Come This Wilderness

NOTE: This post turned out to be the first in a series of posts* in which I wrestle with the notion of police abolition. I’m NOT offering a detailed explanation of how that would work—there are others who can do that far better than me. Rather I present 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; “From Mount Sinai to Minneapolis” July 12.


Come This Wilderness
June 8, 2020 – David R. Weiss

I hear the nervous shuffling of feet among my family and friends. From some the derisive laughter that carries more than a hint of unease beneath attitude. I’m uneasy, too. I do not know what lies … out there, up ahead. I only know what lies behind—and that I am not going back.

Gordon Parks High School in St. Paul suffered broken windows in the unrest-uprising following George Floyd’s murder. The plywood now joins the uprising in rainbow colors.

Defund, dismantle policing?! The challenges—and the possibilities—run far deeper than either phrase or any sound byte can suggest. I may unpack some of them in another essay. Here I only want to re-frame the emotions that rise within us at the prospect of such unimaginable change.

Because I wonder. Were there any Egyptians who—having endured those ten ruinous, calamitous, riotous plagues—chose to pack their bags and leave with the Hebrews on that first Exodus?

I mean, I really wonder. If I had seen how their God inspired them to yearn for lives they’d not yet known, to break at last their years of bondage—which, plagues or not, meant choosing wilderness as their way out—had I seen this with my own eyes, would I have had the courage then, to leave behind my comfort, long built on the back of their servitude, to join them on a journey toward some … imaginary promised place?

I’d like to think I know, but all I can do is wonder. If all I knew (besides their brutal lot in life—inextricably tied to my personal peace) was that, beyond the dried up seabed, they were headed somewhere marked on the compass only as lying in the direction of Beyond. And toward something called Beloved. Would I have lifted my Egyptian feet to walk besides those former Hebrew slaves?

Standing as I am—as you are, too—at the edge of a land I have never seen, I honestly cannot fathom what it means to safeguard a community’s life after defunding, dismantling the police. But, for that matter, just as honestly, had I been an Egyptian or a wealthy Southerner (likely even a barely-getting-by Southerner), I suspect I could not have fathomed what it would mean to reshape my life without slaves beneath—their oppression the unquestioned infrastructure deemed essential for life back then.

But even in my not knowing, I remain persuaded (against my own fears) that they—slaves, black people, Native Americans, undocumented immigrants—know things we do not know. Things we cannot imagine. I don’t think they know the route to that next place. But they know, better than all the rest of us put together, the folly of reforming an institution whose very formation (via Southern slave patrols) was intended to unform the idea of freedom in those to whom freedom was denied.

The Exodus tale agrees, it seems. The story says—to be as pointed about it as possible—that of all the policy papers that might’ve discussed “the future of slavery in Egypt,” the truest point of view came from the underside, carried by the cries, the anguish and the anger of those enslaved. And if their cries questioned the value of even robust reforms and opted instead to defund and dismantle Pharaoh’s slave economy and culture by their Exodus, then our Scriptures say that viewpoint carries truth. Although, in truth, we’ve done our best to tame that tale, contain it to another time and place. Surely such disruptive steps for freedom have no claim to truth today.

But I wonder. Because the logic—the theo-logic, God-driven understanding—of that story seems to say that still today those who feel a knee laid heavy on their neck have uncanny insight into the damning ways that persons and societies, cultures and institutions, “innocent” policies and practices prioritize white knees over black necks. So, I’m uneasy, yes, but I can’t help but wonder. Because to bring it to this point, that ancient sacred tale tells me today that black people have a type of knowledge—an expertise—about the prospects for reforming the police that those of us who grew up never worrying about a knee upon our neck … simply do not have. Their knowing is borne of lives ground up generation after generation, borne of labor the wealth of which wound up mostly in our hands (and homes) not theirs, borne of rights ever bounded to ensure our rights (and wrongs) held sway. And now their knowing hums a steady searing truth about the whole project of policing: “All that is familiar, stable, safe … is unsafe for you.”

We wouldn’t doubt that those ancient Hebrews heard as much in the groans that tolled their hours day by day by day. We wouldn’t question their wisdom in choosing wilderness over all that they had ever known. But still we count it prudent to call for slow and measured moves to ease the discomfort of our black siblings just enough to keep them off the streets and keep the system safe … for us.

We, who have blindly benefitted from all that is so perniciously familiar that it passes just for “normal,” we cannot fathom why anyone would think the unfamiliar, unknown, uncharted idea of life beyond the police could possibly be wise. But they know. And in their knowing they make demands that shake us and our good sense to the very core. Alas.

I hear the nervous shuffling of feet among my family and friends. From some the derisive laughter that carries more than a hint of unease beneath attitude. I’m uneasy, too. I do not know what lies … out there, up ahead. I only know what lies behind—and that I am not going back.

The former site of an Ethiopian restaurant, a tax service, and an auto parts store in St. Paul.

I am uncertain, as you are. Behind me the rubble of so many buildings (only some of which lined our streets, while others towered within our hearts and minds). Ahead, this sudden, unexpected—dare I say, miracle of—dry land where once a sea had blocked the way. And there beyond: this wilderness. Out there, perhaps, a place where we might be … Beloved. Together. Who knows. Only the journey will tell.

But I say, with fierce and fraught resolve, Come this wilderness. Come.

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NOTE: Twenty-four years ago, while teaching a First-Year Seminar on Intro to Bible at Notre Dame, it was common practice to begin my class with a prayer. In September 1996 I wrote this prayer to open our class the day we discussed the Exodus. Time to pull it out and use it again.

God of freedom and justice, give us the wisdom to feel a bit of fear as we read these passages. Give us the uncomfortable honesty to see that we today stand closer to Egypt than to the Hebrew slaves. In a world where many live like slaves so that a relative few can live like kings, we are among those who wear purple. When third world citizens—or when the poor in our own cities—clamor for justice, too often and too easily, like Pharaoh, we ignore your demand that we let your people go. Forgive us, Lord. Do not harden our hearts, but soften them. Awaken in us feelings of compassion. If we would truly be your people, move us to place ourselves alongside those persons whose company you have chosen to keep: the weak, the forgotten, and the outcast. Exodus means freedom for slaves, Lord. We know that. But for royalty, Exodus means sacrifice. Give us the courage—and the humility—not to resist the freedom you intend for others. Indeed, give us the courage—and the humility—to welcome their freedom as the basis for our own. AMEN.

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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 June 9, 2020. 6 Comments

Sometimes a Riot is an Act of God—

Sometimes a Riot is an Act of God—
May 30, 2020 – David R. Weiss

and sometimes not. And these riots are BOTH—which makes them extraordinarily dangerous.

[NOTE: I am writing and posting this on the fly. I have been reading about fringe groups for some time (months!) now as an offshoot of my concern over the social chaos likely to ensue during as the climate crisis worsens … and as part of my writing on the pandemic and the role these groups have played at the edges of the “Open the Economy” protests … and as part of my work for racial justice. I am far from an expert, but unless you have devoted yourself to this topic, PLEASE trust me on this. These groups are NOT-NOT-NOT to be taken lightly. I may come back later and add in links to supporting articles, but for now I am just pushing this out the door as fast as I can.]

First, because we need to be very clear about this for the sake of long-term racial justice, these riots ARE an act of God: they are an instance of holy rage. And if we fail to perceive that, we are doomed to ever realize Martin Luther King’s (and God’s!) Beloved Community. There is no path to that community that does not run through Holy Rage. That is NOT the whole of what’s happening’s here, but we cannot miss this piece.

