Friday, September 09, 2016

Coffee and Resistance

One of the perks of serving a church in metro DC is the need, time to time, to meet a colleague for coffee on Capitol Hill. Today I got to the coffee shop way earlier than scheduled. I could have spent the unexpected free 45 minutes strolling the historic grounds, but it is just too damn hot here to be outside more than absolutely necessary so I hung out in the air-conditioned space.
I found a nice space next to the windows opposite the counter and just past one of the big tables around which were gathered earnest young adults tapping away at their laptops.
Most of the time, under such circumstances, I’d have been right with them, whiling away the time on line. There’s Facebook to check, news to read, baseball scores to check on, but the shop where we met required a password to log into the wifi. That’s practically un-American in my book, but it’s their shop.
So I had some time to read and write. I’m carrying around Rick Ufford-Chase’s recently published Faithful Resistance and reading it in small chunks. Any collection of essays (and responses) that wants to proclaim a gospel vision for the church in a time of empire merits slow and careful consideration.
As Rick notes in one of his response pieces, “the church of tomorrow will have to look remarkably different than the church of today, and getting there is likely to be an enterprise that involves a great deal of daring behavior.”
That observation begs several questions:
  •       What are these differences?
  •       Where is “there”?
  •       What kind of daring behavior?

The coffee shop that I was waiting in is a church-based operation. I know nothing about it other than that, but, as Fozzy Bear said when he and Kermit walked in a band rehearsal in an old church (in the original Muppet Movie) “they don’t look like Presbyterians.”
Which is not to say that we Presbyterians don’t love our coffee. Surely we do, but could we be the church as a coffee shop, could we do church as a coffee shop? More to the points pressed by the various contributors to Rick’s book, how would church as coffee shop (or coffee shop as church) be a form of faithful resistance to the culture of the empire?
I’m not trying to be critical of the coffee shop where I was today (other than the wifi password thing; seriously, if you’re going to insist on a password, as a church-based one the least you could do is use “shibboleth”). But a church of resistance has to get at least one part of Dorothy Day’s famous admonishment: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
From what I saw today, this shop does a bang-up job of comforting the comfortable. As one of the comfortable, I appreciated it, but I didn’t feel particularly challenged by anything I saw or experienced in the shop.
As I noted, I know nothing about the overall operation of the place (which is why I’m not naming it), and they may do lots of lovely things. But lots of churches do lots of lovely things: we feed hungry people, we send bandages to bind up the victims of disasters, we fix up housing for folks who need some help.
Alas, we don’t do nearly so much to change an economic system that confines so many to hunger and poverty. We don’t do much to challenge that economy’s fossil fuel foundation which is changing the global climate and spawning so many of the storms that become huge disasters. We don’t do much to transform a system (and, let’s be honest, a mindset) that refuses to consider that housing might just be a fundamental human right.

Can a coffee shop be church? Can church be a coffee shop? It seems to me that those are the wrong questions. If a coffee shop can be a center of resistance to the values and practices of empire, then sure, it can be church. But it’s wifi should be as open as the table that sits at its center.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Mondays with Martin: Standing on Holy Ground

I’ve been volunteering with the National Park Service at the MLK Memorial for more than a year now. I’m there for several hours most Mondays. I’ve met people from every continent that has more people than penguins.
People come to the space, I’m sure, with every imaginable expectation or none at all. Some are checking off another National Park site. Others are part of whirlwind DC tours. Some are not sure where they are, so I doubt they know why they are there. Some are, no doubt, searching for an elusive Pokemon.
But for some, whether they expect it or not, the granite on which they stand becomes holy ground for at least as long as it takes to snap a photograph – of somebody else’s loved ones.
I’m pretty sure that I have not gone an entire shift – even on slow days in January – when I didn’t see strangers help each other with photographs. I have noticed, over and over again, a particular understated joy that people of different hues find in helping each other take the standard souvenir shot beneath Dr. King’s unblinking gaze.
It’s an incredibly small thing of likely equally small consequence, but it is noticeable. I am willing to wager that few, if any, other public memorials witness as many white folks taking pictures of black folks or black folks taking pictures of white folks.
Yesterday I watched two families consecrate another such moment. I don’t know any back stories beyond the ten minutes I witnessed, but in those few minutes I watched a young white woman engage a young woman of color in conversation. Then I watched the young white woman introduce her new friend to her mother. Then the new friend introduced the white mother and daughter to her mother and folks I took to be another African-American mom-and-daughter pair. The six women – three young adults and three well-into-middle-age women – stood talking together for a couple of minutes, took their pictures, then they joined hands and prayed together for peace and reconciliation.

They shared hugs, and then the white pair got on the bikes and rode off toward the Roosevelt Memorial and the black folks headed off in the general direction of Mr. Lincoln. I handed out a few more brochures, and realized again that I was standing on holy ground.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Mondays with Martin: Stay Woke

Monday afternoon at MLK I noticed more than the usual number of folks with their faces buried in screens. I didn’t investigate, but I’m assuming lots of them were searching for Pokemon critters. For all I know, the memorial is a Pokemon gym.
I’ll confess that I don’t know what any of that means, though my two young-adult sons could surely explain it. I do know that this is, in the popular culture, “the summer of Pokemon Go.”
I could, at this point, shake my cane and say, “get off of my lawn,” to those who are searching for these digital images, but it seems mostly harmless good fun and I am a huge fan of good fun. I can't begin to count the hours I've spent playing disc golf over the past few years!
On the other hand, as I watched three young men standing at the edge of the memorial focused on their screens I couldn’t help but thinking, “glance up from your screen and take a look around. You’re standing next to a wall into which are carved these words: ‘The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.’” 
We stand, all of us, in a time of challenge and controversy. Taking Sabbath time for rest and recreation is fine. But, friends. stay woke. There's too much at stake to spend the entire summer with your nose buried in a screen searching for imaginary creatures. 

Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Tin Soldiers and Nixon's Coming

Forty years ago today Ohio National Guardsmen opened fire on a crowd of unarmed college students at Kent State, killing four and wounding 13. In the aftermath of the shootings President Nixon remarked, "when dissent turns violent it invites tragedy." Of course, it was not the dissenters who turned violent that Monday morning. It was the empire's police, armed with weapons of war trained on unarmed college students in the middle of a campus that was stirred in protest against the empire's war in Vietnam.
I graduated from Kent 13 springs after the shootings, and participated in memorial vigils each of the five springs I was on campus. I've stood in the spots where the kids were mortally wounded, and I've stood on the spot where other kids turned and fired their weapons.
In other words, I've looked at the shootings from both sides now, and from both sides it has always been clear to me that had Nixon been capable of honesty he would have said, "when dissent begins to threaten the foundations of established order then the established order will bring to bear deadly force to quell the dissent." But no president can ever be that honest.
As a Kent alum I have a bagful of memories of May 4 memorials, but the most affecting May 4 connection for me happened more than 15 years after I'd graduated during the time when I lived in Pittsburgh.
In the spring of 2000 the organizers of the memorial events that year invited all of the survivors of the shootings to Kent. I don't know if that happens every year. I do know that in the early years, including the years that I was a student, the school administration really did not want the survivors on campus because they were a visceral reminder of something the university simply wished to forget.
But in 2000 the surviving victims of the shooting were invited back and many returned, which was really neither here nor there for me except that in the spring of 2000 I was serving a church in Mt. Lebanon, PA, a suburb of Pittsburgh.
In 2000, May 4 fell on a Wednesday. It was both a work day for me and a school day for our children so we quickly concluded that the trek to Kent, about two hours west of Mt. Lebo, was not going to happen. I was at the church on that Friday afternoon later than usual, and the rest of the staff had left for the day. I was walking around the front of the church, something I rarely did because the main entrance off the parking lot actually went into the back of the place. I noticed a middle-aged man and woman and a teenage girl trying the door to the fellowship hall, so I walked over to them and asked if I could help.
The man said he had grown up in Mt. Lebanon and attended the church as a child, and was back in town for the first time with his daughter. He wanted to show her some of the places that had been important to him and the church, which had hosted dances for high school kids on Friday and Saturday nights in the late 60s, was one of those places.
One of the family, I don't recall which, was wearing a 30th anniversary May 4 t-shirt and I remarked that I was a KSU grad. 
That was when Jim Russell introduced himself. He told me that he had been shot at Kent on May 4, 1970. He was standing at a 90-degree angle from and more than a football field's distance from the National Guardsmen who turned and opened fire on the students that afternoon. He was shot in the thigh and the forehead by the only Guardsman firing a shotgun. The rest had machine guns.
In 2000 he lived in Oregon, having moved west in the mid-1970s to escape the shadow of Kent. He shared with me the bitterness he felt toward the university and the authorities, who wanted either to forget the whole thing or blame the students. 
He vividly remembered the calls to "shoot 'em all," and the names --"worse than brown shirts and night riders" according to Ohio Gov. James Rhodes -- that the students were called by high ranking government officials.
He shared with me that he'd lost a job in Ohio in the early 70s when his employers learned of his connection to the shootings, a story he also shares in the story linked above. He also noted that a new university administration during the 1990s had changed the way the school dealt with the survivors of the shootings and had made them feel welcome on campus for the first time in a quarter century. While time had healed his physical wounds and many of the psychological ones as well, I doubt that Jim Russell ever felt completely at peace with the events of May 4, 1970. He died in 2007 at 60.
A memorial service was held at Kent and the story on it in the Akron paper at the time drew echoes of the same response the shootings did in 1970: the students deserved what they got.
Forty years on and it remains true that the powers that be will bring to bear deadly force on those who threaten the base of the power, and they will also go to any length to avoid being held accountable for their actions.
They used to produce t-shirts each spring at Kent that read, "long live the spirit of Kent and Jackson State." I never bought one because I was always skeptical that there was any such thing as a spirit of those places and the killings deaths of the spring of 1970. Perhaps I was wrong. Perhaps the spirit is simply the tireless search for the truth about what happened that day and the pursuit of something like justice even all these years later.

Monday, April 25, 2016

A Modest Proposal

A Modest Proposal
When Bill Maher calls for a tax on religion he could be right, just not how he believes he’s right.
The host of HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher closed a recent show declaring, “If we levy taxes – sin taxes, they call them – on things that are bad to get people to stop doing them, why in heaven’s name don’t we tax religion?”
Maher, who is almost as well known for his outspoken atheism as he is for his comedic chops, went on to say, “You want to raise the tax on tobacco so kids don’t get cancer? Okay, but let’s put one on Sunday school so they don’t get stupid.”
If you take him at his word, Maher is out to protect society’s innocent victims from the violence, intolerance, and ignorance of religious beliefs. To be sure, both history books and contemporary media are filled with horrific stories of the victims of religious violence and intolerance. From Christian pogroms of the Middle Ages to the terror attacks of ISIS this year, from the church’s treatment of women throughout history to the church-driven law’s treatment of transgender persons in North Carolina and Mississippi last month, it’s all-too-easy to mock religion for the sake of an easy, albeit uncomfortable laugh, and to use that laugh track as the backdrop for a call to tax religions.
But that’s not why societies should tax religions. Beyond taxes imposed across the board to pay for common infrastructure, taxes can be used to discourage activities that threaten the common good. Carbon taxes are one example.
But even in the examples Maher cites or alludes to, religions aren’t a threat to the social order. More often they are and have been, in fact, a supporter. After all, in the Middle Ages the church and state marched hand-in-hand to persecute Jews. ISIS claims that it wants to set up a state power. The misogyny of religious groups throughout history has served patriarchal social orders quite well, and there’s a direct line from the bathroom to the voting booth tying together conservative evangelicals and many Republican politicians these days.
Those deep ties between religion and state are no reason, from the point of view of the state, to impose taxes on religions. Religions founded on what might be called a theology of respectability nurture obedient adherents to the status quo of the society of which they are a part. It’s easy to understand why the state supports them with tax advantages.
Sure, the adherents of such religious convictions might believe silly things about the origin of species, but that’s not taking a bite out of the bottom line of the corporate state. They might even have tendencies toward violent repression of minorities, but as long as those minorities continue to serve the economic and political interests of the powerful then a little controlled violence is just the cost of keeping order. Religions that preach personal piety and encourage respectable behavior don’t threaten the social order. In fact, they support it.
But that’s not the only theology available to the church or mosque or synagogue.  As Brittney Cooper notes in a recent issue of Christian Century focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, “the movement has issued a clarion call to the church […] to affirm a theology of resistance rather than a theology of respectability. This movement demands reckoning with who Jesus is. Is Jesus only a savior come to deliver us from punishment for personal sin? Or is Jesus a savior who joins with us in the work to end racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and transphobia?”[1]
A theology of resistance threatens power and stability. Societies should tax religions not to protect members of the society, but to protect the existing social order. Using the power of the IRS, the government could weaken the grip that prophets have on the imaginations of people who might be inspired to embrace a vision of a future otherwise.
Preachers following the Revised Common Lectionary through this Eastertide are in the midst of a brief sojourn through Revelation. The Roman emperor did not confine John of Patmos to that Greek island because he feared that the gospel would make children stupid. He exiled John because he feared that the gospel would make Christians rebel against the authority of Rome.
Likewise, J. Edgar Hoover did not spy on the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because the FBI director feared that King’s proclamation of the gospel would make black folks ignorant. Hoover harassed King because he feared that the gospel proclamation would make black folks rebel against white supremacy and call the capitalist order into question.
That’s a sin against the state. That’s cause for taxation. Maybe Maher was completely right after all. Sin taxes all around!




[1] Brittney Cooper, “Black Lives Matter,” Christian Century, March 16, 2016, 27.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Mondays with ... Orville and Wilbur?

The Wright Memorial on the OBX
On the way home from the Outer Banks yesterday we stopped for gas in Ashland, Va. I wound up standing in line to use the restroom. The station had two facilities, each of them a “one-holer” of identical design, furnishing, and, most importantly, function. Each door had a standard-issue restroom placard, one of which read “Men,” and the other “Women.” The women’s placard included a strip of masking tape on which was written in blue marker “only.”

All weekend in North Carolina I had gone out of my way to speak with the manager of each business we went into. While others in our crew shopped or settled tabs, I’d go speak with the manager and leave a copy of a letter explaining why, following the passage of HB2, not all of us feel safe or welcome in North Carolina.

After a weekend on “team advocacy” of our vacation crew, I was simply too tired to inquire at the gas station in Virginia concerning what prompted the signage. After all, the restrooms were already private and each was, by architecture, exclusive to the individual using it.

I’m writing this blog post in a coffee shop in Arlington. The shop has three one-person restrooms. Over the years I have drunk gallons of coffee here, and I have used each of these restrooms. I’m certain that each has been used by countless men, and women, and, also, by countless transgender persons, and gender queer persons as well.

I’m pretty sure nobody cares.

What I do care about, though, is justice. That’s why, wherever we went in North Carolina, we left behind a copy of the following letter, printed on church letterhead: 
Dear North Carolina friend,
 For the past five years a small group of us from Northern Virginia have enjoyed a lovely weekend together on the Outer Banks. We have strolled your beautiful beaches, enjoyed many wonderful meals at your restaurants, rented condos, participated in OBX running events, visited your parks, and shopped in your stores. We love the Outer Banks.
 Thus it is with real sadness that we must let you know that we will not be back in the years to come due to the recent passage of HB2.
 We are members of the Clarendon Presbyterian Church community, and the deepest values of our common faith rest on the conviction that all of us are created equally in the image of a loving God. HB2 violates that image in some of our sisters and brothers. More than that, it threatens the safety of our transgender sisters and brothers, and, particularly, of trans kids.
 We know that many North Carolinians oppose the law, and that many North Carolina businesses are working to create safe spaces for all people. We applaud that effort, but we will not continue to contribute our dollars to the economy of a state that does not welcome all of us.
 We encourage you to become active in your own state’s political processes, and send to your legislature leaders who truly want everyone to feel welcome, valued, and safe in North Carolina. In the meanwhile, we encourage you to contact your current lawmakers and your governor and tell them to rescind HB2.
 We promise that when you do, we will come back and visit again.
 Grace and peace,
 David Ensign
Pastor
We left about a dozen such letters, and in almost every conversation, the business manager was incredibly gracious, receptive to the conversation, and deeply sympathetic. About half of them apologized for the law.

To those apologies I responded, “you don’t need to apologize; it clearly was not your idea. But we do encourage your activism. Contact your governor and your legislators, and let them know how you feel, and feel free to share our letter with anyone who might be interested.”

The conversations were universally pleasant, and several of them were deeply moving. A clerk in an ABC store actually had tears in his eyes thanking us for what we were doing. The only person who was merely cordial was the clerk in a state park, and I suspect that, whatever her personal convictions, she’s probably bound by her employment to avoid engaging controversial topics.

Even though the conversations were powerful to participate in, by the time “team advocacy” reached Ashland, really all I wanted to do was pee in peace. Come to think of it, that’s all anyone opposed to HB2 and similar proposals wants.


Oh, there was a line to the restroom marked “men.” The one labeled “women – only” was empty. I’m through Ashland from time to time. If I need gas, I’ll stop there again and ask, “why?”