Super chill book review part 2: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

As promised—and eagerly awaited, I’m sure!—this is the second part of a super chill book review of Andre Henry’s All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep. (The first part is chillin over here if you didn’t catch it before.) 

Here are a few more quotes and thoughts.

4) On the language of “can’t”:

“That was the second time [seminary friend] Kevin used the word ‘can’t’ in regard to condemning slavery…He echoed his predecessors, who often wrote about how they couldn’t abolish slavery, because the world they were building depended on it too much. A straight line can be traced between the colonizers who claimed they couldn’t abolish slavery to white people today who ‘can’t’ condemn it in the present, nor imagine a world without its descendants: the police and prisons. Perhaps they do this because they know they can’t categorically condemn the violence that structures their world without implicating themselves” (pp. 87-8).

I hear and honor the specific context of race and racial violence that Andre’s writing about here. And, at the same time, when I read this, my mind also wanders to all the other things I’ve heard Christians say they can’t do.

For example, “I want to support women in ministry, but I can’t—it isn’t the way our church/denomination does things, and there isn’t enough will to change.” Or, “I want to affirm LGBTQ+ people and relationships, but I can’t—I just don’t see how the Bible could be understood in any way other than condemning.” 

What is this “can’t”? 

In a sense, it’s a sort of appeal to a higher authority. I want to do something, but some thing/person/rule/structure/system/theology/authority won’t allow me. At some point, though, in my view, we don’t get to absolve ourselves so easily of responsibility for our own choices and the impact they have. 

Sometimes, in order to be whole and healthy humans who want wholeness and health for others as well, we have to go against the way things have always been done. Sometimes we have to disagree with church/denominational higher-ups. Sometimes we have to read the Bible differently from what we’re used to or what everyone around us is doing. These things are not easy. But we can do them. 

We get to make choices, and we are responsible for these choices. Those who felt they couldn’t abolish slavery are still responsible for the suffering it caused; those who feel they can’t challenge the status quo today are still responsible for the suffering in our current world, whether by way of racial violence, institutionalized misogyny, homophobia, or any other forms it might take.

I don’t find it easy to imagine, as Andre writes, a world without…police and prisons. But, in solidarity with people who are most impacted by the injustice and violence of these systems, I can try.

5) On God and racism:

“I don’t think they always realize this, but when a Christian says God isn’t concerned about racism, they’re saying God doesn’t care about Black people. Those statements are inseparable. We fight for people we care about, period. If you saw a friend in danger, love would compel you to try to save them. So to say God won’t intervene against anti-Black violence, because it’s not important, could only mean God doesn’t love us” (pp. 120-1).

I read this, and I think about how sometimes Christians get some weird ideas about redemptive suffering. And it gets especially gnarly when people try to apply these ideas to other people’s lives rather than their own. 

If someone went through something difficult and felt that it was redeemed in some way, whether through character growth or something else good that came out of it, that’s great. I’m all for it. But I don’t think I get to tell someone who is not me that their suffering is redemptive.

Yet that is often what white people do to Black people. And it’s violent. It’s the opposite of loving. For those of us who are not Black, if we love our Black sisters and brothers and siblings, as Andre writes, we won’t try to tell them that God isn’t concerned about racism. We’ll believe with them in a God who fights for them—and we’ll join them in the fight.

6) On what comes next:

 “The question I have today is whether or not all those millions of people who filled the streets in 2020 for George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have realized that their next task is to use nonviolent direct action to cripple the operations of a repressive society. We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer; we’re fighting against a corrupt empire. We must connect the struggle for Black lives today to previous movements against imperialism, authoritarianism, and fascism around the world and at home. We must learn from those movements and apply their lessons to our situation today, with the understanding that tinkering with the current system isn’t enough. The current system was built to oppress, which means it must be replaced. We must go from being a fundamentally unequal society sustained by violence to a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. A revolution is necessary to make Black lives matter, and we have to plan it” (pp. 144-5).

I don’t really have anything to add to this—just wanted to include it here, because I feel like it captures the heart of a lot of what this book is about. 

Where do we go from the summer of 2020? What more is needed? What does continued and genuine antiracist engagement look like? We’re not just fighting for white Americans to be nicer. We’re fighting to become a truly egalitarian society sustained by mutual care. Amen to that.

7) On white folks who want to get involved:

“If white people are serious about fighting white supremacy and anti-Blackness, they need to start within themselves. This kind of work is essential because without it, white people will enter movement spaces and cause the same kinds of harm Black people are trying to get away from. They need to confront the ways they’ve been shaped by anti-Black ideas and been complicit in defending the racial hierarchy. They need to dedicate themselves to the work of fighting against racism in their own communities, instead of rushing straight into spaces where Black people are trying to heal and organize for our own freedom.

“White people should consider how they can organize for racial justice in ways that give Black people space: space where we’re free from the pressure to educate them, perform for them, or coddle them. One option is for white people to join non-Black ally movement groups that work in parallel with Black-led organizations and are accountable to trusted Black leaders: White People for Black Lives (WP4BL) or Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), for instance. White people who really get it understand that such space is necessary” (p. 163).

As a white person hoping to be useful to the cause of racial justice—and who knows a lot of fellow white people in a similar boat (hi, Lake B)—I appreciate this warning and encouragement. Not every justice movement space is a space for us—and that’s okay. Not every space needs to be for us, and not every space should cater to us. 

This doesn’t mean we can’t be useful. It just means that anti-Blackness is so deeply ingrained in us that we need to be thoughtful, careful, and humble about where and how we show up, so that we don’t do more harm than good.

8) On hope:

 “Frankly, I thought hope was bullshit. Mostly because all of the hopeful people I knew had a tendency to minimize problems in order to stay positive. It seemed that the only people I knew who had hope weren’t paying close attention to what’s going on in the world. [Activist Rebecca Solnit’s book] Hope in the Dark was the beginning of a journey that would permanently shift my perspective.

“The idea that struck me most in Solnit’s book was that there’s a difference between hope and certainty. To be hopeful doesn’t mean we’re sure about the future. ‘Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists,’ she explains. ‘Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists adopt the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.’ My mouth dropped open when I first read those words. They gave me a concept of hope that looked ugly truths in the face and left room for human agency. It felt like good news” (p. 169).

I feel this tension between holding onto hope and trying to pay attention to what’s actually going on in the world. I also really enjoyed Hope in the Dark. I have not been engaged in activist scholarship and struggle nearly as deeply as Andre has, but in the ways I have tried to engage, Solnit’s book felt like good news to me, too.

As far as good news goes, I feel like many of us who’ve been involved in the evangelical world have been awakening to a realization that the white American evangelical gospel doesn’t actually feel like good news. (As Andre articulates in his song Playing Hookey.) So I think it’s worth asking, and paying attention to our answers: What does feel like good news?

What’s actual, legit good news for you? For your community? For those “with their backs against the wall,” as Howard Thurman writes in Jesus and the Disinherited? I don’t know if the answers that come to you will line up very well with a conservative evangelical version of Christianity. But I suspect God might be in them. 

Well, this really just scratches the surface of a few parts of Andre’s book. There’s a lot there. I hope you get a chance to read it, and I’d love to chat about it if so (here, FB, email, real life, whatever you prefer)!

Super chill book review part 1: All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep (Andre Henry)

I was fortunate to cross paths with Andre Henry while studying at Fuller, and I have a great deal of respect for him as a musician, writer, and human. So my expectations for his first book, All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope–and Hard Pills to Swallow–About Fighting for Black Lives (Convergent 2022), were pretty high.

All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep did not disappoint. I knew Andre was brilliant, but it’s a whole other thing to see that brilliance laid out so eloquently, bravely, and compellingly on the pages of a whole book. I’m thankful for the labor of love this book must have been.

There are a few quotes and thoughts I’d like to share. It got kind of long, though, so we’re going to take it in two parts. Here’s the first! 

