Symbols, Faith, and Hope: Michael Brown, Jr. and President Barack Obama

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As Christians, we believe that God is good. We also believe that God’s goodness can never be fully understood by humans. Our inability to fully understand God’s goodness marks the difference between God and creatures, including us humans. Because of the radical difference between we creatures and the Creator, we use symbols to remind ourselves of God’s goodness and to reinforce faith and hope in a better future. The most important symbol of God’s goodness, the symbol that assures us that the gap between God and us has been lovingly bridged by God’s self is Jesus Christ. For Christians, the use and interpretation of symbols is a central and vital part of faith. Without symbols, we forget the difference between who we are and who God is and we can fall into the trap of idolatry by equating our thoughts and ways with God’s. Jesus reminds of how important it is to interpret symbols when he asks us, “Who do you say that I am?” This question is an invitation to the necessary task of interpreting Jesus’ presence in our lives; we must accept this invitation and task daily in order to remain faithful.

Our world is made up of many other symbols, symbols that are not explicitly grounded in Christianity. Christian faith requires making sense of these symbols too. Michael Brown Jr., the unarmed young black man shot and killed by officer Darren Wilson (who, by the way, has also become a symbol in all of this) on August 9, 2014 has become a symbol. President Barack Obama is another symbol. Right now, the interpretation of these two symbols is vital to Christian faith in the United States. It is vital because these symbols remind us of sin for which we (especially here in the United States) have not adequately repented, the sin of white supremacy. White supremacy is the idea that white life is fundamentally more valuable than non-white life. Despite the Bible’s teaching that God created and loves human life, white supremacy distorts this teaching. White supremacy is sinful because it tries to retell the creation story, insisting that white people are closer to, more valued by, and even equal with God. White supremacy is the sinful logic that allows Michael Brown to be killed without anyone being held responsible.

The killing of Michael Brown, Jr. and the decision of a grand jury to not indict the officer responsible for the killing is a symbol of the depth of white supremacy in America. It symbolizes the practices of assaulting the character of dead black children as we defend their killers. It symbolizes social acceptance of racism and violence. It symbolizes preferring law and order to love and justice. It symbolizes an irrational fear of black bodies in U.S. society. But others will try to interpret the symbol of Michael Brown’s killing in other ways. Some will insist in implicit and explicit ways that Michael Brown deserved to be shot and killed. They will insist that Officer Wilson was within his rights to “protect himself,” and that on the grounds of our legal system, Michael Brown’s killing is tragic but acceptable. We must resist these latter interpretations.

President Barack Obama is also a symbol. When he was elected in 2008, he was a symbol that (some) progress had been made. No one can deny that President Obama’s body inhabiting the office of presidency is a magnificent sign in a country that once enslaved such bodies from birth to death. However, President Barack Obama is a complex symbol. I was among the many who wiped tears of joyful disbelief from my eyes when President Obama was elected. But Cornel West was right to insist that we ought to celebrate Obama’s election on election night and become his biggest critics the next day.

Too many people have felt that we cannot or ought not critique the symbol of President Obama, despite his obvious shortcomings as President. Many have felt that “they” were already giving him enough grief and “we” ought not pile on. Instead, many thought, “we”—who helped elect President Obama—ought to offer unwavering support to Obama because “they”—anti-Obama folk, including but not limited to racists—were already giving Obama enough trouble. After all, President Obama is the “first black president” and if we don’t support him, there may not be a second. It is far past time to give up on this approach. President Obama’s insistence on the rule of law in the face of yesterday’s grand jury verdict reveals the dark side of what his presidency symbolizes. To have a “black president” stand on national television and recommend rule of law to persons that have been victimized by the legal system since the very founding of this country is beyond wrong. President Obama’s words, spoken from behind the presidential seal and in the context of Michael Brown’s killing and lack of legal indictment, reflect an evil logic, one older than 1776, that supports and sustains the sinfulness of white supremacy.

If such a critique means that we risk never having another “black president,” so be it. Tragically, Obama’s presidency has affirmed something we have known for far too long. We are and must become the leaders and role models we have been waiting for. One of the things often said about President Obama is that he symbolizes previously unforeseen possibilities for young people, especially young black people. This is true, but President Obama represents not only unforeseen possibilities for good but also—and perhaps more importantly—unforeseen opportunities for evil models of leadership and community that unwittingly reinforce the system of white supremacy.

If having a “black president” means that we must stand idly by while the President reinforces laws and orders that deny God’s love for us all and assault our hopes for good, whole, healthy community, then I pray that God keep us from ever having another black president! Until having a “black president” means having a progressive president that puts justice and love before our ideas of law and order, why invest so much energy in the presidency?! Instead, I pray that God strengthen, empower, and encourage us to be the leaders and role models our children need. As we enter the season of Advent, that season of hopeful anticipation for the birth of new, loving life, we need to focus on what it means to faithfully interpret the symbols of Michael Brown, Jr. and President Barack Obama. Our interpretation of these symbols may very well determine whether our hope for a better world for our children is fulfilled or failed.

Capitalism and Our Lives: a Reflection

God Money

I turned 31 yesterday and I’m long overdue for a migration away from our “Big Bank,” Chase. The last straw came in a recent phone call I made to inquire about a small service fee I found to be predatory. Unfortunately, I was lectured by the representative about my need to “remain apprised” as to how my “products” work. He also informed me that Chase has over 66 million customers and that it costs chase MILLIONS to field calls from just 10 percent of customers (meanwhile, chase is valued at over 2 TRILLION DOLLARS!). Finally, he reminded me that I ought not feel slighted because certain Chase customers have “had accounts with Chase since before I was born.”  …OK, so this last bit made me feel a bit less anxious about taking another step into my thirties, but still…

Despite the rudeness and lack of tact I experienced on the call, the decision to handle our monies differently has much more to do with trying to establish certain patterns, relationships, and cultures in our lives than with a single call. Besides, it doesn’t do any good to pin a structural, systematic issue to a single person (“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”). The experience I had on my call is sadly but a microcosm of the alienation created by banks deemed “too big to fail.” Just think about it: we are charged to use accounts that hold OUR money and even these accounts become “products” used to build and maintain a “healthy,” “competitive” market. We’ve gotten to the point where “free” checking accounts are an exception worthy of television and radio commercials! Meanwhile, “Big Banks” are charging us to hold OUR money! More importantly and outstandingly, what we see again and again is that the primary function of these “Big Banks” is to sustain a financial system and economic philosophies that value “products” over people, revenue over meaningful relationships, and the rich over the poor. 

Over the weekend, I took part in a rich conversation with friends and family about the nature of the market and it’s relationship to the Bible’s call for justice and the structure of our own lives and hopes. As we talked and listened, we repeatedly encountered the ways that American capitalism requires “losers” to function properly; we thought about what it means for Christians to live in a capitalist system that leaves some folks to die of starvation, homelessness, or depression; and we painfully reflected on some of our own complicity. Our conversation reconfirmed something I’ve known for a long time: capitalism is not merely an economic philosophy, instead it has become THE dominant religion in America. Within this religion there are various “denominations” (e.g., individualism, materialism, careerism) that pretend to provide space for autonomy–the working out of our own unique dreams and goals.

As I talked with friends and family, I was reminded that one of the scariest things about capitalism is its ability to make space for and cooperate with Western/American Christianity. One can participate in capitalism–for better or for worse–and feel little to no need to think about what the teachings of Jesus have to say to an economic system that is fine with allowing poverty to persist and the poor to live and die in invisible communities. Even more concerning are Christian teachings that prioritize values of “work to eat” over Jesus’ call to “die in order to live.” Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, capitalism persists in teaching that those who work hard enough will reap the proper benefits. In a system that NEEDS people to believe in Capitalism’s work ethic, it is no wonder that Jesus’ call to “lose one’s life in order to save it” (Luke 17:33) is so often either religiously mutilated (so that it has very little to do with the material lives of our communities and everything to do with out individual “souls”) or ignored altogether.

Changing banks wont solve all of what ails our communities and worlds, but thinking carefully about the types of lives “Big Banks” lead us to live is surely a necessary step in the process of molding lives that witness to God’s grace, patience, and love for us.

Ferguson, Missouri is an American Product, Through and Through

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I get it. There are a long list of things it would be very un-Presidential for President Obama to say (e.g., “Look, the United States was founded on the genocide and displacement of Native Americans and the enslavement of Africans and until we deal with these realities, our hopes for thorough, world-changing justice can’t be called realistic.) It’s his job to seek justice under the law as it is written and, given the way the law is written and lived in our country, I can see why Obama’s naming the reality of centuries-old racial disparities seems progressive. However, it’s only progressive for an American President which, frankly, ain’t sayin’ much! There is enough racist bashing of the President going on and I certainly don’t want to contribute to that cause, but justice is always first and foremost about holding power accountable. One doesn’t need to be an “Obama hater” to be justifiably critical of the President.

That said, President Obama hasn’t said enough. He hasn’t said enough about the existential hell that makes risking one’s life in a riot a laudable act. It’s easy to look at rioters and say, “they’re only causing trouble.” But do we actually think rioters are just bored, crazy, or lazy??? Do we actually think that rioting is the result of opportunistic slobs who find pleasure in setting buildings on fire??? No! What kinds of lives are we leaving people to live that make this type of rioting a possibility? What types of realities make risking one’s life seem a worthy choice?

