Grief On Display and For Manipulation

I can have some aims in a post like this that can go awry, and so, knowing that in advance, for you and for me, might help in both truth-telling and in acknowledging the ultimate sacrifice that some make that people like myself can live in relative security and comfort.

For the family of Sgt. La David Johnson, and the family of 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, the words of comfort cannot replace the wonderful, joyful, and courageous lives of your son and husband. Clearly, they committed themselves to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States” in ways that few citizens of this nation will ever know, and even among their colleagues, that commitment extended to an honorable end. The sadness that you feel, I pray to the Lord, will be accompanied by the enormous sense of pride, the exchange of love, and the recall of fond memories of life together.

For the rest of us reading here, however, we need to pause. In a brief time— what?— 14+ days, 4 Army soldiers were ambushed in Niger (“nee-zh-air”, not “ny-ger”). While the specifics of who attacked them and why they would be ambushed remain clouded, what is transparent is the remarkable silence of the POTUS. Not until confronted by the media, did he immediately swivel and talk about Obama. This lead to an admittedly controversial phone call, one that was on speakerphone, and we learn that the POTUS did not use the name and rank of the deceased Sgt. La David Johnson, and apparently claimed that “he knew what he signed up for.” The widow, a mother of two and currently pregnant with a 3rd child, and Sgt. Johnson’s mother were aghast and further agonized. Suffice it to say, we continue to observe here that, in what might have been a private call (hardly secret), this episode of attempted condolence discloses that 45 still has all of the empathy of a sidewalk.

Enter the POTUS Chief of Staff, General John Kelly. Yesterday (10/19/2017), Kelly came to the podium of a media briefing, using both his office, and his agonizing experience as a parent of a deceased military officer, to defend the POTUS, and to excoriate the congresswoman, Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla): who was also present when the POTUS called the widow of Sgt. La David Johnson. Listening to Kelly’s briefing was just horrible: no parent should have to disclose this kind of detail to the media. Thankfully, those in the audience had the decorum and smarts to both carefully address the CoS with questions that left behind the loss of his son, 2nd Lt. Robert Kelly, and focus on the most important question of all, and one that General Kelly completely dodged:

Why is the US Army in Niger?

It is worth acknowledging that at least we still live in a nation in which freedom of speech extends to the media. For those who have never travelled to other nations in which media reporting gets filtered and crafted to only allow for specific messages and thought to be publicly circulated, the banality and tedium of such “journalism” cannot be overstated. Having moved throughout China in the early 1980’s, reading the English paper, China Daily, I finally had to stop reading it after a few days: the template used for each article simply reproduced how great the government is/was, and how worthy any sacrifice made for “the people” can be. You can only read about agricultural-output goals fulfilled province-by-province so many times before you just close the paper.

So, when we see General Kelly defend the POTUS for his clumsy, unprepared efforts at comforting the widow of and the mother of Sgt. La David Johnson, we should all pause at this moment. I won’t try to imagine the emotional energy required by General Kelly to expose his grief before the media: my son is alive. But, not unlike the China Daily, we receive from the White House a careful, defensive, media message: “Don’t ask about Niger.” Kelly completely dodged the question. As I have mentioned elsewhere, this kind of communication, in parallel with the comments of POTUS regarding Obama’s lack of offering condolences to grieving families of military personnel (completely false), represents political diversion of the most insidious kind. This grief on display represents the worst kind of political manipulation.

So, please, especially if you think of yourself as Christian, pray. Pray for peace. Pray for truth-telling. Pray for sane journalism: to continue, and to be wise about the questions raised and the topics considered. Pray for renewal from the Holy Spirit. None of the Christian community can possibly sustain awareness of this kind of destructive governing without the promised, indwelling Spirit: Nor can we merely stay on the sidelines, claiming “soul care”, while political decisions continue to be made in the shadows that result in people losing their lives. Indeed, any soul care we participate in deserves to include prayers and the reading of Scripture so that we can both fruitfully participate in the Kingdom of God locally and globally, and resist those powers—in love— that attempt to rival the salvation offered us in Jesus Christ.

