It’s Open Mic Night in America

I think one thing that gets glossed over in the latest installment of the just-will-not-die ‘80s zombie “culture wars” — the debate over so-called “cancel culture” — is how much it’s really about old media/”new media” vs social media. Cancel culture is, after all, another species of the boycott culture that is itself an adaptation to both the pace of news and the search for alternatives to a political process that moves much too slowly relative to it.

But it goes even deeper. We have grown so used to the internet that we totally take for granted how “democratizing” — socially, if not politically — it’s been. This has its upsides and downsides. We see every day how someone doing something stupid that’s caught on a cellphone camera can become an overnight sensation. People with no credentials, qualifications or even personal qualities to speak of, can suddenly call “press conferences” using social media tools, and “legacy media” has to cover it. I mean, how do you think we got our current President?

Truth is (and this isn’t a new thing by any means): we kinda love it when stupid people “get famous.” One of the pet phrases of those fighting for systemic change with the current spate of racist outbursts caught on cell phone video is “let’s make him/her/them famous.” This is a call to identify the perpetrators, possibly doxx them (if that’s your thing), but certainly to shame them widely. It remains to be seen whether this is an effective front in the movement for systemic change, but it *is* fun, so long is it’s not you. And there’s your element of deterrence, which some folks rightly see as “censure.”

(There’s some confusion about the words “censure” and “censored,” for sure: to ‘censor’ means to remove, block, or interfere with the communication of another. To ‘censure’, on the other hand, means “to find fault with and criticize as blameworthy.” Because censorship in a free society is considered an obvious evil, the confusion between these words and concepts can sometimes provide convenient cover for those who feel censured but claim they are being censored.)

With all of this bad behavior online, it’s easy to forget there was a lot of promise in the early days of the internet of elevating and amplifying not the stupid, whose loud obnoxious, rage-filled voices are already everywhere, but the voiceless, the marginalized, those who could not otherwise be heard, because they were not able to get access to the bullhorn. This was a thing all the way up through the ’90s. On a good day, your local paper might publish three or four letters to the editor. Now comments sections routinely reach into the thousands. This is not a minor social or cultural development. In fact, even to say it’s a “seismic shift” is an understatement. We’re talking: dinosaurs, meet asteroid here.

It’s almost impossible to recall how easy it was before the internet for old media and the interests it represented to utterly erase and isolate people and groups. And it’s somehow not surprising that these “disappeared” were early adopters of the internet. This was less that 30 years ago, so it’s also not surprising that we are now in a period of consolidation, push-back and revisionism of that liberative narrative. From people with disabilities, whom the internet gave direct access to affinity communities, to far-flung TQBLG folks, who often had to remain in hiding irl but who could now find one another online to socialize and organize, to bronies, the internet was a liberator. The significance of this shift of social power and the ability of any individual or group of individuals to subvert the cultural power brokers is often underappreciated — and there is certainly good reason not to emphasize the liberative and to dwell on what people who feel threatened by this seismic power shift breathlessly characterize over their morning Starbucks, as they scroll through their twitter feed in horror, as “this awful slide toward a moral absolutism.”

And there is plenty of reason to feel threatened, to be sure. Going viral for the “wrong reasons” can, after all, lead to actual death threats. There is an extremely dark side to all of this. There always was. Cultural shifts of this magnitude are, yeah: intense. There’s serious shit at stake. But the promise is also still there. It’s still a huge net positive for the rabble. That’s why those who are still hogging the bullhorns are getting more and more hysterical as they’re confronted with crowds who are pretty good at using the “human microphone” to drown them out. Of course the rabble is scary if you’re used to having that bullhorn, been told you deserve it, and have been blaring pretty much whatever stupid thought pops into your head behind a wall of riot police to your adoring masses for the last thirty years. It’s shocking when the people you’ve been talking over all this time start talking back, innit?

Because a lot of these folks with the bullhorns are actual clowns, let me put it this way: when a comedian bombs, we say “read the room.” We don’t set off the fire alarm and the sprinklers to clear the room. And to extend the metaphor: if you’re heckled, do you really want to be Michael Richards? You thought you were headlining Showtime at the Apollo. Turns out it’s Open Mic night at the Comedy Cellar. If you can’t read the room, get off the stage.

The Persistence of Memory in Quarantine (Preliminary Thoughts)

The Persistence of Memory, 1931, by Salvador Dalí.

Part of my focus this summer is autobiography (as praxis), memory and trauma studies. I feel like it’s hugely relevant to everything going on in the world (and not just my world) right now. As part of this, I’ve just been reading some deep analysis and reflection from Shelly Rambo on Christ’s farewell discourse in John. Rambo reads the text through the lens of trauma, and sees the non-linear presentation of time in the text as suggesting an alternative to the redemption story we’re used to with the more familiar interpretations of the passion-death-resurrection narrative.

In Spirit and Trauma, which I have mentioned in past posts, Rambo makes the case again and again that time, especially when viewed through the lens of trauma, is nonlinear. The insistence of a linear narrative, especially when close reading suggests other possibilities, is not exactly accidental, and has all sorts of implications for how we experience our lives and conduct our relationships. (That’s a whole ‘nother post for another time, though.)

