One day last August I just stopped writing. I also stopped playing Words with Friends. It wasn’t something I planned. I just stopped. No explanation. No excuses. Two things I did that occupied a lot of my time, I just stopped.
This has happened to me before. I make a decision—even life-changing ones, like when I dropped out of college—on a dime. There’s no changing my mind. There’s no warning, at least to an outside observer. I just stop. My Dad does it, too. I come by it honestly.
This is perhaps the most profound way I experience God talking to me, this overwhelming sense of stop. And, believe me, I know that what I am describing as God could be my stubbornness, my bipolar disorder, my I-don’t-give-a-fuck attitude when it comes to following what I think it right. It could be those things. Or something else.
But I think it is God. It saved me from dying in a car crash when I was seventeen. It’s like every cell in my body stops doing what they are supposed to do and issue a simple command: stop. I can’t do anything but listen.
This time around, God shut me up for a while. I left the church I served as a pastor for five years and I did not write a single thing about it. I finished my doctorate and wrote neither jot nor tittle. I found my dream call and nary a peep was issued from someone who in the past has written multiple blogs simultaneously.
I’m not the person I was six months ago. Not in some rather significant ways. I’ve found my work and my call, and the words are returning. But the blog is going to change. For a while there, I got too wrapped up in the craziness that is our national political reality. I spent too much time on Twitter, too many hours reading hot takes about hot takes. Once again, an overwhelming sense of stop.
I’m done with bullshit. My reality is now heroin overdoses, domestic violence, chronic homelessness, systemic poverty; but I’m surrounded by some of the most giving, dedicated people who believe in local solutions involving local participants. And I’m realizing that if I can’t see God clearly here; if I can’t be real with people about what hope realistically looks like in a place that’s seen as a dumping ground by those in power, I believe in a fairy tale.
That’s the new blog. That’s all I care about now. This place and the role I have been called to have in it. I’ve gotta bear witness; I have to process the only way I know how: transparently and unabashedly.
We start with the reality that there are no fewer than three distinct sections of the text we call Isaiah and that within each of these sections we can detect editing that attempts to provide a little theological coherence for what is otherwise a collection of writings documenting centuries’ worth of experiences. It’s God’s hodgepodge.
To be sure, there was a historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, who began his ministry in the 730s BCE. There are specific references to historical kings—Uzziah, Hezekiah, Ahaz—that places us within a specific time period, but the biblical chronology sometimes conflicts with nonbiblical records, which, of course, were themselves written with heroes in mind, even when the historical events themselves showed otherwise. All of this to say, we are dealing with history but a history that has many versions, sometimes within the very same text. We should not get lost looking for facts in a field of truth.
We know that Isaiah was attached to the Temple in Jerusalem. Up north, in the kingdom that broke away from Judah after the death of Solomon—owed to a forced labor practice that highlighted the failures of a royal theology that didn’t serve anyone except those at the top—they had their own traditions, sacred places, theology, and sense of community. Owed to their geographical position, they faced an ongoing threat of Assyria, the superpower of the moment and a testimony to the capacity for human brutality. The north, sometimes referred to as Ephraim, was forging an alliance with Syria, who wished to develop a coalition to stop the Assyrian menace. They were asking Judah, the south, to join.
Enter Isaiah 6. Now, I used to pay good quality money for substances that would make me see trippy shit. God has the primo hallucinogenics. The Temple, which itself is an axis mundi, a place where the divine and human meet, suddenly becomes a portal to the heavenly court. Seraphim, which, according to Robert Alter in his definitive, beautifully-written The Hebrew Bible: Translation and Commentary, are possibly made of fire (but then why do they need the tongs?) or (start screaming now) are FLYING SNAKES. These six-winged beasts hover around God, singing “holy, holy, holy.” Isaiah can see the hem of God’s garment.
Shit is wild, yo.
But it is the content of the transaction between Isaiah and God that continues to beckon, challenge, befuddle, and inspire those who wrestle with the Word. Isaiah speaks:
And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
The winged, flying snakes of fire with motherfucking feet go into action.
Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.”
The theology here is potent. Isaiah, like Abraham and Moses before him, felt unworthy of God’s anointing. Most clergy I know wrestles with both the arrogance and humility that comes with claiming to work for God. Do I really believe that God has chosen me? How COULD God choose me, fucked up as I am? Here, God forgoes the usual methods of affecting ritual cleanliness; it is performed in the Temple, yes, but there are no priests or ritual sacrifices. God directly purifies Isaiah. The Law is circumvented.
