I spent two weeks following Trump’s Twitter comments, and Russia’s ongoing efforts are readily apparent (surprise! they’re focusing on race)

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.

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**

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.

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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.

  1. 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”
  2. 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.
  3. If they mention having been “shadow banned” or have a “new account” because they’re being persecuted as conservatives.

  4. 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.

  5.  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.
  6. 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.

The Weight: No matter how much I lose, I’ll always be fat

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 just had to say something, didn’t I?* A pastor responds to outside missionaries

IMG_1423.JPGI 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.

**This was updated to correct tense issues.

Enough with “good white people”

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.

Yet.

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.

 

Beloved community: Welcoming GA-LI and Sommer McGuire

bonhoeffer

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.”[1]

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.[2] 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.

 

[1] Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 69.

[2] Full text for the oath can be found here: http://www.concordatwatch.eu/kb–1211.834

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Threshold moments: On moving onward

 

As a kid, I fell in love almost every day. My emotions were so overwhelming, the only way I could negotiate existence was to let the feelings pour from me toward others. This made me an intense little dude. I’ve gotten better at controlling the emotions, but I’m an intense bigger dude. I discovered early that music is instrumental (see what I did there?) in helping me feel understood, in providing me an outlet for my myriad emotions. Boyz II Men’s debut album Colleyhighharmony holds a very special place in my heart. I wore out two copies of the tape inside of a year. My brother, who listened to Black Flag and Fugazi, wanted to kill me.

This past weekend, I informed the congregation of my intention to step down as the pastor. The date is still TBD, but it will be sooner rather than later. Sunday’s service was incredibly emotional; the predominant feeling, though, is love. It is mixed with no small degree of lament but ’tis love all the same.

There are times in our lives in which we find ourselves between identities, between worlds, between the past and a future yet to settle into the present. The liminal phase. Like a child undergoing a rite of passage to enter the community of adults. Behind them an identity they can no longer claim; in front of them, an identity they have not yet earned. Liminal. From the Latin lamen, meaning threshold.

There is rarely a single, lone factor that pushes a person to a threshold. For me, considerations financial and professional certainly have factored in. I would be lying if I said otherwise. There are reasons I will not share publicly—and privately only with a very select few—but the main reason I will: I believe that the Spirit is moving me onward.

I sometimes hesitate to use language like this because many are rightly suspect when Christians talk about following the direction of God. Too often such statements are followed by actions aimed at controlling and condemning others. For me, discernment means months, if not years, of continued work on deconstructing the ego while listening for the still, small voice. It means confronting the overwhelming emotions that come with fear: fear of losing love, or leaving what is familiar, of not being able to control what comes next. It’s so hard to say goodbye to yesterday, indeed.

I am returning to my home denomination, the United Church of Christ, to serve as an intentional interim pastor. This means that I will not serve an individual congregation for longer than two years; my job will be to help them identify who they have been, where they are now, and what God is offering for the future. My job will be to eliminate my own job, in a way. It is a John the Baptizer position, clearing the one for the one who is to come.

I’m sad. But I’m also excited.

Damn those thresholds.

 

 

 

From Luther to Beauregard: My, how public theology has fallen

Image result for marburg colloquy

In October of 1529, the leading Protestant reformers Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, Martin Bucer, and Phillip Melanchthon met with several other theologians at Marburg Castle in Hesse, Germany, to see if they could put on paper a Protestant theology that would unite the disparate factions in Europe against the Roman Catholic Church. This colloquy is perhaps best remembered for the falling out of Luther and Zwingli over the issue of the real presence of Christ within the Eucharist, which ultimately led to two Protestant confessions: Lutheran and Calvinist. However, the resulting fifteen point document, known as the Marburg Articles, contains two points that have oddly become most relevant, nearly 500 years on, to all Protestant Christians, regardless of confession, in the United States.

Twelfth, that all secular authorities, laws, courts, and ordinances, wherever they may be, are of a correct and proper standing and not forbidden, as many papists and Anabaptists teach and hold. Rather, that a Christian, if he is called or born into the ruling class, can be saved through faith in Christ, just as in the class of father and mother, husband and wife, etc.

Thirteenth, that that which we call traditions in our human order in spiritual and ecclesiastical business, so long as they are not clearly contrary to God’s Word, may be followed or abandoned so that those with whom we deal can be shielded from all nature of unnecessary annoyance and the weak and common peace can be aided through love.

**

Five years later, in 1534, the Act of Supremacy made England’s King Henry VIII the head of the Anglican Church. After his death in 1553, Queen Mary I, a Catholic better-known as “Bloody Mary,” engaged in the violent oppression of the very church for which she was the head. Mary’s brief reign was followed by the Elizabethan age, which saw the undeniable assent of the Anglican Church. During these years, though, the religious wars became such an issue, not only for the United Kingdom but for Christian Europe as a whole, that Holy Roman Emperor Charles V signed the Peace of Augsburg in 1555. In it was set forth the provisio cuius regio, eius religio. “Whose realm, their religion.”

Unfortunately, that peace left out everyone except the Catholics and the Lutherans. It is a sad truth that the history of Christianity is largely one of exclusion, at least when it is the religion of the empire. Denominationalism rarely has focused on radical inclusion, in the grand sweep of Christian history.

**

St. Augustine’s classic text, City of God, evidences that Christians have long been thinking about the relationship between earthly kingdoms, such as that which opposed Jesus of Nazareth, and the kingdom of heaven promised upon the return of Christ. City of God, in many ways, is a Christian rewriting of Plato’s Republic. At issue in both is how one lives a life that is both sacred and profane. How does one define duty clearly if there are competing goods? For Plato, the choice is between allegiance to the city-state or to the Good? For Augustine, allegiance to the ruling power or to Jesus the Christ?

This past week, as the horrid immigration crisis has revealed the demonic and reprobate nature of the Trump Administration, we’ve been witness to the Attorney General of the United States, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions, and the White House Press Secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, offering their weighty, considered theological opinions. The former offered a tortured reading of Romans 13, the latter, an exegetically-dubious, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible.” 

I bet Augustine and Luther are just shitting themselves.

**

The Marburg Articles excerpted above show the continuation of the grand conversation, from pagan Rome to Catholic Rome to Protestant Europe. How do we negotiate ourselves as public and private persons? How do we properly fulfill our obligations and maintain right allegiances? How do we serve God whilst being subject to human rule? 

Reformation Europe was a powderkeg frequently ignited. Theological concerns were not just matters for colloquies. Heresy trials resulted in the deaths of remarkable, sincere people. Massive armies were at the command of religious zealots of varying theologies; all the while, the mass of humanity led lives of quiet desperation (with apologies to Thoreau).

The Articles aimed, in some real way, to set forth a few practical answers. I write as a pastoral theologian; for me, the only theology that matters is that which helps us get through the vicissitudes of life. I try to hold myself to the ethical principles that are a direct outgrowth of my code of morality. And my moral code, more than anything else, is rooted in the God of justice, compassion, mercy, grace, and love. So while I may not agree with some of the principles of the Articles, I deeply appreciate that they were focused on guiding people in how to follow God in the world.

So what do the articles excerpted above mean?

**

Article Twelve: that all secular authorities, laws, courts, and ordinances, wherever they may be, are of a correct and proper standing and not forbidden, as many papists and Anabaptists teach and hold. Is it a sin to utilize the courts or governmental structures in a system you find to be fundamentally corrupted or contrary to your understanding of God? This article says, “no.” We live in a society and in order to function, we have to engage with those who are different (again, keeping in mind that there were only two actors at first, Catholics and Lutherans).

Rather, that a Christian, if he is called or born into the ruling class, can be saved through faith in Christ, just as in the class of father and mother, husband and wife, etc. 

This is really interesting. There are several things at play here.

  1. Salvation is not a matter of class. Christ is the great equalizer. All who have faith will be met with the same grace, unearned but freely given.
  2. The other stations mentioned, that of mother and father, are telling. “Be fruitful and multiply” is a command Christians have taken just as seriously as our Jewish siblings. So, parenthood was seen as a Christian duty that, in its fulfilling, would keep a person close to God. Therefore, a person in the ruling class can remain close to God while participating in government.
  3. We must consider the ramifications of the first two points. If we are all equal before God, how are we to understand when we are born or brought into the ruling class? If this path is a valid one in order to remain in right relationship with Christ, is this because we can actualize what we believe God calls us to do within government? Or is the idea here that we can participate in a flawed or even corrupted government and not fear for our salvation as long as we retain faith in Christ?

To be sure, there are detailed, historical answers about which my colleagues in church history are much more qualified to write. For our purposes, it will suffice to point at the shiny object and say “look, Christians have been wrestling with these questions for millennia and, gasp, there are millions of pages written about them!” I’m looking at you, Beauregard. 

