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liberation theology

Theology

see, here is water

If you grew up going to Sunday school, you’re probably at least a little bit familiar with the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch. I’ve never been entirely sure why, but this story, which appears in Acts 8, has always been one of my favorites. I’ve always been fascinated by everything about it, especially since it reads almost like a sci-fi/fantasy story.

An angel comes and tells Philip to stand by a certain road at a certain time, and when he sees a chariot the Holy Spirit instructs him to approach it. He does, and in the following conversation converts him to Christianity and baptizes him. At that moment, Philip is transported to Azotus and continues preaching. In the Bible I used growing up, I had “beam me up, Scotty!” written in the margins. Anytime this passage was used in a sermon, I used to daydream about the Eunuch returning home (to probably somewhere in Sudan) and telling everyone about what had happened, including Queen Amanitare.

My view of this story was simplistic, shaped by the conventions of the people who first told it to me. It was a traditional missionary story, told in the same way that I heard other stories like “The God who Made my Thumbs” or the journeys of David Livingstone. We gawked at this story about Philip teaching the black man just like we gawked at pictures missionaries would bring back from Kenya or Japan. All these things reinforced stereotypes I had about “unreached people groups”– in an attempt to provoke my empathy I was taught to see non-Western nations as backwards, dirty, savage, war-torn, hungry, poverty-stricken, and in desperate need of Christian Missions (aside: please take same time to look at the #TheAfricatheMediaNeverShowsYou tag on twitter).

But, thanks to my need to re-think and re-imagine the Bible stories I’ve been imbibing since I was a child, I was struck by something interesting in this passage:

As they traveled along the road, they came to some water and the eunuch said, “Look, here is water. What can stand in the way of my being baptized?” and he gave orders to stop the chariot. Then both Philip and the eunuch went down into the water and Philip baptized him.

I’ve been thinking about this story fairly consistently ever since I first heard about the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown in Ferguson. Since that time we’ve seen more protests, more killings, more violence, a massacre, and now eight black churches that have been burned down. I remain hopeful that in the midst of all this terror and pain that Christian America will finally wrestle with the long-entrenched sins of racism and white supremacy, but in all this time I have been disappointed by a typical Christian response.

They’ve called for patience, for love, for forgiveness, for mercy.

They’ve demanded that black people silence the cries of their suffering.

They’ve said that they will not listen as long as any black person is not submissive and compliant.

And while they say that, I think of the Ethiopian Eunuch and the way he interacted with Philip. He listened to Philip’s explanation, and then he acted. He chose, for himself, what he wanted to do with this information, and then says “what can stand in the way of my being baptized?

In our church tradition, baptism has always been and will ever be about identity. When we baptize our children or our new converts, we are proclaiming to everyone that this person is one of us, that they belong. They are as much a part of us as we are a part of them, united in one catholic church.

When the Eunuch– a queer man, a black man– says “what can stand in the way of my being baptized?” he is forcing all of us to acknowledge the truth: he is one of us. He is our equal. He is as much a beloved child of God as any straight white man. He deserves the same love, grace, and compassion as any other Christian, and he claimed the right to it.

Rachel Held Evans said something about this story in Searching for Sunday that stood out to me:

At another time in his life, Philip might have pointed to the eunuch’s ethnicity, or his anatomy, or his inability to gain access to the ceremonial baths that made a person clean. But instead, with no additional conversation between the travelers, the chariot lumbered to a halt and Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find …

Philip got out of God’s way. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Nothing could prevent the eunuch from being baptized, for the mountains of obstruction had been plowed down, the rocky hills made smooth, and God had cleared a path. There was holy water everywhere. (39)

Christians are still doing what God told Peter to stop: we set up insurmountable roadblocks and maintain them with fierce hatred and misplaced loyalty. We tell black people, queer people, exactly when and exactly how we will accept them. We will not love you until you do everything I think black people should be doing. We will not listen to you until you match the completely imaginary version of Martin Luther King Jr. I have in my head. We will not bestow our sacraments upon you until you do as your are told. Deny who you are. Deny your community. Deny who you love.

