[Image by James Reid from
The spiritual, theological, & abolitionist activist blog of an ecumenical (ex-PCUSA) preacher @presbyhippy Andrew Smith/Sunfrog (formerly Unlikely Sunday School Teacher) -- not affiliated with any church
Thursday, November 17, 2022
I Might Still Be A Christian
[Image by James Reid from
Thursday, May 12, 2022
the path before me
just another open window
just the hungry mouth
of the gaping sky
the path ahead as I escape religion
as I run from the pulpit through the doors
onto the gravel street & straight to
the mountains or the creek
here we go down this path
with a pack of grief & lots of grub
as many snacks as we can pack
into this hobo satchel
every seeker is a friend to these
tracks these weeds that sky
from the day we are born
until the day we die
I cannot really retrace my steps
even as I want to reread books
got too many words but
forgot all the hooks
but the walls of church are
crumbling behind me the death
of god or faith or what I don’t know
because Jesus is still a rebel
to whom I might listen as I listen
to the water keepers & earth defenders
as I listen to the workers organizing &
the junkies getting clean & drunks getting dry
& the people flying signs or trespassing in tents or
writing codes with their misconduct
to explode the myths with new ones
we write new stories unravel old fabric to stitch new
still a devotional distraction & powerless surrender
to immersion in the radical mystery
seek to understand new weird things
as much as old weird history
i am grateful to be lost again
unfound from straightjackets of salvation &
discourses on damnation that defy or denythis sacred reality of nondual liberation
Tuesday, April 26, 2022
a (post) christian against the cross
image - Facebook post about nationalist Easter cakes in Russia and Ukraine.
[I have been corresponding via Messenger & following on FB a couple people in Kviv, Ukraine. Via a repost on one of their pages, I saw these Easter cakes. One set of cakes celebrate the Azov batallion, the other the Z army. One nationalism vs another, Ukraine vs Russia. On Easter. Still trying to let all that sink in. But even the folks in Russian & Ukraine posting in reply found humor. The original post said we cannot be brothers, but several in reply said, "Because we are sisters."]
“Do you think when Jesus comes back, he's really going to want to look at a cross?” - Bill Hicks
Christians, out of anyone, ought to understand what an utterly offensive and problematic symbol the cross is. Some sophisticated theologians grapple with this, sometimes it is called the scandal of the cross.
If we are to believe any of the legends, the early Christians were an anti-imperial decolonized bunch of mystic misfits. If we are to believe the stories, emperor Constantine corrupted the ragtag religion and marched behind the cross. Constantine believed that God intervened in a military battle to help make him a victor. The cross as a popular Christian symbol is post-Constantine.
The militaristic or nationalistic use of the cross doesn’t have to be overtly Nazi to be disgusting. See to people who actually love Jesus, not the many many counterfeits (maybe my version is the real counterfeit, who knows) don’t celebrate the cross. If we wear it, it is a solemn subversive dissociative reminder of the imperial tragedy that is central to our religious story.
My radical lineage in the church is inherently pacifist, in some ways also anarchist. From a mystic anarchist perspective, participation in the Beloved Community or “kindom” of God, this membership prohibits allegiance to any flag or participation in any army.
Our pal Nietzche hated Christians for what he perceived as their/our drugged self-hatred. He compared Christ to the narcotic of drink/alcohol. He went further:
“Christianity has taken the part of all the weak, the low, the botched . . .it has corrupted even the faculties of those natures that are intellectually most vigorous, by representing the highest intellectual values as sinful, as misleading, as full of temptation.”
By contrast, theologian John Caputo embraces what he calls weak theology, the anarchic weakness, the utterly powerless non-coercive power of the cross. Thinking with Caputo, we will take the botched and corrupted weakness heaped on us by the Nietzches of the world, then lean into it. This is why the people I admire in my tradition (Catholic workers and the like) are always hanging around the incarcerated killers, homeless drunks, unsavory hooligans all.
Last weekend was orthodox Easter, now despite the Pope and me calling for a truce, the war rages on. But that did not stop Ukrianians from having Azov Easter cakes or the Russians from having Z easter cakes. One nationalism against another.
Wednesday, April 20, 2022
A Rant & Lament for Rev. John Shuck (RIP) & for us All
My friend John Shuck died of Covid last year. He was also an outspoken Covid skeptic and anti-mandate anti-mask anti-vaxer. For some folks, that is all you need to know to stop reading now. But for others, perhaps you might join me in this reflective rant and strangely hopeful lament. As much as I want to make a loving tribute to John, his death has occasioned some hard reflections within myself.
To begin, John and I were not close by any means, but our paths crossed enough and amicably, that I call him friend. On many topics, I initially viewed him as a fellow traveler and kindred soul. When we met, he was a leftist atheist Presbyterian pastor from east Tennessee, who hosted a progressive podcast/talk radio show. Although I never identified as an atheist, I was always intrigued and impressed with atheist Christians, especially in my former PCUSA tradition, where we had a strong commitment to intellectual acuity, inclusion, and social justice.
It was a shared social justice commitment that brought John and I into each other’s orbits, through a small advocacy group called Presbyterian Voices for Justice (PV4J), where I served briefly as our national co-coordinator/chair. Soon after we met, he left a board position with PV4J and moved from east Tennessee to Portland. The west coast seemed like a good fit for him, but I continued to follow him on social media. I don’t have a specific moment when things shifted for him, but I know that he juggled personal and professional concerns with his political presence on social media.
Once on his radio show, he hosted the authors of The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton: An Investigation, a book that proposed that the “accidental” death of Thomas Merton in 1968 may have been a murder. I found the interview so compelling, that I mentioned this theory in an essay I wrote about MLK and Merton for my fanzine Ordinary Space. One friend, after reading my piece, dismissed the Merton book out-of-hand and warned me to stay away from the conspiracy crowd.
As anyone who is following the arc of America knows, conspiracy theories have spawned more conspiracy theories into a spiral of crazy over the last several years. As our communities have dug themselves into warring culture-war camps, everything gets weaponized. For John Shuck, his passionate interest in the “9-11 truth movement,” for example, probably meant he was poised to get going as a covid skeptic. We are far from a reckoning with what these fractures and their attendant rabbit holes really mean for the long term political reality and consequential emotional tragedy for our families and friends.
Writing about this today requires me to make some confessions. I am at once a hopeless idealist optimist and a contrarian anti-authoritarian leftist. While I do not consider myself a conspiracist, I confess that I have dabbled in conspiracy theories. I do question the “dominant narrative” about certain topics, especially the extrajudicial assassinations of people like MLK or Malcolm X. In that light, I was immediately interested in the claims in the Merton book.
Now, Covid was a turning point for me, when I realized without regret that for the first long while, I would mask in public, abide by social distancing by seeking a remote work arrangement, and get the vaccine without fear. But that was the first time in my life that I was quick to join the mainstream medical consensus about anything. To be clear, I am not a doctor or an ideological herbalist or naturalist.
But I have an anxiety about doctors and medicines and come from a hippy health food culture where I taught myself to chew raw garlic, eat spoonfuls of local honey, drink lots of water, and sip herbal tea for most common ailments. The covid vaccine seemed like a no-brainer for me for public health reasons, but I guess you could say, I had previously traveled in circles that were anti-vax adjacent.
All this is to say that I should not jump to judgmental conclusions about friends in the “bodily autonomy” crowd when it comes to the Covid vaccine, including and especially in my social media relationship to John Shuck. Because I am already a hypocrite about too many things, and folks like this are probably going to recoil from kneejerk condemnations, maybe instead, maybe folks need prayers and compassion and persuasion from people like me who were previously skeptics, but chose to get the jab.
Yet sometime in the last year (or so) before his passing, when I stumbled across John’s comments about Covid, I made a Facebook post “warning” folks about his passion against the mandates and masks etc. To be clear, I was pretty dismissive. He was clearly a rightwing wacko of the QAnon school, that is what I was thinking. The purpose of my post was not to call-out John per se, as much as to imply that my friends should block or unfollow him. Such are the emotions on social media and the boundaries we surround ourselves with, in the worlds of Trump and Biden and Qanon and covid.
To illustrate how extreme John Shuck had turned, he had once posted in support of Mt. Juliet hate-preacher Greg Locke, in strange solidarity I suppose, because of how anti-mask Locke was. Strange bedfellows from an atheist antiwar leftist like Shuck, who knows like I do, how hard it is to be on the social justice left in rural Tennessee, but okay.
Even though John died back in October 2021, I only learned about his death this week. This week, I also have been called by otherwise progressive fellow-travelers a Putin-sympathizing Russian-bot because I oppose spending billions of our dollars and weapons in a blank check of unlimited lethal military aid to Ukraine, in our USA proxy war against Russia, a war that if escalated too far, could result in a full-scale nuclear war. I suspect that if John were still alive, he and I would agree about the human horrors of this useless, suspicious, unnecessary war.
I could pontificate all day, about all the reasons why some of my neighbors have found what they perceive as solidarity and safe harbor in white Chrisitan nationalism. That somehow this camp also includes conspiracy theories, covid skepticism, and ideas about the “deep state” makes them an odd mix to me. But today, that they perceive of themselves as rebels and the Democrats as “the man” seems like a plausible theory. It is a new strange upside down world where liberals are conservative, and conservatives are radicals. But I will pause that analysis to say something else, which for me makes the main point of this rant and lament.
Buddha or Christ-like compassion and coercion are incompatible. Coercion and compassion are incompatible, even without the Buddha or Jesus portion. What the compassion and empathy crowd have to admit is that we can weaponize good will against people we perceive as enemies of the good.
