Visualizing 2040: Imagining My Place in Tomorrow

Visualizing 2040: Imagining My Place in Tomorrow
September 16, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Right now I’m in a webinar on “Regenerative Leadership” taught by Transition US. The Transition Movement, international in scope, is focused on facilitating a transition away from oil-centric lives and the danger we pose to ourselves and to entire ecosystems because of our economic-cultural addiction to oil. Just as much (perhaps more so), the Movement focuses on transition toward a healthier communal way of being human on a finite planet.

Of course, it’s more than just the oil. We live, as their website says, “in an age of unprecedented change, with a number of crises converging. Climate change, global economic instability, overpopulation, erosion of community, declining biodiversity, and resource wars, have all stemmed from the availability of cheap, non-renewable fossil fuels. Global oil, gas and coal production is predicted to irreversibly decline in the next 10 to 20 years, and severe climate changes are already taking effect around the world. The coming shocks are likely to be catastrophic.” Thus, in anticipation of the coming shocks—Transition cultivates “vibrant, grassroots community initiatives that seek to build community resilience … to mitigate these converging global crises by engaging their communities in home-grown, citizen-led education, action, and multi-stakeholder planning to increase local self reliance and resilience.”

Transition US has selected “From What Is to What If: Reimagining and Rebuilding Our World” as the theme for its current yearlong campaign, and this 16-week Regenerative Leadership webinar is part of that: aiming to develop and refine leadership skills to expand transition work in communities across the country. In preparation for Thursday’s class we did a pre-taped visualization exercise that invited us to imagine waking up in 2040 and to take stock of that world as it might be if we start transitioning toward a more just sustainable world today; a sort of fast forward sneak peak at a possible tomorrow as a tool for stoking strategic planning today. Then we were asked to write two short responses to the exercise. These (lightly edited for clarity) were my responses.

What is your vision for yourself, your community, and the world in the year 2040?

Initially I found the visualization/visioning exercise both frustrating and humbling … though it did ultimately led to a place of hopefulness.

But first, the humbling frustration. Many of the visualization prompts asked me to imagine the “systems” of that future world as I moved through a typical day. (What would I eat? Where would it come from? What about my clean drinking water? Where would my waste go? What would community transit and architecture look like?) But I have very little “practical knowledge” about my day-to-day life today let alone tomorrow. It’s embarrassing how much I’m dependent on systems I don’t understand to provide water, food, energy, etc. In (too!) many ways I’m at the mercy of the modern world.

This is not an excuse to be lazy in visioning, it’s the honest lament that for some in our class (like me)—and for many in the wider public—the capacity to even muster a legitimate “what if” about better ways to access water, food, energy, transit, etc. is more likely to unlock despair than imagination. This is surely not the case for everyone, but as I listened to the prompts it was hard not to feel increasingly despondent because my life/learning has not equipped me to respond to these prompts except in fairly shallow ways.

The prompts do ask really important questions about the world we’re longing for—but they did not present ME with a bridge to get there. They focused mostly on “the hands” dimension of Transition (the practical, on-the-ground, outward aspects of Transition), while my real (and pretty much only) gifts lie much more on “the heart” dimension (the introspective, spiritual-philosophical, inward aspects of Transition). But the visualization exercise offered very few opportunities to engage that dimension. Thankfully [he wrote with bitter irony], because the world of “what is,” already regularly discounts and/or fails to value the skillset I do have, I recognized that familiar feeling and chose to imagine 2040 on terms I could engage with.

My vision for the future 2040 looks like this:

I’m 80 years old, so moving a bit slower, but I remain engaged in Inner Transition work in faith communities. While it might be nice (and kudos to those who can) to imagine a 2040 where we’ve successfully dodged climate chaos, my 2040 is a world chastened by the now unremitting waves of climate karma and one still struggling to make peace with an economy in tatters and an eco-system perilously frayed. That’s my best case scenario (sorry; and don’t ask about my worst). So what does Inner Transition work look like in that future?

My church has retooled itself into a community hub of education and inspiration. It remains rooted in its Christian tradition, but has become, as the Zapatistas say, “a world where many worlds fit,” such that events reflecting other faiths and inter-faith are part of our weekly rhythm. We “broke into” our sizable endowment to renovate our building into a multi-purposed structure that allows us to do the ministry needed in this moment. This includes hosting community ed events that reflect the heart of our faith that we are indeed “at home on earth”: teaching the closer-to-the-land life skills that make life possible on a less hospitable planet. But also teaching the hospitality skills (the listening-empathy-knowledge necessary in a culturally world) that make community possible in a country still working to undo centuries of racist-sexist-capitalist injustice; those wounds run deep!

A disproportionate part of our work, particularly my work, is fostering faith (the capacity to use stories, rituals, and convictions to make meaning in our lives) that can plumb the grief that is the pathway to a more just and sustainable 2060 or 2080. I likely won’t see those years, but others will—including some of my own children and grandchildren. Before we reach that far side of a turn we may only be starting in 2040, perhaps the closest thing to a “magic bullet” for the daunting global context we face today is near bottomless grief for the decisions made and reaffirmed countless times in prior decades, even centuries—and the suffering those decisions have purchased, past-present-and-future, for so many beings. I don’t mean grief as aimless, endless anguish, but as lament that allows us to excavate our culture, our world system, with surgical precision and resolute abandon—this grief helps true the compass that might guide us steadfastly toward a tomorrow where we make friends with finitude and that near mystical notion: enough.

But it’s not all grief. Now a resident theologian emeritus, I write a weekly column for the neighborhood online newspaper that’s equal parts wisdom, poetry, and simple snark (at 80 you can do that). I still lead weekend retreats, some connecting ancient texts (Scripture) to current themes with surprising insight and others that help persons chart the narrative of their lives against the apocalyptic canvas of the contemporary world such that meaning hovers within their reach once again. I spend a couple hours on weekday afternoons collaborating with teens on fashioning faith in a mostly post-god world: creating capacity for awe, conviction for good, and a cross-generation vision for justice. And weekend evenings I sit back in a corner next to my wife (now 81) while the church hosts community coffee houses, where mostly I enjoy the music, sip tea, and wonder how I got so lucky to be alive at this moment.

How might this vision inform what you are doing now?

Well, I’m already laying the inward (the headward and heartward) groundwork to be able to do this: I’m engaged in oodles of learning and reflection to connect my education in and passion for theology to this work. Finding institutional support—finding institutional imagination—is trickier. Still, I suppose this vision right here—moving as it does from a disgruntled rant to cheerfully sipping tea with my beloved—could inspire me to seek out co-conspirators and potential church sites … Turns out there’s really a good bit to ponder. So stay tuned.

*     *     *

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

9/11 – Lady Liberty in the Foreground

photo – National Park Service / Public domain / wikimedia commons

Sometimes the uncomfortable task of the poet is to seize our eyes in a moment when they are already wrenched by horror and force us to look more deeply into the terror before we avert our gaze. In this poem I echo—and invert—many images in Emma Lazarus’ famous poem about the Statue of Liberty. Understand: this is not a defense of terrorism. It is a plea that we recognize terrorism as the inevitable fruit of the widening gap between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the power-hungry—and the legacy of state terrorism that runs deep in our own history … from genocide and slavery to military incursions, foreign policy, trade deals, and corporate exploitation. We fool ourselves if we think that military retaliation—or anything else less than justice can promise us peace. ~drw 9/11/2001

9/11/2020: Although the pain of this moment remains seared in our memories—stamped into the very shape of our lives henceforth—so little suggests that we have even begun the inward turn that is the first step toward repentance and renewal.

 

Lady Liberty in the Foreground

This mighty woman with her torch stands placidly bereft
Her hem wave-washed beneath bright skies
above calm water-harbored lies
while smoky wisps of violent truth swell billows to her left.

She lifts her lamp in silent shame, its welcome long outworn
to huddled masses, tired, poor
whose breath withers on distant shore
in labor for our ill-won wealth, their liberty stillborn.

Our sea-washed sunrose-gates once twinned, with storied pomp around
our innocents now tempest-tost
lives unnumbered ever lost
in towers traded now for wretched refuse on the ground.