I’ve heard and seen many people criticizing the riots for causing such harm to innocent businesses. True, some businesses are hardly innocent, but there have been many black-owned, immigrant-owned, and other genuinely community-oriented business that have been harmed, even destroyed by these riots. How can that be the result of HOLY rage?!

Here’s what I mean. If a tornado tore through a couple block area of Lake Street or University, it would also take out a swath of businesses—some of which we might think were deserving of such “judgment,” while others would be tragic losses. And yet, we would still colloquially call that tornado “an act of God.” We don’t mean that these things are truly the acts of a capricious or vengeful God. The language may be archaic, but the phrase retains still today legal status for natural hazards that fall outside human control.

Moreover, today we could explain (and to an extent predict) the weather conditions—air pressure, temperature, wind, moisture, etc.—that produce tornadoes, but that doesn’t mean that they become manageable. They still wreak havoc when they erupt. And do so indiscriminately.

Now, consider—from a faith perspective, or even a humanistic one: human beings carry intrinsic dignity amplified by creative energy, emotional yearnings, and cognitive potential. Those are one set of “weather conditions”; then add onto to them 400 years of unremitting (shifting, changing, but unremitting!) physical, economic, political, social, psychological, and spiritual oppression. 400 years! You have all the makings of a societal tornado. All you need is a spark to set it off.

In this case the excruciating video of Minneapolis police officers effectively carrying out a public lynching of George Floyd. Coming on the heels of so many killings of black men and women at the hands of police—a civil institution that most white people (at least middle class and higher) have no historical understanding of, because we’ve always been taught they’re here to keep us safe. But many black people know the roots of police departments are interwoven with those of slave patrols in the South and equally oppressive anti-black/anti-poor/anti-union police in the North.

We (white people) see each individual police killing of a black person as a “tragic death” that we should (of course) be sad about and (maybe) try to prevent from recurring, although we’re as often likely to make excuses for why the dead person was really responsible for their own death. But black people see all these killings as a pattern that shows the racist depth of white society. And they see this with a clarity we couldn’t bear (it would call our entire way of life into question) and hence we mostly deny it. Black people, despite the grinding, heart-wrenching clarity of their lived experience in the world, rarely have the power to challenge it. So they endure (itself, a heroic deed).

But in moments like this, their God-given dignity, coupled with their generations-long experience of having that dignity denied and abused for so long, and then sparked by a particularly evil instance such as Floyd’s murder—that translates into a societal tornado, an act of God. What might begin as holy grief (which we can affirm) can, under the right conditions, transform into holy rage … holy because it is rooted, in part, in the holy yearning of their own inward God-given dignity to flourish. And that holy rage may well take the form of rioting that wreaks indiscriminate damage. And when it does the responsibility for that damage lies foremost with those who created, tolerated, and benefitted from the conditions that led to it. And that’s white people.

We white people sowed the seeds for this rage, and we tended the soil so carefully (so hideously well) for generations. If conditions are now right for societal tornadoes—which include ALL of public grieving, political protest, and economic riot (even some instances of looting), that energy is going to move beyond the control of any individual. And it is.

Thus, these riots are acts of God in that they flow fundamentally from holy rage at 400 years of white people brutalizing the sacred dignity of black people. Such riots are “simply” what happens when human dignity is ceaselessly oppressed. We act surprised and dismayed. And unless we can actually OWN the deep racism that is woven into our world to our benefit—and then actively invest our lives in working to change it … unless we can do this, we are doomed to see societal tornados like this happen again and again. And each time they happen, these riots will be an act of God beseeching us to recognize the extent to which we are denying the God-given dignity of others. We bring them on ourselves.

They are nothing less than the fiery wind of Pentecost beckoning us to hear. And I fear we are so determined NOT to hear anything that would challenge us to look inward into our whiteness and our white supremacist society, that we will use the destruction and the looting as a reason not to listen. But if THIS ASPECT of the rioting is an act of God, we are only attempting to stifle Pentecost. Which cannot be done.

Thus far, the unsettling, even terrifying holiness of riot. We need to recognize this aspect or we will waste this moment’s opportunity for repentance and transformation.

And yet—this is not all that is afoot in this moment, and that makes for a harrowing reality.

I have been reading—and now our elected officials are acknowledging—that there are a frightening assortment—growing (perhaps exponentially) by the day—of others “lurking” as “allies” among the grieving and raging masses, whose actions are NOT rooted in the dignity denied to or the life taken from George Floyd or the black community as a whole. Rather, they are rooted in the desire to seize this moment and twist it to purposes that are unholy. Among the protesters and looters (and both of these have a “right” to be there—and that is a hard truth for us to hear!), there are now also anarchists, white supremacists, anti-government actors, guns-rights fanatics, and accelerationists—none of whom give a damn about the black community, not its pain, its dignity, or its dreams. They are only interested in riding this holy wave of rage (for which we white people bear fundamental responsibility) into an unholy direction.

Anarchists see it an opportunity to disrupt society, but they have no common cause with the black community beyond that momentary coalescing of interests. White supremacists see it as an opportunity to insert themselves into a confrontation where they might be able to escalate things even worse into an all-out race war. They will feign being allies just long enough to set up conditions to for catastrophic reactions. Similarly, anti-government actors and guns rights fanatics (groups that overlap with but are not identical to white supremacists), are actually willing to stand with black people in opposing police/state-sponsored violence, because their goal is not race war but a war with the state itself. Yet they have zero interest in racial justice or any Beloved Community. They will betray black people the moment they’re no longer useful to their sense of war with the government. And accelerationists (who overlap with these other groups—sorry, but these are blurry, messy categories) are persons determined to wreak whatever havoc they can (and this is a moment pregnant with opportunity to do just that) in order to “accelerate” the fraying of society toward a future state that will NOT be friendly to black people.

Listen, there is real evidence that representatives of all of these groups are embedding themselves opportunistically within the masses gathered in response to George Floyd’s murder! They are coming from across the country to seize this moment of holy rage and spin it out of control. I suspect that is why the MN Department of Public Safety (who acknowledged their awareness of such groups within the protests) initially stationed the National Guard at the Fed and the capitol and power stations—because these things may well be the targets of some of these other groups when they’re ready to act. And it’s why they acknowledged (at the 1:30 a.m. briefing) that they have heard of persons coming to these protests with the goal of killing a national guardsman.

This is some genuinely unholy rage just waiting for the chance to creep out. And the Hennepin County Attorney’s game of slow deliberate investigation (even when carried out at “breakneck speed” as we wants us to believe) completely underestimates the peril of this moment. His inaction fuels the holy rage—and widens the window for unholy rage to build explosively.

And it seems clear after Friday night that both the mayor and the governor grievously underestimated the holy rage. Willing to offer words of authentic empathy, they nonetheless imagined themselves caught in the limits of what is realistically possible in the short term regarding politics or policy (to dismantle the racism endemic to the Minneapolis Police Department and elsewhere). And—as a result of that—they unintentionally exposed our community to a far greater risk of destruction. Can we get back from this edge? I don’t know. But the alternative is civic catastrophe.

And the protesters—at time (legitimately!) triumphant at the power they have touched in this moment—seem also oblivious to the threat posed to all of us (themselves included!) by persons/groups hiding within their numbers … who might be working to “guide” legitimate rage into actions that are intended for ends quite different than the protesters have in their heart and mind.

This IS a moment pregnant—painful, bloody, and labored—with possibility. And we dare not erase the holiness of the rage within the black community. It has sparked a HOLY riot tilting (HOPEFULLY!) toward social revolution and transformation, which would be good for all of us.

But, if we (any of us) remain unaware or are too quickly dismissive of the unholy elements (entirely outside the black community, and mostly from outside Minnesota) acting within this moment, it will become a moment of chaos, whose toll will be measured not in property loss, but in loss of life, safety, and trust in our community.

