Wednesday, October 5, 2016

On Winning and Losing, Politics and Religion

There's a sort of running joke among colleagues in the field of religion that goes something like "as someone who studies religion, politics, and economic discourse, I am incapable of polite conversation."

This being said, I think it's time to take a deep breath and calm down a bit.

There was a vice presidential debate last night.

Before, during, and after the event, American newscasters and social media posts were clamoring to know/claim that one or the other had won the debate.  Afterwards, I offered the following assessment:

Across three social media platforms (facebook, twitter, and instagram) these comments have received 9 likes/hearts so I am *literally* lighting the internet world ablaze with my brilliance.

The post, though, gets at the idea that we are asking the wrong questions (every time I say this, Abbey says some variation of "that's all you ever say"...which is probably true). We ask the wrong questions because we all make assumptions of common ground.

Notice the "we" there - did you feel included or do you feel the urge to push back and wonder which group I'm including myself in? Maybe I'm trying to be relatable, including myself in your group so that we can come to a common conclusion.

So who won the debate?  Some say Kaine, some say Pence, some say this doesn't change anything because we all know who we were voting for.  Our assumptions were set (there I go with all that second person plural again, pay attention to that). But this is where I think the field of religion may be able to help us, assuming we are still relaxed from the deep breath we took at the beginning of this post many small, choppy paragraphs ago. Religionists specialize in examining, questioning, and critiquing ambiguity, assumptions and naturalized contingencies.

"Winning" is an ambiguous word when nobody is keeping score or elucidating rules. However, like the term "religion", we assume to know what it means (there is a definition we take as natural, obvious, or common-sense) until we are questioned a bit on what we assume and why it may matter.

Did Pence win the debate because he acted more in accordance with assumptions about how debates ought to function? Did Kaine win because he successfully achieved his campaign's own goals for the debate? Did we all win because we now have a firmer grasp on the most viable future for our country and a clear way forward?

How are we measuring winning or losing in this instance? Or should we keep assuming enough common ground to move forward without comparing criteria? Maybe we need binaries - a good and an evil, a just and an unjust, a sacred and profane, a winner and a loser - to make sense of the world? But why these binaries? How do we come to agreement on these categories? Their definitions? How do we enforce and reproduce them as natural?

If I had all these questions, I'd ask a scholar of religion.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, October 3, 2016

I preached this weekend.

After opining a couple months ago about how I might preach about contemporary issues, I was invited to preach at a local church. I preached on Biblical interpretation and the American legacy of racism.

Guest preaching/pulpit supply is interesting. It requires balancing an interpretation of the text with the knowledge that, for one morning, I am a guest - I'm just passing through. My words carry some authority due to the space I occupy that morning, but my presence doesn't carry the authority of one who lives with and among the community to which I am preaching. There's a desire to speak to "the issues of the day" but also wondering if those issues are of particular concern to that congregation on that day and the hope that my words will be useful.  

The following is a portion of the sermon on Luke 17:5-10.

