These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall,
go to the limits of your longing.

Embody me.

Flare up like a flame
and make big shadows I can move in.

Let everything happen to you:
beauty and terror.
Just keep going. No feeling is final.
Don’t let yourself lose me.

Nearby is the country they call life.
You will know it by its seriousness.

Give me your hand.

This is my prayer. May it bless you too. 

flare up like a flame

Isaiah 2:2-4, rewritten

I had the pleasure this weekend to hangout with my Presbyterian Peace Fellowship friends. During our times of worship and reflection, we read my rewrite of Isaiah 2:2-4.

In the days to come, God’s justice will extend
beyond the heavens encircling galaxies, borders, and flags.
All peoples and creatures shall recognize such love.
They will say, “Have you heard? The Not-Yet has become the Now-Is!
People who once lived on the streets, now have roofs over their heads.
Bellies are full of food and joy. Prisons are empty!
Fossil fuels are no longer necessary!”
God has given us all these beautiful resources
and imparted in us how to use them.
World peace agreements will be immediately signed
with God overseeing that they are enacted.
Warheads, drones, tanks, and guns shall
be melted into communion tables, playground equipment,
glasses frames, railroad tracks, and bridges.
The people of nations will learn gardening skills, design new musical instruments, and neighbor will care outrageously for neighbor!

A Scene from the Global Climate Strike Protest

practicing anti-idolatry for lent

Great-Martyr Theodore Stratelates destroying idols

Ash Wednesday marks the start of the anticapitalist season of Lent. A season where one focuses on consuming less and become inwardly focused on spiritual health. A time when one’s worth is not caught up in buying things. One is reminded today of their death as ashes are rubbed into one’s forehead and the recitation of the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” To be reminded of one’s death can be humbling but also, if you’re like me, it causes existential questioning.

I was raised in a Pentecostal church, that often would sing the Happy Goodman’s song, “I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.”

I still can remember the chorus:

“Well, I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now
Gotta make it to Heaven somehow
Though the devil tempt me and he tried to turn me around

He’s offered everything that’s got a name
All the wealth I want and worldly fame
If I could still I wouldn’t take nothin’ for my journey now.”

In a way, with this song and songs like it, I was brought up with an anti-prosperity gospel: to want/desire money and fame is to side with devil. It seems to fit with the theme of Ash Wednesday: one cannot take their fortunes with them to the grave. When one hoards earthly riches, one is taking resources from others. Death is universal, but life is not.

If a theology of Christian anarchism has to begin anywhere, it’s with anti-idolatry. This means no gods, no masters, no bosses, and no cops. This theology disrupts a comfortable Christian theology that supports a business-as-usual way of being in the world to a questioning and struggling against the power structures. Lately for me, I’ve been wondering why should students go into debt for education in the US? Why do people still freeze to death in cities when there are so many empty apartments? And why do billionaires exist? Anti-idolatry fights against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, fascism, and all other forms of oppression.

If Lent has its biblical roots in Jesus’ forty days in the desert, then it has always been anti-idolatrous. Jesus took nothing with him. He resisted idolatrous temptations from the devil. He did not consume anything during those many days. He rejected being worshiped. One does not need to go into the desert to be spiritually satisfied, but perhaps it does mean that one needs to stop interacting with things that are distracting. Or maybe that one should re-think through their own idols and stop worshipping them.

May this Lenten season crack open for you new possibilities of anti-idolatry struggle.