Friday, January 6, 2023

Let’s Dance: a call for a better revolution & beloved revival (for the spiritually adventurous on the religious left)

That’s not my apocalypse. This is not our revival. That’s not my insurrection. How many times have I thought this during the last six years!? 

But don’t think that we don’t need a spirit moving through this place. We are ready for revelation & for revolution. In fact it’s past due time for revival. Are you ready? Are we? 

A friend sent me a video from the frontlines of Christofascism. The rallies. The roadshows. These people obviously don’t realize that “awakening” is just a white man’s conjugation of “woke” & the battle for the muther-flipping soul of America has a bloody rift along racial, geographic, & theological lines.

Look at it. They are dancing to praise music. Every face is white. This hyper-drama is an unapologetic hand-signal for white supremacy. The whining about “black privilege” on all their channels is not a distorted hallucination but a distilled hatred, all wrapped up in the religious language of “spiritual warfare.” 

My atheist friend who sent me the video said it all terrified him. At the political level, it should terrify us all. But at the spiritual level, something else is happening here. But what it is ain’t exactly clear. But but but but!

Buried in this video, one of those fast-paced jump-cut collages created for the TikTok Instagram masses, & it could take hours to dissect it all, but right before the end, one of the speakers at one of these whipped-up-frenzy white citizens’ red-white-&-blue raves, she says something jarring. Or at least jarring to me. 

She says “we are the laughing ones, & we are the dancers.” Say what now? This toxic cracker jack honkey hoedown is infused with a bizarre voltage of visionary joy. They are the dancers? Did they not see that Dancing In The Streets by Barbara Ehrenreich was not written about them? Now this revelation makes me want to puke, like Sean Feucht’s long locks make me consider a crew-cut, but it’s undeniable that these folks are having fun, throwing down, & getting into it. 

I have studied this all from podcast-to-podcast, essay-to-essay, & in the countless front-yard shrines of Everywhere, in the Appalachian Statelessness of rural Amerika. 

(Of all the podcasts that lurk in the background of this essay, Straight White American Jesus & Conspirituality are prominent among them. As much as I try to understand something about the underlying motives & meanings of the current religious nationalism in what follows, I cannot in any way condone the threats & violence, much less the theocratic vision that underpins it all.) 

Now, there’s plenty of sober, studied, academic, activist take-downs of “White Christian Nationalism.” There is a decent, polite discourse on White Christian Nationalism, penned by credentialed professors in religious studies & folks on the loosely configured religious left. We can even sign the statement of “Christians Against Christian Nationalism.” 

Bless their hearts, bless our hearts, we need every last one of these. Full disclosure, I am all these things too: Christian, leftist, academic, activist. Yet I am also an unhinged poet with fire in my bones. So this essay is decidedly not a sober discourse nor a practical plea; this is, instead,a desperate hopeful surrealistic caffeinated sermon revival poem manifesto that is going to propose & ask for something else entirely. We want our revival, too. 

Like Larry Norman asked us years ago “why should the devil have all the good music,” I  am asking something else in the same spirit: Why should the right-wing Christ-hating angry racist homophobic sexist apostates be the only people who get a charismatic holy ghost revival? (I know they say they love Him but that is not the Jesus of the Bible or of history that they are praying to, & you know it. They might know it too.) 

We need a dancing, laughing, arm-waving, tongue-speaking, prophecy-flowing revival on the so-called Christian left right now. There are some black churches where this has always happened & is already happening & maybe some progressive white churches should simply shut down & turn their buildings over to the houseless & addicted & simply join black churches. 

Although others have pointed this out, I want to remind & reiterate again & again, that today’s far-right counterculture (even as much as it is for being the arbiters & tastemakers of The Culture), can trace its lineage to the apocalyptic revival of the Jesus hippies of the early 1970s. This thread follows through the whole CCM & contemporary worship scenes of the 1980s & 1990s, through the so-called “compassionate conservatives” of the early 00s, falling right into the full-blown fire of mega-MAGA, with its ringing bells of entitled evil & anointed authoritarianism (even as it might smuggle anti-authoritarian tactics into its toolkit), all of this blasted from really good hi-fi speakers where they get high on their own supply of fascist lies. 

January 6th was a wild revision of white-bread Woodstock 99, like the Days of Rage of the Weathermen but in the costumes of Proud Boys, Patriot Front, Oath Keepers, & the dark web, yet all of this also but cloaked in the robes & language of the right-wing church. Maybe the fascists just stole their ideas from the anarchists, especially when too many folks cannot discern the difference between those movements or their ideologies. 

January 6th was also the morning after 12th night, Epiphany, the conclusion of the festival of Christmas & the beginning of a new church season. But from some reports, the petulant prayer warriors weren’t just drunk on the holy, some were actually stopping by liquor stores on the parade route, to get ripped & loaded on liquid spirits, too. A fascist festival, a religious revelry, a hard-core carnival of the cruel & entitled. 

