“You Don’t Like Me! You Really Don’t Like Me!” Why I Am Embracing Charges of Divisiveness in Trump’s America

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When I was a young teenager, I voiced my own version of #notallwhites. My mentors and peers of color, most often lovingly but sometimes exasperatedly, directed me toward understanding it is #notaboutyou. Endlessly asking others to assuage my goodness or affirm my nonthreatening whiteness sidetracked discussions. Since I was shown this, I haven’t been able to unsee it. Every now and again, I slip and offer up a more sophisticated version, but the impetus is the same: please affirm to me that I am not racist.

I’m racist. I actively fight against it, but I’m racist because I continue to benefit from systems that are built on a foundation of racist oppression.

In my late teens and early twenties I flirted with what is now called Meninism. I have a horrible memory that haunts me that I might one day write about, but I am still so mortified it is overwhelming. Let’s just say that in college I hijacked a presentation on sexual violence made by fellow female students and demanded that an asterisk be applied to everything they said. #notallmen

Really, this memory plagues me. It causes me to physically shudder and groan. Five years after it happened I was married to a feminist scholar, and while the marriage didn’t last, her impact on me did. #yesallmen is pretty much spot on, at least for me.

I converted to Christianity about 15 years ago and I have often said that I feel part of the ministry laid before me is #notallChristians. I used to think this would arise from saying the right things, making it clear that I decry the sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism, and other prejudices that too often are present in the Body of Christ. In the past two years I’ve realized that much, much more important than what I say is what I do. I no longer ask people to trust me, I try to show them. To earn their trust. To live my life as though I am a walking safety pin.

I delivered a sermon yesterday that has proved to be controversial, and appears to have caused one person to leave the church. The charges: I was univitational. Divisive. 

I did not sleep much last night. I wrote an email in which I attempted to thread the needle between lamenting that my words caused distress while maintaining that I do not accept that anything I said was outside of the Word. The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that over 700 incidents of hateful harassment and violence have occurred since the election of November 8th.  I’ve already blocked white dudes on my Facebook page who continued to argue for “isolated incidents,” or more often: “Emails! Benghazi! Foundation!” I don’t think I have even written Secretary Clinton’s name in a blog or a Facebook post since the election, but even if I have it is in passing or secondary to the larger point. I reject the notion that speaking about acts of violence and racism is in itself an act of violence and racism. My decrying these acts has now become more controversial and problematic than the acts themselves. And I do not want to be part of a Church that acts like our duty is to assuage the feelings of those who want to claim that this past election was like all the others we’ve had since 1864.

But the impetus to be liked is still in me. Part of me wants to apologize and smooth things over so that I am not regarded as controversial. After a rough patch with the Session of the congregation I serve, we had a powerful, transformative meeting on Thursday and I am not eager for more conflict. It would be easier for me to give a mea culpa and to start crafting sermons that are feel-good, milquetoast offerings that sand down the rough edges of God’s word and emphasizes that while we are different in the world we are all the same in the Body of Christ.

Frankly, if I ever do that I hope one of y’all will grab the clerical collar from my neck and tell me to go back to bartending. We don’t need another white male pastor who affirms the status quo. Despite its best efforts, even the European-American Church couldn’t turn Jesus into such a person, so I’m determined not to let it happen to me, either.

Jesus did not come to earth to make us in the dominant culture feel better about ourselves; Jesus came to earth to show us how to lovingly, yet boldly live our lives as ongoing protests against that which suffocates, oppresses, marginalizes, inhibits, and deceives. Jesus taught us that #Samaritanlivesmatter. Jesus taught us to #loveyourenemies, and part of that love is speaking truth to power, even with a shaking voice.

I won’t pretend that this is easy, but my struggles are not what is important here. While I want the Church to always be a welcoming place, if you are looking for a worship experience that confirms your prejudices and doesn’t hold up the Gospel like a mirror, I’m not the right pastor. I try very hard to not castigate people–a point I make repeatedly, despite my detractors never hearing it–but I rail against existential and spiritual realities that devastate people’s lives because that has been God’s call on God’s people for 6,000 years. 