As much as I am almost always in one and not the other ideological camp, neither my membership in that camp, nor the ideology itself, should be used to demonize or dehumanize the others. It shouldn’t take the death of an anti-vaxer conspiracist that I considered a friend for me to realize and remember that. But here we are.
No matter how many times we cleanse or question our own motives, authoritarianism can creep in from the left or right. Authoritarianism is toxic and anti-compassion and destructive of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid. Anti-authoritarians who also espouse a Jesus-infused law of love don’t need to become cops in their heads or cops on social media or cops or bullies of any kind.
I was quick to judge John Shuck, as much as some of my fellow lefty Christians were, those of us who knew him before he became conspiracy-obsessed, I am sure. While I don’t condone the shrill outspoken anti-vax crowd around Covid for obvious health reasons, I have to humbly admit that this topic’s weaponization on “both sides” speaks to a deeper fracture in our souls and in our communities. If any of this or this last bit prompts some of my folks to shame or blame me for being soft on conspiracy or anti-vaxers, I can take it.
As much as I am an abolitionist, feminist, an accomplice to trans and queer friends, an avowed anti-racist, I am also a failure at being a good member of the “liberal” or “progressive” crowd, especially as it partitions itself these days on social media.
I fear that online trolling and harassment around political minutiae or an aggressive cancel culture are just soft, slippery, and sleazy forms of the carceral mentality that ultimately otherizes every possible “other,” that same mentality at its conclusive terminus places humans in cages, and justifies state sanctioned murder with wars or the death penalty.
[For more about what informs me about these topics, I cannot recommend enough the work of Clementine Morrigan, their fanzines and Instagram feeds, and their podcast F*#(#*g Cancelled.]
As much as I speak out against anti-blackness and white-supremacy, I also see how banning members of the so-called “far right” from social media or boycotts of people like Joe Rogan are such serious “red herrings” from the authentic struggles to support low wage workers, unionize places like Amazon and Starbucks, to achieve universal healthcare and housing and income, to abolish rent and debt and wars and prisons and police and destroy predatory capitalism forever.
While I might agree with the underlying reasons for countless cancellations and free speech restrictions, they too often come from an emotionally wounded place that fails to rationally consider what history teaches us about how harmful the state and the secret police have always been to all forms of dissent. That is, while I might gleefully or tacitly approve of consequences for people on the far right, it is much more true that these malign and mendacious marginalizations have targeted, imprisoned, cancelled, and even murdered people on the left.
I have another million reasons to tell you why I don’t care if you sing bad Jesus music on airplanes (to pluck a culture-war non-crisis of this week) or if you hate people that sing bad Jesus music on airplanes. I do care that we all have our basic needs met and foster difficult conversations with friends across the chasms of culture wars. In this season of Easter, in this time of fragile hope and desperation, I recommit myself to be slower to judge others or myself, especially their motives or sincerity and to seek peace and human solidarity that transcends the fractures and ideological divides in our world.
Just writing these words has made me want to call some friends, long-term friends that I have in my own community that I have stopped talking to because of “politics.” Trying to reconcile those friendships may be frustrating or impossible, but the tug of love and compassion in my heart are real. If I want everyone to be less dogmatic and hateful today about Russians, for example, I need to be less dogmatic and hateful about, gulp-ugh-spit, Republicans.
Somehow I know that everything I have said here will be seen as too simplistic or too something: naive, idealistic, enabling, soft on my enemies. But somehow, also, I feel a deeper rumble, way deep down, that says I too have been too judgy, too toxic, too harsh, too ideological about too many things and that abiding human empathy, agape love, compassion, mutual aid, and solidarity, these values transcend it all.
In one of his last blogs before his death, John Shuck wrote this: “These are dangerous times. They do not have to be fearful times. Fears will come up. They will arise. Our old foe, fear, will attack us and want to drive us. Love, Courage, and Joy are stronger than fear, when we give them control and let them drive our beliefs and actions.
Acting from Love, Courage, and Joy will result in actions that reflect our true selves. They will be beautiful actions whether or not they result in outcomes that will be convincing to others. But they will defeat the Monster in that the Monster will not control our true self. When we act from fear, the Monster controls us. When we act from Love, Courage, and Joy, the Monster cannot control us.”
Monday, March 28, 2022
Merton, Jesus, War, & More
Notes from a Zoom To Gather unchurch Sunday thing on 3.27.2022
video from the message part of the gathering: https://youtu.be/T2mP0fzGtMk
Hebrews 2 - the Message
Since the One who saves and those who are saved have a common origin, Jesus doesn’t hesitate to treat them as family, saying,
I’ll tell my good friends, my brothers and sisters, all I know about you;
I’ll join them in worship and praise to you.
Again, he puts himself in the same family circle when he says,
Even I live by placing my trust in God.
It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. … This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. … I have the immense joy of being humyn, a member of a race in which God as Godself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the humyn condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.”
As you all know, I have been struggling with my faith for at least the last two years. It’s been a season for me of what many call “Deconstruction.” Breaking up with a blowtorch & a chisel every infrastructure of doctrine, staring into the existential abyss looking for a new understanding of God. I have been dabbling in pantheism & animism, reading Rumi every day. As some of you know, I have been attending a Unitarian Universalist congregation here in Cookeville. But I just can’t seem to shake Jesus.
When we talk about the better world that is possible, the new worlds that is always flowers bursting in the cracked sidewalk, the new world being born in the shell of the old, the old school Christian tendency is to call that real & dreamed, that already & not yet place, they call it the Kingdom of God or the reign of God.
For years, I have been much more familiar & friendly to MLK’s paraphrase: the Beloved Community, a term Martin actually borrowed from Josiah Royce. So who is Jesus in the Beloved Community. Late last year I wrote a blog that Jesus really isn’t King, & that is a good thing. In the days since, I have started identifying as Christian-adjacent, finally surrendering to the spiritual-but-not-religious trajectory I had already been on for some time; but what is the place for Jesus in my new expansive ecumenical space?
I am not seeking new gods; in fact I am done with Gods altogether, at least in the toxic or coercive or codependent micromanaging authoritarian sense that too many power-hungry preachers & teachers prefer. So I had an epiphany reading Merton’s epiphany!
Jesus is our brother, our sibling, our colleague, our comrade, our fellow traveler & co-conspirator in the subversive nonviolent revolution. No thrones or titles required, only endless banquet tables & a radical redistribution of resources so all are fed. Maybe Jesus as sibling really is the new thing. No oaths or vows or promises required, just a baptism into this merry band of rabble.
“The free choice of global suicide, made in desperation by the world’s leaders & ratified by the consent & cooperation of all their citizens, would be a moral evil second only to the Crucixion.” - Merton, from “Peace: Christian duties & perspectives”
If I am honest, I don’t think most Christians or churches believe or teach that the Crucifixion was a moral evil. I think too many teach a transactional cross, where a masochistic sadistic caricature of God simultaneously commits suicide & kills God’s son. In all the metrics of atonement theory, the cross is a bet & a bargain, with God, with the devil, with the future of all humanity.
But what if the cross was just the electric chair of its era. What if the cross is as I have been told by historical theologians more well-read than me, a terminal torture technique to intimidate subversives & seal submission to empire.
If the cross is an evil of the magnitude that Merton describes, it is recognition of the execution, of the lynching, of the authority-sanctioned brutal killing that crucifixions in the first century are reported to have been.
For me this last month, the war has been reconverting.
From the whispers on the news of an imminent invasion, to waking up to Putin’s creepy announcement on Thursday, February 24th, to seeing the cruelty & the carnage of a full scale air & ground invasion & the continued human cost as the war enters its second month.
My frail & fragile & probably futile searching for hope, it can grasp for hot takes on hot war & cold war, but might also seek solace outside the steady chatter of the commentariat.
More from Merton
from “Peace: Christian Duties & Perspectives”
Politics pretends to use all this force as its servant, to harness it for social purposes, for the “good of [humanity].” The intention is certainly good. The technological development of power in our time is certainly a challenge, but that does not make it essentially evil. On the contrary, it can be and should be a very great good. In actual fact, however, the furious speed with which our technological world is plunging toward disaster is evidence that no one is any longer fully in control --and this includes the political leaders.
A simple study of the steps which led to the dropping of the first A-bomb on Hiroshima is devastating evidence of the way well-meaning men, the scientists and leaders of a victorious nation, were guided step by step, without realizing it, by the inscrutable yet simple “logic of events” to fire the shot that was to make the cold war inevitable and prepare the way inexorably for World War III. This they did purely and simply because they thought in all sincerity that the bomb was the simplest and most merciful way of ending World II and perhaps all wars, forever.
The tragedy of our time is then not so much the malice of the wicked as the helpful futility even of the best intentions of “the good.” We have war-makers, war criminals, indeed. But we ourselves, in our very best efforts for peace, find ourselves maneuvered unconsciously into positions where we too can act as criminals. For there can be no doubt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, though not fully deliberate crimes, nevertheless crimes. And who was responsible? No one. Or “history.” We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results as history.
--It is well understood on both sides that atomic war is purely and simply massive and indiscriminate destruction of targets chosen not for thie military significance alone, but for their importance in a calculated project of terror and annihiliation.
Wednesday, March 2, 2022
Three (anti)war poems penned on the first Ash Wednesday of World War Three
Sunday, January 23, 2022
Confessions After Listening To The Conspirituality Podcast