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

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!