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Revisiting Hope via Jeremiah

No need to rehearse all of the calamities, natural disasters, protests, tweets, counter-tweets, job-suspensions, failures to care for the humanity of our own citizens living in distress, and the proverbial “drumbeats of war.” Just scroll through the news or turn on your TV: any of those can be found, often in located in the same geography. It’s really impressive in many respects, and I do not mean that as though there is a splendor, or beauty to all of it. I can hardly step back and callously disregard how these persons and events have literally extinguished lives.

Typically, I can look out my window to the south and look across a small valley, and see the sunrise cast early morning light on the homes of thousands of residents in the Inland Empire. Today, I see a thick, white haze of smoke, the sign and faint smell of the Anaheim Hills fire, and it covers the valley. People have lost homes and memories, and lives are now displaced. This fires in No. California amplified this experience in ways that simply do not make sense: entire neighborhoods scorched. Gone.

In September, back-to-back hurricanes devastated the Texas Gulf Coast and Florida. Family and friends in Houston were displaced from either flooding or storm damage to their homes; the toll on lives continues to demand payment in human misery in so many ways. Puerto Rico was hammered in succession by hurricanes: friends there tell of a nightmarish situation, one that is easily confirmed by the media. Meanwhile, the Tweeter-In-Chief assures that he’s great when it comes to alleviating the problems of these natural disasters. His lack of empathy for the humanity of the citizens he purporting serves stares back at the world as a black hole.

So, I’ve wondered, “What’s our future, Lord? Will this get any better anytime soon?” I let this question come to surface often these days in my morning office. Last week, my BCP app, in the midst of the horror of Las Vegas, does what it often does: just presents the reading for meditation and prayer, with apparent disregard for the context that we find ourselves.

Jeremiah 38 narrates the political backlash that lead to dumping Jeremiah into muddy cistern, the subsequent rescue initiated by Zedekiah, and the private conversation between the king and the prophet. I’ll leave it to you to read the text, but what becomes apparent in the second half of the chapter involves the two men negotiating through distrust of each other, a breathtaking assessment of the current political season and the treacherous relations with Jerusalem officials, and a robust affirmation by the prophet: obedience to YHWH will unexpectedly lead to life while everything else, literally, burns down.

And this is our hope: That God calls us, in and through Jesus Christ, crucified, dead, raised to life, ascendant, exalted: to a faithfulness that produces life. All this is promised, but not upward social mobility, not suburbia, not contentment, not freedom from natural disaster: certainly not prosperity, as though that were the Kingdom of God. No, hope, on-the-ground hope in Jesus Christ gets received through this matter of obedience. And, here’s where such gets unfamiliar.

We’re in a season of weirdness, politically speaking. Any veneer of civility has been shed, and this cannot be limited to 45. Just take a look anywhere, throughout the many levels of government, and our elected officials have simply lost it. Far easier for them to play the blame game, and, thus, execute the “look-away” from their transgressions and avarice, both of which only add to the misery of those suffering (see Puerto Rico), than to obey the Lord (for those officials who think themselves Christian and others from the Judeo-Christian tradition) and take what follows. It’s weird, and most of that weirdness has its catalysis from the November 2016 election. But, I digress.

What Jeremiah and other biblical prophets summon Christians into—not only politicians— involves new terrain: an obedience that involves unvarnished truth-telling and a resonant clarity regarding the human condition. This obedience recognizes that our hearts are in big trouble—sin is the best noun here—and that only a two-fold response of confession of Jesus as the crucified Lord and to walk in his ways offers a life-giving path. For some Christians, historically and in a contemporary practice, this way has always acknowledged the both-and: our hearts are in trouble—our very lives—and creative faithfulness for the context demands speaking up—resisting—the political powers that would exacerbate our mutual troubles for all human persons.