1) “Contrary to what people love to say about racial violence—that it springs from ignorance or blind hatred—the Maafa wasn’t, and isn’t, senseless. The crime was undertaken for a reason: profit. Over and over again, in their writings about the slave trade, white men spoke of how they must use the sweat and suffering of enslaved Africans to build their banks and textile industries, their ships and plantation homes, and to produce whatever else they ‘needed’ to buy or sell: their coffee, tea, sugar, rum, cotton, indigo. It was just business” (p. 20).

As Andre writes, racism doesn’t just exist in a vacuum. It doesn’t just exist because white people are randomly ignorant or hateful in random ways and for no particular reason.

Rather, it’s closely connected with a brutal, unchecked sort of capitalism, where profit is all that matters, and the people making ruthless decisions to pursue the greatest possible profit at any cost (to human life, the earth, etc.) keep themselves at many arms’ length from the consequences of these decisions.

I think about how greed and love of money are sins that Jesus has so much to say about but churches often don’t. In many churches the wealthiest people are the most respected, assumed to be the best leaders and the best influences on young people. But that wealth has often come at a cost. And the cost is often inflicted most brutally on people of color and materially poor people whose lives are considered expendable, an unfortunately necessary sacrifice. 

More and more churches and other organizations are opening up to conversations about race and racism, at least in some form. But we can’t have these conversations fully and honestly without also talking about capitalism, greed, money, and the (human) sacrifices powerful people are willing to make to increase their profits and amass grain in their storehouses.

2) As an enneagram type 1 and a (self-designated) Angry Woman, I appreciated Andre’s chapter on anger. These next few quotes are from that chapter.

“I spent a lot of time in the spring of 2015 trying to appear respectable to the white friends I couldn’t keep. I wanted to avoid the appearance of being angry, thinking it would be more persuasive. Because once white people sense you’re angry, you lose them. Just as I had with Sherry, I always responded to their racist comments with ‘I can see why you’d think that, but . . .,’ always giving them the benefit of the doubt. I thought I had to approach my white friends like that in those days—to educate them without offending them” (pp. 45-6).

I hear this. Maybe one of my goals as a white person trying to be antiracist should be to become unoffendable.

I know that may not be totally realistic, and it’s probably an odd way to put things. But what I really want is to become the kind of white friend (or white human in general) who can hear the truth of someone else’s experience, whatever it might be, and honor that truth. 

This truth can be different from my experience, and someone’s reflections on it might lead that person to different conclusions about the world than the ones I’ve come to. Even if that’s the case, though, hearing from that person is still a gift, not to be taken lightly—not to be undermined or violated by my defensiveness, but to be received with gratitude.

I don’t have to see everything the same way. I can still listen, try to be open, choose not to be offended but to learn.

3) A couple more quotes from Andre on anger:

“I’d been angry for as long as I could remember, from the day I came to recognize what it meant to be Black in this country, but I’d been trained to feel like rage was off-limits…

Angry is a loaded term for us because we know how rare it is for white people to respect it. When white people say you’re angry, they’re not saying, ‘I recognize how you feel, and that’s valid.’ More often, they’re appraising your character, naming an innate quality, a defect. You’re angry in the way that bacon is salty or mangoes are sweet, ‘one of those perpetually angry Blacks.’ It’s a statement of disapproval, meant to make us loosen our lips, fix our faces, and take the bass out of our voices. We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. Do anything else, and you risk a range of punishments: from a white friend shutting down the conversation to an officer pinning you to the ground” (pp. 48-9).

We’re expected to speak about the injustices that threaten our bodies the way someone would read the dosage instructions on a bottle of pills. I feel that. It’s so clearly not right. I think this is a metaphor that will stick with me. 

“Rank-and-file white people also try to stamp out Black rage wherever it emerges. They tell us Black anger is destructive and can’t be trusted. The truth is just the opposite.

“Black rage is trustworthy because it carries an analysis of present injustices. On a physiological level, anger is the body’s way of telling us that a boundary has been violated. It’s the natural emotional response humans have to being wronged, especially if that wrong is recurring and denied by the harmdoers. Therefore, Black rage is a healthy sign that we as a people recognize the crimes that have been, and continue to be, committed against us. Our anger is based in our personal experiences of anti-Black hostility in the white world and backed by our knowledge of our history.

“Black rage can be constructive because anger can be the starting point of hope. If anger is something like an alarm system, telling us things ought not to be a certain way, then it’s likely that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. That vision of how things ought to be is the most important building block for a revolution; after all, it’s hard to build a world we haven’t envisioned” (p. 53).

Anger can be the starting point of hope, because it signals that we already hold some idea for how things ought to be. In this light, we can see that attempts to quell or placate anger are often really attacks on hope—they’re conservative maneuvers that uphold the status quo. 

Let’s learn to be comfortable with anger—our own, and others,’ and especially that of people on the underside of the power structures of our world. Let’s pay attention to what this anger is telling us about what ought to be.

More to come later this week!

Super chill book review: Becoming Rooted (Randy Woodley)

I recently read Randy Woodley’s Becoming Rooted: One Hundred Days of Reconnecting with Sacred Earth (Broadleaf Books, 2022). (First super chill book review for a book that was published in 2022—woohoo!)

I’ll confess I did not take the full one hundred days to read it. But I still like how the book is broken up: one hundred very short chapters (like, very short—1-2 pages each), each with an intriguing quote at the beginning and a suggested action item at the end. Even though I sometimes read several short chapters in one sitting, I still liked being able to digest the book in such small chunks. 

I found this book very much worth reading; as always, here are a few random thoughts and quotes!

1) It must have taken Woodley some time to find one hundred different interesting and relevant quotations to begin each chapter with. But I’m glad he did.

I found myself appreciating the variety of people quoted—many indigenous thinkers, some Buddhists, some Christian theologians, some Bible quotes. From Gandhi to Sitting Bull to Mother Teresa to Alice Walker to James Baldwin, as well as lots of indigenous people I hadn’t heard of before but enjoyed learning from, it’s quite the diverse and brilliant cast of thinkers. 

2) In particular, I found this quote very striking: 

“Only when the last tree has died and the last river has been poisoned and the last fish has been caught will we realize we cannot eat money.”

-Cree Indian Proverb (p. 141)

Reminds me of what Jesus said about not hoarding treasure where moth and rust destroy and thieves break in and steal (Matt 6:19). We either learn to share resources, giving and receiving generously, building just communities where everyone can flourish—or, eventually, we are all destroyed. 

Money might protect many wealthy people from feeling the effects of climate change, pollution, unsustainable agriculture practices, etc. as quickly as others, but it will catch up with all of us in the end. We can’t eat money. I hadn’t quite thought about it in that way, but it feels right.

3) I also liked this quote: 

“In times of change learners inherit the earth; while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists.” 

-Eric Hoffer (p. 241)

Reminds me of what Jesus said about the meek inheriting the earth (Matt 5:5). To be learners, we have to admit that there’s so much we don’t know. (And often also that much we’ve learned isn’t actually true or helpful.) We have to become humble enough to want to learn, and to know that we need to learn.

Also, the idea of being “equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists” is something one of my seminary professors used to talk about a lot without attributing it to anyone in particular (other than, by implication, himself). So it’s nice to know where that comes from.

4) Woodley has such great stories. So many of them. I appreciated his willingness to share his life and spiritual experiences so openly. 

I especially appreciated his emphasis on God speaking through nonhuman beings, since this is often overlooked and undervalued in Western churches. 

I’m Western enough in worldview that it sometimes seems silly, to me, to feel like I sense God speaking through wild animals or plants. Or maybe it’s not even so much that I think it’s silly—I actually think it’s very common, and very sacred and beautiful—but maybe more that I’m sometimes a little embarrassed about it. That is, I worry others will find it silly. 

I appreciate Woodley’s leadership in being willing to put himself out there and say, yes, that eagle is totally a sign. It’s totally God speaking. And it’s real. You might find it silly—but if you do, you’re missing out on so many amazing ways God might be speaking to you.

