I had no intention of wading into the murky waters of this national conversation, but Trever asked a question of me, and well, I tend to run long on my answers. Quite frankly, I wish more Americans would run long on their answers; at least then I'd know whether they understood the complexity of the problems about which they opine or if they just love the sound of their own words exiting their mouths. Trever offered a variation of "the jury had to do what it had to do," and I completely agree, but it's way more complicated than that. This isn't a debate about whether or not America has a race problem; anyone attempting to argue that America doesn't is either an idiot or so entrenched in privilege they can't see the world through non-White eyes. This isn't a protracted discussion about liberal gun laws and Stand Your Ground laws. No sane society can long maintain civility in a country where Stand Your Ground is the rule of law. If you want to read more about that, my friend Scott Jones talks about Locke and Kant and self-defense in reference to the Trayvon Martin case here. It goes without saying that I agree with his assessment. So, the very next sentence is the beginning of my rather lengthy answer.
I tend to agree with the legal issues here. Unfortunately, juries can't convict on intuition. I'll say this again. The problem is the Stand Your Ground law. It's stupid and dangerous. Remove that law from Florida's books and GZ is guilty of manslaughter at a minimum. The jury and the judge have to follow the rule of law, and in this case, the rule of law failed a teenager. I wish we could make a very simple connection here, and I believe my friend Scott Jones is right when he says that an armed man shooting a teenager after the armed man initiated a conflict is the exact inverse of self-defense. The only one with a right to self-defense here was Trayvon Martin. However, the jury can't convict on the grounds that John Locke is right, and that sucks. Hard. The racial component, though seemingly central, was an unfortunate complicating factor to the real central question, which is about self-defense and liberal gun laws, but that complicating factor caused the African American community no small amount of consternation, with good reason.
It's possible that if the roles were reversed, a jury could easily be swayed by the racial element to ignore the rule of law. It's only happened like 9 billion times in the former slaveholding states when people of color were convicted by juries of all white male "peers," or when white men were acquitted for raping or murdering people of color despite all evidence for their guilt. The failure to understand this dynamic is because Cracker America (really White America overall) doesn't have to care. We have been conditioned as people of privilege to discount claims to historical abuse, segregation, and injustice. We fail to understand that the experience of non-White America has been one of always trying to get an even playing field, all the while we blithely widened or narrowed the field depending upon what was best for us. One of the ways in which minority communities establish identity and unity is through racial (cultural) memory; this also serves as a means of character and identity formation. Think of the Black mother explaining to her sons what the rules are when they are pulled over late at night by a White cop.
The problem with White, really Cracker (there is a difference), America is that we have no racial memory, no cultural history that informs our understanding of context. The context does not need to be filtered, because as people of privlege, the context serves us, and in most cases, it serves us because the privileged class create the context. When white people are furious that OJ "got away with it," we engage in faux rage because the context, which is always present for Black Americans and filtered through the lens of cultural memory, betrayed us this one time. This would be amusing if it weren't nearly always at the expense of a minority. For every one time the context betrayed White America, minorities have been betrayed countless times. Where was all this outrage when young black men were being falsely imprisoned? Where is it now with discrepancies in racialized drug laws? Where is it when judges work with corporate prisons to lock up poor minorities for minor offenses? Where was it when Jim Crow and segregation were the "natural order?" A famous black man gets away with murder and suddenly the phenomenon of "privilege distress" eats at Cracker America's innards.
Now, take that racial memory into court where a teenage boy who was racially profiled and unarmed is dead. Do you suppose the outcome is somewhat more important to African Americans than Whites? Do you suppose they are hoping for some form of justice? Black America has long-since learned there will not be justice, or if there is, it's based on money, or fame, or some capricious dispensing of sheer fucking luck. Justice is not what happens at the end of a trial; it's a real standard that exists irrespective of the results of a trial. Justice in this instance should have been GZ in prison. It can't be, though, because the very rule of law that ought to protect Trayvon's rights are the same which guarantee GZ's right to a particular set of procedures and rules of evidence. I'm not going to make that speech to Black America, though, as they have every right to ask when we'll stop talking all this legalese bullshit and make sure teenagers aren't shot in the street by cowards with guns. The only possible justice at this point is two-fold: GZ loses a civil trial and pays for the rest of his life for the life he took, and legisltures everywhere realize Stand Your Ground is a stupid, dangerous law, that when applied, cannot be applied without the complicating factors of race and class and age and gender and fear.
