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

Sunday, November 1, 2020

Beyond the Basics - a sermon on love & justice


Beyond The Basics - a sermon on love & justice
text: Matthew 22:34-46 
21st Sunday after Pentecost, year A
preached on Zoom on October 25, 2020
for the United Church of Cookeville

One of the first sermons I ever had the honor of giving, since following the call to preach about nine years ago, I preached it in my Mom’s church in the Detroit suburbs, the same church I attended in high school. The title of that talk was, “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch.” It was thrilling to teach on one of the familiar miracles where Jesus feeds the masses, and it was just as fun to come up with that title: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Lunch.”

You have now figured out that I was simply messing with the words from an old familiar song, that I remember from church in the 1970s and from church camp in the 1980s: “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love.”

They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love. Such a strong, simple sentiment. The first part of today’s gospel is rooted in this idea of Christian love. Jesus is clear. Jesus is so transparent that this text has been paraphrased by our contemporaries into a short-hand for what it means to follow Jesus in our world. The bumper-sticker t-shirt version is this: Love God. Love People.

You have heard that way of saying it before, haven’t you? Love God. Love People. And maybe you have heard people ponder: Why can’t we just get back to the basics? If we get back to basics, the world will be a better place. If we get back to the basics, we will “love the Lord our God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our minds” and we will “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Sounds easy, but it is not.
Love God. Love People. We have not only seen that on bumper stickers and t-shirts, we have seen it on church signs and banners. That is back to basics Christianity. I wanted to call this sermon Back to Basics, but I realized something stark and sobering as I prayed and studied, so much that it gives me the shivers. Back to Basics is not working for the American church right now. If we are going to get back to the basics, first we need to go beyond the basics to see where we may have gone wrong. 

Surveys of Generation Z, that is the young people born this century and late last century, surveys of these Zoomers, as they are sometimes called, they don’t say they recognize Christians for their love as much as they say things like, they recognize Christians for their hypocrisy. Experts on the American religious demographics speculate that this new generation might be the first genuinely post-Christian atheist generation in American history. All that despite the efforts of some evangelicals and some conservative Christians to unite the flag and cross in a frenzy of nationalism. 

If we are to get back to basics, we need to go beyond the basics. We need to talk about love, but we also need to talk about justice, and even power. I am grateful to be having this conversation this morning in a United Church of Christ congregation. 

The UCC has been historically aware and active to address how to translate a “back to basics” approach in a way where it is “beyond the basics” to genuinely help others. So for example, the UCC sign doesn’t just say, “Love God. Love People.” The United Church of Christ specifies how y’all do that, by saying on one of its more popular signs:

“Protect the environment; Care for the poor; Embrace diversity; Reject racism: Forgive often; Love God; Fight for the powerless; Share earthly and spiritual resources; and Enjoy this life.” 

These encouraging, specific, and generous words are displayed on banners by your churches across your denomination, to share with the world what the denomination is about.

Now you know there is that part in many preachers, where we just want to say: not only is it back to basics, it is back to the Bible. When I was preaching regularly in Sparta until recently, I loved to channel my favorite Black baptist preaching mentors and lead into every scripture quote with the exhortation: “The Bible says . . . . .” 

The Bible says a lot of amazing things. It remains the authoritative text in our faith tradition. But the Bible also says confusing things, even problematic things. I know some of y’all well enough and the UCC tradition well enough to understand that y’all are okay when our shared conscience requires us to dialogue with scripture and to push back at it from time to time. 

The second half of the text today got me hung up in just that fashion. The first part of today’s text is all about love, but the second part of the text is all about authority and even power. 

So the text does something super strange today. Now, we are aware of the audacity of the Christian claim, “Jesus is Lord.” We are aware that the church sees Christ, not the Bible and perhaps not even the historical Jesus, but the one Richard Rohr calls the “universal Christ,” we see Christ as our ultimate authority. 

Yet this gets super complicated and awkward in Matthew’s gospel today, because the Bible implies here that Jesus is the Son of David and the Lord of David at the same time. And Jesus explains this by quoting the Psalmist David. In chapter 22, verse 44 of Matthew, we read an excerpt from Psalm 110, “'The Lord said to my Lord, "Sit at my right hand, until I put your enemies under your feet."'

Now some readers will have no problem entertaining many theological premises simultaneously, such as the pre-existence of Christ before the birth of the historical Jesus, the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus, and the all-encompassing authority of the trinitarian Christ, so much that the poet King David would be pledging his allegiance to this Christ, some 1000 years before Jesus was born. 