There is MUCH we need to do. In this moment, that doing begins by claiming each other as beloved members of a community not yet fully beloved, but presently under assault by forces from outside that hope to damage us all.

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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 May 30, 2020. 3 Comments

Note to Self on How to Respond to a Lynching

Note to Self on How to Respond to a Lynching
May 27, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Announce—in the loudest and firmest voice you can manage—and remember, you are addressing everyone present:

Friends, as a person of faith I have promised to stand against evil. I cannot simply stand by, not even to bear witness. I must act.

If you are white, I invite you to act with me. We who are white must challenge white supremacy and racism, even when it wears a uniform.

I intend no harm, but I will act. I may well be harmed. But nothing will be different … until I am different. So today I will be different.

No longer a bystander, I will with-stand this violence. If enough of us white people withstand it together, we may stop it nonviolently. But even if I act alone, I change the equation. Forever.

As I watched the police officer kill George Floyd by keeping a knee to his neck until he could no longer breathe—all caught on cellphone video by several bystanders while three other officers stood by, I was awash with feelings. Among them, why doesn’t someone just intervene?! Yes, it’s a police officer. But while filming it may provide accountability and perhaps some justice, it didn’t keep Floyd alive.

Of course, it would’ve been deadly for any black person to intervene. Although, as a friend of mine remarked, Floyd called out for his mama because she would’ve done something. Not because she was black, but because she was his mama.

Then I asked myself, would I have intervened? And, of course, I don’t know. I’d like to hope—I’d truly like to hope—that had I been there, I would’ve put my life on the line to save his. “Greater love has no one than this,” said Jesus. At some point—some point long past now—it’s time for white people to stop being bystanders and become with-standers in moments like this.

Sure, we’ll be scared. We should be scared. But our conviction should run deeper than our fear. And we should train our words and actions to follow our convictions rather than our fear. Unfortunately, our best character has been taught to reflexively trust the police and to respect their authority without questioning it. Yet when we do so—even while “filming for justice”—black people die.

I am not criticizing anyone there yesterday! Had I been there, I likely would have—at most—pulled out my phone, too. But tomorrow, I intend to be different.

That statement at the top of the page? I’ve printed it out on a 2×3 business card that I’m going to laminate and carry in my wallet. Because, while my bravery may not match my eloquence, I’m betting that I can at least stammer a few words off a card and then step slowly forward until I get maced or tased. Even that may not save a life. But it will change the narrative. And that may be enough.

This isn’t about “white people” being heroes. It’s about simply being brave enough to be penitent, to own responsibility for the system of racism that runs wild in our nation. And that runs no less wild—likely more wild—within police culture, where it becomes particularly dangerous because it carries legal authority, a loaded gun, and a code of silence.

It’s going to take a lot of work to truly address police violence toward black people. And I don’t imagine that intervening in the midst of an encounter like Monday’s in Minneapolis is going to magically solve things. But too many black people have been dying at the hands of police for too long. And so far nothing has stopped that. And maybe widespread white timidity is partly to blame. So I’m taking one concrete step to end my timidity. It’ll be printed up on a small card in my wallet. I hope I never find myself in a situation where I need to use it. But if I do, I pray to God that I use it.

It’s not the only thing I intend to do. But it’s the first next thing. And I expect, once it’s in my wallet, it might motivate me to do other more mundane and equally necessary things. You might find that making one for your wallet motivates you, too. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a small card to laminate.

George Floyd. Say his name. Murdered in the dying daylight on Monday in Minneapolis.
George Floyd. He went by Big Floyd. Beloved child of God.

 

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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 May 27, 2020. 1 Comment

Haunted by My Past

Haunted by My Past
May 21, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Some days I’m haunted by my past. Mostly in ways I don’t appreciate. Decisions I wish I could decide differently. Roads not taken. And others taken unwisely. Resolves I wish I’d maintained.

Not that I don’t like the life I have (or the wife or the kids or the grandkids!). But having largely fallen through the cracks of anything that might be called a career—in a society that values people (men especially) by the income or status associated with a career—there are more days than I care to acknowledge when those values that disvalue me get inside my own head.

I feel like Mr. Holland, with no Opus in sight. (In the 1996 film, Mr. Holland’s Opus, Glenn Holland is an aspiring composer whose long hours and dedication as a teacher so delay his progress on the symphony he’s writing that, even as he nears completion, he despairs of ever getting it performed. On the day he retires his wife has managed to secretly share the musical score with a host of former students who surprise him by re-assembling in the high school auditorium and playing the premiere of his symphony. But, of course, his “real” opus is all the lives he touched along the way.)

I was an aspiring teacher when the film came out. In grad school at Notre Dame, training for a career in academia, I imagined myself doing both things: leaving my mark on the field of theology and ethics and shaping the minds and lives of a generation of students. But that career never happened. A patchwork of teaching jobs, yes. But no career. No mark. And, ultimately, no teaching.

No wonder that some days sixty has an anxious edge to it.

But there are days I’m haunted by a different past. Monday was one such occasion. I received an email auto-notification that I had a new patron (somebody pledging monthly support for my writing via Patreon). I didn’t recognize the name, so I sent a short note of welcome and thanks and asked a couple simple questions about how they’d found their way to my writing and why they were keen to support it.

Turns out they were a former student of mine. From fourteen years ago, which only mildly lessens the embarrassment of not recognizing their name. They recounted a handful of significant insights they’d learned in my classroom more than a decade ago. The absolute and utter graciousness of God; the deep humanity and scandalous boundary-breaking of Jesus; and an affirmation of sexual wholeness across a range of diverse expression. Learning that helped reset the shape their life.

But more than this, they recalled an instance in which I offered a concrete unexpected kindness in a semester that had been emotionally brutal for them. It was so unexpected and so concrete that it stood out as a moment that was transformative for the soul. And now they were happy to be in a place to pay it forward now. (Truth be told—that semester was emotionally brutal for me as well. I was plummeting into a hellish court battle over my presence in my daughter’s life—and that fall I was getting slaughtered.)

And yet—this is the past that haunted me on Monday. Moving through my work that semester, too many days in a daze drenched with heartache, I managed a level of kindness that touched this student’s soul, even when I was too bone-weary to notice. I suppose that’s character: when the grace and compassion you teach become manifest in mundane acts that don’t even register for you but which are in fact redemptive for others.

I don’t say that to brag. The anxious edge of navigating my competing senses of value and vocation at age sixty doesn’t allow for that. But to be reminded—and so out of the blue—that even at one of my own low points, I managed to live up to my inward convictions, well, that’s a grace I could stand to be haunted by now and then. Not to make my life easier, but to help me lean well—and with compassion and grace—into tomorrow.

So, you know who you are. From the depths of my soul: thanks.

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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.

Pornstars, Parables, and the Pandemic

Pornstars, Parables, and the Pandemic
May 8, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Kat at West Coast Productions Party – image: http://www.lukeisback.comderivative work: Tabercil / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)

Here’s the thing about “Good Samaritans”: they are unlikely, unwelcome, offensive bearers of good news. And it’s just possible that in this pandemic pornstars may bear good news for all of us.

Slow down. Before you either sign up for PornHub or quit reading me in disdain, hear me out.

Samaritans, first. Jesus’ parable about the “Good Samaritan” is among his most well known—and most misunderstood. A person traveling along a road between two cities is attacked by bandits and left badly injured at the edge of the road. In need of help. As Jesus tells the tale, first a priest then a Levite come upon the injured traveler. Both pass by without offering aid. (Each has a “legitimate” reason for not offering aid because attending to a person near death would make them ritually impure and prevent them from performing their temple duties. It’s likely that one part of the parable is aimed at critiquing the way ritual purity can override the deeper human duty to compassion, but that won’t get us to pornstars, so we’ll let that slide for the moment.)

