Wednesday, October 6, 2021

walking away: a rambling blog as part of my formal departure from organized christianity

 


between 1979 & 1981, bob dylan released three seminal religious records: in retrospect, this is known as his “born-again period” or “christian phase” or what have you. i don’t know that he ever really renounced all that, he just moved on. “gotta serve somebody” still makes it into a setlist, of this i am sure. today i am accepting that the 11 years of my dylanesque christian phase have ended. 


while i am still very much interested in jesus & theology, i am no longer actively involved in an established christian community, outside a tiny, online microchurch that we convened in-person as a supper church, some 11 years ago in my college town, whose handful of continuing core members are now geographically dispersed around tennessee & far across the land.


i walked away from church before. I was 20 years old & left to pursue the trinity of sex, drugs, & rock n roll, also aligned with an eclectic earthy neopaganism. when i crawled back to church in 2009, i was newly sober from alcoholism, still struggling with other generalized addictions, with a whopper of a testimony. dylan’s passion & abandon on “slow train coming” came to me like so much miraculous morning manna.

i walked away from church before. that time seemed strangely simple, this time it’s been hard. but after 15 months of flip-flopping & floundering in my heart & head, i have finally admitted that it’s over, & the emotional floodgates have opened. online “exvangelical” is such a hot hashtag, but “alienated mainliner” just doesn’t seem to have the same Twitter gravitas. 


so after 12 years of being deeply invested & engaged in the life & work of a mainline christian church, i am walking away again, feeling acutely unchurched & unchurchable, but still very interested in the wisdom traditions at the margins & in the wilderness, the counterculture of new religious movements & more. that is, i am not an atheist, never have been to my knowledge, still identify as a mystic hippy theologian. maybe i am post-christian or christian-adjacent or christopagan as i thought i was for some time.


yet i feel a need not to organize or systemize in doctrine that which is the defiant disorganized organic journey of an ADHD dopamine fiend. i stand at the precipice of theological incoherence which is a strange place for an academically-trained theologian. truly my theological perspectives are food for my spiritual sustenance. what do we believe, why do we believe it. i won’t be writing any treatises after bonhoeffer & barth, not after rob bell, either, but i am still interested in paul tillich & peter rollins. 


i am not a polytheist or an atheist, but i am also not not those things. not agnostic or undecided either, an accumulated body of religious experience brimming with the mystical & ecstatic, the angry & desperate, maybe this is what whitman meant by containing multitudes.


a couple years ago, i remember this jarring  conversation with a colleague who happens to also be a christian. this was a season ago when my Jesus-card was still laminated & around my neck like a lanyard at a rock festival. but i don’t remember the particulars of the topic, just that i shared a certain common colloquial phrase, that served as a kind of affirmation. you know the phrase, have perhaps used the phrase in a similar manner from time-to-time. & the response i received startled me. 


i was being accused of superstition for using that phrase. paganism maybe. nature worship who knows. but that phrase ripped at me because it spoke to a thing, an object if you will, on the material plane. but god is not in the thing, don’t say that, the person said. this startled me because i am thinking about it however many years later. the christian supremacy stretch. your religion is superstition, mine is reality. disembodied toxic theology. of course i was strongly identifying as christian then, a pastor even, a religious professional. 


i walked away from that encounter, pondering what i perceived as a scolding.

the phrase -- i am sure you are wondering what it was. well, it was “knock on wood.” 


google tells me: “one common explanation traces the phenomenon to ancient pagan cultures such as the celts, who believed that spirits and gods resided in trees.” see my religion or anti-religion or whatever-the-heck my animist life-loving freak-on is, this knows that the trees are alive. the trees. are alive. churches hung-up on superstition-shaming, i am not so sure about. 


to be clear, i have nothing against superstition or magic or believing in the tooth fairy or santa claus or the hindu pantheon or isis or dionysus or mama mary in a pastry or angels on the clouds. what upsets me now is the impossibility of genuine interspiritual interfaith anything when one religion excludes itself from the truly ineffable mystical weird whatever--but calls down fire on its enemies in all kinds of hyper-violent hocus pocus as seen among white right-wing evangelicals today. when so much of evangelicalism today looks like its own form of curses & spells, it seems disingenuous at best for christians to go calling out others for animism among the trees.


jesus as i knew him was such an enchanted evader of authority, such a shambling sorcerer & disreputable lowlife that i think he would just walk into most of these churches today to shoplift supplies, use the wrong gender restroom, & chug the grape juice wishing it was wine again.

does anyone care that i spent easter sunrise service dancing & shouting amen & taking pictures of the flower cross with my cellphone camera & generally just having a good time, ambling about the outdoor worship space. that would not be a thing except my friend the preacher “got calls” from concerned parishioners about how my behavior was disrupting the service.

someone even suggested to my face before leaving that i needed a good apostolic church. too bad we don’t having any queer-inclusive deadhead-friendly pentecostal congregations around here. bec cranford is in georgia & i am in tennessee. so my next dead show will be more church than that was. this is a problem for churches everywhere. it is not a problem for deadheads as long as bobby is still alive. 