Christians are so familiar with authoritative Christian impositions and interpretive retrojections into the Hebrew texts, that we can tend to read them uncritically. God refers to Godself in the plural in the opening lines of Genesis, that must be the Trinity. The story where Abraham almost sacrifices Issaac, that is just getting us ready for Jesus’s execution on a Roman cross, and all those passages in Isaiah that end up in Christmas carols and Christmas pageants, they are definitely, unquestionably about Jesus the Jewish Messiah. Duh, didn’t you go to Sunday school? Wait, I thought you went to seminary? 

I hope you will not be surprised when I tell you that I read a commentary on today’s text by a Jewish rabbi, and he came to dramatically different conclusions about Matthew 22:44 than most evangelical Christian commentaries do. Yes, the rabbi I consulted claims that this particular exchange may never have happened and that its common interpretation is so much insulting and incorrect “Jews for Jesus” gibberish. 

While we do not necessarily reject traditional Christian teaching on the universal power and unchanging nature of Christ, neither do we haphazardly insist that every passage in the Hebrew Bible that we want to make about Jesus, was actually about Jesus. History has shown us how anti-Jewish interpretations of the gospels in church can lead to anti-Jewish hatred in the real world. 

To preach just a few days before this United States Presidential election, it is not enough to say that we as Christians respect religious pluralism and political integrity and ethnic diversity. 

We may also have to remind ourselves that as Christians, we can and should reject Christian theocracy, Christian nationalism, Christian superiority, and Christian warrants for sexism, homophobia, and white supremacy. We can name as sins, yes sins, the heresies that lead churches and their leaders to support abandoning our covenants to empower the poor and release the prisoners and practice peace and protect the natural world. It is not enough to say “They Will Know We Are Christians By Our Love,” and not at the same time work for what that love looks like out loud and in public, in our communities and in our country. 

In late 1967, less than a year before a bullet took him out at a Memphis motel, Martin Luther King preached the sermon speech “Where Do We Go From Here” at an SCLC gathering:

“Now a lot of us are preachers, and all of us have our moral convictions and concerns, and so often we have problems with power. But there is nothing wrong with power if power is used correctly. Now, we got to get this thing right. What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive, and that love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is love correcting everything that stands against love. It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our times.” 

Some folks may make an exclusive claim about the authority of Christ, but we also know who Christ is through Jesus, the One who would always be inclusive of the misfits and misunderstood and always intrusive to the haters and hypocrites hoarding worldly power. The authority of Christ is never authoritarian, and we cannot surrender our loving generosity to those who have so twisted our Jesus to where they are never loving and never generous, when it really counts, like the American Christian, who has said about politics: 

“When I'm looking for a leader . . .  I don't want some meek and mild leader or somebody who's going to turn the other cheek. I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation.”

If we settle for a kind bland bumper sticker back-to-basics approach, our love will never lift up and empower, but we might get stuck in our empty platitudes and promises without the practice that prefaces the coming kindom. Beyond the basics might take us to the book of James to remind us that our faith-without-works is dead. Let’s get back to the basics of love by always going beyond the basics to include justice. Amen. 

Monday, July 13, 2020

Nothing & Everything: a note from a restless unemployed preacher

I got nothing. Nothing except everything. Trying to understand everything, when nothing stays the same. In the days since concluding a vocational journey of more than three years as preacher & pastor, this is where I have been: theologically confused, liturgically frustrated, ecclesially homeless (sort of), emotionally spent with anger & grief.

I am Jesus-follower but also spiritual-explorer, & I am at this place of admitting no perfect path, no authentic all-encompassing place for a person who wants to be both faithful & free-spirited, orthodox yet eclectic. 

In my more than fifty years, I have:
tried supernatural theism, polytheism, panentheism, pantheism, atheism; 
practiced Christianity, Buddhism, neopaganism; 
studied process theology & liberation theology; 
met the Cosmic Christ & the Universal Christ; 
listened to every hipster evangelical charismatic, to every radical progressive dogmatic; 
seen God in drugs & drink, abstinence & sobriety, yoga & deep breathing; 
worked the 12 steps & tried to live by the 4 agreements; 
& don’t even get me started on Tarot, divination, numerology, & animal medicine. 

In searching for every possible place to meet God, to locate authentic spirituality, I need to be constantly reminded of the simple stuff, the sayings that end up on cheesy church signs: love God, love people, love creation. 