5) Woodley writes, “Humanity has yet to realize the fact that nature is wiser and more powerful than we are. Nature will, without a doubt, outlive us. She knows her mind, and she understands what keeps life in balance” (p. 17).

This was another thing I hadn’t quite thought about in this way, but when I hear it, it feels true. From Woodley’s perspective, climate change isn’t exactly a threat to the earth—as we might tend to talk about it—so much as it’s a threat to humanity. The earth will be okay, with or without humans. 

It’s almost an image of Earth having to spit humanity out because we aren’t playing well with others—with, as Woodley often calls it, the whole “community of creation.” Earth will be okay—she doesn’t need us. 

So when we fight climate change, we’re fighting for our own survival—for our own place in the interconnected web of creation. And that’s worth fighting for. I would very much like to get to stick around. 

6) I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler, but this is how Woodley sums up the values he’s hoping to teach and reflect on throughout the book: 

“A harmonious worldview. Mutual respect. Generosity. Hospitality. Inclusion. Relatedness to all creation. Cooperation. Wisdom. Humor” (p. 116).

Then again, at the very end of the book, he describes these values a little more:

  • Respect: Respect everyone. Everyone and everything is sacred.
  • Harmony: Seek harmony and cooperation with people and nature.
  • Friendship: Increase the number and depth of your close friends and family.
  • Humor: Laugh at yourself; we are merely human.
  • Equality: Everyone expresses their voice in decisions.
  • Authenticity: Speak from your heart.
  • History: Learn from the past. Live presently by looking back.
  • Balance work and rest: Work hard, but rest well.
  • Generosity: Share what you have with others.
  • Accountability: We are all interconnected. We are all related” (242).

I appreciate this articulation of indigenous values that we can all seek to live by, whether Indigenous or settler. 

These values also strike me as very Jesus-y. By mentioning Jesus so many times, by the way, I don’t mean to say that indigenous values are only valuable if Jesus also taught and lived them. I don’t mean to say that something is only valuable if Christianity affirms and endorses it, or that Christians don’t have things to learn from indigenous worldviews that we might not learn from the Bible alone.

I do mean to say that I think Jesus would be down with this book. Respect, harmony, friendship, humor, equality, authenticity, generosity—these are exactly the things that characterized Jesus’ life. The fact that indigenous thinkers and theologians often have to push back on aspects of the dominant Western Christian worldview says less about how Jesus and indigenous views relate to one another and more about how far removed a lot of the dominant Western Christian worldview is from who Jesus was.

Here’s to moving toward, as Woodley puts it, “heal[ing] ourselves, the Earth, and the whole community of creation” (116). 

As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Super chill book review: Found in Transition (Paria Hassouri, MD)

It’s been a minute (like, six months) since I’ve done a “super chill book review.” But I feel a few of them coming. So watch out! Here’s the first.

This one feels especially relevant in this time of states trying to pass bonkers (and deeply damaging) legislation against supportive and healthy care for trans kids and their families. The book is Found in Transition: A Mother’s Evolution During Her Child’s Gender Change by Paria Hassouri, MD (New World Library, 2020). 

A few random thoughts:

1). I found this book very accessible and illuminating on a topic I don’t know a ton about. I loved Hassouri’s blunt honesty about all of her thoughts and feelings during the first year or so after her thirteen year old kid revealed that she was a girl. 

Talking about LGBTQ realities—and maybe especially trans realities—as someone who doesn’t speak from personal experience can feel difficult and dicey sometimes. I try to tread somewhat carefully; mostly, I try pretty hard not to cause any more harm than has already been (and is still being) caused.

So, I appreciate that Hassouri is a fierce advocate for the trans community and trans families while also super honest about the journey it took her to get there—super honest about the reality that she was not immediately that way.

2). Super cool that Hassouri is both a mom and pediatrician. It was interesting to hear how she was supportive of trans kids and families as part of her work, but it was still so difficult for her when her own daughter came out. It wasn’t so much that she didn’t support trans people in theory, but that she didn’t believe her own child when she came out to her.

It felt different when it was her own kid. Plus, as Hassouri reflects, there was very little relevant training in her medical school and residency programs. So she was still uninformed about a lot of things, even though she’s also a (highly competent and caring, I’m sure) pediatrician.

3). Confession time: Before the last few months, I think the only book I read that focused on transgender experiences was Understanding Gender Dysphoria: Navigating Transgender Issues in a Changing Culture by evangelical clinical psychologist Mark Yarhouse. Would not recommend.

(Well actually, there’s a trans character in Brit Bennett’s novel The Vanishing Half, which I would absolutely recommend—but he isn’t one of the super main characters, so it took me a minute to think of that.)

I hadn’t read much, and what I did read often wasn’t all that great. I felt like parts of Understanding Gender Dysphoria were helpful in terms of understanding how evangelical Christians tend to think about transgender realities, but I would say the book as a whole is more sympathetic to some icky forms of evangelical belief than it is to trans people’s experiences. It also seemed to buy into some understandings of gender roles and gender differences in general that I’m not here for. 

I didn’t like any of this, but I also hadn’t really taken the time and effort to find anything better. So in the last few months it’s been really good for me to read Paula Stone Williams’ memoir As a Woman: What I Learned About Power, Sex, and the Patriarchy After I Transitioned (Atria Books, 2021), Laurie Frankel’s novel This Is How It Always Is (Flatiron Books, 2017), and now Found in Transition.

I didn’t plan it this way, but between these three books, I’ve gotten to learn about three very different kinds of trans experiences. In This is How It Always Is, Poppy knows she’s trans from young childhood; in Found in Transition, Ava realizes she’s trans around puberty; and in As a Woman, Paula transitions in her 60s.

I realize that Hassouri and Frankel are both parents of trans kids (that’s true of Frankel in real life and also true of the main character in her novel)—they aren’t trans people themselves. So I probably have some more work to do. (Recommendations are welcome.)

Still, I’m grateful for the range of different stories. I’m grateful for intimate and honest and nuanced family stories, and for a diversity of perspectives that all feel much more trans-affirming than Understanding Gender Dysphoria.

4). I appreciated how Hassouri connected her own story and her own past to her reactions to her daughter coming out as trans. Hassouri worried SO MUCH about her daughter being bullied if she came out at school—but she also realized that this was because she herself experienced bullying as a young Iranian-American teen at a mostly white school. 

It turned out that Hassouri’s daughter received mostly positive, supportive reactions from her peers—and when people didn’t react positively, she could handle it. It was fully worth it to her, since she got to be who she really was, and there was so much relief and joy in that.

Hassouri’s daughter’s experience had some similarities with Hassouri’s own teenage years, but also so many differences. I appreciate Hassouri’s vulnerability in sharing her own journey to figure that out.

5). Relatedly, I appreciated how Hassouri wrote so openly about her own emotions in general. She writes without shame about the (many) times she cried during that year after her daughter came out, and how some of these tears were shed in public. I like that. I want to join her in destigmatizing freedom of emotional expression. 

Humans are emotional beings. It doesn’t do anyone any good when we try to hide or downplay that, or when we shame others for it. Kudos to Hassouri for leading the way.

6). I was fascinated by Hassouri’s journey from being very suspicious of “the trans agenda” to describing herself now as an advocate for trans people, all within about a year. She was suspicious enough initially that she wasn’t comfortable with her daughter’s first therapist, even though this therapist was wonderful, just because the therapist was transgender.

It took some time, but Hassouri eventually realized that what she once considered the “trans agenda”—not totally unlike, say, the “women’s agenda” at an explicitly patriarchal church…just to use a purely hypothetical example that has nothing to do with my own experiences…—is simply to love and affirm trans people in the fullness of who they are, and to want them to have access to care that will be helpful and not harmful to them.

That’s all I’ve got for now—for me, this was a memoir worth reading! Holler with your thoughts and/or suggestions for further learning.

Y’all don’t need to worry

(31) Therefore y’all may not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?” or, “What will we drink?” or, “How will we be clothed?” (32) For the nations seek out all these things; for y’all’s heavenly father knows that y’all need all these things. 