Personally, I’ve been immersed in memory over the past weeks and months of quarantine. At times it’s been really harrowing. Yesterday, I found myself reflecting on events around the time of my dad’s death back in 2004. I was thinking not only about how vivid my recollections of this long ago time remain, but also how vividly he recalled, in his final days, episodes much further back in time, and often experienced them as if they were unfolding in the present. It struck me that we are so set in this notion of linear time that we ignore how our minds really experience time, which is not linear at all.

We know that there are several different types of memory, and subjective measures of time. It’s not so surprising that toward the end of his life, my dad’s sense of time became what we might call “jumbled.” This is common for people with terminal cancer in the final stages of life in palliative care settings.

I felt like, really, it was just that the filter was off: dad was experiencing time out loud as we do “in our heads.” Yes, cognitive decline was at play, but it made me think about how we perceive (and use) memory and time when freed from the external cues that keep us “on the rails” in everyday life. For people in palliative care this often means living in the present with memories of the deep past, while not remembering things that happened five minutes before. Sometimes, as with my father, the past was perceived as quite literally present: he would carry on animated conversations with long-dead visitors from his distant past while we were in the room, and even happily translate for us if we asked. (These were not scary, haunting type experiences, and we did not discourage him. I felt, in fact, that his quality of life — not to mention ours –was improved by our experiencing these “visitations” together, as they often evoked deeper memories and led to pleasant reveries. And, frankly, he just seemed happiest when we were all together in the room with his memories.)

As for me, not that it compares to palliative care, but quarantine, particularly the lack of structure to my days over the past weeks and months, has brought memories rushing back from all over my mental and emotional inner map. They aren’t strung together by a linear thread, but “topically,” or by “genre” — which could be a feeling or a mood, a color or a smell, or any number of other very deep subjective cues. I have experienced memory more recently as a web. Memories of dad pop up frequently, as one might expect. I wouldn’t say dad’s death was a trauma experience for me (though violence in an atmosphere of toxic masculinity were major aspects of my experience in childhood), but it was a time of acute, intense awareness and awakeness. And it was such a contrast in scenery and intensity and focus from where I was in my life just prior to the experience. Like most intense, but not necessarily traumatic, experiences, it is always not just present, but “in the present.”

I am often surprised (startled might be a better word, at times) by what I find behind those long-closed doors as I wander the corridors of my “Memory Palace.” As I venture deeper into trauma studies in this suspended moment of societal trauma, I wonder what we can learn about healing in the breakdown of linear time.

Of Anger, Lament, and Justice

The Voyage of Life: Manhood, 1842, by Thomas Cole.

There have been so many different kinds of responses among allies to the events of the past few weeks, and likewise, so many responses to those responses, that it’s often been hard to orient myself toward different colleagues, family members and friends whose experiences and perceptions have been so vastly different from one another. This range of responses drives some people crazy. It seems impossible to account for everyone’s experience and at the same time move forward together on an urgent social justice agenda. What is often being expressed is some form of anger and lament at the recognition of injustice. That’s an important first step for people, and while our culture today tends to focus on individuals “sitting with” their guilt, grief and anger, many traditions have recognized the importance of making communal space for these powerful emotions. Not just to heal the individuals feeling them, but to give them legitimacy as impetus for social change. 

The limits of empathy (both our own capacity and its usefulness — something I have been struggling to grasp myself) have certainly been on full display lately, but it’s important to push back against the tendency to exaggerate the power of a personal response to systemic injustice. It’s not that personal awakening is not important; it’s very important. But personal awakening in itself is simply not sufficient to “do justice,” to achieve systemic change. A widespread and sustained justice movement, which is what is desperately needed at this point, is simply not possible without a communal process that incorporates lament in a formal and symbolically resonant way. We need to build just relationships to sustain just systems. Legitimizing lament is a part of that.

I’ve just read an essay from Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann on “The Costly Loss of Lament,” in a collection of theological reflections on anger that came out a couple years ago and remains timely as ever. In it, Brueggemann is concerned with the implications for the pursuit of social justice of a conception of an omnipotent God, especially well-known to Christians, whom believers are often expected to praise without question. As one of my Christian friends posted to Facebook just this morning: “Praise God even when you don’t understand what he’s doing!” Brueggemann (along with Job and the writers of the Psalms of Lament) asks: or what?

Good question.

Brueggemann makes the intriguing claim — he says his sense is — that “in the Old Testament, Israel is more concerned with dike than with theos, more committed to questions of justice than to questions of God.” This claim takes me back to my own formation. One thing (among several) that drove me away from Christianity when I was a teenager was a (frankly wonderful) mentor in the church, a young pastor who got fed up with my constant questioning. Like most young people, I was concerned with dike much more than theos. Young people are, after all, always crying “It’s not fair!” This is usually self-serving, as most of us know, but sometimes, when, often by accident, it’s not, it can hit a nerve. Adolescent tantrums aside, properly and patiently guided, it can also be the beginning of serious theological reflection. After all, theos + dike = theodicy. The question of justice is of fundamental concern to theology.