I believe that Christians should be very careful in passing judgment on Jewish Temple practices because doing so can quickly descend into antisemitic tropes (whether consciously or not). In my reading, the critique transcends the specific Temple example used by God: Isaiah’s experience represents what should happen in God’s house: human beings knowing that no sin or defect of character is powerful enough to keep us from God.
To use an overused expression: God does not call the qualified, God qualifies the called.
But that call can be a bitch. God asks the heavenly council whom he should send to represent them. Isaiah responds with words uttered by Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Samuel, and Saul before him: “Here am I, Lord” Then he adds: “Send me.” God drops the hammer.
And he said, “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 1Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Remember that history we discussed above? How the north, Ephraim, was aligning with Syria to ward off and defeat Assyria, the great superpower? That’s key to understand what is going on here. God is charging Isaiah with a fool’s errand, at least when measured by typical metrics. Isaiah is to go to the people with a simple message: trust in God, not in Syria. Do not make alliances with people who are hostile to our God and our values.
This is another area in which Evangelical fundamentalism has so fucked up the common understandings of prophets and politics, it seems that the only way to interpret this passage is that God promotes a xenophobic, nationalist theocracy. Such is not the case.
Being a person of faith in any serious way means knowing what God requires of you and who you are in God. If you claim to follow a God who calls for you to be a person of compassion, generosity, understanding, justice, and love—as almost every spiritual and religious tradition does, in wonderfully varying ways—yet you are selfish, greedy, oppressive, and murderous while living and supporting societies and cultures that are equally rapacious, don’t expect human beings to be your salvation. If you know God calls you to be different than the world, but you choose to chase earthly things, can you really be surprised that things go to shit?
This is a tough concept and I can understand why some people think it is malarkey. But please bear with me. I think a major problem throughout the history of religion is that it has been and is used to control, manipulate, subjugate, and enslave people while those in power prosper and play pious. What God is saying to Isaiah is: tell the people the harsh truth that if they really did what I tell them to do, none of this bad shit would be happening. But they won’t want to hear it. Your success will be measured in how few people listen to you. But don’t shy away from the message that God cares about how we treat one another. God’s call to Isaiah was to preach how compassion, mercy, justice, and love will save us, not plans for war made with people who kill us given the opportunity.
To be fair, things get a bit more fucked up.
Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land. Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled.”[c The holy seed is its stump.
Let’s start with how beautifully human Isaiah’s question is: How long will I be grinding, God?How long is this gig? God does not use a clock to answer but rather lets Isaiah know of the logical consequences of what happens when the people do not heed the words of the prophet. Cities will fall, houses without families will emptily stand, and those who survive will be sent far away. And of those, more will be burnt until only a remnant will remain. The holy seed. *
Isaiah was to deliver this message to a people who did not want to hear it. He came without the cultural credentials, but he was certain in his charge. We can have conversations about whether Isaiah’s vision should be understood literally, metaphorically, or a combination of the two; we can have conversations about the content of Isaiah’s message, but it seems overwhelmingly obvious to me that Isaiah, like the social justice prophets before him, understood Israel and Judah’s corporate sin to be evident in the conditions of oppressed and marginalized peoples throughout the land. Isaiah is not screaming at women trying to access affordable gynecological care. He is not attacking LGBTQ people or immigrants. That’s not prophecy. That’s being a fundamentalist asshole.
The only theology that matters to me is a theology that meets us on the streets, that helps us traverse a violent, oppressive world without giving in to desires for vengeance and destruction. I believe deeply that if we were to concentrate on the things God does require—not a judgment of others but the cultivation of a community that affirms the blessedness of all—we would live in a better world.
Sadly, too many people feel this is the real crazy shit.
*My Hebrew Bible scholar friends will forgive me for not going as deep into the history and context as we might otherwise but I try to write things accessible to interested readers. However, it is important to note that the material generally associated with the historical Isaiah of Jerusalem, Isaiah 1-39, was also edited, perhaps by what is known as Deutero-Isaiah, or Second Isaiah, found in chapters 40-55. So there are questions as to whether the historical Isaiah was specific about the Diaspora, the scattering, that happened when the Babylonians defeated the Assyrians and all other comers, laying waste Jerusalem and razing the First Jewish Temple in 587/6 BCE. The prophet Jeremiah, who I will write about in next week’s blog, is an important source regarding this time and the people who did return under Cyrus the Persian in the first decade of the sixth century BCE.
I didn’t intend to start this project. It happened gradually over the past year as I read more about the tactics of the Russian-based internet Research Agency (IRA), which was a major part of the early indictments issued by the Justice Department in cooperation with Special Prosecutor, Robert Mueller III. While Trump supporters crow, in person and on social media, that “no Russians were in the voting booth,” the presence of QAnon at rallies (seriously; when are we going to have serious campaign reform that bans presidential “rallies” such as these?) is evidence enough that the disinformation campaigns spearheaded by Russian hackers have been internalized as fact by an overwhelming majority of the self-described deplorables. There is nothing quite like the arrogance of false certainty.
I’ve been dealing with some health issues and I am incapable of not working on multiple things at once, so I began spending more time on Twitter. This was made possible largely by the staggeringly tumultuous past two weeks. Trump has had multiple tweet storms that descended into tantrums. I began to notice patterns in the more outrageous comments. Soon, I was discovering entire conversations with bots or highly-moderated accounts. This has heated up exponentially since a contingent of pro-Trump Black pastors visited the White House. African-American leaders from around the country have taken to Twitter and Facebook to decry not only the behavior of particular pastor but also the Administration’s woeful record on important issues around race. This “intraracial” conversation is the perfect opportunity for Russian bots to fulfill their mission to further divides and spread disinformation. Surprise, surprise. Today, Trump tweeted a Rasmussen poll citing a rising level of support among Blacks. As expected, the bots are most active.
What kind of numbers are we talking about?
Mine was in no way a scientific study. I am finishing a doctorate and I know what is required for a quantitative study. This ain’t it. However, I hope this is useful for the average person who wants to be able to use Twitter to connect with real people who are interested in more than shitpot stirring.
Had I thought through this before I did it, I would have taken screenshots of the conversations. I wasn’t intending on writing this but I was just curious about how many I would find in a day, which grew into a weekend, which grew into a week, which grew into two weeks. Each time I would find a confirmed bot, I would report and then block. What you can see below are screenshots of about 95% of the accounts I identified.
I am going to place the confirmed number of bots at 110. I absolutely could have found three times that amount if I wanted to dedicate myself to the task 40 hours/week. I absolutely didn’t and don’t want to do that, but I conservatively say that I dedicated about 30 hours over the course of two weeks.
Okay, 110 out of how many?
I definitely got better with this over time (see below), so there were a number of false checks early on that I didn’t even bother with after a week of steady investigation. I estimate that I checked around 300-350 accounts. So, we’re talking about 1/3. Again, this is not scientific and I am not saying that a full 1/3 of accounts commenting on Trump’s post are bots; I actually think it is higher, but I leave it to those much more qualified than am I to do proper studies.
Why does this even matter?
I think the saddest thing for me was the 200 or so accounts I checked that were not bots but rather belonged to real people parroting the rhetoric of the fake accounts. #walkaway is a perfect example. This is a manufactured “movement,” replete with stock photographs of Black people superimposed with fake quotes about how they are leaving the Democratic party. Almost every instance of a legitimate person using #walkaway, that person was White and they followed the fake accounts of supposedly Black, Republican Americans. It is like the Twitter version of “I can’t be racist because I have Black friends.
Even more insane are the conversations between highly moderated accounts pretending to be Black. One, between @sugarthegirl and @spoilrottenpup, was about how they can no longer talk to their families because they support Trump. Again, I acknowledge I should have captured the conversation itself, but I have gotten so used to automatically reporting and blocking that I went too quickly. Alas, you can see the profile pages.
Sugar the Girl did, it should be mentioned, send me a snapshot of a handwritten note with the date and a message telling me to suck it. I would have been more impressed with a photo of a real person. It does show, however, that there are humans behind these accounts, but it is highly doubtful that they are who they claim to be.
How to identify Bots
Some of what I learned might be well-known to others who are more informed in the field. I’m just a dude with a blog who noticed some stuff. The first thing you need is botcheck.me . To save yourself time, here are a few things that can help zero in on suspicious accounts.
A string of numbers by the name. If you see a name like DanEboy12800473, that’s a good candidate. This does not always hold, as it appears some people purposefully have such usernames so they can goad others into accusing them of being bots, only to respond with something like, “Typical libtard. Everyone who doesn’t agree with you is either a Russian or a bot #walkaway”
They are relatively new to Twitter. Again, this is in no way a guarantee, but it has been evident in enough cases that it is worth a mention.
If they mention having been “shadow banned” or have a “new account” because they’re being persecuted as conservatives.
Their self-description is just a little too filled with accomplishments that are not backed up with any professional tweets, the page has links to nothing other than pro-Trump propaganda, and they use lots of hashtags associated with Russian meddling.
Identities that seem incongruous, like “Muslims for the travel ban” or “Mexicans for the wall.” Sadly, this also isn’t a guarantee. In all cases, use botcheck.me.
If they swoop in, post something provocative, and then move on. This is a tactic I saw a lot. It stirs the pot, and if enough real people get involved, the bot doesn’t comment much because someone else has taken on the role of provocateur.
What to do?
I don’t recommend spending as much time as I have on chasing down bots. It has certainly impacted my mental health and I find that even though I know the accounts are “fake,” the impact is not. What the intelligence agencies have been saying about Russia’s ongoing efforts is playing out right in front of our eyes. Each time OfVald has another rally and we see the rabid, ignorant, hate-filled supporters screaming propaganda while, without any trace of irony, declaring their superiority to the dumb “libs,” I feel both sad and angry. But this is part of the effort. It is meant to wear us down. It is meant to make us fear that Trump’s actual supporters outnumber us.
Twitter can be great, but it takes diligence if you want to have any sort of meaningful conversations or exchanges of ideas. As for me, I am going to take a break from reading the comment threads and focus on thoughtful pieces longer than 280 characters.
I remember the first time I became conscious of my weight. It was sometime in the early 1980s. I was at my Grandma Hilda’s house in Southfield, Michigan. I was no more than 7 years old. Stripped to the waist, as I was near all the time—G’ma Hilda’s house included a pool, apple trees, a massive garden, plenty of room to run, and her cairn terrier, Poco. I was sitting just a couple feet away from a 19″ television, eating lunch from the garden and pulling from an ice-cold A&W in a glass bottle.
Then it came on. An advertising line for Special-K that people of a certain age might remember: “Can’t pinch an inch on me!”
I had been a chubby baby, but I was a slender child. I wasn’t particularly fleet of foot, but I rode bikes, played soccer and baseball, and I was an incredibly strong swimmer. I cannot remember ever thinking a critical thought about my own body’s appearance until that moment when I looked down and pincered the flesh covering my obliques, trying to discern if I needed to start eating Special-K.
By junior high, I was a fleshy kid. I tended to eat my emotions, so you do the math. Classmates started to comment about how I needed to go on a diet. There were unkind comments from family members. I became a vegetarian because I associated that with losing weight. But all I ate were carbohydrates. As I grew chubbier, the self-hatred became all-consuming. By the time the Solo-Flex Man came on the scene, I had a full-blown eating disorder and overwhelming body dysmorphia.
I used to stand in front of the mirror, my fleshy middle hot-red from me angrily grabbing the offending fat and pulling, as though through the sheer desire to be thin I could rip it away like cotton candy. But I was hoarhound and all that resulted was a bone-deep hatred of my own body.
I started lifting weights at the age of thirteen; the gym rule was fourteen, but my father, who had absolutely transformed his body inside of a year (acromegaly played some role, but Dad was ripped) said that we were using the ancient Chinese custom of counting age from the time of conception. My exercise anorexia kicked into high gear. I was cycling a good 40 miles a week during the summer, along with hitting the gym four days a week. By the time I was fifteen, I had virtually no body fat but the damage had already been done. All I saw when I looked in the mirror were flaws. Weakness. Failure. In reality, I was buff enough to be cast as Lewis in Pippin. In my head, though, there were inches all over my body that I wanted to violently pinch off.
I used to do 1,000 sit-ups/abdominal exercises a day. People always cast doubt on that number but it is true. Of course, there were days when I did not reach the full 1,000 but there were exactly zero days in which no exercises happened. I would take 10-mile bike rides twice a day on my “off days.” I confessed fully my body image issues to my first serious girlfriend. We bonded over impatience with our bodies.
I just want to pause and say that having someone who understood how I felt was remarkable. This was the early ’90s. Manorexia was not yet a thing, at least in terms of public conversation. She never shamed me, told me to “man up,” or accuse me of just wanting attention; I cannot overemphasize how vital this was for me in terms of not giving over completely to the dysphoria and shame.
Probably the most destructive period of my exercise anorexia was when I had a good job waiting table and bartending, which provided me with lots of cash. I started to powerlift and buy supplements. I was on a steady diet of creatine, protein, and alcohol. I started going to bed at 9 pm (at the age of 22) and getting up at 4 a. I would head to the gym, work out for three hours, go home, eat, go to work, and come home. Lather, rinse, repeat. My body grew as I added more and more weight to my bench press, deadlift, and squat totals. Yet, the bodybuilders in the gym called me fat because according to their standards, I was. I started seriously considering steroids.
Then I threw out my back deadlifting and things changed drastically. I was months away from the gym. I drank too much, ate too much, and I started to look like a high school linebacker gone to seed. I’d get back in the groove for 2-3 months, lose some weight, and then fall back into the same pattern. After two years, I had a body that mortified me. Then my brother died, and my dark night of the soul began.
I threw myself headlong into a bottle of Bushmills for the over a decade, and my weight yo-yoed drastically. Twice I lost over 40 lbs, only to gain it all back. I was in denial about how much I was eating and how often. When I got sober, I definitely turned to food for comfort. Add to that, medications such as Lithium and Paxil and inside of three years, I had gained 50 lbs. During this time, I was constantly running myself down about how fat I was and how awful I looked; I engaged in regular self-deprecation as a defense mechanism because I was sure that everyone was like, “Oh-my-God-have-you-seen-Aaron-he’s-a-fucking-whale?”
Yeah. It sucks.
The last time I stepped on a scale was about four-and-a-half months ago. I weighed 290 lbs. Seeing that number, feeling the copious amounts of flesh touching itself—which caused me to adjust how I moved, sat, slept, negotiated the world—and looking at the other numbers indicating that I was heading for a heart attack by the age of 50, I vowed that I was going to make a change, starting instantly.
I went on the keto diet. This was a BFD because I am a carbaholic. Like, Thanksgiving for me is really just multiple plates of mashed potatoes and dinner rolls stuffed with, well, stuffing and covered in gravy. Everything I had been eating was either carbohydrates or sugar. Often, both. And when I say I went on the keto diet, I mean that since the day of “The Weighing,” I have not eaten more than 25-30 carbs/day. There were tough moments, to be sure, but I have a history of quitting addictions cold turkey. Cigarettes, various and sundry intoxicants, alcohol. All stopped by mentally flipping a switch.
But sweet Jeebus, sometimes the journey to that switch is long and destructive.
Today, I went to the doctor for what has turned out to be a pretty serious case of cellulitis. I’m on antibiotics and if things have not improved significantly within 24 hours, I will be hospitalized.
However, that is not what is dominating my thoughts. I had to step on a scale, which I have assidulously avoided, because the numbers are like scarlet letters upon my skin, like the red welts that would rise from my tortured, past pinches. I promised myself that no matter what, I would feel positive about the undeniable, dramatic changes. You carry a lot of muscle mass, I reminded myself. I had a number in my head, the minimum amount lost that I would accept as a success. I stepped on the scale and then gasped.
I’ve lost 30 lbs. That was not the number I had in my mind. But, still. Pretty good, right?
Nope. All I saw was that I weigh 260 lbs. I said several times to the nurse, whom I had never seen before, I don’t know how I can weigh 260. I swim in most of my clothes. I have a waist. I’ve gone down four sizes. How can I weight 260?!?! She never offered an answer.
No matter what the number is, there will always be something. I remember being in my early 20s taking a bath with my soon-to-be first wife. I apologized for being so fat. She looked at me like I had lobsters crawling out of my ears. “Aaron, you are not fat. At all. In any way.” I grabbed my middle and pulled. “This. Ugh. I hate this,” I said, casting down my eyes. I looked up. “That’s skin, Aaron. Skin. Everyone has it,” she said, pointing to her own slender waist.
No matter how much weight I lose or how I continue to build muscle, I will never see myself as anything but fat. And that, dear friends, is why we need to talk about positive body image with all kids. Because I honestly would prefer to be overweight and comfortable with myself than skinny and locked in a cycle of self-hatred.
Tonight, I am going to eat real pizza and enjoy the experience. Tomorrow, back to keto. Sometimes, we’ve just got to take a load off…
I saw the placards as we rolled past Mills Lawn on Elm Street. Turning onto Short from Walnut, I saw the bearers. Two women, at least in their 60s, bedecked in the long dresses and long hair that often accompany Holiness movement communities. I sighed as we turned right on Xenia and looked for a parking space. “I think this is something to which a town pastor must respond,” I said, getting out of the car.
Mimi and I have a ritual: Monday mornings at the Sunrise. We love the people who work the shift. It is generally a very townie time to be downtown. We each invariably order the same thing. They know us so well, they once started our order while we were still waiting for a table to come open. By the time we sat down, the food was coming up.
I was hoping to gather my thoughts over breakfast when Mimi pointed out that they were on a wait. No biggy, I thought. As we walked past a group of four tourists and into the restaurant, they followed immediately. A woman asked if she could sneak past, even though she had already put their name in. I said, “The host will come around in a second. We’re not cutting.” She and another lady then moved into space right next to people eating; just, milling about and assuming that this very successful restaurant is staffed by people who don’t know that there is a small waiting area and people go outside. They’re still talking about how they don’t want to lose their spot. I said to Miriam, “I don’t like the vibe in town today. Let’s go to Tom’s. ”
We stepped out and walked toward the Little Art. I look again at the women and they were speaking to people passing by. Dammit, I thought. I told Miriam she could go ahead, and I crossed the street.
“Hello,” I say.
“Hello,” one woman returns, eyeballing me in a way with which I am most familiar. My beard, locs, tattoos, muscles; the ever-present Monday Jesus Christ Superstar t-shirt; they all add up to danger. She takes a step back.
“I’m pastor of the church right there. I just want to let you know that Jesus is very well represented here. We’ve had committed, Christ-infused people with long, deep ties to this community for nearly two hundred years. We don’t need outsiders coming in to deliver a message regarding Jesus, especially this way. We have at least half-a-dozen pastors toiling in the vineyard of Yellow Springs right now. Jesus is doing just fine.”
“Then why did God ask us to come here?” she retorts.
“I don’t even know how to respond to that, ma’am. Because your claim that God sent you here seems in direct contradiction about what I know to be true. I grew up here. I have committed the whole of my life to Jesus Christ. I have been a pastor in this village for five years, and I know the fruits that God has born from the countless seeds sown by Christ-loving people.”
“I’ve never heard of one Christian asking another Christian to leave,” she says.
“Ma’am, I’m not asking you to leave. What I am saying is that if you were really concerned about the souls of people here, why did you not contact those of us who toil in the vineyard? Why not come and talk to us? This is not doing anything to help those of us who love Jesus and who will still be here after you leave.”
“Okay, you’ve had your say.”
“Yup, God bless.”
All I hear is laughter as I walk away.
In a way, my approach was confrontational. I imagine that there will be those who feel that I should have gone in with a carrot rather than a stick. Establish mutual love for Christ, ask questions, be more invitational; I get it. Because I have done it in the past and it goes nowhere. I’ve spent two decades studying and living Christianity. I’ve lived in this part of Ohio for the overwhelming majority of my life. I know their techniques, their theology, their assumptions. They are treating this town as a mission field.
Missionaries only go where they feel that Christ is not represented or to places they believe are openly hostile to God. That must always be kept at the forefront. The earnestness of these Christians cannot be denied; they sincerely believe that Satan takes root in communities unless there are soldiers in God’s army actively fighting against him. They will not recognize as authentically Christian any Jesus-believer who does not share their Manichean worldview, replete with racism, homophobia, xenophobia, and nationalism wrapped up in a millennialist-based eschatology that would make the Qurman community say, “Whoa, lighten up y’all.”
Was it comfortable saying these things to my elders? No. I didn’t relish it. I didn’t enjoy it. I wasn’t angry. But I couldn’t just roll me eyes and walk on. I just had to say something.
Paul writes in Ephesians 4:4-5, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” It is important to remember that Paul was writing while in prison, awaiting trial before Nero that most certainly would result in a death sentence. In this epistle, which was not addressed to the people of Ephesus as it is an encyclical and meant for all members of the Body of Christ, Paul uses seventy unique Greek words that are not found in any of his other authentic epistles.
Ephesians operates as a diptych, with two panels (Eph. 1-3; 4-6) facing one another. In the first part, Paul writes about what must happen inside each person: we must hold ourselves up against the example of Christ and see that we are found wanting. Understanding that we need God in order to transform, we replace ourselves with Christ. We begin to live in Christ. Paul does not say how this must happen; he understands that each experience will be different, but if it results in you pulling up a chair at the table of Christ and saying, “I’m all in,” then that is the faith Paul is talking about.
In the second half, Paul connects this idea of Christ unifying each of us to your true selves with how the Body of Christ must function. This is something most often misunderstood by missionaries such as those who are currently downtown. When Paul writes about “one faith,” he is not arguing for a uniformity of belief. This is not a credal proposition. How could he have made such a claim? Paul was referred to as an apostle by his followers, but such as a term that was only applied to those who knew Jesus. Paul did not. Paul had an experience of the risen Christ, which no one could substantiate except Paul himself. The whole of his life was meant to evidence that even those who never knew the historical Jesus can be filled with the Spirit and can be used by God for the glory of the gospel.
From the beginning, our faith tradition has been about the transforming power of God through Jesus Christ. The kerygma, the oral proclamations, spread in numerous languages, meeting people where they were; the gospel as we have received it is by definition an experiential one. Sadly, history has shown that Christians are far, far too concerned about how a person ended up at God’s table rather than the fact that God brings us all as equals.
In Paul’s vision for Godly community, we must have respect for the myriad ways in which God can reconcile humans to God’s self. God points to a shared baptism. Again, this was not just a credal formula. It was a public testimony, even in the face of danger, about inward grace. It was not a call that everyone should be baptized in the same way or for exactly the same reasons. Rather, Paul’s call to a shared faith and baptism was meant to be a radical invitation into God’s diverse, Spirit-infused community.
I have to imagine that I am now, or will soon be, a story these ladies share. Based on their derisive laughter as I departed, I’m sure I will be seen as a demon, a fallen soul, a deceiver, a fill-in-the-blank. Just like with an encyclical: the community name in the greeting is left blank so that the reader/teller of the epistle can insert the name of the one being addressed. Rather, in my situation, I’ll be a mirror for all their fears and assumptions. In that way, what I did is a certain failure. My words will only strengthen their resolve and might, in the end, increase the frequency of their visits.
But I just had to say something, didn’t I?
*The title should be read in the voice of Dr. Venkman with the sarcasm tone set on 11. I’m not conducting a poll.
First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
—MLK, “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”
I have written a good deal about the construct of whiteness (click here, here, here, and here) and how in and of itself, this pernicious ideology is oppressive. To be sure, its oppression is disproportionately felt by non-whites, which should always remain the primary reason why we seek to dismantle whiteness in all its guises. But it is also extremely damaging to so-called whites as well. This is not a new insight nor is it one original to me.
As a beloved community scholar rooted in the work of Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I wrestle with the bifurcated nature of whiteness. On one hand, I reject the foundational racial claims and cultural assumptions of whiteness. I do not identify with whiteness in terms of my own self-regard because whiteness holds nothing with which I resonate. On the other hand, I am a direct beneficiary of cultural whiteness and I have inherited both the perfidious history and the present horrific existence that is white supremacy culture.
For many years, I wanted to be a “good white person.” To me, this meant being involved with racial justice work, showing myself to be someone who was consistent in word and deed. While this isn’t bad on its face, I see now that I sometimes had the wrong motivations. I was still so entrenched in my own internalized whiteness, I sought praise from non-whites to assure myself that I wasn’t racist (which is problematic on so many levels). I have been blessed to walk with a wide variety of people on the racial justice journey, each of whom has offered wisdom and frankness that’ve shaped me.
The continued irony of my own existence is that in order for me to be able to morally and ethically reject whiteness, I have to work toward its complete destruction. I do not get to declare myself emancipated from whiteness until its primary victims no longer have to look over their shoulders. For me, there is no “good white person.” Please understand the context, though; this is not a call for people to engage in racial hatred. White is not a race. It is a lie. A good lie is still a lie.
The real “white man’s burden” is coming to terms with the horror that has been perpetrated in the name of a nonexistent race, and how the very institutions of our government are covered in the blood of untold millions because of specious racial theories. It is understanding that we cannot turn aside, cannot continue to put the onus on the oppressed, and cannot seek praise for being a “good example for our race.” At least, that’s where it is for me right now.
I don’t have to describe the uncertainty with which we are living right now; each day feels like we’re running a marathon on stilts in a hurricane. We are continually pummeled, falling, getting back up, and lurching on toward Bethlehem. The storm is no abating. It is not getting easier. And that can feel completely overwhelming.
We stand at a critical point in history. It is clear that monumental change is happening. We don’t know which direction it will go, but we are not helpless. In order to root out these structures, to affect longitudinal change that will allow for an authentic national repentance and be based upon restorative justice, it takes individuals and communities across the country to be the driving force. It will take a whole lot of good people to finally erase whiteness.
Genuine spiritual authority is to be found only where the ministry of hearing, helping, bearing, and proclaiming is carried out. Every cult of personality that emphasized the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community; indeed, it poisons the Christian community.
—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
This past week I have watched in horror as we sink deeper into totalitarianism. The balance of powers that is the bulwark of our democratic republic is nonexistent. There is no system by and for the people. The Executive issues orders without proper planning, oversight, communication, or legal standing; Congress, bought and paid for by insidious corporate interests, assaults fragile civil rights and protections while cynically crying, ala Braveheart, “freedom!!”; the SCOTUS issued brutal rulings against labor unions, the reproductive rights of women, and the rights of Muslims to travel to and from the United States. Chaos reigns as families frantically try to reconnect after the inept and cruel execution of Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy.
African-Americans continue to be humiliated, threatened, abused, and killed by mechanisms of the State. White people’s tears and fragility have a body count. Trans people keep dying at the hands of bigots carrying crosses. Sexual assault, even in this era of #metoo, remains rampant and victim-shaming is still the go-to defense. And I watch as millions of so-called Christians support what is happening, even having the audacity to proclaim it God’s will.
If that’s God, I want no part of it.
On April 7, 1933, the Nazi government announced the inclusion of the “Aryan Paragraph,” which began the systematic removal of Jewish persons from German cultural, economic, political, and social life. It also meant that any pastors of Jewish descent would lose their jobs. Rev. Dr. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, one of the leading theologians in the world, immediately began to speak out.
His concern as both a pastor and a follower of Christ is that his ministerial work could not be limited to just “members” of the church; the threat posed by Nazism was toward the body of all occupied Europe. Bonhoeffer deemed this not just a military threat, but an existential one as well. Nazism is, at its core, an attempt to divide people, to alienate individuals from all except State machinations. Bonhoeffer understood this and believed he knew the answer: “Where a people prays, there is the church, and where the church is, there is never loneliness.”
The second challenge Nazism presented was that Bonhoeffer regarded the physical Church as being analogous to the physical presence of Christ in the world; Hitler was setting himself up as not only the head of state but also the head of the Church, through what was known as the “Führer Principle.” This established Hitler’s word as the ultimate authority, no matter how capricious, illegal, or unchristian; when coupled with the racial conformity laws, the foundations of Nazism seemed incompatible with a faith in Christ, at least according to Bonhoeffer.
Not all agreed. The Roman Catholic Church signed the Reichskonkordat, which protected the rights of Catholics but required bishops to take an oath of loyalty to the Reich and for all Church officials to refrain from work within any political party other than the NSDAP. From Bonhoeffer’s own Lutheran tradition, Ludwig Müeller was appointed Reichsbishof of the German Evangelical Church; Bonhoeffer knew that unless there was resistance to the Nazification of the Church, Christ’s presence in the world would be killed without a chance for resurrection.
So he acted, even to the end of his life.
I struggle mightily with the fact that I am part of a religious tradition that has visited unspeakable horrors upon other people. I feel anger arise when I see others of my supposed race, my gender identity, my faith confession, engage in racist, misogynistic, Islamaphobic, transphobic, homophobic acts and on the daily act like they have no GD sense. The country I live in is and has always been racist. There is no gender or racial equity; there appears to be no arc toward justice, not an arc that doesn’t include the continued deaths and unfathomable suffering of so many others who do not look like me or claim the same faith tradition as do I.
I am fighting inside myself not to give way to hatred and despair. I refuse to rest upon my privilege and simply to turn a blind eye. But I confess that I am tired. It seems like a nonstop torrent of terrible, don’t it? Each day comes with it a new nightmare to be situated in the dreamscape from which none of us can awake.
But then I think about people like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and I know that though we may be weary, we must always speak and act as the gospel commands.
I remain a devout believer in Jesus Christ. I follow in the Jesus way and I have religious privilege as a pastor. Tomorrow, at First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs, the congregation and I will be welcoming three very special guests: Alicia Lowrance Pagan and Ray Two Crows Wallen, who perform as GA-LI, and Sommer McGuire. They will share songs and stories about migrants and justice-seeking; we will go to Creator together to hear, to help, to bear, and to proclaim. We will garner our spiritual energy to feel the power that comes when we more fully understand how we are connected to one another.
I will deliver no sermon. The liturgy, the work of the people, will be our offering.
All people of good will are welcome. Service begins at 10:30. Come as you are: wonderfully made and radically loved.
 Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 69.