On the Impossiblity of Being a Moderate on Issues of Justice

Houston: You have written about moderation and the fact that, especially as the movement went on, there was perhaps an unfair characterization of moderates in the civil rights movement. Do you still feel that way? … If so, how do you look at moderates, especially white moderate southerners now that the movement has progressed over time?

Campbell: I don’t really know what the term “moderate” means in terms of race. You either believe that all people are equal or you don’t. If you don’t, then you are a racist. You are an extremist. If you say, “well, I believe that we are equal in some ways and some ways we are not,” that doesn’t makes you a moderate. It makes you a racist. Now, I think I know how people used the word back during the movement. Anybody who said moderate meant, “well, let’s don’t try to do it overnight.” Generally, in my observation, people who said, Rome wasn’t built in a day, they just meant Rome couldn’t be built. If you are not going to do it right away, then you weren’t going to do it. If you say, “well, we will do it next year,” well, you are an extremist to the people who say never, and there were a lot of people who said never, and still some.

(Historian, Benjamin Houston, in an interview with Civil Rights leader and Baptist prophet, Will D. Campbell)

I went to speak at a PFLAG meeting this past week. There are a lot of people hurting because of the way we treat our LGBT sisters and brothers, our sons and daughters.

For whatever reason, I find myself writing a great deal about the issue of how the church welcomes—or fails to welcome—Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Intersex, and Queer people. I have been reminded that there are other issues in addition to this in the world, big issues, important issues, life-and-death issues—issues more important than “who gets to sleep with whom.” So, why don’t I concentrate on those a little bit more and give the “homosexual thing” a rest? Besides, winning people over from being “anti” to “pro” through the strength of arguments—no matter how impressive—doesn’t work well as a strategy.

On the Impossiblity of Being a Moderate on Issues of Justice — [D]mergent

Continue reading at . . . http://ow.ly/Ko2Yg

Updating Common Sense: What Christians Really Believe

As a kid I took for granted the fact that popping out of the womb as a male beat the hell out of the alternative. Any girl with half a brain, if given the choice, would obviously opt for checking “male” on the census form.

In fact, so clear was this bit of wisdom, and so desperately did young males my age need it to be true that we used “woman” as a slur: Sissy. Fem. Girly-man.

One time I called my little brother a woman in front of my mom. She said, “You know, woman isn’t a dirty word. There’s no shame in being a woman.”

I said, “Sorry, Mom.” But deep inside I knew she was wrong. Everybody did. The reality of male superiority was woven into the fabric of the universe.

But it wasn’t only women. I also took it as read that being gay made you somehow defective. We used sexual orientation as an epithet, too. You know the ones. I don’t need to repeat them.

We just knew these things, as surely as we knew the earth revolved around the sun, or that the sum of the interior angles of a triangle is 180º, or that Michael Jordan is the best basketball player of all time.

We didn’t argue that men were superior to women or that gay people had made some shoddy lifestyle choices any more than we argued about gravity or the law of the conservation of matter or entropy. Because, why would you?

That’s what taking something for granted means: You don’t have to argue about it anymore. It’s the way the world is. It’s not even conventional wisdom, because conventional wisdom implies that there might be another side to the story. This stuff is just eye-rollingly obvious.

But then one day that stuff about women and gay people didn’t seem nearly so obvious anymore. I realized that I knew women who were smarter and funnier and more successful than me. I spent time with LGBT folks who seemed much more together, much more empathic, much more generous than I am. Now, a lot of that stuff I once took for granted seems not only laughably false, but something that I should be actively attempting to stand athwart.

We need to take a look at this whole “taken-for-grantedness” thing. We need to update common sense.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Thomas Merton’s Prayer and My Intention to Do the Right Thing When It Comes to White Privilege

Thomas Merton 1

I’m supposed to go to a major corporation this afternoon and speak about white privilege.

Of course I’m going to speak about white privilege. Who better to speak about the advantages white folks in our society enjoy than an over-educated, middle-aged white guy from the suburbs? Why wouldn’t I be going?

I mean, that’s why they invited me, right?

So, why do I feel so conflicted about it?

When it comes to white privilege, I’m exhibit A. I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, to be sure. My folks didn’t have a lot of money when I was growing up. But, let’s be honest, even when I was jobless for a time in the recent economic crisis, afraid that we might lose our house, I always secretly believed that things would turn out fine.

Why did I think that? Because, all things considered, things had always turned out fine for me.

Can you hear the assumptions at work in such a view of the world? I’ve always believed, whether or not I could articulate it, that the physical laws of the world ensured me a certain buoyancy, a manufacturer’s guarantee that things would never get so bad that somehow the world would fail to bear me up. It doesn’t mean I don’t get scared; merely that I assume the world is built to work for people like me. Somewhere along the line, something will happen to make things turn out right.


Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Knowledge of Injustice Without Action Makes You Part of the Problem

Norrbotten, Jokkmokk, Jokkmokk, Lappland, Miljöer-Insjömiljöer

[Note: In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, here’s an article I wrote for the Huffington Post.]