It’s possible that as Jesus tells the parable, his listeners empathize with the injured traveler. Many of them, no doubt, have had to travel between cities at some point and knew the perils. It’s also possible that when he told how both priest and Levite move to the other side of the road to pass by the injured traveler, their responses are mixed. Some of them might be thinking, “Just like those ‘holier than thou’ folks to walk by with nary a word!” But others might be more generous, “Well, of course they can’t help; their work in the Temple is too important to disrupt. I sure hope someone else comes along in time.”

Whatever the crowd is thinking, Jesus can count on their unified reaction when he introduces the next passerby: a Samaritan. They will ALL react with disdain and disgust. They may well expect the Samaritan to ransack the traveler one more time to see if the bandits missed anything, but they do not expect—they do not want—the Samaritan to offer any help.

There’s a whole history at play here—one far more fractious than even the Hatfields and the McCoys. Long story short: Jews viewed Samaritans as false-Jews, persons claiming a kinship they had no right to. Samaritans were—hands down—the most despised category of people in Jewish society. Jesus knew this, which is why he placed a Samaritan in this key role in the tale. But not merely to catch his listeners off guard. He did it to place this bit of gospel at the heart of the parable: that sometimes (maybe most times) the life-bearing activity of God shows up in our midst by way of the least expected, least welcome, least wanted characters.

As you may know, the Samaritan—this despised false-Jew—indeed does stop, offer aid, and deliver the traveler to an inn when he pledges to foot the bill for his continued care. At the end of the tale, Jesus asks the lawyer (whose question about “neighbors” prompted the parable), “Who acted as neighbor toward the injured traveler?” The lawyer can’t even bring himself to say, “the Samaritan,” so he merely replies (I imagine in a bit of a grumble), “The one who showed him aid.”

I can relate. I may not despise pornstars, but I wouldn’t place them high on my list of “health care heroes” either. But this parable—if we truly hear it—declares that (whether we like it or not) the life-giving activity of God is so boundless that it will reach toward us often in the most unexpected ways. Even when those ways involve unlikely, unwelcome, offensive bearers of good news. Like Samaritans. Or pornstars.

Porn is fraught work. From producers to actors to viewers, the temptation to engage in dehumanizing, exploitative, oppressive, damaging attitudes/behaviors toward others or to internalize them toward oneself is everywhere. AND YET, the same can and must be said of “Christian” purity culture that makes us so fearful and mistrusting of our own embodiment. That “Christian” view also feeds the temptation to engage in dehumanizing, exploitative, oppressive, damaging attitudes/behaviors toward others or to internalize them toward oneself. The “Christian” fixation on purity—and its abandonment of the ecstatic goodness of bodily-sexual pleasure—plows the field in which porn flourishes. But I’m not here today to have a whole debate on porn.

My simple observation is that as we work to responsibly re-open the economy we don’t expect pornstars to be the ones wearing the white hats (and maybe nothing else!). But what if they are?! Can we recognize that perhaps it is witness to the offensively abundant goodness of God that these contemporary Samaritans will help us map our way back to a working economy?

You see, since the late 90’s the threat of HIV/AIDS has forced the porn industry to take the health of its workforce—pornstars—with unremitting rigor. In the professional adult film industry actors must be tested for HIV and other STDs every 14 days if they wish to be certified to work through the PASS (Performer Availability Screening Services) program.*

Aside from the moral ambiguities of the industry itself, the PASS program isn’t perfect. The 14-day period, set because it works for HIV, doesn’t preclude passing other STDs that might appear inside that two-week window. Also, because most pornstars—like many gig and low-wage workers—only get paid when they show up to work, there can still be an incentive to cover symptoms in order maintain income. And participation is voluntary—and, typically, testing costs are borne by the actors themselves. But many actors won’t shoot scenes with an uncertified actor, so there is also a soft-spoken community ethic: our livelihood depends on keeping each other safe.

Not surprisingly, the PASS program has had to work through, albeit on a smaller scale than our national economy, the logistics of access to testing, database privacy, false positives, isolation, contact tracing, and community education. All these things continue to be works in progress, contested and revised across the terrains of management-labor, public health, and technology.

BUT—we ought not miss this point: we have in our midst, an industry that now has two decades of lived experience making choices to protect the health of its workforce on the far side of normal.

In this pandemic parable, as our economy lies battered by the roadside, it just may be a pornstar coming down the road who stops and tends our wounds. Some folks will, no doubt, recoil in disgust. But I’m telling you, this image matches that God Jesus told us about. A God whose life-bearing activity is so scandalously gracious that it doesn’t hesitate to show up in our midst by way of the least expected, least welcome, least wanted ways. To which our humble response of faith need only be, “Yes, please.”

 

* The information in this essay relating to the adult film industry and COVID-19 is from an article in STAT, an online project of Boston Globe Media that focuses on the cutting edge stories in health, medicine, and science. Kudos to Derek Blechinger, a former student from Luther college, now a primary care physician in San Francisco, for posting this to Facebook, where it sparked these reflections by me. www.statnews.com/2020/05/08/porn-industry-model-for-reopening-amid-covid19/

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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.

Pandemic Mutations

Pandemic Mutations
May 7, 2020 – David R. Weiss

These days are long and loud for me. I sit by busy intersections and listen to the voices.

Some of those intersections are online news stories, others are video clips or the TV news or a print piece on the pandemic. More than a few are voices inside me, picking sides, poking holes, trying to see around the next bend. When I say the days are long and loud, I mean I am barely able to speak some days. Margaret, working fulltime from home now, is within earshot—all day long. And, today I barely had energy even to chat.

I have a hard enough time tracking the shouting in my head. But it’s more than just shouting. Because I’m also frantically … deliberately listening, looking for patterns. I may not write all that much poetry, but as an essayist and theologian, I sit still at those multiple intersections, waiting like a poet to notice unexpected connections. It’s how my mind works.

But between the intensity of thoughts and feelings, logic and intuitions, right now it’s nearly killing me. This is not a muted cry for help—I’m fine, (I think). But it is also not hyperbole. I see so many things moving together like tumblers that I find myself almost paralyzed with fear and awe, perched at the edge of insight for hours at a time. A desire to write, and too often an inability to know where to start. It’s all so connected. I feel like the scene in A Beautiful Mind where you see the walls in John Nash’s office—with pushpins and strings madly crisscrossing every which way. Long. Loud.

Daytime taunts me. There is already too much going on in my own upstairs; every other noise or activity just spins me in circles. I stumble from sunlight into darkness. Usually by midnight a bit of calm settles in, and from then until 2 or 3 or 4 a.m., I actually manage. Manage what? Sometimes I manage to write. Other times to really think—to let the voices speak in turn rather than continue their incessant cacophony. Sometimes I merely manage to sink into a book. But those dark hours sustain me as little does. Without them, I would have no other option except to shut down. This has been occasionally true for the past few years, but for the past two months it’s been a lifeline—its depth in my life, a mutation.

Reading fiction helps. A good story settles my mind, and for a while the voices rest. If I’m lucky, its balm lingers afterward and helps ground me when I take up my own thoughts. But there are days like today, when, despite a really good story, all I manage is one chapter, a deep sigh, then the next, and a sigh, then the next. Because the words I feel rising in me are still too chaotic, too unwelcome (in my throat, at my fingertips, in your ears or eyes). Too often these days I do not want to write the things I must.