The AP makes a point of noting the religious activity of the counter-demonstrators (prayed, clutched crosses, sang hymns, the usual stuff), but why do they not mention the religious activity of the demonstrators? For example, what about those who were chanting, “Hail Satan”?
Mr. Carter assumes that a few protestors chanting "Hail, Satan," is religious activity. I suppose that if the journalists present could demonstrate that these were living, breathing Satanists, Carter would have a point. (And he is right that a journalist could and probably should have talked to them.) However, what is happening at the protest has nothing to do with the Prince of Darkness, the views of fundamentalists vis-a-vis abortion notwithstanding. This would only be religious activity if the chanters actually were hailing Satan. What they are doing is mocking the pro-lifers who are busily singing Amazing Grace. Seriously.
The only person caught on video saying "Hail, Satan," looks to be a teenage girl. Yes, there were others saying it, but it was clearly meant as mockery, and I'm going to have to side with the mockers. As I don't believe in Satan, Mr. Carter will need to admit that my siding with the faux Satanists is not religious activity. If I picked up a Bible and read a random passage aloud, would that be religious activity? Doesn't the intent with which I use words indicate the nature of the utterance, or does Mr. Carter believe in magic?
The pro-lifers in this instance deserve to be mocked, not because of their pro-life stance, though. I readily admit that this is an issue about which reasonable people may disagree. I have my own opinions, but I usually don't share them online. The skewering from both sides is too tedious and reactionary.
Singing Amazing Grace at a protest that is ostensibly about abortion shows a shocking lack of understanding about the context and how religious language functions. Why are the protesters singing a song about the individualistic nature of salvation—as if that concept isn't dubious enough—at an event where they hope to see legislation passed that makes it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion in the not-so-great state of Texas? Honestly, read over the lyrics if you need to and figure out which apply in that situation. The truth is probably something like this: it was the only song all the protestors knew in common.
The utterly anemic intellectual life of fundangelicals, even including familiarity with their Bible and hymnody, absolutely deserves to be mocked. You are standing at an event at which you believe God needs to move to stop a great evil and you choose to sing about how awesome it is that God saved you? What the hell? Perhaps those pro-lifers present also believe, with Mr. Carter, that words are magic. It doesn't matter the content or the intent, only that they are using them—religious language functioning as some sort of desperate summons for the Holy Spirit to move, mimicking the Apostle's frustration that he doesn't often know what to pray so the Spirit prays for him. To do so, of course, they must affirm their own importance in the cosmic soteriological dance, and because they are so completely devoid of meaningful religious language, they consistently revert to that most trite and self-centered of affirmations: Jesus died for me.
Mock away, fake Satanists.
The Daily Oklahoman announced today that Lifechurch.tv, the hydra-headed megachurch based in Edmond, Okla., will be adding another campus to its mini-empire of 16 campuses in five states. I have long since stopped caring about the theological content of what Craig Groeschel does via video screen every week. As a former believer, I simply don't care all that much about in-house disputes over ecclesiology unless they impact the larger culture. This is Oklahoma City, so virtually (ha!) everything LCTV does impacts the larger culture. The source of my irritation today is the ham-handed way The Oklahoman handled an obviously important religion story.
Full disclosure: I used to write a weekly Faith and Culture column for that paper when Bobby Ross was doing a fine job as religion editor. He moved on. His successor and I didn't see eye to eye. It did not end well. Since then, I have regularly accused the paper of running PR for Jesus instead of actual journalism.
Let's juxtapose two things from the story and then I'll break down what I really think is happening. Lori Bailey is the communications director for LCTV. She is quoted as saying: "“We've been looking at this particular area for some time since many people who attend our other campuses can easily access this new location.” The writer, Richard Mize, follows that quote immediately with this piece of purple prose:
It's a gritty part of north Oklahoma City, an area of socioeconomic extremes. Neighborhoods have high unemployment, low homeownership, high crime and gang activity among other social ills, as well as TV and radio stations, prominent office buildings and other business development.