(33) But (y’all) seek first the kingdom [of God] and its justice, and all these things will be added to y’all. (34) Therefore y’all may not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself; the evil itself (is) enough for the day. -Jesus (Matthew 6:31-34, my translation, emphasis added)

When I was translating these verses from the original Greek, I was struck by the fact that Jesus’ two “do not worry” statements (in bold above, in verses 31 and 34) are in the subjunctive form, not the imperative form. This means that “do not worry,” as it usually appears in English, is not quite a literal translation; a more literal translation would be something like “y’all may not worry,” “y’all should not worry,” “y’all might not worry,” “y’all could not worry,” or something along those lines. 

Since all of the literal (may/should/might/could) options sound a little awkwardperhaps with the exception of “should,” which kind of starts to sound like a command againI would suggest something like “y’all don’t need to worry.” That’s how these verses make sense to me. Jesus’ words are not so much a command as a suggestion, or an invitation. 

Jesus does use the imperative (command) form to tell people not to worry, but only at the very beginning of the whole passage. That’s in v. 25, where he first says, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, or about your body, what you will wear” (NIV). So it’s not that Jesus never straight-up tells people not to worry. But I do think it’s interesting that, by the end of this well-known “do not worry” passage, the tense has changed. The tone has changed.

Jesus isn’t just telling people, do not worry. He’s also giving us reasons why we might not worry. He’s giving us reasons why we perhaps could not worry—that is, hope that we might just have the option, somehow, not to worry. Look at the birds, he says (v. 26). See how the wildflowers grow (v. 28). See how God enrobes them (v. 30). Jesus is giving us reasons why we don’t need to worry. 

Just as Jesus doesn’t just call people little-faith-ones without also doing something to increase their faith, he doesn’t just tell people not to worry without also giving them reasons why it might be possible not to worry. As with the little-faith-ones, it’s less of a chastisement and more of an invitation. 

I hear Jesus asking: What might it be like not to worry? Do you think you could? Why or why not? In the ways it might seem impossible—which are totally legitimate, by the way, and nothing to be ashamed of—maybe I can help.

I like this image of Jesus. He’s the one who reassures us, as often as we need to hear it, that there is hopethat there is the possibility of freedom from the worries that consume us, the anxieties that immobilize us, the stresses that eat away at us. The way of Jesus is a way of peace, of rest, of heavy burdens made light (Matt 11:28-30).

I think of The Nap MinistryI’ve been enjoying following them on Instagram (@thenapministry). As Tricia Hersey, creator of The Nap Ministry, writes, “you are not a machine. You are a divine human being.” We were not made to run around worrying about everything all the time. Life is more than that.

The way of Jesus is a way of pushing back against the forces that tell us to go and go and do and do. (That’s what this prayer on stillness is about.) It’s a way of liberation from our society’s nasty habit of defining our worth by the quantity of things we produce and consume. It’s a way of knowing our value as God’s children, full stop.

How does it change things for you, to hear Jesus say not just do not worry but also you don’t need to worry—or, perhaps, you have permission not to worry? How does that feel? What’s life-giving about it, or challengingor totally offensive because there are so many legitimate things to worry about? I’d love to hear!

English is limited, God is not: Reflections on “they/them” pronouns for God

I was interested to see Chloe Specht’s article “Actually, ‘They’ is a Beautiful Pronoun for God” published in Sojourners on the same day that I finished teaching a three-week class on “feminine God-talk” at my church. In this class, in the course of talking about feminine imagery, metaphors, pronouns, and other ways of thinking about God, we also touched on the possibilities of “they/them” as pronouns for God. 

Specht does a great job of reflecting on the possibilities for God as “they.” I’d recommend her article, and I also have a few thoughts to add.

Specht mentions that “some have recently argued” that “‘He’ and ‘him’ are the only acceptable pronouns for God”—for example, in this bummer of a Christianity Today article. I agree with Specht that the fact that we get mostly masculine pronouns for God in most English Bible translations is “insufficient evidence for such a definitive conclusion.”

I’d also take this a step further to say that, really, any time we start talking about the “only acceptable” anything for God, I think we’re on the wrong track. I’m not against using masculine pronouns to refer to God. I am against the dogmatically exclusive use of masculine pronouns. I’m against the general claim that God is only what we already understand God to be, and not something else also. 

Do we really know what God does and doesn’t consider acceptable when it comes to God’s identity? Often, when we think we do know these things—and especially when we’re totally sure of them—we’re really just putting God in a box. We’re acting like we know everything about God—like God can never surprise us, like God can never do anything unexpected or turn out to be anyone unexpected.

To me, that sounds like a sure sign that we’re worshiping an idol, not the actual God who created us. The “idol” language might sound harsh. But isn’t that what we’re doing when we define God’s only acceptable pronouns, or God’s only acceptable anything? We’re creating boundaries for God rather than letting God be God in all the surprising forms this may take.

I know my vision of God has expanded dramatically over time. God has blown through a lot of the boxes I used to put God in. I’m sure, or at least I hope, that God will continue to do so. And this is a good thing. 

Jesus was always expanding people’s categories of who God is, whom God loves, whom God centers, what God will and will not do. Jesus was always doing unexpected things that lifted up the marginalized, promoted justice, and drove religious people bonkers because of all the things they thought they knew. Why would God be any different today?

I also appreciate Specht’s note about ruach, a feminine word in Hebrew that’s used in the Bible to refer to God’s Spirit. I would also add that the Greek word used for God’s Spirit in the New Testament is πνευμα, which is neuter. To the extent that grammatical gender has something to do with actual gender—which I don’t think is always a good assumption, but it seems to come up a lot in conversations about the Bible and pronouns and God and such, so let’s talk about it—God’s Spirit is a “she” in Hebrew, and God’s Spirit is a sort of an “it” in Greek. But a very personal kind of “it.” One might say, perhaps, a singular “they.”

It feels important to talk about what’s at stake here. We can argue about what the Bible does and doesn’t say about God and gender, and that’s part of the equation. But the fact that these debates are still happening implies that this is an area where biblical interpretation could go in a number of different directions. This invites us into deeper thought, beyond the assumptions we might make or the doctrines we have been taught. 

When what the Bible says and what to make of it are ambiguous, we are more clearly able to see that the way we read the Bible is informed by all sorts of things outside the Bible itself. We come to scripture bringing all of who we are. We bring our family backgrounds, our theological backgrounds, our cultures and ethnicities and gender identities and personalities and languages and the norms of our faith communities. And we have choices. 

Ultimately, we bring our people with us. And if these people include non-male people—that is, women and non-binary people—which I very much hope they do, we can choose to make room for all of these people. We can choose to read scripture in ways that help people of all gender identities see themselves in it. We can choose to read scripture in ways that honor all people, that help all people know they’re valuable and loved. 

Incorporating “they/them” pronouns into our language about God may help. I can attest that, as a woman, hearing “she/her” pronouns for God helps me feel seen and valued. I don’t need this all the time. I’m very happy with a balanced mix of “he,” “she,” “they,” and whatever other beautiful ways people come up with to speak of God. But when God comes across through people’s language as solely masculine, I feel othered. I feel like I’m considered less of an image bearer. 

I want all people to know—to really, deeply know—that they are created in God’s image. And I love that “they/them” pronouns for God just might help non-binary people know that—and help whole communities better embrace the gender diversity in their midst.

Ultimately, any and all human language for God—especially when we limit ourselves to just one language, as we do when we talk about what is and isn’t possible in English—falls short. It’s totally inadequate in the face of our triune Creator, whom we see only in part and know only in part (1 Cor 13:9-12). We are like Ezekiel trying to describe his vision of angels, and the best he can do is talk about wheels and eyes, so many eyes (e.g. Ezekiel 1:1-21). 

No English pronoun does justice to all of who God is. Why limit ourselves to just one? If “she” pronouns or “they” pronouns or other pronouns in other languages help us express something about the different aspects of who God is, why not use them?