Please forgive me for not focusing only on how totally toxic & hyper-masculine the entire attack actually was. Not my insurrection, not my revolution, but we should not be so shocked or distraught or in any way deny the sincere imagination & day-to-day organization that provided the pretense & pageantry of that problematic day. There was something weird in the air that woeful Wednesday in 2021. American Christians can never see Epiphany in the same pre-2021 ways again. 

As someone raised in church, raised & trained in the traditions of mainline Christianity, sometimes called the “frozen chosen,” for our staid, even sometimes stuffy, style of worship. I confess some long-term “expression envy,” if you will, for all the sparks & spontaneity, exuberance & ecstasy, that we see in charismatic churches. Is it any wonder that the “religion” for my generation of secular lefties could more likely be found in places like Bonnaroo or Burning Man? 

A few years ago when I was seriously researching the “hippy Christians” of the 60s counterculture left & the “Jesus hippies” of the right & the split that occurred when those paths diverged in the early 1970s, I was grateful to learn that, for at least a brief period in the counterculture heyday, the left churches wove folk & rock music,  beatnik poetry, & psychedelic slide shows into liturgies. Churches themselves became poetry podiums, experimental theaters, & coffeehouse hootenannies. 

While mainline liturgical churches tend to be more liberal or progressive, they don’t always tend to be liberationist, & they are not locales for living breathing beckonings of holy spirit revival energy. Black churches or a handful of inclusive megachurches are the only places lefty Christians can go to find some full-tilt sanctified boogie on a Sunday morning. Not going to lie, I did once catch some shade & unfriendly side-glances for saying “Amen” out loud in a mainline church. “Maybe you would be more comfortable in a Pentecostal church,” someone said to me after worship. 

Today, the rural Wild Goose Festival community organizes Jesus liberationists across countless intersections as an incredible antidote to the same-old normie vibes found in many liberal mainline churches. This community can also be seen in other conferences, in books, on podcasts, & the socials, but my guess is that it’s not currently a sizeable social justice counter-force. It’s also my humble speculation that the career aspects of pulpits & professorships restrain so much of our revolutionary potential.  Rev. William Barber’s Poor People’s campaign may be a notable exception, but I don’t think we currently have the kind of organizing potential in the churches that the far-right has. 

Because of my already interspiritual inclinations & the battles I have encountered inside some institutional churches, I am already a great candidate for the “spiritual but not religious” crowd. Just go on a hike on Sundays, pray silently as you do, & be done with it. Sure, this nature mystic can “get the spirit” with trees, mountains, streams, every moonrise & sunset. But the rub is, I am religious too. For all of us, there is something about collaborative spiritual action, about collective & corporate worship that’s healing & empowering. As a person who practices continuous sobriety, one day at a time, I need some sense of who my higher power is & isn’t. It may dwell within me, but it’s not me. I have tried it with & without God, with & without spiritual disciplines & religious practice. No matter how unfashionable it feels sometimes to admit it to other leftists, especially in the fundamentalist neo-fascist Bible belt, I love Jesus. As much as I try to shake off religion, it shakes me up from within.

Unlike a recent marketing brand's attempt to rescue Jesus from all the bad press the Christians keep giving him, I have no need to be a PR rep for the Jesus movement. But as a person who is in it, reluctantly at times, I need to voice my hopes & fears more directly. Moreover, as a person on the religious left, I feel a great need to grapple with & confess what Christianity has meant in colonial & imperial contexts for the last several centuries. Especially as a white American, we are not done acknowledging or admitting our shared sins & collective crimes. The aggressive assertive arrogance of dominator religion doesn’t make this dance easy. At first glance, Christianity can look pretty darn disgusting. It’s not fair to look at the liturgical festival of the fascist attack on America two years ago & just shrug & say “they’re not real Christians,” even though I want to. I can call them apostates & heretics, but they would say the same about me. We rather have to wrestle with it all. As honestly as possible.

When I look back across my life from a more reflective angle, I was always raised in & nurtured by liberation theology. That’s just what church was & is to me. This spirit infected me from the first time I heard an MLK speech or sermon, even as a toddler. This spirit followed me as I grew older, even as I studied & spoke about MLK & civil rights as a high school student, with my first major research project as a young scholar being a year-long investigation into James Baldwin. As an adult, some of my studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School would focus yet more on Black liberation, through entire semesters focused on MLK, Howard Thurman, & other locations of intersectional oppressions & emancipation. 

The holy spirit as a radical force messed with my career arc. My first attempt at college was jettisoned by activism & a desire to distance myself from the expected middle-class professional path. For several seasons, I was a counterculture dropout. I was also a resident volunteer in a Catholic Worker style house of hospitality, run by Presbyterian pastors with much in common with liberation movements & base communities across the Americas. Even during my years as a neopagan who went all in for the drugs & booze, I stayed close to revolutionary movements for peace, economic & environmental justice, & for queer liberation.