But we didn’t quite get that far. The youth pastor must’ve felt badgered by my constant questioning (which often focused on my enduring skepticism around Christianity’s supernatural claims), because one day he just flat-out told me we couldn’t be friends if I kept questioning The Faith. I understand his frustration better now, of course, after years of teaching and mentoring young people myself. But this episode from 35 years ago obviously made an enormous impression on me. I was a young, socially awkward queer kid, and this fellow was one of the first to coax me out of my shell. It was an abrupt and painful rupture in my young life, the likes of which I had not experienced before. It certainly did nothing to bolster my Christian faith. It was obvious to both of us I wasn’t going to stop asking questions. So, off we went, our separate ways. 

I’d been interested in Judaism anyway, and had a massive crush on a brilliant and witty red-headed Jewish boy (really his whole family) at the time. I had recently worn out my copy of Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, a story about a friendship between two boys, one orthodox and the other a reform Jew, set in Brooklyn in the 1940s. While there was nothing queer about the relationship between Reuven Malter and his friend Daniel Saunders in the book, it might as well have been a Harlequin romance: the idea of a passionate, intellectual friendship like the one in the book, was swoon-worthy. Jews were always asking questions, sometimes very serious, often very funny, and always answered with another question. Indeed, “to be Jewish,” as Edgar Bronfman said in Why Be Jewish?, “is to ask questions.” I was sold.

I went on to read the book of Job, Qoheleth and the Psalms of Lament– first as great literature (I never returned to the church) and only much later as theology — like most, not fully aware that Psalms had a formal, “cultic” function. It’s common, especially for casual Christians, to ignore context when reading bits and pieces of the Tanakh that have been transposed to, say, a daily devotional. This is often encouraged by supersessionist ideologies and popular ideas of Biblical inspiration that treat the text as a book of divination, like the I Ching. And books like Job and Psalms do stand alone as expressions of universal sentiments so deeply ingrained in Western culture that it’s easy to forget they had a ritual function, as well. 

More than simply a poem to read when you feel sad, the Psalms of Lament go beyond personal petition. Brueggemann understands questioning God in the lament form as something that speaks to specific ideas and constructs of justice. The lament form constructs a very specific power relationship between the petitionary party (the psalm speaker) and the greater party (God) that legitimates the former and places into question the unmitigated supremacy of the latter. This is aligned with the covenantal nature of the relationship in Judaism, and, as Brueggemann suggests, keeps “all power relations under review and capable of redefinition.” This is a very different relationship with God than one that mandates absolute obedience and loyalty, and also a very different relationship to questions of justice.

Lament is not not just crying to God; it is questioning God, usually on matters of justice. Brueggemann reminds us that “lament occurs when the dysfunction”– political, economic, religious, moral — “reaches an unacceptable level, when the injustice is intolerable and change is insisted upon.” But “when the lament form is censured, justice questions cannot be asked and eventually become invisible and illegitimate…. A community of faith which negates laments,” he warns, “soon concludes that the hard issues of justice are improper questions to pose at the throne, because the throne seems to be only a place of praise.” (Note here that the power of “the throne” is often transferable to earthly powers — often appallingly and blatantly corrupt — who claim it for themselves.) The Psalms of Lament are there to demonstrate to us that not only are we responsible to God, but that God is responsible to us. They remind us that we must raise our voices when we encounter injustice, and they remind God that God is a sojourner with us, the “The Fellow-Sufferer who Understands,” and must listen and learn.

Now, I don’t practice a theistic faith. That’s not what I’m getting at here. What I’m saying is that there are lessons in faith traditions we can look to as resources in times when questioning how we construct power — implicitly and explicitly — becomes imperative, understanding that to question dike is always to question theos, regardless of how we conceive of the latter. In lament as it is modeled in Judaism, we see a practical and prophetic mode that not only recognizes but honors our justifiable anger, and helps to move us from grief to hope, building new relationships, constructing justice.

“If not now,” as the sage Hillel famously asked, “when?”

I’m Coming Out!

Odilon Redon, “The Dream of Butterflies,” ca. 1910-15, Oil on Canvas, The Muriel Bultman Francis Collection

I grew up in a generation in a place where “queer” was still a word owned by bigots and bullies, and so it took me a long time to warm to it in adulthood. Right about the time I was ready to come out, because the AIDS pandemic was at its height, it meant a lot for a kid from Indiana to come out as simply “gay” (which was also still a slur, but was becoming increasingly normalized in the mainstream media). Just uttering the word “gay” with pride was a liberating journey, but over the decades since, I’ve realized it was only the beginning. Sometimes even I forget how difficult getting on that road was, though.

My generation (Gen Xers) did not have very many life-like role models in popular culture when we were growing up. We did not have the internet and smartphones. Aside from schoolyard taunts, I remember getting my first ideas about what “gay” connoted from Jack Tripper on Three’s Company, a straight character who pretended to “be gay” (which basically consisted of lisping, and “mincing and prancing”) in order to share an apartment with two sexy young women he was constantly lusting after. The premise seems utterly alien to us now, but it made complete sense in the early ‘80s. (For a pretty good primer on how sitcoms handled this stuff back then click: here.)

