“America is already great.”
From the incumbent party in the White house, this is the refrain we’ve heard again and again in the run-up to the Democratic National Convention and at the DNC itself. In politics, I guess you take whatever opening your opponent gives you.
Except the reality for tens of millions of Americans is that the United States is not great. They are left out and left behind. They turn on the news and talk to their friends and don’t recognize the world they live in. The economic recovery of the last eight years has been a recovery for everyone but them. Their life expectancy has dropped for the first time in American history. Their children will do worse than they have done, not better. Their rates of incarceration are rising year after year. The family, formerly one of the most stable units of social cohesion, is in tatters largely due to economic unrest. The church offers them nothing. Their wages are flat, their healthcare is expensive, and their jobs are drudgery. On one side of the political divide they’re called idiots and on the other they’re spoon-fed a constant diet of fear.
Donald Trump is vile. He’s a cartoon character, a melodrama villain, a charlatan, an incarnation of cynical political gamesmanship, and very likely a fascist who would be an epic disaster for the United States and the world. But he has tapped into a truth that speaks to a huge segment of the American population: America is not great for everybody. This is a truth liberals should recognize (and do when it suits them). But here they do not. Why?
Because liberals lack the basic empathetic imagination to recognize this, blinded as they are by their own ideology of inclusion. The pain felt by people who support Trump expresses itself as racist, nationalist, jingoistic, misogynistic bullshit, and so it is dismissed by liberals. But of course it takes that shape! People are using the only language they have been offered to voice their frustrations.
Liturgy defines a space in which participants may grope and gesture toward truth. “Make America Great Again” is a counter-liturgy offered by a fascist demagogue to a public looking for any meaning, any answer outside the status quo offered by technocratic, neoliberal priest/politicians bowing and supplicating themselves before the vengeful god of The Market. The truth Trump’s liturgy points toward is this: “Our country does not feel 'great already' to the millions of wonderful people living in poverty, violence and despair.” Yes, it’s true this counter-liturgy is chanted by a death cult, but I guess the bad tan and worse hair are too distracting for people to notice.
It is vitally important that the social and economic pain identified by Trump be met with real solutions (something Trump and the Republican Party are incapable of). But Liberals think they're exempt from understanding Trump's appeal to hurting people because they hate Trump and everything he represents. So they have offered no compelling alternative to business as usual, which is exactly what Hillary Clinton represents.
Look, Hillary Clinton will win this election because she’s tough as nails. Her campaign is a juggernaut and Donald Trump is a joke. She’ll get things done. Republicans are terrified of her because of her political acumen. She will govern effectively and stand as an important symbol for woman and girls for decades to come.
But mark my words, over the next eight years there will be another economic downturn. Liberals will still have offered no voice to people whipping in the winds of abstract, inhumane domestic and international economic policies which primarily seek the ever-increasing accumulation of capital and the enrichment of faceless corporations at the expense of masses of under-educated, economically depressed people.
The situation will get worse, not only for current Trump supporters but for Clinton voters as well. And Democrats will be left holding the bag this time, not Republicans as in 2008. Then a real politician will rise to take advantage of the liturgy first chanted by Donald Trump.
Logan messaged me to tell me, somewhat excitedly, that he'd heard an ad on an old podcast episode for a magazine. This magazine specialized in very short stories, and would, shockingly, pay up to $1,000 per published submission. We were amazed. We both like to write short stories. We both like $1,000. Unfortunately, in the midst of our glee he checked and saw that they weren't taking submissions because the publication died two years ago. We were, understandably, not amused. So here's a very short story I wrote back in 2012, one which I could have submitted back then to this now-defunct pub had I been aware that such a thing was possible. It's titled "Tragedy."
Yes, it was oval. Still, he disliked the name and the carelessness of it. Names were important. Names were supposed to mean something. This office was supposed to mean something, and here it was with a name any five-year-old could have thought up. The leather of his chair gave the slightest protest as he leaned back, carefully lacing his fingers and lowering his eyes to the speech on his desk. He sighed to no one, picked up the piece of probably important paper, and slowly set it back down.
It didn’t matter. None of it mattered. Not when the leader of the free world couldn’t hold it together. She wouldn’t leave, but it would be better in some ways if she did. Of course, a failing marriage would be disastrous for his reelection campaign manager—he made a mental note to send that guy a ridiculous Christmas bonus—and the ensuing media field day would be politically insurmountable. Still, there were no pretentions left. She was never waiting up for him in the wee hours when the grip of the job quietly receded long enough for him to stumble to their room, sip from the tumbler of scotch he kept bedside, and drift off into a fitful, troubled sleep. Sharing a bed kept up appearances, but nobody who actually saw the charade bought it. Still, what was public office without appearances?
Their life together was crumbling, a shell of its former vital self, but he was polling through the roof in an election year. Probably for only a few minutes more, though. He chuckled at that. How different the situation would be if she left like he knew she wanted to. He still loved her in ways, though maybe that emotion was a residing sense of what a good and virtuous husband should feel. He was never unfaithful or cruel, and, in rare moments, was actively kind. Still, he couldn’t help changing; it’s what presidents do. At first, she had tried to understand the pressures of the position, but as time passed the effort was forced, then simply wasn’t there at all. He thought about that for a moment, but not intently. There was only so much room for ruin in one morning.
The impeccably polished brass buttons of his navy blazer caught a strand of light as he shifted in his chair, crossing his right leg and tugging at the crease of his pants. There was no need to get comfortable; any moment, someone would tell him it was time to go, time to deliver chaos with poise.
“We should be going. They’re waiting.”
The walk was brisk and sure, though he wondered why it felt so slow. It must have been an illusion, a consequence of little sleep and self-medication. The door was opened for him, and he stepped into the harsh light of day. He avoided the garden when possible. She loved the flowers, and she often spent hours here humming to herself and forgetting him.
He solemnly stepped to the podium, feeling solemnity was the proper social response (though he wished his mind was clearer so he could be sure), and leaned in toward the microphone.
He started to speak and momentarily forgot the right words. They were never his words, and it was easy to forget. He began his speech, hoping he had recovered quickly enough.
“Today, we are marked by tragedy. Our pain is great, and our dead will be avenged. However, we must not allow our righteous anger to make us too eager for dangerous action. We must be careful with tragedy.”
Last week at Network Coffeehouse I spoke to a man who had been released from DOC (Department of Corrections—aka prison) the week before. He was released with all his earthly possessions in a backpack, a list of services around Denver, and a voucher for clothes. After he was released, he hooked up with a woman who quickly disappeared with everything he owned.
My impression was that he knew no one, had no real connections in Denver, and wasn't sure what he would do next except check in with his parole officer.
Two things occurred to me while speaking to him.
First, the irony of his experience. For many people living in homelessness, the major factor contributing to their condition is an inability to connect and attach to other people. Ironic, then, that this man had trusted someone who immediately contributed to making his condition worse.
Second, except for his short time at Network the night we spoke, the Church was absent from his life. He didn't indicate how long he spent under the tutelage of the state and I didn't ask. But I wonder, if he had had a relationship with a church while he was behind bars, would he have found himself in the predicament he did a week ago? Perhaps he still would have found himself on the street. But with a community to turn to, maybe a lost backpack would not have been such a concern.
To visit the prisoner, the stranger, and the poor is called righteousness by Jesus. According to the author of Matthew, to fail to visit these is to invite eternal fire (Matthew 25:31-46). And yet, the church is largely absent from the people and places Jesus calls it to be.
Of course, some efforts to visit the poor do exist. Network Coffeehouse is one. United Methodist Committee on Relief works worldwide to ease the suffering of people experiencing disaster. Denver itself is host to several efforts by churches to feed the hungry and clothe those in need. But these groups serve to highlight the absence of individual Christians and organized ecclesial bodies in the public sphere, witnessing, encountering, and bearing up under suffering.
Where the Church is clearly called by Jesus Christ to be, there instead exists a sucking vacuum. Into this conspicuous absence the most vulnerable people in our society are pulled. There, they are preyed on by demonic forces: drug dealers and cartels pushing meth, crack, and heroine, sex traffickers enslaving adults and children alike, pay day loan organizations and their capricious usury, day labor centers doling out work without appropriate wages, jails that increasingly charge fees for the most basic amenities. And then there's my friend at Network who simply needs a pair of pants. Standing against this force we have burned-out case managers, parole officers, a few people compelled by religion to serve their neighbor, and the odd person here or there who cannot help but find themselves among the poor and suffering. It is not enough.
The bulk of the Church, the living body of Christ, Jesus' hands and feet supposedly animated by the Spirit of God? A barely audible whisper at best. Unaccounted for, unseen, and unheard. Absent.
The last few weeks or months I’ve been having this conversation with myself, with friends, with my therapist about how I would like to find some “lightness,” some way to experience things with a little less gravity. I wish I didn’t take everything so seriously. That’s what I’ve been saying, at least.
I think that’s all bullshit.
I’m trying to like myself. Even love myself. And right now, tonight, one thing I accept about myself is that I am not graced with “lightness.” I don’t take things lightly. Most things seem stupid to me. A room doesn’t brighten when I enter it. I like dark comedy, inappropriate jokes, depressing fiction, journalism and documentaries that reckon with the profound brokenness of the world. I love my friends and everyone else can take me or not.
Lightness may visit me if it will. I do not plan to struggle to seek it out.
It occurred to me that people like me. Not everyone, but many people do. And I don’t think they like some version of me who carries a particular lightness out into the world, because I never met him. I don’t think that ever occurred to me before, that people have encountered me as I actually am, and they have accepted me.
Time for me to accept myself, too.
A couple weeks ago, I flew to Portland from Nashville by way of Chicago. I went for work, and now I’m back. I apologize for the lack of Beard updates, but between my cross-country shenanigans and Logan’s fatherhood which is actually a thing that can legitimately take up your time, we just haven’t been able to make it work. But we’ll get back on schedule somehow, mostly because we’re proud of the site. We’re happy with what we put out there most of the time, and we’re especially happy when it makes someone else happy. Or reflective. Or less stupid. Any impact will do.
I knew the flight would be long, so before leaving I stocked up on several podcast episodes, both backlog eps from my favorites and a few new shows I’d been meaning to try. I’d heard great things about Song Exploder, so I found a few episodes I knew I’d like based on the artist featured and downloaded en masse.
I got through a few before arriving at the Long Winters’ John Roderick talking about the song “The Commander Thinks Aloud.” I rested my head on the stiff cushion and listened to John, which I do regularly on his podcast with Merlin Mann, “Roderick on the Line.” It’s hilarious, and smart, and all the things two people talking to each other should be. Logan and I should take notes.
I listened to John talk about the song, both from a technical perspective and from an emotional one. He described what went into recording the instruments and what philosophy guided the lyrics. The song is about the 2003 Columbia shuttle disaster, in which a crew of seven were killed upon reentry as their shuttle disintegrated. In the interview, John reveals that what the commander is thinking aloud is (and I paraphrase) that all he wanted was to bring back a message. A message that says, “I saw the everyday minutia—boys and girls in cars, dogs and birds on lawns—and from up there, up in space, it was simple. It was borderless. Up in space, we humans were doing our best work. We were taking it all in and understanding what matters. And I wanted to tell you that.”
But he didn’t get to. There was a problem. The astronauts knew something was wrong, but not to what extent. That’s because NASA knew to what extent, but wouldn't tell them as they believed the crew couldn’t risk the fix. So they all had to hope for the best. And upon reentry, the ship burned up and splintered apart, killing all aboard. And the message was lost until John sung it to us.
Song Exploder ends the episode by playing the song you just heard about. By this point, I had lifted my head forward to gaze out the airplane window. Stretching for miles I saw an undisturbed, thick blanket of clouds save three giant scars upon its surface. Mounts Hood, St. Helens, and Rainier rose up to remind me of the earth below. They challenged my moment of forgetting where I was, my desire to imagine that I was disconnected from life on the ground. John began to sing in my ear, over and over, “The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up. The crew compartment’s breaking up.” I realized I was crying steadily, for the joy of the borderless miles, for the death of the crew years ago, for the people down below who I loved or knew or did not know, for the minutia of my own life. I wanted to tell anyone, everyone, how perfect the snowy peaks and blue sky and marshmallow clouds were, way up here. That’s all I wanted to bring home to you.
Hi, Beardos. Trying figure a way to reconfigure life so I might continue involvement in the Beard. I'm not sure how to do this with a wife, two kids under three years old, two jobs, the ordination process, and various other family commitments. Doesn't seem possible, frankly. At least it doesn't seem possible to me.
If you have any advice or encouragement or just want to let us know you'd like to see this thing continue, I'd love to hear it. Check the About page for contact info.
I turn 31 next week. It’s fine. It wasn’t fine last year. 30 was a milestone I felt completely unprepared to reach, one which pitted me against my self-doubt and unsteady outlook on the future. I was in the midst of a divorce, which didn’t help matters much. I was already struggling with the idea that I’d accomplished very little, while others my age were set in careers or thriving in their hobbies or starting families. Meanwhile, my life was being rearranged and I didn’t feel like I had tangible things to offer the world in exchange for a safety line. I, in my mind, had very little to show for the 30 years I’d been walking around, taking up air and space on sidewalks.
Turning 30 was hard.
31 isn’t shaping up to be troublesome. Rather, it feels insignificant but also exciting. And what’s odd, it feels exciting in the face of its obscurity. I read an article today giving more details about how exactly the six-mile-wide asteroid crashing into the earth killed the dinosaurs. The intricacies of the ripple-effect were fascinating, but they gave me pause. “Wow,” I remembered, “I am quite small.” I am one among seven billion, all of whom would have likely never evolved had a big rock not hit a bigger rock floating in a vacuum filled with trillions upon trillions of rocks and gases and wondrous pockets of absolute emptiness. I am less than a grain of sand upon the biggest beach I can imagine.
And I’m happy.
I’m surrounded by goodness in the midst of my life which hasn’t, for the majority of it, felt all that meaningful. And maybe it’s not. But I’m meaningful to a small group of lovely people—a partner and friends and family and the best dog, yes, better than your dog, I know I know, you don’t believe me but this really isn’t a competition so don’t take it personally—and that makes a life. We are wonderfully made in our relationships.
So while I’m not making the difference I imagined I would be in the world, and I’m not where I thought I’d be had you asked me a decade ago, I’m exactly where, and who, I should be: a flawed person, important to some, dedicated to making the most out of the short time I’ve been given. With my few gifts and talents, I can make my relatively insignificant mark on the world around me, drawing a small doodle that may not last beyond my lifetime. But it will be significant to those I so dearly wish would see it that way. They love me, and I love them. It took 31 years, but I finally learned something worth knowing.
I wrote the following as a response to a Facebook post claiming Jesus couldn't be an ethnic minority because he "was persecuted almost entirely by his own people." This comment was on a link by a friend that argued Jesus was a racial and ethnic minority.
I think we have to be careful about claims like Jesus "was almost entirely persecuted by his own people." The forces that were arrayed against him are mainly represented by Herod, who was part of a system appointed by Rome, and the priestly class, which also was compromised by Roman power and widely distrusted among the Jewish people of the day—thus the rise of the proto-rabbinic Pharisaic movement and Jesus himself.
As for the general populace, we have to situate Jesus within his context. Jesus was perhaps seen as both a sympathizer (associating with Roman tax collectors and soldiers) AND as a radical threat to the tenuous peace established under Roman rule. So it is not too surprising when the rubber met the road after his political march into the city and demonstration in the temple that he was given over to Rome to be made an example. Imperial hegemony upsets and undermines every social relation, especially with its constant threat of violence, which would culminate with the destruction of the second temple only 70 years after Jesus death.
As for Jesus' status as an ethnic minority: modern concepts of race and ethnicity didn't exist in the Hellenized world of the first century. You were a Roman citizen or you were not. You submitted to the peace of Rome or you did not. You were a slave or you were not. Jews certainly found themselves in a special kind of oppression under Roman rule, stubborn as they were about only God being God, and some power mad lunatic in Rome being just a man and not a god as the Romans claimed. This unwillingness to play along eventually saw Jerusalem sacked and burned.
That being said, what we're talking about here is an interpretive choice. Jesus is not just a man from the first century. He is Christ. If his life and message is good news for the poor, the captives, the oppressed, then we must ask who is poor now, who is captive now, who is oppressed now? And so we must say Jesus is with them, Jesus suffers alongside them, Jesus is one of them—he is poor, he is black, he is a woman, he is Palestinian, he is homeless. He is all these things and more, for all things hold together in Christ Jesus.
I was thinking about the Eucharist today. Did you know "eucharist" comes from the Greek word for "thanks?" That's pretty cool. The central ritual of Christian practice over the millennia is to say "thanks."
It has probably been said a thousand times before and more eloquently than I am capable of, but this stands in stark contrast with the global system of capitalism which dictates the rhythm of our lives.
Capitalism's primary animating value is scarcity. This logic, that there isn't enough, pulls every other human value into its matrix of scarcity. Time, money, natural resources, love, companionship, beauty—all these and more are stripped of their ultimate value and defined instead by fear, anxiety, and the will to power. How ironic that capitalism generates so much waste, a surplus so tremendous that no one in an earlier age could possibly imagine it, while so many go hungry. Capitalism's excess and the gap between rich and poor reifies its own myth of scarcity.
Eucharist, on the other hand, is a symbol not just of gratitude for the fundamental fact that everything that is worthwhile in life is an unmerited gift, but it is an expression of abundance. Through this ritual Christians gesture toward the meal saying, "We exist there, in the wheat and grapes, in the broken body of Christ given for us," and we respond "Thanks," content that this will be more than enough—enough to share.