Whenever I open my Bible, the liberatory themes in the text, these perk & percolate, even pop right off the pages. I cannot deny the text also has toxic & authoritarian interpretations, these are also out there. But frankly, my training as a theologian & pastor, even my literary & poetic disposition, foreground a liberatory reading of the text, not just a strategy or “lens,” but as the living reality at the core of the stories. As much as I may as an educated white guy, I read the text & experience religion from the margins & from below. 

One of my mentors had talked about & taught me about the Eucharist (or Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper, however we call it), as something so central & so compelling to her faith & life journey, that even when every other sign says “leave the church,” the poetic, prophetic, & practical nourishment of this meal means that she must stay. I had relatively recently returned to church when she first told me that story, & in my last two years of trying unsuccessfully to leave, my desperate & primary hunger for that meal keeps me coming back. 

But there is more I need to say. More than that is calling me back. I feel the call of laughter & dancing & celebration. It’s fair or honest or freeing to simply dismiss the supernatural, the irrational, or the ecstatic aspects of religion as simply belonging to “them,” or even worse, being evidence to invalidate or otherwise desecrate the potential of religious experience as out-&-out too weird or scientifically unverifiable. 

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think every calm, literate, or refereed criticism of the religious far-right is an implicit indictment of the prayerful parties of holy euphoria. But I sense that we misunderstand the appeal of that movement without having some sympathy or understanding as to why it appeals to a certain sector of folks. I am trying to tease out something problematic that I think is implied by these academic criticisms, to call us into the possibility of something else joyful & powerful that is percolating on our fringes. 

I do get the sense that the “conspirituality”-critique-industry that attempts to unpack the “woo-to-Q pipeline” (which goes after yoga & wellness spaces more than the church) risks a kind of flattening of healthy variety in human communal expression, moreover a kind of end-game reification of bureaucratic institutions that ultimately serve the mechanized, dehumanized, self-propelled megamachine of neoliberal global capitalism. To put it another way, I don’t think masking or vaccinating during a pandemic are the authoritarian clampdowns that conspiritualists say they are, but we can at least understand the decades of distrust in potentially demonic principalities that brought us to this place. 

When I see all the public praying, all the wild & wacky theater of the far-
right so-called prophets’ scene, of which January 6th is only one strident symbol & symptom of something much larger & more terrifying, same for Sean Feucht & his anti-mask preaching parades that came to proclaim its entitled refusal covid-safety as well as a belligerent nationalist response to the BLM uprisings, when I witness all that wildness, I confess that the genuine weirdness of religion has been weaponized as a fierce force for fascists, which inadvertently has started turning the liberals into the normies & the squares. 

But it’s not the weirdness per se that makes it wrong, only discombobulating. Interestingly, it’s drag shows & queer spaces where the liminal lights of sacred parodic performances still shine. Where are the jesters, pranksters, & sacred clowns of lefty religious resistance? The revolution won’t be a podcast or a zoom or an academic white paper. At least not only that! 

Pray-ers praying endless prayers & vigorous charismatic expressions & spiritual warfare & pentecostal praise & righteous rebukes of the institutional principalities & their very real potential for human harm & control, as moral & theological frameworks or even overt political strategy & eccesial practice, I don’t think these contexts or containers, if you will, are inherently dangerous or decidedly insane. What I think is that these passionate parachurch reckonings, which have been crudely & rudely weaponized for fascist political gain, are not wrong because they are weird or involve the daily deliberate devotional application of Ephesians 6:12. 

I come from a part of the Christian left where the teachings of Walter Wink & William Stringfellow & their student Bill Wylie-Kellermann have most precisely & prophetically schooled me on how the institutional principalities of the domination system enacted as craven capitalism, monstrous militarism, & widespread white supremacy (not to mention destruction of the earth & anti-queer & anti-female violence), these do require us to put on the armor of God & enter into nonviolent moral combat. We do need to call down the angels of love against the demons of hatred. 

Whether these spiritual templates are “real” or they “work,” they are relevant & energizing in folks’ lives. They would not be engaging in these frenzied acts of fantastical & freaky spiritual fighting were the style & substance of said rituals not providing something utterly profound for the participants. I suspect a tendency & temptation among my “progressive” peops (I never liked that term, because linear “progress” appears an illusion when reality seems to work more cyclically & recursively, where we are just relearning how to be human with each new generation) to prefer “rational religion,” a thoroughly demythologized humdrum hopeful humanism, devoid of anything remotely supernatural, because how dare us ever be perceived as wrongly superficial or dangerously superstitious, or someone forbid, anti-scientific. 

More than 20 years ago when I was hanging with the puppets & parades of the global justice movement which sought a kind of ecological & economic revolution from below, I think we fully grasped the contagious power of collective rituals & creative festivals. This movement was deeply connected to the antiwar movement. I recall moving from a Presbyterian prayer vigil with the laying-on-of-hands to a neopagan chanting circle with activist author Starhawk, where all prayers, whether Catholic or Protestant or pagan, were collaboratively consecrated to confront the demon of militarist terrorism being taught for profit at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (aka the School of the Americas). Going back further, this is the communal anarchist energy that animated movements like the Wobblies (IWW) & the Catholic Workers, creating the new world in the shell of the old. 