...the second part of the passage doesn’t really help me figure out, like the disciples, how to “increase my faith.”
Jesus asks “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?
My wife and I recently went on a trip to colonial Williamsburg to celebrate our anniversary. While we were there we toured Peyton Randolph’s house. It was interesting to learn about Randolph, an accomplished and influential statesman who died at a young age, but it was the details about his household, his day-to-day life, that captured my attention. Our tour guide made sure that we noted the artificial food on the dining room table and that there were glasses for neither water nor wine on the table. This is because enslaved men and women would have been standing around the perimeter of the room and when one of the men sitting at the table raised his hand, one of the enslaved men or women would place his glass in it. He or she would wait for the glass to be raised once again before taking it from one of the masters and returning it to the side table. Typically they exchanged neither words nor eye contact.
When your slave comes in, “would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded?”
Our tour guide noted that prominent colonial leaders often dined here with Randolph, speaking of things like freedom and justice and liberty. She made sure to note that these words meant very different things to the men sitting at the table than they meant to the men and women standing, waiting to be told “serve me while I eat and drink.”  We, as a society, are still coming to terms with the fact that words can mean different things to different people.
            Verses like these are tough – slavery imagery may have illumined something about God for the disciples gathered in the first century – it was their world, it’s what they knew as normal and good. In 2016, this type of exercise (“how would you treat a slave? That’s how you should expect God to treat you”) might not be comforting or helpful for all who hear it. Now there are those who will interpret these verses to mean something like “we should do God’s work in the world without seeking approval, without expecting compensation, without praise being heaped upon us” and not focus so much on the slavery language. This type of interpretation is very much in keeping with our tradition – we speak often about giving glory to God, not wanting the glory for ourselves, working for something bigger than us, so this type of interpretation isn’t necessarily problematic with regards to orthodoxy. But with regard to history? With regard to what we now think and know and have experienced with regard to slavery? To interpret words without dealing with their history is irresponsible.
            As we are painfully aware, verses like this were used to suggest that slavery in America was just a part of the natural order, slaves should submit to their masters and neither should question or challenge these social arrangements – that’s just the way things are and the way they were meant to be. Katie Cannon, a Presbyterian pastor and professor at Union seminary in New York talks about three patterns of thought that made it possible for Christians in America to justify slavery.[1] First, the enslaved Africans were not viewed as people. They were thought of as property. Biblically, this was justified by citing the curse of Ham, the father of Canaan. Biblical scholars and pastors of the time would posit that people from Africa were descendants of Noah’s son Ham, who was cursed to slavery after the flood. They were descendants of Noah’s other two sons, Shem and Japheth. In the words of Noah,
May God extend Japheth’s territory;
    may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
    and may Canaan be the slave of Japheth.” (Gen 9:27).”

There were slaves and there were masters. The way of the world. With this worldview accepted, American chattel slavery was seen as a sort of divine intervention into history. Cannon’s second point was that slavery was actually a good thing – it gave those millions of enslaved people an opportunity to be exposed to the Gospel. In Cannon’s words, “[North American Christian’s] joy in converting Africans was that they were giving to ‘heathens’ elements of Christian civilization. Being enslaved in a Christian country was considered advantageous to Africans’ physical, intellectual, and moral development. Slavery exposed Africans to Christianity which made them better servants of God and better servants of men” (Cannon 14). So if slavery was divinely ordained, then it could be used for divine purposes. The third and final pattern of thought follows from these: because these readings of Christianity coincided with their social situation, it seemed obvious to white biblical interpreters that this was not only natural, it was willed by God’s. When portions of the Bible match what we already think, it’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back rather than grapple with those portions that don’t so easily line up with our world view. Many papers were written and sermons were preached noting that neither Jesus nor the apostles nor the early church condemned slavery. Verses like today’s were probably evidence. Since the New Testament didn’t condemn it, God must have ordained that some people were not much more than animals meant to do the work the masters did not see befitting of their social standing, to be beaten when they disobeyed, and to be bought and sold as commodities.
“So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’”
Hopefully we can see that this verse has a different ring to it here and now than it did there and then.
It’s hard for someone who looks like me to bring up these types of issues. I don’t know, first hand, what it feels like to listen to my grandmother tell me stories about being persecuted under Jim Crow laws. I don’t know what it’s like to hear my grandfather tell me stories about how his grandparents were enslaved (if he was lucky enough to know them). I don’t know this first hand, but I do know that the phrase “we are worthless slaves” is not a confession that many are willing to make, even before God. Like I said earlier, these words meant different things two thousand years ago. But just like we’ve inherited these words and this text we’ve inherited a tradition of interpretation – for better or worse. It is irresponsible, in America, to ignore the history of these words in our country. We are called to seriously grapple with what these words mean for us, today, here. I think it means seeing these words as a testament to where we’ve been rather than where we are.

[1] “Slave Ideology and Biblical Interpretation.”

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Encyclopedias, the Politics of

“Aren’t encyclopedias those things that we don’t need anymore because the internet?”