From horrored hearts—their anguish true, is naught but vengeance loosed?
Dare she invite us to repent
of exiled lives too cheaply spent,
her flame a bloodied beacon-hand for woes come home to roost.

drw – 09.11.01

 

Here is the text of Emma Lazarus’ (1849-1887) poem:

The New Colossus

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land,
Here at our sea-washed, sunset-gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome, her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin-cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore;
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

11.02.1883

*     *     *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

 

Water Carriers—Every One of Us

Water Carriers—Every One of Us
September 1, 2020 – David R. Weiss

We were barely noticed as we made our way along Summit Avenue. Three friends, masked and walking with a hardly remarkable purple aluminum water bottle, save for the mix of blue and white ribbons streaming from the top.

Most cars, bikers, even fellow pedestrians would’ve never guessed the weight of our steps. I’m not sure we did until our two-mile trek was well underway. Becky, Deb and I had met on the church lawn about 9:15 in the morning. We gathered alongside the shrub that had marked our spot on the lawn from Sunday evening’s gathering. We paused there and each of us said a brief word about our morning’s mission. And then we walked.

We were, echoing a motif in our own faith tradition, three magi—three wise ones—coming from the east. Carrying with us not three gifts, but one. Still, that one gift is decidedly more valuable than any collection of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You see, the purple water bottle was filled with 16 ounces of Nibi. Water.

Nibi (pronounced nih-bee) is the Anishinaabe-Ojibwe word for water. For sacred water. In early August this water was ceremonially drawn from the Headwaters of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota. And yet it isn’t sacred on account of the ceremony. For the Anishinaabe there is no water that is not sacred. Every bit of it is essential to the whole of creation—interwoven with life at every level. It is at once—in every instance—both mundane and sacred. We carried holy-ordinary water.

Since early August this 16 ounces of Nibi has been making its way across the state, carried by Native and non-Native persons—on foot, by bike, by boat, horseback—in the Relay for Our Water. At each leg of the relay one group passes it on to the next group of water carriers, the water poured reverently from one container to the next, to the next, to the next. On the twenty-seventh day it reached us.

Each day as the water moves it raises awareness about the threat posed to Nibi by Enbridge’s proposed Line 3. The new pipeline would carry tar sands crude—the dirtiest oil there is—from Alberta, Canada across Anishinaabe lands in northern Minnesota … crossing or running near to more than 200 wetlands, lakes, streams, and rivers, including the Mississippi Headwaters … until it reaches Superior, Wisconsin.

Line 3 would disrupt or destroy large tracts of pristine land, violating treaty rights that guarantee Anishinaabe access to healthy lands even beyond their tribal reservation boundaries. It would threaten lands that grow wild rice—a truly sacred food in Anishinaabe culture. It would only fuel our society’s thirst for oil at the very moment when we need to breaking this deadly addiction, investing instead in jobs that promote a just transition to green energy—not further indebting our wellbeing to fossil fuels.

And Line 3 promises to poison Nibi for generations to come; promises because it isn’t a matter of if but when the spill(s) happen. Enbridge pipelines have had over 800 spills in the past fifteen years—including the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010. No wonder the Anishinaabe have been fighting Line 3 for six years. The wonder—the shame—is that more of us haven’t been fighting alongside them. The Relay for Our Water invites us to do just that.

So that’s why we carried the water on August 31. The night before we’d welcomed it from a group of Youth Climate Strikers who carried it to us at the edge of the lawn outside St. Paul’s United Church of Christ. Once poured into our container we wrapped it in our Sacred Circle liturgy, a simple service that uses gratitude, grief, enlarged vision, and active hope to meet the dire challenges presented by climate crisis and other entangled injustices like Line 3. We prayed and read and sang and listened in a light rain, as though Nibi itself had joined us in a most holy-ordinary collaboration of sorts.

This morning three of us returned to the exact spot where the Nibi rested yesterday evening to carry it from there to the next stop on its journey, the Twin Cities Friends Meeting House near Macalester College. It was midway between these two spots that the ordinariness of it all overwhelmed me.

Nobody noticed us as we walked along. And this was likely true for most of the miles the Nibi had traveled. We water carriers are nothing special. Ordinary people carrying ordinary-holy water on a journey across the state. But the weight of this barely noticed work is to join peoples and generations in care for Nibi and in solidarity with our Native siblings. Not just the water, the work as well is ordinary-holy—both mundane and sacred in every moment.

And then something else hit me. So, you didn’t get to carry Nibi in the Relay? Well, on average our bodies are 50-60% water by weight. Each of us, all day long, carries not just 16 ounces but between seven and fifteen gallons of Nibi in our own bodies. Sacred water because there is no water that is not sacred. It is at once—in every instance—both mundane and sacred. We carry holy-ordinary water in ourselves.

And the water within us? No less than the Nibi in the Headwaters of the Mississippi, every bit of it is also essential to the whole of creation—interwoven with life at every level. Within us … among us … indelibly part of us, each human being is host to some 100 trillion microbes. Tiny creatures that aid in our digestion, play key roles in our immune system, and carry out other duties essential to keeping a person alive. They don’t “help” us live—they are wholly interwoven with our living. We live through them as they live through us, on undulating waves of Nibi. An unending refrain of the cosmos … and the sacred.

We are bound to one another, to creation itself. The same water enlivens us all. Beings of every sort and kind. Nibi is under threat. But we are water carriers—every one of us. So carry on. And carry well. Holy-ordinary in every moment.

*                *                *

Learn more about the issues at stake in Line 3: www.stopline3.org/issues

Learn about action steps you can take: http://bit.ly/RfOW_Act

Follow the Relay for Our Water: www.facebook.com/Relay-for-our-Water-629502024372144

A recent online story on the Relay: www.stcroix360.com/2020/08/river-relay-connected-by-water

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on September 1, 2020. 1 Comment

Five loaves, two fish, and a truck – in Uganda

NOTE: This post shares a GoFundMe campaign I’m managing for a local church.

Moses and me in Kampala, Uganda, 2013.

But for me, it’s VERY PERSONAL. In 2013 I traveled to Uganda, where Moses served as my driver and right-hand man for *everything* for two weeks. We’ve remained good friends – a few years ago he even named his 4th child after me!

Moses is one of eight persons who founded the Dorcas Star Mission. This campaign is raising funds to help them buy a truck to further empower their ministry feeding hospital patients — a need heightened during the pandemic.
Here’s a modest CHALLENGE:
Margaret & I already made a $500 gift to the Mission before the campaign launched to help them cover costs while the campaign was running. But we’ll make an additional donation of $2 for EACH of my blog readers (or Facebook friends) that makes a donation (of any amount!) between now and August 15. If you donate, make a comment on this post so I know to make a $2 match for your gift!

PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A GIFT THAT IS MEANINGFUL TO YOU … it’s even a gift if you share the campaign! Thank you.

(Link direct to the GoFundMe page)

Five loaves, two fish, and a truck – in Uganda (GOAL: $20,000)

Jesus fed several thousand people with five loaves, two fish, and faith. The Dorcas Star Mission in Mbale, Uganda has similar hopes, but they also could really use a truck. Let me explain.

Feeding the hungry is a worthy cause anytime anywhere. But feeding hungry new mothers and young children at a hospital in Uganda during a pandemic is a special challenge. This fundraiser hopes to meet that challenge.

A hospital, hunger, and the Dorcas Star Mission

Back in April, with Uganda bracing for the COVID-19 pandemic, a small group of Christian men and women who meet regularly for study and fellowship desired to do something to aid their local community. One member suggested they could provide food for patients at the local hospital. Administrators at the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital serving Eastern Uganda were happy to receive their offer. And thus the Dorcas Star Mission was born out of this simple desire to live out their faith through service to others.

In Uganda, as in many developing nations, public hospitals provide much-needed medical services—but often do not provide meals. Families must bring in food for family members in the hospital.

But not everyone has family able to do this. In Uganda many families already scramble to eat day-to-day. And under the economic disruption caused by the lockdown during this pandemic, very few hospital patients are receiving any food support at all. They may only be at the hospital for a couple of days, but without adequate meals, medications can have worsened side effects and recovery is slowed. With little more than “five loaves, two fish, and some faith,” the Dorcas Star Mission stepped in to fill this need. (But they could also really use a truck.)