But the Ethiopian Eunuch didn’t stop for any of that. He ordered the chariot to stop, he got out, and he stood by the water until Philip baptized him.

Today, it’s men getting tear gas away from the children the police had thrown it at.

Today, it’s Bree Newsome climbing a flag pole and taking down a symbol of hatred and bigotry.

Today, it’s a woman marrying her partner of 72 years.

Today, it’s Isasi-Diaz teaching that everyday struggles are a source for theology.

We need to listen to the people who are saying what can stand in our way? and finally admit that the answer is nothing.

Photo by Dennis Jarvis
Social Issues

thoughts on Charleston

If you haven’t heard about what happened in Charleston, South Carolina this past Wednesday night, here’s a brief summary:

A white man walked into a Bible study at Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church– which is one of the oldest black congregations in the country and is an icon of the Abolitionist and Civil Rights movements– and sat in the service for an hour before shooting and killing nine black people, mostly women, while saying “I have to do it. You rape our women and are taking over our country and you have to go.” This white man has confessed to the terrorist attack and told the police that he “wanted to start a race war.”

There are no ifs ands or buts about this. This was a terrorist attack motivated by white supremacy. This white man did not do this because he was “troubled,” or a “disturbed,” or “mentally ill.” He did it because he is racist. He wanted to make it very clear to all of us that he believes he has the right to kill black men and women because they are black, and he is white.

As this woman of color put it (talking about the Santa Barbara mass shooting):

Unlike real mental illness, white male entitlement is a choice. It is the choice to see oneself as better than, the choice to see others as less than and deserving of violence, the choice to believe that one has the right to punish women/people of color/queer folk for daring to exist outside of servitude. White male entitlement is a learned cultural behavior that is the logical extreme of the systems of oppression at work in US society. So this gunman is not crazy, it is not crazy to believe things you have been told your whole life. 

White people in America are all racist. All of us. Most of us will never walk into an AME church and murder black people, but there are slivers of racism embedded so deeply into our identities as white people that rooting them out is the work of a lifetime. All the unconscious things we believe about race add up to a worldview that condones this terrorist attack, that tells people like this shooter that other people– everyone like him, really– implicitly agrees with what he did.

One of the things that can help challenge our white supremacy is to listen to what black people have to say, so I am asking you to read the following articles and listen to them. Grapple with it. Let their words change you. Also, please don’t just read these few articles– start paying attention to the bylines of the articles you read, and seek things written by people who aren’t white, straight, and male.

What I Need you to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston” by Osheta Moore.

“The pain we’re feeling right now is akin to the loss of a child because whenever black lives are treated as worthless, whenever our story is marked yet again with violence, whenever we’re forced to remember the brutality our grandparents endured when they stood for freedom and dignity- it feels like Dr. King’s dream is a hope deferred and our hearts are sickened.  As a white person, you may have heard Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech and thought, “yes, that’s a nice sentiment.” That “nice sentiment” is a defining dream for the African- American community.  We don’t want to be angry anymore.  We’re tired of being afraid.  We’re tired of these headlines.  We want to have peace.  We dream of unity too.”

The Only Logical Conclusion” by Austin Channing

“The level of terror that black people feel in America at this moment cannot be underestimated. Because when the driving force of such a massacre is the very thing imbedded in the roots of America, thriving on the branches of generation after generation, sitting in the pews unchallenged every Sunday morning in white churches- there is no reason why black Americans should feel safe.

The sin of white supremacy is thriving in this country because white Christians refuse to name it and uproot it, refuse to confess it and dismantle it, refuse to acknowledge it and repent of it, refuse to say the words

“Its in my family”

“Its in my church”

“Its in my soul.”

The Charleston shooter killed mostly black women. This wasn’t about rape” By Rebecca Carroll

“The shooter allegedly used the salvation of white women’s bodies as a motivation for his acts, an old trope that was once used to justify the lynching of black men and the denial of rights to all black people. The idea that white women’s bodies represent that which is inviolable while black women’s are disposable hasn’t changed enough since it was first articulated by white men; but again, aimed at black men on Wednesday night, it was predominately black women who suffered by their invocation.”