Change can be difficult. But it can also be good. It can also be necessary. The Christian tradition has always needed to continually reform itself. After all, every generation gets some things wrong, and every generation has things that seem to work for them but then make zero sense to the generation who comes after them. I don’t think God feels threatened by these changes. 

I want to worship a God who resists all the boxes I try to put God in. I want to worship a God who is always centering people on the margins, always moving—and moving us—toward more expansive visions of justice and true inclusion. I want to worship a God who is bigger than anything I could imagine, anything I could place boundaries around.

If expanding our sense of what God’s pronouns might be helps us move beyond the boxes and toward this unbounded God, I’m all for it.

I could be a little-faith-one

It’s been a minute (or more precisely, about a month) since I’ve posted a reflection on the “do not worry” passage in Matthew 6:25-34, but I know you’ve missed them. So here’s another!

(30) And if God so enrobes the grass of the field, which is today, and tomorrow is thrown into a furnace, (will he) not much more y’all, little-faith-ones? -Jesus (Matthew 6:30, my translation)

As far as I can tell, ὀλιγόπιστος—the Greek word often translated as “you of little faith”—is a word Jesus made up. It’s only used five times in the New Testament, and each of these times it’s spoken by Jesus. (Two of these uses—Matthew 6:30 and Luke 12:28—are the same teaching of Jesus in different gospels.)

Just because it’s fun—and by fun, I mean potentially helpful in terms of seeing familiar texts in fresh ways—to offer alternative translations that are a little different from the norm, I’m going to refer to this word (ὀλιγόπιστος) as little-faith-ones

When we hear Jesus say “you of little faith”—or y’all little-faith-ones, if you will—we might hear this as a bit of an insult, or at least a chastisement. Y’all don’t have enough faith. Why don’t you have more faith? I can’t believe you don’t have more faith. Bad, bad, bad.

I want to challenge that. For one thing, there’s another Greek word (ἄπιστος: “without faith”) that means something more like “faithless.” When Jesus uses ὀλιγόπιστος, then, he isn’t calling people faithless. He isn’t saying that the people he’s talking to have no faith. He’s just saying they have little faith. It’s much gentler. 

What I really like, though—even more than the fact that little-faith-ones sounds nicer than faithless ones—is the pattern I see throughout the gospels when Jesus calls people little-faith-ones. I’m looking at what Jesus does right after he uses this word. 

In Matthew 8:26, Jesus is with some disciples in a boat, and a storm comes up. Jesus is obliviously sleeping through the storm while the boat looks like it’s about to sink. The disciples wake Jesus, saying “Lord, save us! We’re going to drown!”—to which Jesus replies, “Little-faith-ones, why are you so afraid?”

But Jesus doesn’t just stop there. He gets right up, rebukes the winds and waves, and makes the formerly-stormy sea completely calm. 

In Matthew 14:31, then, the disciples are in a boat again (this time without Jesus), and in the wee pre-dawn hours of the morning Jesus comes walking across the lake to meet them. At Jesus’ invitation, Peter hops out of the boat and briefly walks on water himself—before realizing that this is absolutely terrifying, at which point he starts to sink. Jesus says to Peter, “You little-faith-one, why did you doubt?”

And as he says this, Jesus is also reaching out his hand and catching Peter. He doesn’t let Peter keep sinking. He helps him make it back to the boat and climb back in. 

In Matthew 16:8—the third and final time little-faith-ones is used outside of the “God enrobes the grass” teaching—the disciples misunderstand something Jesus says about the yeast of the Pharisees. They start talking instead about how they didn’t bring any bread. Jesus says, “Little-faith-ones, why are you talking among yourselves about having no bread?” 

And then he reminds them about that one time when he fed five thousand people with five loaves of bread, and that other time when he fed four thousand people with seven loaves.

It turns out that Jesus doesn’t just call people little-faith-ones and then leave them there in their little-faith-ness. He calls them that, and then he immediately does something that just might increase their faith. He calms the storm. He lifts Peter out of the water. He reminds everyone that he can feed multitudes with just a few small loaves of bread.

Maybe little-faith-ones isn’t so much a chastisement as an invitation to a more expansive faith. An invitation to watch God do something that seemed impossible. An invitation to remember what God has done in the past that amazed and inspired us. 

After all, this same Jesus tells the disciples, “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move” (Matthew 17:20, NIV). Jesus isn’t looking for big flashy faith. He’s looking for little mustard-seed-sized bits of faith, with an openness to more. 

I like that, because it seems doable. I could be a little-faith-one. I am a little-faith-one. And that seems to be cool with Jesus. God can work with that.

God enrobes the grass of the field, and God takes care of the little-faith-ones like you and me. 

This is part of what Jesus means when he invites us not to worry (Matt 6:25). This is Jesus’ invitation to a brave and expansive faith that can’t help but start out the size of a mustard seed. God loves us little-faith-ones and moves in response to the little faith that we have. 

Thoughts about being a little-faith-one? Do you find it freeing? Inviting? Insulting? Intriguing? Holler in the comments, via email, or otherwise!

God lifts the lowly: reflections on Mary’s song

46 “My soul magnifies the Lord,

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.

 Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

50 His mercy is for those who fear him

from generation to generation.

51 He has shown strength with his arm;

 he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.

52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,

and lifted up the lowly;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things,

and sent the rich away empty.

54 He has helped his servant Israel,

in remembrance of his mercy,

55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.” -Mary (Luke 1:46-55, NRSV)

In these verses, Mary breaks out into a song often known as the Magnificat. To me, Mary’s song is kind of what Christmas is all about. So, with Christmas pretty much here, I thought I’d offer some reflections on this songadapted from a sermon I wrote for a preaching class back in the day (well, three and a half years ago) in seminary.

When Mary breaks out in spontaneous song, in rich prophetic poetry, she starts with her own situation. I imagine how she might have been feeling: 

God―the God of the universe and of my ancestors―God has visited me! Out of the blue. I thought I knew God, loved God, wanted to serve God, but I never would have imagined this. God has chosen me for an incredible and miraculous task. Me! Not someone older and wiser, or from a rich family, or from Jerusalem, the center of everything, or at least a nice little suburb of it. God chose me.

“My soul magnifies the Lord” and “my spirit rejoices.” I feel my whole being bursting forth in irrepressible praise of this God. This God is Lord―powerful, authoritative. This God is Savior―the one who sees those who suffer, and delivers them and sets them free. And this God―Lord and Savior―has looked with favor on me! 

God is doing something. The angel talked about a kingdom with no end. The throne of David. This is big! And I get to be a part of it. Surely all generations will call me blessed. 

This is a great thing. This is a holy God.

Mary reflects on her own situation and praises God from the bottom of her heart for God’s work in her life. That’s all in verses 46-49. 

Then, around verse 50, something changes. The scope gets broader. Mary starts talking about what all this means about God in general. From generation to generation. About God’s character. About what God does in the world. 

Mary says that God is merciful. God is strong. God is powerful. God helps. God remembers. God keeps promises. God lifts up, and God brings down.

Mary starts talking about other people, too. In particular, two kinds of people. On the one hand, we have those who are lowly, those who fear God, those who are hungry. On the other hand, we have those who are proud in their hearts, those who are powerful, those who are rulers, those who are rich. This is how the world is. 

But for Mary, this is not how things remain. God reverses the expected order of things. God does not leave the lowly down low, but lifts them up. God does not leave the hungry starving, but fills them with good things. God does not leave those who fear God without help or without mercy. 

And God does not leave the proud to think they’re all that; God scatters them. God does not leave the rulers in their thrones; God brings them down. God does not leave the rich thinking they have everything because they have money; God sends them away empty. 

Mary is full of hope and bursting with joy and good news. She bursts into song! 

But is this good news to us? Maybe? Maybe a mixed bag. 

It depends: Who are we in this passage? Are we the lowly who are lifted up by God, or are we the powerful who are scattered by God? How do we know? How do we feel about this total reversal of power and money and status? 

