#BlackLivesMatter, Faith

rev. barber and the heart of democracy

For the past two years, I’ve gone to North Carolina to attend the Historic Thousands on Jones Street with Rev. Dr. William Barber II and the Moral Mondays Movement.  I’ve been awe-inspiried the several times I’ve met Rev. Barber. I’m glad last night a much wider audience has been able to experience the presence and prophetic witness of Rev. Barber. 

Here’s a blog post I wrote for the Kairos Center the first year I went to the protest: Glossalia of the Movement

Also, here’s his transcript from the DNC. 

Willam Barber

Forward Together, Not One Step Back

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#BlackLivesMatter, Politics

frantz fanon, #blacklivesmatter, and american exceptionalism

In my bedroom hangs a poster with the first and last chapter of Frantz Fanon’s book, The Wretched of the Earth. I received it as a gift after seeing the film, Concerning Violence, which I cannot recommend enough. As I looked at it again today, I was struck by these words,

“Two centuries ago, a former European colony took it into its head to catch up with Europe. It has been so successful that the United States of America has become a monster where the flaws, sickness, and inhumanity of Europe have reached frightening proportions” (The Wretched of the Earth, 236-7).

This reminds me again that the US has never been great, but a monster from the beginning. It rears its ugly head when our justice system refuses to condemn any police officer in the murders of Freddie Grey or Tamir Rice or Sandra Bland. And the US defends this monster by repeating, especially at political conventions, the lie of American Exceptionalism.

 

13879309_10154375033819819_5605036243159735846_n

We’ve got to get over ourselves. 

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#BlackLivesMatter, Politics

walter benjamin, solidarity, and my peace delegation

I spent my last semester at Union Theological Seminary thinking about the past. Ever since I learned, two years ago, about Walter Benjamin’s concept of the weak messianic force, I knew I wanted to write my thesis on it. The idea is mainly found in On the Concept of History. It outlines how a historical materialist reads and writes history, among other things, ‘happiness’. I was struck by the weak messianic force for a few reasons. First, it gives present humanity a way to redeem the (forgotten and oppressed) past through collectively remembering those on the margins. It’s kind of like a pre-People’s History of the United States. Second, I have been obsessed with weak thought (Vattimo and Caputo) for quite some time and it gave me a chance to re-read some of my favorite texts. Thirdly, Benjamin wrote this text merely months before he committed suicide. Meaning up until his death, he was thinking politically and theologically about how the world could be more just. I too hope that I will work for justice until my death. It’s through Benjamin that I have been more keenly aware of oppressed and forgotten peoples in the US: from Indigenous peoples to #BlackLivesMatter to immigrants.

As well, Benjamin haunts the way I view time. I continually ask myself whether I want to act in empty time or messianic time? Do I need that extra time in the morning to sleep or attend a Fight for $15 protest? Am I hanging out with those who will challenge me or with those who will push me to become a better Timothy? Now these choices are not always black and white, and sometimes I choose self care, which is all good and fine. I just don’t want to do it all the time.

Although I haven’t read enough Benjamin to know whether he writes on solidarity, I believe his goal for us in the present is to act in solidarity with forgotten and oppressed people. One of my favorite scenes in The Motorcycle Diaries happens near the end of the journey while Che and Alberto are at the Peruvian leper colony. They danced on the north side where the doctors and nuns reside and celebrated Che’s birthday. Che though did not want to end his celebration there, but swam across the Amazon River to the south side to be with those with leprosy. This was truly an act of solidarity. To side with and be with those whom society has deemed worthless, forgettable.

solidarity1.jpg

For me this trip to Iraqi Kurdistan in many ways is about solidarity. To not allow US media outlets dictate how I perceive the Middle East. To travel and listen to those who have been forgotten, who are refugees in their own country. To give the Kurds other US faces to see than those behind military uniforms. Benjamin wrote that it’s important to not try to look into the future because at any moment the Messiah or revolution might break in.

May it be so and may the peacemakers be on the front lines.

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#BlackLivesMatter, LGBTQI+, Politics

love is love and the politics of recognition

Over the past few days, my Facebook newsfeed has been bittersweet. On the one hand, we celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize same-sex marriage in all 50 states. Now queer people of any identity can marry their partner. On the other hand, we mourn the life and service of Rev. Clementa Pinckney, one of the nine in the AME Massacre in Charleston, SC. He was a faithful Christian and representative, whose life matters.

This distinction heightens my perception of the politics of recognition. 

transheart

The Supreme Court recognizes same-sex marriage as lawful in the US. These couples, theoretically, legally have a say. They can visit their partners in hospitals more freely than before. Queer immigrants across the States can marry, gaining citizenship. Same-sex couples can also be insured on each other’s health insurance.

And I certainly agree with caleb’s sentiments:

We should rejoice in this victory!

Yet, keeping in mind:

  • in 28 States one’s employer can fire one on grounds of orientation.
  • this does not change the hearts and minds of people who oppose and bully queer persons.
  • abuse and murders of Trans Women of Color are still largely ignored by media.
  • this does not magically give homeless queer youth a home to go back to.

While researching these hard realities, I listened to on repeat, Angel Haze’s version of ‘Same Love’:

Here’s a message to the people who just don’t get it
Love is love, there is no difference
Not a medication to fix it, there is no prescription
No rehab to visit, it is not an addiction
It’s love and it’s selfless
It’s yours and everybody else’s
So don’t badger and abuse the solemnly defenseless
See us as yourself, there’s no equality in difference
Until we all get it, we’ll be drowning in the same blood
Despite orientation, we all feel the same love
We’ll be drowning in the same blood
Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

As queer persons are being recognized under the law, black and brown persons who are technically recognized “under the law” are continually treated as second-class citizens. Rampant racist behavior still persists from police officers and white men who are afraid of losing their white supremacist culture and way of being in the world. So I ponder,

When will the Supreme Court let black and brown lives matter?

How soon will it be until the prison industrial complex dissolves? 

Where is the guillotine of justice to destroy white supremacy? 

Those in the AME massacre were killed in the name of white supremacy and racism. Yet, they are resurrected in those fighting against racial inequality. They are seen at bible studies and prayer groups. And lest we forget, the bible was written by people of color!

Remember their names

We should not hold our breath waiting for the US government to end white supremacy. We should not wait for police forces to treat black and brown bodies with respect and decency. We need to celebrate the victory for queer persons in the US and grieve over our steeped racism. #allblacklivesmatter

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#BlackLivesMatter, Philosophy, Scripture

adventure time as a postmodern book of judges

If you haven’t watched Adventure Time, you’re missing out on a delightful, fun,  philosophical, and always zany cartoon. Finn and Jake, a young blonde boy and a mustard colored stretching dog, maintain the roles as the heroes in the Land of Ooo. They battle against creatures and kingdoms that harm. And uniquely, there are many kingdoms: Flame, Ice, Candy, Lumpy Space, and the list just gets stranger. Yet, Jake and Finn do not inhabit any of these kingdoms.

Finn and Jake

The connection to the biblical book of Judges did not seem obvious to me at first. It was an episode from the current season titled “Walnuts & Rain” that tipped me off. Finn and Jake fall into separate holes somewhere in a forest. At the bottom of the hole, Finn finds himself in the Kingdom of Huge. King Huge eats constantly, fed by the Food Boys. Finn asks politely to leave, but the King has the Food Boys bind him. Finn breaks free with some trickery of his own, but was caught by the King. In the nick of time, Jake falls into the same space. With Finn in the King’s giant hands, he asks Jake, “What are you going to do about it?” He said this unassuming of Jake’s stretching abilities. Jakes makes a fist and stretches it across the King’s face. Finally, Jake and Finn make their way out of the hole and travel back to the Tree House.