I am also asking you to read the following two books as soon as you possibly can. I believe that every white Christian should read these books.

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone

Please listen to these voices and learn from them.

Photo by Spencer Means
Theology

God on the sidelines

I’ve been wrestling with a few significant theological issues over the past few months, and while I’m getting closer to making up my mind on some, a lot of these ideas are the biggies– sin, Atonement, the problem of evil, the role of prayer, of Scripture … but the question I’ve been struggling the most with has been what does God do?

I’m honestly not even sure how to fully articulate this question it’s so big. I’m trying to figure out what God’s role in history has been, and what actions has he taken, does he take, will he take? Am I actually a deist? Do I believe that God has a strict non-interference policy/Prime Directive? Or is he much more active than that– determining who gets into accidents, who is cured of cancer, who finds their missing socks? Is it something more moderated than either of those? Has he stepped into linear history at specific important moments, but most of the time leaves well enough alone?

There’s so much that goes into this question, like Sovereignty vs. free will, the problem of evil, and the question that open theism poses; as I’ve been searching for an answer I’ve gone to so many different sources trying to piecemeal something together that makes consistent sense with logic, with history, with empathy, with other theological concepts.

As I’ve been looking, I’ve sort of stumbled into a metaphor that is working for me. I don’t know how well it will hold up, but for the moment I’m liking it.

God is a football coach.

I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with it, but I’ve never heard someone make this comparison so I’m going with it. I think it works at least somewhat well because it fits into other patterns I’ve noticed, both in the Bible and in my personal life.

A little while ago I wrote about Moses and liberation theology, and that’s actually what started this whole train of thought:

It seems that people like Moses, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Rosa Parks, are necessary, that it takes regular, every day, run-of-the-mill humans to stand up and say “No More.” I’m not sure what it says about God, but I like what it says about people, about you and me.

Then, a few weeks ago, during small group we talked about C.S. Lewis’ concept in Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, that when Jesus taught his disciples to pray he was encouraging them to take action, that they weren’t supposed to just say the words “let thy will be done,” but to be the ones responsible for doing it. That was the night I came up with this metaphor– I sort of stumbled into it, actually, the words falling out of my mouth without me fully realizing everything I meant.

I firmly believe that the very foundation of being a Christian is love one another, and I believe that it is completely and totally impossible to love while passively existing in (or actively reenforcing) a white-supremacist bigoted patriarchal society that is almost totally ruled by greed for money and power. My partner is reading Exclusion and Embrace (I’m reading it next), and every once in a while he reads something out loud that he finds particularly insightful:

Even more than just encouraging inaction, neutrality is positively harmful. For one, it gives tacit support to the stronger party, independently of whether that party is right or wrong. Second, neutrality shields the perpetrators and frees their hands precisely by the failure to name them as perpetrators. (219)

As a Christian, it is my sacred duty to be a part of what Jesus came here to do: to liberate the oppressed, to set the captive free. If I do not combat the way I’ve internalized oppressive narratives, then I am failing to do that. When I look at not just Jesus but the whole Bible, what I consistently see is a deity who sides with the oppressed, the victim, the outcast. She cares for the powerless, for those who have been abused.

I feel that the God who interacted with Israel, the deity who became flesh in Jesus, the Spirit who guides all of us (and since I’m a universalist, I do mean all) has shown us how important it is not to just swing our arms wide open to everyone but to critically be aware of our culture and how it actively destroys people. I feel that was Jesus’ primary goal while he was with us– that’s why he spent so much time saying things like “You have heard it said (referencing The Bible, for those conservative Christians who seemed to have missed that), but I say to you ____.” And whatever follows that opener usually has something to do with non-violence, or love, or subverting power structures.