I pray that the person who feels alienated by my sermon accepts my offer to speak in person. I certainly plan to listen, and even if I disagree to make sure that I understand the objections and concerns. This does not mean I will acquiesce. And if I am labeled as divisive, I will embrace that; if speaking out against violence, sexism, racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and the myriad other hatreds that are occurring across the country makes me more divisive than the actual acts themselves, so be it. I’ll channel my inner Sally Field and proclaim my unlikability.

 

Looking for a Job: God’s Nationalism

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I’ve written previously on deciding to move to the Narrative Lectionary, which has included a series on 2 Corinthians and Job. Job is always a tough one; it is a long book, with the most complicated poetry in the Tanakh; there are vast differences in hermeneutical positioning; and it has some unsettling details, such as God and Satan wagering and individual human life seeming not to matter (like how Job’s children are “replaced” at the end with new kids). Job is one of those texts that requires a big commitment from both pastor and congregation if a sermon series is going to work.

There are so many great books and articles about Job that even a half-assed literature review would take months to compile. So, I have given some links above that provide a good starting place for anyone wanting to make a serious go at Jobian theory; personally, I recommend Gustavo Gutierrez‘s seminal work On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of Innocents, which presents the biblical narrative as being the foundation of liberation theology. One of my best memories from early in graduate school–I think I was 24 or so–is of studying the text under the guidance of a Jesuit priest who was instrumental in my coming to Jesus Christ in the wake of my brother’s suicide. Job is a text that I have been wrestling with on and off for about fifteen years. And the recent world events have once again confirmed the contention that God is still speaking through the scriptures.

A little history is necessary, and you’ll forgive me for not providing links to every historical point I make; if anyone questions something or would like some citations, I can provide those in comments or IM. But in the main, being able to make claims about history is why I have accrued these degrees over the years, and seeing that this is a blog and not a dissertation, I’m going to forego the bibliography except to say that this is a great place to start.

If you look at the covenant between God and the people as mediated by Moses, the covenant is not with individuals. It is with a community; a community that will become a theocracy under the leadership of the kings: Saul, David, and Solomon. Scriptures are divided as to the wisdom of a monarchy. Of course, with the death of Solomon in 922 BCE we see a split in the kingdoms, with the Omri and Jehu Dynasties operating up north, and the Davidic line continuing down south. Rival fiefdoms impact subsequent theologies. Nationalism reigns. Then the North falls to the Assyrians around 721 BCE; the South hangs on until the Babylonians destroy the First Jerusalem Temple c.587/6 BCE, which begins the Diaspora, ending the period often known as Classical Judaism.

What faces the people during this time are fundamental questions: Who are we outside of the land, the Temple, and the Davidic line? Who are we when these are taken away? How do we know God? How do we know ourselves? Who are we? The answer that emerges is: We are a People of the Book.

So we have to ask, was it false sense of nationalism that did in the people? Is there anything to suggest that a faulty understanding of community can pollute the individual life? 

Let’s resume the history. The Babylonians are defeated by Cyrus the Persian, who enacts a much more benign and enlightened formed of occupation. Cyrus allows for those in exile to return to their homeland; Cyrus gives them money to build another Temple, and promises religious freedom (pay your taxes; always pay your taxes); but Cyrus reasons that peace will more likely prevail if people are allowed to keep their languages, customs, religions, and traditions. The problem becomes, a lot of people living in exile did not want to return. They have intermarried; converted; have no memories or attachments to Hebrew culture. So those that do return are among the more religious and devout. And in return for his kindness, Cyrus is declared a messiah (anointed one) in Hebrew scripture.