When it comes to dining-out at the religious equivalent of an-all-you-can-eat Las Vegas casino buffet, I have tarried there long & come back for seconds & thirds. It’s as if, in all this, this regimen of heavy & heady religious studies, it’s as if having the hip & correct orthodoxy, whatever the heck that means, was somehow more important & pressing than the desperate need for radical orthopraxis, based on those go-to-teachings like Matthew 25. In this sudden moment of freedom & uncertainty, it’s abandoning perfect theories for imperfect practices, some daily reality that keeps calling me in. 

Because with the latter, for you or me or everyone, the planet & the people are crying out for help, for hope, for truth. Not just a private spirituality but love-out-loud as public justice. If I get lost too much in the weeds of the former, I might follow my brain right back up-my-butt, so to speak, until theology is no better than the booze & other behaviors, that I must surrender my addiction from, every-single-freaking-day. 

Flashback eleven years: after two decades of ardent radical activism only matched in its fervor by my active addictions, I flip-flopped fully into born-again religion. Give me all the testimonials, all the hand-waving, always praying-out-loud, prayer-without-ceasing, praying-on-my-knees, I was ready for church. Every path & tributary of spiritual-but-not-religious had been tried, but I will be sure to loop back around eventually, just in case I missed one, on which I might learn more. But for the last ten years, the mainline church has been my jam. From Sunday school to Divinity school to my very own pulpit, preachers are going to preach. Until we don’t. At least not for money, on Sunday, at a regularly scheduled time.

For years of my spiritual adventures, I have been trying to find my way home to that everlasting epiphany, to get grounded, to settle down & land in a place of religious sustenance. One day, I might not be a desperate dabbler, a homiletical hobo, a theological transient. So when we landed somewhere, we wanted to sink roots, to stay. But it didn’t work out. My attempts to moderate & modify & mellow out may have failed. Such delusions I have about meeting people in the middle. We realized all along how moods & minds can turn on a dime, & now, I recognize my own limitations, alongside the obvious shortcomings of an institution. 

The mainstream stream is sometimes just a stagnant stinky pond of stupid sewage. Where is the waterfall, where justice rolls down like water, righteousness like an everflowing stream?

It seems redundant & hyperbole to remind everyone that we worship a homeless radical brown-skinned executed criminal & resurrected Resister. But in the land of white Jesus, insist on this anyways. 

Seems silly to reiterate that the actual Jesus described in the gospels is that guy that your parents warned you about, told you to walk on the other side of the street from, that white Christians actually go to church to murder him again, but not until they twist & belittle his truth. Mainly I am so utterly sick of the hermeneutical gymnastics, the sheer effort required to prop-up antiquated country-club church & to suppress the revolutionary church, wherever that can be found, inside or outside the institution.  

See I have been an activist much longer than I have been a pastor, a restless seeker much longer than I have been located in any singular theological location. As to my membership in the resistance to modern misery, certain privileges & comforts of age & career have made me want to retire or hide, to quit the movement, or at least step back, take a breath, maybe work from the sidelines. Yet I guess I may have underestimated the depth of this radical calling over-and-against the other competing callings: teacher, poet, author, blogger, husband, artist. Or perhaps, it is the times in which we live that have simply chosen & insisted on this calling for me. 

It was second nature to be in the streets in June 2020 for Black Lives Matter, against police brutality, for LGBTQ rights. I don’t know where else I could have been. It’s also been at my heart to write about it all, talk about it all, say what is really going on with it all, which will wait for other rants, with many more specifics. Reckoning with racism & surviving a pandemic are only on the surface of many things that are bubbling up strong, from a deeper depth. My desire to talk about, & participate in, liberation for all humans & for the whole planet, the whole cosmos, burns bright.  

In the two weeks since losing my church job (has it really only been two weeks), I have walked a million miles in my mind trying to figure it all out. My friends have also been generous, to an extent, with unsolicited advice. 

My interpretation of my beloved reformed teaching tells me that grace & salvation are cosmic facts beyond my control. For some strange reason, God has elected & selected us, whether we play-along-nicely or not. Neither your cosmic destiny, nor mine, are up-for-debate for this love wins, love love love-based Jesus universalist. Jesus lived & died to save us all, without exceptions, true story.

So as I unpack the unraveling of one part of my vocation, following my genuine call remains compelling. Something my spouse said, it just stuck; she said it during the heightened anticipation, anger, & anxiety of the events leading up to leaving church. She said I might have to choose between being a pastor & a protester. That at least turned-out-true with the particular call that has closed-up-shop for me (they will find another preacher). Will another particular call come for me? Or will radical devotion to the resurrected revolutionary require me to labor with love outside the traditional church? 