We need a revival of that joyful revolutionary energy in every left movement today, but we also need a reminder of what those issues were that we were fighting for back then. I dread to say this, but I must: we have allowed our allergy to, & fear of, the ultra-MAGA, to sanitize the intellectual left in this country, to forget its calling even, as an antiwar movement & as a global justice movement, even to the point that some on the far-right have stolen our genuine suspicions of Power & massaged them into something else, on behalf of a right-populism that gleefully celebrates the American left’s total jettisoning of its morals to be subsumed by whatever the right-wing of the Democratic Party does or wants, even when that is anti-worker, anti-earth, pro-prison, pro-police, & pro-war.

These are apocalyptic times. The fierce urgency of now that MLK pleaded for is only more fierce, more now. We may just be teetering on the edge of the last precipice overlooking the last abyss of absolute destruction. Are we not trembling in our homes & in our bones? Don’t all the apocalyptic dystopian novels read like nonfiction? Surely what I am experiencing as a force as strong as gravity & deep inner love might be more like the quicksand & undertow pulling us all under for the final time. 

It’s all of the above that has led me to be unkempt in my unconditional love & universalism, interspiritual yet still rooted in the Jesus tradition that is my home lineage & true calling. The holy misfits of the religious left, & I know I am not the only one, are still here, even if we are scattered, tired, frustrated, & occasionally depressed. Yet I am trusting the love that is genuine & the peace that passes understanding & that we need a wide & wondrous revival on the religious left. 

We are also necessarily hopeful, inclusive, & ecumenical. We are for love & peace at home & abroad, we are for the healing of earth & community both economically & ecologically. We are antiracist & abolitionist at our core. We are unapologetically pro-choice & queer-affiriming. These values get practiced, though, not just with creative protest, but with expansive mutual aid & radical hospitality. 

I seek our revival to be the new world in the shell of the old, the dancing, exuberant, ecstatic, sanctified, holy, messy, blended, beautiful, creatively chaotic unchurch of unlimited love & mutual aid in multiple forms. When this is truly devoted to love without concern for domination system perks, it works like an inverted theocracy, an anti-authoritarian communal love contract, with all, for all. Some call that Beloved Community. It’s the reign of God because it is raining goodness on folks without playing favorites. Come on, friends. Let’s dance. Let’s shout. Let’s get slayed in the spirit. Let’s bring it on. 
-Andrew/Sunfrog
Epiphany 2023
Tenasi 

Listen to a reading of this essay here:

 



Thursday, November 17, 2022

I Might Still Be A Christian


[Image by James Reid from
The Life of Christ In Woodcuts]

I Might Still Be A Christian

About a year ago I started
calling myself “Christian-adjacent”

Some of my friends were like
“I have no idea what that means”

I don’t know what it means either but 
I could say the same for Christianity itself 

Yet somehow I felt this tug to distance myself
from all the creeds & crusty old doctrines

not to mention all the cranky judgers
at church with all their petty agendas 

even if I was still endlessly wrestling 
with the love-talk & the cross

In Anne Lamott’s conversion narrative in
“Traveling Mercies” she talks about her lineage

with parents who were secular hipsters 
with friends who were stoned hippies

California leftists all of them & with such a crowd 
calling yourself a Christian is just plain awkward

She resisted at first the call that Jesus placed on her 
because frankly it wasn’t cool & who would believe her

I think I have resembled Anne Lamott my 
entire adult life but in this regard especially

I still remember when Sunfrog got sober he encountered an illuminated 
Jesus & joined AA & some friends just frankly thought I was joking or

maybe needing medication 
more than revelation 

Earlier this summer I saw that a favorite religious author
Brian McLaren was making the podcast circuit again 

oh -- he must be peddling a new book 
this one is called “Do I Stay Christian?”

& deep inside my body my spirit-brain was
clamoring “why are you asking that now”

I already deconstructed -- don’t you read my blog?
I already left religion -- sort of & a second time

but of course we all know why he was asking it now
because MAGA Trumpists tried to chase us all

out of church if not out of Tennessee or 
the south if not out of America entirely 

but more importantly there is this utterly 
annoying absolutely intoxicating possibly invented 

maybe completely made-up story of Jesus that keeps 
creeping back into my thoughts without my consent

Come on now you might know what I am talking about the 
Holy Spirit has no boundaries or respect for my agnostic side

Prefers not to take “no” for answer when
You already said “yes” a hundred times before

So here we are in my monthly weekly daily midlife 
existential crisis where I admit the godawful truth

that I cannot live with church &
I cannot live without it & 

besides you may think I’m a backsliding heretic
but whoever heard of anyone being unbaptized 

I could not live without God even if I tried 
yes because God is as real as life itself is & 

like Ashley Cleveland sang
“I Need Jesus” & there’s more:

as a retired pastor & I agreed on a phone call that
while organized religion may be a net bad in the world 

it has still been a net good in our lives even if it is
just some approximation of faith that some