In a way, Jesus and God and the Spirit have been our coach, and now we’re the running backs and the tight ends and the centers. They have taught us how to love, shown us that our primary concern should be the widow and the orphan and the victim, and now they sent us out onto the field to be the ones to do it.

One of the better-known arguments surrounding the problem of evil is that God can’t override our free will, that to take our free will away from us would be more monstrous than any of the world’s darkness– and I still agree with that, at least partly. This “football coach” metaphor makes that argument work for me, though, because it takes the idea God gave us free will and puts boots on it.

God is encouraging us from the sidelines, reminding us of who we are, what our responsibilities are, and what our capabilities are. But they can’t come out onto the field and do it for us.

I haven’t fully worked all of this out– surprisingly, this has some pretty significant ramifications for what I could believe about eschatology (do I believe in any “Second Coming”? Do I believe in a physical and massive redemption/re-creation of the universe at some point in the future?) and it definitely leans toward the Moral Influence theory of Atonement, but, for now, this is an idea that’s brought me some comfort.

Photo by Chris Brooks
Feminism, Social Issues

liberation theology, Moses, and us

prince of egypt

So, in preparation of launching my YouTube channel, I created a Tumblr. I had never gotten into Tumblr before, and I regret not finding out about how awesome it is sooner. Like Twitter, it’s the social media that you make of it, but once you’ve found a few good people, it sort of balloons into a parade of wonderfulness. I saw an amazing gifset from The Prince of Egypt featuring Tzipporah, so one night when I was up with insomnia I watched it– and liked it. A lot. It was nice finally seeing a biblical story without any white people in it (Noah, I’m looking at you).

Watching The Prince of Egypt was the first time I’d really thought about Moses and The Exodus since I’ve started looking into Liberation Theology, and one of the things that stood out to me this time was what Moses had to overcome in order to become the man that could lead the Jews.

He had to overcome his classism.

This is something the book of Exodus actually seems to emphasize as part of Moses’ story, although I have never heard a message taught from this perspective. Moses was a child of mind-boggling privilege– fantastically wealthy, raised as the grandson of a god, and educated in one of the most advanced civilizations of the time. Exodus 2 doesn’t say how or when Moses discovered that he was not actually an Egyptian– only that Pharaoh’s daughter raised him as her own son, but sometime before the events of verse 11 it seems that he knows.

What the story does illustrate in two different ways is how Moses overcame his privilege. He probably could have remained in the palace indefinitely, embracing a system that justified brutality against those deemed lesser, but he didn’t. He committed an act of violence in defense of a victim. He does the same thing, again, when he sees his future wife being driven away from the well by a group of shepherds.

He could have ignored the oppression happening right in front of his face when he saw a supervisor beating a slave. He could have thought this is the way things are supposed to be, or if I get involved, I could lose everything, but he didn’t.

He could have thought it was right for the shepherds to take what they wanted, to use their strength and status to drive women and girls away from water. He could have thought I am only one man, what can I do? But he didn’t.

I don’t want to read too much into Moses– the text does not speculate as to his state of mind, or to his motivations. But, it is entirely human to go along with the power systems that benefit you without questioning them. The status quo is maintained not because there’s a group of conspirators actively making sure classism, racism, and sexism remain systemic and institutionalized, but through sheer force of numbers the people who accept “the way things are” keep these kyriarchal power structures in place. It would have benefited Moses to play along. He could have remained in luxury and privilege, but he didn’t. He chose to recognize suffering of those the culture he was raised in had collectively decided “deserved” to be slaves, and do something about it.

That’s also what the Bible says God responds to.

The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. God heard their groaning and he remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and with Jacob. So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them.

I’m not sure why it took God so long to do something. He didn’t act when Pharaoh ordered all of the firstborn Jewish boys slaughtered. He didn’t act for however long they were enslaved until he sends Moses to liberate them, and that … bothers me. I wish there was some explanation for why then, why not before, what changed, but the Bible doesn’t give us any.

But it makes me wonder– Americans enslaved Africans for centuries before we decided to go to war over it. Segregation and Jim Crow went on until a woman sat on a bus and four boys sat at a lunch counter and a black preacher said “I have a Dream.” It took a woman sitting down and writing Le Livre de la Cité des Dames (The Book of the City of Ladies) to point out the inequality between the sexes, and another six centuries before women could vote, own property, and legally divorce abusive husbands (this is an oversimplification for brevity).

It seems that people like Moses, and Mary Wollstonecraft, and Rosa Parks, are necessary, that it takes regular, every day, run-of-the-mill humans to stand up and say “No More.” I’m not sure what it says about God, but I like what it says about people, about you and me.

I just finished reading Robert Reich’s Beyond Outrage (which became the documentary Inequality for All), and he makes an interesting observation in the book– that the class of political activists he calls “regressives” (conservative Republicans) are advocating for economic Darwinism– a political and economic justification of classism, essentially. Rich people are rich because they worked hard and therefore deserve to be rich; poor people are poor because they are lazy or inept and therefore deserve no help from society or government. It’s a  “meritocracy” and “boot-strapping” and “rags to riches” that, frankly, doesn’t exist (in the case of meritocracy) and isn’t possible for most people.

And it’s going to take us– all of us– standing together and saying “No More.” What’s wonderful about the story of Moses is that it shows us what it takes, and what we have to lose, and that we’ll need patience and perseverance– but it also shows us everything we have to gain if we “go out to where our own people are.”

 

(update on Elsa: she seems to be doing ok at the moment. She ate and drank regularly yesterday, and she hasn’t vomited — at least, not yet. I played with her for a while today and she was her enthusiastic self, but when I picked her up she meowed like it hurt her, and she’s currently curled up in the corner behind a chair. That’s not all that unusual, but one of the possible symptoms is “hiding” for long periods of time. She’s yet to have a bowel movement since she ate the string, but I’m trying to remain hopeful. Thank you for all your encouragement yesterday– this is starting to exacerbate my pretty constant low-level anxiety, and hearing from you helped.)

Theology

things you should say to a recovering fundamentalist

listening

If you look at the top of this page, you’ll see a single line: “an ongoing journey in overcoming a fundamentalist indoctrination.” That is still a good summation of why I write here, why I write for you all. Because of that, I spend a lot of time critiquing. Criticizing. Rage-stomping. I do everything within my power to stand up for the oppressed, the abused, the silenced. However, although these are some of the reasons why I write, they’re not the only reasons why I write. I do my best to bring a more positive perspective when I can. Anger is healthy, and productive– there’s absolutely nothing wrong with being angry at the way things are some times. However, anger can’t be the end-all, be-all, or I’m going to burn myself out.

So that is what today is about. I got amazing comments yesterday— many of you left behind things you’ve heard that were infuriating, or heartbreaking. Some made me laugh and shake my head, others made me want to throw things. And that, my friends, is good for all of us.

However, there’s something that comes next. What are the things that we desperately want to hear from our friends and our family instead? We get a lot of flack, no matter where we stand as ex-fundamentalists. So, what are some things you’ve always wished people would actually say?

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For me, it starts here:

”                                             .”
sincerely, everyone

That’s where it absolutely must begin, and I think most (if not all) of you would agree with me. It starts with quietness. It starts with listening. Most ex-fundamentalists have spent a lifetime–or most of it– being silenced. Being told to lock away and hide all of our feelings, all the rage at the wrongness of it all, everything. We were told, over and over again, nearly by everyone we knew, that the only option for us was our silence.

And, for many of us, when we finally did start talking, we were told, again, that we should really just remain quiet for all the reasons we talked about yesterday. One reader commented that most of the 15 things from yesterday were really just variations of “shut up,” and he was right. Being told to stay quiet–however I’m told– really makes me want to scream. What I need from you, if you care about me, is to listen. Really listen. It’s more than just hearing my words while simultaneously coming up with all the possible things you could say as either affirmation or rebuttal. At first, I don’t think I need you to say anything. Make me a cup of tea. Offer me a hug. Cuddle with me in a fuzzy blanket. Look me in my eyes. Cry with me. Do everything you can to understand that what I’m coming out of was deeply horrific. It’s left me with serious triggers. It’s left me with scars so bad that sometimes it takes everything I have not to run out of a church auditorium to go vomit.