Let’s talk about the rich, proud, and powerful first. Are there ways in which we fall into this category? One way of thinking about this may be to think about what we feel entitled to. What are our expectations for life? For how people and systems and the world will treat us? What kinds of things are we surprised, or bitter, or disappointed not to get?

Our expectations and entitlements can take many shapes. Perhaps we’ve felt entitled to be offered a job we applied for. Maybe we expect to get an A on a paper when we spend a lot of time on it. We might feel entitled to get a raise if we’ve been working hard, or for our kid to be accepted to a certain college if they’ve been working hard. We might expect that if we invest wisely, the stock market will generally go up and make us some money. Perhaps we have enjoyed good physical health and assume we always will, or we have not had any mental health issues and assume we never will. 

Maybe life is going well. Perhaps we are among the people favored by the way the world works, and we expect that that will continue.

When we’re in this place, and things are going well, the kind of reversal of expectations that we see in our passage does not sound like good news. It can be offensive. It can be threatening. It up-ends the social order that has benefited us. What are we to think of a God who brings down the powerful and lifts up the lowly?

Maybe a first step is to try to enter into the experience of people who may be or may feel lowly, hungry, or poor.

In our culture sometimes we separate out things like physical hunger and thirst and poverty from spiritual hunger and spiritual needs. In Mary’s time and culture, in Mary’s worldview, all of these things tended to go together. Mary lived in poverty among a minority people, a minority ethnic and religious group, oppressed by a very powerful and often ruthless empire. For Mary, the lowly are those who fear God, and those who fear God are the hungry, and those who are hungry are Israel, the servant of God, and Israel is the community that needs God’s help and mercy. 

These are the people at the bottom of the social order. The people who know they need God to do something.

What does it mean in our time and place for people to be lowly? Are there ways in which we identify with the lowly, the humble, the hungry?

Some of us might be underpaid, or undervalued. We may feel that we’ve failed in some way, or that life has not treated us well. Some of us belong to groups that are considered lowly or are not treated well in our society―perhaps groups based on gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, language, citizenship status, mental health status, socioeconomic class. 

God lifts up the lowly and brings down the proud. 

God affirmed and lifted up the dignity of a peasant girl from the middle of nowhere in Nazareth. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of underpaid employees. God affirms and lifts up the dignity of people working in all sorts of professions that might be undervalued, maybe even considered lacking in dignity: of people who take out trash, and drive buses, and clean buildings, and flip burgers, and wait tables. 

God affirms and lifts up the worth and value of people who do not have a job, who are unemployed or underemployed. God affirms and lifts up people who don’t have adequate housing, or who don’t have housing at all. 

God affirms and lifts up people who live in fear of deportation. God affirms and lifts up communities of color who are on the receiving end of racism and violence―from individuals, and from government systems that are not set up in their favor. 

God lifts up the lowly.

Mary says, surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed. Mary―a young woman from the rural underclass of society, in a time when women’s testimonies were not considered valid in court―raises her voice and testifies to this God who lifts up the lowly. 

Mary knows that God fills up the hungry with good things. The world honors and lifts up those who have money and power and self-assurance, but God honors and lifts up those who are hungry, and lowly, small, and humble. Mary knows that this is who God is, because this is who God has been to her―and because there is something about the baby she carries that brings hope. 

Jesus brings hope. The child of God chose to be carried and birthed and raised by Mary. He chose to be born into poverty in the middle of nowhere, born lowly. He identified with hungry and hurting people wherever he went.

God chose to become flesh and dwell with us, in the incarnation, in Jesus. God’s incarnation shows us the kind of kingdom that has come and is coming. It is a different kind of order from the social orders we have now. Jesus shows us that God lifts up the lowly. That there is justice. That there is unexpected reversal. That there is mercy. That there is hope.

In the ways in which you identify with the lowly, how might you lift up your voice like Mary and give glory to this God? To see and join in the ways God is lifting you up and lifting up those around you? To speak about your reality and about justice and about God’s mercy? 

In the ways in which you identify with the powerful, are you ready to listen to the lowly ones God raises up? To be in relationship with people for whom life has been an uphill battle rather than smooth sailing? To live in a way that bears witness to the truth that there is more to life than wealth and power and fame? To see and join in with God’s work of lifting up the lowly?

God lifts up the lowly. God is merciful. There is hope for us all.

Wishing you a joyful, omicron-free Christmas. And stay tuned―I plan to be back next week with some of my favorite books from 2021.

Super chill book review: Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story (Julie Rodgers)

First, I’d just like to take credit real quick(-ish) for the fact that the King County Library System now has Julie Rodgers’ memoir Outlove: A Queer Christian Survival Story in their system. Woohoo! This is the first book I’ve requested that the library actually purchased, so it was a very exciting moment for me. 

Also, not only did the library purchase Outlove, but they purchased a whopping FOUR copies of it—and now there are no less than ten holds on those four copies! (Okay, fine, I suppose it’s possible that some of those other people who now have holds on the book also requested that the library buy it…so maybe it wasn’t just me. But I can still take credit.)

Anyhow, I tore through Outlove. Like, in a good way. It was hard to put down. I found Rodgers’ story riveting. 

Her story of coming of age as a queer evangelical Christian is a difficult one, but super important—and also, at least to me, in many ways redemptive. I’m grateful for her willingness to share her journey.

A few random thoughts:

1) Outlove is a story about Rodgers’ experience of youth and young adulthood as a gay person, specifically, in (evangelical) Christian contexts. And it’s also about more than that.

I was struck by how much of her reflection and critique applies to conservative evangelical Christianity more generally—her story is specific to her queerness, but there was also so much I could relate to from being part of the same systems. 

I think anyone who has experienced a significant shift in belief system—particularly a shift away from what Rodgers would call more fundamentalist types of Christianity—would relate to a ton of this book. (Not that reading an awesome memoir from a thoughtful queer person of faith shouldn’t be enough reason to read!)

Rodgers writes, for example, “Fundamentalism was a coherent system that dictated my life to me: it told me who I was and how I was to live, every moment of every day. It gave me a rulebook that laid out a path for me to be objectively good. When one part of the system was called into question, it brought up a series of related questions that threatened to bring the whole house down. The foundation upon which my life and identity were built began to shake, and I couldn’t cope with the thought that the whole house—everything I believed to be true and all the relationships that held me together—might come crashing down” (p. 55).

Yup, pretty much. You start to pull at one thread that doesn’t seem quite right, and before you know it, the whole thing starts unraveling. 

Or, alternatively, you poke with curiosity at an interesting-looking piece of rock, and end up waking a very large sleeping troll that then lunges right at you with all of its terrifying weight—when you had reasonably thought it was just a mound of boulders and you were safe. (I just made that analogy up. You’re welcome?)

There’s something appealing about feeling like you have all the answers to everything. Unfortunately, that’s just not true. For any of us. And probably especially for those of us who tend to think we have all the answers to everything.

I think there’s something beautiful in the mystery of not knowing things—of having to figure things out, together, in community, with the humility that should probably come with being human. But it’s difficult, too. Especially when you’ve been steeped in a belief system that tells you you’re supposed to know things. (And that this knowing things is what makes it a good belief system in the first place—better than all the other belief systems out there. You know, the mindset that we have the answers to everyone’s questions about all the things; we have the whole grasp on the truth that everyone needs.)

2) I hope this next quote isn’t too much of a spoiler. But I guess it isn’t exactly a secret that, when Rodgers was in her tweens and twenties, she was a key spokesperson for gay conversion groups (the kind that try to make gay people straight), including the now-defunct Exodus International. And it also isn’t a secret that she no longer thinks these kinds of groups are a fantastic idea. 

This is how she reflects on some of these experiences:

“The final Exodus conference took place exactly ten years after my first one. For the first half of my time in ex-gay ministry, I would say I was a true believer in the process. The second half was a long quest to escape. First, I tried to run away and then dragged myself back like a scared child returning to an abusive home. For the last couple of years, I fought for freedom for myself and my friends by trying to change the organization from within.