“the ones who walk from omelas” by ursula k leguin is a mindblowing short story from 1973. the first time that i read it, i was tricked, treated, swept away by the images of utopia, like i still sometimes get swept away at the big music festivals today, like I was intoxicated at the smaller festivals back when. the narrator’s devious hook was working on me. 


but the narrator pranked me in the philosophical & prophetic way that le guin does. the entire premise of the story is that the bliss of the privilege hangs on a moral contract to perpetuate sadistic torture, the price of salvation for you is damnation for somebody else. willful torture of the one for the privilege of the many. 


the damned child permanently punished for every other glorious glory is jesus, is child labor, is the haitian, is the afghan. for we live in that world without end, not amen, but goddamn. we don’t walk away. we make endless excuses for staying in our mini mansions. perhaps it’s impossible to walkaway we think. some have tried, but such abandonment & rejection come at a great cost.


the doctrine of total depravity & original sin that lurk behind everything in my tradition have been etched into extremes. anthropologies of radical love &  grace alternatively flatten into placid pious platitudes that don’t put food on the plates of the suffering. guilt-&-shame-fueled fixes from left & right are only fostering more guilt & shame, fixing nothing. total depravity keeps fulfilling itself which was the wisdom behind the chesterton quip that “original sin” was the only doctrine that we could prove.

strangely, one of the things I will miss about the formal christian paradigm is the arc of the sin-redemption narrative, even original sin. 


as a formerly hopeless drunk, recovering alcoholic, there is something strangely comforting with beginning at: you are a total loser, turd on the bottom of the boot, POS blankety-blank. Because selfish addicts who have had a bottom, have known suffering & loneliness, are not overly naive or idealistic about their inner god/goddess saints angels etc. 


more sadly, the institutional evil proliferating from far-right theocratic churches today -- you know, the whole America is chosen & perfect, anti-mask anti-CRT crowd -- these folks especially could benefit from apologizing for inherited collective sin. it seems their own tradition doesn't apply to themselves.

since i am in recovery, the 12 steps offer me a structured rubric for confession & reparations, so i have that to lean on in lieu of the formal collective prayers of confession, that are one of the best parts of our liturgy.


whatever the great mystery might be, it can’t be a mere projection of our worst qualities onto a divine daddy figure, where the toxic & abusive suddenly become somehow majestic mentoring. “god is in control” is not shown by the evidence. a model of the divine micromanager in reality looks like a monstrous evil, not the radical compassion seen in the examples of buddha or christ. the hard lessons of deconversion & deconstruction include accepting the facts that even the most liberal or liberating traditions within the abrahamic stream bring with them inherently harmful ideas, practices, & structures. 


while i have learned so much from the “exvangelical” movement about religious trauma & abuse, i do not think that the mainline progressive churches are in any way immune from spreading toxic theology or propagating religious harm. but “alienated mainline presbyterian” just doesn’t have the twitter gravitas that “exvangelical” does! 


from chasing a religion that is all love & beauty & light to chasing all the other unattainable utopian ideals to accepting the sometimes gorgeous often grotesque unusually messy realities that are always already imperfect, like so much moist fuzzy moss overtaking what once was a deck. 


everywhere we drive the backroads whether rural or urban we see the decadent decrepit decay of our empire in decline, but we keep building it back up, awaiting the floods of change, as the tidal wave takes down another fortress of ego-fed certainty. the whole world is at the first-step, to say it in a 12-step recovery way. & we are powerless over our addictions to this way of life that cannot last. & we are powerless over everything that is yet to come.


so i am walking away. learning about religious trauma & adverse religious experiences. forgiving the church, even the parts that damaged me, because i still like that forgiveness thing. accepting acceptance, letting go & letting go again.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

“Am I Okay” -- too many notes on my latest Apocalypse-Scrolling of Christian Twitter, on Sleepless Podcast-Listening, on Getting Canceled, & on Defending Michael Gungor

 [photo: the blogger & his spouse with Michael Gungor after a show back in 2013]



“Am I Okay” -- too many notes on my latest Apocalypse-Scrolling of Christian Twitter, on Sleepless Podcast-Listening, on Getting Canceled, & on Defending Michael Gungor

“Am I a ghost

Am I an animal

Am I an angel

Am I God

Am I meaningless

Am I anything at all

Am I

Am I a spirit

Am I the chaos

Am I the light

Am I alright

Am I loved

Am I an alien

Am I a sight

Am I alright

Am I a dream

Am I a memory

Am I a wave

Am I okay” - Michael Gungor, “Am I”

On the character assassinations you see on Christian Twitter: Do we need bigger brains & harder hearts? Do we really need this great grandstanding, so grim in grace? Why are you so deep in doctrine yet so frail with your forgiveness?

How do you get canceled? What is canceling? If you have already been canceled, can you get canceled again? 

Apparently for mystic musical artist (Gungor, Weiwu, Liturgists) & podcaster (The Liturgists, Loving This), Michael Gungor (MG), the case is that you can get canceled again & again. 

MG’s recent re-canceling came around July 24th, over a mostly beautiful, well-intentioned tweet; this tagged my attention so poignantly, & has haunted me since, so much that I want to throw him & his family some real solidarity & love. 

The whole furious flap was over these words:
Jesus was Christ. Buddha was Christ.  Muhammad was Christ.
Christ is a word for the Universe seeing itself. You are Christ.  We are the body of Christ.
-see @MichaelGungor

More on the actual tweet in a moment, but first, these asides. Keep in mind, now, that MG has almost 60 thousand Twitter followers. By comparison, in my recent year of trauma-drama & sort-of-canceling at my church (where I resigned) & university (where I still work), the notoriety of the situation barely pushed me past 1000 followers on my main account, a milestone I had been trying to reach so slowly & haphazardly, since first joining the platform in 2010. (Shameless plug: follow @teacheronradio & @presbyhippy on-the-Twitter.)

But should there at least be some guidelines here, like you don’t get to “cancel” someone, but still keep following them all the socials, for the sheer sake of trolling, gaslighting, & just generally cyber-bullying them? I mean how helpful is it to say, “I hate your heresy & you are leading yourself & others to hell, bruh, but we will definitely still use your alt-CCM hits in worship as a tool in our evangelistic efforts to bring every white alienated hipster teen to Jesus.” 

Really, it seems strange on the soapbox hype-chamber of Twitter to scold someone for “centering themselves” when, if you are on Twitter, you oh-hyper-critical-you, have already centered yourself when you signed up for Twitter.

Why am I currently feeling so compelled to take up for Michael Gungor? 