-My friend, Jimmy

I just sent editors a draft of an encyclopedia entry that I volunteered to write because a) it addresses a topic (well, a person) that I am writing about anyway and, therefore, I can turn it into b) the almighty “c.v. line” - a succinct indication that there exists tangible evidence that I have produced a thing. This entry is on Louis Althusser – a thinker that I have lectured on and assigned for years but is always problematic because he strangled his wife, Helene Rytman, to death.

Unsurprisingly, this causes a [possibly insurmountable] tension when discussing Althusser between his ideas/influence and the circumstances of his life (a tension characteristic to many canonized authors/historical figures). There’s also the fact that Marxist thought, and philosophy more generally, has moved away from Althusser’s moment in the sun, but a/the central problematic is reconciling the fact that he was an influential thinker and murderer.

Which brings me to this encyclopedia entry. Ignoring for a moment that Wikipedia is a thing, a print encyclopedia represents the end of several processes taken to be authoritative – the editors are well-trained in whichever field the work addresses and so their decisions on inclusion/exclusion carry the authority of their training; the publisher has determined that there is a market for such a product so the invisible hand of the economy is giving a big thumbs up; the authors of entries have been vetted, and the entries themselves have been subjected to review. All of this authority-production leads to the appearance of a necessary work with a coherent purpose.

This appearance of necessity and coherence cloaked in scholarly authority often goes hand in hand with objectivity – encyclopedias present a collection of information. Just facts. No more. No less. But facts are tricky.  In the interest of brevity, I’ll list two problematic treatments of Althusser: the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry about him (free, online, why did I try to re-invent the wheel…*I can’t hear you, la la la la la*) and a posthumous review of Althusser’s autobiography, L’avenir Dure Longtemps (Althusser’s autobiography opens with a brief firsthand account of Helene’s murder).  

The Stanford Encyclopedia, in my opinion, inadequately treats the murder, stating that Althusser was able to focus on metaphysics in his later works after being “freed by his ignoble status” from political obligations (this type of wording is present elsewhere in secondary literature as well).  Surely there’s a better way to address the murder of Helene than to state that Althusser was freed from political leadership and therefore better suited to elaborate a metaphysical system…but facts are facts: he did write about metaphysics in the decade between her death and his, but these writings can be presented as the unencumbered thought of a well-known philosopher or the final writings of a murderer spending his last years in solitude or institutionalized after being declared mentally unfit for trial.  Facts are facts, but they require interpretation.
Secondly, The Independent’s review states that works by thinkers like Althusser who take social constructionism very seriously are undercut by revelations about their personal life.

I think that there needs to be a way to address a person’s fallibility alongside her or his thought and influence – philosophers aren’t pure thinkers…but neither are they solely biographies apart from their work and its influence. To emphasize one at the expense of the other – dismiss personal actions due to a historical figure’s importance or to dismiss her or his importance due to their personal life seems equally wrongheaded, but, then, perhaps, there are thinkers or historical figures whose actions cause (or should cause) such a drastic re-thinking of their legacies that little remains of their influence.

All this is to say that encyclopedia entries, biographies, authoritative accounts of a life are never value-free or objective. They stake a claim (probably many claims, usually not explicitly stated) about how a particular person or idea ought to be understood and, and more generally, how one ought to conceive of people, history, canons, authority, agency, contingency, and society. When presented in an authoritative fashion, all of these claims may subtly shift from the result of many contingent processes to natural, objective fact. 

We should certainly pay attention to facts, but also to their production.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

If I had preached this morning

It doesn't take more than two hands to count the number of times I've preached since I graduated seminary, so I don't have a lot of practice, haven't gone through years' worth of ups and downs with a particular congregation, and have spent most of my time in more school learning to make my writing less accessible and then trying to make it more accessible.

So I wondered what would have happened if I had been preaching this morning.

I would have preached exhausted from 11 weeks of figuring out being a family of four and sore from four straight days of strongman training.

I would have preached whatever the lectionary text was, so the story of the good Samaritan and maybe something about what it means to be someone's neighbor.

I would have preached wondering if a sermon would function any differently than a tweet, hashtag, facebook post, blog entry, or meme.