What seems to hold my heart & hands closest to the kindling flames of change, though, are the practical topics & pressing trends that will contribute most clearly to the total transformation of this world, to better be the Beloved Community. Trust & faith & surrender on my personal path are tempered with feeling the fierce urgency of now, of finding where we can best serve the movement. 

Not sure if I will see you in church, or even, what churches that might be, but I do hope I will see you in the streets. Peace! 

Monday, June 29, 2020

Cure Every Disease - a sermon on racism in the time of pandemic

Cure Every Disease - a sermon for the Second Sunday After Pentecost, in the time of pandemic - preached by Andrew Smith for the Blue Spring Presbyterian Church & visitors online, from his home on June 14, 2020 (text: Matthew 9:35-10:8, Cotton Patch version, year A)

Audio link -- audio cuts off right before the end of the message, manuscript is below:

This time last summer, our family’s annual time off was consumed by concerts, and when we came home from a show near Niagara Falls, New York, we found that lightning had struck one of our trees, a large branch fell, which in turn crushed our roof, doing thousands in damage to our Cookeville home.

During the rehab, we were reminded that there are flaws in the foundation of our home. These have not been fixed, only covered up. But not every problem should be dealt with this way.

In medicine you might know the difference between a treatment and a cure. A treatment improves the quality of a the patient’s life, while a cure would completely remove the disease. We don’t yet have a cure for Covid 19, and we are only improvising the treatment. And the last three weeks have reminded us with the lightning strike of unrest, of other diseases that have always existed in America: racism and injustice.

According to scholars, racism is not the same thing as bigotry, not even simple discrimination. Professors have come to understand racism as an interlocking institutional system, that places one race above another. In religion, we break it down more simply. Racism is a sin.

Whether system or sin or sinful system, it’s this racist reality, not merely the actions of four Minneapolis police officers, that has reverberated throughout our land, as our culture confronts itself in grief, in anger, and in love.

Today’s gospel text touched a nerve in me as I could not read it outside of current events in our country, but also my life, as I have been involved in this new protest movement in Cookeville and online, not only for justice for George Floyd, but justice for all. This is the message God placed on my heart. As I share my story, you may want to contact me later with your story, as we walk through this time together.

In our gospel passage, we read about Jesus telling the disciples, to cast out evil spirits and to cure every disease. Just as God empowered the twelve, Christ summons disciples today to cast out the unclean spirit of hatred and to cure the disease of injustice. To cure every disease.

Casting out demons and curing all diseases comes with a cost. The conclusion of today’s text says something scary: families will fight among themselves, some of us will be dragged before the authorities, some will be hated, some will even be killed. Brother against brother, children against parents, death and hatred and more death.

Such division or conflict, I pray that is not the case for us, in our congregation learning from and leaning on the witness of our denomination. This is who we are, Presbyterians, reformed and still reforming. Not just our church’s constitution and more recent confessions like Belhar, but also our lineage in the United Presbyterian Church (the former ‘northern’ church) here in Tennessee, which received Blue Spring back in 1906; this means that our denominational history in the last century was already with justice and reconciliation, not with upholding segregation.

This history gives us an opportunity to be connected to our unique witness to the inclusive Christ in our time and place. Like one of my predecessors up on the plateau, I’ve been moved to be an example for how this gospel witness for racial justice plays out in more practical, personal terms.

Back in the summer of 1946, exactly 64 years ago this summer, the Rev. Eugene Smathers, farmer and pastor and former moderator of our national denomination, faced a serious situation at Calvary Church in Cumberland County. That summer the church hosted an interracial work camp, and yes I said an interracial church work camp in Crossville in the 1940s. As you can imagine, it did not come off without incident, as they had to fend off mobs and night riders, at a time when the toxic mix of hate and alcohol often led to lynchings throughout the South. A furor erupted at Calvary Church because these work camps had socials at night for the local young people to mingle with visitors.

The night riders came. The mob shouted and cursed and hurled racial slurs against the guests. They were angry at a black man for dancing with a white woman. But they also had choice words for the preacher, giving him an extra helping of curse words. But Smathers and his friends protected their black guests and eventually, the mob moved on.

Another potential conflict came 8 years later at another work camp, when a similar situation transpired. Andy McCullough was a college football player from Michigan; 225 pounds of muscle, six feet tall. He was also polite, cultured, educated, and a gentleman. But Andy McCullough was also black, and that did not stop some of the white girls from Crossville from wanting to dance with him.

The Reverend Smathers wanted to prevent a mob from riding like last time. The sheriff promised no protection, saying simply, “get him out of here.” So after some negotiation with the sheriff, they deputized another citizen to provide security for the work camp.