Until this time, individuality didn’t really exist. Certainly not in the way that it exists today. God’s concern was with the survival of the community; and the theology that develops is one in which the community is punished corporately for individual sin. (See, for example, the defeat at Ai as a result of the sin of Achan.) We can see it as a cycle that runs from the Book of Joshua through II Kings. The people turn to other gods; Hashem raises up an enemy; the people cry out, and God takes pity upon them; God raises up a shofet (temporary, charismatic leader or judge) who establishes peace throughout their lifetime; the leader dies, and the cycle repeats.

The human person, therefore, is a microcosm of the macrocosm. How so? Well, what is wrong within our own lives can be explained with the same interpretative lens. Physical or mental disability? Sin. Poverty or poor social standing? Sin. Notice how in the Book of Job, all the comforters essential offer the same advice? “Repent!” And Job remains insistent that he has done no wrong, which we are listener/readers in the story know to be true. God kinda allows God’s self to be pulled into a grotesque wager that has odious consequences for Job and those around him. Job challenges the notion that he deserves punishment because he is without sin, and Job is right.

Generally, I think, it is our instinct to side with Job. We feel his righteous indignation. This God who wagers and seems almost as insecure as a current presidential nominee is not a God with whom I am comfortable being in relationship. Job’s question are our questions. Job’s defiance our defiance. But what if we are being led down the garden path?

Let’s take a step back and really look at what is going on. It is understandable why, but Job is pretty focused on himself. He keeps saying that he does not deserve what is happening to him because he is not a sinner. We can argue all day long about how this can be true, as every person but Jesus (for us Christians) is a sinner, but the narrative is clear: Job is pious in every way. He is God’s pride and joy. So we should take that for what it is meant to be: a statement regarding the relationship between calamity and sin. Maybe the point of the book is not Job’s innocent suffering, but rather it is about our continuing belief that sin and punishment are related. We see the effect, personal disaster or catastrophe, and we assume that it is deserved because of a sinful cause; if we see destruction in our own lives and maintain that we are sinless, we begin to point at others we believe to be deserving of punishment but are left unscathed. This is the foundation of the theodicy question: why do bad things happen to good people. Or, perhaps even more puzzling, why do good things happen to a hate-filled, orange umpaloompa who can’t rub two brain cells together?

Believe me, believe me. It’s puzzling.

What if the Book of Job is about tearing down bad theology? Maybe Job’s piety arises because he believes he is rewarded for it. And maybe the authors of the Job text are setting forth a corrective to theologies that do a great deal to separate people, to make us afraid of one another, that embolden our judgments and mute our compassion. Because if someone deserves what they are getting, are we really motivated to help them in times of need?

In chapter 14, Job cries out that even the cut down tree has a hope of rebirth and resurrection, but the human person does not. The best for which we can hope is Sheol and the soothing darkness of eternal death. A belief in an afterlife and/or bodily or spiritual resurrection has not yet taken root in Judaism at this point; the Book of Job is part of that. Job’s use of imagery is part of a long tradition in Hebrew writings to employ tree metaphors in connection with messianic figures. God will act for the survivial of the corporate body, for the community, for the covenant people. Job demands justice and hope for himself. He argues for the dignity of the individual. And he is criticizing, I think, the nationalism that had overtaken people’s compassion and sense of connectedness.

We will discuss the ending of Job next week, but for right now let us wrestle with this: maybe God promises to stay with communities because we are most fully human when we are in relationship with one another? But God will not support those communities that place their identity into nationalism. And perhaps God is asking us to pull down those structures and systems that keep people out of relationships? Systems that keep people from affirming one another where they are instead of trying to convince them that they deserve their pain. Perhaps when we ask God why there is not justice and equality, God asks us the same thing. Maybe God is saying, I gave you everything you need to understand what is important. What have my prophets said unto you? What outrages have I sublimated out of love for you? Why do you keep hurting each other? Why do you mistake the nation for the community?

We are living at a time in which a politician is promising that he is the only one who can save us. He wants to build walls both literal and metaphorical. He promises that he is our voice. Our redeemer. When Job says, “I know my redeemer lives” we must ask ourselves, what does this mean? If God is our redeemer, how is God operating in our lives? What has God given to use individually that we can contribute to the larger community? What are the fruits of the Spirit that allow us to comprehend the ways in which persons are deemed “others.”

