Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Michelle Wolf, Crass Speech and the Prophetic Tradition

The Twittersphere has been on fire after the White House Correspondents Dinner and comedian Michelle Wolf's acerbic truth telling. I'm a little late to this party as I've been reflecting on her words, the broad reactions, and in particular the reactions of fellow Christians. I've been watching many Christians expressing offense at her "crassness", her "language", her "mean spirited attacks" and how "unchristian" this all is. Meanwhile ...

Flint still doesn't have clean water and Sarah Huckabee Sanders still lies.

What is annoying to this priest is how pearl-clutching Christians have such utter ignorance of the crass language in the prophetic tradition of their own Bible. Don't believe me? Well, sit back and hold onto those pearls.

Let's look at Isaiah - the prophet who spoke hard truth to the leaders of Israel who wanted to "Make Jerusalem Great Again" while exploiting the poor and oppressing the foreigner (sound familiar?). Isaiah to told them to knock this off or they would be destroyed and then said, "See, I told you!" when Jerusalem was sacked (SparkNotes version). Of course, later he spoke of restoration, but there was a whole lot of judgement and truth telling first. Consider Isaiah 64:6:
But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away.
The underlined words in Hebrew mean "menstruation covering". That's right - the bloody, discarded rags women once used in the "pre-Stayfree" days.

Now before you get all caught up in your own "EWWWW GROSS!!" reaction to that (and no, menstruation isn't gross, but that's another post), think about how Isaiah's original audience would have reacted. It was crass. It was rude. It was offensive language in polite society - and that's exactly what telling the truth is. Was it mean? Perhaps. Was it provocative? Absolutely. Provocative speech is the realm of prophetic when it wakes you up and gets you out of your spiritually anesthetized state. Did Isaiah's hearers get pissed off at him? Very likely.

Now let's turn to Paul, the prolific letter writer of early Christianity. He wrote a letter to a little church in the city of Philippi. In that letter he trotted out his Jewish pedigree:
...circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. (Philippians 3:5-6)
Yeah, sounds like he was pretty impressed with his CV, but then he says this:
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ ... (Philippians 3:8b)
Only ...

He didn't say "rubbish". Going back to the Greek, he said (pearl clutch trigger warning):
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as shit, in order that I may gain Christ ...
OMG! Paul said "shit"???!!! Absolutely he did and if you didn't know that, it's because your sanitized English translation cleaned up Paul to make him presentable for your delicate sensibilities. That Greek word skubala only occurs one other time, in the apocryphal book Jesus, Son of Sirach and it still means shit.

Was that offensive? Maybe. Paul was, after all, writing to a church full of ex-military guys so maybe they just got a good laugh out of that in church. Was it provocative? Absolutely. He was making it clear he had totally changed in Christ. I kind of miss my seminary professor who charged us to read this passage from Philippians in seminary chapel just as it was written because, "You'll never get away with that in any church."

Which brings me to the problem. Christians who don't understand the role of crass language in the prophetic tradition failed to see the truth-telling Michelle Wolf did. They get caught up in her style and totally missed her substance. Did I like everything she said? No. I thought her crack about abortion was cavalier and showed a lack of respect for life (and FWIW, I believe abortion should be safe, legal and rare - but that's another blog post). BUT, she did some serious truth telling to an utterly morally bankrupt power structure whose lies and corruption are undermining our democracy.

Michelle Wolf had the nerve to speak truth to the compulsive lies Sarah Huckabee Sanders tells to cover up a president who is anything but a Christian. She had the audacity to call out the press for its complicity in using the antics of President Trump to sell papers, because if it bleeds it leads. If you as a Christian are more upset with Michelle Wolf because she was "crass" and "mean" than you are with the moral bankruptcy of our political leaders and their phony-ass Nationalism wrapped in a paper-thin veneer of Jesus talk, then you are part of what is wrong with the Church right now. You are seriously misunderstanding the call to speak truth to power. Perhaps you want a Jesus who won't challenge, provoke and upset you. Let me remind you that people who don't challenge, provoke or upset others never get crucified.