I was, at times, manipulated. At other points, complicit. And in the end, I was brave. It’s tempting to try to squeeze my years in conversion therapy into one of those categories. It would help me locate myself on the spectrum of good and evil. But life isn’t always that tidy. Many of us find ourselves, at various points, a victim, a villain, and a champion.

I’m learning to have compassion for my younger self―not just the sixteen-year-old who knew she had no good options but also the twenty-four-year-old who kept smiling for the cameras, despite her misgivings. This compassion for all the different versions of myself opens me up to have mercy on those I place squarely in the evil category today. Perhaps they’re also victims of a system they have not yet seen for what it truly is. It’s not too late for any of us to change” (p. 82).

I appreciated Rodgers’ resistance to a single narrative of this complicated time in her life. Sometimes manipulated, sometimes complicit, sometimes brave—this feels like it kind of sums up many well-intentioned people’s involvement in manipulative, controlling, and otherwise shitty systems. (Hopefully moving more toward the “brave” part as time goes on; and hopefully, as Rodgers eventually did, getting out when needed.)

Also, Rodgers is SO GRACIOUS. After everything she’s been through in the conservative evangelical world. Compassion for our younger selves, as well as compassion for people doing evil things today—which doesn’t excuse the evil things but does recognize the complicated humans behind them—these strike me as things to aspire to.

3. Rodgers writes, “I wanted someone to acknowledge how shitty it was for people to debate about LGBTQ people as if it were a sport” (p. 124). 

Right?? 

It’s easy to sit around and debate about things that don’t directly impact your life. But I guess I know—you know, mostly from sitting through far too many debates about women in ministry—that, when the thing being debated impacts your life (like, a lot), it’s not a sport. And nothing that impacts anyone else like that should be a sport either.

What is this, anyway—the idea that we can tear literal life-and-death questions out of their embodied context and toss them up in the air to be batted around for fun like beach balls? (I just thought of that metaphor, too. Must be on a roll. Like a beach ball? Sorry.) But really. Nothing good comes from pretending that there’s this purely intellectual realm that can be divorced from actual people’s actual lives.

4. Having heard a few “slippery slope” arguments in my day, I appreciate these reflections:

“The problem with the ‘slippery slope’ analogy is that it implies we’re at the top of the mountain. My friend Peter Choi, a historian and pastor, notes that the analogy assumes we have the truth, the moral high ground, and that any shift toward a different perspective is downward movement. The metaphor doesn’t leave much room for humility, where we consider the possibility that people with different perspectives might be right about some things and we might be wrong or that we might both be a little right, in different ways. I needed a framework that accounted for the ways we might be wrong, especially after bearing witness to the suffering queer people experienced in Christian communities” (p. 127).

When I interned with Fuller Youth Institute (FYI), I attended an FYI-hosted conference for megachurch leaders who wanted to do better in youth ministry. One of the speakers, a Fuller professor, stood up in front of all of them and said something like this: “Have you ever changed your mind? About anything, ever? If so, that means that you were wrong about something, at some point. Do you think it’s possible, then, that you might change your mind again in the future? And that this means that something you believe now is wrong?”

I could see the wheels turning and the minds in the room being blown. It was fascinating. And terrifying. To be fair, I didn’t know these Big and Important Megachurch Pastors personally, so maybe I shouldn’t read too much into their nonverbal reactions to this professor’s words. But it really did feel like many of them were just considering for the first time that *gasp* they might currently be wrong about something. Yikes.

I like what Rodgers writes about considering the possibility that you and someone you disagree with might “both be a little right, in different ways.” It’s not always just that someone’s right and someone’s wrong (and we could be either of those people at any given moment!), but also that we all know some things, and we all have some things to learn from one another.

(Thus, community! Ideally, community with people who are different from us in a variety of ways.)

5. Rodgers reflects, “I was seen as one of a handful of unicorn gays who would parrot conservative views and shield them from accusations of homophobia. When Gabe [Lyons] introduced me to his circles and Wheaton hired me, I naively believed their hearts were softening toward the queer community and that they wanted to make room for us.

After nine months of roundtable discussions with Christian leaders, consultations with board members at Christian organizations, and meetings with administrators at Evangelical colleges, I was convinced their acceptance of people like me was a political strategy. Not only did gay people with conservative theology guard them against accusations of discrimination, but we also served as convenient mouthpieces. By inviting us into leadership roles, our presence allowed them to ignore the claims of the greater LGBTQ community that said Evangelical theology and institutional policies were harmful to queer people” (p. 160-161).

Well, there isn’t a lot of sugar-coating going on here. And it also rings absolutely true. 

Not to say that there aren’t evangelical hearts softening toward the queer community. I absolutely believe there are. I know there are, because I know some of these people whose hearts are softening or have been softened. And I also know because I have been one of them.

It’s a different story, though, for conservative leaders who just keep doubling down on their anti-gay stances—who keep ignoring and downplaying the suffering their views are causing, keep trying to discredit those who disagree, and keep trying to use conservative queer people as “convenient mouthpieces” to “guard them against accusations of discrimination.” This is all definitely (still) a thing.

There’s so much in this book. As usual, I’ve really only scratched the surface of it. I’m grateful for Rodgers’ bravery, insight, and thoughtfulness—and for the way she approaches her story with so much compassion toward others while also pulling zero punches about what happened and how she reflects on it now. Give it a read!

Super chill book review: Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America (Ijeoma Oluo)

Well, it seems that I took a *totally intentional* hiatus from blogging for most of August. But I’m back, woohoo, with super chill book reviews and more. (Hopefully, more = poems, scripture reflections, prayers, sermons. We’ll see.) 

For now, I’m excited to share some quotes and general brilliance from Ijeoma Oluo’s 2020 book Mediocre: The Dangerous Legacy of White Male America.

This is one of my favorite nonfiction books I’ve read so far this year. I’ll probably make a list of top recommendations at the end of 2021; I’m not sure what all will be on it, but I know this one will.  

I’m also a fan of Oluo’s 2018 book So You Want to Talk About Race. For me, Mediocre takes the awesomeness a big step further. I’m here for it. 

Here are a few quotes and other tidbits from Mediocre that stood out to me.

1. The central idea of Mediocre, at least the way I see it, is that there are certain ways of being, certain qualities we admire and perhaps aspire to—or, if not admire, then at least recognize as things that tend to get people “ahead” in our society, land people in leadership positions, etc.—that are actually anything but desirable. These characteristics are far from healthy and good for individuals. And they’re far from conducive to the wellbeing of our society as a whole. 

This really resonated with me. I feel like I’ve seen it and felt it, in everything from politics on a national level to people who have been influential in my circles more personally. 

Oluo does a great job of pinpointing what some of these qualities are, and why they’re counterproductive. I appreciate how she ties these qualities to both patriarchy and white supremacy—or, as Oluo puts it, to “white male supremacy.” I think this is a useful term, because it helps us see that everything is interconnected. Misogyny and racism are so deeply intertwined. And we need to recognize this, if we want to have any hope of untangling and detoxing from…everything.

Some memorable quotes, to this end:

While we would like to believe otherwise, it is usually not the cream that rises to the top: our society rewards behaviors that are actually disadvantageous to everyone. Studies have shown that the traits long considered signs of strong leadership (like overconfidence and aggression) are in reality disastrous in both business and politics—not to mention the personal toll this style of leadership takes on the individuals around these leaders. These traits are broadly considered to be masculine, whereas characteristics often associated with weakness or lack of leadership (patience, accommodation, cooperation) are coded as feminine. This is a global phenomenon of counterproductive values that social scientists have long marveled over.

The man who never listens, who doesn’t prepare, who insists on getting his way—this is a man that most of us would not (when given friendlier options) like to work with, live with, or be friends with.

And yet we have, as a society, somehow convinced ourselves that we should be led by incompetent assholes (p. 10).

No lies detected there.