As a fellow mystical interspiritual traveler, I guess I really identify with Michael Gungor’s journey, because his spiritual journey, like mine, has included everything & the kitchen sink of theological exploration: evangelical fervor & radical rejection, rock-n-roll traveling & psychedelic tripping, accepting & rejecting “the church,” seeking & losing community, loving & wrestling with Jesus (or Josh, as he was called on a recent Liturgists podcast, if you prefer).

About that tweet: not unlike a “was-there-a-literal-Noah-or-flood”-controversy of some years ago, so-called “orthodox evangelicals” really doubled down. I remember that time about the Noah thing, but this somehow seems worse, maybe because everything seems worse now. The haters really piled on this time with vigor & venom, almost in unison, with virtual blood in the eyes & drool on the lips, from the religious right & the religious left. 

The critique from my fellow religious lefties seemed to flow around the same essence of: universalism is too vague, too white, a version of what Stephen Prothero promoted with his book: God Is Not One. 
On the one side, people viewed MG as a serious Christian (this is up for grabs) who was imposing a majority-white version of Christ on other traditions that are not seen as majority-white streams. In other words, did MG procure explicit consent from the prophet (peace be upon him) & Siddharta before making that tweet? 

This is the cultural imperialism flaw, which may have some merit, except most everyone knows that this is not how MG meant it at all. On an adjacent hollering, the criticism goes like this: “it’s all Christ” probably means that nothing is Christ, so this is not universalism but a bland & ubiquitous dulling of the spirit’s sharper edges. 

On that last criticism, we get one of the funnier clap backs, which has a thousand more  “likes” than the parent-tweet: “Michael you can't keep pointing at things in your room and saying they're Christ.” Oh really? What about that time the apostle Paul brings up a random rock from the Hebrew scriptures & calls that Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:4)

This reminds me of the furious & confused objections my students sometimes have to the “Footnote to Howl” by Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, where he says everything, even especially body parts & typewriters, are holy. 

The problem, of course, for the Christians, with “you can’t say everything is Christ” is that the Bible basically says this on a few mystical occasions, a favorite being Colossians 3:11. 
Now from the left cultural objections, what about Universalism is so bad? It is its own valid tradition. In an effort to protect the particulars of Islam & Buddhism from an alleged affront, aren’t you making an equally problematic attack against all Unitarian Universalists, a new religious movement founded in 1961 & with at least a half million adherents in the US & Canada? 

From an almost obvious angle, many of the ideas that MG talks about on Twitter & on The Liturgists podcast are also explored in great depth by reputable spiritual thinkers like Richard Rohr, Matthew Fox, Thomas Merton, Bede Griffiths, Andrew Harvey, & Rami Shapiro, to name only a few. There’s actually nothing that novel or wrong about MG’s tweet, & the main difference I can glean from the short list of above authors, is that they are much older or deceased & are not exvangelical Grammy-nominated musicians who are really active on Twitter. 

MG may have mis-paraphrased Richard Rohr but most of his haters on that thread & its thousands of comments, have never really read Rohr. Bonus: maybe there was some unintended cultural imperialism in that tweet, but universalism itself is not always inherently so.

The core of universalism is a beautiful, needed concept in both spirituality & politics, worth so little of the scorn getting thrown around. It makes me think this was all about a pre-occupation with folks disliking MG's personality, like "we can't believe inclusive Universalism if it includes this guy."

In addition to all of this, there have been other recent controversies concerning the public face & management style, if you will, of The Liturgists. Is it a collaborative collective or just MG’s personal cottage industry or what? What about the departure of former collaborator Science Mike & the charges he has sent out on Twitter? 

The Liturgists website definitely promotes itself as a community. It’s been many, many years since I attended a Liturgists event, which I did as they were transitioning to that platform, after doing things primarily under the Gungor band’s banner. I am not currently a “member,” so I cannot vouch for their online community culture. 

They claim: “The mission of the Liturgists is to help others love more and suffer less, and we do that by providing these spiritual technologies and creating a radically inclusive and non-judgmental space where people can have room to doubt, to wrestle with questions and to be fully themselves so that this work can truly become ‘the work of the people.’”

This blog started in my head, when I could not sleep, & started to listen to recent episodes of The Liturgists podcast, a whole recent season where Michael & many collaborators wrestle with their fractured yet full feelings about Christianity. After a far journey away from church, even full-on rejection, giving the religion the finger as MG put it, this latest season seems to be about taking baby steps back into the wading pool side of the vast sea that we call Christendom. 

As someone going through a spiritual-but-not-religious phase at the edges of church, I actually need to dip my toes in the shallow end too, not just diving back into the deep end, like I did when reconverting from drunken heathenism back in 2009. 

As I discovered right away & I am discovering, this metaphor of depth-perception falls apart, when I realize how infinite & interlocking everything is, how deep everything is. 

Hey, maybe “Josh” (Jesus) & Christ are infinite & interlocking, too, with all & everything, even with MG & even with me. 

One thing all this did was get me to listen to Gungor again. In 2019, they officially retired Gungor as a band name, & they released an archive album of outtakes & unreleased material called Archives. It is two hours well-spent, & I would recommend that as well as all their previous albums. 










Saturday, March 27, 2021

Abandoned, anti-authoritarian, dirtbag theology

 Abandoned. Anti-authoritarian. Dirtbag Theology. 




Suddenly again, we are at that part of the church year, that time when & where Jesus gets popped by the cops, ditched by his friends, & lynched by a mob. No matter how many chocolate eggs we consume, that true Holy Week there is some nasty crap. 

No matter how many times you read the Holy Week stories, this is some terrifying medicine. How they ever made this messy legend into religion still baffles me. Even God abandons God. 

Much of this last year, I have wanted to abandon theology. But I keep coming back, & in the midst of anger & alienation, & instead of abandoning theology, I have found an abandoned theology. 

Abandoned theology is Holy Saturday stuff. Where we are honest about where God has left us, alone with the murdered corpse of Christ, just taken down from the tree. 

That is, this is another way of living with the embodied Jesus, where we don’t shield our eyes from the shitty reality of imperial murders, & cops still killing random people for just being black, not to mention a world murdering actual rebels from Bonhoeffer to King to Romero, all like our contemporary Jesus, bleeding cold in the street. 

Abandoned theology is also anti-authoritarian theology. 

Hierarchies are no longer holy for us, if they ever were. Indeed, the construct of holiness as being nice, polite, civil, or pious has been exposed for the two-faced other-worldy conflict-avoidance bunk that it probably has always been. Today’s unchurched will not find their way back to the feet of the cross with toxic positivity. 

Some spirited mystics & misfits have dismissed themselves from or have been cut off from the ecclesial framework of the established churches. That’s my journey, anyways.

Terms of leadership for the unchurched might be moments of rhetorical affection, assigned anointings in the playful service of the upside-down kingdom, where we are all jesters & tricksters at the margins of religion & revolution. 

Abandoned anti-authoritarian theology is an open-ended process theology, honest about climate change, about hetero-cis-patriarchy & all constricting political systems, about the profound absence of some supernatural magical quick fix to all that is fucked up in our world. 

In subtle & not-so-subtle ways, when church doctrine is overcome by cheesy decorum,  social expectations transcend the most subversive exegesis. Put plainly, in the humanitarian vocations of church & academy, codes of nice are rules that splice the soul of revolution into a revolting submission to white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. 

In-yer-face truth-telling is so uncomfortable & disconcerting that I, too, avoided it for so long. When doing professional church work, I drank from the dopey downers in the drugged cup of always doing things the nice & polite ways, always sneaking in the subtle subversion without an ounce of snark, hidden under clerical robes like a flask of something strong. Fact is, nobody noticed the sneaky subversion because it was so safe, so soft, so not actually subversive. As a singer once taught me, “If you don’t offend someone, then nothing has been done.”

But it is too easy to get drunk-on-status. The pulpit is as pacifying as it is potentially prophetic, & as I learned & as so many preachers learned, the most faithful among the frozen chosen don’t want to get their worldviews questioned, much less their comfort zones punctured. 

In my case, it was my folks’ literal clinging to the lie of the confederacy that finally sent me packing from my temporary pastorate. 

Trumpism made white supremacists feel safe again, & the truth since Charlottesville unlocked & unleashed the racist core of the south, revealing deeply abiding racist values that so many simply refuse to even admit exist, so much that even talking about racism so openly is much worse than racism itself. 

Dirtbag theology emerged for me last summer, from some punk-rock cussing gospel songs I found on the Spotify. But it was this new desperate dirtbag theology that kept me from turning my face from the cross. 

Of course this is a dirtbag theology for the anti-authoritarian left, because as the we know the civility suckers & piety police are the same people who embraced a foul-mouthed p-word-grabbing sexist racist dictator as their leader. Dirtbag theology is my impolite response to the immense immoderation of the latest imperialism of the mind.

They really don’t care for the niceness that they only impose on us in certain sectors. The fraternity style fandom (filled with lots of fascist females, too) for their Putin-asset spoiled punk-ass former president was founded, in part, on shit-posting basement-dwelling meme-magicians & so much more suckasss sorcery; it’s actually hilarious that I sort of feel the need to define my descent into dirtbag doctrine as morally necessary. 

Censorship was never & will never be the way to liberation. Sad to say, tone-policing on the left is as dangerous a temptation as it is on the right. The first time I encountered the idea of a dirty gospel, of a dirty God, of the real riff-raff aspect of Jesus & the disciples as ragtag rebels, it came from an evangelical. 

Say it: we don’t need to concede risk-taking to the religious right. As we on the left continue to talk about all our necessary rejections of the conspirituality of Q-Anon & all its attendant aberrations, we can also talk about the need that all we humans have for the weird & the wonderful.

In the last summer of America on fire in my own dark summer of soul searching, in the weeks & months from George Floyd’s crucifixion to the November election, from a particular small-town June 6th protest to the well known January 6th insurrection, dirtbag theology kept my hands dirty & my heart hungry, renewing my commitment to work for the unhoused & for the incarcerated. 

If we love the marginalized Christ of these people on our world’s margins, that love requires a deep well of tenacity & imagination to resist the utter horror of our current realities. 

Not-truth-telling, not reacting, not finding friendship & solidarity among the young, not fanning the spirit of revolt, that only seems to feed back into the mouth of the self-perpetuating beast that brought us here. We are in some kind of fucked up late capitalist Babylon moment, friends.  

Maybe some of my more humanist-atheist-secular friends decided to read this & are laughing out loud, like why bother. They might even be worried about why their old pal Sunfrog is still insisting on his religion & spirituality trip, that has truth be told, taken oh-so-many many forms since those earnest misty-eyed church camp-singalongs in the late- 70s through the mid-80s  -- from Presbyterian to psychedelic neopagan & back to Presbyterian again & now some kind of eclectic married monk, interspiritual tree-hugging anarchist ecumenical-Jesus-freak. 

Here’s the thing, as a sober drunk who has also been an angry unstable ADHD dry-drunk a-lot-lately, my need for spiritual practice is my need for water, for air. 

If I get drunk again, I die. 

The direct experience of a higher-power that I call God & that I experience so real & so raw in the person of Jesus & even more tangibly in wild unkempt nature, even in my current unchurched exile place, that mysterious mystical maybe, that profound mythopoetic possibility, that is ground & comfort in the chaotic comforter who made the really random real. God is my known unknown. 

Also, my church friends might be worried too. I know I have made some of my older conversation partners & mentors uncomfortable with my insistence on including eff-bombs in my current poetic & theological vernacular. 

But I take comfort because I can hear my Lord whispering in my ear along with the street-fighting youth of today’s movements, fuck the white supremacist church, fuck racism, & fuck these fuckers who are so afraid to fucking talk about these issues that they would exile & ostracize any who dare call them out. 