I would have preached having earlier in the week watched a video on my phone of Alton Sterling being shot in his chest while two police officers pinned him to the pavement of a Baton Rouge gas station.

I would have preached having watched a video on my phone of Diamond Reynolds recording the live death of her boyfriend Philando Castile on the side of I-94 in Minnesota during a traffic stop for a broken taillight.

I would have preached on Sunday having woken up Friday to learn that 12 police officers were the victims of a sniper attack during a #BlackLivesMatter protest in Dallas and that Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens were killed.

I would have preached after mass arrests in protests in Baton Rouge and highways shut down by protesters from Atlanta to Minnesota.

I would have preached wondering, maybe aloud, where God was in all of this.
I would have preached wondering where, or who, the neighbors were, or are.
I would have preached as someone who is very uncomfortable around guns.
I would have probably preached to a congregation that looked a lot like me.

I would have preached wondering whether my skin tone and gender normalized or reinforced the idea that someone who looks like me ought to occupy the space of the pulpit (even subconsciously).

I would have preached wondering whether stating that black, gay, lesbian, trans lives matter would alienate me from the congregation or would seem condescending or paternalistic or tokenish or white saviorish.

I would have preached knowing that this discomfort is why I don't preach much.
I would have preached knowing something needed to be said, but not knowing what it is or if I'm the one to say it.

I would have preached wondering, again maybe aloud, whether humans have passed the point of being able to solve our problems or if hate and violence were just the normal state of affairs.

I would have preached while doubting.
I would have preached while lamenting.
I would have preached without a lot of hope.
I would have preached about the beaten man in the story waiting for help and being ignored.
I would have preached about this half-dead man wondering if his life mattered.
I would have preached about what this man may have thought about his neighbors as his life seemed to be coming to an end.

I would wonder if he thought about God or about neighbor, or if he may have considered an absence of both, or if the beating left him unable to think much about anything.

I wonder if I would have preached any of this out loud like the Samaritan or if I would have preached as the Priest and Levite who came before him and crossed the street to avoid the responsibility of being a neighbor.

I know how I hope I would have preached, but I didn't preach this morning.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Presidential Candidates Shovel my Driveway

While shoveling my driveway after the latest snowstorm, I wondered how each 2016 presidential candidate would approach the job.  The following are my predictions:

Sanders – Would hire seven qualified federal employees to shovel all of the snow into the street, at which point state-employed snow plow operators would plow the snow into my neighbor’s yard.  He would insist that my neighbor should help me pay for these services as my neighbor will be using the roads as well.  As he left, he would toss a basketball over his shoulder from 25 feet away and, as it goes through the basket over my garage, he would say, “you’re welcome.”

Trump – Would tout his lawn-mowing skills and insist that there was not that much difference between lawn-mowing and driveway-shoveling.  Would vow to make my driveway great again.  Would repeatedly refer to my neighbor as a [expletive deleted].

Clinton – Wouldn’t respond to my emails.  When my neighbor finds out I was thinking about hiring her, he would saunter over in his short shorts, backwards hat, aviator style sunglasses, with a tank top on that had a scantily-clad woman standing atop greek letters and tell me, “bro, she’s a total [expletive deleted]. You watched any of Bern’s speeches, bro?  #FeeltheBern.”  He would return home to tweet misogynistic things about our encounter.

Jeb! – Would just kind of blend into the background for a while before telling me how awesome his brother was at shoveling snow and how steady his shovel-hand would be if he were offered the job.  Would insist that his experience in Florida would carry over.

Cruz – I would not allow this man near my house.

Rubio – Would do a fairly good job shoveling my driveway, but would go back and forth over who should be allowed on my property and who shouldn’t while muttering something about Obama being an evil genius over and over again.

Kasich – My neighbors from Iowa told me he wouldn’t do a very good job, but the new couple that just moved from Massachusetts highly recommend him.  Not entirely sure what his strategy for paving my driveway would be because Donald Trump won’t stop making silly faces and using profanity. 

Carson – Would sit quietly next to all of the other potential driveway shovelers with a blank expression on his face.  I forgot that he was here.

Thanks for reading...but who should shovel my driveway?