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.

Troubled (White) Consciences

At that time Herod the tetrarch heard the reports about Jesus, and he said to his attendants, “This is John the Baptist; he has risen from the dead! That is why miraculous powers are at work in him.” (Matthew 14:1-2)

Guilty conscience, much?

King Herod hears that there’s this guy named Jesus who is going around teaching, telling stories, healing, casting out demons, and generally doing all kinds of miracles. (From what Herod says about miraculous powers at work, it sounds like he mostly cares about the miracles, not so much about the teachings.) Herod hears these things and immediately thinks of John the Baptist―the guy he had imprisoned and then killed. Some new prophet-type person is gathering a following and doing supernatural things? Oh no, it must be John! There’s no other explanation for it.

John the Baptist troubled people’s consciences during his life, and it seems that he is still troubling people’s consciences―or at least one person’s conscience―even after his death.

While John was living, he stirred up the consciences of many crowds of people, telling them they needed to repent and be baptized; and he tried to provoke the consciences of the religious leaders by calling them a brood of vipers (Matthew 3). Later on, as we’ll see in the next few verses of Matthew 14, John troubled Herod’s conscience by telling him it was not lawful for him to have his brother’s wife.

If we’re willing to try to empathize with Herod for a moment here, I would suggest that sometimes we need people like John the Baptist―people who trouble our consciences.

For example, as a white person in the US, I think of the prophetic black voices over the generations who have troubled white consciences.

I think of people like Frederick Douglass, who, after escaping from slavery, wrote and spoke and campaigned for abolition and equality, troubling the conscience of a slave-holding nation.

I think of Sojourner Truth, who spoke up about her experiences and identity as a black woman, troubling the conscience of a white-dominated feminist movement and its white-centered definitions of femininity.

I think of leaders in the Civil Rights movement, like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who troubled the conscience of a segregated South; like Malcolm X, who troubled many consciences by taking (for good reasons) a less optimistic view of white people in the struggle for black freedom; like Ella Baker, who worked hard and brilliantly and often behind the scenes in a movement that sometimes sidelined her because of her gender; like James Baldwin, who wrote a lot of insightful and (appropriately) troubling things about race in America, some of which are summed up in the 2016 documentary I Am Not Your Negro (worth watching!).

These are just a few examples related to black/white race relations in the US. I am thankful for these conscience-troublers. They have helped shatter the illusions held by too many white people across the generations that everything is okay regarding race in America.

At the same time, I recognize that sometimes―at least for those of us who have consciences in danger of being troubled―it is easy to look back admiringly and thankfully on the powerful conscience-stirrers of past generations, while at the same time eyeing the conscience-troublers of our own generation with suspicion.

If we approach a movement like Black Lives Matter, for example, with a default posture of critique or defensiveness rather than appreciation and solidarity, perhaps we are not terribly unlike king Herod in his fear that John the Baptist was back from the dead. Herod recognized a (holy) spirit at work in Jesus that felt like the same one he saw in John the Baptist, and Herod recognized that all was not right between him and John the Baptist, and so he was troubled.

Perhaps many white Americans likewise recognize something like the spirit of the Civil Rights movement revived in new forms in the last few years. And for many white Americans, the spirit of struggle for black equality is a spirit that challenges everything we were raised to believe―and wanted to believe―about how much progress America has made in the last generation, and how racism is dead.

In the midst of this, when our consciences are stirred, we can either receive this stirring with guilt, as Herod did―in which case we often get so tripped up by this guilt that we either ignore it or are paralyzed by it―or we can allow the stirring of our consciences to drive us to ask new questions. To see our world in a different light. To seek together to build new ways of living that are more just and equitable.

For me, having my white conscience troubled isn’t always fun and comfortable, but I would rather be aware of the actual realities than remain blissfully ignorant. Because when I do remain ignorant, my life might seem blissful enough, but others suffer―others with whom I am in fact one body (1 Corinthians 12).

I would rather not be counted among those who, as the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah said, dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. I would rather not be among those who say peace, peace…when there is no peace. (Jeremiah 8:11).

When I think of present-day conscience-stirrers, I think of people like Cornel West, Michelle Alexander, Willie Jennings, Michelle Higgins, Christena Cleveland, Austin Channing Brown, Daniel White Hodge, Ibram X. Kendi. (This list is pretty arbitrary―I am by no means an expert here; these are just a few people whose work I happen to have either read or have been meaning to read. Feel free to add more names of present-day conscience-troublers in the comments, regarding race relations or anything else―I would love to hear your thoughts.)