We Christians should be very wary when a person promises to be imbued with the unique ability to save us. Because we kinda already have that covered pretty well. Like, full coverage with zero deductible covered. What comes with that assurance, though, is the responsibility to speak truth to power, to set ourselves against signs and symbols that deny persons their full humanity and dignity. And we should understand that God calls us to be in relationships. We cannot be concerned with ourselves more than we are with others; we are intimately connected. All as part of God’s plan.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

 

What Would I Have Done?


Can you believe that this agency gets work?  The five year old in me can’t stop gigglin’. 

I met James Farmer when I was eleven years old. I participated in a walkout over the Persian Gulf War in 8th grade (which I don’t know if I would have done as an adult, but I am still a committed pacifist). I’ve been involved in some form of activism to a greater or lesser extent for most of my life. But I have always wondered what I would have done had I lived through this:


Or this:


I have written about the six degrees of Godwin’s Law within online and political discussions, but it seems obvious that the Trump/Pence ticket will provide an opportunity to answer both questions simultaneously. What will I do? To be sure, there are incomplete comparisons between Trump/Pence and Hitler/Mussolini. Hitler had a clear platform that focused on promoting Aryan supremacy and eliminating all other political parties. We have two parties in this country, and while they are both beholden to corporate interests and corrupted beyond description, there are salient differences. Click here to do your own comparisons. But with the nomination of Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana, we see a political marriage of two extremists much like history saw with the signing of the Pact of Steel in 1932. Mussolini, some historians argue, was not as extreme as Hitler in terms of antisemitism; recently published documents suggest that he was fiercely anti-Jewish. Either way, he did nothing to stop the spread of Nazi policies throughout Europe. Mussolini first influenced Hitler, but by 1940 Hitler was clearly the alpha. Their relationship (along with participation in the Spanish Civil War) shaped Europe and pushed the world toward war.

So how does that relate to now? Donald Trump will say anything to get elected, even if that means contradicting himself within minutes. Mike Pence, though, is a committed hard right Republican. Seriously. Go down the rabbit hole with that last link. The man is terrifying for women, GLBTQ+ communities, POC, and basically anyone who does not adhere to his extremist views. While Trump is clearly a narcissistic opportunist only interested in advancing his brand, Pence is pure ideology. Trump has sent a signal to the Evangelical and Tea Party folks that they will have a place at the table. Trump has sent out the WASP-signal.

We don’t have to wonder, friends. A time of accountability is upon us. But here’s my pledge. I am going to be about hope and love rather than fear and hatred. I will not back down from confrontations and will not be silent because I am concerned about physical safety, but I will not allow the extreme beliefs of others impact my life to such an extent that I do not live as fully and as joyfully as possible. I am committed to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and if you read this blog you know how my faith functions.

I’m also going to support others in the things they are able to do; not all of us have the same call, the same gifts, the same responsibilities, the same contexts. Let’s affirm each other in the parts that we are able to play, and not push unrealistic expectations on others or ourselves. If LOVE WINS, as we often say, that means that it wins now. In this moment. It is not a goal to which we aspire, but rather is a philosophy we embody in what we do and how we relate to others.

We’re all in this together! Now watch this gorgeous man and feel better about the world

Imam Jesus

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I was raised in a decidedly nonreligious household, and while there was decent religious diversity in the local schools I really did not know the difference between a Hindu and a Buddhist until I went to university and began studying religion seriously. My introduction to Islam came from a gorgeous musclebound lacrosse player at Kalamazoo College, where I started undergrad studies, while he sipped from a 40 oz. of Mickey’s Ice. The first time I heard the shahada, I was drinking Zima and wondering if the guy was gay or if he’d kick my ass if I tried to make a pass at him. He wasn’t and I didn’t. But the claim, “There is no God but God and Mohammad is God’s prophet” will always be tied to that dorm room in Michigan and my crush on a straight boy.