Article the Thirteenth, that that which we call traditions in our human order in spiritual and ecclesiastical business, so long as they are not clearly contrary to God’s Word, may be followed or abandoned so that those with whom we deal can be shielded from all nature of unnecessary annoyance and the weak and common peace can be aided through love.

This would have been an interesting argument to offer in Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission case. The writers of Marburg were saying: “We’ve really got to let some stuff go. Yes, traditions are important and we should keep those that are essential to our faith practice. But we live in a society and we’ve got to pick our battles. Is this really so important that the common peace should be interrupted, or aid to the weak should be compromised?

For Protestants, Martin Luther’s doctrine of two kingdoms—in a 1528 sermon he also refers to it as two kinds of righteousness—is perhaps the most well-known example we can use to situate the theological dumbfuckery that is Evangelical Christianity in the United States.

Luther wrote of two different kingdoms: the temporal one of this world, and the spiritual one of God’s. Our temporal world exists because of sin, because of the fall of Adam. This realm is constantly bombarded by evil, thronged as it is by the devil and ensnared in sin, sticky like a spider web spun on a sap-laden tree. The only safeguards against this are the “offices” and “stations” (rulers, teachers, pastors, parents) that accompany temporal existence.

It is here where nuance too often is lost. Luther maintains that God is in control of both realms, but humans access them differently. For the temporal world, there is the Law. For the spiritual, there is the Gospel. Dr. Anders Nygren writes in the Journal of Lutheran Ethics 

Luther insists that it is of primary importance not to confuse the two kingdoms. Each must be true to its Divine mission. Through the Gospel God rules His spiritual kingdom, forgives sins, justifies and sanctifies. But He does not thereby supersede or abolish the earthly kingdom: in its domain it is to rule with power and the sword. Any attempt to rule the world with the Gospel is a double error, carrying a double penalty. Firstly, the Gospel is destroyed, and becomes a new Law to take the place of the old – man makes Christ another Moses, as Luther puts it. And in addition the world suffers: to quote Luther, “What would be the result of an attempt to rule the world by the Gospel and the abolition of earthly law and force? It would be loosing savage beasts from their chains. The wicked, under cover of the Christian name would make unjust use of their Gospel freedom.” And again. “To try to rule a country, or the world, by the Gospel would be like putting wolves, lions, eagles ,and sheep all together in the fold and saying to them, ‘Now graze, and live a godly and peaceful life together. The door is open, and there is pasture enough, and no watchdog you need fear.’ The sheep would keep the peace, sure enough, but they would not live long.” https://www.elca.org/JLE/Articles/931 

Luther sees the Law (understood here first as the Ketuvim, and then Lutheran teaching) as a structure through which God can work and the people can best be prepared to receive the Gospel. It is a mistake to regard the two realms as separate, for both are under the domain of God. However, adherence to God’s law is, next to grace, the best way to navigate our way through the present morass.

When Luther writes about the abandoning of traditions, whether they be ecclesial or civil, for the sake of the common peace, he is always thinking about the nature of sin and the impact it has on people. For Luther, the stakes humans face are incredibly high; he described terrifying visions of hell that would make Jonathan Edwards sleep with a nightlight. But he also had a practical side. What are these arguments about traditions doing to advance God’s love, to bring about peace, and to help the afflicted? Are you objecting to something that does not go against God’s law? If so, let that shit go. 

Or something like that.

**

The present administration, in a word, is lawless. It comes as no surprise to me that the public theology from within and around the president’s dirty nest is malformed and mutant. The notion that any earthly law that is in place is de facto the desire of God is ridiculous on its face. If Evangelicals and Republicans (six of one, right?) really believed that, they never would have said a cross word about President Obama. Beauregard and his ilk have a peculiar theology: the Law only applies to those whom they hate and want to oppress, grace is available only to those who look like them, and the purpose of life post-baptism is to judge others in such harsh terms one wonders how God, on judgment day, could stoop any lower and still be called God.

I agree that Church and State should be separated. But as a follower of Jesus, I have moral codes that I think should be ethical ones as well. You don’t need Jesus in order to arrive at these ethical principles. People of myriad faith and philosophical traditions and non-traditions have arrived upon them independently of Christianity. As a Christian, though, God does not allow me to simply absolve myself of responsibility to speak out and act against that which violates the Gospel.

The only being I submit to completely is God. And it is not the God talked about by the likes of a Huckabee.