Corn porridge and bananas, carried by boda-boda

The Dorcas Star Mission began their feeding program in mid-April. Using their own meager funds and a little aid from local businesses, they purchase corn meal to make porridge and they provide bananas as well. By early May they were bringing meals to 400 patients a day Monday through Friday. The hospital provides a room where they can serve up the food and wash their utensils afterwards. They first serve the breast-feeding mothers, then other patients in the women’s ward with small children, and then any other patients with no outside support.

But the need is so great. Since starting the hospital has asked them to also provide extra food two days a week when there are day clinics—to which patients (including children) often walk in from five or more miles away. In fact, even some of the hospital nurses and staff go without food for their entire shifts, so they welcome any extra porridge.

Each day the Dorcas Star Mission makes 50 gallons of corn porridge in one member’s home—enough to feed a pint of porridge to 400 women and children. Then they transport the porridge (in ten 5-gallon/20-liter jugs), along with bowls, spoons, bananas, and volunteers, to the hospital. Right now everything is ferried over Mbale’s chaotic city streets by a dozen boda-bodas—small motorcycle taxis they have to hire each day. Did I mention they could really use a truck?

The men and women of the Dorcas Star Mission have indomitable faith and boundless compassion. Although they are all persons of modest means, they have so far funded this ambitious meal program—including all the taxi fees—out of their own pockets. But acquiring a truck is simply beyond their means. Yet this would allow them to transport food, supplies and volunteers more efficiently and more safely. That’s why we’re appealing to you.

A truck … and a little bit more

A truck isn’t the only need, but it’s the biggest one. Funds we raise will go first to purchase a reliable used double-cab pick-up truck ($13,000-$15,000). Besides this major purchase, the other essential need is facemasks (now mandatory in Uganda), both for volunteers and for in-patients. Remaining funds raised will be used to cover other expenses for their ministry. These include cell phone minutes to let them coordinate their work, rent for their tiny office, porridge ingredients (cornmeal, milk, sugar), bananas, utensils, and, if possible, small stipends for core volunteers.

They’ve already strained to increase their porridge delivery to 500 servings per day five days a week. If our campaign is resoundingly successful, they know that if they provided 800 servings per day there would be that many hungry mouths to feed.

Uganda is a couple months behind the U.S. in its experience of the pandemic timeline. By offering support now, we can enable The Dorcas Star Mission to respond most effectively when the need will be greatest. So, it’s not really five loaves, two fish, and a truck. It’s more like 50-60 gallons of porridge, dozens of bananas, a handful of volunteers, facemasks, cellphone minutes … and a truck. And you can help make this happen. Please make a gift that is meaningful to you.

Trust years in the making

St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Roseville, Minnesota is hosting this fundraiser. Pastor Brad has known Moses, one of the leaders of Dorcas Start Mission, for about fifteen years. David, though not a member at St. Michael’s, is coordinating this fundraiser. David and Pastor Brad have been friends for close to two decades, and David met Moses in person when he traveled to Uganda seven years ago.

Both of us have strong relationships with Moses and have seen him act with extraordinary integrity and compassion over the years. Quite simply, we would trust him with our lives. St. Michael’s Lutheran Church is pleased to host this fundraiser as one expression of our Global Outreach. All funds received (less any transaction and transfer fees) will go to assist the Dorcas Star Mission in their charitable work providing food support for patients at the Mbale Regional Referral Hospital.

Thank you for your generosity and support of the Dorcas Star Mission through your gift to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church. If you prefer to mail in a donation, send it to St. Michael’s Lutheran Church, 1660 West County Road B, Roseville, MN 55113 – and be sure to put Dorcas Star Mission on the memo line. Contributions are tax-deductible to the full extent of the law. No goods or services were exchanged for these donations.

Five loaves, two fish, and a truck – in Uganda

You can help make this happen. Please make a gift that is meaningful to you.

(Link direct to the GoFundMe page)



Albert Weiss and the Ku Klux Klan

Albert Weiss and the Ku Klux Klan
August 4, 2020 – David R. Weiss

If we’re honest, most of our family histories have episodes and chapters in them that we wish weren’t there. Mine does, too. Happily, this isn’t one of them.

But a little background first. In 1920 the Ku Klux Klan began organizing in southern Indiana …

Originally founded in 1865 as a post-Civil War vigilante group of ex-Confederate soldiers dedicated to terrorizing newly freed Blacks in the South, the Klan had largely disappeared within a decade. (To be sure, even though the KKK had been officially disbanded, there were plenty of racist vigilantes still active in the South alongside Black Codes and Jim Crow Laws.)

Then, the 1915 release of the film “Birth of a Nation” unabashedly glorified the Klan as a supposed protector of America’s purity—and white supremacy. The film was praised by President Woodrow Wilson and sparked a resurgence of the Klan beginning in the Deep South. This incarnation of the Klan, however, was led by better-educated and better-connected men; its political influence quickly became formidable. Drawing on the latent xenophobia that always rises in wartime, the Klan wed its racism to added fears of immigrants coming from Ireland and southern and eastern Europe, immigrants most often Catholic or Jewish.

This broadened message of fear and hate helped the Klan move north. Industry was drawing both European immigrants as well as southern Blacks to the area. (Chicago’s Black population more than doubled between 1910 and 1920; Detroit’s grew six-fold in that time.)

Wikimedia Commons – Klan gathering on January 1, 1922 in Muncie, Indiana. The sign at the left says, “We stand for law and order.”

So this is the Ku Klux Klan that spread northward in Indiana in the early 20’s. It spread like wildfire. From July 1922 to July 1923 its statewide membership grew by 2000 per week until the Indiana Klan boasted over 250,000 dues-paying members—the largest membership of any state north or south. By 1925 the Governor of Indiana and over half of the members of both house of the General Assembly were card-carrying Klansmen. The Klan’s reach into local communities ran just as deep. Protestant ministers were offered free memberships. At its peak, 30-40% of the white males in Indiana joined the Klan. Even those who did not join were frequently intimidated into silence. And many politicians from the city to state level knew that a Klan endorsement was key to their election.

The Klan’s statewide newspaper, The Fiery Cross, targeted Blacks and Jews (often framed as Jewish Communists), but it saved its strongest venom for Catholics who were accused of plotting secretly to overthrow the U.S. government, hand the nation over to the Pope, and then exterminate Protestants across the country. All who joined the Klan pledged their secrecy, affirmed that they were “native born, white, Gentile, American citizens,” vowed their allegiance to the country, and promised to “faithfully strive for the eternal maintenance of White Supremacy.” Remember, over a third of all white men in the state made these pledges in order to join the Klan.

Daily Republican, Rushville, IN, August 16, 1923

While the Indiana Klan was strongest in the central part of the state, it had members throughout, including perhaps 20% or more in northern Indiana. In 1923 the Klan made a serious though ultimately unsuccessful bid to buy Valparaiso University (at the time nicknamed “the Poor Man’s Harvard”) shortly before its purchase by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. And in 1924 the Klan held a rally in South Bend targeted at Notre Dame. The rally became violent between Notre Dame students and Klansmen (including some who had been deputized by the sheriff).

So, that’s the background. Now meet me at 215 Grant Avenue in Michigan City, the home of Albert and Johanna Weiss, and their son Robert (my grandpa), who would’ve been about ten. Let’s say summer 1923, but it might have been 1922 or 1924. They’re out on the front porch. Maybe after supper on a Sunday evening.

Here comes the Michigan City Ku Klux Klan marching down Grant Ave in their robes. Perhaps a couple dozen of them. Hooded. Likely carrying both an American flag and a Christian flag. The Klan harnessed the worst energies of both patriotism and faith. Their march had three purposes. It served to celebrate the Klan itself—which they would do at the end of the march when they burned a cross (maybe several crosses) in the dunes. But along the way it served two other purposes. To intimidate the Polish Catholics and the Blacks, both of whom were increasing in the city’s west side. And to recruit white Protestant men to join. Men like my great-grandpa Albert.