Bailey then makes an innocuous comment about "making a difference in the lives of people" in surrounding neighborhoods. This is not what LCTV does, by the way, but more on that later. Now for some background for our out of Oklahoma readers.
The corridor chosen by LCTV for this new venture is the primary artery between Edmond, our most affluent suburb, and downtown Oklahoma City, which is still the hub of business and culture in this sprawling metroplex. Every day, tens of thousands of cars make the approximately 10-mile drive between Edmond and downtown using this corridor. The new campus will sit about one mile east of Nichols Hills, one of the most affluent neighborhoods in the city. It will be surrounded by a smattering of industrial parks, medical businesses, and damn few neighborhoods. The area is sparsely populated both in terms of businesses and residences.
The Oklahoma Department of Transportation is about to complete work on a $24 million series of improvements to that traffic corridor. Unless you haven't been paying attention to the I40 crosstown improvement, infrastructure upgrades always precede economic development. That corridor is next in line for gentrification. A massive amount of vacant acreage sits on both sides of the corridor, making it a perfect location for apartments and condos and businesses midway between Edmond and downtown. The improvements make access to the area far more convenient than they have ever been. It's a good move for Oklahoma City, and I suspect LCTV's leadership team is well aware of this. Craig was a finance major before he went to seminary, after all.
In no particular order, here's what I don't like about the new campus moving there:
It's never safe to speculate about motive, but it's also never reasonable to be too much of a Pollyanna. This will be an interesting couple of year's in LCTV's branding strategy.
First, the podcast. Sean and Joey wanted to discuss Exodus International, Chambers's apology, and reparative therapy. We also deal with ecclesiology, hermeneutics, and politics. Hard to avoid in this discussion.
Second, credit where credit is due. Many of my remarks came after reading the incredibly insightful analysis by John Shore. I think he nails it, so I just want him to get credit for being brilliant. Time will definitely tell whether Exodus (Chambers) actually apologized. I'm leaning toward rebrand and new tactic with the same old, tired ideas about sexuality and marriage.
This is my piece for RNS/WaPo about the Bethany, Okla., Methodist minister who is suing the state of Oklahoma over the Native American sculpture featured on the license plate. I'm writing another piece for the Gazette locally, so I'll have more to say after that piece runs.
The Parish stepchild (youngest daughter) graduated today. Several of us who contributed to this glorious outcome sat in the too-stuffy sanctuary of The Gate Church—formerly Cathedral of Praise World Outreach Center back in the 90s when hubris related to global outreach dominated Pentecostal/Charismatic ministries—and endured sixteen speeches. The Reverend Brunet was in town from one of those liberal, eastern states, so watching her enjoy her first small-town graduation in Oklahoma was fantastic.
Two young ladies gave the invocation, which was the first time Jesus' name was invoked this day. By day's end, he was curled up at the right hand of the Father with his hands over his ears telling his beloved children his ears needed a rest. They didn't listen. Dani looked mildly appalled that the prayer ended "In Jesus name," but, well, it's Oklahoma, and we know how to do civil religion like no one else. (Apologies to Texas and South Carolina; I actually think they're the best.) The National Anthem followed, which, thanks to a wise music teacher, proceeded at a brisk pace. This would be followed by a speech from the class president and then finally sixteen speeches: 15 valedictorians and one salutatorian—worst second place finish ever!
First things first, I suppose, before getting to Jesus. Why the hell are there 15 valedictorians? And who told these kids that a valedictory address was about their accomplishments and their friends and their shout-outs and all the attendant narcissism that results when you tell 17-year olds that they're special? There were sixteen speeches today; from that list, I assure you, the representatives of Piedmont High School have three very special students out of sixteen. There were others, I'm sure, scattered throughout the class, but they didn't take "valedictorian track" classes to earn the right to masturbate their egos in front of classmates, family, friends, and the Lord on High (Jesus).
Fifteen valedictorians. The purpose of a valedictory address is to say goodbye. A representative from the class, normally chosen based on academic performance, is selected to say goodbye to the school, administration, teachers, coaches, lunch ladies, etc., and to offer a bit of encouragement going forward. The task of the commencement address is to offer wisdom, insight and encouragement, and it is normally offered by a distinguished guest. PHS apparently has confused the two, allowing sixteen different people to say goodbye and offer their own 18-year old wisdom. This is a bad idea for many reasons. Of the sixteen speeches, three students showed any wisdom at all beyond "hard work pays off," and "I wouldn't be here if it weren't for my family." Three students distinguished themselves because they understood the context, and because they have contextualized personal suffering and tragedy, thereby gaining wisdom that their classmates lack.