Matthew 14:1-2 doesn’t tell us what Herod ended up doing with his guilty conscience. But perhaps, as we connect his story with ours, we find that this open-endedness is ours to walk into. It is up to us to do something good with our troubled consciences, up to us to lean into them rather than shove them under the rug. May we not shut our hearts and minds to the conscience-troublers, but may we open ourselves to hearing, learning, grieving, repenting, learning, changing.

Here’s to today’s conscience-troublers, and to those willing to be troubled.

John and the Long Arm of the Law

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)

This third group of people who come to John the Baptist asking, what then should we do? gets an answer that I want to reflect on from two angles.

The first has to do with law enforcement. The second (which I’ll save for tomorrow) has to do with the military.

I imagine Roman soldiers functioning basically as human extensions of the authority of the Roman emperor, into the farthest corners of Roman-occupied territory. The long arm of the law, if you will.

I imagine they had a fair amount of power, and people kind of had to do what they said. I imagine they carried swords―and that if they were here in the US today, they would carry guns.

It’s not hard to imagine that there probably wasn’t great accountability for those soldiers who decided to abuse their power against civilians. There probably weren’t a lot of checks and balances in place to make sure they didn’t do things like extort money from people by threats or false accusation. If these were the first things that came to mind for John when the soldiers asked, what then should we do, they must have been common practices.

Fortunately for us, modern-day law enforcement officers never abuse their power in these sorts of ways, so we can’t really relate.

Just kidding.

When I think about Roman soldiers making threats and false accusations against people, I think about police officers who frame black and brown people for things like drug possession and send them to jail (often extorting money via bail in the process). A quick Google search for an example brought up this particularly egregious and obvious case―for which there was some accountability, but only slightly subtler things like this happen all the time, often with no accountability.

I think about police officers who make excuses for their own (or their colleagues’) unwarranted, excessive, and often racially-based violence, by defaming the character of the person against whom the violence was inflicted, or by falsely claiming that the person had a weapon, or that there was a good reason to assume they had a weapon. John says, do not make false accusations.

I think about law enforcement officers who betray the people they are meant to serve, by working with, rather than against, organized crime groups. This recent podcast from This American Life tells a horrifying and sickening story about a Central American man who was turned away from the US border upon trying to claim asylum. Along with fellow turned-away asylum seekers, the man was taken to the Mexican immigration office, after which a Mexican immigration officer picked everyone up and drove them all to a bus stop―and then sat in his car and watched while the asylum seekers were picked up not by a bus but by cartel members in a van who drove them to an unknown location and held them for ransom. Later on, when the man’s sister sent money to the kidnappers for his release, she was asked to wire this money to the account number of the Mexican immigration officer. John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats.

Of course, things are complicated, and cartels are terrifying. I wouldn’t want to blame the Mexican immigration officer too easily, or alone. Let’s not forget the complicity of the US immigration agents at the border who, under instructions from Trump’s administration, by default turn away people who are legitimately fleeing for their lives. And, as the This American Life podcast mentions, by releasing people at the border in large groups at a predictable time of day, US agents make these people unnecessarily vulnerable and obvious targets for exploitation.

History and present-day experience are full of people doing normally-unconscionable things, simply because they are told to by their superiors. Stanley Milgram did a famous social psychology experiment in the 1960s with disturbing results to this effect. He had an authority figure (a scientific researcher) instruct participants to administer larger and larger shocks to a person in an adjacent room and found that about two-thirds of participants obeyed the authority figure and administered shocks large enough that (had they been real) they would have likely killed the person in the other room.

Milgram’s intent was to investigate how the Holocaust could have happened, with so many otherwise ordinary citizens participating in it in various ways; his conclusion was that most people will do very bad things if someone else who they believe has legitimate authority is telling them to do it, and if they believe that that person will take responsibility for the consequences.

John the Baptist says, don’t do these things. In the situation you’re in, with the power that you have―and sometimes in spite of all of the other powers you might be under―follow your conscience. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it might cost you your job (as it did for one of the immigration agents interviewed by This American Life). Do the right thing anyway.

John says, do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation. For all of us―and especially for people who, like the Roman soldiers of John’s day, find themselves in situations where harming others is easy and peers and supervisors either turn a blind eye or push them toward doing harm―do good and not evil to the people you are meant to serve and protect.

