Power Over, Power Under

This past week, I’ve spent quite a bit of time reading everything I can  pertaining to the unresolved murder of Trayvon Martin.  I also delivered a sermon for our 10am service about the temptation to dominate. These are very interrelated, I think.

Power Over, Power Under
By the Rev. Thomas M. Ryberg

Text:  Luke 4:1-2, 5-8, 13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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Are you satisfied?

My good friend, the Rev. Dominique Atchison, wrote an excellent post today on how Dr. King’s words and deeds have been “white-washed” in the progressive church lately. That is to say, his specifically racial critiques have been largely set aside in favor of more general social justice critiques, such as his anti-war stance and his work on behalf of the impoverished. Rev. Dominique sees, and I do as well, a way in which the apparent desire to make Dr. King’s words continue to speak here and now, ostensibly by elevating his non-racial positions, makes the assumption that his racial positions are largely outdated and no longer relevant for our consideration today.

As if by taking the “WHITE’S ONLY” signs off the pool house and the White House, we have truly ushered in a new era of racial unity and justice.

Sorry – that’s just not how it works. In her article, Rev. Dominique references some “other” words from King’s famous “I Have A Dream” speech, ones you certainly won’t hear political conservatives appeal to in their efforts to twist Dr. King into an opponent of affirmative action. Check it:

As we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall always march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied, as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating “For Whites Only”. We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

And here, to my seeing, lies part of the problem: SOME of the things on this list are, in fact, over with. These days, we (mostly) don’t have segregated motels and hotels. And signs that proclaim “For Whites Only” – (at least overtly) – have been taken down. So it can be tempting to declare, as President Bush did, talking about Iraq in 2003, “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED!” – as if it weren’t 2012 and we didn’t still have racial justice issues (or, for that matter, Iraq issues).

We’ve made some progress on the overt stuff, sure. And that should definitely be lifted up and celebrated. But what about the rest of King’s list?

  • Is police brutality against black and brown people over?
  • Are high percentages of black and brown people still living in ghettos, small and large?
  • Are people of color well-represented in public leadership roles?
  • And more basically – can any of us honestly say that we live in a time when “justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream”?

I don’t think we’re done yet. As we remember Dr. Martin Luther King today or any day, let’s please be honest about the fullness of his dream – that it was explicitly racial, because he lived in – and we still live in – a state of explicitly racial inequality. Let us give thanks for the great prophets of yesterday, as well as those today (you know who you are!), but let us critically examine their prophetic visions on an ongoing basis, lest we fall into self-deception about progress that actually has not yet been attained. As for the question, “When will [I] be satisfied”, today I will honor Dr. King by joining in his dissatisfaction, until justice, like water, finally rolls on down.

On “gender-neutral parenting”

There’s been some flurry recently about the hetero Canadian parents who are raising their youngest without revealing the biological sex of the child.  They seem to want to resist the way people typically gender children (and adults), treating them differently according to their gender.

At this point, I’m fully on board.  For whatever reason, we (Western? American?) human beings often act as if we are entitled to know the gender of others, such that it stresses us out if we can’t tell for certain.  We want to know this apparently so that we know how – and to what extent – we might relate to one one another.  Maybe this goes back to wanting to find the best possible mate. I suspect it has to do with being able to treat people differently, or expect different things from them, or apply any number of other social norms upon them according to their privates, and frankly, how many of us really believe that it’s important for us, as individuals, to make such genitalia-based considerations?  I know I don’t.  Yet, by default, I gender people all the time, and seek to “know” other people’s gender when the lines are blurry.

But I am in no way entitled to find out this information about others, now am I?  What a strange pattern of behavior.  We should really question our underlying motivations for wanting to know the biological gender of others as prerequisite for interacting with them.  As a parent, I can understand not wanting other people to ‘gender’ my child and treat her according to whatever crazy notions they hold about how girls should be treated.  I get that.

Be a gender superhero!