As I looked back through our history, I started to see patterns. I started to see how time and again, anything perceived as a threat to white manhood has been attacked, no matter how necessary that new person or idea may have been to our national progress. I started to see how reliably the bullying and entitlement we valued in our leaders led to failure. These are traits that we tell our children are bad, but when we look at who our society actually rewards, we see that these are the traits we have actively cultivated (p. 12).

I feel that. Most people don’t want their kids, or the people they love in general, to be “incompetent assholes” who operate in ways marked by “bullying and entitlement.” But I totally agree that these traits are rewarded—you know, if you’re into things like promotions, fancy job titles, high salaries, success in your field, and the like.

The hard truth is, the characteristics that most companies, including boards, shareholders, managers, and employees, correlate with people who are viewed as ‘leadership material’—traits most often associated with white male leaders—are actually bad for business. The aggression and overconfidence that are seen as ‘strength and leadership’ can cause leaders to take their companies down treacherous paths, and the attendant encounters with disaster could be avoided by exercising caution or by accepting input from others. These same qualities also mask shortfalls in skills, knowledge, or experience and may keep leaders from acknowledging mistakes and changing course when needed. They prevent healthy business partnerships and collaborative work environments. These traits can and do spell disaster for many businesses (p. 182).

Oluo backs these kinds of statements up with all sorts of insights from history and present-day experiences throughout the book. I appreciate that. It’s definitely worth a read.

They’re also statements that, to me at least, just feel true. I realize that this feeling is subjective, and we aren’t always right about these things. (Brett Kavanaugh’s nonsense about judging the “truthiness” of his claims vs Dr. Blasey Ford’s claims during his confirmation hearings back in 2018 comes to mind, and it still makes my blood boil.) But still. I think many of us have felt what Oluo is saying and have experienced it viscerally. If nothing else, we’re still reeling from the extreme example we saw in our four years of Trump.

Oluo puts words so well to what I think many of us—especially those on the underside of power structures—know in our gut.

2. Oluo brings out the idea that a lot of the things that seem so wrong (and are so wrong) with the U.S. are actually, as others have put it, features, not bugs. A lot of the things that seem shocking, like they should be unusual, are actually just evidence of a shitty system working as designed.

Oluo writes: 

What we are seeing in our political climate is not novel or unexplainable. It works according to design. Yes, of course the average white man is going to feel dissatisfied with his lot in life—he was supposed to. Yes, of course our powerful and respected men would be shown to be abusers and frauds—that is how they became powerful and respected. And yes, the average white male voter (and a majority of white women voters whose best chance at power is their proximity to white men) would see a lewd, spoiled, incompetent, untalented bully as someone who best represents their vision of America—he does (pp. 11-12).

This might sound harsh. But it also sounds about right to me.

I’m hoping we can move, together, beyond the “this is not the America I know!” reaction to various bad things the U.S. and its politicians do. I’m hoping we can move toward a realization that, downer though it may be, this is exactly the America that lots and lots of people on the margins have always known. 

We need to be able to see the way things were designed, and not be in denial about it, if we’re actually going to change anything.

3. Another memorable quote: 

Even for those who will never don a cowboy hat, the idea of a white man going it alone against the world has stuck. It is one of the strongest identifiers of American culture and politics, where cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy—to be stolen from or conquered. The devastation that the mythological cowboy of the West has wreaked did not stop with the extermination of the buffalo. It may not stop until it has destroyed everything (p. 45).

First, omg, the story Oluo tells about the buffalo. It turns out that white men going West to kill buffalo back in the day wasn’t just a dumb, violent-toward-animals, shortsighted, hypermasculinist thing. It was also—primarily—the government’s attempt to destroy indigenous peoples whose lives were interwoven with the buffalo herds. That got me in all the feels. Lord, have mercy.

Second, I may not be a white dude, but I think part of me has internalized the competitive, go-it-alone mindset, where “cooperation is weakness and others are the enemy.” Yikes. 

I want to learn to be my best self in a way that helps others be their best selves too. I want to recognize and live out of the reality that we really are stronger together. The point is not to be better than others, but to figure out how to live in whole, healthy communities together. 

I’m not always there. No matter how many times I might say these things, and how deeply I believe them, there’s still something in me that wants to compete. (In an individualistic, unhealthy way, that is—not just, say, in a swim meet, or a 5k. Speaking of which, Burien Brat Trot, anyone?)

4. Sorry for the long quote. But not really sorry, because it’s a good one:

The idea that women were not made for work is only true to the extent that men have ensured that work was not made for women. Men have designed offices that don’t suit women’s needs, have established work hours that compete with child-rearing, have developed education and training programs that regularly discourage women’s aspirations in male-dominated fields, have formed mentoring and networking relationships on golf courses and in clubs, places where women are not welcome or comfortable—or sometimes even allowed.

Men have used these deliberately structured environments to prove why women are naturally ‘not a fit’ for the workplace. Nursing mothers who cannot work in spaces that don’t accommodate breast pumps are ‘obviously not that interested in the job.’ Women who need flexible hours to care for children, in a society that still expects women to do the majority of child-rearing regardless of employment status, ‘lack the work ethic necessary to put in the hours needed for the job.’ Women who have always loved math but were told from primary school on that they would be better at English and art than science and engineering ‘must not be interested in STEM.’ And men who make all their business connections at the country club or through their old fraternity buddies ‘just haven’t come across any women who are as qualified for a job at their company as men.’

As promotion after promotion goes to men, as men are encouraged to start businesses and women aren’t, as men flow into fields that are more open to them, the definition of an ideal worker and leader becomes even more stereotypically male—even if those ‘ideal’ traits and skills are not the most beneficial (pp. 153-4).

Yeah, that feels right. Not sure I have much to add. Maybe just that I really appreciate the intersectionality of Oluo’s analyses in general. I feel like she really gets at the realities of race and gender each in their own right, very effectively—sometimes focusing on gender, like in the quote above, and sometimes on race. And she’s also very effective in getting at the connections between them. 

5. I think Oluo has a lot of grace and empathy for white dudes, and I appreciate that. They’re not all bad—but they are stuck, as all of us are, in a toxic white male supremacist system.

To me, Oluo strikes a great balance of sympathizing with the situation white men are in—and the ways our society is toxic to them, too—while also not letting them off the hook for the things they are responsible for.

Another long but good quote (again, sorry / not sorry):

White male identity is a very dark place. White men have been told that they should be fulfilled, happy, successful, and powerful, and they are not. They are missing something vital—an intrinsic sense of self that is not tied to how much power or success they can hold over others—and that hole is eating away at them. I can only imagine how desolately lonely it must feel to only be able to relate to other human beings through conquer and competition…

I don’t want this for white men. I don’t want it for any of us…We have become convinced that there is only one way for white men to be. We are afraid to imagine something better.

I do not believe that these white men are born wanting to dominate. I do not believe they are born unable to feel empathy for people who are not them…I believe that we are all perpetrators and victims of one of the most evil and insidious social constructs in Western history: white male supremacy.

The constraints of white male identity in America have locked white men into cycles of fear and violence—where the only success they are allowed comes at the expense of others, and the only feelings they are allowed to express are triumph or rage. When white men try to break free from these cycles, they are ostracized by society at large or find themselves victims of other white men who are willing to fulfill their expected roles of dominance…

We need to do more than just break free of the oppression of white men. We also have to imagine a white manhood that is not based in the oppression of others. We have to value the empathy, kindness, and cooperation that white men, as human beings, are capable of. We have to define strength and leadership in ways that don’t reinforce abusive patriarchy and white supremacy. We have to be honest about what white male supremacy has cost not only women, nonbinary people, and people of color—but also white men (pp. 273-5).

Curious to hear white dudes’ (or anyone’s) thoughts on this. I like the sentiment of wanting better for all of us, including white men. White guys aren’t the devil. They just tend to be socialized to play a particular role in an evil construct; and, to the extent that they refuse to play that role, they’re often penalized for it. That makes sense to me. 

Grateful for Oluo’s leadership in naming all these things and imagining a different way. 

Holler if you read the book (or not) and let me know what you think!