I could write a whole dissertation about the layers of fucked-uppedness here, but for now, just understand: this is what we had back then. Intersectionality, which seems so obvious today, was simply not widely understood or spoken of, especially in popular culture, at the time. “Gay” had certain associations, but the main thing as far as the dominant culture was concerned was: “two dudes doing butt stuff.” The very fact that in popular discourse the diversity of human sexuality and relationships was emptied out of all but this tells you how fucked up and stupid a time it was. Seriously, except for the music: fuck the ‘80s.

But the heroic activism of the AIDS era, which cannot be denied, gave new layers of meaning to the word “gay” in the public mind, not least of which was the uncompromising liberative politics that many from older generations still take for granted as universally understood and accepted whenever the word “gay” is uttered. We are rightly proud of this epithet, and the struggle it connotes. Did this chapter of the liberative story eclipse, even sidetrack the Stonewall narrative of twenty years before, which had centered trans people of color? I would say: yes, for a time, it did. Much can be said about why this is. These were generational struggles, and we are lucky to have access to both. There is continuity here: both are vital to the bigger narrative of liberation that is marching on, that we celebrate each Pride.

Ok. Now fast-forward twenty years. In my thirties — in the early naughts — an only slightly younger generation was coming out that had little real connection to the AIDS-era valorization of the word “gay,” but it took me awhile, as a gay cis white male born the year of the Stonewall riots who had come of age in the darkest days of the AIDS pandemic to grasp the wonderful layers of nuance in queer identity and culture. I had been living abroad — in Central Europe mostly — for some years and had been very out and very sexually active, but had no real cause to think explicitly about cis white male “exceptionalism” in gay culture. My sexual practice fell into the profligate category (i.e., I was a whore — I think everyone was in the late ’90s, early naughts) and I had no asterisks for race in my little black book. But like many cis white male gay men, I didn’t interrogate systems of oppression. The narrative was all about people like me.

When I came back to the states in the mid-naughts, I was still going full-throttle, but with smart phones and apps on the scene I was seeing how some cis white gay men were perfectly comfortable advertising their racism in their profiles. There was a sense of cis white gay exceptionalism that had always been there but that was not always in your face, at least not if you were white as well, and never saw it with your own eyes. Most defended their racism by saying “I can’t change what I’m attracted to,” using sexuality as a kind of exemption. This had its flipside as well, in the old-school fetishizing of racial and “ethnic” types in gay hook-up culture. And it wasn’t just race. There was something about the apps that made folks feel safe voicing their hatred and disgust of different body types and ways of presenting and enacting “masculinity.” And it seemed to only get worse and worse with time.

When I say this was a form of exceptionalism, I mean that many cis white gay men seemed to think that they could be racist while gay, implying that to be “gay” was simply a category of sexual desire, which, of course, means ignoring a whole history of liberative praxis associated with the “gay rights movement.” “Gay” has always been a political word. It cannot be simply excised from the Civil Rights Movement, Stonewall or the struggles of the AIDS-era for human rights and full citizenship for all.

In my forties my use of apps and my participation in hook-up culture — which had once been very liberative for me, no question! — dwindled, and by the time I hit fifty last year, it had been three or four years since I had spent a day scrutinizing tiny thumbnails of torsos and answering endless ‘sups, inevitable “top or bottom”s and inane “how hung”s. I had had two monogamish relationships in my forties, and the apps during those breaks in my usage had turned into the equivalent of the gay bar on the corner they had put out of business, where everybody knows your name. Same faces, same lines, everybody ready to pounce on the new kid with their decades-old dick-pics. The age of innocence over, the apps all seemed to me to have become havens for pathological personalities and behaviors, where a kind of ugly sexual entitlement, with its “exceptional” prejudices, often reigned.

So at fifty, and fresh out of one of those monogamish relationships, I didn’t reload my phone with apps. I had been out of any kind of “gay scene” for years, and had just finished my first year of grad school, in theology, at a wonderfully progressive university. Among the majority of straight folks, there were also lots of queer students, most half my age, several trans and non-binary folks, and of course plenty of gay men and lesbians from my generation, too. I had an opportunity at the end of my first year to take a course in Queer Theory, and — I had read some Foucault years ago, and so on, but, well, my notes on my week six reading, James Penney’s After Queer Theory, start to get at what happens when you start to really interrogate systems of oppression. Note that by midterms we were already looking beyond queer theory, in a course on Queer Theory.

Penney argues that the universal queerness of sexuality is an “inauspicious starting point for a project invested in genuine social change.” He says class antagonism has always divided the “queer community” from itself. “Class is a diagonal difference that cuts through all the other differences – with the exception of sexual difference.” The book thus “foregrounds the strong, if not absolute, determination of sexual identities by economically structured social relations.” The author “aims to clear the terrain for a fresh start,” and “looks forward to the day when the concern for sexuality in cultural and political studies is wedded to a genuinely emancipatory and transformative vision of anti- and post-capitalist social change.”