Jesus taught us the truth will set us free but he neglected to add that first it will piss you off.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The problem of nostalgia

We're now about 12 weeks into the new Trump Republican administration and the rhetoric and vitriol have not slowed down, especially on social media. We are a divided people and it's not getting better. The name-calling and viciousness in both directions is painful. Families are divided and not speaking to each other. Partisanship has wreaked havoc on a people who once all called themselves "American." Elected politicians now believe they only have to cater to (or perhaps pander to) the constituencies who elected them and they have no obligation to represent those who did not vote for them. After all, those people are "losers" (in the words of our Republican President), so why should anyone listen to them?
As a student of history, theology and business (the latter was my first degree and I owned a business prior to ordination), I see this Republican president tapping a sense of nostalgia for an America around 1950: back when things were "great" (at least for straight, white men) and "prosperous." Well, America was #1 in manufacturing & trade in the 1950's and that did support our job base; however, many forget the primary reason we were #1 was because we had NO competition - all of our potential competitors' infrastructures had been destroyed by a world war. It's easy to be #1 when there is nobody else competing with you! In sports, we'd call it a forfeiture.
What we seem to ignore is this fact: time does not move backward. It never has and never will. The globalism train has left the station and those left behind on the platform want it to come back so they can get a "do over." This will not happen. Our economies are intertwined on so many levels with other countries, robotics has displaced more workers than foreigners and off-shoring jobs ever did, and the kinds of jobs being created are different from the 1950's. No matter how nostalgic people want to be, the fact remains you cannot turn back time.
We have also experienced a devolving in our governance. We are now no longer a representative democracy. We are now an oligarchy, governance by a ruling class, and that ruling class are the plutocrats, the extremely wealthy who support unmanaged capitalism because it works for them (and largely only for them). This is the natural course of political evolution when you don't properly manage a capitalistic system.
So Trump's supporters are angry. They are angry about "jobs" and the foreigners they blame for "taking our jobs". They are angry at "the elites" but rarely do they seem to connect those "elites" with the policies they created which have exploited the working class: like dismantling labor rights and protections and creating tax policies which threw the working class a small bone while the wealthy made out like bandits. Trump supporters are grieving what they perceive to be the loss of "America" as they knew it ... or perhaps as they never really knew it because younger Trump supporters were not even alive in the 1950's (I admit I wasn't alive then either ... I was born in the early 60's).
I recall theologian Walter Bruggemann saying in a lecture I attended, "Grief, when it is not processed well, turns to violence." I think this is what is happening in our country. There is grief on both sides of this election and it has turned into violence because we are not addressing it at all. It turns into violence in our words with name-calling and threats. Those who support this president disagree by lashing out with words like "libtard", "snowflake" and other derisive comments like "get over it" and "you lost." Rather than seeing those "libtards" and "snowflakes" as fellow Americans who also care about their country, Trump supporters seem to be bent on the utter destruction of anyone who disagrees with them.
Now I won't claim the "libtards" and "snowflakes" always take the "high moral ground" either. Nope. They can descend into name-calling like anyone else because they are human, not divine. But guess what? Those "libtards" and "snowflakes" also care about their country and they are grieving too. Contrary to what Trump supporters may believe, they are not grieving because "Hillary lost." They are grieving the dismantling of hard won rights protecting the masses (read WORKERS ... you know, the 99% of us who are not plutocrats). They are grieving environmental destruction by business which will bring back the polluted water and air that plagued our country in the 1960's and 1970's. They are grieving the return of a two-tiered education system which will favor the rich and leave the working class behind.
Why were things "great" in the 1950's - that time for which Trump and his supporters seem to long? Well, in addition to the opening premise of my post about lack of competition, consider this: the 1950's reaped the benefits of Roosevelt's socialistic economic policies. Yeah, I said "socialistic" because they are. Things like Social Security, Medicare, the G.I. Bill that let thousands of returning soldiers get a college education without bankrupting their families, worker's rights laws demanding a 40 hour workweek and overtime pay when you had to work overtime. All of those benefits and regulations came from a populist form of socialist democracy (the form of governance throughout Western Europe) and benefited WORKERS. These are the kinds of things "libtards" and "snowflakes" want for America and they are angry that over the last 40 years, our country has been moving backwards and the WORKERS are being exploited once again. The Bible has a lot to say about the exploitation of people for the gain of a few. The prophetic writings of Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah and the teachings of Jesus are clear: God does NOT favor the wealthy but has preference for the poor and oppressed. Unfortunately, since the 1950's, America has heard a "prosperity theology" that says God blesses the rich with more wealth - this is heresy and is not in the Bible. The Biblical message is clear that God favors the righteous and wealth is dangerous because it has the corrosive effect of idolatry which makes people selfish, greedy and prone to exploiting others.
The problem of nostalgia is that we put on our "rose colored glasses" and believe if we could "just go back" to when things were "great," all would be well and our problems would be solved. The truth is, nostalgia makes us look at the past with a revisionist view which conflates the good and ignores the problems of those past times (things like segregation, laws relegating women to chattel status, and the persecution of the LGBT community). It's a longing for a time which really never was and never can be.
Staying mired in nostalgia and allowing that to fuel a misplaced anger towards other human beings rather than address the policies which have grossly enriched a few at the expense of many will be a path to destruction. History tells us destruction of our empire may very well be inevitable: all empires fall and we will be no exception to that rule. As Christians, we are not to allow the dividing lines of partisan politics to divide and enslave us to the powers of this world. We are to look forward, not backward with nostalgia. We are to be in this world but not of it and we have an obligation to follow the Biblical teachings and show God's care for the poor, marginalized and oppressed. Nostalgia is not the way of Jesus.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The morning after the night before - 2016 Election