One young lady was painfully aware of the plight of her classmates, the ones not wearing the white robes (and isn't that ironically symbolic in a church?). Many of those students have limped to graduation. They have been victimized, abused, neglected, assaulted, bullied, ignored, and despised. Graduation is not a celebration for them; it is salvation. They are not the right kinds of kids. They did not have the same advantages as the almost uniformly anglo valedictorians (two girls were of mixed race, I believe). Hard work did not pay off for them. Their parents might not have been involved. God did not show up when He was supposed to, so this young woman told the truth; in beautifully lyric language she spoke of internal resolve, hidden pain, the fear of failure, and the conviction that what we need is within us.
Dani and I were tempted to cheer, but the room was discomforted by her words. Why didn't she, like one of her fellow valedictorians, aver that she would be "nothing without Jesus?" (Really, nothing? Like a vapor or really nothing?) She didn't shout-out to God or Jesus or any deity. She told the truth. The strength to endure high school is not found in prayer or church or gods who don't come when needed; rather, it's found in discovering deep wells of resolve, sometimes cutting or drinking or smoking or fucking or anything that makes you feel alive and important, anything that makes it possible to endure the hallways yet one more day and watch the most upside down hierarchy of all time finally come to its well-deserved end. Students crossed the stage, accompanied by a very simple judgment, the most sincere calculus of all time: applause, screeches, shouts, their name aloud and all the other noise their friends and family could make. Many crossed to polite applause, shuffling, wanting it to be over, for the longer-than-fuck stage to be shortened by half. Many were clearly superior athletes, cheerleaders, beautiful people, and the cacophony was a hymn to the beauty, arrogance, and foolishness of youth. They are on top of this weird hierarchy now, but for many of them, that all changes next week, or tomorrow.
As another young woman read an original poem about the foolishness of a system that encourages meaningless content and substandard instruction while ignoring passion and creativity, the air in the room got dense with concern. Would she go too far? The collective will was for everything to go without a hitch, to listen to the platitudes, to cheer for the particular student/child who is passing this increasingly dubious landmark. What for? She asked repeatedly. Why? Why did we do all of this? If she had it to do over again, she said, she would study less, believe the bullshit less, and really live. She is wise enough to realize that, like a trophy after a sporting event or state championship banner, many of the prizes conferred in high school (hell, life) are no prize at all, but a carrot to motivate us to conformity. How did she get so wise so fast?
There were three other students who refused to call on God. One young man lost a father. One young woman a home and possessions to an F5 in 2010. Another seemed to have no significant loss, but seemed to agree with the young man who'd lost his father: we are our own guardian angels. It was a courageous thing to do in a church, surrounded by the good Christian folk of Piedmont. I'm sure the youth pastors of the other eleven told them they'd done well, had stood up for their faith, had shown courage. The young women who'd invoked the name of Jesus took a bold stand for the Lord. Or some such bullshit. It is not an act of courage to call on Jesus in a church surrounded by Christians and affirming peers and parents. That is an act of conformity, one that upholds the status quo. It gives credit to God, while the "children of the lesser gods" nurse their scars, hide from their memories and worry over the babies growing inside them, just wishing this final act was over. One final ritual and then salvation, in a church of all places.
I left Christianity begrudgingly. I fought for every remaining tenet of the faith, strove to keep some faint object of faith alive, and ultimately succumbed to the myriad questions that traditional theism couldn't answer without resorting to tautologies, circular reasoning, or incoherent wish fulfillment. It was a difficult period, made worse by the fact that I worked in professional ministry. Many times I replayed the hose and push-up scene from An Officer and a Gentelman, wherein Lou Gosset, Jr. (Foley), demands of Richard Gere that he (Mayo) quit. Mayo continues to do push-ups while Foley wonders aloud why he doesn't quit. "I got nowhere else to go!" Mayo sputters. It was a poignant moment in the film, and I felt Mayo's confusion and fear as I faced my exit from the faith. What the fuck would I do if I didn't do ministry?