Christian scholars once dubbed “therapeutic deism”
I frankly prefer some framework of the divine

in my life rather than not & because the religion 
of my lineage & of my youth feels radically more

authentic than any of the delicious alternatives
that I have explored & frankly perhaps I understand

what some studies say: “Participating in spiritual practices may be 
a protective factor for a range of health & well-being outcomes”

I have to admit not just my genuine interspirituality but
that the Christianity at the core of my being speaks to me

in the voice of Jesus in the voice of scripture in the voice 
of protesters & in the broken bread & juice or wine & even 

in the voice of the radical 
theologians who have come before

& I also have to admit: I love the brimming yumminess of the
Whitmanian multitudes spilling over the edges of our existence 

so that I can include Buddha & Laozi & tree spirits & 
fairies & unicorns & The Force & Tarot Cards & the I-Ching

& sacred Mama Earth & mutual aid & anarchism 
& my beloved Unitarian Universalists even as

I walk this undeniable Jesus path with all its 
consequences of crosses & enemy love 

So like the shock of the first cup of coffee before the
first light of dawn I have to admit it this morning that

I might still be a Christian 

Thursday, May 12, 2022

The Path


 the path before me
just another open window
just the hungry mouth
of the gaping sky

the path ahead as I escape religion

as I run from the pulpit through the doors

onto the gravel street & straight to

the mountains or the creek


here we go down this path

with a pack of grief & lots of grub

as many snacks as we can pack

into this hobo satchel 


every seeker is a friend to these

tracks these weeds that sky

from the day we are born

until the day we die


I cannot really retrace my steps 

even as I want to reread books

got too many words but 

forgot all the hooks


but the walls of church are

crumbling behind me the death

of god or faith or what I don’t know

because Jesus is still a rebel


to whom I might listen as I listen

to the water keepers & earth defenders

as I listen to the workers organizing &

the junkies getting clean & drunks getting dry


& the people flying signs or trespassing in tents or

writing codes with their misconduct 

to explode the myths with new ones 

we write new stories unravel old fabric to stitch new 


still a devotional distraction & powerless surrender 

to immersion in the radical mystery 

seek to understand new weird things

as much as old weird history   

i am grateful to be lost again

unfound from straightjackets of salvation &

discourses on damnation that defy or deny

this sacred reality of nondual liberation

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

a (post) christian against the cross

 image - Facebook post about nationalist Easter cakes in Russia and Ukraine.
[I have been corresponding via Messenger & following on FB a couple people in Kviv, Ukraine. Via a repost on one of their pages, I saw these Easter cakes. One set of cakes celebrate the Azov batallion, the other the Z army. One nationalism vs another, Ukraine vs Russia. On Easter. Still trying to let all that sink in. But even the folks in Russian & Ukraine posting in reply found humor. The original post said we cannot be brothers, but several in reply said, "Because we are sisters."]



I am in an email back-and-forth with an old friend, who was a mentor when I was younger. In debating the war, I said something about how offensive it is that the Ukrainian government symbol is an Iron Cross. He said it is not an Iron Cross. I don't have permission to show what he said, but here is my reply to his reply.

“Do you think when Jesus comes back, he's really going to want to look at a cross?” - Bill Hicks


Christians, out of anyone, ought to understand what an utterly offensive and problematic symbol the cross is. Some sophisticated theologians grapple with this, sometimes it is called the scandal of the cross. 


If we are to believe any of the legends, the early Christians were an anti-imperial decolonized bunch of mystic misfits. If we are to believe the stories, emperor Constantine corrupted the ragtag religion and marched behind the cross. Constantine believed that God intervened in a military battle to help make him a victor. The cross as a popular Christian symbol is post-Constantine. 


The militaristic or nationalistic use of the cross doesn’t have to be overtly Nazi to be disgusting. See to people who actually love Jesus, not the many many counterfeits (maybe my version is the real counterfeit, who knows) don’t celebrate the cross. If we wear it, it is a solemn subversive dissociative reminder of the imperial tragedy that is central to our religious story.

My radical lineage in the church is inherently pacifist, in some ways also anarchist. From a mystic anarchist perspective, participation in the Beloved Community or “kindom” of God, this membership prohibits allegiance to any flag or participation in any army. 


Our pal Nietzche hated Christians for what he perceived as their/our drugged self-hatred. He compared Christ to the narcotic of drink/alcohol. He went further:

“Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched . . .it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation.”


By contrast, theologian John Caputo embraces what he calls weak theology, the anarchic weakness, the utterly powerless non-coercive power of the cross. Thinking with Caputo, we will take the botched and corrupted weakness heaped on us by the Nietzches of the world, then lean into it. This is why the people I admire in my tradition (Catholic workers and the like) are always hanging around the incarcerated killers, homeless drunks, unsavory hooligans all. 


Last weekend was orthodox Easter, now despite the Pope and me calling for a truce, the war rages on. But that did not stop Ukrianians from having Azov Easter cakes or the Russians from having Z easter cakes. One nationalism against another. 