Albert was a laborer at Haskell & Barker (later Pullman Standard), a manufacturer of railroad cars. His particular work was hard—and hot. He was part of a crew that heated the steel train wheels until they expanded, then forced them onto the axel where they would shrink and seal tight. He undoubtedly knew a host of other immigrants (he’d only come to the U.S. from Germany around 1910). Still, as a white German Protestant, he had every reason to buy into the Klan’s message of fear and hate.

As the marchers walked by, one of them called out to my great-grandpa by name, “Hey, Albert, you should be out here marching with us! Come join!” It might’ve sounded like a friendly invitation, but such invitations often included an unspoken—“or else.” Which made Albert’s reply all the more memorable: “I won’t join anything that requires me to hide my face. If your beliefs are so honorable, why are you hiding behind those hoods?” And he stormed back into the house.

Just like that, the moment was over. Thankfully, so far as we know, there were no reprisals made by the Klan against him. But the scene etched itself into his wife’s memory and became one of the stories she shared with her grandson, Frederick, my dad. For her, it was a story that helped define her long dead husband. A man of hard work, little book learning, very modest means—but with convictions and honor that had roots running down deep, as though into the earth. Unshakeable.

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, in a day when our nation was unsettled by change and uncertainty, and many were easily mesmerized by heightened fear and cultivated hate of others, Albert Weiss, my great-grandfather, said No.

It’s a far different world today, but one in which fear and hate still sell all too well. I now live in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Google maps places me about 459 miles from Albert’s front porch. But standing on my porch, just above a yard sign that proclaims “Black Lives Matter,” the distance—and the century—between us fall away. I never met Albert. He died in 1932, several years before my dad was born. But today I stand on his shoulders.

If you’re one of Albert’s descendants (or even if you’re not!), I invite you to clamber on up. In the face of fear and hate he was unshakeable. Today there’s room on his shoulders for all of us.

*     *     *

 

NOTE: The collapse of the Indiana Klan began in 1925 when its leader, D.C. Stephenson, was convicted in the brutal rape and murder of a young woman. Sent to prison (in Michigan City), he counted on clemency or commutation from the governor (a fellow Klansman). When that didn’t happen, Stephenson (from prison) provided the Indianapolis Times with the names of politicians involved in corruption through the Klan. The whole organization was unraveled thanks to a series of reports that earned the Times the 1928 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service. By 1928 Indiana Klan membership had dropped from 250,000 to just 4,000. But that’s another story.

There’s a lot of online material about the Indiana Klan, including a nice 15-minute C-SPAN video (www.c-span.org/video/?298317-1/1920s-indiana-ku-klux-klan). These are the pieces I relied on for this essay:
www.en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Klan;
www.theindychannel.com/longform/the-ku-klux-klan-ran-indiana-once-could-it-happen-again;
www.historymuseumsb.org/the-golden-era-of-indiana;
www.blog.newspapers.library.in.gov/ku-klux-u-how-the-klan-almost-bought-a-university;
www.nd.edu/stories/a-clash-over-catholicism.

*  *  *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 4, 2020. 1 Comment

Good Christian Racist

NOTE: I wrote this reflection as part of my current class on Dismantling Whiteness. It interweaves my own journey with several of our class readings, but I think it will be accessible to anyone, even if you haven’t read the background material.

Good Christian Racist: My (Still Unfolding!) Journey Out of Whiteness
David R. Weiss – August 3, 2020

Introduction. As a child I had frequent night terrors. I would waken frozen in fear, convinced there was something frightful lying in wait beneath my bed. The best my dad could do was show me with a flashlight—scanning the bare carpet floor left to right—that there was nothing beneath the bed. The lesson tormented my mind because although my dad seemed to be right, the moment the light was off and he’d left the room, my heart knew that the Nothing under the bed was more real than any flashlight could capture.

James Baldwin describes whiteness as a lie, a category without real existence but with very real effects. It is a moral catastrophe for those who embrace it, since it presupposes (was created precisely to presuppose!) an otherness within humanity that invites people raced as white to act inhumanly toward our fellow humans. Despite its nothingness, it poses a deadly threat to persons deemed other, because it was created out of (and amplified) disparate power relations. Whiteness, then, is a Nothingness that “exists” only to fracture creation. [1] I don’t think I was scared of whiteness beneath my bed, but maybe I should’ve been. It’s been hiding out “in, with, and under” me since my birth.[2]

Beginnings. I was born into a good Christian racist family in 1959. “Good” and “Christian” because my family raised me to be empathetic and merciful, values reinforced by the Christian beliefs we held and the Christian practices we pursued. “Racist,” because my family had been blissfully raced white long before I came along. We weren’t overtly or antagonistically racist, but the waters of white supremacy in which we swam, buoyed us up, even while they swallowed others whole. We did not march with the Klan (not even when asked to!), but we benefited from a host of social conventions that kept us “safe” in a necessarily dangerous world.[3] I was taught these things—to be “good,” to be “Christian,” and to be racist—by those who loved me. And I learned the lessons well.

I was not once taught to think of Black people as less than … but I was seldom if ever encouraged to directly question the world that clearly thought Black people were less than. And this was despite the fact that this disparate world was in my face. Every day of my young life.

From birth through high school I lived in Michigan City, Indiana. I knew there were Black people in my community (25-30% of the city’s 30,000 people). And I knew they were, on the whole, poor. Michigan City as a whole has a poverty rate (27.2%) almost double the state’s rate (13.5%). But for Blacks the rate is 2½ times that of whites (41% vs. 17%). The neighborhood I grew up in, unimpressively middle class by most every measure, has a poverty rate just under 7%. But both my church/school and my grandparents’ home were in neighborhoods with poverty rates triple that—and racial demographics to match. I didn’t know the numbers, but from my youth my eyes told me that whiteness tilted my neighborhood toward “nicer.” Without judgment. It was simply the way it was. Then again, without judgment, it was implicitly-obviously simply the way it was meant to be.

My dad grew up in the 1930’s and 1940’s on the city’s west side, at the time a patchwork of working class immigrant-ethnic neighborhoods that grew up in walking distance to the city’s industrial base. Germans, Poles, Blacks, Lebanese, and Syrians, as well as a smattering of others. As my dad’s generation became adults, those who were raced as white often moved outward to the developing parts of the city, while black families bought or rented the homes left behind. Thus, as the city grew, the north and west sides became increasingly dense in Black population and the south and east (growing) edges of the city became largely white. Even without redlining,[4] it’s likely that banks, realtors, and residential racial bias shaped the city’s racial geography.

My Lutheran day school (grades 1-8) was probably 95% white. All eight teachers were white. My public high school (with probably 15-20% Black students) had about 100 teachers; five were Black; none taught me. Of the roughly 80 faculty at my small Lutheran college none were Black; one person appears to have been Middle Eastern. From kindergarten through college I was educated by people raced as white—teachers who, mostly unwittingly I suspect—raced to pass on whiteness to me.

I had only a couple brief friendships (and a couple tutoring relationships) that crossed racial lines, but none offered real engagement. Black people lived on the other side of the city, in other homes, and had other lives. Looking back, my childhood community had all the materials to be a learning lab for racial disparities and injustice, but it never appeared at the forefront of any school curriculum, any church emphasis, or any family values. We never met racial injustice with anything stronger than (occasional) charity. We meant no one harm. But the fact is that people—Black people—were being harmed on our watch, and we (I, at least) barely noticed. We were, after all, good Christian racists.

Adulting. I attended college and seminary in (overwhelmingly white) Iowa. Only one college course (in sociology) directly addressed race. It invited me for the first time to look beneath the surface of what “simply was,” to begin—ever so faintly—to see the structural “why” underneath.

Seminary (1982-86) is where and when I first became aware of my maleness, my straightness, and my whiteness. But just barely. I participated in an intensive 3-day “in-your-face” training on race awareness led by C.T. Vivian (colleague of MLK; just died July 17, 2020, age 95). I remember being intimidated in the training—but little else. One “blessing” of whiteness is that it readily welcomes you back into its arms if you only stray for a few days and don’t have any plans to abandon it with ongoing vigor. Absent any provisions to sustain me in ongoing discomfort or even mundane practices, I marked “racial awareness” off my “to do” list … and got on with my white life.