Yes, this is an unfamiliar obedience: for many of my evangelical group (in using “evangelical,” I feel like when I first heard the new name of “the artist formerly known as Prince”: awkward), the preferred division of labor involves: preach to the heart problem, then, address matters of the world: if at all. This splitting leaves one with a version of the “sweet-by-and-by”, a theological call to distant-after-you-die “heaven”, and no genuine responsibility to the Lord or to others who share our humanity to participate in a mission which is in continuity with the crossing of the Red Sea and Calvary.

So, there is an unfamiliar obedience in Jeremiah: “Obey the Lord by doing what I tell you. Then it will go well with you, and your life will be spared.” One should assume—and test while in progress—that the reprieve aims for inclusion and participation in God’s mission. It is not a leniency that sections us off from harm, maladies, and injustice: suffering is still part and parcel of the human experience. Yet, this obedience proposes that God’s mission is one of life, of justice, and of flourishing: for all of creation. That is what we hope for, and, in Jesus Christ, God calls us by his Word and Holy Spirit into that very hope.

Pan-Asian American Ethnicity

This. See also below quote…

As a Vietnamese American who is married to a Filipino American, I have a personal interest in pan-Asian American ethnicity. This personal interest has led to theoretical questions: How, under what circumstances, and to what extent can groups of diverse national origins come together as a new, enlarged panethnic group? …

After four years of researching, thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, I still find pan-Asian American ethnicity a complex and changing topic, often defying sociological interpretations and generalizations. This is because Asian Americans are a complex and changing population: far from homogeneous, we are a multicultural, multilingual people who hold different worldviews and divergent modes of interpretation. Thus, although this book tells the story of the construction of pan-Asian ethnicity, it is not about obscuring our internal differences, but rather about taking seriously the heterogeneities among our ranks. Only in doing so can we build a meaningful solidarity as a pan-Asian group—one that allows us to combat systems of chauvinism and inequality both within and beyond our community…

Yen Le Espiritu, Preface
Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities

Just swap “Multi-ethnic American” for “Vietnamese American”, and exchange “Chinese” with “Filipino”, and you get a partial lens into my life and my research.

I was ransacking this book for understanding “reactive solidarity”, and, as custom, I browse the Preface. Often, you learn of some of the “questions behind the questions of the book” in the Preface. Occasionally, you also get some personal stuff: like the above. Beautiful. I am sideswiped. This prefatory section captures so much of my life! Thank you, Yen Le Espiritu!

When Respectability is more important than the Gospel

I’ll just leave this right here. Stuff like this doesn’t get as much airtime, but it should.  #notnormal

“You know Richard,” the fellow attendee said, “I have been coming here for three decades, and I no longer feel like the redheaded stepchild at the family reunion or the company picnic. I feel like a respected colleague and guest.”

Where Trump’s Hands-Off Approach to Governing Does Not Apply

A note to white/white-passing pastors & theologians: my reply to my friend C

So, a few days ago, the white theologian, Roger Olson, posted a strongly-worded message to Christian leadership everywhere:

“What that pastor did is what I am calling for here—from the pulpit, now with full legal freedom and no fear of the IRS—to specifically condemn 1) white supremacy and other forms of hate in all its forms including subtle ones, and 2) calls for violence against or government suppression of people with alternative social and political views. I am not calling for any form of violence or legal suppression; I am calling for church discipline of political and social extremists.”

So, I posted this statement to my Facebook page, and my friend C replied:

“My church did this. While I found it healing and somewhat reconciliatory, a part of me was thinking, “well duh. Of course I expect you not to support white supremacy or racism. What about so called “micro aggressions”? Racists and systematic institutions and actions that happen everyday in this church and out? Let’s repent from that.

“So, not that I don’t want the above, I do, especially if there are churches holding out, but it’s the “low key” racism that we all participate in daily that I’d like called out.”

And, she’s not alone. Following the Charlottesville protests and violence, many pastors throughout the US denounced racism from their pulpits. But, for C, other friends, and myself, we were astonished by the silence from the same pulpits a week later: especially since the current president aligned himself with white supremacists a few days earlier.

In other words, a once-off announcement to repudiate racism by pastors simply cannot be trusted to produce transformation in the lives of the congregation. The silence serves notice: “We dealt with racism last week. We won’t bring it up again.” But, the challenge of transformation cannot be reduced to repetitive proclamations from upfront. (Although it would demonstrate the importance of repentance from racism.) The real challenge lies behind microaggressions, systemic and structural racism, and, yes, white supremacists: addressing and overcoming white racial illiteracy.

I’ve started reading Robin DiAngelo’s What Does it Mean to be White: Developing White Racial Literacy, and this is a book designed for teacher education. But, I’d propose the reach is much wider: seminarians, graduate students, pastors, missionaries, and theologians. White racial illiteracy is hardly limited to prospective teachers. Here’s quick nugget:

When you hear/read the word, “racist”, what comes to mind? DiAngelo quickly identifies what is so true among white/white-passing people: “racist” = bad; “not racist” = good. Racists commit bad acts toward people ethnically different from themselves. What most white/white-passing people reason involves a quick process: “I don’t commit bad acts toward African/Asian/Latino/a people. Therefore,  I am not a racist.” I trust that little piece of gold illuminates how limited 99.9% of all white pastors and theologians understand racism.

I don’t doubt that an increasing number of pastors, missionaries, and theologians have had to fast track their understanding— and in some cases, their repentance— of racism. But, if what my friends and I report to each other since Charlottesville is a small sample of the larger trend, most pastors and theologians have left behind announcements about racism and the need to repent from racism.

Yes: we need more announcements to renounce racism: in all of its odious forms. But, the development of white racial literacy contributes to our “intellectual, psychic, and emotional growth.” (DiAngelo, 2016:18) I would hasten to add our spiritual growth. Such development will call upon our biblical resources, to be sure. But, those resources from God await our obedient trust in God’s word.

Howard Thurman quote; #DACA

“In the year 6 Judea was annexed to Syria; in the year 70 Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed. Between these two dates Jesus preached and was crucified on Golgotha. During all that time the life of the little nation was a terrific drama; its patriotic emotions were aroused to the highest pitch and then still more inflamed by the identification of national politics with a national religion. Is it reasonable to assume that what was going on before Jesus’ eyes was a closed book, that the agonizing problems of his people were a matter of indifference to him, that he had given them no consideration, that he was not taking a definite attitude toward the great and all-absorbing problem of the very people whom he taught?”

Howard Thurman, quoting Vladimir Simkhovitch (1921)

Jesus and the Disinherited

#DACA, Truth-Telling, & Ethnic Cleansing: A unique season for spiritual formation

An acquaintance of mine made the following observation: The OT (for that matter, some of the NT) persisted in reminding the Israelites of the Exodus. The whole point was to get their attention upon YHWH, his great call to covenant, and his graciousness in bringing liberation from Egypt. The status of the people of God included a description of them as immigrants, sojourners, and a people in transit from a political environment of oppression to a development of a community that thrives in “a land of milk and honey.” (Ex. 3:8) This community is further enjoined to welcome other immigrants who will likely be ethnically different and host a variety of religious commitments. (Lev. 19:33-34).

Notice: the attention here is upon YHWH, and his aim for liberation of all peoples. This, of course, is a subset of his larger mission to heal, renew, and glory in his creation. This reminder goes throughout the OT. In contrast, the OT doesn’t spend a whole lot of time on creation, or whether that text describing a remarkable, beautiful, one-off event occurred over a 7-day period or intended to narrate the majesty and power of YHWH. There is not a lot of time spent determining whether one should get saved, and then work out the implications of the lordship of YWHW. No: the attention is not on me. Or you. The reminder indicates that the people of God should pay attention, remember, and trust in their God, the one who initiated, empowered, and fulfilled the Exodus. That’s the truth of the matter. Few people would disagree, and I want to make room for those who demur: but the burden is upon them to demonstrate otherwise. The bulk of the OT continually calls Israel to remember YHWH in the Exodus event.

Today, we learned by way of the spokesman, AG Jeff (“I did not meet with the Russians”) Sessions, and the spokeswoman, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, that the President—who was elected by the Electoral College vote— would no longer uphold and sustain DACA. Often, even frequently, when we hear words coming out of the mouths of those who serve the President, we doubt the veracity of those statements. Today, however, we have good reason to believe that these words have action. But, we have the following to trust this egregious use of executive power, and not necessarily because of campaign promises. Please consider the following.

On 8/12, following a horrific display of vitriol and violence by white supremacists in Charlottesville, the President affirmed these people and their racist hatred with a simple inclusion of “many sides, many sides.”

On 8/25, while the mother of all storms hammered the Texas Gulf Coast, the President pardoned a known violent criminal with a publicly explicit commitment to racism, cruelty toward immigrants, indifference to sexual assault, and the torture of incarcerated persons in jail: the former Maricopa County (AZ) Sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

And, today, 9/5, the President (only through a victory by the Electoral College) rescinded DACA: which affects 800,000 persons who were under the age of 31 in 2012, along with a list of other qualifying items. These are men and women who have lived peacefully, harmoniously, and socially-productive all of their lives in the US. A remarkably minuscule fraction of these people have ethnic/racial status as “white” persons.

In a span of 24 days, the President (by virtue of the process of the Electoral College) has revealed his contempt, antipathy, and revulsion for people who are not white. His words, even by way of his messengers, have action: and that action aims to eradicate non-white people from the US: it’s called ethnic cleansing. There can be no equivocation here.

So, there is truth-telling. As Charles M. Blow observed yesterday,

“There a strong impulse, I believe, in each of us struggling against fatigue, to register the pattern and manage expectations. We begin to build into our processing of politics the caveat: Yes, the “president” lies. That’s not new. That’s just what he does.

But we must resist that impulse. It makes normal, or at least rational, something that is neither normal nor rational.”

How does one resist? Blow makes a great observation: In our fatigue, we normalize lying by the executive. But, over the last 24 days, we cannot look away or presume that his utterances do not communicate truth: Resistance to this racist program must be done, and it will take remarkable personal energy to see it through. So: How does one resist? I propose the following question needs inclusion to get at that previous question.

Make no mistake, Christian people, we are continually being spiritually formed. The question, if I may ask, is: “What spirit is forming us?” If there are any people who need to routinely, avidly, and energetically traffic in truth and truth-telling, it must be us. To do so summons us to consider: by what Spirit will we engage in this truth-telling task that resists: ethnic cleansing, lying, and the disregard for the humanity of people no matter what their ethnicity or religious commitments?

I am among you: I get blessedly tired at the end of each day from the sheer volume of lies, cravenness, and cruelty issuing from the White House. I know you do, too. Join me in paying attention to, remembering, and trusting the God of the Exodus who has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, who loves us and has promised and sent his Holy Spirit upon the ascension of the Son of God. That truth, that YHWH has made himself known to us in Jesus Christ, will endure, energize, and prepare us for sustained truth-telling and resistance to the powers of ethnic cleansing.

Finally, this process of attentiveness in spiritual formation is not and cannot be one in which we get up to the mountaintop and then come down and do the business of resistance. (Although I certainly observe the merits of such.) Rather, so much of this spiritual formation will happen, on the ground, in collaboration, and in the groundswell of people practicing truth-telling to the President. Our spiritual formation will be and must be gathered up with the very people that the President intends to exclude from the US.