The [Real] Enemy of the [Nostalgic] State

I happened across the news today on a channel whose name escapes me now. I was on the stationary bike today, and because the gym now is a convenient extension of mass media consumption, I had no choice: I could only stare at my sweat for so long.

For a good while, the headline was on Otto Warmbier, the American student who allegedly contracted botulism while serving 15 months hard labor in North Korea, who died today after being returned to the States in a coma. It is an absolute tragedy; the family is grieving the loss of their son amidst the inconsolable anguish that comes with the need for answers, justice, compensation, and healing–and also revenge. The headline, however, was not focused on the family’s grief and condition, but rather on 45’s comments on the tragedy.

As I was taking in a multitude of distractions and unenthusiastic and uninspiring pontification, my mind turned to the tragedies of the Philandro Castile saga, Nabra Hassanen, and Helen Harrion. These are the names which were readily summoned because they’re the ones I’ve engaged most recently, and what I pondered was the contrast between 45’s [lack of] interest in the aforementioned tragedies and that of our dear brother Otto Warmbier. (Let it be said, this is not a comparison of tragedies, as though one is more important or has more cash/social/ethical value than the other.)

Much of social media (in my case, Twitter) has been buzzing with the disparity between 45’s duplicity and apparent preferential treatment for some tragedies over others, and it hit me as I was on le bike stationarie: 45 is subtly advancing his “Make America Great Again” narrative by consistently showing remorse for American losses that occur at the hands of other nation-states. The narrative of this brand of nostalgia politics is that the real threat to the Union is external; the real threat is “them” on an international level. 45 has no need to engage the union within because his followers do that for him because they believe in him because he is fighting for their America.

This brand of nostalgia points to one of the basic priorities of the nation-state, and that is its own survival. And it is compelling; it’s a cause worth grinding it out for. 45 need only believe it–and continue to do so. His tenacity and endurance only confirm for his constituents that he really believes what he says and that it must be a worthy cause. In order to understand how to engage this kind of discourse, the run-of-the-mill pointing out inconsistencies won’t be enough–he doesn’t have to make sense. He doesn’t need people of color in his photo ops. He can keep his nonsense to 140 characters all day long. He knows that; his people know that; now it’s just a matter of taking the hits until the bell sounds to end the round–in 2020. Because that’s what’s bound to happen: if it isn’t recognized, acknowledged, and strategized for, 2020 will roll around and the question will be, “How did he make it four years? Surely he can’t go another four, right?”


Dark Side of Christianity

There is only one side: the cross!

It is customary to warn believers, new and old, of the “dark side” of discipleship, namely, suffering. Whether it presents itself in persecution and the threat of one’s life for the sake of Christ; intolerance for one’s religious views and their public manifestations; exclusion from the public square–whatever one’s impending struggle is, at least here in America where I’ve lived in my formative years, that struggle is categorized as “the dark side.” But is it?

Jesus says in the gospels to “carry your cross daily. The one who does not do so cannot be my disciple.” For Christ, there was only the cross. That is discipleship. But it is not understood in the modern binary of good and bad–it simply is what it says it is. (It’s interesting the kind of warning label that some evangelical Christians put on discipleship as a cautionary tale, and yet, for example, marriage deserves just as much of a warning label [judging by the rising popularity in divorce], and yet the latter is like an amusement park that everyone is chomping at the bit to enter into–despite the ever-present challenges, difficulties, struggles, disappointments, and pain. Why is it easier to see past all of that for marriage but not for discipleship? Is it because we can’t have sex with each other as disciples?)

To suggest that there is a dark side of discipleship that we should be wary of is to implicitly put forth a prosperity theology whose premise is: shy away as far away as possible from pain, discomfort, and anything that would hinder the individual from “realizing” their dreams. It is true, however, that Jesus also said, “count the cost.” He offers Neo the red pill or the blue pill, but before he puts his hands forward for the young catechumen to choose, he reminds him, “Ain’t no turning back, son! Choose wisely! If you want to follow me, there is only one way, and that is the path which I myself take. There is nothing else.”

This is not a pessimistic or cynical assertion, though. Jesus was “anointed with the oil of joy more than his companions.” The life lived for Christ is one which is filled with incredible joy; with unsurpassed peace and fellowship with God and with other people. As Bonhoeffer says at one point: “The ethical basic-relations that were severed in the corpus peccati [body of sin] (Bernard) are renewed by the Holy Spirit…I and You face each other no longer essentially in a demanding, but in a giving way, revealing their hearts that have been conquered by God’s will” (DBWE 1:189). This means that, in Christ, we are dead to sin, and can discover anew our relation to God and to each other in love, not in sin, through the Holy Spirit’s power. That is a life worth living. A life whose success, vibrancy and tenacity are in God’s hands.