I’m not making shit up. I’m not crazy. I’m not exaggerating.

And what I really need is for you to believe me.

Believe me when I say that I believe in Jesus– but I have trouble sometimes believing in God. Believe me when I say that I’m desperately searching for answers, but that I have no idea where they’ll take me. And this darkness, the shadows, the not-knowing, the gray, the uncertainty– it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard. It makes me curl up on my bed and weep, sometimes. I’m working through things– and I need to you enter this space with me. To leave your confidence, your unflappability, at the door, and ask the same questions. Maybe you’ll get to a different answer– and that’s ok. But the questions– the quest— is what matters.

“What things could I be looking for in my own church?”

Dear mother in heaven if there’s a question I want asked, it’s this one. Because I’ve been in a lot of churches since I’ve left my fundamentalist one behind, and if there’s one thing that’s been consistent everywhere I’ve gone, it’s that all churches have something about them that could “grow,” in Christian parlance. Maybe it’s no big deal. Maybe it’s a big, big deal. And you don’t have to mimic me– you don’t have to adopt all of my concerns, worries, the things I’m wary or suspicious of. Yesterday, I was talking to a friend and he sent me the doctrinal statement of the church he attends– and they affirm the stance of The Gospel Coalition (of #gagreflex fame, most recently). Which, personally, frightens me. I wouldn’t go anywhere near that church because of it. But, he’s comfortable there, and that’s ok. One of my best, most wonderful friends is much more conservative than I am on pretty much every measurable spectrum, but we love each other because of those differences.

I’m not asking you to be my clone. I’m asking you to take my concerns seriously.

Not every single last church is a hotbed for abusive activity or fundamentalist approaches to faith. But the attitude of “that doesn’t happen at my church“– it’s so common, and you could be wrong. It very well could be happening at your church. And, a lot of the time, it’s not glaringly obvious if it’s there. It could start out as something really small– something so insignificant a lot of people wouldn’t even bother commenting. But then . . . slowly . . . over time . . . it could get worse. The only way to make sure it doesn’t happen at your church is to be aware of what could happen if “good men do nothing.”

“Do you think there are some things in this theology that are harmful?”

This, heads up, will probably not be an easy conversation to have, but it’s a necessary one if the Church universal is going to have any chance of moving forward. My approach to theology is heavily influenced by my background in literary theory. Critical theories are essentially frameworks, ways of approaching and interacting with a text. You can do a Marxist reading of Oliver Twist, analyzing the power struggles and the class warfare in Dickens’ material. Or, you could do a feminist reading of Little Women— how did the patriarchal culture of Alcott’s time influence how she constructed her characters– was a feminist struggle the reason why she gave the principle romantic interest a feminine name? Why is the father absent?

I think there’s similarities between literary theory and systematic theologies. For a simplified example, a Reformed/Calvinist theology searches for God’s sovereignty in the text of the Bible. Because of my training, I’m capable of switching theological “caps”– I can think inside of the different frameworks with help from scholars and commentaries. And something I’ve learned through all of this is that all critical theories– literary or theological– have flaws. There are weaknesses in every argument; that doesn’t automatically make the argument wrong, but the point should be not to eliminate weaknesses but acknowledge the fact that they exist. This week is a syncroblog for queer theology (hint: check it out, it’s awesome)– and there’s other theologies, too. There’s feminist theology. And liberation theology. And all of them– even the neo-Reformed perspective, which makes me itch– have something to offer. Theology, like most things, isn’t a monolith. There isn’t one Supreme, Correct Theory of Everything about God.

And, being willing to admit that there are some things about your average evangelical/Protestant theology that can be incredibly harmful is a really good first step.

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Now I’m turning it over to you. What are some things you’d like to hear?