Lest anyone think this dirty theology is all dark & dire for this time of global reckoning, we only need the dirt outside to remind us that the dirt in the ground contains multitudes of mycelium magic, that even the trees talk to each other down there. No this irreverent revolution is at its end a playful prankster prance of joyfully dirty defiance. The wild wonder of the world is worth saving, dirt & all. Especially dirt & all us dirtbag theologians. 
 
-- Holy Week 2021
somewhere in middle “Tanasi,” on the traditional land of the Cherokee people & the Yuchi tribe, also used or occupied by the Shawnee, Chickasaw, & Muscogee Creek people

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Theological Insurrections, Election Reflections, and Impeachment Prayers: Uncomfortable Yet Liberating Thoughts for Ugly Times

Did the Biden-Harris election redeem America? 

The palpable existential relief that millions felt at the formal end of the Trump regime was some kind of a spiritual sacred soothing event. But did that simply save America from itself? Probably not. This better world is not yet, and this change is not quite, not really redemption. 

Certainly the recent elections of progressive black representatives like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman or that victory by Reverend Senator and Ebenezer pastor Raphael Warnock, are all very hopeful signs, but this important shift is a topic for another time. Even if many of us feel we can breathe again, we cannot go back to sleep. 

The shocking theologies and ideologies of Trumpism have transformed everything we may have once wanted to believe about some Lincolnian better angels. Trumpism and white nationalism shocked us again into realizing that particular demons have been with America since the beginning. 

Speaking as someone whose personal faith is furiously frustrated by the fierce chokehold that Trumpism and white supremacy have on the American church, as someone who enthusiastically supported the Biden-Harris ticket, even if my politics are far to their left, and as someone profoundly relieved by the results of the general election, I believe it is definitely a devious and tempting narrative to view the attempted insurrection of January 6th as a purely privileged spasm, as an anti-American, anti-Christian aberration. January 6th was real, and it was painfully perfectly obviously all-American. 

If the profuse profundity of patriotic and religious symbols are to be seen and not unseen, this was a deeply religious revolt and profoundly patriotic riot, another 1776 just as the proponents declared. Set aside your romantic revisions about the Revolutionary War for this essay. We are better off if not deceived by the always heroic, always redemptive narratives about America, that are such sweet coping mechanisms, compared to the aggressive abyss of sadness and shame included in the actual origin stories of the national project. 

 While there are obvious religious heresies rampant in today’s religious right, we do little good to treat them as such, from a holier-than-them theological soapbox, because the worst of these various authoritarian heresies have been with our Christian and Americans traditions since the beginning.

Moreso, some of the American versions of these heresies have mutated into an orthodox mask of unholy magic, whereby the preachers and proprietors of the Trumpist church now control narratives of Christian fidelity in certain sectors of the universal church. Moreover, the powers of prayer and persuasion, such as they are in the progressive Church and Christian left, have so utterly failed to rebuke and expel this evil Trumpist beast from our religion. 

And any dreamy denials fail to understand how certain elements of this tyrannical and maniacal horror have been with us here since Columbus landed. So for those without time to read the rest, a thesis of sorts. Why does it feel so wrong to some to wrestle with this question: maybe the insurrection was as all-American and Bible-believing as its symbols suggest? 

If we wrestle honestly, if we examine carefully, if we report our findings accurately, hasn’t this arrogant, entitled, aggressive, egregious effort been the all-American muscular Christian way always and already? MLK said our country is the greatest purveyor of violence the world has ever known. Full-stop. Why should we be surprised when some rich, entitled, aggrieved, angry, white Americans used violence to get their way? Not, as we should admit, in their minds, to start a coup, but to stop one.

Because in their world of conspiracies and controversies and “conspiritualities,” Biden lost. I don’t believe in some pure personal unreconstructed historical evil, not some singular Satan or devil character as accepted as fact by some religious folks. But if there were such a character in this phase of imperial Christianity, of course Evil would be a Christian, a tither or a preacher or President even, come to utterly ransack and render unrecognizable the church from within. 

 A few years ago during my stint as a congregational pastor, I was attending a small church conference, hosted by a right-wing remnant in my mostly progressive Protestant denomination. One of the workshop leaders flippantly remarked, in passing, that our PCUSA leaders no longer believed the historical confession that “Jesus Is Lord.” Because, get this, we acknowledged at a General Assembly some time ago, the validity of other faith traditions as having some integrity in revealing the God we know in Jesus and as the Creator of this wild creation. 

I never experienced Christ’s authority as Christian exclusivism, but hey that’s me with my Quaker anabaptist anarchist tendencies. Interfaith isn’t anti-Jesus; exclusivism is. Because Jesus, if Jesus is Jesus, is radical inclusion. 

 But if in light of the last five years, in light of George Floyd, in light of so many other Black Lives that didn’t matter to America, in light of January 6th, can we say that Christian exclusivism leads to Christian exceptionalism leads to Christian nationalism? This shows us, ever so clearly, that it is that very “one true faith” arrogance that dethrones Christ as Lord much more quickly, because it fosters a billion idolatries on the head of a pin, it worships a million golden calves with a church drunk on power.

 In this recent context, Christian exclusivism excludes Christ and makes Trump their Lord and Savior. Make no mistake, the Christian symbolism that saturated January 6th was totally sincere and sincerely terrible. The so-called Christian “prophets,” these populist hucksters were so invested in Trump’s power that violent insurrection was the only antidote left to fiddle with the unreality of their utterly failed predictions. 

 When the Christians at the insurrection erected gallows to threaten murder, they murdered the Christ within all of us. But the Christians also murdered Christ when they killed indigenous inhabitants of Turtle Island. Christians murdered Christ when they hunted slaves and when some men murdered Emmet Till. Black Lives Matter is an essential part of an American religious reckoning because it reminds us that Jesus was lynched by the state, and with every extrajudicial execution of a black person by an officer of the state, we see that lynching and crucifixions are far from a thing of the past.

Christian nationalism is so anti-Christ that my take to amplify this take gets lost in the noise. But we need to keep saying it. Nationalism is anti-Jesus. Nationalism betrays the better take of liberation theology that is threaded through the entire Bible text: you know, the Bible as a story of overcoming oppression and declaring debtors jubilees and liberating captives and toppling kings and healing sick folks and feeding hungry folks. The Bible as liberation is such an obvious thing, that some of us are so audacious despite nationalist heresy, that we still cling to the Moses and Jesus stories, saying these stories are our stories. 

And let this be said, this story isn’t religious per se, but it is in some bigger sense “political,” for everyone’s liberation and the healing of all creation. But yet, that sad and disgusting fact remains for a wide swath of white American evangelicals, there is nothing more Christian than nationalism, than theocracy, and everyone on the Christian left, the secular left, the interfaith ecumenical left, the atheist humanist left, we threaten and subvert this gross power grab at every turn. We are the heretics to them!

Others have said it on bigger platforms, but I will say it again: don’t say “This is not who we are.” America is Trumpism at one place, at one depraved, base, disgusting, well-armed, angry and unhappy place. For those of us in the resistance, remember the racist nationalist fascists are our neighbors and family members. 

And why is this reckoning needed? This: a problem that has led to this sickening season of racist terror is our patent refusal to deal honestly and collectively with the racist terrors on which this whole experiment was founded. The healing hopeful radical alternative to alt-right nationalism is not neoliberal nationalism. 

The solution to the problem of Trumpism is not Bidenism. Our hope, our other other option, our fourth-quarter-hail-mary, our last- ditch-last-stand is the Beloved Community. And for all our lefty liberal inclusive universalist faith folk, even for all our spiritual but not religious folks, I have a proposal for right now. It’s not yet time to take our Amanda Gorman poetry buzz into the meditation bunker for extended self-care sabbaticals (though periodic self-care and spiritual disciplines are a necessity). 

It’s time, dare I say, to reclaim the religious vocabularies of rebuke and spiritual warfare to exorcise the evils of white supremacy and unfettered capitalism and effusive earth-rape and extensive economic exploitation and anti-body anti-love anti-queer repressions from our churches and communities. I want to call on some lefty interfaith prayer warriors to visualize global liberation and the Beloved Community by fighting with love, fighting against all these evil hatreds in our community and fighting for Black Lives, for Queer Lives, for the life of the planet itself. 

 Going into next week, I am praying for the impeachment trial to end in conviction, if that’s the Spirit’s will. I am praying for a stern rebuke of the leader of white nationalist authoritarian fascism in America, Donald John Trump. 

 Now, I know that spiritual warfare, exorcism, and rebuke are not comfortable categories for folks on the religious left. Some of us are victims of church hurt and church harm where rebuke was used against us for being gay, for being unmarried and having sex, for being divorced, for voting for Obama, you get the idea. So I encourage folks to do these prayers with others, hating principalities but not people, exorcising evil while maintaining empathy. 

The best example of using spiritual warfare against demonic authoritarianism that I can think of comes from the Christian and New Age left in the late 60s and early 70s, when people did theatrical liturgies of resistance against racists and warmakers. 

 From my prayer bunker, this plea for justice and rebuke comes not from some platform of abstract platitude, pleading that perfect democracy that was somehow soiled by this lie-spitting monster. We have never been that more perfect union, as better as it sounded when Obama said it. So by no means do I see this as some holy crusade to save democracy or to shore up the base of the Democratic Party.

 This is bigger than that, and actually, much simpler than that. Impeaching and now convicting Trump, rebuking Trump and his racist followers, these are acts of self-care and self-defense. Convicting Donald Trump and helping that sexist rapist racist fascist criminal finally find some consequences for his lifetime of evil. These are simple acts of boundary-setting and harm-reduction. 

 By excluding Donald Trump from the normal celebrity and distinguished sunset of other ex-presidents, doing this says to us and the world that some actions are evil beyond comparison, evil by every metric. Trump’s actions so violate even the most feeble and flawed social contracts as to merit a public scolding with tangible punishment. 

May this stern censure spur some modicum of reflection and repentance by Trump and Trumpists, all the while setting some boundaries in this society to protect us from another authoritarian jerk coming to power again in 2024. 

 As bad as Trump’s regime was domestically, and it was the worst sleepless nightmare of my life, save my personal bottom in alcoholism, someone pointed out that the Bush-Cheney years perpetrated much more actual evil in the world at large. That Trump’s isolationist idiocracies spared us a nuclear war and only gave us a civil war, that is some strange blessing, but one as a lifetime anti-nuke anti-war activist, I am still grateful about this. 

 So come on people of goodness and generosity and gratitude, give some spiritual energy this week to this fight and setting some things right. Impeached once and acquitted. Impeached twice and convicted? May it be so? May it be so.



Saturday, January 16, 2021

Liberate Criticism: Trump’s Rolling Reopen Revolts & Their Roots at the Intersection of Religion & Counterculture

 

Originally shared with friends via email in late April and early May 2020. Seems incredibly important to share publicly after 1-6-2021

I’m not in any regard a real serious fan of click-bait, hot-takes, or of-the-moment think-pieces, but the rolling revolts of the reopen America movement have really captured my attention, so my following mixture of sober observation and wild speculation about this whole unfolding drama. Maybe you can find some insights herein, maybe this is evidence I have been staying home too long. 

To begin, I have seen a lot of utterly baffled and indignant liberals and lefties denouncing this movement as the ultimate in white privilege hypocrisy and anti-science stupidity. We are social-distancing, not because we do not miss our families, schools, churches, concerts, games, and the like, but because we understand the communal, compassionate rationale for sheltering in place, together apart. 