That is discipleship. To follow Jesus into life, into freedom, by way of the cross. There is no dark side. There is only the cross!

Dear America, What Must I Do To Be Saved?

[From Facebook: May 3, 2017]

Mike Brown was a monster, Tamir Rice was an adult. It appears that black males transfigure into men at the age of 12, so I ask, what must black men (ages 12-112) in America do to come home alive? What tv shows should I watch? I’ll do it. How much education do I need? I’ll do it. Which religion should I believe, which god should I serve? I’ll do it. What job should I have? I’ll do it. What accent should I use? I’ll do it. What clothes should I wear? I’ll do it. Who should I vote for? I’ll do it. Who should I love? I’ll do it. Who should I hate? I’ll do it. Someone please tell me what to do, for my sake, for the sake of my students, and my future children.

Short Reflections on 13 Reasons Why

[Adapted from my facebook page]

I’ve had some time to process through <<13 Reasons Why>> and find myself unable to recommend it to anyone, and also find myself conflicted for a number of reasons (3.5 critical, 0.5 appraisal):
1. I resonate with the high school lebenswelt that was portrayed, because it reminded me of my suburban high school days–obviously without the unashamedly stereotypical characters. There is a fair amount of development in the characters, however, sandwiched between the flat protagonist Clay and antagonist Bryce. For me, it was interesting to note the ways I identified with multiple characters’ behavior, good and bad.
2. Suicide is a real issue for many people, many of whom we are unaware. Some have experiences that can be triggered by the slightest of suggestions, and for that reason I found the show uncomfortably explicit in depicting the kinds of struggles that a person who is/may be suicidal goes through. The real problem here is that it attempts at an “open conversation” mode for a reality which has yet to receive healing. There’s a scene where a girl is giving a testimony and the interrogator presses her on a question which pries deeper than is necessary, and another character warns, “Don’t force her if she doesn’t want to.” This show potentially forces those who “don’t/may not want to,” and does so too soon.
3. The same goes for the explicit date-rape (and rape culture in general) presentation. At certain points in the series I would ask myself, “These people are supposed to be in high school–why do the producers feel the need to show _____?” There are many points that can be made without having to subject the viewer to certain acts, and even more so if the characters are purportedly underage. The assumption that it is worth making explicit that which can be intuited is one of the causes of desensitization.
4. One of the major themes in visual arts is the vigilante youth whose sense of justice/love/etc is so profound that it precludes the experience and wisdom of adults. The children are the ones who are teaching the adults a lesson, and it is the adults’ job to catch up. (Basically the premise of 90% of animated movies today) In the show, Hannah Baker’s “13 Reasons” in the hands of sophomore Clay Jensen drive the narrative (rightly so) and hold everyone accountable (dubious). In the end, Clay, at the end of his quest for his own justice, is enlightened–but has been motivated by survivor’s guilt, and forces his super-human sense of responsibility on students and adults alike. This is wrong in many ways, but in this case, the question is: how mature is a sophomore in high school, really, to have such an acute sense and perception of justice and insight into the way of the world, that he/she can go about it without the aid of “those who have gone before” them?
4.5. Lastly, the parenting examples are stereotypically flat, but within that framework are sweet moments of genuine concern and wisdom that are completely undervalued because, frankly, they have no value in the show. There is one moment where Clay’s mom says to him, “I can’t help you if you don’t tell me what’s wrong.” A genuine moment of concern and invitation to relationship–but it’s shot down by Clay sentimentally shutting the door on his mom, because, ultimately, he knows best. Any meaningful action taken by parents is stifled by their lack of tenacity and uneasiness with being all in their children’s business (which is the point of being a parent, no?).
There is a long road to get to the point where a show like this can be received, but there has to be healing, justice, and love in order to get there. The healing doesn’t come by showing a high schooler’s death; justice doesn’t come by showing a high schooler being raped; and love isn’t learned without the help of adults–parents, teachers, mentors, pastors, grandparents, uncles, aunts, etc. And ultimately, it is not all up to us. Hannah Baker on her last day says, “Some of you cared, none of you cared enough.” The reality is that we will always never care enough, because we will constantly let ourselves and others down. But there is grace for us there, and the giver of grace is there to fill in where we fall short to overflowing. Not only so, but even where we meet one another’s needs, he is there, too, enriching our relationships and giving us a sense of what it is to be truly human. To be human is allow God to help us along the way, and guide us, teach us, love us, save us, and bring us back to him. He always cares enough.