This relentless interrogation of systems of oppression ripples out into every part of the world we’ve constructed, and which now must be deconstructed. Queerness is a powerful lens through which we can see liberation for everyone, but it’s not quite an “identity.” It’s a tool to critique and get beyond identity. I’ve realized as I move beyond my own “gay” identity — which has lived out its usefulness — that my wild years were a kind of liberative praxis that happened to have sex and sexuality as its modality. And that’s legitimate liberative praxis. But when liberation becomes synonymous with personal freedom that perpetuates systems of oppression, when we ourselves through this praxis replicate these systems in personal encounters and relationships, there’s no cause for pride in it. To me, now, this celebration is about embracing a broader movement of radical hospitality that doesn’t end until everyone is free. That’s a goal we can all take pride in.

So, long and short of it: I’m coming out as Queer.

Happy Pride!

When Allies Aren’t Enough

Artemisia Gentileschi, Judith Slaying Holofernes, 1620-21, oil on canvas, 162.5 x 199 cm (Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy)

Yesterday’s panel on allyship at Boston University’s Day of Collective Engagement: Racism and Antiracism, Our Realities and Our Roles, was disappointing, and highlighted several issues I have with the use of the word “ally” and current assumptions about how to move forward in authentic relationship together for real systemic change. I’m trying to think critically about our assumptions about effective roles in structural and regime change, and what I saw yesterday was just… not that.

The language of “allyship” has diplomatic and military associations, and alludes to treaties of mutual aid and protection. On the face of it, allyship seems a reasonable enough way to label a relationship whose purpose is to “join forces” to attack a common enemy: presumably institutional or systemic racism. I mean, that’s a cool martial metaphor we can all get behind, right? Fight the power!

But it shouldn’t take long in scratching the surface of this usage to ask: now, who is the “enemy” again? The truth of systemic racism is that the enemy is, for all intents and purposes, the ally (and vice-versa). Black folks and People of Color have been telling us this every time we come together. It isn’t overt, but implicit racism that is the real problem, and allies engage in it constantly, whether through big performative gestures or the death by a thousand cuts of relentless microaggressions.  

A recent article in Medium by Catherine Pugh put it flatly: “There Is No Such Thing as a ‘White Ally.’” The author reminded self-styled white allies: “You’re not ‘helping’ when it’s your mess we’re cleaning.” I know “good white people” who are taken aback by this discomfiting frankness. “It makes me not want to help at all!” one of my colleagues snapped during a group discussion on how we could best be of service to the BLM Movement recently. It was a disappointing remark, but you can see how the allyship frame sadly makes this a logical thought-process for many white folks. 

Alliances are arrangements built on power, after all. Between nations they involve treaties, containing casus foederis clauses that outline when allies are obligated to aid one another. But as we’ve seen in the behavior of the current US administration, alliances can be abandoned by bad faith actors at any time, especially those who feel they don’t need the protection the alliance provides its members. Mr. Trump never tires of reminding the allies of the US of what he perceives as imbalance in the power dynamic. Assistance is offered only where fawning appreciation is assured. In some ways this is the usage that has seeped into the implicit understanding of white allyship.

I realize it may seem frivolous to be arguing semantics at this point, but the words we use to describe relationships are important — and loaded. Sometimes they carry meanings we are not fully aware of until we begin to examine them more deeply and from different vantage points. I have been reading some trauma theory in preparation for a course this fall, and it has gotten me thinking about different ways to frame relationships steeped in abuse and generational trauma. Prof. Shelly Rambo has suggested “witness” as a theological response, something I’ll be exploring in a future post.

I’m also curious about Jewish and early Christ communities’ response to the systemic violence inherent and endemic in empire. How can we talk about a liberative agenda that goes deep into the structural roots of the particular kinds of violence we have internalized and normalized? How do we transform the awakening to systemic evil into relationship in community?

What are the words and metaphors we need to breathe life into this awakening?

It’s Not the End of the World: “Talking About Apocalypse in Apocalyptic Times”

Dropped into an amazing conversation on zoom yesterday, part of BU School of Theology’s Summer Seminar Series: “Talking About Apocalypse in Apocalyptic Times.” Gotta say: there is nothing quite so inspiring as progressive theologians talking about apocalypse. 

“Apocalypse” is one of those words that has traveled a long way from its origins — Apocalypse (ἀποκάλυψις) is a Greek word meaning “revelation”, “an unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling.” In a way it’s not surprising that we have let our imaginations run wild with it, or that it has taken on a “Late, Great Planet Earth” blockbuster cast. In a world with weapons of mass destruction, apocalypse has taken on a more singularly frightening meaning; it’s become more or less synonymous with annihilation. 

And there is that sense to the word, but not exactly as we have come to internalize and understand it.

Members of the panel, made up of New Testament scholars Rev. Dr. Shively Smith and Dr. Luis Menéndez-Antuña, and Nikki Young, a PhD student in Practical Theology, were all keen to emphasize the transformative over the world-endingness of apocalypse; the sense of beginning — of ways of conceiving and living into relationships as yet unimaginable — that often gets lost in our sense of an ending. For Dr. Smith, apocalypse is a space for new imagination, but also a “reconstituting place” — Where we “reclaim in order to re-imagine” — where what is unveiled is something we’ve forgotten, something we’ve erased, and now that it can again be remembered and seen, there is a reckoning, but also a re-imagining underway. 