I wish that I could tell you some of my closest friends are Muslim, but I can’t. I certainly have Muslim friends and acquaintances, and I have done multifaith work with Muslims on college campuses and within communities. I have colleagues and former colleagues who are Muslim, and we try to stay in touch with one another to let each other in on what’s happening, events upcoming, challenges, and other information that helps us be of service to one another. But a deep, significant, sustained relationship with a Muslim or a community is something that has yet to occur in my personal life. Some of that is owed to context and circumstances (there is no mosque here in YS, so the village may not be as attractive as say Springfield or Dayton, where there are vibrant Muslim communities), and some of it is owed to the fact that many Muslims feel rightly wary of self-identified Christians. Especially White men. In the main, “my” people have not been so good to the Muslims.

And that sucks. I mean, I know I have a proclivity to be on the “wrong” side of many social issues that rankle Christians. I am pro-choice. I affirm GLBTQ+ persons and their rights to be married in a church if they so desire (would be kinda hypocritical of me not to, seeing that I am queer).  I am critical of the State of Israel for its apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians. So that can put me at odds with people in my own tradition, but don’t get me wrong: I am decidedly and proudly Christian. In terms of theology, I’m somewhat conservative. While I do not believe Jesus is the only way to salvation (however you might define that), Jesus is the only way for me. I confess the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, a rather recent development, but I don’t hang my entire theology upon it and I do not think one needs to take it literally. I reject a blood atonement theology, but I confess the cross as essential to Christ confession. I believe the pastorate is polluted by people who do not undertake the proper training and education, but I am adamantly against the taxation of religious organizations (unless they clearly violate 501 (c)3 regulations).  I believe in original sin, but not as Augustine defines it. And I think that Christians should be able to explain in some detail how they understand the Apostle’s Creed before they are allowed to weigh in on serious theological discussions. So, yeah. I’m also a bit of an ass and an intellectual elitist. There’s an entry fee to play with the adults and too many Christians are infants with no purchase.

Thank God for grace, because I’m a bit full of myself.

But the most important thing–and this actually seems to me to be a conservative position–is to be in relationship with God’s children. Not just the ones like me. Not just Christians or men or White people or progressives. Everyone. And this is the most important thing to me because I take Jesus’s interpretation of the shema literally: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength…

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“and love your neighbor as yourself.” Like, I can’t make that metaphorical. I can’t turn it into an allegory or use an analogy that gets me out of loving my neighbor, especially my neighbors who are being persecuted and oppressed. So, I’m kinda obligated to do more than just say I support American Muslims. I need to show them I love them.

Here’s what I am doing/going to do. For the next six weeks during the children’s sermon, I am going to be teaching them the Five Pillars of Islam and how they connect or don’t connect to Christian teachings. I have already been in contact with a local imam, and we are going to be hosted by a mosque in September, with a reciprocal hosting by us occurring in October. During the time before our first visit, I will be writing entries in the “Imam Jesus” series that aim to help other Christians educate their kids on Islam and encourage them to develop significant relationships with their Muslim neighbors. These will grow out of the sermons and questions asked by the kids at First Presby.

This is my mantra: Less talk, more work. Less empty sympathy, more significant solidarity. Less ignorance, more knowledge. Less hatred, more love. Inshallah.

 

It’s Not About the Samaritan

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We always focus on the Samaritan. Whenever I preach Luke 10:25-37, I trot out the history of the Samaritans. How some scholars maintain they came to be as the result of the Assyrian destruction of the North c.722 BCE. How they assumed the identity of being the “true” chosen people. How they were vilified and reviled by the Jews of Jesus’ time. How women were thought to be born with perpetual menstruation. How the men oftentimes were not allowed to enter town centers during the day. And then I’ll make some comparison as to who would be a Samaritan today: Osama Bin Laden. Saddam Hussein. ISIS.