One of the last things I read that actually made an impact on me as I lost my faith was Paul Holmer's The Grammar of Faith. Holmer was a professor of theology at Yale (of course he was) and an expert on Wittgenstein, my philosophical idol. Holmer's thesis in the book was very simple: theology, rather than making us smart, ought to make us holy. It was a revolutionary concept in a grad school full of people who were painfully smart, people who ended up bruised and broken by the Church because they asked difficult questions or didn't settle for the same banal answers that passed for apologetics in church circles. My mentor, Dr. Steve Green, offered us Holmer because, I think, he thought Holmer could help heal us, and for a time, he did. But Holmer's ideas were viral in the best and worst way; the more you thought about them, the more they infected your thinking, and the more they infected your thinking, the more you applied them to church-thought like a template. How does this particular instantiation of church-thought measure up to Holmer's thesis?
Here's a random truth about me: I hurt when I see suffering. Really hurt. In most of my classes we begin the period with story time. Students are required to tell stories, but they must be about sadness or tragedy or arrests or unplanned pregnancies. I want to hear their stories about suffering because the sharing of suffering brings a class together. I'm not sure they ever figure that out, by the way. They just love story time without knowing why. One rule is no stories of animal suffering. I can't abide stories about tragedies that befall animals. This seems strange to my students, but the explanation is simple. Humans are rational creatures, and so we attempt to make sense of our suffering. Animals don't share that quality, and so their suffering, at least by my reckoning, is a moment of unredeemed pain. It's just shitty, inexplicable pain foisted on a creature that deserves better. It's why I change the channel when Sarah McLaughlin and abused pets appear. I hurt for the animals that have been wounded by people who are too stupid and barbaric to have a basic level of empathy for non-rational creatures.
If theology should make us holy, it should absolutely make us empathetic. Alas, that seems not to be the case. As Holmer says in The Grammar of Faith, "Theology is, then, an interpretation" (9). This, I'm sure, is a Barthian assessment. God revealed in Jesus is primary revelation. The testimony of the disciples is secondary revelation, including the Bible. Theology is tertiary revelation, at best. If all theology is interpretation, and it is, then theology is not "Word of God." Yeah, Barth, again. However, secondary revelation is not "Word of God," either. This is the theological problem with the discussions about same-sex marriage. Too many Christians treat a handful of verses as the "Word of God," but they understand the phrase as a description of the text, not an event, ala Barth and Tillich.
I'm not even going to discuss the Constitutional issues around which this conversation should actually be formed, as I'm almost certain there is no credible response from a non-religious perspective that could militate against gay marriage in a republic or democracy. Equal protection seems to need very little parsing, as equal is a zero-tolerance designator when it comes to rights afforded to citizens who are both of age and have legal standing.
Christianity has failed to make Christians holy, and it has clearly failed to make them empathetic. This should be a catastrophic failure of what they believe, but they have insulated themselves against reality shattering their theologies by insisting that God makes them holy by virtue of killing Jesus. No work is necessary. No attempt to understand a suffering world. No reason to reach out to "the other" with compassion. No actual laboring for a genuinely holy life. No. Only a triumphalist assertion of holiness that the recipient of grace has done nothing to earn. Indeed, this dependence is seen as a virtue. This redefinition of holiness is disastrous for those who are viewed as enemies of the tribe.
For gays and lesbians, who according to a narrow theological reading of an ancient text are "others," the redefinition of holiness allows for a subset of Christians to view them as "abominations" even as that same subset views themselves as "saved by grace," even as they work to ensure the suffering and marginalizaton of their "brothers and sisters" who are also "created in the image of God." The law, which the Apostle Paul clearly says must be accepted in totality if one is to follow it, is directed against these "others," even as the legalists, by practice if not self-definition, excuse themselves from the penalty of the law by appeals to a slaughtered Savior's death. It's a theology that is self-justifying even as it condemns the marginalized to injustice, said injustice being excused by appeals to an ancient law. The whole thing is so painfully bizarre, self-refuting, and hypocritical, that I'm befuddled that Christians don't repent of their own hypocrisy and beg their gay and lesbian neighbors for forgiveness. Instead, though, they will justify their beliefs by appeals to a holy God while they excuse themselves from the hard work of holiness.