But while this truth may set us free, freedom is only the beginning of the work. I liken it to the kairos moment or the I-Thou: unpacking a moment of revelation, of unveiling, a moment of pure truth, is the work of a lifetime; it is the work of our lives. It is the beginning of our journey, regardless of how long on the road we have been.

Which brings up how studying apocalyptic literature and even engaging in apocalyptic thinking can be useful to us now, in what many seem to think are “apocalyptic times.” If what is meant by this is “end times” in the sense of human annihilation, this may help motivate some on the margins, either in the direction of annihilation (with the thought that something better awaits) or away from it, but thinking of the present “Apocalypse” as an unveiling may be more empowering and transformative. 

Is there hope, then, in apocalypse? Not, according to Dr. Smith, hope of the “fairy tale kind.” Apocalyptic hope is about deep coming to terms with what has been revealed. This version of hope is disruptive, it emerges out of the chaos of the moment that pushes us toward radically new ways of living in the world together. Dr. Menéndez-Antuña reminded us that apocalyptic literature was coming from the margins, from vulnerability, woundedness, damage and persecution. When the veil is pulled back, it exposes the wound. What hope there is in this moment is coupled with having to acknowledge the wound, and of imagining ways of healing. 

About Last Night

First off: headlines screaming “PROTESTS TURN VIOLENT” are distortions that follow the same warped narrative that got us here. Without any clear evidence that the thousands of peaceful protesters from all over Boston had anything to do with localized and sporadic violence after dark, we need to question the assumption that there was a continuum or connection between the protests and whatever followed. The assumption that they are connected by anything except the presumption on the part of those engaging in violence after a day of peaceful protest that that connection would be drawn is specious. 

Like most people I know, I’ve had some experience with protests, mostly when I was in college. We’re talking first Gulf War. Like, back in ‘91. Ancient times, but I suspect much of the story and the characters remain strikingly the same. That summer I lived in a tent city set up by war protesters in Dunn Meadow on the Indiana University campus in Bloomington. I had long curly hair, wore flannel, and looked like Eddie Vedder. I will not be providing photographic proof, but here is a reasonable facsimile:

Basically me, more or less, rocking the protest mic in Dunn Meadow, c.1991.

There were a series of protests that summer, over the whole agonizing build-up to military action, and over time a group of preppy kids took to antagonizing the grunge kids camping out in the meadow. This antagonism had more or less nothing to do with the war or the substance of the protests. It likely had more to do with dirty hippies taking up the meadow, which was a favorite spot among Chad, Brock and the ultimate frisbee set.

One night a group of twenty or so of the latter, dressed to the teeth in pink oxfords and boat shoes, ambushed our little tent city, raised a ruckus, overturning our tents, and chasing us — there were probably twenty or so of us as well — down past the Student Union to Showalter Fountain, where, probably owing to burning off the adrenaline rush in the sprint to the fountain (which was, frankly, exhilarating), it turned into one of those shouting debates that always seem to erupt among protesters and “counter-protesters” on college campuses. I would rather it had ended in some sort of ‘60s lovefest, but this was the ‘90s, and in the ’90s you had to pay for that shit. 

After we’d all blown off some steam, we went back to our tents, they went back to Frat Row, and a few days later Operation Desert Shield went off as planned.

Later in the mid-aughts I did some organizing, and what I can tell you about any protest is that there will always be that group of shitty white kids from the suburbs who call themselves “anarchists” and want to hijack whatever it is you’re protesting (in my case it was public transit fare hikes) to quell the screaming maw of boredom of their meaningless existence. In the case of last night, we know suburban Nazis are stirring shit up, with the President’s encouragement, because they really want their race war, and he really wants them to have it. They know they’re not going to be held accountable. They know if anything goes down it will be: “PROTESTS TURN VIOLENT.” 

This is not new information, is what I’m saying. Protests like these have been happening since the dawn of modernity. If you’re just now tuning in, that’s your problem. Point being: unless the media can verify who was responsible, making assumptions about “protesters” turned rabble-rousers is irresponsible. It also plays into a relentless and false narrative that associates protest with violence and justifies more militarization and brutality. And the band plays on.

I took a ride downtown this morning, by the way, to see what I could see of the aftermath, and, yeah, there were some smash-n-grabs last night, for sure. It sucks, because we’re heading into an economic depression — I lived through ‘70s stagflation, too — and those boarded-up shops: they’re gonna stay boarded up for years. I know just yesterday I was saying we can’t be for “Back to Normal.” At this point, I don’t think we have to worry too much about that happening. 

The Audacity of Hopelessness

Jonathan Bachman’s iconic image from the July 2016 protest in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, days after police shot and killed Alton Sterling at close range, captured Ieshia Evans silently confronting heavily armed riot police. She later said she wanted her silence to convey: “I’m human. I’m a woman. I’m a mom. I’m a nurse. I could be your nurse. I could be taking care of you. You know? I’m here. We all matter. We don’t have to beg to matter. We do matter.”