In fact, for the duration of the work camp, different church members and citizens sat guard around the clock. Though occasionally drunken rowdies would drive by with the usual insults and curse words, the rest of the camp was a success, and before leaving, young Andy McCullough spoke to the church members, saying this was one of his life’s greatest experiences.

If Gene Smathers could confront racial divisions in the 1940s and 1950s, we certainly can confront whatever problems we face in the 2020s. And as reformed Christians, we have a particular place in our tradition from which to address the disease of social sin. As Presbyterians, we descend from Calvin, who said, “We are all sinners by nature; therefore we are held under the yoke of sin.” Indeed Paul reminds us, “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”

As I see it through the lens of my faith, this protest is not some strange paradigm where one group is all bad or another all good, not good guys or bad guys at all. A disease has run rampant, and love is the cure. It is everybody against racism. We are not bad people becoming good, but sick people becoming better.

The blood of Jesus covers it all: protesters and police, Klansmen and Antifa, we could just go on. Yes the burden of the cross compels us to carry ours, giving up on perfection, listening to others, learning as we go. Repent, repair relationships, and finally, lean into the redemption found in the Beloved Community.

When all this is seen as a sinful system, we have no enemies but evil itself. No matter what frustrated people say online, we can avoid the perpetually personalized pitfalls of call-out or cancel culture and constant appeals to self-righteousness. Even our Jesus resisted this self-aggrandizement in a verse that we never seem to quote enough, Mark 10:18: “Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.’”

Black Lives Matter has always been a subset of All Lives Matter, just as addressing cancer has been a portion of addressing all disease. As I see it, Black Lives Matter is such a modest claim. Please don’t kill us. Don’t hate us. Don’t harass us. Because of how Jesus lived and who Jesus helped, for this pastor, I must say it: Black Lives Matter.

We need a treatment and a cure: to speak the truth in love, to challenge the illness of injustice while also respecting the integrity of each person. The cure is Christ’s unconditional love, played out in the gospel commitment to peace, reconciliation, and justice. And this is not a bad thing, even if it is sometimes a little scary.

Even amid the high drama of our gospel theme, what is wrong cannot stay wrong forever. “As you go, proclaim the good news, 'The kingdom of heaven has come near.'”

Because even as we battle these demons of division and destruction -- within ourselves, our community, and our world -- God’s true kingdom or Beloved Community is always right there, right now, in the middle of human misery, welcoming the eternal majesty.

As Martin King proclaimed at the end of the Selma to Montgomery march, “How long, not long.” As the Apostle Paul promises in Galatians 3: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.”

From Paul to the early church to the reformation to the troubles of the last century to our struggles, the reign of our Redeemer always empowers prophetic disciples, rejects evil, forgives wrong, arbiters justice, and seeks reconciliation. Always reforming, always repenting, always redeeming, always returning to our human family, where we are at once broken yet eternally bound together.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Were You There - two poems for George Floyd, when poems are not enough

image credit -- shirien.creates on instagram

two poems written in grief & rage, love & protest -- when poems are not enough

as should be obvious, no endorsement implied from any of my professional affiliations

Were you there
when they lynched Jesus
Were you there
did you carry the nails

Did you like the crack of the whip
did he get what he deserved
did you sip the sour wine with the soldiers
did you tweet this at 1am

the only good Nazarene is a dead Nazarene
& when the prophecy starts
the crucifying starts
Christ ain't nothing but a thug

were you there when they lynched Jesus
did you watch the temple burn to the ground
did you praise Roman law
did imperial lives matter
did you care a thing for the Jews
were you there when they lynched Jesus
if you were what did you say

you know they are still lynching Jesus
his name is George Floyd
his name is Breonna Taylor
his name is Ahmaud Arbery
his name is Martin Luther King

the truth it may bug you
but our Lord is a thug too
were you there when they lynched Jesus
& now what are we going to do


Not enough folk songs
Not enough punk songs
Not enough poetry 
Not enough prayer
Not enough protest
Not enough rage
Not enough mercy
Not enough love
Not enough hate
Not enough investigation
Not enough reparation
Not enough transformation
Not enough solidarity
Not enough slogans
Not enough revolution

Exorcism & fire
a situation that dire
who said their God
has no wrath

for the slave-owning 
frat party without end

don't wear a condom
don't wear a mask
don't even ask 
but hang a governor in effigy
kill another black man in the street

this $%#* ain't neat 
&#*( this ain't nice
Jesus Christ was crucified 
by an empire this cruel & crass
the Holy Ghost is coming

to exorcise your racist @$$