Finn’s hole adventure parallels the story of Judge Ehud (Judges 3:12-30). In the story, Ehud makes his way to pay tribute (taxes imposed by another empire) to King Eglon of Moab. The writer notes that Ehud is left-handed. He hides a knife on the opposite side, his right leg. (I guess this was not a place where the Ancient TSA patted). He gives the tribute to King Eglon, who also is a huge man, and then asks if he might speak with him privately. In the room alone, Ehud stabs the King, his guts fall out, and Ehud exits through the bathroom into the sewer.

Ehud

In this medieval painting, Ehud’s garb resembles Finn’s. Coincidence? I think not.

Captivity, plan-making, and King-hurting are present in both stories. While Ehud as a judge identifies and fights for the Hebrews, Jake and Finn represent wandering judges, not bound by place. As well, in the Book of Judges, God raises up Ehud. Finn and Jake have a calling, but no caller. Even Grob Gob Glob Grod, who Ooo deems as a deity, does not call creatures to a purpose. When Finn and Jake embark on their adventures and face disruptors, harmers, and just plain evil (The Lich), they perform justice without a telos other than making sure others are unharmed.

Jake and Finn are postmodern characters because they know no boundaries, walls, or patriotism. They are, in a way, part of every kingdom. Sure, they are called upon by Princess Bubblegum of the Candy Kingdom. And Ice King tries to pry himself into their lives, but it’s not as if they are private contractors for the Candy Kingdom. They are outsiders fighting for a just world. 

 

P.S. I believe the biblical tradition of judges continues with such people as Vandana Shiva, Cheryl Clarke, Cornel West, Naim Ateek, the leaderful movement of #BlackLivesMatter, Evo Morales, Gustavo Gutierrez, and Bill Wylie-Kellermann

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#BlackLivesMatter, Beliefs, Ecology, Justice

salvation: theology and theopoetry

Someone gave me some insight once in how to read theology: theologians only answer the questions asked. Augustine answered certain questions that we’re not asking today. The same is true for Death of God theologians and many contemporary theologians do not incorporate #BlackLivesMatter or push against transphobia in their theologies.

So why do we hold onto an outdated salvation narrative, when clearly we are not asking these same questions?

Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.

Jesus would have not understood this way of thinking about salvation.

As Americans, we have been trained to hear a particular salvation story. God created the universe, placed people in a Garden, and had a close relationship with them. They sin by not obeying God and are cast out of the Garden and into the world, away from God. Because of them, the cosmos became tainted with sin and humanity totally deprived. Consequently, we cannot do anything good, unless God does it through us. To rescue us from this plight, God becomes incarnate in Jesus Christ and dies on a cross for our sins. And with this action, God’s anger is appeased and God loves us once again. If we recognize that Christ died for us, then we are forgiven, and will live with God forever after we die.

This is a nice logical framework, if one can call it that.

When church folk start to question this narrative, they either give up Christianity or are kicked out of the church. This happened to many of my friends in undergrad.

There are theopoets, like Catherine Keller, who present us with a possible alternative formulation: Jesus as a Parable and Deconstructor. Jesus does not allow our logic to be the final and last word, but disrupts theo-logic with parables and stories that reset our way of thinking, again and again. The common salvation narrative that I described above is not found on the lips of Jesus. Jesus preached that the basileia (commonwealth or kin-dom) of God was crashing to Earth and we should be ready. Not that Adam and Eve were the first sinners or that he would die on a cross to appease the FATHER’s anger.

Dr. Keller also writes elsewhere in On the Mystery, that salvation is rooted in the word ‘salve’ meaning ‘an ointment to promote healing’ or to ‘soothe.’ If understood like this, salvation is not found away from the world, but in it. Salvation happens when relationships are mended, when prisoners are released, and racism eradicated.

