Saturday, September 6, 2014

Confession and Privilege

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, [God] who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. [I John 1:8-9]

I think some of what I've been thinking about lately was said better at this blog. So go read that, if not now, then after you read this, or soon. It has, in fact slightly shifted some of what I wanted to say.

To reiterate his salient (to this post) point: being born into a system that privileges you does not make you bad. It just makes you privileged. A lot of people want to get defensive about this term, privilege, insisting that they're not racist, and that's the thing---privilege is not intentional, it just is. Racism may or may not be unintentional but privilege definitely is.

And the above blogger's post helped me clarify that. But do read his post for other good thoughts.

There is a common belief among American Christians (and beyond, no doubt) that the way forgiveness works is that it takes confession. That is, in order to receive God's forgiveness, we have to confess our sin and ask for forgiveness.

I would never say confession is bad, in fact this post is really about confession. I do not believe, however that God's forgiveness is contingent upon our confession. I believe forgiveness is the state in which we live. We are forgiven. Full stop. Abundant grace.

What does require confession, I will assert, is repentance. Let's define that term briefly. Repentance is, simply, turning. Turning away, to, whatever. When Jesus is calling for repentance in, say, the first chapter of Mark, I would argue that Jesus is asking us turn away from the systems of the world and toward the Reign of God, which is right here, at hand.

And one of those things we need to turn away from is privilege in all it's forms, whether it be white privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, or automobile privilege (as in the link above).

But a good many of us don't like to think we're hurting anyone. We don't like to think we're part of the problem. We know that racism is bad and we don't want to be bad. So we tend to protest that we're not racist or even privileged because that seems awfully close to racist (again, see above link).

Here's the thing, though: without confessing our privilege (or racism), we're never going to make real progress on this. And without making this sort of confession, the Reign of God, which is right at hand, will be elusive to us.

And for a concrete example of the type of thing I'm talking about, let me illustrate a moment of my own racism and/or privilege ( I think this incident crosses both categories).

Last winter, I was walking home from the bus stop after work and it was already dark. It was cool enough here in Houston to wear a hoodie and I had the hood up. As I walked along, I came upon a lone woman walking. I've made conscious efforts in the past to give signals that I was no threat to single women walking after dark alone, things like crossing the street to give the signal that I was not, in fact, following them.

This evening, reflexively, without thought, I reached up and pulled back my hoodie so my face was clearly seen. Almost immediately, I began questioning why that was my attempt to signal her safety with me. I quickly realized that I was showing that I was white

As if white men don't mug or rape single women walking alone.

While I tried to convince myself I was just showing my face, in the hopes that she'd get that a rapist wouldn't want his face seen, I don't think I can escape that at least some portion of my intention was to say, "hey, I'm white, I'm safe."

One, that's pretty doggone racist. Two, it's my privilege as a white man to assume that I'll be seen as at least safer than a man of color. 

I told a friend about this after the fact and she agreed that it was a racist attitude lingering in my brain, but that depending upon the woman's attitudes and prejudices, she may have actually found relief in my action. This only further illustrates my privilege as a white man, but also illustrates that I'm not the only one who is racist.

As I like to say, it's not so much that anyone of us is racist, it's that the whole system is and we've all learned and internalized the system's lessons.

But as a privileged person, a white male in this culture, I have to make conscious choices to turn away from this sort of attitude. Maybe this winter, I'll still expose my face when encountering a lone woman at night, and maybe that'll be appreciated for a variety of reasons---but that's not really the point. Let's not get too bogged down in the specifics of this example, but recognize a few things in this situation:

1. As a male, I don't often fear for my safety while walking alone at night. In fact, I've very seldom felt afraid to walk alone at night. Women friends report other feelings.

2. As a white male, I'm seldom seen as a threat, either on a sidewalk at night or in store browsing the aisles with my backpack.

How do I fight against this? I'm not sure there is a simple answer. The main one is to speak out when I encounter these attitudes, gently and with humility, because I've just demonstrated that these attitudes still live within me.Googling things like "how to combat white privilege" can be a great start for more ideas. And of course, one of my practices, as outlined in this blog before, as a religious person, is to notice these instances and remind myself, over and over and over, that every human, however they look, whatever my ingrained attitude about that look, is made in the Image of God.

One last thing I want to say about privilege is that we need to recognize that it's slippery, dynamic, shifting according to circumstance and combinations of social, cultural, and physical categories. I experience a pretty good amount of privilege as a white male. I also lose some as a gay male. A black male may have some privilege when compared to a black woman, but a white woman generally experiences some privileges over anyone of color. A wealthy person generally has more privilege than a poor person, regardless of race or gender. And, depending upon the situation, all these can be reversed, but the system, like the car/bicycle analogy in the link above, will almost always favor certain people, that is white people. The history of race divisions, certainly in the United States, is so strong that we aren't going to blithely get out from under it with simple declarations that racism is over.

If we're going to make progress, we have to continue to confess, no matter how far we like to think we've come, that we have much work left to do. 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

All Our Children

Arthur Miller's play, All My Sons, has been on my mind this week.

Briefly, the play concerns the revelation that the patriarch of the family, Joe, supplied defective airplane parts to the military during Worls War II. At the confession, he tells his one surviving son that he did it for the family, particularly his sons. With the further revelation that his other, MIA son had sent a suicide letter to his fiance, suicide due to shame over his father's actions, and the men who had died because of the defective parts, Joe says, "I guess to him, they were all my sons."

That's a great human fault. We think in terms of my people and those people. We don't care so much about someone's destruction because they don't belong to us.

As I learned of the unfolding horror that is the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I had the thought, this is going to keep happening until we white people can see every child as our child. 

Mind you, I know plenty of white people who are horrified by this killing. I know white people who love and cherish children of darker skin. Please don't start a hashtag for NotAllWhitePeople.

But let's also be real. Racism is alive and well and however directly or indirectly you want to connect the dots, there is institutional racism on display in the story of Ferguson.

And I don't think enough white people see this killing as affecting them. It's not their son. In fact, it probably, literally, couldn't be. I know that what happened to Michael Brown doesn't happen to white, college bound young men or if it does, it is a great anomaly.

I also am aware of the pitfalls of being a white, child-free man claiming a young man of color is my son. There's all kinds of ways to read that as privileged paternalism.

But still, I say it, because until we all feel the loss of any child as though it were the loss of our own, we're not going to find the outrage to change a system that targets some of our children in America.

I will also say our salvation depends upon it. Not some future, heaven bound salvation, I mean our salvation as a nation even as a planet, right here, right now, in the flesh. Until we hear these stories and feel the grief as if losing our own, we're damned to burn in a hell of our own design.

Thursday, August 14, 2014


I saw someone today who I found unattractive. Remembering my practice, I looked at this person and said to myself, "Made in the Image of God."

And I was struck by all the ways I don't desire God. Or, rather, all the ways I desire a god of my own making, my own design, my own image.

The beauty of God is not always pretty and the Imago Dei is not always appealing.

I remembered the love of God, the unconditional grace, which is based least of all upon appearances.

I remembered my baptism.

I remembered how water erodes rock.

A stony heart has many layers.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Days Crying Out for Prayer

These days of gang violence in Chicago and Honduras and warring in the Middle East and Eastern Europe and refugees and standard sad things and grief around the world . . .

My prayer life, to be blunt, is erratic. On the one hand, I do pray throughout the day---most often expressions of thanks and awe---but I cannot claim for much in the way of disciplined, focused prayer time. I have had it in the past, but it fell away with some theological crises. I've even said I'm something of a prayer agnostic---It might do something, but I'm not sure what.

But these days cry out for prayer and even as I type that, I don't know what that means. But I've started trying, again, to have focused prayer time. It's not going all that well, but I'm trying.

This morning, I found myself praying for revelation, theophany, really. I found myself praying that this revelation came not from the sky, from sun or moon or stars, but from below, from the dirt, that every blade of grass, every grain of sand, every speck of dust would burst with the glory of God, like the mystics write about. I want gravity to be involved in the revelation, so that we might all know how closely we are held by God. I want the dirt to shine with the things the ancients wrote about---lovingkindness, mercy, slow-anger, redemption. I want theophany out of the dirt so that when our knees give out as we fall in worship, we will know that it is God who holds us, who supports our every day.

I do not know what to do with this prayer. It's full of wishful thinking as much as actual hope. And yet, I wish for a theophany that will bring repentance, a turning from the violence we perpetuate. A turning to each other as the image of God and the expectation to receive lovingkindness, mercy, and redemption, not bullets and bombs.

Prayer does more to change the pray-er than to change God or even spur God to action of some sort. But perhaps, it's still worth praying this sort of prayer. Maybe it, as my more secular friends will say, put good vibes into the air. Maybe it will get God's attention in some way, as written about in the Bible. Maybe it will bring knowledge and courage and heart to be God's instrument in this violent world.

I invite you to join me, if you aren't already leading me. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Practice for a World on Fire

I've written about this practice before.

I feel like I want to make it an assignment for you. Yes, you. And I know, you're not my student, I'm not your teacher, there is no enforcement for this assignment. It's been my practice for a couple of decades, though, and whatever else, I believe it to be helpful. After a week of news about migrant children at the southern U.S. border (and the ugly things said about them in some media outlets), about the Middle East turning bloodier, it seems, by the day, about jet liners shot out of the sky to further one political agenda or another---apparently to bring about even more war?---I want you to think about this and do it and believe it:

Look at people you don't like, who frighten you or make you angry or are simply not like you. Look at them. Not necessarily in the eye, that can be creepy, but look at them. Say to yourself, "Here is the Image of God." That may be all you're able to say. If you can say it, say to yourself, "I love them." That will vary from day to day, but if you love God, this is where it plays out. Love that person. If you can't love them today, at least say, "Here is the Image of God." Maybe tomorrow you'll be able to love.

I'm not even asking you to say anything to them. You're probably not ready for that. But look at them and see the Image of God. Think on what that might mean, what that might tell you about God. Today you may not love them, but if you love God, you will one day.

You may want to say, "here is Jesus." Again, you may not be ready for that. Start where you can. Your heart may not be ready. 

That's it. That's the practice. If you don't particularly believe in God, or you don't believe in Jesus, translate into whatever you love. These are the words I have, the faith I have. My heart is hard, but these words are wearing it down, like water on stone. After a couple of decades, there is hope I might love someday.

But if we don't start today, the world is without hope. The world feels very full of hate right now and we need to find the strength to love. I honestly believe this practice will build that muscle.

+ + +

This morning, at church, my congregation, St Stephen's Episcopal Church, had a meeting about how we might address the border crisis. We're talking about things like hands on help, influencing U.S. policy, and even engaging in international policy to the best of our ability. SSEC has connections to Honduras, so this is personal. 

I'm prayerfully entering into discernment about where I fit into this, if I do. This feels big, and it's in my backyard, so to speak. Houston is still several hours drive from the Rio Grande Valley, but we're talking about children who have traveled the length of Mexico to get here. What's another 6-8 hour drive? Houston, and all of Texas, will feel the impact of this event. If God has blessed these United States, it's for a moment such as this.

Right now, I'm aware of what I don't know. There's so much to learn. I left that meeting with pieces of papers with information and websites for more. I'm already overwhelmed, but the room was full of people. I'll have to trust that we will buoy each other up. 

Pray for peace. Practice peace. Remember you are made in the Image of God, and so is the person next to you.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

That Which Actually Is

The last post didn't really get at everything I wanted to get at. I got sidetracked by some railing at people who want to deny my existence. But there's something more underneath that.

Some years ago, there was some discovery that put something in the Bible or tradition in question. It might have been the James ossuary, the burial box with the disputed inscription suggesting that it belonged to Jesus' brother, James. It seemed to me, at the time, that a great deal of effort was put into denying it's authenticity. By that, I mean, there was a lot of effort put into defending the tradition that Jesus was the only child of Mary and the mention of Jesus' brothers in scripture were referring to male relatives, not actual brothers as we think of them today. While the scientists and scholars were investigating the thing, so much print was spent on saying how it had to be a fraud. A quick Google on the topic tells me that the authenticity remains mostly in dispute. And that's a bit beside the point.

What I remember thinking was: so if this is a real thing, what does that mean to Christianity? What does it mean with regard to biblical scholarship? Just how much does it change the life and message of Jesus? For me, who has little at stake in the tradition of Jesus being an only child, it didn't really affect my understanding of the Christian faith but was all kinds of fascinating for the part of my brain that grooves on "historical Jesus" information.

But the even larger question is: why is new information so threatening to faith? From heliocentrism to climate change, we want to deny information that challenges nothing except for, possibly, some analogies told in a mythological way for purposes other than scientific education. Certainly, there is nothing that is central to the Gospel challenged by this information.

I remember the urge to get defensive and it still rises now and then. People I loved taught me things and it feels like a betrayal to realize they were not completely on target on all things.

But knowledge is accumulative and dynamic and sometimes we're just wrong. It's useful to practice humility around the things that "everyone knows."

But this is less about scientific facts than it is about people. And here's where I come to some basic presumptions I have about people, chiefly that we are made in the Image of God and as such God works self-revelation through the people we encounter. This is messy and uncomfortable and can deeply disturb your notions about God, particularly if you want to subscribe to the god who is unmoved, unmovable, static through all time and space. I would ask, however, that you consider the messy, uncomfortable God who lets go of power and empties self and dies shamefully in deepest humility (Philippians 2).

So you walk into a room. There are people of all shades of skin, from light pink to dark brown, there are male and female and some that fit neither category comfortably, there are gay and lesbian and straight and bi and asexual.

Judgments rise immediately, how they're different from me, how they're broken, how they're unpleasant or not.

What if I looked at a person, an image of God, and looked for what God was self-revealing to me in the moment?

What if what I initially saw as damaged was the vulnerability of God?

What if bad choices were showing me the freedom of God/

What if survival of brokenness and bad choices were showing me the redemption and restoration of God?

What if all this led me, as it apparently did for Jesus, to have compassion?

I'm not saying I do this. I'm not saying you can watch me in every situation and see me putting these questions into action. I am vulnerable, free, and broken, too.

But back to the many recent attacks on LGBT folk (I forgot, last time, the Oklahoma politician who agrees that it's acceptable to stone us).

There are gay people. There are people whose bodies do not match their gender identity. It is mysterious and not easily explained. It is surprising, even. But we are made in the image of God, as surely as straight folk, and even as it befuddled and upset and surprised this farm boy from central Texas, it has also expanded and deepened my understanding of who and what God might be.

We have this relic from the past. What might it tell us about  our history and can we ask that question before making judgments based upon doctrine?

We have these people before us. What might we see of God in them and can we ask that question with compassion and without moral judgment?

These are questions, I believe, are crucial if the church is going to have any claim to Good News in the future.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Being That Which Supposedly Doesn't Exist

It feels like the LGBT community has been under attack recently from a few different directions.

Here, in Houston, our City Council recently passed an equal rights ordinance that gives LGBT people protections in employment and housing and such. This is an advance and a victory, but leading up to the council vote, there were hours and hours of testimony, some of it very painful for LGBT people to hear, most of it made up out of fear and misinformation about LGBT folk. After the ordinance passed, there have been petitions circulated to bring this to a vote in November as well as death threats against our lesbian mayor.

This week, the governor of Texas, Rick Perry, made reparative therapy a platform item for Republicans. This "therapy" has been debunked and decried by every credible psychological authority, and yet it here it is again. How much does one thing have to fail? It's laughable and yet wearying. It's a reminder that so many people still think we're sick and in need of fixing.

And of course, the Southern Baptist Convention has been so predictable in their addressing of LGBT people that it defines banality. The SBC was particularly hard, it seems to me, on the T of LGBT. They basically said trans folk don't exist.

All of this comes from people who don't deal well with ambiguity in general. I get how hard it is for them to conceive of a woman with male characteristics and vice versa. I was there at one time.

It is troubling that everyone from the people issuing death threats to the people not believing trans folk exist are using religion as their cover story. It's very troubling to a religious sort like me.

But really, the problem with all of these situations is that people of faith want the Bible to explain and give rules about everything. They have a hard time appreciating the the subtleties of real, deeply engaged Bible study (which is more than memorizing a few verses here and there).

I react in particular to the assertion that "there's no such thing as trans" because I've heard the accusation that "there's no such thing as gay Christians." I suppose the Christian trans folk I know from my church are even less "existable" to these people.

Except I'm right here, real as can be. As are the trans people I love. And unlike the alcoholic analogy that Rick Perry would have us buy, we all are healthier and build better relationships when we are honest about being LGB or T. It seems impossible that the governor of a state would not know anyone LGB or T (and the rumors persist that he's "known" a few, but then so have so many anti-LGBT politicians), but  if one takes a little time to get to know LGBT folk, you quickly learn that we are much better off having reconciled ourselves with our identity. Meanwhile, the reason an alcoholic goes to AA is because alcoholism is demonstrably harmful.

And it's not as if every straight person has it all together. I mean, seriously. Do you even skim the headlines?

What I'm trying to get at is that all this is wearying and hurtful. It can wear a person down to be constantly explaining that you're real, that you exist, that you're not going to eat anyone's children.

And wouldn't it be nice if all these people of faith who don't believe in us would just take some little time to get to know us?