Let us imagine that you live in a circle of eight houses, seven of which have fertile gardens in back — enough to feed a family. Unfortunately, however, the eighth house has a patch of swampy land that makes growing a garden impossible. Consequently, the people that live there spend their lives on the edge of starvation.

In the middle of this circle of houses is a commons that everyone uses to supplement their own gardens. But the gardening done in the commons, split eight ways, is only enough to give each house a little extra produce to sell for “nice things.”

The sharing of the commons is a tradition that has been passed down to homeowners in the neighborhood for generations. Nobody even questions it. The commons arrangement is just the way things are.

However, one-eighth of the commons doesn’t give the family with swampy land enough subsist on.

But that’s the way it goes, right? Life isn’t always fair. There has to be winners and losers.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

What if the Kids Don’t Want Our Church?

She's leaving home

I had a conversation with a man not long ago who has the unenviable task of sorting through his mother’s considerable estate, deciding what to keep, what to sell and what to throw away. While sorting, in an act of extraordinary self-awareness, he stopped to consider just what his three adult daughters might like to keep when they find themselves going through his stuff after he’s gone.

During this moment of reflection, my friend had an epiphany: What if his kids don’t want all the stuff he’s worked so hard to acquire?

He was struck by the fact that his adult daughters have no real attachment to all the antiques and precious heirlooms his family has spent so much time accumulating. He went on to observe that his daughters and their partners tend to value instead things like mobility and flexibility. They’ve shown no desire to become curators of a bunch of stuff — even special stuff, really goodstuff.

For one thing, they don’t have the room for it. They live in apartments and small houses. They don’t have any space to house an armoire, no place to stash a dining room table for 12. When your biggest piece of furniture is a flat screen TV, and your idea of rearranging the living room is pushing a stack of magazines to the other side of the Ikea coffee table, the prospect of being responsible for a 12 place-setting china inheritance feels like a commitment on par with marriage, or deciding to take in a stray dachshund.

For another thing, their lives are centered on adventure and experience. They love the outdoors, love to travel. They’re used to packing light. They tend to have a different relationship to “stuff.” Oh, they like nice stuff, to be sure. It’s just that they view stuff instrumentally. Stuff is a tool for the accomplishment of purposes. And to the extent that a nice tool helps accomplish its purpose more efficiently than a lousy one, they value it. The question put to a thing is not whether its value is intrinsic or even sentimental, but whether it’s useful. To their way of thinking, you use stuff to help you do things you want to do, not to make you feel good about things you’ve already done.

And how can we blame them, really? We raised them to think of things as disposable. Sporks, iPods, jobs, marriages — use a thing until either it breaks (in which case, you buy another one) or you don’t need it anymore (in which case, you throw it out and look to the next thing).

For previous generations, stuff was what you spent the bulk of your time working to acquire, then spent the leftover time working to maintain and repair, so that you would have something to hand down to your children. And they to their children. And so on, in an endless string of accumulation and maintenance, world without end. Amen.

But what happens when a generation comes along that doesn’t care about the game you’ve spent so much time buying equipment for, has little invested in the durable nature of the stuff you value? What happens when your kids say, “Don’t give me all that stuff. I’ll just have a yard sale, and call Goodwill to haul away what’s left over”?

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

The Magnificat: God’s Socio-Economic SmackDown

Magnificat Boticelli 1

The AP released a story some years back announcing that the rate of people considered “low income” has risen to almost one in two Americans.[1] In other words, there are about 150 million Americans who, if not ensnared by the rapacious talons of poverty, are barely scraping by. That is a troubling statistic, especially given the fact, as has been widely reported, that the income disparity between the rich and the poor continues to widen at an alarming rate. The starkness of the contrast is stunning. A few “job creators” get almost exponentially richer, while the rest stand on the sidelines and watch.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

Why Does Jesus Have to Be Such a Lousy Role Model?

Buddy Christ

I got to thinking the other day: If Jesus is supposed to be the role model that Christianity claims he is, he’s done a pretty lousy job of it.

WWJD? If you read the Gospels, apparently not much that would please theFamily Research Council.

Given the pressing social concerns about the “war on Christmas,” Jesus’ regard for the poor and oppressed seems laughably myopic.

I mean, if you believe that you’ve been put on this earth to skulk about pointing out everyone else’s sins, Jesus doesn’t set a very good example. Oh sure, he cracks on the self-righteous and the hypocrites, but usually because he feels a moral responsibility to shine a light on the self-satisfied, those who seem way too pleased that they’re “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers or even like [the] tax-collector” (Luke 18:11).

Interesting that Jesus not only doesn’t feel the need to scour the countryside in search of people to condemn—for fear that surely someone’s ruining the fabric of “traditional society”—but, ironically, he seems to find those who are most publicly religious (that is, the folks who do scour the countryside in search of people to condemn) the folks most in need of a good verbal smack down.

So, if you believe your Christian mission centers on identifying sinners to steer clear of, Jesus is a really crappy role model. If you think that the demands of Christian purity require you to shine a bright light on the those people the church ought to be busy hanging scarlet letters on, then Jesus is bound to be a disappointment to you.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

What One Thing Would You Need to Have to Finally Get on with the Work You’ve Been Put on This Earth to Do?

Factory (b&w)

What one thing would you need to have in order to finally get on with the work you’ve been put on this earth to do?

It’s an important question, one worth asking.

If, for example, what you wanted to do was become a skier, you’d need skis. If you wanted to be a guitar player, you’d need a guitar. If you were going to be a philanthropist, you’d need money.

It’s not rocket science (for which you’d need, if not a rocket, then at least, science).

But here’s the thing: If you’re in a position to believe that you have a reasonable chance of pulling off any of those kinds of big vocational adventures, you’ve already walked a ways down that road. That is to say, if you’re convinced that what you’ve been put on this earth to contribute to the great human drama is your amazing skiing, guitar-playing, gift-giving awesomeness, you probably already have (at least in some basic form) skis, a guitar, or some money. Right? You’ve almost certainly done some of that stuff already, which suggests that you already have access to the basics necessary to accomplish that goal.

But if what you think you have to offer the world is great writing, or great music, or great hospitality, how do you answer that question? A pen, a melody, a warm embrace—all things (like the skis, the guitar, the money) you most likely have already as well.

All of which is to say: Chances are better than even that you already possess that one thing you need to do what you’ve been placed on this earth to do.

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

5 Questions Congregations Should Ask Themselves If They’re Really Serious about Following Jesus

Checker cab

I read stories about all these congregations doing amazing things, launching new programs to pair homeless people with vacant properties, rallying around a harassed Islamic community, creating wonderful spaces for prayer and meditation, gleaning food from local producers to feed the hungry. I’m grateful these congregations take their faith seriously enough to actually find new and creative ways of living it out. But seeing the wealth of creativity some churches demonstrate can be discouraging if you feel like you’re a part of a congregation that doesn’t seem to have the resources to do wonderful, Ted Talk kind of stuff.

I recently went to a conference, sponsored by the Center for Progressive Renewal, at which we discussed trend lines in the culture that the church should being paying attention to. One of the trend lines is the sharing economy.

The sharing economy is predicated on the assumption that we create or increase value by partnering with others to share our resources. Uber, a ride sharing service, for instance, matches people who have cars with people who need rides. By paying you, who doesn’t have the overhead of a taxi company, for a ride, I get a cheaper means of conveyance, and you get money to give me space in your car that would be otherwise go unoccupied. Pretty slick, right?1

The only way that a sharing economy works, however, is if there’s trust that what we’re doing isn’t trying to figure out ways to take advantage of each other—which is, of course, exactly what our capitalist systems assumes. In the predominant paradigm of the twentieth century—the Industrial economy—value is created by producing stuff, and then convincing as many people as possible that they need to buy it at prices that maximize profits. Under such an arrangement, because maximizing profits is the engine that drives the economic system, we need to enter into contractual agreements because I feel that I have no choice but to suppose that, given half a chance, you’re going to screw me. I may not know how at this point, but I’m pretty sure that’s the likely outcome.

In a sharing economy, on the other hand, I begin with a different set of assumptions—namely, that we participate in a different kind of arrangement in which generosity, instead of self-interest, is the way to create value. In this system maximizing profit isn’t the driving force, but the belief that participating in a system built on trust, which benefits everyone, is both more satisfying and sustainable. That trust is built on a continued demonstration of my commitment to maintaining a relationship with you that supersedes my desire to angle for an advantage. In other words, I must show that I’m in this not just to get something from you, but because I believe a culture of generosity is more beneficial to everyone, and that if you trust me, you’re more likely to want to continue a mutually beneficial relationship.



Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .

A Pastoral Letter to Older Generations about Those Frustrating Millennials

Young folks geographical game 1

At a workshop in Ohio recently, I made note of the fact that emerging generations (Millennials and Gen-Xers), having grown up in a “disposable” world (e.g., sporks, iPods, their parents’ marriages, etc.) — a world that, because of student loan debt and a lack of jobs, requires them to be both mobile and flexible. Emerging generations are much less inclined to want the “stuff” their parents and grandparents have been scrupulously storing up to hand down to them. This is an issue for congregations and denominations that have invested heavily in infrastructure and organizational models, which they worry are not being taken up by the generations coming behind them.

The question that older generations of leaders within mainline denominations must ask themselves, I suggested, therefore, is: “What if the kids don’t want our church?” This is an an important issue in the age of the “nones.”

I could sense the tension. In a room of 118 people, probably ten were under 50 years-old. Some were sad because they’ve labored so long to bequeath something tangible to the to the generations just coming into leadership. Unfortunately, that “something tangible” seems to be a legacy succeeding generations aren’t terribly enthusiastic about embracing.

Others in the audience genuinely tried to understand, saying, “We weren’t a whole lot more grateful to our forbears than these young people are.”

But what struck me was the anger. One woman said, “Well, tell the young people to put down their iPhones and sell their computers, and then we can talk. That’s all they’re interested in anyway.”

“Well,” I thought to myself, “‘It’s not me; it’s you’ is a strategy of sorts, I guess. The young people about whom you’re worried as they skitter out the back door of the church ought to respond well to that.”

Continue reading at [D]mergent . . .