I have so many thoughts and so much anguish about the horrific week just past, about the lynching of George Floyd, the latest in the seemingly never-ending assaults on black and brown bodies, and promises of more from this administration. It seems inadequate to just post something on social media, but at the same time silence in the face of innocent suffering is complicity in the act itself. It just feels numbingly like “thoughts and prayers”: a performative gesture with no real connection to systemic change. 

While Democrats condemned the latest lynching, reaction from the administration has been to pour as much jet fuel on the flames as possible. I’m not saying the Democrats’ reaction has been adequate, or that the current administration is the cause of this, but when the president gleefully tweets “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” it is clearly weaponizing these incidents and doing what it can to escalate them, presumably for what it hopes will be political gain. This is the shock and awe, the state of constant trauma that we were warned would be this administration’s MO. The chaos we are witnessing daily is a deadly combination of bad faith and ill-will. Much of it is absolutely carelessness and incompetence — scary enough — but the rest: strategic inattention to complex systems, and then weaponizing their collapse for profit — is truly terrifying.

Add to all of this the scorched-earth tactics of an election year. Brian Levin, director of the Cal State San Bernardino Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, told the LA Times in January: “with an election season coming up, we really have to be concerned because over the last decade, the three worst months were all around politically charged events.” I have been through enough of these election cycles in my life to have seen the “political violence cycle” with my own eyes, and how it usually impacts people of color, women, immigrants, religious minorities, and LGBTQ folk. We already know that this regime does not value all human lives equally, and that they are committed to keeping power at whatever the cost. Again, a president who tweets: “the only good Democrat is a dead Democrat” is encouraging political terror, whatever prevarications or excuses his handlers offer for his messaging.

It’s already a lot. And we’re not even into the real thick of it. The chaos can blind us to the patterns beneath. We are overwhelmed by evils on all fronts, and our outrage can silence us into complicity. There’s plenty of reason for despair, and that can lead those of us with privilege to withdraw. Many of us worry that we are playing a part in spreading violence by participating in a culture that relies on us to amplify it, but gives us very little in the way of solutions. There is value in witness, but when the spectacle of cruelty and violence is a tool of those in power, we become simply an audience for it. I wish I could say turning off the telly and engaging in self-care until things “get back to normal” was the answer. But “Back to Normal” is the moderate, good white people version of “Make America Great Again.” Back to normal, as we have seen, involves unrelenting systemic violence against people of color. 

When it was “revealed” that Amy Cooper was a “Buttegieg liberal,” it was no surprise to me. Blue cap. To be clear: all white Americans benefit from systemic racism. All white Americans have internalized racial privilege. They may not even realize it until it’s “activated.” As Christian Cooper suggested in several interviews, it comes out in “stressful” situations, where that privilege is questioned, even if only by the innocent presumption of equality by a person of color. Amy Cooper’s racism was reflexive. The logic of privilege is conditioned over a lifetime by systems of oppression that our unquestioned participation in makes seem organic and ineluctable. This does not mean that she, or any of us, is not responsible for participating in and perpetuating, in our millions of tiny everyday ways, this great evil. I’ll quote again, as I often do, from Marjorie Suchocki’s The Fall to Violence:

Ingrained attitudes of passive acceptance of a great social evil … is sin, and entails guilt. It is original sin, in that it is a pre-given structure of ill-being through which we view the world, inherited as the very stuff that forms the world as world. It becomes personal sin when, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so, and thus support and perpetuate the structure.

“…When, having the ability to question the structure, we fail to do so.” It’s very hard for “good white people” to stay focused on this, to really grasp the myriad ways we individually benefit from the systemic oppression of black and brown people. When we say that Amy Cooper “knew what she was doing,” we’re saying she knew what all white people know. Her acting on this knowledge is the flipside of our own ongoing inaction on it. As long as racism for us is little more than a “distraction,” however tragic, from other agenda items, black people will continue to be lynched in the streets; black and brown kids will continue to grow up in cages, separated, likely forever, from their parents, mostly forgotten among the multitudes of other victims of the human rights atrocities that are the human cost of our “normal”; and the powers that seek to profit from cruelty, violence and division will continue to provide content for audiences, outraged and otherwise, for their atrocities. The ratings, as our reality game show host-in-chief likes to say, are “through the roof.”

It feels like we are at war, doesn’t it? Everyday we wake up to devastating stories involving the loss of innocent lives. There’s good reason reasonable people shy away from the rhetoric of warfare, of course. We know that acts of retaliatory violence will only result in greater violence toward those who are already suffering. So, what’s the answer? We want to believe that our system of electoral politics, which we know to be flawed, if not broken, will rescue us from what that same system has wrought. We long for the “normalcy” of “before.” But we need to stop pretending that the normal we want to get back to was “at peace” just because we weren’t targeted for violence, because the systems of oppression and violence benefited us. I’ll say it again: “Back to Normal” is the blue cap version of “Make America Great Again.” 

