Friday, January 6, 2023

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to a reading of this essay here: