These Lines

I resonated with much of Austin Channing Brown’s recent post about “unity” to her e-mail newsletter “Roll Call.” Austin encourages her readers to be aware of ways we might be asked to participate in a kind of unity that works against justice rather than for it. You can check out the post here if you’re interested – it’s worth reading.

This poem, entitled “These Lines,” encapsulates some of my reflections and points of resonance.

These lines are old, too old,
    like time etched into limestone faces
        monolithic and unmoved,
                unmoving, and

the face of founding father is
    the face of the slaveholder is
        the face of the confederate,
            the face of the white moderate,

the face of CEOs and pastors
    like priest-jesters choosing their captivity
        to live and serve in courts 
            of dying systems, and

these lips through all these centuries
    have uttered the same words, 
        lines that have lived too long
            like dreams deferred

like blasphemies still spoken after
    time has shown them lethal lies 
        too many times.
            These lies still dress in power,

clothe themselves in tones of wisdom, 
    yet upon examination 
        show themselves thin masks 
            for white supremacy;

and yet we’re trained to trust,
    trained to believe
        the ones who speak 
            with sincere eyes and

faith in their own goodness that runs deep. 
    So speak, keep speaking, 
        if you must, these lines,
            of ships so large that take so long to turn,

of donors we must not offend,
    of increments and evolution,
        the survival of the institution,
            and the need for patience, always patience;

keep on speaking, speak your violence,
    do not leave it silent―
        speak it, do not prop it any longer
            on soft lies of innocence, 

speak stress into the bones 
    that can’t afford to wait another day 
        for justice, won’t be put off 
            one more generation and 

another still; keep speaking 
    all your lies, for as you speak 
        you speed the day 
            we will no longer listen,

speed the day we will no longer stand
    and lay the gift of our participation
        at the feet of shit-filled institutions
            that have lost, or sold,

their souls.

“White Blessings”

As Lecrae said in response to Louie Giglio’s ridiculousness, “This needs to be a time when [white evangelicals] listen and learn, and not a time when you’re leading” (see this Washington Post article about last week’s “white blessings” debacle if you need some context or aren’t sick of reading about it already).

Some thoughts, in poem form:

"White Blessings"

I don’t want to hear about “white blessings”
really, I don’t want to hear anything at all from

white male pastors who started thinking about race yesterday
and talk today like we should listen

they talk this way because people have always listened 
always looked to them as leaders

but they’re not the ones I want to follow
I don’t care about their vision and

I’d rather not keep watching them keep scrambling
keep backpedalling pathetically to try to not seem racist

throwing words against the wall to see what sticks
not one speck interested in changing the meaning of it all

and I don’t want to hear them say that black lives matter
while every inch of their theology screams otherwise

corroborated and condemned by the unbothered way they walk 
on through a world that opens every door for them and bows

and I don’t want to hear them talk about enslavement
as if they’re not quite sure whether to be thankful for it

and I don’t want to see them pretend that white people
can enter into conversations about race and be

anything but awkward or do anything but stumble through
so very much in need to listen and not lead

so very much in need of grace and real correction
the kind we might in fact receive 

if we admit how desperately we bumble
how short-sighted our vision, how unfit we are to lead

and empathy aside, I do not want to think that one
who claims spiritual leadership might actually believe

that we could take racism’s material rewards and
weigh them against the way it tears apart our souls

or wonder for a moment if white supremacy could be
in any world anything but a deal with the devil.

Solvitur Ambulando

My mom introduced me to this phrase recently, and I liked it (even though it’s not Greek), so I wrote a poem about it.

Solvitur Ambulando

Solvitur ambulando
it is solved by walking

so we walked 
and walked 
and walked 
until we found
a better way.

We walked until the blood
that paved our streets
four hundred years
was made uncomfortably
visible to all
each inch
each step
as we walked over it

we walked with signs
we walked with covered faces
we walked with hands in hands

they met our walking 
with walls of police
in riot gear 

they could not stand
the way we walked
so tall 
so fearless
led by children

they could not stand 
us being fully human
not being fully 
under their control
and organized

they saw we walked 
so differently from them
they were afraid 
and angry

they sprayed tear gas 
shot their rubber bullets

but we kept walking.

We walked to capitols
to churches
to the white house where

he threatened us 
with vicious dogs
with fire hose and billy club
he conjured icons 
of another generation
still alive
to flash before our eyes
and try 
to hold us back in terror

but we kept walking.

We sang the songs 
of our foremothers 
and forefathers
the ones who walked
who struggled
in their time

we claim 
them with pride

and name the ones 
who took the other side
name and repent 
with full feeling
righteous action
this is how
we choose 
a different path.

We walked right to 
the river Justice

carried all our burdens
all our suffering
our tears
our unheard screams

we walked right into it
like birthright
like a baptism
like healing

we let its rolling waters 
roll on us.

It Fell

Inspired by the New Testament book of Revelation and its images of fallen empires, which the author referred to as “Babylon” so as not to attract unwanted attention from the state of Rome.

See Revelation chapters 14 (v. 8) and 18 (v. 2), for example. I was intrigued by reading in Greek and realizing that a literal translation of what I’m used to reading as “fallen” (NIV, NASB, NRSV, etc.) might be something more like “it fell.”

The “unclean image” bit refers to the image of the wild beast, introduced in Revelation 13:11-18 and then referred to often throughout the rest of the book (spoiler: it’s not good to worship it).

I write in hope that, as protests bring greater exposure to anti-Blackness in systems and make it harder for non-Black people to ignore these things, those interested in doing away with oppressive structures and/or removing ourselves from them may do so; hope that we may find new, more equitable, more life-giving ways to live together as a human community.

It Fell

It fell! It fell! Great city Babylon,
its kings still crying make us great!
we are great! keep us great!
no one is greater than we are!―
as cracks snake through foundations
gaining speed and
mortar crumbles.

Eyes taken out, 
the kings are last to see
how public their humiliation 
in the whole world’s view,
last to admit that they themselves
lie wrecked in streets, 
in hospital beds. 

Let us resist their noisy clamor
for a normal that was never good, 
for lies of greatness bought 
at far too high a cost;

let us learn instead to reach a hand 
and pick each other up
amidst the ashes of the empire,

to pluck each other from 
the empire’s exposed bowels
like an unclean image
propped for far too long
on borrowed time.

We make the city’s ruined walls
our planter beds
and grow new gardens, 
learn to know our neighbors, 
learn to see each other,
learn to own and share our power,
pool our resources, buy locally, 
resist the urge to hoard;

in the fragments of the city
we rise up, find rest,
birthe fragile new 

I Do Not Wish to Perform My Grief

A poem reflecting on George Floyd’s murder, the subsequent protests, and my hope to stand in solidarity with my Black siblings in their weariness, grief, and anger.

I Do Not Wish to Perform My Grief

I do not wish to perform my grief
as if it could be part of a persona
crafted carefully to please and curry favor, 
as if it wasn’t real and raw.

I wish to honor memories of
lives locked in as targets of police,
locked up by racist structures and
those willing to execute them,

yes, execute, another murder,
another life destroyed by the
perverse pseudo-logic of 
white supremacy, all-pervasive,

suffocating, not dysfunction or 
anomaly but locked from the beginning 
in our nation’s DNA. 
I shed my tears in private and 

do not know what to do when 
people talk about it like it’s just 
another distant bad thing on the news
and not our sin to claim. 

I’m not the type to weep and wail 
on a Facebook wall, a perfect pose, 
mascara dripping down a made-up face,
that’s not my style, but I will 

walk with you, and hold your grief,
and not paint thinly over it with platitudes
or try to force it into shallow resolution.
I will be angry by your side, 

a quiet rage that burns into the night
and understands why protests sometimes
color outside bounds of order
drawn by whiteness. 

I will not move on too quickly 
or affix myself to the convenient lie 
that white supremacy is only real 
and violent and destructive 

just a few times every year, 
just when it’s captured
on an iPhone for the internet to see.

I do not wish to perform my grief, 
but I will let my weariness hold yours, 
let you embrace me if you wish, 
or stay away―I understand.

In all these things I have 
no interest in attempting 
to police the ways you grieve.

John and the Military

Soldiers also asked John, “And we, what should we do?”
He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
(Luke 3:14)

In yesterday’s post I reflected a bit on how John the Baptist’s words to soldiers might relate to present-day law enforcement. Today I want to share a couple of thoughts about the soldier soldier aspect of it. What, if anything, do John’s instructions for Roman soldiers have to do with modern-day militaries and wars?

A few years ago, I found myself talking with a pastor about things like US foreign policy and military violence, and whether or in what ways Christians should or shouldn’t participate in a military machine that has done and continues to do a lot of bad things. The pastor brought up Luke 3:14.

It was my first exposure to what turns out to be a common argument, which goes something like this: when Roman soldiers came to John the Baptist―and we all know that the Roman army did all sorts of bad things―John did not tell them to quit their jobs. He just gave them instructions as to how they should operate within their current roles. Therefore, John did not (and likewise God does not) disapprove of war itself or of the military itself, and it is okay for Christians to participate―as long as they’re good and moral within their roles.

I wasn’t quite convinced by the argument, but I also wasn’t sure how to respond.

Fortunately, though, during my second quarter of seminary, I got to take a whole class called Biblical and Practical Peacemaking, taught by Ron Sanders. And now I know everything!

Just kidding. But the class was really great, and I did learn a lot. I was exposed to different perspectives on things like just war theory―a specific set of standards for determining whether entering a war is just, and for limiting the injustices done both during that war and after it ends―and pacifism―the view that participating in the violence of war is never necessary or justifiable.

One perspective I found really helpful is from a book called Just Peacemaking, edited by Glen Stassen (Cleveland: The Pilgrim Press, 2008). In this book’s introduction, the authors argue that, while debates between just war theory and pacifism are not unimportant, there are actually a lot of peace-making practices that we can all agree on, even though we might still deeply disagree about the high-level question of whether or not war is ever right or moral.

Does the fact that John the Baptist did not tell the soldiers to quit their jobs in the army imply, as some believe, that John was not a pacifist? Maybe. Maybe not. We can debate about it, and there are all sorts of other Scripture passages and experiences and other pieces of evidence we could bring in to fuel that debate.

Stassen et al.’s Just Peacemaking book helped me understand that we do not have to resolve all of these disagreements―we do not have to all be on the same page about just war theory and pacifism―before we seek together to move toward practices of just peacemaking. 

We can debate these things as much as we want―and we can bring John the Baptist into it as much as we want, although I suspect that he would want no such thing―but at the end of the day, the likelihood that we will all convince one another and get on the same page at any time in the foreseeable future seems pretty small.

But maybe we don’t have to. Maybe we can move forward together, as Stassen suggests, by asking different kinds of questions together. Questions like: What practices have been historically shown to actually decrease the likelihood of war and the amount of violence in the world? What are the tangible ways in which we can “promote justice and cooperation in a world whose wars are immeasurably destructive” (p. 17)?

According to Stassen et al., “peace, like war, must be waged” (p. 21). There are proactive peace-making measures we can and must take―both for just war theorists, who, at their best, are committed to trying all other possible conflict resolutions before resorting to war, and for pacifists, who, at their best, are committed not only to refuse participation in war but also to actively pursue peace and justice.

John the Baptist didn’t operate within the categories of just war theory or pacifism. These things were developed later.

What John did want was for the Roman soldiers to know that, within the positions they did hold in the military, what they did and did not do mattered. There were things they could do that would increase the violence and awfulness of war, and there were things they could do that would decrease the violence and awfulness of war.

On an individual level, the soldiers could resist the temptation to capitalize on the power available to them through their position or their weapons to take advantage of others (similar to my reflections on law enforcement from yesterday’s post). 

And, on a broader, societal scale, perhaps the soldiers could consider whether the wars in which they were asked to participate may or may not involve extorting money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and/or involve not being satisfied with your wages. After all, it is not only individuals who extort and threaten and falsify, but armies and nation-states as well. It is not only individuals who are not always satisfied with their wages―or their current level of national wealth―but countries as well.
Nations sometimes wage war for the sake of self-protection or because they hope it will serve larger humanitarian causes in the end; other times, they wage war out of a thinly veiled desire to extort (or otherwise extract) money from other countries, often employing false accusations to justify their aggression and violence, drumming up public support on false premises.

It is no secret that the US has been involved in plenty of these latter sorts of wars. I think of the Bush administration’s appeal to the public’s fears of weapons of mass destruction in order to justify the war in Iraq. I think of the recently released Afghanistan papers, which reveal some of the extent of the falsehoods told to the American public about a war that has proven mind-boggling-ly long and costly. 

I’m still not entirely sure what I would have said to the pastor who brought up Luke 3:14 as an argument that the Bible is not particularly pacifist. I might suggest, though, that we allow John’s words to prompt some deep soul-searching―soul-searching not just on the part of individual members of the armed forces but also for all of us who live in a military superpower nation that does not always use its powers for good. 
I might also suggest that we take some of the energy we tend to spend on arguments about just war theory and pacifism and re-direct it toward proactive practices that help build a more just and peaceful world―a world with fewer threats, less extortion, fewer false accusations, and more contentment with our (personal and national) wages.

Into the Wilderness

In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the wilderness of Judea. (Matthew 3:1)

Of all the places John the Baptist could have gone to preach, the wilderness was an interesting choice. This was not a fun, lively, well-developed national park with a nice visitor center (my kind of wilderness). This was wilderness-y wilderness. It was an uninhabited place, a lonely place, a solitary place―the kind of place where Jesus liked to go to be alone and pray (Mark 1:35). It was not a place that a savvy and strategic marketing team would have suggested for a promising young preacher like John to make his debut.

John’s voice echoed in the wilderness, as the prophet Isaiah had foretold long before (Matthew 3:3). At first John’s cries must have rung lonely and hollow in his own ears, carried off quickly by the desert wind―perhaps picked up, at best, by a small group of tentative followers, still a bit unsure of what to make of him. John kept calling out anyway: Repent; for the kingdom of heaven has come near (Matthew 3:2).

Then, a miracle: other people started to trickle in. In time the slow trickle became a massive flood, as people from the city of Jerusalem and the entire region of Judea crowded around (Matthew 3:5).

For these people, walking out into the wilderness meant disrupting the usual routines of their lives. And it meant stepping toward and into their own history as a people, a people to whom the wilderness meant something. They stepped into a history of forty years of wandering, a history of failure and difficulty and despair.

If we too are searching for a way to hear John’s message―a way to move toward repentance and renewed life and hope―perhaps we too must walk into the wilderness places of our lives and our world.

Perhaps for us, choosing to walk into the wilderness means honestly confronting our own personal past choices and present realities. Choosing to face the places in our lives where we feel lost and lonely. The partially-processed griefs, the hidden wounds, the habitual ways we hurt others.

And perhaps for us, choosing to walk into the wilderness also means honestly confronting our communal past choices and present realities. For white Americans such as myself, choosing to look straight at and regard seriously―and not downplay or skim over―a history and present-day reality full of death-dealing ways, ways of enslavement and genocide and internment camps and detention centers.

This is not an easy place to walk into. But it is the place where we find the possibility of repentance, baptism, new life, forgiveness, cleansing, grace―everything John the Baptist preaches about and offers. Where we find that the kingdom of heaven has come near and continues to come near.

And, as more and more people came out into the wilderness to hear John, the solitary place became less solitary. The lonely place became less lonely.

In that wilderness place there was no social club bound together by shared interests and experiences. The people who gathered together did not all sign the same statement of belief or agree to abide by the same codes of conduct. They did not all like and follow each other on Facebook and Instagram. They were just there, in the wilderness together, united only by a common awareness of their need to hear from God, their need for repentance, their need for forgiveness―just, their need.

The gift of the wilderness is the gift of honest, holy confrontation of oneself and one’s world, and the gift of the unlikely community that forms in that place. Like John the Baptist who preached in the wilderness and the people who went out to hear him, may we bravely walk into our own wilderness places in the hope that God might meet us there.