And, having said that, I think that “gender-neutral parenting” is problematic.  It seems akin to people who profess to be “colorblind” when it comes to race.  Only a small fraction of people are actually colorblind, and I’m betting that even most of them are capable of discerning between different shades of skin color.  We have color.  And our color is often different from others.  And most significantly, the reality of different skin colors has been imbued with tremendous social meaning for hundreds, if not thousands of years.  By declaring ourselves to be “colorblind,” all we are doing is playing “let’s pretend” so that we might ignore the painful reality that our society still doles out unfair advantages and disadvantages based on color to this very day.  We have color.  And that matters.

So too – we have gender.  And that matters.  Gender is one way that we are different from one another – and it is a particularly embodied way at that.  To try to minimize and hide this difference from others, no matter how grand the intention, strikes me as an attempt to ignore or push aside a difference that is very real, maybe even important, and, by the way, one which is perfectly fine.  It’s okay, it turns out, to have a vagina, and not a penis.  Or vice versa.  Or something in-between.  The particularity of each human body is perfectly wonderful, according to God and nature.  Where there are problems, they belong to us, and it is up to us to adapt our social norms, roles, and expectations accordingly.

All that is to say, I am more in favor of abolishing the traditional limits associated with masculinity and femininity then with abolishing gender outright. There’s nothing wrong, in my view, with claiming and celebrating the particularity of one’s own gender. But there’s a lot wrong with imposing norms on others based on their gender.

Thoughts on Christians and Muslims

Some thoughts on the recent controversies between Christians and Muslims:

– Those who oppose the building of a mosque near Ground Zero are unwilling or unable to distinguish between different groups of Muslims. These extremists who want to burn the Koran are simply following that same sentiment to it’s logical conclusion: all Muslims are indistinguishable AND evil. This is precisely why we need a center for dialogue near Ground Zero.

– These so-called “Christians” who want to burn the Koran on 9/11 are no more Christian than those so-called “Muslims” who attacked us on 9/11 were Muslim.

– Christians must unequivocally support religious freedom in America.  That includes the right of a group of Muslims to build a mosque wherever it is legally allowable, such as near Ground Zero in NYC.

– Remembering how our Lord hung out with those who were stigmatized and was himself hated, blamed, falsely accused, and put to death by those religious and patriotic folks who feared him, Christians must unequivocally condemn bigotry whenever it arises at the state or local level.  We should be the first to condemn the slippery slope of anti-Islamic scapegoating wherever it occurs.

On Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck has a pretty sweet gig.  It must be nice not to be beholden to the truth.

This was going to be a post refuting some of the latest utter nonsense spewed forth by Glenn Beck, but writing that felt kind of like being sprayed in the face with seawater for an hour, then constructing an argument about how one particular mouthful tastes bad.  There’s just so much of it coming at you, all at once, that ducking out of the way might be a better form of resistance than deploying the tools of accuracy and logic.

My stepfather likes to say, “Never wrestle with a pig.  You both get dirty, but the pig likes it.”  Indeed.  I’d look like an idiot trying to fact-check Glenn Beck.  (Or, for that matter, a three year old.  Or a Golden Retriever.)

I’m not saying the man himself isn’t intelligent.  I have no idea whether he’s a fool or a liar, and I’m not sure it really matters.  What matters is that he commands an audience of millions of viewers, and he is beholden only to their viewership.  He is not beholden to truth, reason, or fairness, but rather to the numbers.  And truth, reason, and fairness are only useful insofar as captivate the masses and deliver the numbers, and can be dispensed with if they don’t.

It is lamentable that Glenn Beck’s viewers go along with his ride.  He bears the moral guilt for his careless and shameful information manipulation.  But what about the rest of us?  For those of us who understand that good theology is liberating, and who care about social justice because that is the work of God, we owe it to ourselves and our neighbors not to allow Glenn Beck to twist our faith into a tool to advance his conspiracy theories.

Glenn Beck is free to deny that Jesus cares about social justice if he wants to.  (I don’t know what Bible he’s reading, but hey, this is America.)  But Jesus is undeniably a liberator.  God always calls us to greater justice and mercy.  And not even a misty-eyed moron spewing seawater can overpower the reality of God.