The Jacob Syndrome

Jacob’s overnight encounter with the angel is one of the most dramatic and interesting episodes in the Old Testament for me. The Genesis trickster throws down in what must have been a memorable effort until the angel merely “touched the socket of Jacob’s hip” and ended the bout in underwhelming fashion. Jacob, impaired, will not be left empty-handed: “I will not let go unless you bless me.” He receives the name Israel, a fitting end to a long night.

Jacob is a new man: Israel. A name can be, in many ways, a prophetic forth-telling of an individual’s future, bestowed upon them by their parents. Israel is an interesting name if only for the fact that Jacob was not what you’d call “a changed man” when he “struggled with God and with people and have overcome.” It does, however, point to the fact that God works in the world in ways that we don’t expect.

The way that God dealt with Jacob–blessing him amidst his tumultuous traversing the desert, not overlooking his faults but dispensing his grace to him in spite of his faults–is the same way he deals with us. In fact, the way he cares for Israel is the same way he cares for us, the way a Father cares for his children whom he knows by (a new!) name. “At just the right time, while we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly” (read: those who were in opposition to God’s will, i.e. in sin); that is, while we were still “Jacob,” Christ comes and declares, “you are no longer Jacob, you are a new creation. Behold! I make all things new.”

We are conditioned in our guilt/consequence society to look first and only for the Jacob in others while flaunting and assuming other (only) see the Israel we think we are.

But there is a caveat: in the Genesis narrative after chapter 32, in different instances, Israel is referred to by his old name, Jacob. This can be read in different ways through different critical apparatuses; I am edified by the reading that Israel retains his old self after his christening. For us, even in light of the work the Father is doing in us through the Spirit, that old Jacob remains an active reality. It disposes us to also only notice the Jacob syndrome in others, too, so that not only do we wrestle with Jacob, but we more often see Jacob in others than not, but wish for others to see Israel in us. We define ourselves by who we are being made into, and others by who they are being freed from.

In chapter 33 when he meets his older brother from whom he stole the birthright, he is apprehensive because he knows that other people don’t forget “Jacob.”

When Israel met Esau, he sent caravan after caravan ahead of him in order to appease whatever animosity remained in Esau’s heart from the past. Esau, however, asks his brother, “What is all this? Why did you do this?” And Jacob replies saying that he did it “to find favor in [his] eyes,” to which Esau says essentially, “I got mine, keep yours.” The past was the past, water under the bridge–Esau treated Israel with grace, not the way Israel expected, which was to pay an eye for an eye.

The Jacob syndrome is not our name, and does not define who we are in the eyes of God, nor should it define who we are in one another’s eyes. May our response to one another be this way: to encounter and bear with who we are being freed from, and speak truth and love to one another, in word and deed. In other words, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples if you love one another.” 

Briefly, On Terence Crutcher’s Murder and Our Storied Lives

[excerpted from a status update on my Facebook profile, Monday, September 19, 2016]

“The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the pavement.” Gen 4:10

“Mourn with those who mourn.” Rom 12:15

We are narrative creatures. We resonate most strongly with stories. The facts we receive and deliberate about fit into a space–or spaces–in the story/stories which resonate the strongest with us. When I hear about a black man being gunned down by the police, I respond in ways that are responsible to the stories that I resonate with, as well as those which I have heard that resonate with others whom I love, and also those that resonate with the people associated with the people I know and those that I love.

I know the story of black people in America. I have read and studied it, but most importantly, it has been told to me by others. In their voices, I’ve heard anger, pain, frustration, displacement–but I’ve also heard laughter, strength and resilience, a righteous self-love-and determination, and hope. I respond with anger and frustration at the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police officers because the story of a people has become my story. I am in their story now.

I also know and have studied the story of Anglo Americans. I have read and studied it, but most importantly, it has been told to me by others. I have heard pride and a sense of appreciation for their storied past, a family pride for their accomplishments throughout history, a deep creativity and work ethic–but also an anxiety, a sense of loss of identity, defensiveness, a feeling of being attacked, and disenfanchisement. When I hear the call to protect police officers’ lives, to advocate for the good cops, I understand where these sentiments come from, because I live in this story as well. What I have learned is that to know, be a part of, and understand both stories is not mutually exclusive, that to empathize with one is not to exclude/deride the other. Each story enhances my (in the words of a resident of mine) eternal perspective. It is from being a part of each story that I can empathize.

Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by the police in Tulsa, OK, on Friday evening. I have waited to respond because I wanted to weigh my words carefully. Gen 4:10 comes to mind as I think about the story of black people in America particularly, and the chapter and page number in which this brother’s life came to an end. It is a long, painful story of loss, but also a story of rugged and sweet faith. Despite their resilience, their struggle today is still a deep one; Crutcher’s life continues an index of names that have been snatched away by white supremacy, stillborn in a world of anti-blackness, de/sub-humanization, and death. When I see his death, I recall the pages in the story which I have read and heard, I remember the faces writhing at the loss of a loved one. In this way, Rom 12:15 resounds: “mourn with those who mourn.”

At a time such as this, those who follow Christ must mourn with those who mourn.

We, however, have been taught, and are being taught not to mourn, but to be “sicut Deus,” “like God.” To be “infallible,” “impassible”–come what may, we will not be moved, not by life or by death. In this way, however, we are not like God, but are like Cain. God was numbered among the transgressors, sat in the house of sinners, is a shepherd to his sheep who wander without guidance and instruction, crowned with the oil of joy. Jesus Christ came to show us how to be human: “Jesus wept.” What does it mean to mourn? To weep? It means to enter into a story, to be a part of a people, starting on the outskirts, on the margins, and being humble and teachable, patiently waiting to enter closer and closer to the middle. What does it mean to mourn? To weep? It means to love the people who Jesus loves. The people who Jesus loved caused people to ask, “Why do you eat with sinners?” Why do you eat with people who support Black Lives Matter? Why do you eat with Blue Lives Matter folk? Why do you eat with Trump supporters? Why do you eat with Hillary people? Or with NRA ideologues? Or Racists? Or Liberals? Or Fundamentalists? Or LGBTQ? Why, Lord, do you sit with them?

Let us remember that Jesus also sits with us, and many wonder why. But neither death nor life, the present or the future, neither Black Lives Matter nor Donald Trump, neither white supremacy nor patriarchy, nor any power, principality, ideology, can separate us or the people that are not in the “us” from Christ’s love. What does it mean to mourn with Terence Crutcher’s family? To weep with them? It means to love the people who Jesus loves. What does it mean to pray for the officer(s) who shot Terence? To place vengeance in God’s hands? It means to love the people who Jesus loves.

A Short Reflection: Christian Love – There is No Exceptional

[Extracted from my Facebook profile, posted: 07/28/2016]

I saw a sermon excerpt that was on race, with a caption below that went to the effect: “yea, we went there.” And I thought to myself, why is it that the most violent and aggressive injustice to human bodies is an exceptional topic in gospel preaching? Why is it the exception to the rule to speak prophetically against injustice? Further, why does speaking about the subject cause one to feel exceptional? It’s 2016, allegedly the dawning of the post-racial era. If that is the case, if it truly is a post-racial society we live in, race should be an old demon subdued and destroyed, making it a toothless oppressor that can be cast down effortlessly in gospel (i.e. Christ)-centered preaching. But that is not the case.

My mind transported me to the Charleston tragedy in a new way as I reflected on this state of affairs. The Charleston 9 and Emanuel AME Church are forever hallowed in church history for their supernatural, extraordinary witness to the essence of the Christian life, whose testimony is prophetically speaks to the current normative standard of life together. The Charleston 9 welcomed a stranger into their midst, into their most cherished inner sanctum–for who shall the Church of Christ turn away? Mother Emanuel displayed the audacity and sheer foolishness of Christian love by forgiving that young boy (and the world which created him) who snatched away their precious loved ones, gaining absolutely nothing for their granting forgiveness–except strange looks, criticism, and eternal life. These beautiful black sons and daughters of the King of Glory who have had to mourn in the public eye; weep while the cameras flash; take the first step in granting forgiveness to a murderer, a thief–they have proclaimed to Christian churches a prophetic witness to the normal Christian life. In America, to welcome the stranger (the black man, the gay couple, the poor white woman, the privileged son of a millionaire, the promiscuous man or woman, the politician, the police officer, the hustler) into our most sacred, safest spaces (churches, homes, countries); to love our neighbor (the black man, the gay couple, the poor white woman, the privileged son of a millionaire, the promiscuous man or woman, the politician, the police officer, the hustler); to forgive our enemies (the black man, the gay couple, the poor white woman, the privileged son of a millionaire, the promiscuous man or woman, the politician, the police officer, the hustler); to accept one another (the black man, the gay couple, the poor white woman, the privileged son of a millionaire, the promiscuous man or woman, the politician, the police officer, the hustler), just as Christ did, to the glory of God (Rom 15:7)–this is the normal Christian life. This is the simple command; this is the impossible command. But God…

“I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high…the world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you. I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you…But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.”