Some of the denunciations reach a pitch of such demonization, part and parcel to the current polarization, that it’s hard to imagine my colleagues and comrades would be so deaf to the romantic adrenaline, the innate humanity, and passionately libertarian logic of the protesters. Mind you, I don’t agree with any of it, but I am trying to “get it.” In other times and contexts and for different causes, we would be the first to join the caravans and fuel the freedom rides. 

So the certain certainty of our dismissals frustrates me, in part because even on social media, I welcome postures that seek unity and commonality even across these divisive divides, but moreso, because a part of me not-so secretly sympathizes with the protesters rhetoric for the relaxation of restrictions and their hunger for human connection. For another, I would love to see people leave the Trump scene behind, not get more deeply recruited into its folds, because they are fiercely libertarian anti-quarantine. 

In fact for me, ideologies since 11/9/2016 have so cross-pollinated, fused, and mutated, such that I see folks on “both sides” (forgive me I hate these endless equivocations) lose their place in the cultural narrative. The strange appeal and disdain surrounding the Tulsi Gabbard presidential run would be a perfect example of this, but there are so many more, as we will soon see traces in different places. 

To be honest, I too have bristled at the more belligerent supporters of the shutdown, with their apparent need to police how others practice their social distancing. Early in my collection of pandemic poetry (to be published soon, I hope), I penned a piece of sympathy for the spring break revelers. Not that I supported the behaviors, but rather, I understood the kids’ determination to keep their plans to party. In retrospect, early March seems so early in this arc, that we really didn’t know that much then about all the coming risk, death, and devastation. 

But something triggered inside me watching the Michigan protests. I lived in that great Great Lake state for 12 formative teenage and twenty-something years in the last century, and it holds such a special place in my heart. While I have not followed Governor Whitmer closely, she is a powerful Democrat, alleged on the short-list for Biden’s VP. In part due to the heart-breaking Covid 19 disaster in my dear Detroit, the Michigan shutdown has been strict. The internet-fueled insurrection there in Lansing, in Ohio, Kentucky, elsewhere, however, egged-on by Trump’s “liberate” tweets has given me great pause, prompting some speculation herein.

To begin, late April is terrible timing. Last week, this week, next week, we should remember all the anniversaries: Oklahoma City Bombing, Waco standoff, Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings, and the far-far-right’s favorite--Hitler’s birthday. This unfolding and unraveling moment seems like a mess of extremist memes, coming to life before our very eyes. Mix all this with the warming spring weather and generalized cabin fever, and I fear this is only the beginning of a highly contentious, chaotic, destabilizing spring and summer. 

I decided I needed to write and share this, this week, because my hunch is that some of this could get much worse and fall off the rails if the worst elements were to get out of hand. I want to be wrong about this getting violent. Many of the “open America” protesters are pleading that they come from a good place. In the first part of this piece, I have tried to show how I sort-of get them, to a point.

When I got to Tennessee toward the end of the Clinton years, I was a leftish anti-authoritarian who had not voted for a President since Jesse Jackson in the 1988 Michigan primary, and I would have loved to have been at the Battle of Seattle. Always a mystic, I was a lapsed Christian who dabbled in Taoism, Buddhism, New Age, and neopagan practices, most closely aligned with the feminist activist Starhawk. Some of my other best influences were the anarchist writer Hakim Bey and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg. I also marched incessantly against Bush 2 and the endless wars, after finding jobs as a university instructor in two different Tennessee college towns, while living amid a rural counterculture that mixed hippies and homesteaders. Today, I am again Christian, even a theologian and pastor. The neopagan piece will come relevant in a moment. 

Early in the new century, I started to notice a certain trend and tendency around the second college town where I landed. I called them the intersection of “Granola” and “Good Ol’Boy.” Others would just call them hippy rednecks or redneck hippies. But some of them were more born-again Christian beatnik espresso hipsters or buzzed-and-dyed Jesus rockers in leather jackets with goth paintings saying “This Blood’s For You.” I wasn’t sure if this was just Tennessee, but a conservative author would later identify these folks as a determined radical milieu. Please see Rod Dreher’s Crunchy Cons: How Birkenstocked Burkeans, Gun-Loving Organic Gardeners, Evangelical Free-Range Farmers, Hip Homeschooling Mamas, Right-Wing Nature Lovers, and Their Diverse Tribe of Countercultural Conservatives Plan to Save America (Or at Least the Republican Party).

What I am getting at here is this: there has always been an actual “alt” as in “alternative counterculture” in the so-called alt-right. So for one, don’t think these protesters today are just leftovers from the Klan rallies when MLK day was initiated in the 1980s or leftovers from the militia movement of the late 1990s, but this surge of course pleases said legacies. The far-right has been holed up on outrageous outposts of the internet for a long time, and there are mind-boggling nodes of this far-right movement everywhere. 

Much like the 1970s right stole the hippies, this new movement has stolen ravers, punks, goths, whatevers. The far-right recruits, and at least for some of them, it is fomenting another civil war. It is incredible to think that a standing President, rather than promoting peace and prosperity, would be sowing dissent and insurrection. I am going to propose a theological theory as to why. This doesn’t even follow all the ideas out there about Russia, etc. So this next part is going to get weird. Stay with me. 

To cut to the current part of this observation-revelation in relation to the rolling revolts: I noticed in some recorded and disseminated footage from last week, cultural signs that I would have at an earlier time affiliated with the anti-authoritarian left, such as the Adbuster flag and the V-for-Vendetta mask. Thus, this weird rebel, radical edginess, bohemian assuredness to this new protest milieu.

I think someone needs to take a deeper look as well, at all the weird meme magic mania of the online bunkers where some of these “revolutionaries” gather, their weird Pepe the Frog symbols, the Boogaloo Boys, their right wing imaginary utopian Kekistans, their actual fascination with arch-racial-tribal-“traditionalism,” with heavy metal and punk rock paganisms, and more. 