Do good and not evil, even if you can do evil and get away with it, with someone else taking responsibility for your actions. Even if you can do evil and it doesn’t really feel like you’re causing someone harm, because that harm is indirect, or happens far away from you. Even if everyone else in the department or agency is doing evil. Even if your supervisor specifically tells you to do evil.

I don’t intend this as an anti-law-enforcement post. There are so many law enforcement officers who serve their communities well, and sacrificially, often facing high risks and bearing high costs in their own wellbeing. John isn’t against the soldiers. He doesn’t call them a brood of vipers, or say away from me, you evildoers (Matthew 7:23), or anything like that. He says, bear good fruit―and for you in particular, given your position in society, that means protect people and don’t exploit them.

Hopefully, for those in law enforcement or similar kinds of positions who are already doing these things, John’s words are comforting: you’re doing the right thing. Keep at it. Be encouraged and strengthened in it. I want everyone to do what you’re doing. It is possible.

May we be thankful for the many people in law enforcement who serve their communities well, while also following John’s lead in calling unapologetically for an end to all kinds of exploitative practices, racism, dishonesty, violence, and other evils. 

Spiritual Heritage

And you should not think to say among yourselves, “We have Abraham as father.” -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:9a)

The Pharisees who came against John’s baptism thought that they did not need to “make fruit worthy of repentance,” because they could trace their lineage back to Abraham. They claimed Abraham as the forefather of their religious and ethnic identity. They saw themselves as the ones who had things right, who had God figured out. And John the Baptist’s life and message did not fit into their paradigm.

When I think of the Pharisees claiming Abraham as their forefather, I think of some of the people who might be claimed as forefathers by different groups of Protestants today. John Calvin could be claimed as a kind of forefather for Presbyterians; Martin Luther for Lutherans; John Wesley for Methodists.

Some churches claim no particular forefather other than Bible itself; these churches too, of course, have their own forefathers. Many evangelical churches, for example, stem from the US revivalist tradition―a tradition that spans, over three centuries, from George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards, to Charles Finney, to Dwight Moody, to Billy Graham.

Sometimes different kinds of churches and faith movements can also function as our forefathers. For me―for better or for worse, and usually some of each―the Presbyterian church is my forefather, InterVarsity is my forefather, the nondenominational Bible church movement is my forefather.

It can be good to claim our heritage and traditions, to remember the people who shaped these traditions, to declare whom we have as predecessors in the faith. Naming these things, as the Pharisees might have named Abraham, can help us understand where we come from. It builds a more secure sense of identity. It helps us wrap our minds around why our practices and beliefs are what they are. It can even aid us in imagining how we might continue to form and re-form our traditions to carry their best gifts into a new time with its new experiences and new issues.

After all, every forefather was only human. None of them was right about everything. And each of them needs to be re-examined and re-framed anew each generation, to make sense in a changing world, to offer insights that are life-giving for a new group of people in a new situation.

On top of all this, all of the Protestant forefathers I have named so far―and I’m sure we could name many more―were white men. All of them. What perspectives, insights, and knowledge are we missing if these kinds of voices are the only voices we acknowledge and invite to shape our sense of faith?

Fortunately, we live in a time when female scholars and scholars of color are many and their work is accessible. Unfortunately, seminaries do not always include much of this work in their curricula, and churches do not always include much of it in their Bible studies, preaching, book recommendations, etc.

For those of us who tend to dwell in white-male-dominated church-y spaces, expanding our sense of our spiritual forefathers to include foremothers and people of color can help us have a broader and fuller view of God. It can help correct some of the blind spots and prejudices of our white spiritual forefathers―which, in most of their cases, is sorely needed.

Ultimately, Jesus says that we are not to call anyone on earth father, because we have one Father, the heavenly one (Matthew 23:9). God in heaven is our parent, the one in whose image we are made. God, not Abraham or Calvin or Luther or anyone else, is the one we are meant to reflect. The one whose heart and mind we are to seek to embody.

God in heaven is our parent. We are all children of God, and therefore siblings to one another. We belong to each other and are responsible for one another. The Pharisees thought of religious family very narrowly, and so (often) do we―but for John, and for Jesus, family proves much broader and deeper than a claim to any particular human predecessor.

There must be a way, however elusive, to claim the gifts and strengths of our own various spiritual heritages without devolving into tribalism, without seeing others from different traditions through a competitive lens, without letting these lineages cause us to forget that at our core we are all part of one human family.

This is not to diminish the differences between faith traditions, or to say that they are all equally good. There are movements within the Christian faith that work toward justice, and movements that work against it. Not all forefathers and foremothers are equally worth claiming. Not all traditions are worth keeping alive―and even those that are worth keeping alive need to be updated and adjusted over time.

So, as we think of John the Baptist’s warning to the Pharisees, may we remember our forefathers and foremothers, but also remember that no predecessor in our spiritual heritage is our parent in the same way that God is our parent. 
May we remember that spiritual predecessors are not grounds for superiority but sources of strength and courage. 
May we expand our openness to being shaped by female voices and voices of color as important parts of the spiritual heritage we choose.
May we keep alive traditions worth keeping, and re-think traditions that need re-thinking. 
May we, as John wanted the Pharisees to do out in the wilderness, drop all of our various claims to holiness via association and instead come to God humbly and directly.
And, as we do these things, may we find our place within God’s family.

Making Good Fruit

Make fruit worthy of repentance…already the ax is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not make good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. -John the Baptist (Matthew 3:8,10)

When I think of a truly repentant person (myself or others), I tend to think of someone who feels really badly about something. Maybe there are heartfelt words of apology (not a halfhearted, duplicitous, or otherwise unsatisfying apology!). Maybe there are tears.

When the Pharisees come against John’s baptism, and John calls them a brood of vipers, John is not primarily looking for heartfelt words, or for tears. I’m sure these would have been reasonable signs that the Pharisees were starting to realize their wrong, but they are not the main thing John talks about.

John says he is looking for fruit worthy of repentance. For fruit that is good and healthy, not rotten or poisonous (like a brood of vipers).

He is looking for the Pharisees not just to say, “oh wow, the ways I’ve been drawing lines around who can and can’t experience God, and where God can and can’t be experienced, are really bad, I feel really badly about that,” but also to make a real change in their actions.

When I think about Christians repenting and making good fruit, I think about what feels to me like a growing awareness among white people that racism is still alive and well and hideous and horrifying. Repentance, here―at least for white people (the only people I can speak for)―means not just admitting the reality of racism and feeling sad or angry or guilty or whatever we might feel about it, but also actively seeking to root out racist attitudes and policies, both within ourselves and in our communities and spheres of influence. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about climate change, and I wonder if perhaps now the evidence is so strong that (at least some) people who previously wrote it off as liberal fear-mongering are taking a second look. Repentance, here, means not just feeling afraid or sad that we have all done this to our world, but actively seeking ways to work toward healing our earth, and trying to limit our own contributions―and the contributions of our companies and communities―to climate change. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I think about churches’ postures toward LGBTQ people. A lot of Christians recognize now that gay conversion therapy is harmful rather than helpful―poisonous rather than healthful―as exemplified by (the ex-gay nonprofit) Exodus International’s closure and its president’s apology a few years ago. Repentance, here, means not just feeling bad about the harm caused by conversion therapy, but actively seeking ways to make churches into places that are actually safe and healthy for LGBTQ people. Seeking to make good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

I don’t mean to say that God doesn’t love us or forgive us for these sins (and others) unless we do something different, but rather that good fruits naturally grow in the soil of real repentance.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s descendant Rob Lee preaches and writes about addressing racism in faith communities (check out Andre Henry’s podcast). Christian ethics professor David Gushee, who formerly defended the so-called “traditional” sexual ethic of marriage between a man and a woman but then changed his views upon being part of a Christian community that included a lot of LGBTQ people and gay couples, wrote a book about it (Changing Our Mind) in the hope of helping the church more broadly re-examine its attitudes and policies. This is good fruit, fruit worthy of repentance.

May we wrestle with God about what good fruits, fruits worthy of repentance, look like in our lives and communities.

Brood of Vipers (Part 2 of 2)

But when John saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7).

(Same verse as yesterday, new thought.)

It must not have been very fun to be called a brood of vipers―the offspring of a venomous snake. I don’t know about you, but I have felt offended by words several shades more diplomatic than that!

A Christianity that tries to make people look more like some (not-particularly-biblical) image of a gentle Jesus―meek and mild and perhaps a bit anemic―has no place for harsh words like these. And yet, John says them. And, later on in the book of Matthew, Jesus says them. Twice. (See Matthew 12:34, 23:33).

I wonder where, or whether, there is a place for harsh words like “brood of vipers” in our world and in our faith communities today. Are we supposed to be nicer than that? I usually am―at least to people’s faces. It’s easier to say harsh things about someone than to someone.

When I think about harsh name-calling from Christians―things not entirely unlike John’s “brood of vipers”―I think about this recent article by Peter Wehner in The Atlantic. Wehner thoughtfully addresses statements recently made by (author and radio host) Eric Metaxas and (evangelist and Samaritan’s Purse CEO) Franklin Graham, in which Metaxas and Graham agree that there is a demonic spiritual power behind opposition to Trump. They don’t exactly call people who oppose Trump demonic, but it kind of feels like it.

Wehner’s piece is worth reading, I think. He takes issue, and rightly so, with Graham and Metaxas’ implication that everyone who supports Trump is on God’s side, and everyone who opposes Trump is on the side of the devil. For Wehner, this is a “dangerous” worldview that “leaves no room for the democratic virtue of compromise” and “makes makes learning from others who hold different views all but impossible.”

Wehner has some pointed (and very fair) critiques of Graham and Metaxas’ harsh words about Trump’s opposition. But Wehner seems hesitant to use harsh words in return. Among the strongest things he writes, he accuses Graham and Metaxas of “acute political tribalism” and says that they are “acting irresponsibly and unwisely.” He specifically does not want to say that either of these men is “wicked, malevolent, or at the mercy of demonic powers.”

Wehner has no interest in doing what I think he would see as stooping to Graham and Metaxas’ level and arguing that people who oppose Trump are actually the “Children of Light” and that people who support Trump are actually the “Children of Darkness.”

Wehner wouldn’t say these things. I wouldn’t say these things. Most Christians wouldn’t say these things. But if John the Baptist were here in the US today, would he? Would he call Trump and his cronies a brood of vipers?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I am wary of assuming too quickly that he wouldn’t. 

(Of course, in a case like this, I don’t know if there would even be a way to call out broods of vipers without the conversation devolving into a shouting contest of “you’re the brood of vipers.” “No, you’re the brood of vipers.” Brings back memories of “You’re the puppet!”)
I don’t know whether using words like “brood of vipers” is actually helpful in our context. It seems worth noting that John called the Pharisees and Sadducees―the religious leaders―broods of vipers, not the people who followed them or lived under their authority. So, if John were to call someone a brood of vipers, I imagine it would be Trump and the powerful people in his inner circles rather than every regular American who supports him.

There is also a difference, I think, between John’s “brood of vipers” and Graham and Metaxas’ “demonic influence.” While a viper, being a kind of snake, may bring to mind the devil (who is often called a snake in the Bible), the Greek word Matthew uses for “viper” is actually not the same word that the devil is called. “Viper,” as opposed to “snake,” seems to be more about the venomous or poisonous nature of the snake than about demonic powers per se.

It seems that John is saying that the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition of his baptism is poisonous. It works against the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community.

Perhaps in this light, we are not to demonize our every opponent, but we are to discern and name what is healthy and what is poisonous. This discernment can be complicated and involves hearing both from the Bible and from a diverse group of people’s stories and experiences.

Even if the demonizing impulse is to be avoided, though, I don’t think it’s necessarily helpful to just meet accusations of demonic influence with an “oh, well, people like Graham and Metaxas are mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, we’re all part of the same Christian family and we just need to be nice to each other and have unity.” (I don’t mean to accuse Wehner of doing this; I’m just reflecting in general on the state of things.)

John the Baptist did not meet the Pharisees’ and Sadducees’ opposition with “oh, well, I think you’re mistaken, but that’s okay, no big deal, it’s chill that you’re here trying to keep people from being baptized, all that matters that everyone’s nice and we all get along and no one gets upset.”

There are things that are in fact demonically influenced, like racism, and misogyny, and homophobia. Not in the sense that every person who says or does something racist, for example, is demon-possessed, but in the sense that racism is something God hates, something the forces of evil love. Racism, in all of its personal and structural forms, is evil, and there is no good that comes from beating around the bush and pretending otherwise.

To me, saying that there is demonic influence involved does not free us from responsibility for our own racism, misogyny, homophobia, etc. Rather, it acknowledges that part of why evil power structures like these are lodged so deeply in our experience and prove so difficult to root out is that their roots are not entirely merely human.

“Brood of vipers” may or may not be the best word choice for us in our time and place, but reflecting on these words that John chose reminds me that there are higher values than playing nice and trying not to make waves. There is real evil, real poison, that needs, with careful discernment, to be named as such.

And in the areas where well-meaning people disagree about what makes for poison and what makes for health, let’s talk it through, even if it means that uncomfortable words are exchanged. The cost of pretending poisonous things are healthy is too high.