Because my awakenings to feminist and LGBTQ+ issues—and, hence, my own sense of being male and straight—were embedded in lasting friendships they continued to unfold in the coming years. These friendships, alongside some courses in feminist theology and my involvement in anti-apartheid work (I had casual friendships with Namibian seminarians who lived under apartheid) led me to recognize that sometimes “the way things are,” is grotesquely unfair—by design.

Around age 25 I had my first(!) teacher of color, a Guyanese seminary professor, for a course on Marx and Liberation Theology. However, in a bit of irony, this Latin American Lutheran theologian seemed intent on discrediting both Marx and Liberation Theology for placing too much “faith” in human works rather than in God’s grace. I didn’t yet have either the guts or knowledge to push back on the professor, but my intuitive gut-knowledge was coming clear: God sides resolutely with the poor. And those of us who wish to be in the company of God belong there too.

After seminary, from 1985-2005 I developed my own theological voice around justice, doing graduate study in Christian Ethics and then teaching college myself. I became feminist; actively working to de-center the male-default in my language and thought. I became an articulate, trusted, vocal ally for LGBTQ persons. I embraced—as theologian, writer, and civilly-disobedient activist—a variety of justice issues … but not racial justice. (Except for a single service-learning course I taught in 2000 on a Navajo reservation; an opportunity offered to me just that once.)

Despite growing up in a community marked by race and racial disparities I turned my energy in nearly every other direction from my early twenties until I was almost fifty. There are many reasons, I’m sure, but as Robin DiAngelo notes: “White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives.”[5] Lacking any genuine cross-racial friendships, my concern for racial justice was a matter of principle … tempered by convenience; a conviction held in the abstract … but not wrapped in warm flesh.

Finally, working in campus ministry (2006-2009), I was paid to learn about racial justice. As I led service-learning trips to the Mississippi Delta I began to stretch myself theologically and personally. Then, in an irony of second-hand intersectional oppression, I lost my job in campus ministry over my growing voice (off campus, apart from my day job) seeking justice for LGBTQ+ persons in faith communities. And with the end of that job, my passion for racial justice conveniently waned. L

With the killings of Michael Brown (2014) and Freddy Gray (2015) and Philando Castile (2016), the anguish and anger of Black people swept into my consciousness. I had friends (a deacon in Ferguson and a pastor in Baltimore, both raced as white) who put their faith and the feet out in the streets alongside the Black communities in each case. Their witness pressed me … inconveniently. Philando worked at the school across the street from my church; the young girls next door to us knew him from the lunchroom. Heartbroken, I wept.[6] I marched. I blocked the interstate. I wrote.

In response to Philando’s killing my church formed a racial justice team. Over the next two years my wife and I worked closely with two Black women (sisters and peers to us in age) to facilitate learning in the congregation. (I’ve since left that congregation but my wife is still part of that work.) Besides leading conversations around A Good Time for the Truth: Race in Minnesota (Sun Yung Shin, ed.), Waking Up White (Debbie Irving), and White Fragility (Robin DiAngelo), the “behind-the-scenes” planning done with these strong Black women provided regular opportunities for humility, accountability, and internal growth. Our collegiality was deeply appreciated, but we got no free passes.

Imperfection. In the spring of 2017 I was invited to teach a “Contemporary Topics in Christian Ethics” course of my own creation—a rare offer for an adjunct at Hamline University. I taught “Climate Change, Queer Christians, and Race.” I felt competent to teach climate and LGBTQ issues but hardly ready to teach on race. Still, I knew race was as pressing as any challenge facing the church. So I taught—imperfectly—moving humbly, uncertainly, but with conviction through texts, ideas, and conversations. At the end of the semester I asked one of my sharpest students, a young Black woman, if we could … just be friends … now that class was over. I rather stammered that I wanted more Black relationships in my life and that my wife and I would be honored to get to know her better. Three years later it’s proven one of the wisest decisions of my life; Tachianna not only challenges my thinking, she fuels the passion with which I think and write and act.

Over the past year, I’ve intentionally, civilly, stridently engaged my right-leaning friends and family on Facebook over the implicit and sometimes explicit racist assumptions in their posts. I don’t expect I’ll change minds (although I’ve had a couple difficult but extended and substantial exchanges), but I no longer offer the silence of “white solidarity.”[7]

Then George Floyd was murdered. I made signs, marched, kept vigil at the Capitol, and penned more words. “Words” sounds almost innocuous. But I’ve written 15,000 of them across thirteen blog posts as part of my contribution to the Uprising. This flows directly out of my growing conviction that “White racism is ultimately a white problem and the burden for interrupting it belongs to white people.”[8] I concluded in a June blog post:

“Theologically, to frame our work for racial justice as being an ‘Ally’ doesn’t simply fall short: it completely misses the mark. We work for racial justice because in a moral universe only this work justifies our being here at all. … only so do we bring the church into being … only when we conspire in this work do we meet the God who meets Moses in the burning bush and cries, “I can’t breathe.” … We either conspire (breathe together) with God in liberating deeds … or we have our knee on God’s neck. It’s that simple.”[9]

In posts written mostly to others also raced as white, I’ve argued that sometimes “riots are an act of God.”[10] I’ve written a whole series of evocative essays suggesting that Christians have every reason to support calls for police/prison abolition.[11] My voice has been strident, audacious, and, no doubt, imperfect. But this work now matters so deeply that I’m willing to makes some mistakes and missteps (learning as I go), lest my preference for perfection keep me altogether silent.[12]

Lastly, “Roots Deeper Than Whiteness,”[13] really resonated with me. Agreeing with Baldwin’s declaration of the sheer lie of whiteness, it’s clear (to me) that our resistance to white supremacy cannot be done as “white people.” But I’ve been at a loss for how to be “post white.” Dean’s essay helps me envision a pathway backward and “deepward” into roots that are more particular than “white”—and more universally human as well.

Image: Wikimedia Commons – public domain
This photo is from Gainesville, Florida, Dec. 31, 1922, but there were KKK cross burning in the Michigan City Dunes.

There are such roots in my family, although I only have inklings of them. A great-grandfather who refused to join in when the Klan marched past the front of his home. Instead he declared that the cowardice of their hoods signaled the dishonor in their actions. Another great-grandfather was a poor laborer, such that when one of his children died at age six, the church held the funeral but refused to toll the bell because he was behind on his church dues. Fifty-some years later he kept his pledge that no bell would ring at his own funeral either. And a great-great grandfather who helped dig canals in Germany, living himself in earthen holes dug in the side of the canals where they worked. And there are more. Echoes of ancestors whose solidarity had roots deeper than whiteness. Whose shoulders rise out of the past, waiting for my feet to stand on them. Now.

***

drw

[1] James Baldwin, “On Being White … And Other Lies.” Interestingly, the great Swiss Reformed theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) defined evil as Das Nichtige, “nothingness”: evil paradoxically has no being, but is intrinsically committed (against God’s active beingness) to fraying God’s creation. Race has an uncanny kinship to Barth’s Das Nichtige.

[2] Martin Luther used “in, with, and under” to describe the wholly encompassing “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharistic bread and wine. I’m using it to suggest the tragically wholly encompassing “real presence” of whiteness in my life, a presence that is anti-sacred. L

[3] Baldwin saw whiteness constructed in part as the false choice of safety; it only seemingly transferred all risk to those deemed “other” because humanity (like creation itself writ large) is one, regardless of the presumptions we make.

[4] Michigan City fell just below the threshold (40,000) for an official “redlining” map by the Home Owner’s Loan Corp.

[5] Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” p. 58.

[6] On reckoning racism as beginning in complete heartbreak: Vickie Chang, “On the Demon Called Racism, Part I.”

[7] Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility (the book), pp. 57-58. (Rereading this alongside my wife this summer.)

[8] Robin DiAngelo, “White Fragility,” p. 66.