(Lots more background readings and understandings would be needed to fully grapple with all this, and many are frustrating goofy tangents, but some serious study can be found in a somewhat recent book by serious studier of all things occult, Gary Lachman, in his text, Dark Star Rising: Magick and Power in the Age of Trump).

My tentative theories and theses for all this follow: Trump and his most loyal people as chaos magicians. The really evil, evil side of the counterculture occult. Like as in the Hells Angels at Altamont, Jim Jones, Charles Manson, that kind of weird-bad. Trolling and gaslighting. Gaslighting and trolling. Twitter mobs and the right’s versions of cancel-culture. Some well-meaning conservatives and libertarians have already been swept up in it, more may soon as November approaches.

The Trump phenomenon at its base and out-on-the-outposts of its multiple online bases actually has elements of crazed counterculture, pure prank, trippy trickster, jackbooted jester, yes even the Ken Kesey and Abbie Hoffman-style mischief of this moment. (By the way, I loved the recent Joker movie, but these queasy elements may be why some critics saw it as fuel for basement-dwelling YouTube-inhaling incel-terrors.) 

This is not just Trump supporters but Trump himself. Trump, with his avowed roots in New Thought and power-of-positive thinking thoughts, Trump with his wealth and bizarre erotic entitlement, is now creepy chaos curator, an angry alienated agitator, a wicked witch. I need not go so far as to call him Satan or the anti-Christ, mainly because that has been so overdone with every President since Reagan. 

Trump uses magic in its Crowleyan sense: the ability to cause change in accordance with the will. Now, as a former dabbler in the dark arts, so to speak, now as a devout follower of Jesus, I am very suspicious and cautious concerning all things occult. But hopefully not in a kneejerk-fundamentalist way. But like the aforementioned Starhawk, I know many practitioners in pagan-and-new age-and-tarot circles who I believe to be people of great integrity who use magic for good. It simply isn’t a place I will go. God’s will, not my will, be done.

Even as a leftwing evangelical, I am also an academic-minded inclusive religious-studies scholar, so I do not reject other religions or magical modalities out-of-hand. Based on the Crowleyan concept of magic, depending on the will, the discipline could be a tactic, deployed for good or ill. But with Trump’s mastery of this magic, I am clear that it’s not good or for good, but you can do your own homework and draw your own conclusions on that. Simply administrative wrangling, the nasty parade of tweeting and trolling, this says enough for me.

Although I have never taken a deep dive into all of Trump’s evangelical friends, because-who-has-time-for -these-charlatans, I have never believed they have authentic fidelity to the crucified Christ. I also don’t buy the born-again King David stories about Trump. See, the Putin-apologist Franklin Graham seems all-in for the white male masculinity archetypes of hyper-chauvinism pro-Hell anti-gay crap. And pastor-adviser Paula White’s viral anti-witchcraft rant of January 2020 was itself a particularly perverse kind of incendiary incantation. What I am saying is: too much of what calls itself evangelical Christianity in this country is increasingly a toxic brew of white supremacy and anti-body anti-earth Gnostic magic of its own ilk. 
Years ago, I learned about heavy-metal fans in northern europe burning churches, hating Christians because we are the weak religion, the powerless religion. The magic of the far right as I see it follows Nietzsche to his logical conclusions.

Giles Fraser explains this problem,
“Nietzsche's case against Christianity was that it kept people down; that it smothered them with morality and self-loathing. His ideal human is one who is free to express himself (yes, he's sexist), like a great artist or a Viking warrior. Morality is for the little people. It's the way the weak manipulate the strong. The people Nietzsche most admired and aspired to be like were those who were able to reinvent themselves through some tremendous act of will. I have never seen anything to admire in Nietzsche's view of morality or immorality. He was badly interpreted by the Nazis. But his ethics, if one can call them that, are founded on the admiration of power as the ultimate form of abundant creativity. His hatred of Christianity comes mostly from his hatred of renunciation and the promotion of selflessness. Jesus was a genius for having the imaginative power to reinvent Judaism but a dangerous idiot for basing this reinvention on the idea that there is virtue to be had in weakness. The weak, Nietzsche insists, are nasty and cruel.”

I have a fellow preacher friend, also a lighter-skinned American of European-descent like me, who says he follows who he calls “the Black Jesus.” Jesus is the dark-skinned mystic, the crucified-by-empire, the resurrected Palestinian Jew. He became powerless to show us God’s power. Right wing evangelicalism in America is not of this Jesus, and this to me is not just an issue of interpretation, but rather the co-optation of church for empire by an emperor who would end the empire itself with his extreme notions of power and economy.

Indeed in this moment where we have an unraveling, off-the-rails, white power President fomenting a grassroots movement of insurrection and revolt, in a way against his own country, of which he is the alleged commander-in-chief, we are inside a crazy moments of chaos. 

For these particular forces of existential darkness disguised in patriotic lights, Covid 19 and Coronavirus are just the latest, most convenient pretext to launch their latest fantasies to change America into their implausibly postmodern playground. It is heart-breaking that the truly vulnerable and marginal, especially those with higher risk profiles in this pandemic, would suffer most from an abrupt reopening. As for the civil unrest piece and my hunch that it is intentionally driven by racism and a "white" witch and much worse converging and diverging, let me be wrong.

Maybe their bad magic won’t work. Maybe good forces will prevail. Maybe this speculation only addresses a fringe minority of Trump’s people who do not deserve the attention I give them. Maybe this speculative gesture is just that. Maybe the pro-Jesus, religious-aspect is too much for you. Yes, I would like to be wrong about all of it, except the love that motivated me to write it and the allegiance to-the-Jesus-that-saves-me, despite myself. 

I pray nothing horrible happens this week, and I pray we continue to social distance as long as is needed. Moreover, I pray that the rainbow coalition of beloved communities as inaugurated by Christ, not this Trumpian fantasy of tribal prosperity chaos, comes to be. 

-A.W. Smith, from my personal monastery bunker of voluntary isolation and inner liberation