I’m not trying to romanticize anything, but if I err, I want to err on the sides of persons that are systematically left to live in riotous circumstances. We can’t be content to leave folks in terrible schools, in neighborhoods with crooked cops, and stores full of poisonous food and then ask them to act and live as if these things aren’t real. These are the “core issues” Obama alludes to, but we ought to make it plain. FERGUSON, MO IS AN AMERICAN PRODUCT, THROUGH AND THROUGH!!!

Dialoging with one of my best friends on heaven and hell

Heaven, Hell and our lives...

My friend Dan Hinz loves God and loves people. He is a constant reminder of the dedication that is required if one is to take following Jesus seriously. He is also the pastor of church plant in Rockford, Illinois who is constantly loving God with heart, soul, body, and MIND. Recently, he blogged on an upcoming book by the very popular Rob Bell regarding heaven and hell and I was drawn in by his post, which is titled “Thoughts on Heaven and Hell…before I read Rob Bell’s Book.” It is WELL worth the read and you can find it here (he’s also written a book called Why the Church Needs More Bartenders that you can find a link to to the right of the blog).

I figured that along with responding to Dan, I’d share my thoughts on his post with you all too. Below is what I responded to Dan with, feel free to respond to one of us or both of us!

Good stuff, Dan! Thanks for sharing. I’m sure we could chat for hours on all 7 points (heck, we’ve done it before!), but one point in particular jumped out to me and got my brain running to other points as well. It was number four and your use of extravagant surprise to describe God’s love and grace for us. I’d like to add to your words this: it strikes me as important to recall that not only is God’s love for us an extravagant surprise (which it most certainly is) but it is also, at the very same time, a scandalous ordeal – that is, that which is offensive and outrageous to us.

Spilling backwards into point 3 [regarding God’s judgment] for a moment, judgment DOES resonate with our souls, but it is always our judgment that resonates first and foremost. It seems that there is something about the style of God’s judgment that not only surprises us but also offends our sensibilities and expectations. God’s judgment comes upon us as love and grace yet this is so unlike what we are socialized to expect and (this is the scary part) WANT that we view the love of Christ not as essential but as expendable. Perhaps, because God’s love doesn’t FORCE us to do anything but instead WELCOMES us into freedom, it violates the rule-bound comfort of our religious way of life. Instead of the comfort of the religion, Jesus reveals to us the reality of faith (and the fear and trembling it requires!) by reminding us of your 5th point: our choices matter! They actually CAN and DO usher in the reign of God’s justice (heaven) and/or the damnation of humanity’s will being done (hell).

Whether we experience heaven or hell seems to have everything to do not only with encountering God’s extravagant surprise, but also with EMBRACING AND DEDICATING OUR LIVES to God’s scandal. And, because God’s love is revealed to us in the divine/human flesh of Jesus, embracing God’s scandal is not abstract living or Pharisaical dogma (as you say), but has everything to do with embracing the human flesh that is scandalous to the world – the flesh that no one with “good sense” could think has anything to do with God. The wonderful extravagant surprise, then, is that God calls us to extend the welcoming embrace to the scandalous one(s) and through doing so, inherit God’s heaven.

Thanks again for the inspiration!

 

…Your thoughts on heaven, hell, and what in the world our lives have to do with them???

The American Dream: To Restore or Release?

I recently read an article in Time by Fareed Zakaria that I found rather provocative. Fareed uses the article to recall how he envisioned and encountered the American Dream (conceptually and materially) as a youngster growing up in India in the 1970s. Remembering his arrival in the USA on college scholarship, Zakaria recalls being “struck by the spacious suburban houses and the gleaming appliances – even when [his friends’ parents] had simple, modest jobs.” Indeed, the problem of consumption is a theme that runs throughout the piece.

What I found striking, though, was the way in which Zakaria transitioned from focusing on the existence and growth of unhealthy American consumption (today, the average family in the USA has 13 credits cards, and household debt has risen from 680 billion in 1974 to 14 TRILLION in 2008!!!) to presenting ‘practical proposals’ (investing in the future of our children by investing in training, education, research and development, in route to strengthening economic infrastructure) while merely skimming the role that public and governmental morality plays in all of this. In his critique of the functionality of taxing in the USA, Zakaria notes that:

“the American tax code is a monstrosity, cumbersome and inefficient. It is 16,000 pages long and riddled with exemptions and loopholes, specific favors to special interests. As such, it represents the deep, institutionalized corruption at the heart of the American political process, in which it is now considered routine to buy a member of Congress’s support for a particular, narrow provision that will be advantageous for your business.”

Scathing and accurate!!! Yet Zakaria, having lambasted the relationship between government, taxation, and private business, quickly becomes (to my mind) disappointingly moderate again, saying that his proposals (which I parenthetically and summarily point to above) will be difficult to implement because “they ask the left and right to come together, cut some spending, pare down entitlements, open up immigration for knowledge workers, rationalize the tax code – and then make large investments in education and training.” If the corruption of taxation (not merely over or under taxing, but the means through which special interests become a central part of how taxation functions) as it relates to the structure of democracy is really “at the heart of the American political process” (and here I think Zakaria is on to something VERY important), then what is needed is not merely a reaching across the isle, but a disruption of the meeting in which the lives of American citizens, especially poor and working class citizens, are suspended between the left and the right and utilized as political tools to determine which side of the isle’s interests will receive the most tax breaks next term! The concern for poor and working people is not only marginal, it is non-existent.

Notice that the media, in the midst of this recession, has talked often of the “shrinking middle class.” Interesting choice of words inasmuch as shrinking denotes a reduction in size often brought about by “natural” chemical or biological changes. But the middle class is not shrinking, it is being (has been?) destroyed by privatization, predatory lending, and greedy banking that is funded, in large part, by the crooked tax breaks that Zakaria alludes to. And here we encounter an important truth, one that we know in different ways, but ought to hold our attention at this particular historical moment. The middle class is that buffer separating the privilege and wealth of the rich from the rage and anguish of the poor. And what the media has neglected to mention (at least most of the time) is that this “shrinking” middle class is attributable to a ballooning of the population of those living in poverty, which is further attributable to a smaller and smaller portion of the population owning more and more of the wealth!

At the end of this article, Zakaria points out that the etymology of “American Dream” can be traced to the Great Depression, when historian James T. Adams penned The Epic of America. For Adams, the American Dream was about “a better, richer and happier life for all our citizens of every rank.” Alas, it was ALL a dream. We know that the birth of this Nation came not only through a Revolutionary War, but also through the displacement and murder of Native Americans and the subsequent enslavement of Africans. Thus from the jump, the American Dream has been an exclusive one in which those who can dream are those who have had the social and political privilege to rest while others literally build and sustain the country.

In the shadow of the recent midterm elections in which the Hope that saw Barack Obama win the presidency seems to have taken quite a blow, perhaps it is time to ask how we ought to posture ourselves in relationship to this American Dream. Shall we hope/work for the restoration of a dream that has never included all Americans? Or is it time (far past) time that we release this dream so that we might begin to imagine and build something new?

… These are some of my thoughts and reflections. PLEASE SHARE YOURS! Leave me comments, feedback, critique, etc.

Another Iteration of the “N-Word” Debate

I saw this story on CNN this morning. Debates regarding the use of the “N-Word” (Nigger) are not unusual. There was the well-known debate between public intellectuals Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, and there are the often had debates and arguments in barbershops and at family reunions across the country. The debate typically centers around a few questions:

1) Should the N-Word be used? Those who answer “yes” to this first question typically use what I’ll call the “re-appropriation approach.” This stance, at its best, acknowledges the tragic, painful, and deadly history related to the N-Word, but also maintains that black folk have successfully and powerfully re-appropriated the word giving it an endearing meaning. Taking what was meant for dehumanization and making it deeply humanizing  so that referring to a friend as “my nigga,” it is argued, has a very different meaning than a racist calling a black person “nigger.”

Those who answer this first question “no” usually maintain the “moratorium approach.” This approach says that the n-word is so deeply marred by hatred and tragedy that preceded and followed its use that it ought to be laid to rest until at least until the structure and function of society reflects having actually learned from (I can hear the “we have a black president!” retorts already:)).

2) Second question: (closely related to the first) why (or why not) is this issue important (or not)? Do we use it endearingly to subvert and remember? Do we not use it to forget and move on? Somewhere in between?

3) Thirdly, who is allowed to use the word? Should it now be limited to black people?

We could certainly add a host of other questions to this list, but I wonder what you all think?

Spare the Rod or “Whup that ass?”:Marc Anthony Neal’s Piece on Spanking

Dedicating this blog to Mark Anthony Neal’s (Professor at Duke University) recently penned interesting (and, I think, hilarious!) article regarding spanking. Like Neal, I can vividly remember gettin’ tow up (or severely disciplined for those not familiar with the vernacular) at various points growing up and I think I turned out alright (I can already hear the jokes coming from my friends :)).

To spank or not to spank? And, perhaps, what constitutes spanking? When does spanking become abuse?

Enjoy the article and I look forward to reading your thoughts.