[9] www.davidrweiss.com/2020/06/22/coming-out-against-white-allies/

[10] www.davidrweiss.com/2020/05/30/sometimes-a-riot-is-an-act-of-god/

[11] www.davidrweiss.com/2020/06/09/come-this-wilderness/ (this first essay includes links to the other five).

[12] On not letting whiteness/perfectionism get in the way: Bay Area Solidarity Action Team, “Protocols & Principles.”

[13] David Dean, “Roots Deeper than Whiteness.”

* * *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on August 3, 2020. 2 Comments

Being Anti-Racist AS an Act of Faith

Being Anti-Racist AS an Act of Faith
July 25, 2020 – David R. Weiss

NOTE: Minor apologies in advance. This is a dense essay that’s more like an extended note to myself connecting some insights from the class I’m presently taking on Dismantling Whiteness. Really too much to pack into a 1500-word essay, but that’s all I’ve got time for right now. Feel free to listen in …

I was struck by R.A. Masters’ essay on Spiritual Bypassing (and by Layla Saad’s reflections, Part 1 and Part 2, which are variations on the same theme). Briefly stated, spiritual bypassing is the use of religious belief, ritual, practice as a way to avoid engaging in the messy painful work of remaking the world. It’s most easily identifiable when people rooted in Western culture adopt an Eastern religious-meditation practice in pursuit of an inner calm that becomes a socially acceptable (or even an enviable) posture of disengagement—bypassing the tumult that cries out in the world around us.

Partly I was struck by this notion because it’s so foreign to the way I experience my own religion. But upon reflection it’s clear that bypassing is endemic to the Christian faith as well—despite the relative absence of a contemplative tradition in the most common public practices of the church.

In Christianity spiritual bypassing has at least three primary expressions. (1) The conviction that our “goal” is primarily otherworldly—focused on getting to heaven as opposed to transforming this world in this life. (2) The related belief that even in this life Christianity is personal and private—about our individual choices, not the shape of our outward communities. (3) In its most toxic form (which finds extreme expression in the KKK, but is no less damaging when espoused in “softer” versions by mainline/evangelical churches), Christianity is weaponized to actively other (to condemn, dehumanize, or outright demonize) the very voices crying out for justice. In each case, believers are affirmed for bypassing the urgency of this moment. Their religion—which is wholly at odds with the heart of the biblical witness[1]—serves to impede the activity of God in this world.

As I said, I have a very different understanding of Christian faith. Call it the “Magnificat manifestation of Christianity”—the one where the mighty are tossed down and the hungry are filled. That one doesn’t get as much press, but I’m convinced it’s the one Jesus actually taught and practiced. It does offer calm and comfort, but precisely for those who choose to become entangled in transforming unjust relations and systems into communities where flourishing is found.

Then, among the many insights in David Dean’s essay on “Roots Deeper than Whiteness,” this sentence caught my attention “Plantation elites manipulate[ed] the identity of the European populations … giving them membership within an exalted racial group to change the way they found meaning and sought freedom in their lives” [emphasis mine]. It struck me because James Fowler, whose seminal work on Faith Development I studied in college and later in graduate school, defines faith as the meaning-making activity that is the defining feature of humanity. And Dean’s essay is suggesting here that whiteness functions like faith in our lives—becoming a matrix through which we make meaning.

Fowler sees religions (distinct from faith itself) as time-tested repositories of meaning-making notions, rituals, beliefs, and practices. But for Fowler, meaning-making is such a primal hunger in the human psyche that we will make meaning with or without religious language and imagery. For instance, Marxist philosophy and consumer capitalism can also provide frameworks for meaning-meaning, as can any tradition that sets forth assumptions, perspectives, postures, symbols, and ultimately deeds that promise to render life meaningful. Including whiteness.

Moreover, Fowler borrows Tillich’s notion of faith as “ultimate concern,” and H.R. Niebuhr’s sense of faith as that which can reliably anchor and integrate human personality and activity, such that the goal of faith is to confer agency insofar as possible in an uncertain world. It is to position us within a world and a community of shared faith-symbolism where we act in dialogue with others and our life circumstances to fashion a future: to be free.

And Dean’s essay suggests that whiteness is form of faith—a way of leaning into life so as to live with meaning and purpose. Except—whiteness is a lie. A form of false faith. It unites us in a rush of oppositional energy, but because it is a mirage—a vacuum defined by “not-ness,” by othering those who are not white—the rush it offers is like a pyramid scheme. You can only sustain it if you can multiply the deception for one more generation, and then one more, and then one more. But no pyramid scheme is sustainable—and neither is whiteness.

In fact, as Baldwin argued, whiteness is nonexistent. It’s a construction that surely impacts life (and destructively so), but one that cannot ultimately bear the weight of meaning-making without harnessing racial violence along the way. In other words, you cannot ride whiteness to freedom. It’s designed only to get you as far as oppression, while trying to convince you that what you’re feeling is freedom. In reality, it’s nothing more than the psychological wages of whiteness (W.E.B. Du Bois), the payoff from the wealthy and powerful that reassures you, that, despite the relative precarity of your position in life, at least you’re not black. This is faith as meaning-making fraud—deadly to others and morally bankrupting to self, capable only of creating zombies: living dead who prey on others

The promise in Dean’s essay, especially for those of us raced as white—raised in the original sin that turned us faithfully(!) against others before we knew what we were doing—is that we have roots deeper than whiteness: we are capable of making meaning in ways that do not require the denigration of others OR the erasure of our original humanity.

One facet of this is historical-genealogical: choosing to uncover-recover-discover our roots going back to when we were a more particular people than white. This will involve some work, but it’s less about tracing our specific ancestry person-by-person than about re-establishing a useable bridge to the culture and the story of our people—to regain access to the particular ways they moved through life. Reclaiming our pre-white ethnicity matters because we exist communally (I am because you are) and this is true across time. In doing so we connect to a history and a people family that can anchor us in the hard work for racial justice and human authenticity.[2] We are not limited to the ways of our past, but when that past is denied or lost to us we have fewer resources as we face finitude, mark natural and social seasons, celebrate joys, and seek transcendence. And to be clear, whiteness is NEVER a resource in this work; it is always a toxic liability.

Besides this, we ought to recognize that we can (only) choose to be anti-racist … as an act of faith. Anti-racist work may or may not be expressly religious, but it is intrinsically faith work: it seeks to make meaning, exercise agency, cultivate our humanity, and experience authentic freedom. Still, because religious traditions intend to foster faith, if we are religious, our religiosity will either support or hobble our anti-racism. Because both are invested in meaning-making, the relationship between the two will not be a matter of indifference.[3] Recognizing this compels us to critically examine the details (that place where the devil hides!) of any religious tradition we embrace. Whether that’s a tradition of our pre-white roots, or one inherited and entangled in whiteness, or one we choose because it resonates with us here and now—virtually every religious tradition has a Magnificat manifestation. That’s the thread we need to foster a fully spiritual anti-racist faith.

And for those of us who are religious, finding that thread makes all the difference.

*     *     *

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

[1] These claims could each fill their own essay. I’ll just restate them clearly here. (1) Biblical faith, from Abraham through the Exodus and the prophets—and from Jesus through Paul–clearly hopes to transform life this side of death. Any claims about a next life are meant to spill backward into this one. (2) Biblical faith is fundamentally communal. Peoples, communities, are chosen and saved (which is to say, salved … healed … made whole. Yes, we make individual choices, but from creation to apocalypse, we draw our life out of relations with others and our choices tie us back into those relations or tear them asunder. (3) And biblical faith is rooted in humanity’s imperfect but passionate response to the God whose very life is the doing of justice.

[2] As we plumb the depths of our past we might learn for ourselves the truth spoken by the Dakota scholar Ella Deloria: “I am not afraid; I have relatives.” Quoted by Nick Estes in “The Four Invasions,” Interview in The Sun, May 2020, pp. 4-13.