Wednesday, April 20, 2022

A Rant & Lament for Rev. John Shuck (RIP) & for us All

 


My friend John Shuck died of Covid last year. He was also an outspoken Covid skeptic and anti-mandate anti-mask anti-vaxer. For some folks, that is all you need to know to stop reading now. But for others, perhaps you might join me in this reflective rant and strangely hopeful lament. As much as I want to make a loving tribute to John, his death has occasioned some hard reflections within myself. 


To begin, John and I were not close by any means, but our paths crossed enough and amicably, that I call him friend. On many topics, I initially viewed him as a fellow traveler and kindred soul. When we met, he was a leftist atheist Presbyterian pastor from east Tennessee, who hosted a progressive podcast/talk radio show. Although I never identified as an atheist, I was always intrigued and impressed with atheist Christians, especially in my former PCUSA tradition, where we had a strong commitment to intellectual acuity, inclusion, and social justice.


It was a shared social justice commitment that brought John and I into each other’s orbits, through a small advocacy group called Presbyterian Voices for Justice (PV4J), where I served briefly as our national co-coordinator/chair. Soon after we met, he left a board position with PV4J and moved from east Tennessee to Portland. The west coast seemed like a good fit for him, but I continued to follow him on social media. I don’t have a specific moment when things shifted for him, but I know that he juggled personal and professional concerns with his political presence on social media. 


Once on his radio show, he hosted the authors of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, a book that proposed that the “accidental” death of Thomas Merton in 1968 may have been a murder. I found the interview so compelling, that I mentioned this theory in an essay I wrote about MLK and Merton for my fanzine Ordinary Space. One friend, after reading my piece, dismissed the Merton book out-of-hand and warned me to stay away from the conspiracy crowd.


As anyone who is following the arc of America knows, conspiracy theories have spawned more conspiracy theories into a spiral of crazy over the last several years. As our communities have dug themselves into warring culture-war camps, everything gets weaponized. For John Shuck, his passionate interest in the “9-11 truth movement,” for example, probably meant he was poised to get going as a covid skeptic. We are far from a reckoning with what these fractures and their attendant rabbit holes really mean for the long term political reality and consequential emotional tragedy for our families and friends.


Writing about this today requires me to make some confessions. I am at once a hopeless idealist optimist and a contrarian anti-authoritarian leftist. While I do not consider myself a conspiracist, I confess that I have dabbled in conspiracy theories. I do question the “dominant narrative” about certain topics, especially the extrajudicial assassinations of people like MLK or Malcolm X. In that light, I was immediately interested in the claims in the Merton book. 


Now, Covid was a turning point for me, when I realized without regret that for the first long while, I would mask in public, abide by social distancing by seeking a remote work arrangement, and get the vaccine without fear. But that was the first time in my life that I was quick to join the mainstream medical consensus about anything. To be clear, I am not a doctor or an ideological herbalist or naturalist. 


But I  have an anxiety about doctors and medicines and come from a hippy health food culture where I taught myself to chew raw garlic, eat spoonfuls of local honey, drink lots of water, and sip herbal tea for most common ailments. The covid vaccine seemed like a no-brainer for me for public health reasons, but I guess you could say, I had previously traveled in circles that were anti-vax adjacent. 


All this is to say that I should not jump to judgmental conclusions about friends in the “bodily autonomy” crowd when it comes to the Covid vaccine, including and especially in my social media relationship to John Shuck. Because I am already a hypocrite about too many things, and folks like this are probably going to recoil from kneejerk condemnations, maybe instead, maybe folks need prayers and compassion and persuasion from people like me who were previously skeptics, but chose to get the jab. 


Yet sometime in the last year (or so) before his passing, when I stumbled across John’s comments about Covid, I made a Facebook post “warning” folks about his passion against the mandates and masks etc. To be clear, I was pretty dismissive. He was clearly a rightwing wacko of the QAnon school, that is what I was thinking. The purpose of my post was not to call-out John per se, as much as to imply that my friends should block or unfollow him. Such are the emotions on social media and the boundaries we surround ourselves with, in the worlds of Trump and Biden and Qanon and covid.

To illustrate how extreme John Shuck had turned, he had once posted in support of Mt. Juliet hate-preacher Greg Locke, in strange solidarity I suppose, because of how anti-mask Locke was. Strange bedfellows from an atheist antiwar leftist like Shuck, who knows like I do, how hard it is to be on the social justice left in rural Tennessee, but okay.


Even though John died back in October 2021, I only learned about his death this week.  This week, I also have been called by otherwise progressive fellow-travelers a Putin-sympathizing Russian-bot because I oppose spending billions of our dollars and weapons in a blank check of unlimited lethal military aid to Ukraine, in our USA proxy war against Russia, a war that if escalated too far, could result in a full-scale nuclear war. I suspect that if John were still alive, he and I would agree about the human horrors of this useless, suspicious, unnecessary war. 