Right now I’m reading Richard Powers’ novel The Overstory. I’m a third of the way in, and it’s been a mesmerizing salve. The prose is simply gorgeous; the story’s arc thus far haunting. A short while ago I read how the roots of two Douglas firs, when they meet beneath the ground, actually fuse together, joining the trees. Of course, it’s rarely just two trees, but it makes me think of Margaret. In three days it will be exactly twenty years since I penned a poem in which I wrote this line of us: “As deep, deep within the ground our very roots find each other in the moist darkness and we braid ourselves together in a single shining cord of ecstasy.” We did. We have. And we do.

Tonight when I crawl in bed between 3 and 4 a.m., I will reach my leg to the right, and my weary roots will find hers, and between us—waking, sleeping—we will again briefly fuse together by touch this shared life we’ve woven across our psyches, our souls, our hearts. She, by day, advocates for those unsheltered in this pandemic. Battling bureaucracy, fostering teamwork, and multi-tasking on the multitude of mundane things that must be done. Meanwhile—there is no other way to say this—I play at alchemy with reckless intensity. Sitting at those intersections, waiting as theologian and writer, prophet and poet, for sparks to fly. Praying both that I don’t get burned and that I catch entirely aflame. We are as we’ve always been. Just moreso. Much. Moreso.

This rhythm and the particular foci of our lives will no doubt shift on the far side of this pandemic. But not back to whatever it used to be. We now live—and love—on the far side of mutation.

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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.

America’s Zyklon B Moment

America’s Zyklon B Moment
May 6, 2020 – David R. Weiss

Flannery O’Connor explained the overdrawn characters in her short stories by explaining that she was writing for readers unfamiliar with her world, so she used these characters to shout. Today I am shouting.

I’ve listened to GOP politicians justify reopening the economy before their states have even met the four key criteria outlined by the White House administration. They openly state they are making a deal built on death. They are willing to pay for economic vitality with body bags. (They’ll also likely pay for it with a second and third wave of infections and deaths, although they don’t talk so openly about that.)

I understand there are people who are economically hurting, and I’ll address that in another essay. But we need to grapple with this one thing today. These politicians are choosing death over life. Proudly.

We’re witnessing a “Zyklon B moment” in America.

Used Zyklon B canisters in Auschwitz museum – image: Alex Morley
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en

Zyklon B was the pelletized gas the Nazis used to kill Jews in the gas chambers. They chose it because it was cheaper than bullets or carbon monoxide (both of which they also used). They chose it because German companies were ready to bid competitively on the lowest cost for the weakest dose that would “do the job.” After the war, executives from the companies pleaded innocence. After all, they just made the pellets; they didn’t carry out the mass executions. Several of them were ultimately executed. (I studied this in a course on the Holocaust, Radical Evil, and Theology, taught by a rabbi in 1984—but refreshed my memory online last night.)

Zyklon B became a symbol for bureaucratic evil, for the near unimaginable perversity of letting market forces provide immoral murderous answers to political evil.

We are caught right now in a moment of political evil, in which Trump and the GOP, abetted by corporate financiers (or is it the reverse?), are intent on entrenching capitalist white supremacist homophobic xenophobic misogynistic class and ecological war as the shape of our shared future. (That’s the other essay—to follow in a day or two. That’s why these “Re-Open” protests are so foolish, so dangerous, and so complicit in something radically evil.)

In this moment (that is, before there is clear evidence that the conditions for safeguarding the public health have been met), choosing to re-open the economy is akin to choosing Zyklon B.

Zyklon B: when you let the market do the murdering for you. That’s today in America. Cheered on by flag-waving, gun-toting “patriots.” God help us.

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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.

Gaslighting and the Gospel … on Post-Pandemic Faithfulness

Gaslighting and the Gospel … on Post-Pandemic Faithfulness
April 28, 2020 – David R. Weiss

This is a longer than usual piece. These are other than usual times. I hope you’ll read it all the way through because I think it’s a pretty important one.

I’ve seen a number of my friends share an article on Facebook: “Prepare for the Ultimate Gaslighting” by Julio Vincent Gambuto. It’s a provocative, insightful essay. In this companion piece, I want to lift up several of his insights and then carry them a bit further in terms of Christian faith. However, I think this essay is important to anyone of goodwill, so I hope you’ll stay with me all the way through. Here’s my thesis: Progressive Christians have distinctive resources that can help us resist the gaslighting about to hit us—and our readiness to resist may be how we awaken the Gospel in our midst in this moment.

I’ll begin with a pretty thorough explanation of gaslighting (which may be an unfamiliar term to some of my readers). The more fully you understand this concept, the more you’ll follow everything else that either Gambuto or I are saying. Then, after a quick summary of Gambuto’s piece, I’ll turn to my own thoughts.

Gaslighting: it’s a word from another era recently in vogue again, but not at all self-evident in its meaning—unless you know its origin. Who even uses gas lights anymore? The term originates in a 1938 play, Gas Light, later made into a 1940 British and 1944 American movie sharing the same title, but with the space now removed: Gaslight. The plot—set still earlier in 1880—involves a husband who is determined to make his wife question her sanity by making subtle changes to their home and then denying that anything has changed—insisting she is imagining them. The title refers to his deliberate dimming of the gas lights in their home, all the while convincing her that the lights are bright as ever and that she is losing her grip on reality.

Hence the definition of gaslighting: when one person or party presents false information for the purpose of making someone else question—and ultimately mistrust—their own perceptions … and accept the presented reality as true.

As in the play/film, gaslighting is common in abusive interpersonal relationship, where one person may use it to undermine another person’s self-esteem and thereby control them in the relationship. Gaslighting, as a descriptive term, does not necessarily denote pre-meditated intent; plenty of abusive persons gaslight almost by instinct or reflex, likely without full awareness of what they’re doing. And in some relationships gaslighting moves in both directions.

However, gaslighting also occurs outside of personal relationships. It’s a common tactic in religious cults and is often used by other authoritarian leaders. In these cases the victims are an entire community led to surrender their own reality to the one chosen for them by the leader. Jim Jones (of the 1978 Jonestown massacre) and David Koresh (of the Branch Davidians and the 1987 Waco siege) were cult leaders who gaslit their followers—successfully and tragically destroying their ability to perceive reality for themselves—with deadly results. Similarly, gaslighting is readily apparent in much of the state propaganda of Russia and North Korea, where leaders define reality for entire masses, even when that reality is in stark contrast to what is objectively available.

Gaslighting is also a favored tactic of narcissists, who compulsively seek to arrange the world to meet their needs. Unfortunately for us as a nation, we currently have a president who is a self-avowed narcissist. (Not that he admits to this, but his self-aggrandizing narcissism runs so rampant in his public words and actions that he seems almost eager to have us notice.) From his first claim of a record-breaking crowd at his inauguration to the now more than 18,000 false or misleading claims made by him (as tracked by The Washington Post), our president has been gaslighting the American public with a torrent of false claims all the while insisting that his words alone match reality.

While this creates endless opportunity for derision among many of us, it also creates right here in America—at least among his base (and no less than in Russia or North Korea)—a population that willfully surrenders their own interest in taking any objective measure of reality and readily accepts the measure provided by the president. We saw that with the foolish ferocity evident in the wave of “Liberate” protests. Although not directly organized by the president, his nonstop gaslighting from day one of his presidency and through his response to the pandemic clearly shaped the people willing to attend these protests, and his tweeting about them is itself an instance of gaslighting. It’s fair to say that, under Trump, the entire GOP and a host of far right, white nationalist, and neo-Nazi groups have entered into a tacit agreement to gaslight the American public around issues of our common life.

Okay, that’s gaslighting. It’s not pretty. It’s not healthy. (It is, sadly, all too common.) And there’s one other expression of it that sits at the heart of American life—having become as American as apple pie over the last century: advertising as the defining, functional feature of a consumer society. And this gets us, finally, to Gambuto’s essay. (I’ll return to advertising below.)