[3] Of course, it’s not just a simple binary of good/bad. Religious traditions are messy. Even as the Judeo-Christian tradition has a strong, piercing liberationist arc, the “conquest” of Canaan—at least as recorded in the Bible—is a story of genocidal settler colonialism. Actually, a few scholars (such as George Mendenhall and Norman Gottwald) have argued that behind the biblical tale of “conquest” lies an historical event whereby other oppressed groups already living in Canaan were inspired by a band of escaped slaves and, throwing their lot in with them, this alliance of outcasts successfully threw off their oppressors. But the biblical story as recorded has shaped many “Christian” colonialist movements from Europe and in the Americas—to say nothing of its role in shaping Israel’s actions toward the Palestinians.)

This entry was posted on July 26, 2020. 2 Comments

61 going on 19

Photo by Ben on Unsplash – Comet Neowise, taken in the UK, 07.19.2020

 

61 going on 19

We raced out the door at 9:45
my hair still wet
from the bath.
Near Lake Elmo we craned
to see a comet
too faint for city lights.
Near Afton we stopped again
by a farm field
still frustrated by urban glow.
On to Willow River we drove
away from the city
chasing darkness.
There on the pavement
of a small parking lot
we joined a dad
and three daughters
strangers beneath a sky
blanketed by stars.
Through his telescope we saw the comet—
then, knowing just where to look
and with our own eyes
turned slightly askew
we caught the blur
of this distant visitor.
Just so!
Rapt in awe
by the stretch
of the Milky way overhead
We three adults remarked
how such breathtaking beauty
can renew human hearts.
After the family left
I stood behind you
my arms wrapped around you
and your hands on mine
and stars above
and earth below
and my heart was full
tingling with wonder
at you … and me—
61 going on 19
still feeling such a rush
of joy at your side.
And though unseen
there were shooting stars above
because my wish
came true.
All over again.

David R. Weiss – July 23, 2020

 

Full disclosure: tiny bit of poetic license here. I’m not yet 61, but 60 going on 09 doesn’t “flip” with such romantic flair … and Margaret is 61, so I borrowed her age for the title. Also, we didn’t have sufficient darkness to see the comet quite as clear as this photo from a few days ago in the UK shows. But we could just barely catch the blur of the tail at the edge of our eyes.

*     *     *

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

This entry was posted on July 24, 2020. 5 Comments

From Mount Sinai to Minneapolis

From Mount Sinai to Minneapolis – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 6
July 12, 2020 – David R. Weiss

NOTE: In this series of posts* I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.

* “Come This Wilderness,” June 8; “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff,” June 30; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” July 4; “The Poor Will be With You Always,” July 8; “When Stones Shout” July 9.

 

I can imagine Moses thinking to himself, “What do you mean ‘low battery’?! No!!!!” After almost forty days and forty nights up on Mount Sinai, God finally decides to speak. And were it not for Moses’ iPhone battery deciding to give out, we might have a clearer picture of what transpired on that mountaintop shrouded in cloud and lightning. [1]As it was, you’d have thought two stone tablets would hold up well through the ages, but apparently they weren’t supported by later applications and the files are no longer accessible. Yes, we have texts but there’s a peculiar ambiguity in the text.

The Decalogue—literally, “Ten Words”—refers to ten utterances, some just a single word, that God gives to Moses on Mount Sinai sometime soon after the Hebrews escape their years of bondage in Egypt and begin their sojourn through the wilderness. I’m not actually concerned to debate whether this moment on Sinai was something “historical” (i.e., could we have captured it, had that iPhone battery held out?). Whatever took place at that intersection of slavery-liberation, escape-wilderness, and mountaintop liminality—whatever took place—was singularly transformative for Israel’s life.

We (Christians more so than Jews, actually[2]) remember it primarily as Moses receiving The Law, the Ten Commandments. We translate the words as imperatives, a list of divine demands: Do this! Don’t do that! OR ELSE.

But what if these were words … of Promise? What if, rather than shouted orders from heaven, they read more like a promotional brochure for “Things to Do—Now That You’re Free”? I don’t mean to belittle them at all. I’m suggesting—quite seriously—that perhaps these words are the words of a God who is courting Israel’s imagination with a description of what their life together could look like. That would utterly transform how we read them. And the grammar argues for that as a real possibility.

In Hebrew, the present imperative (the “voice” of order) has the same form as the future indicative (the “voice” of description). Context tells you whether someone is ordering you to do something or describing what tomorrow will be like. “Honor the Sabbath (dammit!)” or “Every seventh day we’ll rest.” The same Hebrew word stands behind either rendering, and on account of that failed iPhone battery we simply don’t know.[3]

Sunrise on Mount Sinai – Sinan R. Wolf-Gazo, 2006 – Wikimedia Commons

Except for the context. These people are on their way to a new future. Indeed, to a life framed by a word unknown to slaves: tomorrow. This divine Presence, having heard their cries of anguish, liberated them from slavery, led them out of Egypt, and promised to establish the conditions for their flourishing is now luring them on toward that life together. Imagine these Ten Words spoken by God in this tone of voice, toward a life rooted in reverence and mutual love:

  1. I will be your first love, for all the days of your life, and your desire for me shall not wane.
  2. I will be for you daily delight and surprise, outstripping any fixed images.
  3. Because my very name—Yahweh—is bound up with the promise of freedom, you will never invoke it to oppress others or to curse them. To do so would render me a stranger to you.
  4. Every seventh day you will rest and renew yourselves, rejoicing in our life together.
  5. In Egypt your families were ever at risk; now parents will be honored by their children just as surely as children shall be wrapped well in the love of their parents.
  6. While murder was your daily wage as slaves, killing shall no longer be known among you; life will be treasured and honored as the gift it is.
  7. In so honoring life, you will discover the deep joy of intimacy and fidelity in your unions.
  8. Although in Egypt your labor was stolen from you, now theft will be unknown among you, for where justice prevails the property of each will be respected by all.
  9. You will not speak falsely of your neighbor, for honor shall be the commonwealth of my people.
  10. And you will not find your lives distorted by envy, for you will shape your lives by simplicity and generosity, and you will discover in this way a life brimming with abundance.

We haven’t (ever) heard The Decalogue this way. But it is a grammatically legitimate rendition, and I argue it is both contextually and theologically the best reading. In liberating the Hebrews from oppression God did not set them beneath a new taskmaster, but invited them to live into genuine freedom grounded in reverence for that which is Holy and that which is human.

The legacy of the Hebrew prophets—both in railing against Israel’s repeated slides into unjust relations in their communal life and in calling them to radical hope in times of desolation—that legacy is precisely the legacy of calling Israel back to a life rooted in those Ten Words of Promise.

You can argue about whether the historical realization of that promised life is possible—more accurately, the extent to which it is possible. I’ll grant that humanity has a poor track record of instantiating justice in society. BUT, BUT, BUT—the core claim of biblical faith is that God is infinitely committed to that project—and that God seeks our partnership in that work. If you wish to break with biblical faith, I can’t stop that. But I can ask—on behalf of God—that you not water it down to make it more palatable for those who’ve managed to prosper under oppression, or those who’ve managed to dodge the worst of the suffering that is the price of the status quo.

From Moses onward (and right through Jesus!), God’s work in human history has been has been a series of variations on a single theme: “Let my people go.” Today’s abolitionists, whether they invoke God or not, draw their voice from that same breath. Their words also are Words of Promise, “There is a land without police or prisons.” Abolition, not unlike the Decalogue, is much richer than a single declaration of what won’t be anymore. It also includes both principles and proposals for what that Promised Life might look like: a life that honors, upholds, and heals hurting communities from the ground up.

Scholars still argue over the exact location of Mount Sinai, but since May 25, Mount Sinai has been at 38th and Chicago in Minneapolis. And from out of the killing of George Floyd, through march and vigil, protest and riot, uprising and art, the surging calls to abolish the police should echo in us as though borne by Moses himself.

We can debate vigorously (though I might prefer that we imagine vibrantly, but whatever) the details of how we move toward that promised life. But as Christians, we betray our own legacy and we belittle the transformative energy of God in our midst when we assert, “Oh but that can’t be!” Abolition is our story. To the extent that we’ve forgotten this, the Movement for Black Lives and the calls for Abolition, these are the Holy Spirit moving through prophets in our midst today.

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

[1] The scene (sans iPhone) but complete with clouds, smoke, thunder, and lightning is in Exodus 19:16-20:17.

[2] Of course, Jews revere the Ten Commandments as well; but their framework for experiencing them is set within the wider context of Torah—“the Teaching” that shapes the overall pattern of their life. Christians tend to see them more like lightning bolt demands of an omnipotent, authoritarian God. Of course, it’s much more complicated than that, but for this essay, that’s sufficient.

[3] I learned of this view of reading the Decalogue through the future from Rev. Otto Bremer (1922-2001) a Lutheran ethicist, who credited it to his teacher, George Mendelhall (1916-2016), Lutheran biblical scholar who taught at the University of Michigan 1952-1986.

This entry was posted on July 12, 2020. 1 Comment

When Stones Shout

When Stones Shout – Abolition and the Gospel, Part 5
July 9, 2020 – David R. Weiss

NOTE: In this series of posts* I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how police abolition would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I’m presenting a series of images to help white Christians in particular hear in these calls to Defund or Abolish the Police some surprising echoes of biblical themes … and to encourage us to consider whether God is doing a new thing once again today.
* “Come This Wilderness,” June 8; “Throwing Jesus Off a Cliff,” June 30; “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” July 4; “The Poor Will be With You Always,” July 8.

It’s pandemonium as Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Crowds are waving palm branches and strewing them, along with their cloaks, on the road leading into the city. Jesus has chosen—deliberately, provocatively—to ride into the city on a donkey: a rich symbolic echo of a prophetic passage in which a Jewish king enters Jerusalem humbly, mounted on a donkey, and then proceeds to establish peace. The day drips with hope and longing.

Unbeknownst to us when we read that Palm Sunday passage, it’s quite possible that on the same day, another procession enters the city from the opposite side. That would be Pontius Pilate, escorted by imperial cavalry and columns of soldiers. His arrival—like Jesus’ arrival—was timed to sync with Passover. Except, while Jesus was there to celebrate Passover as the great Jewish festival of liberation, Pilate came to ensure—with his display of brute force (a bit like stationing state police and National Guard troops around cities)—that the only liberation celebrated was a distant memory.

So Jesus’ entry and its accompanying pandemonium were fraught—especially for those Jewish leaders who’d struck an uneasy but (for them) workable coexistence with Roman rule. Which is why, when those persons waving palms alongside strewn cloaks suddenly launched into choruses of “Hosanna! Blessed is the king who comes in God’s name to bring peace!” suddenly those Jewish leaders tried to get Jesus to calm the crowd. But Jesus replied, “If these, who acclaim my coming in such joy and jubilation, were silent, I tell you, the very stones would shout out.”[1]

I did not imagine six weeks ago that I would become such a strident voice for police and prison abolition. But as I dug past the hashtags (which are powerful hashtags—I do not second guess the choice of rallying around “Defund the Police” or “Abolish the Police”), I was caught off guard … by the gospel. Abolitionists are the very stones shouting out today.

The more I’ve read, the more I’ve heard in abolitionist writings themes that resonate deeply in the heart of biblical faith. And while I haven’t been surprised cognitively at how quickly and loudly white Christians have voiced dis-ease with these ideas, I have found myself emotionally grieving, because our reaction of discomfort at any notion of abolition reminds me how … estranged … we’ve become from our own heritage. We were born—baptized, commissioned—to change the world through our practice of reckless, abundant love. And yet, in the face of abolitionist “Hosannas,” we’ve become those religious leaders asking for silence, lest our uneasy but workable coexistence with the ways of power be upset.

The creation stories in Genesis assert a number of profound truths about the nature of humanity. (These stories never intended to relate cosmic or earth or human “history,” but they do seek to carry the deep sacred wisdom of our religious ancestors and that’s what I’m lifting up.) I’ll name three things from these stories that strike me as relevant in abolition work.

1. Human beings are imago Dei: the Latin means “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-27) This has often been owned by us arrogantly, as though it makes us “better than” the rest of creation. And owned by us racistly—how else could we have dared to enslave others? But this creation tale appeared in Israel’s life at a time when the people were living in exile. Bereft of king, temple, and even land, arrogance was not an option. The truth carried by this designation is closer to Jesse Jackson’s declaration, dating back to the 70’s “I am somebody”—or to the “I am a man” placards carried by striking Memphis sanitation workers in 1968.

Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash – https://unsplash.com/@jcotten

To say that we are imago Dei speaks a two-fold truth. First, it says that somehow we humans—because we are self-conscious, because we speak, we know, we symbolize and wrap our world in meaning—somehow Something transcendent, some spark of divinity, inheres in us. Second, the very recognition that we carry within us Something from beyond suggests that this “specialness” is held not as privilege, but as gift: ours to acknowledge, but not ours to designate. Thus, every human being is imago Dei: echoed divinity wrapped in flesh.

2. Human beings are interwoven at the heart. This is true ecologically: from gut to lungs to skin we are interwoven with a host of unseen creatures who “live and move and have their being” in us, even as we have our being through them (the phrasing is borrowed and re-spun from Acts 17:28). But it is equally and more visibly true socially. When the second creation account has God observe that “it is not good for the human being to be alone” (Gen. 2:18), this is an echo of the African recognition heard in ujamaa: I am only because we are. Ujamaa, as a social principle, undergirds a notion of cooperative economics; if the very character of being human is mutual to the core, then we build our life together (or we fail to make a human life at all).

3. We were set in the first Garden to tend and keep it (Gen 2:15)—to exercise our imago Dei so that the garden flourishes—our humanity is grounded in the goodness of work. Far from being punishment, work (the expression of imago Dei within the cooperative economy of a community) is our most primal vocation. For the Medieval mystic Meister Eckhart (1260-1328), work was the locus of our imago Dei. We work, as sacred calling, because God works.[2] (It’s true that the experience of work as “toil” is ascribed as punishment a bit later [Gen. 3:17], although I think it’s more accurate to reckon “toil” as an inescapable aspect of working in a finite world where time and energy impinge on us.)

When abolitionists cry out—like stones on Palm Sunday—to defund/abolish the police or abolish prisons, they do so because they regard each human life as holding consummate value, even lives that have ripped asunder the fabric of our human community. Their concern is that when we “as a society, model cruelty and vengeance” in our response to criminal behavior, we practice the very erasure of imago Dei that we claim to be protecting. [3] And when we do this through state programs of policing and imprisonment we act as though it is ours to bestow or withhold the image of God. Abolitionists know better. So might we.

Abolitionists trace the arc of criminality to economic exploitation and dehumanizing oppression, running from slavery through segregation, structural poverty, and racialized unemployment. In doing so, they assert that until we address the racist ways that white supremacy seeds—and carefully cultivates—violence in our society, our rush to incarcerate only manifests our denial of the extent to which we have betrayed the imago Dei of so many. Abolition says that the most effective—and I will add, the most Christian—way to reduce crime is to invest as a community in eliminating the very conditions that cause it. And those conditions are the dehumanizing and oppressive socio-economic structures of white supremacy … or as we like to call it, “the American way of life.”

We have made an unholy peace with mass incarceration. Not because it is cheaper or safer or healthier for human community. Only because it benefits white supremacy, the elites who fashioned it, and the twisted set of convictions that uphold it. As Christians, we ought to be committed with our whole lives to mass incarnation: the recognition and support of the image of God in humans everywhere. Hopefully someday (soon!) we’ll do that again. Until then, I’m shouting with the stones.

*     *     *

 

David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at drw59mn@gmail.com. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community Supported Theology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.

[1] Luke 19:36-40. On the historical background see Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week: Jesus’ Final Days in Jerusalem (New York: HarperCollins, 2006), 1-5.

[2] Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart’s Creation Spirituality, Introduction and Commentaries by Matthew Fox (Garden City, NY: Image Books), 1980; also Matthew Fox, Original Blessing (Santa Fe: Bear & Co.), 1983.

[3] The quoted phrase is from Ruth Wilson Gilmore – www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/magazine/prison-abolition-ruth-wilson-gilmore.html; the theological spin is mine. The other claims I make about abolition, widespread in the literature, are found in this NYT piece as well.

This entry was posted on July 9, 2020. 2 Comments