I’ve watched as good white people have hoped against hope that someone or something would bring down this cruel, corrupt regime. Remember Robert Mueller? Now we wait, a little impatiently, a little put out, for November’s “blue wave,” urging our friends and “followers” on social media to remember to register to vote, to do the right thing! All the while dread and doubt eating at us, as we diligently follow the news, watching helplessly as those in power chip away at the transparency and fairness of our electoral system. The disbelief that any of this could really be happening is far outpaced by the fact that much of it has already been accomplished. We are like the search party, meticulously gathering clues in the dust, while the body rots in a ditch ten feet away.

Social ethicist and professor of Latinx Studies Miguel De La Torre, has written about embracing hopelessness. He is interested in “the function of hope in reinforcing oppressive structures and reining in revolutionary tendencies.” The “hopey, changey thing,” which has been a staple of the left, may, perversely, be serving an oppressive status quo. De La Torre suggests that as long as that hope exists, unchallenged, even the least of us may feel that we have something to lose, “and thus will not risk all to change the social structures. The realization that there is nothing to lose,” he says, can be the most powerful catalyst for change there is. It brings to mind the American president’s pitch to black voters in 2016: what the hell have you got to lose?” Maybe it’s time we all de-centered our hopes of returning to normal, and started fighting for the world we want as if our own lives depended on it, as if we, ourselves, have nothing to lose.

A Culture of Practice Based in Principle

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It somehow doesn’t surprise me that many of our practices in Restorative Justice have come to us from New Zealand. Within days of the recent terror attack in Christchurch, the nation had acted on gun laws. What this tells me is that there is some connection between a moral and political will there that is broadly lacking in our own culture and society. MacRae and Zehr talk about using Family Group Conferencing for Restorative Justice in “serious and complicated cases, and the power of practice based in principle.” This last part is what I have struggled with since coming to seminary: do we really have a culture of “practice based in principle” in the US right now? We have cultures of practice based in principle, but I think, especially where it counts, they are the exception.

NZ passed their landmark Children, Young Persons, and Their Families Act with provisions for FGC in 1989. In the US today we not only incarcerate youth (unsurprisingly: disproportionately black youth) in staggering numbers, many in adult facilities, but, according to the Sentencing Project, only 21 states (and the District of Columbia) “do not have any prisoners serving life without parole for crimes committed as juveniles, either due to laws prohibiting the sentence or because there are no individuals serving the sentence at this time.” A majority of states still allow the sentence, with 3 — Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Louisiana — accounting for nearly 2/3 of all JLWOP sentences.)

We could not be further from NZ on this.

I was reading this great article about African Prisons Project from ideas.TED.com. The program, founded in 2007 by then-law student (now a barrister in the UK), Alexander McLean, provides “high-quality legal advice, training, and education to those living and working in prison” across Kenya and Uganda. Through highly structured training programs, legal support services and “empowering Changemakers” in the short-, medium- and long-term, APP seeks to “place the power of the law into the hands of the poor, enabling them to make, shape and implement the law.” It’s pretty incredible, transformative stuff, and not just in theory.

So I’m reading about this and I come across this quote from John Jay College of Criminal Justice professor Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations:

Certainly in the US but also from what I’ve seen globally, most prisoners weren’t given adequate educational opportunities to begin with. The most fundamental reason why a society needs to give education to people in prison is because it failed them in the first place…. It’s a moral issue at heart, but it also makes sense economically, with numerous studies that show how it’s cheaper to educate than to incarcerate. If we don’t want to keep recycling people into and out of an expensive system, then education is key to reducing the recidivism rate.

I agree with all that, but it was the last sentence that caught me. Who is the “we” there? I think Dreisinger probably means, “we” as in “society”. But there are plenty of stakeholders in the current system and society who clearly do want to recycle people (mostly people of color) into and out of this system, and that’s the piece we need to reckon with.

The truth is: the economics can work for the people who need the economics to work, not only for the profits but also the perpetuation of white power. But the profits are there. From the local economies that are conned into hosting prisons, to the corporations and private contractors who build, maintain, and provide services to them and the businesses that use cheap (or in Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Texas: free) prison labor. Those numbers are great for business!

So are we being disingenuous or credulous when we make arguments about the “inefficiency” of slavery for the slavers? Or about the cost, which society, not the slavers, bear? Michelle Alexander talks about the need for a “great awakening” — not to the facts, which we possess — but to the evil to which we’re a party. The arguments against mass incarceration that focus on economics seem laughable, based on the outrageous lie that the economy is supposed to function for all of us, that vast sectors of the economy that enrich the few don’t actually flourish on widespread poverty, oppression and racial inequity. The Slave economy of the American South worked very well for slaveholders:

by 1860, there were more millionaires (slaveholders all) living in the lower Mississippi Valley than anywhere else in the United States. In the same year, the nearly 4 million American slaves were worth some $3.5 billion, making them the largest single financial asset in the entire U.S. economy, worth more than all manufacturing and railroads combined.

Why do we continue to pretend otherwise? This is not a rhetorical question. Treating it as such is a kind of compound cynicism. If we want to create a culture of practice based in principle, to re-establish some connection between a moral and political will, we have to keep speaking our principled truth, explicitly, in a loud, clear, prophetic voice. The economic argument is not going to win this one.