Gambuto observes the following: the pandemic has given us an undeniable glimpse of an alternate reality, a different pace of life—a different pace of production-pollution-consumption. He calls this “The Great Pause,” during which we have seen bluer skies, heard more birds chirping, and sensed what life might be like were we not so driven by the busyness of our lives.

(Set aside for a moment the several glaring exceptions to this. Clearly, this is no Great Pause for the sick and dying—or for the healthcare workers involved in their care. And this is no Great Pause for those at home in quarters now dangerously close because of relationships—even with oneself—marked by emotional/physical violence or illness. Or for those whose lives were already so framed by economic precariousness that any pause at all meant something more than passing hardship. These latter two are perhaps real gaps in Gambuto’s angle of vision, but their absence in his essay does not weaken its claim.)

Here’s his claim: Having just experienced firsthand—as an undeniable reality known by some/many of us during this pandemic—a version of a “better world” (cleaner, quieter, in many ways more hospitable to human life despite the awkwardness of our distancing), we are about to be gaslit. As the economy opens back up, we’ll be relentlessly invited-urged-pressured to overwrite the reality we’ve just experienced … and race to buy our way back into the ‘normal’ life we had pre-pandemic. The corporate sponsors of that once-normal world will do this with an onslaught of ads (augmented no doubt by political ‘patriotic’ rhetoric) that subtly ask us to reject all the better-ness of the world we’ve just experienced during The Great Pause. We’ll be urged to deny—by the very act of rushing to buy our way back to ‘normal’—that we just experienced something unexpectedly refreshing and more life-giving than the non-stop consumption that benefits our corporate sponsors and their political allies.

Note that the non-stop consumption that defined the pre-pandemic ‘normal,’ is, by any rational account, destroying the planet’s capacity to support human life (and countless other life forms as well). Indeed, unrestrained global development (a near-sacred assumption of free market capitalism) presses humans ever further into once wild ecosystems while also pressing animals ever more densely into industrial livestock operations—and both of these pressures press the likelihood of pandemics ever more deeply into our future.

But this awareness would be undeniably bad for business. So it will be Big Business’ first order of business to gaslight any such awareness to smithereens. This isn’t new. Advertising has operated on a basic model of gaslighting for almost exactly 100 years. It was in the 1920’s that ads shifted from a singular promotion of the practical function of an items to linking items (cars, cigarettes, clothing, diamonds, beer, soft drinks, you name it …) to the emotions of our social lives.This has always been gaslighting. It is the subtly manipulative, increasingly savvy pressure to overwrite what we know (by immediate experience) to be the sources of human well-being … with mere stuff. Shiny and new, bells and whistles, yes, but nonetheless mere stuff. And the stuff doesn’t lie. The ads lie.

There is a whole other level of lie at work as well. The nonstop proliferation of stuff-to-be-sold requires the nonstop exploitation/destruction of the natural-animal world and the nonstop exploitation/oppression of our fellow humans. So, in the background of advertising’s gaslighting, upon which is built our shiny consumer world, there sits also both racism (its own gaslighting project championed in a thousand ways to tell us we are separate “races”) and ecocide (a cultures-wide gaslighting project that overwrites the deepest truth of our being-in/with-nature).

How have we not seen this before? Gambuto says—and he is largely right—we’ve simply been too busy. Our own lives are too haggard by trying to work enough to earn enough to buy enough to do enough to have enough to be happy. And however much of this busyness is well-intended, it keeps us from ever noticing or attending to the multiple ills around us, the growing fractures in our natural world, and the escalating tensions in our social world. We are simply too busy. Yes—And. We are intentionally kept too busy. Suppressing wages and unions, burgeoning student debt, evaporating health coverage, and the rise of the gig economy (read: the infinitely precarious economy)—these things, coupled with the insatiable appetites sown by advertising, are designed to keep us too busy.

In his classic text, The True Believer, Eric Hoffer recounts the purpose behind the endless marching of Nazi soldiers. It dulls the mind, preventing any individual thought. So does ceaseless scrambling to work to earn to buy. We have been gaslit fervently (that is, not by accident or merely by an inner impulse wrapped in religious credo—although that is surely at work, too) for at least 100 years by advertising. The alliance between corporate/wealthy interests, willing politicians, and marketing forces that have known exactly what they were being paid to do has had as it primary goal to overwrite the reality of human life that is ever aching within us simply to be known. (This is why so much money is spent on developing ads; it is no simple match to plant a lie within our very appetites.)

And Gambuto, in his essay, admirably highlights much of this … and pleads for us not to allow ourselves to be gaslit this time. He rightly declares there is too much at risk to simply slide back into ‘normal.’ At both the level of global ecology/climate crisis and the social ecology of our lives, we have providentially glimpsed the chance to live differently. And we may not get another such glimpse shy of the first wholesale collapse of social systems as the climate crisis begins to tear our social fabric in ways that will make this pandemic seem like little more than a nasty allergy season. In other words, if we buy into the “Ultimate Gaslighting” about to be rolled out, we will be choosing the deadly mediocrity of more stuff over the myriad more life-giving ways of inhabiting the world.

But what if we instead decide, as Sonya Renee Taylor so eloquently puts it: “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate and lack. We should not long to return my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment. One that fits all of humanity and nature.”

We can choose to stitch that new garment … or we can allow ourselves once again to be gaslit. The stakes could not be higher. For our corporate sponsors—or for us. And, as critical as it is for us to choose to stitch that new garment, it will be a far harder choice than the one made by thousands already to stitch facemasks. Because this choice will garner little praise and much antagonism—at least at the start. It will threaten the assumptions and practices of our economy and our politics and our society and our culture … and our religion. Except—

Buried in our Christian tradition (and, no doubt, in other traditions as well) is a truth claim capable of harnessing and unleashing the energy required to stitch that new garment. We call it “gospel,” and although the word is heard often enough today, I am here to tell you that the full power of the gospel has only rarely been embraced unreservedly in human history. And while it may be audacious to think this moment, here and now, post-pandemic—I mean right HERE, right NOW—is somehow a moment in history when gospel erupts, well, yes, that is audacious. But it’s also now or never. We likely don’t have another chance coming our way. We get gaslit this time … and the planet will be in flames before we come to our senses. So there’s nothing left except audacity right now. This is it.

Remarkably, the earliest layers of our tradition saw this challenge quite clearly. When Paul declared that in our struggle to be faithful, we contend not merely with flesh and blood—not merely with the frailties and temptations of our own humanity, nor merely with the malice of others—but against “powers and principalities” (Ephesians 6:12), he was speaking to this moment. He was, of course, speaking to his moment first and foremost, but his words echo with truth we need today. Paul recognized the human capacity to set up empires, societies, cultures, and the like—including the contemporary intersection of wealth, corporate/political interests, and advertising—that function as whole systems with an inertia greater than any individual person—an inertia that seemingly takes on a life of its own, manifesting an institutionalized energy that will seek to gaslight us in the days ahead … despite the fact that such gaslighting carries within it the seeds of our own destruction.

But the glimmer of hope here is that Paul spoke not as one resigned to defeat, but as one confident that the power of the gospel was greater than the principalities and powers. They deserve to be regarded with sober recognition. Even as the gospel is embraced with faithful audacity.