And that stuff’s important to know. But until last night, when I suddenly switched the texts for the week to those in the Revised Common Lectionary, I never realized that the parable isn’t about the Samaritan at all. Not really.

Most often, we focus on the violence done to the person lying in the ditch. And we should. Those are the wounds that need tending, the life that needs protecting, the victim who needs attention. Nothing can be done to take back the blows delivered to his body; we can dry the blood and set the bones, but the memories of the act remain.

To decrease the chances something like this happens again, we need to look at the forces that push the robbers into lives of brigandry. We have failed them. Our schools. Our communities. Our churches. Sure, some people choose crime but a vast majority are forced there. Desperation is as desperation does.

We need to look at the violence done to the persons who walked by. The priest who perhaps feels afraid of violating strictures on coming into contact with blood. The Levite who has internalized codes and ideas about purity that keeps him out of relationship. What are the lies they have believed, the indifference they have developed in their minds and hearts, the ways they have somehow dehumanized another person? How is that born? How is that nurtured? How is that developed? We need to look at the institutions and forces that create such a perverse and inhuman life philosophy. Because we know that human nature is to help. Just watch a child respond to human suffering. A child will try to assist, will cry out with empathy.

Remember, God creates us and declares us very good. That is our ontological condition.

The Parable of the Good Samaritan is not just a story about how we should act, it is a damning indictment of the forces and beliefs that actively keep us from doing the right thing. That keep us complicit in acts of violence, acts of malicious indifference, acts of apathy. The parable is about our own racism, our own prejudices, our own systems that value too many things other than human life. Other than human dignity, security, and happiness.

The parable is about what keeps us from being good.

To be sure, the title of this piece is provocative. The Samaritan is important. I believe the Samaritan presents us with three crucial points for pondering. One, beware of your assumptions. The priest and the Levite are expected to do the right thing, and they do not. I argue because of systems not put in place by them, but ones that they accept even though they violate the will of God that we care for one another. The Samaritan does do the right thing, and we must ask: is this because the Samaritan is a better person? Perhaps. Or perhaps the Samaritan shows us that we can learn lessons from unexpected people. Perhaps the Samaritan shows us that our assumptions about others keep us from seeing the way God is working through them; our prejudices and assumptions prevent us from seeing them as fully human.

Two, the Samaritan shows us the model of someone who does not accept rules and regulations that result in people suffering. The Samaritans largely followed the same Torah as their contemporary Jews (and please note that Samaritans still exist to this day). They were beholden to the same commandments of hospitality and the same laws of ritual cleanliness. This Samaritan put aside those strictures in favor of tending to a life barely holding on.

Three, the Samaritan demonstrates the failures of society to have structures that are life-affirming.What the Samaritan does for the beating victim is wonderful. It is an inspiration for each of us individually. But we also know that we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper. All of us. Each and every one. So why are there systems and strictures that keep people in lives of crime, in religious systems that alienate, and social systems that do not provide adequate healthcare for everyone simply by virtue of being human? Why do we have a society in which one must risk financial ruin or need to rely on the kindness of strangers–who cannot be expected to help everyone–and continue to make excuses for why it is not different?

The bodies in the ditches are stacking up, and the voices are crying out. Are we simply walking by? Are we regurgitating lies or nonsensical reasons and defenses of indefensible behavior? Do we really think that being pulled over for a taillight should even happen anymore? That playing with a toy gun is a capital crime? Do we start spouting criminal histories that have no bearing on the brutal circumstances of innocent deaths? Do we expect our police officers to follow procedures and practices that leave them afraid and uncertain? Do we defend the system over human life? Human worth? Human dignity?

The parable is not about the fucking Samaritan. It’s about what we’ve gotta do to get woke. God does not care about our doctrine and our dogma. God cares that we do the right thing. Start tearing down everything that keeps that from happening, and begin with yourself.

And remember: Jesus broke himself so we would stop breaking each other.

 

Looking for a Job: A Sermon Series

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Week One: Jules Winnfield, Dick York, and Buddha Walk into a Bar

William James, in his seminal work The Varieties of Religious Experience, argues that all of religion has as its basis a need to understand death. We humans have tried to control death, forestall death, inflict death, commodify death. We have imagined it as an end, a birth, a portal, an illusion, a mystery, a rite. We organize space and time in relationship to it, as it pertains to others, to ourselves, to our species, to all of creation. It is the constant that drives us all, in some fashion, to do the things we do, to believe the contents of our faiths: that there can be a victory over that which alters everything in its path.

The ancient Jews had a much different relationship to death than did most other religions of which we know much; Hinduism and Buddhism are contingent upon the cessation of samsara, the seemingly endless cycle of birth, life, death, decay; Hinduism offers moksha or release from samsara through the realization that Atman, the true self, is part of Brahman, the source of all things: God. The Atman therefore reunited with God, samsara ceases. Buddhism rejects the notion of atman for annatta, no soul or no-self. Moksha (release) occurs when one sheds the false ego, traverses the dharma river, and encounters nirvana. One then escapes the power of death. To be sure, these overly-simplified descriptions forgo nuance in the pursuit of expediency, but the overall point holds: both systems seek to overcome death in some way.

The Jews were different. They were much more focused on how to live here. Now. How to craft and form a society that was governed by laws, by proscribed roles and duties willed by a God who protected them, disciplined them, loved them, and was furiously disappointed with them. For the Hebrew people, faith was a tool toward living a life in which one would be healthy, blessed with a family, have land handed down from previous generations, and would know a trade or skill that helped define one’s personal and public identity. From Classical Judaism, generally defined as the period before the First Temple period (c. 922-586 BCE) to approximately mid-way into the Second Temple period (c.527 BCE-70 CE), the only concept of an after life was connected to Sheol, a nebulous underworld similar to that protected by Hades (which eventually becomes the name of the place, in no small part because the Septuagint–the LXX, or Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible–renders the Hebrew sheol as Hades). Sheol is used often in the Psalms; see, for example, Psalm 88, the only psalm in the psalter to not contain a doxology; the narrator begins in the Pit and ends in the Pit. In sheol. In despair. Death just wasn’t a major preoccupation for the Hebrews.

So our Christian notions of heaven and hell have more to do with Zoroastrianism, Gnosticism, Greek polytheism, Dante, and Milton than they do with Judaism. But that doesn’t mean we should not examine more closely Jewish ideas relating to death. However, attitudes toward life and death begin to shift after the split between Judah and Israel (c. 922 BCE) and the writing of the Book of Daniel (c. third century BCE), which features notions of a coming judgment based upon the actions taken in this world. And I believe, in many ways, we can see the beginning of that conversation unfold in the Book of Job.

Next week I will provide an overview of Job’s structure, various scholarly theories regarding its compilation and purpose, and we will examine the theologies embedded in the narrative. But for now, it is important to point out that the Book of Job seems to be a response to a theology that had been central to the survival of the faith amidst continued, violent repression: the Theology of Retribution. One can see examples of this throughout what scholars call the Deuteronomistic History, in which the people turn to other gods; Hashem delivers the people into the hands of an enemy; the people repent and cry out; God sends a shofet (judge) or a prophet; all is well until the judge dies, and the people slide back into apostasy. This corporate understanding of how God works translated to individual lives and cultural mores. People who were stricken with illnesses or skin conditions were regarded as sinful, as deserving of their condition. While to some extent the wealthy believed they were rewarded because of their own virtue, much more prevalent was the belief that one was rewarded because of the virtues of one’s ancestors. Filial piety is a major concern of the Scriptures, even if expected adherence to primogeniture is often challenged (think of how many times the younger brother is favored in the Bible). Sin and status are intimately connected.

And Job challenges this relationship. Consider Job, God brags. The pinnacle of my beautiful creation, no ? God tauntingly offers to Satan. Of course he is! the Adversary retorts. You’ve given him everything. Take it away, and see what happens! So we’re left with a question. A quandary. Is Job rewarded because he is religious? Or is Job religious because he is rewarded? Now we turn the questioning upon ourselves. What are our expectations of God? What is the purpose of our investment? Wealth? Health? Love? What does God offer? What does God expect?

The Book of Job is an indictment on the expectation for justice. The sense that one is deserving of anything. And reading Job now, with what is going on in this country, we must ask: can a system that was never designed to protect and serve non-whites and women ever be sufficiently reformed to provide equal justice? We do we mean when we say the word justice? I know from experience that my friends of color often answer that question with a much different perspective than do I. So do we believe in a uniform, unchanging justice? Do justice and compassion have a relationship? If so, how? What impacts that relationship? Is it the same for everyone? The questions seem endless.

The Book of Job challenges us to confront a God who is so insecure that Satan is able to goad, cajole, one could even say manipulate, to such an extent that Job’s children are slaughtered as a test of faith. A God, who at the end of the story, blithely replaces Job’s family, not through resurrection, but through a new cast of characters. It’s like Dick Sargeant replacing Dick York all over again, and nobody’s supposed to notice? Come on, God!

Are we confronted with a text that shows we of the Abrahamic faiths worship a capricious and even vindictive God? Or might there be something else here? Something bubbling under the surface, beckoning us to investigate, to lay bare our assumptions, and to confront fundamental questions in new ways? With new eyes? Over the next five weekly installments, will be sit on the dung heap with Job and listen. And then, in the words of Jules Winnfield, we’ll say, “Well allow me to retort!”

Zealotry or Zealousness? 


My first introduction to religious zealotry was through Jesus Christ Superstar, which will surprise exactly no one who has known me longer than 5 five minutes. In our high school production, a female portrayed the part as Simone Zealotes, which was just all kinds of awesome, but to me Simon has been and always will be Larry Marshal. His Black Church vocals and the masterful choreography always communicated to me the depth of passion and belief Simon had for Jesus. Sure, his theology was wrong; Zealots often believe that if they draw enough blood, God will respond. It is like a twisted take on Field of Dreams: “If you spill it, He will come.” But my initial feelings about zealotry were positive. 

Once I got to college and started seriously studied religion, I began to understand the damaging impact zealots can wring; women can lose their autonomy and agency; outsiders can be targeted for persecution and violence; human rights can be abridged or nullified; education can be skewed or denied. Religious zealotry is rarely good, at least as it manifests in public. And this makes sense because religious zealotry draws attention to itself. Religious zealousness draws attention to God and the work that God can do through servants. Servants who work for God without having to push their beliefs on others; servants who give of themselves, even to those they may not like personally, but love because it is what God commands. What God offers. What God is. 

And so I have found myself, since returning from Baltimore, on fucking fire for God. I can’t quite elucidate it proximately, so I resort to that most guttural of words to model the intensity of my faith right now. I am in love with Jesus; I yearn to live into the fullness of who God fashioned me to be, to do so with humility and gratitude, erasing as much as possible the false Aaron that I have constructed through the impermanent things of life. At moments I can feel myself tapping into something almost completely outside of myself, as though I am aligning my energy with that of God, feeling the vastness of incarnation and the smallness of experience. In fleeting whispers, I hear the voice of Creation connecting me with the moment the light burst forth, setting into motion the miraculous birth of all that is, known and unknown, and all who have, do, and will live, until the fullness of time falls in upon itself and what we know is transformed into that which is promised. A cessation of suffering. The elimination of evil. The end that is also the beginning.

This zealousness can become zealotry, if I let it. If I feed my ego and do work for my own glory, the love I feel inside my heart will be a love of ego. It will be a love of what is manufactured. Impermanent. I pray that my zeal remain, and this is self-serving as well. I like how it feels when I am close to God, when I am focused on Jesus. It is like a controlled mania. I feel the energy but not the impetuousness. But I want the zeal to remain because it reminds me of what I am called to do: to serve, just as Jesus served. To preach the gospel at all times, but to only use words when necessary. To be.