I could pontificate all day, about all the reasons why some of my neighbors have found what they perceive as solidarity and safe harbor in white Chrisitan nationalism. That somehow this camp also includes conspiracy theories, covid skepticism, and ideas about the “deep state” makes them an odd mix to me. But today, that they perceive of themselves as rebels and the Democrats as “the man” seems like a plausible theory. It is a new strange upside down world where liberals are conservative, and conservatives are radicals. But I will pause that analysis to say something else, which for me makes the main point of this rant and lament. 


Buddha or Christ-like compassion and coercion are incompatible. Coercion and compassion are incompatible, even without the Buddha or Jesus portion. What the compassion and empathy crowd have to admit is that we can weaponize good will against people we perceive as enemies of the good. 


As much as I am almost always in one and not the other ideological camp, neither my membership in that camp, nor the ideology itself, should be used to demonize or dehumanize the others. It shouldn’t take the death of an anti-vaxer conspiracist that I considered a friend for me to realize and remember that. But here we are.  


No matter how many times we cleanse or question our own motives, authoritarianism can creep in from the left or right. Authoritarianism is toxic and anti-compassion and destructive of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. Anti-authoritarians who also espouse a Jesus-infused law of love don’t need to become cops in their heads or cops on social media or cops or bullies of any kind.

I was quick to judge John Shuck, as much as some of my fellow lefty Christians were, those of us who knew him before he became conspiracy-obsessed, I am sure. While I don’t condone the shrill outspoken anti-vax crowd around Covid for obvious health reasons, I have to humbly admit that this topic’s weaponization on “both sides” speaks to a deeper fracture in our souls and in our communities. If any of this or this last bit prompts some of my folks to shame or blame me for being soft on conspiracy or anti-vaxers, I can take it. 


As much as I am an abolitionist, feminist, an accomplice to trans and queer friends, an avowed anti-racist, I am also a failure at being a good member of the “liberal” or “progressive” crowd, especially as it partitions itself these days on social media. 


I fear that online trolling and harassment around political minutiae or an aggressive cancel culture are just soft, slippery, and sleazy forms of the carceral mentality that ultimately otherizes every possible “other,” that same mentality at its conclusive terminus places humans in cages, and justifies state sanctioned murder with wars or the death penalty.

[For more about what informs me about these topics, I cannot recommend enough the work of Clementine Morrigan, their fanzines and Instagram feeds, and their podcast F*#(#*g Cancelled.]  


As much as I speak out against anti-blackness and white-supremacy, I also see how banning members of the so-called “far right” from social media or boycotts of people like Joe Rogan are such serious “red herrings” from the authentic struggles to support low wage workers, unionize places like Amazon and Starbucks, to achieve universal healthcare and housing and income, to abolish rent and debt and wars and prisons and police and destroy predatory capitalism forever.

While I might agree with the underlying reasons for countless cancellations and free speech restrictions, they too often come from an emotionally wounded place that fails to rationally consider what history teaches us about how harmful the state and the secret police have always been to all forms of dissent. That is, while I might gleefully or tacitly approve of consequences for people on the far right, it is much more true that these malign and mendacious marginalizations have targeted, imprisoned, cancelled, and even murdered people on the left. 


I have another million reasons to tell you why I don’t care if you sing bad Jesus music on airplanes (to pluck a culture-war non-crisis of this week) or if you hate people that sing bad Jesus music on airplanes. I do care that we all have our basic needs met and foster difficult conversations with friends across the chasms of culture wars. In this season of Easter, in this time of fragile hope and desperation, I recommit myself to be slower to judge others or myself, especially their motives or sincerity and to seek peace and human solidarity that transcends the fractures and ideological divides in our world. 


Just writing these words has made me want to call some friends, long-term friends that I have in my own community that I have stopped talking to because of “politics.” Trying to reconcile those friendships may be frustrating or impossible, but the tug of love and compassion in my heart are real. If I want everyone to be less dogmatic and hateful today about Russians, for example, I need to be less dogmatic and hateful about, gulp-ugh-spit, Republicans. 


Somehow I know that everything I have said here will be seen as too simplistic or too something: naive, idealistic, enabling, soft on my enemies. But somehow, also, I feel a deeper rumble, way deep down, that says I too have been too judgy, too toxic, too harsh, too ideological about too many things and that abiding human empathy, agape love, compassion, mutual aid, and solidarity, these values transcend it all. 

In one of his last blogs before his death, John Shuck wrote this: “These are dangerous times. They do not have to be fearful times. Fears will come up. They will arise. Our old foe, fear, will attack us and want to drive us. Love, Courage, and Joy are stronger than fear, when we give them control and let them drive our beliefs and actions.


Acting from Love, Courage, and Joy will result in actions that reflect our true selves. They will be beautiful actions whether or not they result in outcomes that will be convincing to others. But they will defeat the Monster in that the Monster will not control our true self. When we act from fear, the Monster controls us. When we act from Love, Courage, and Joy, the Monster cannot control us.”