The gospel—the astonishing good news—is the recognition, announced from beyond us and echoing from within our lives, that we are beloved by God. Each one of us. Bar none. Each corner of creation. Each ecosystem and habitat. Each plant and creature. Each human being. Beloved. BELOVED! This dawning recognition—proclaimed in the words and deeds of Jesus—carries within it the pattern for that new garment that Sonya Renee Taylor foresees. This dawning recognition, as it fills our souls, challenges every false claim made by the forces that wish to gaslight us yet again. It so fills our vision that we see clearly how interwoven the whole of reality is. And it so fills our hearts and our minds that we not only disavow those forces beyond us that speak lies, we even challenge the lies and the habits that have been sown into our psyches and rooted into the routines of our daily life.

I hope I’m not understating what we must do. We must remake pretty much everything. And there are powerful forces with smiling faces and glitzy ads (and some glowering faces and fear-mongering words, too) that will promise us anything if we just return things to ‘normal.’ Still, when Jesus says, “Repent, for the kin-dom on God is at hand,” he means—against the backdrop of the gaslighting principalities and powers of his day—precisely this: “Turn around, for the infinite belovedness of all is here at hand—close enough to touch.” If we welcome that gospel—that world-altering good news—into our lives, we will be able to stitch that new garment. Not one by one. But together, leaning on one another, learning from one another, upholding one another.

This isn’t only a Christian possibility. Written as it is into the very fabric of reality, it’s open to anyone willing to be grasped by an utter reverence for the wonder of all that is. I just happen to know that the Christian tradition has its own distinctive energy for bringing that reverence into being and to bear on the world. For Christians, in the days ahead we will either be gaslit, or we will open ourselves more deeply than ever to the gospel. One or the other. And this isn’t about working out our salvation (which is clumsily vague language anyways). But, no. The belovedness that the gospel declares is already given. Absolute. Unconditional. Secure. Instead, the choice we face is about working out the fate of the world. For ourselves. Our children. And far beyond. The power of the gospel, refracted through our lives, is the saving of this world.

We are about to experience the ultimate gaslighting. And behind all the shiny things to be dangled in front of us, lies once again—as always—the desecration of all that God loves. Gaslit or gospel? A whole aching world awaits your choice. And only one will help you stitch that new garment. I hope I’ll find you stitching alongside me. It’s a big garment. And it’s going to take all of us to stitch it. Together.

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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.

“Liberate Minnesota” Didn’t Liberate Anything

“Liberate Minnesota” Didn’t Liberate Anything
April 18, 2020 – David R. Weiss

NOTE: I did not attend Friday’s Liberate Minnesota rally. I followed it via Unicorn Riot’s live feed.

I am not sure what I expected, but not this. And I am struggling to make sense of it.

It was a carnival atmosphere. Maybe a thousand people (of all ages) gathered in front of the Governor’s house in Saint Paul. There were megaphones shouting and horns honking, while a slow parade of cars with placards drove along Summit Ave to cheers and claps and nods. Sure, there were some angry shouts about ending the Stay-at-Home order and fervent calls for opening the economy. But there were lots of smiles. People lined the streets and sidewalks shoulder-to-shoulder, plainly happy to be there—and plenty close together. There were a few—but only a few—face-masks in sight. But more than a few references to “faith” and “God” as though speaking these words was a sufficient substitute for responsible human behavior.

And now I’m struggling to process the horror of what I saw on Friday. People jubilantly dispensing with any recognition of the real stakes of this pandemic for us as a state. People gleefully ignoring the medical plea for social distancing. People celebrating their defiance of the Governor’s Stay-at-Home order. People festively—and as families!—dismissing the very deep cost that their immediate actions and their larger aspirations—will surely pose to their fellow Minnesotans … especially to the elderly, the immune-compromised, and communities of color.

Some of it I understand. Folks are economically anxious. We live in a predatory economy that keeps most of us much closer to precarity than we recognize until a medical emergency, job loss, major repair—or pandemic—reveals just how near the edge our lives have always been. But that’s a set up. It doesn’t have to be that way. However, the wealthy and powerful in our society know they do best when the rest of us scramble. And this pandemic shows us how uncertain even our scrambling lives have always been.

Additionally, one whole slice of our society—and it’s a slice that cuts across many of our families and friendships—has been fed, for decades now (long before Trump), a steady diet of disregard for science, mistrust for media, and simmering bias toward anyone painted as other. Taken together those forces have rendered us a republic ripe for civic unrest, tilting toward tribalism, and ready to play into the hands of an authoritarian regime. You see this in the irrational polarization that impulsively pits worldview against worldview, eclipsing humanity in the blink of an eye.

There is another wild card at play in this as well: the insatiable appetite for stuff as the ultimate and most trustworthy measure of human worth (known as “economic growth” on the macro level—but simply the “capacity for personal acquisitiveness” in most of our private lives). This didn’t happen overnight. We were “bred” for this over generations. But today it is the water in which we swim. It is the invisible idolatry that makes us ready to engage (quite literally, goddammit!—and the curse is both intentional and righteous) in human sacrifice to appease our economic gods.

So, yes, economic anxiety runs deep into our psyches. Scarcity has real roots in the human condition. But today, for most of us, the experience of economic anxiety is framed by the forces named above. And under those conditions, our sense of community, our capacity for resilience, gets narrowed down to “taking care of me and mine.” Meaning that those that lack economic value, or those whom I don’t see as part of my tribe, or those whose differences gives them less value—when push comes to shove, and when shove comes to pandemic, all of these persons are obstacles to my worth. So they don’t matter to me. They can’t matter to me. In fact, if I’m told—as by a Stay-at-Home order—that they actually do matter, then their mattering becomes a threat. And threats … deserve to be eliminated. That’s just economics at work.

Trump might like to take credit for this—this Machiavellian politics that presumes winning (at any cost, by any means) is always self-justifying: that might makes right. That the wealthy and powerful deserve what they have, and that playing successive parts of the populace off against each other is both a pleasant pastime and a savvy social strategy to maintain their position at the top. But Trump merely inherited this moment. And despite his pompous narcissism—and the real danger he presents, because being President gives him unearned and unpredictable power—he is mostly a tool of forces that view him with as much contempt as I do (just from an opposite angle).

Nonetheless, this moment is real and its threat to our common humanity is here. Now. And on full display in the Liberate rally in front of the Governor’s house on Friday. On the surface it was a call to open the economy and let Minnesota get back to work, regardless of the risk. In between the lines it was a vigilante declaration of open season on the vulnerable. But at an even deeper level of social dynamics it played like a carefully choreographed desecration of the common good.

This moment—in Minnesota and in cities across the nations—has been months, maybe years in the making. Trump’s administration undertook a whole series of foolhardy (or perhaps strategic) moves to ensure the nation was as exposed as possible to a public health crisis. Then, with that crisis blooming in China and coming our way, it was dismissed, downplayed, even mocked—until it was more than upon us. When public health voices became inescapably public, they were portrayed as partisan opinion rather than medical science. When the degree of economic disruption that would be both inevitable because of disease and necessary to preserve public safety became clear, the administration and the GOP made sure the government response would be both top-heavy toward corporations and the wealthy and underfunded for everyone else—because only such a package would keep most of us sufficiently on edge so that some of us could be turned against others of us. Which is exactly what the festive mood of anger on Summit Ave reflected.

Trump’s daily pandemic briefings have focused less on presenting relevant information than on presenting bias, spin, and outright propaganda. The disinformation, the lies, the distractions, that come from both the podium and his twitter account aim to fracture any notion of the common good. This isn’t merely a character defect on Trump’s part. It’s a campaign strategy. The only America in which Trump gets re-elected is one in which the common good carries no coin. That’s the America we saw a preview of in front of the Governor’s house in Minnesota on Friday.

It’s true that for our entire national history our “common good” has been less than common. Reserved foremost for white men, with “guest privileges” only granted to others in prudent (that is, begrudging) measure and on relatively recent terms. It remains contested. But it also remains an ideal, a foothold for the dream of justice that can be called out by King or Baldwin, César Chávez or Delores Huerta, Ta-Nehisi Coates or Stacy Abrams.

Understand that today—in our streets—that foothold in under open assault.

I am on board to liberate Minnesota. But that’s not what was happening Friday on Summit Avenue. I usually write as a theologian, but I speak today simply as a Minnesotan, a responsible citizen, and a human being. In this precarious moment of multi-faceted anxiety, we “Liberate Minnesota” when we act to protect the most vulnerable in our midst by honoring the call to Stay Home, mask up, and keep our safe distance. We exercise responsible citizenship when we respect the insights of medicine and seek the welfare of the whole community. We show human decency when we bear one another’s burdens, including the burdens of those who are indeed other than us. Ultimately, we liberate Minnesota when we reclaim our humanity from a dehumanizing economy, and when we reject any “good” which fails to support the common good—of all. These goals are worth rallying for.

After Friday’s desecration of the common good in front of the Governor’s house, those of us who embrace a good that is common for all Minnesotans, for all persons everywhere, we should make sure we’re equally visible and vocal—even behind our masks and in our homes.

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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 April 18, 2020. 3 Comments

How to Empty a Tomb

How to Empty a Tomb
April 11, 2020 – David R. Weiss

The past thirty-six hours have been a blur. There was anxiety and expectation heavy in the air during the meal on Thursday night. You didn’t want to go to the garden after supper. But he was restless and on edge. So the whole group of you went. Safety in numbers. Except not.

He prayed a lot. But usually by himself in a lonely place. That night he craved company—but seemed lonelier than ever. You doubt that he prayed for the soldiers to come. But come they did. And from then on things have spun more and more out of control.

Whisked away into the night. Hauled before both imperial and Temple authorities. Toyed with. Beaten. Tortured. Likely raped if the rumors were true. And then marched through the city, beyond the gates, and hung naked on a tree to die. Your rabbi—your teacher—your Lord. Your messianic hope now hoisted beneath a mocking sign that called him “King of the Jews,” but left him to writhe in agony until some hours later he breathed his last. (Which was mercy compared to some who lasted days on those damned and damning trees.)

You watched from the shadows as a soldier pierced his side to confirm his death. And next you breathed the sort of sigh of relief that comes after crying your eyes dry, retching your guts out, and then you realize that—at least—someone has taken him off the cross so he’s not left there during the Sabbath. And then you hate yourself for feeling relief of any sort.

Now it’s Saturday. And you’ve never heard of Easter. All you know is that the man you pinned your hopes on, spent yesterday pinned to a tree, and now lies in a tomb. Killed—murdered by an imperial power that might have felt a twinge of threat on account of his social teachings and impassioned followers … but a power that mostly acted out of the perverse joy it took in brutality, humiliation, violation, and public intimidation.

And today he is very much dead. Humiliated, brutalized, and violated. And you’re very much intimidated. Your grief is boxed in by fear. And that tomb harbors a corpse now waiting, like your hope, to give way to rot.

Or maybe that wasn’t you at all.

Maybe you’re the person shouting Black Lives Matter—fueled by holy rage at white supremacy too often dressed in blue, but equally at ease in the more subtle hues of daily life. Or the person marching for disappeared indigenous women. Maybe you’re the one arrested for protesting the way we’ve caged immigrants and refugees. Or the one aghast at how easily and often self-identified “Christian” people hurl hate at our Jewish and Muslim cousins.

Maybe you’re the person whose deep desire is keeping oil as deep as possible in the ground, while the imperial forces on this continent seem committed to rape the land and foul the water until Earth herself is as dead as that man in the tomb. Or the one so moved to empathy and anguish over the planetary collapse coming our way that your own breathing is breathless with grief.

Maybe, in this “greatest country on Earth,” you can’t escape the dawning awareness that this country has YET to be great. That, so far, it’s “greatness” has been so entangled with genocide and slavery and intentional ecological/human exploitation and systemic injustice, that only the most selective (i.e., perverse) sense of “greatness” is apropos.

Or maybe, as we hurtle ourselves unprepared and under-protected into a pandemic that could’ve-should’ve-would’ve been foreseen had our nation not spent the past years and months deliberately unpreparing and unprotecting ourselves—maybe on account of that, you feel more widespread anguish at squandered resources, endangered workers, and lost lives than any one body or psyche was designed to bear.

I don’t know who you are. This one or that one. Or still some other person whose hope seems destined to rot in a tomb on Holy Saturday.

But, even without knowing who you are, I might have some slim knowledge you’ll find useful. See, I’ve spent most of my life here in Holy Saturday. Paused (too many days) between the stench of death and the scent of lilies. Like Charon (Hades’ ferryman), except I seek to ferry folks the other way—back into the land of the living. My temperament seems awkwardly suited to be in this place: not quite fully alive, but convinced—as an article of faith—that life lies this way.

So I will tell you how to empty a tomb.

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

Find a thin silver thread. Gratitude. Sunshine, springtime, friendship, beauty, music, rainbows. Hell, in my case, rhubarb. Small as a mustard seed. Take that silver thread, no matter how thin, and hold it in your aching, empty, hopeless heart. Just hold it. Nothing more. What good is this? I can’t say for sure, but I think, because it echoes, however weakly, the declaration of goodness that God spoke in the very beginning, that this tiny silver thread ties you, me, each one of us, back to the fabric of creation itself. But I’m just guessing.

Next, don’t run from your grief. Walk toward it. Hold it near. In the company of others, if you can. Sob if you wish. Let it move from sole to soul, from head to heart. East of Eden, the world runs on grief. Every creature knows pain; some handful of creatures know grief. We may not be the only ones to ennoble it by willingly embracing it. But we, at least, can do this. Your grief is the witness your heart offers to what you have loved and hoped and dreamed. Grief marks the reach of our humanity. So reach, dammit. That ache is your lifeline. Grab on.

Now, this is where the miracle happens. Tradition (Matthew 28:1-3) says that at about the crack of dawn, the tomb itself was cracked open. An angel (and an earthquake) get the credit. But read closely. Verse one says the women—the grieving women—were coming to anoint the dead body of the humiliated, brutalized, violated man who was their hope. Their coming precipitated the earthquake, brought down the angel, and emptied the tomb.

You say, but God did these things. I say, sure. But God chooses (or is bound—does it really matter, if it’s true?) to be moved by grief. (In Exodus—3:7, 4:31, 6:5—grief is what leads God to liberate the Hebrews from slavery.) This isn’t magic, as though we might manipulate divine energy and put our grief to self-serving ends. No. The grief that moves God is grief that aches for such sufferings as we hold in common with all persons, and the grief that rages against injustice that brutalizes anyone or anything. That grief—because it senses the oughtness of God’s desire for the cosmos and acts on that sense with compassion (they were bringing spices to anoint the body, for God’s sake!)—that grief-birthed compassion calls forth the miracle we call resurrection.

Chicken or egg? There is no single answer; they’re a matched set. Like holy grief and Holy God. Our lives are entwined more closely to God’s life than we imagine. Which is maybe what that mustard seed he spoke of was all about …

Do you find yourself today—on Holy Saturday—huddled in an upper room (or anywhere else!), gripped by grief and anguish and rage at that which is … but ought not be? Do you know the terror, the taunt, of a tomb that tries to tell you your hope is at an end? Then, standing in this in between place alongside you, I will tell you once again how God chooses to open tombs.

The tiniest sliver of gratitude. The deepest grief and anguish and rage—embraced without reserve. And the intent, the act of compassion. God waits. These mere means: gratitude, grief, compassion. And BANG. This miracle.

Alleluia.

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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.