This day after the 2016 election is a day of emotional and spiritual extremes. To those who supported Donald Trump: congratulations on your candidate winning the election. It is one thing to win an election, it is quite another to win hearts and trust. Unfortunately, for over half of our country, our trust has been shaken and our hearts have been wounded deeply by the language and actions of our president-elect. I know the Democratic candidate engaged in inappropriate name-calling too and her supporters have had their fair share of nasty Facebook posts making fun of you. For the record, you are not deplorable – you are children of God just like me.

As a priest, there is nothing more important to me than following the teachings of Jesus and one of his most important teachings was about forgiveness and reconciliation. I’ve heard from some Trump supporters today saying we just need to “reconcile and move forward.” In time that may be possible and I do pray for it. But in the Christian tradition, reconciliation cannot come before forgiveness and there is one thing that stands as a big barrier to forgiveness: pride. The reason pride stands in the way is because it keeps us from repenting and showing sorrow for the wounds we inflict. Repenting means acknowledging the real hurt and harm we do to others – both in words and deeds – and taking steps to turn around and make a change which will bring healing. When people cannot admit their wrongs, it only leads to bitterness and resentment on the part of those who are hurt. It makes forgiveness very hard and for some impossible – and without forgiveness, there will be no reconciliation.

So here I go: for those who felt hurt by my words and actions, I am sorry. While I have tried to “go high” and stay focused on the issues I feel are gospel issues, I confess I have bit my tongue and harbored some very unkind thoughts. My words at times have been sharper than I intended. I’m not proud of that, but I know where it comes from – fear and hurt. Not just personal fear and hurt, but fear and hurt for the people on the margins of our society: people of color, LGBTs, the disabled, the poor, and the mentally ill.

I still believe passionately in the inclusion of all people, the equality of women before God, that Black Lives Matter (which doesn’t mean other lives don’t matter), LGBTQ people are beloved of God and deserve all the rights I enjoy, that health care is a right and not a privilege for the wealthy, women need to be able to make personal choices about all aspects of their lives including the circumstances of pregnancy without outside intrusion, that immigrants enrich our lives more than they threaten them, that the rural poor need to be heard and not left behind, and our Earth needs our protection not our exploitation. I will not change my position on those things – they are bedrock for me and come out of my experience of the teachings of Jesus. I will still be preaching about that and standing for those values – they are gospel values.

To those of you who voted for Hillary Clinton (or any of the other candidates), please go high. Don’t continue the name-calling or post hateful Facebook memes or Tweet more ugliness. Go high. Do not let this make you bitter or cynical. Grieve, yes by all means grieve; but after your tears are spent, move forward and seek to understand the people who voted for Trump. They are not all “bad hombres” – they are scared like you. Let’s find some common ground on what our shared fears are and then move to work on them.

Now, to those of you who voted for Donald Trump, what is your next move? Will you renounce the hate speech, the violence directed at minorities, LGBT, Muslims, Jews, immigrants, disabled persons and women? Will you stand in solidarity with us in calling this out and demand that our president-elect repent of the evil words and actions he has done? Will you demand equality for all Americans, not just those who are like you? Or will you dig in your heels with a “to the victor go the spoils” attitude? If you choose the last path, do not expect forgiveness soon, if ever, and reconciliation will never come. The next move is yours.