Christ’s life was full of salvation moments, not just his death and resurrection.

Ethiopian Jesus healing

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#BlackLivesMatter, Justice, Sermon

leaving our nets behind: sermon on discipleship

[I preached this sermon last Sunday at Broadway Presbyterian Church in NYC. I’ve included the passage, prayer, and sermon. It was written between overnights at the shelter, a Student Senate Retreat, and supporting another friend who preached earlier that morning.]

Mark 1:14-20 NRSV
Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God,
and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near;
repent, and believe in the good news.”

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee,
he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fisherfolk.
And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.”
And immediately they left their nets and followed him.
As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John,
who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them;
and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

brick testament Jesus

Prayer: Oh God, we can be a stubborn people. We like things the way they are. We depend on being comfortable. But you, O God, search for us, and push us in directions that some of us would never have imagined. This morning, open us to hear a tender and vital word from you. We ask this in the name of the one who calls us to follow. Amen.

This past week has been exhausting, exciting, anxious-ridden, and surreal all at the same time. With Martin Luther King Jr. day, the start of classes, and the Emergency Shelter Network Annual meeting, it couldn’t be anything, but less. What I want to highlight is the Annual Meeting of the Emergency Shelter Network (ESN). It was held on the third floor of the Fifth Ave Presbyterian Church. 30 people were present, representing about 40 churches in the 5 boroughs. The deputy commissioner of Homeless Services shared some of the ways the city was helping house people, along with some overwhelming statistics, including that NYC in 1983 14,000 people were in shelters or on the street. In 2008, when ESN became a non-profit, 35,000 people were homeless, and the count in December 2014, our city has over 60,000 people without homes. After hearing these statistics, a hush swept through the room. A shelter coordinator piped up and asked, “Is anything we are doing actually alleviating poverty?” No answer was given that night. We moved onto other subjects and eventually spent the rest of time discussing ways to recruit volunteers. Because unless your church or synagogue that has over 1,000 members and hosts a shelter once or twice a week, you are probably scrambling to find people. Needless to say it wasn’t the most uplifting meeting I’ve ever been to. As I made the trek back to 1 train, I just couldn’t get out of my mind, the purpose of a volunteer.

Before I became the volunteer coordinator at Broadway Community, for years I volunteered at food pantries, soup kitchens, and shelters. I volunteered because it made me feel good, which is how some of the other coordinators at the meeting told us to pitch it to those wanting to volunteer. “It will warm your heart to help those in need” and “build your resume.” Or even “just doing a little can go a long way.”

And with the backdrop of American Christianity, I can hear some of these same reasons for why one would want to call themselves Christian. “Follow Jesus, my friend. It’s easy; just say a prayer and you’ll be right with God.” Or “read your devotions in the morning, I do, and it’s like they last the whole day.” And often, this is how we read the discipleship stories. Jesus comes walking along this beautiful beach, happens to run into some fisher folk, calls out to them, “Hey, follow me.” It doesn’t take them a second to think about it and they’re following Jesus.

But reading our passage today, it seems more complicated than just Jesus moseying by the Sea of Galilee calling for disciples. Our passage begins with, “Now after John was arrested.” Let’s just have that sink in. In the ancient world, prisons were full of rabble-rousers, people who struggled economically, political prisoners, and those who didn’t abide by the Roman Empire. John the Baptizer fits all of those descriptions, as well, according to Mark, baptized Jesus forty days earlier. These are the kinds of people Jesus hung out with and even was baptized by.

Mark’s Gospel seems to point out that it was because of John’s arrest that Jesus’ ministry began. That there was sense of urgency.

And thinking about world history, there always seems to be something catastrophic that happens, that builds momentum for a movement. For us last year, it was the non-indictments of the police officers who killed Michael Brown and Eric Garner that lead to the movement Black Lives Matter. It happened in El Salvador in the 1970’s when Archbishop Oscar Romero’s dear friend was killed that he started to side with the oppressed. And it was the drought in the Caesarea in the 4th century, that St. Basil the Great emptied his barns, giving to those in need.

Jesus’ ministry starts in turmoil. During a time when everything wasn’t okay with the world. It wasn’t Bible Play Land, where the mountains are lush, the fishermen are always smiling, and Jesus’ hair is blowing in the wind.

John had been arrested and Jesus starts to proclaim the good news of God. Now we need to stop right here because in ancient Rome, this phrase good news was usually paired with Caesar, not God. The good news of Caesar included the Pax Romana, that if you didn’t assimilate to Rome’s ways you would be killed or enslaved. Additionally, it was written in several places in the Empire, “the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him; therefore let a new era begin from his birth.” These were the kinds of proclamations Jesus had to compete with. When we proclaim the good news of God, we are proclaiming that no person, nor political or economic system can hold a candle to God’s Realm. This is what Jesus is declaring.

Then Jesus exclaims, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” God’s Realm is so close we can taste it. We saw a glimpse of it at Jesus’ baptism. God is ready to take reign of the world bringing true justice and equality. I get so excited by these words, “the kingdom of God has come near.” It fills me with hope, but Mark wastes no time. He immediately has us walking beside Jesus along the Sea of Galilee.

There we meet two sets of brothers who also happen to be fisher folk, Simon and Andrew, and James and John. But here’s the weird thing. Rabbis, in the ancient world, would not go after potential students. Rather, students would follow the Rabbis around, trying to gather as much wisdom and hopefully they would be included in the group too. As well, the disciples who usually followed Rabbis were fairly educated themselves. Jesus goes against the business as usual Rabbi and disciple relationship. He goes out of his way to find those who were as John Calvin called, “rough mechanics.” Jesus could’ve called anyone, but he chose those who were not the elite.

As Paul would later write in 1 Corinthians, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”

And in the case of fisher folk, they were nearly in the lowest class of society, the artisan class. The Roman Empire also made sure that they stayed there through heavy taxation to the tune of 80% of fish they caught. Those fish would then be dried and salted at a factory, which was owned by the Caesar at the time. Then the fish sold would contribute to the benefit of the Empire, never the fishermen.

I wonder some of the thoughts going through the brothers’ minds when Jesus asked them to the follow him. Were they happy to give up the family business to follow this stranger? Had they seen Jesus hang around John the Baptizer and assumed that he was one of the good ones? Or were they frightened, not knowing what would happen next. Scripture doesn’t say, but I can’t imagine it being an easy decision. Simon and Andrew left behind their nets. James and John left behind their father. Following Jesus changed the course of their lives.

In 2009, I read many stories of saints of old who after hearing the Gospel message gave everything away and dedicated their life to helping those in need. I felt that this was what it meant to be a disciple (and still do). So during winter break, I donated most of my clothes to the shelter, and kept two pairs of pants, five shirts, and one coat. Mostly because after reading the words of St. Basil the Great,

“The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry; the coat unused in your closet belongs to the one who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the one who has no shoes.”

I wanted to make sure that I wasted nothing. And there was something freeing about that experience. I felt closer to God and worried less about what to wear. A few months later though, I got a job at a Thrift Store and started to swap out clothes and things went downhill from there.

To follow Jesus, in a way, means to me to be less distracted. To not let petty concerns eat up your time.

We are not called to be volunteers for God’s Realm.
We are not called to add an hour or two a week to our lives, so that we can feel good.
Jesus disrupts our lives from the ordinary ebb and flow to an alternative way of life.
We are called to be disciples and to follow Christ wherever he may lead.
To leave behind those nets in our lives that hold us back from doing so. Whether that be our self-doubt, or anxiety about what others may think,
or that we do not feel worthy enough to do something like that.
Christ still calls over and over, yet never away from world, but into it.
May we listen to that call and leave our nets behind. Amen.

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