 


Monday, March 28, 2022

Merton, Jesus, War, & More


 Notes from a Zoom To Gather unchurch Sunday thing on 3.27.2022
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video from the message part of the gathering: https://youtu.be/T2mP0fzGtMk

Hebrews 2 - the Message

Since the One who saves and those who are saved have a common origin, Jesus doesn’t hesitate to treat them as family, saying,

I’ll tell my good friends, my brothers and sisters, all I know about you;

I’ll join them in worship and praise to you.

Again, he puts himself in the same family circle when he says,

Even I live by placing my trust in God.


Louisville epiphany

It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. … I have the immense joy of being humyn, a member of a race in which God as Godself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the humyn condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”


My remarks

As you all know, I have been struggling with my faith for at least the last two years. It’s been a season for me of what many call “Deconstruction.” Breaking up with a blowtorch & a chisel every infrastructure of doctrine, staring into the existential abyss looking for a new understanding of God. I have been dabbling in pantheism & animism, reading Rumi every day. As some of you know, I have been attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Cookeville. But I just can’t seem to shake Jesus. 


When we talk about the better world that is possible, the new worlds that is always flowers bursting in the cracked sidewalk, the new world being born in the shell of the old, the old school Christian tendency is to call that real & dreamed, that already & not yet place, they call it the Kingdom of God or the reign of God. 


For years, I have been much more familiar & friendly to MLK’s paraphrase: the Beloved Community, a term Martin actually borrowed from Josiah Royce. So who is Jesus in the Beloved Community. Late last year I wrote a blog that Jesus really isn’t King, & that is a good thing. In the days since, I have started identifying as Christian-adjacent, finally surrendering to the spiritual-but-not-religious trajectory I had already been on for some time; but what is the place for Jesus in my new expansive ecumenical space?

I am not seeking new gods; in fact I am done with Gods altogether, at least in the toxic or coercive or codependent micromanaging authoritarian sense that too many power-hungry preachers & teachers prefer. So I had an epiphany reading Merton’s epiphany!


Jesus is our brother, our sibling, our colleague, our comrade, our fellow traveler & co-conspirator in the subversive nonviolent revolution. No thrones or titles required, only endless banquet tables & a radical redistribution of resources so all are fed. Maybe Jesus as sibling really is the new thing. No oaths or vows or promises required, just a baptism into this merry band of rabble. 


“The free choice of global suicide, made in desperation by the world’s leaders & ratified by the consent & cooperation of all their citizens, would be a moral evil second only to the Crucixion.” - Merton, from “Peace: Christian duties & perspectives”


If I am honest, I don’t think most Christians or churches believe or teach that the Crucifixion was a moral evil. I think too many teach a transactional cross, where a masochistic sadistic caricature of God simultaneously commits suicide & kills God’s son. In all the metrics of atonement theory, the cross is a bet & a bargain, with God, with the devil, with the future of all humanity. 


But what if the cross was just the electric chair of its era. What if the cross is as I have been told by historical theologians more well-read than me, a terminal torture technique to intimidate subversives & seal submission to empire. 


If the cross is an evil of the magnitude that Merton describes, it is recognition of the execution, of the lynching, of the authority-sanctioned brutal killing that crucifixions in the first century are reported to have been. 


For me this last month, the war has been reconverting.


From the whispers on the news of an imminent invasion, to waking up to Putin’s creepy announcement on Thursday, February 24th, to seeing the cruelty & the carnage of a full scale air & ground invasion & the continued human cost as the war enters its second month.


My frail & fragile & probably futile searching for hope, it can grasp for hot takes on hot war & cold war, but might also seek solace outside the steady chatter of the commentariat. 


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More from Merton

from “Peace: Christian Duties & Perspectives”

Politics pretends to use all this force as its servant, to harness it for social purposes, for the “good of [humanity].” The intention is certainly good. The technological development of power in our time is certainly a challenge, but that does not make it essentially evil. On the contrary, it can be and should be a very great good. In actual fact, however, the furious speed with which our technological world is plunging toward disaster is evidence that no one is any longer fully in control --and this includes the political leaders.

A simple study of the steps which led to the dropping of the first A-bomb on Hiroshima is devastating evidence of the way well-meaning men, the scientists and leaders of a victorious nation, were guided step by step, without realizing it, by the inscrutable yet simple “logic of events” to fire the shot that was to make the cold war inevitable and prepare the way inexorably for World War III. This they did purely and simply because they thought in all sincerity that the bomb was the simplest and most merciful way of ending World II and perhaps all wars, forever.

The tragedy of our time is then not so much the malice of the wicked as the helpful futility even of the best intentions of “the good.” We have war-makers, war criminals, indeed. But we ourselves, in our very best efforts for peace, find ourselves maneuvered unconsciously into positions where we too can act as criminals. For there can be no doubt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, though not fully deliberate crimes, nevertheless crimes. And who was responsible? No one. Or “history.” We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results as history. 

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It is well understood on both sides that atomic war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for thie military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihiliation.