November 25th was Christ the King Sunday on the church calendar, which is one of those funny irksome titles Jesus ends up with after he's dead and gone and back again. The people who put the Revised Common Lectionary together (Lectioneers) gave us John 18:33-37 for the week.
What we see in the passage is Pilate's interaction with Jesus. Just before we get there, though, we overhear Pilate outside his headquarters interacting with the Jewish authorities who have brought Jesus to be judged.
As a Prefect, Pilate had some limited judicial authority in Judea. Keep in mind, Rome would rather have their provinces govern themselves to a degree than to dictate everything that went on in a province. The whole colonial system works better if an illusion of self-governance is maintained. So as a good bureaucrat, Pilate asks, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" and, "Why not take Jesus yourselves and judge him by your own law."
But the authorities who apprehended Jesus maintain that they would have him judged by a different law, so Pilate has to go back into his headquarters to question Jesus.
Interesting to note that often the crucifixion of Jesus is seen as a miscarriage of justice. If Pilate had been braver or the Jewish authorities had been more faithful or if the crowd had seen that it was Barabas, not Jesus, who deserved death (if it had never been left up to the crowd at all...) then Jesus might have lived.
In fact, if the wheels of Roman justice and the Jewish authorities had been working more efficiently, Jesus would have been put to death much sooner. In this case the gears of human justice moved imperfectly and so Jesus lives longer than he would have.
Anyway, Pilate asks Jesus straight out: "Are you the king of the Jews?" And instead of answering, Jesus asks this funny question: "Where'd you hear that from?" Like, is that your idea or someone else's? Pilate is a little bemused. He says, "Look, you're a Jew, not me. Your people handed you over to me, so what did you do?"
Now Jesus seems to answer the first question. He speaks about his kingdom. Not a kingdom of this world but a kingdom from somewhere else. Maybe a kingdom that is coming or is only now entering the world. Jesus' kingdom is unexpected, it intrudes in this circle of reality and upsets it. And importantly, it doesn't function the way the powers of this circle of reality expect a kingdom to function.
So the question is, how do we expect a kingdom to function? How does a king or a queen actually behave? I bet when most of us think of kings and queens we think of the British Royal family. “Wasn’t Megan Markle’s wedding dress beautiful?” and “Isn’t Prince George cute in his little prince outfits??” So, basically we think of glorified celebrities that only go away when they die.
But when we think of a kingdom, we should really think of somewhere more like Saudi Arabia. Think of a person or a family who controls all the wealth of a nation just because they said it should be so. Think of a man who, if you cross him, will send 15 men to murder you, cut your body in to pieces, and dissolve you in acid. This is how kings rule: through force.
How then are we to think of Jesus as a king?
I’m not satisfied by the line of thinking that Jesus is the best possible king, a king who is a servant to his people, a king who rules with love, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. All of this is merely a reaction against the concept of kingdom we already know. As a reaction it will always be defined by the thing it's reacting against. If we understand Jesus to be a king on the world’s terms, but a really really good one, then he is by definition limited by those terms.
But Jesus says something different. To the question, “Are you a king?” he answers, “My kingdom isn’t limited to the terms of this world, people won’t fight and die over it, I won’t force it upon anyone.” Jesus never claims to be a king, and when he speaks of the kingdom, he suggests a reign of god unburdened by the baggage of the old ways of doing things.
Anyway, Pilate doesn't get it. He wants an answer that conforms to his understanding of the world, he wants to hear something that means something to him, that fits into his scheme for the way the world works. He says, "So are you a king or not?" Jesus answers in verse 37, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Our Lectioneers let the passage end there. But the passage actually ends with verse 38. Pilate responds to Jesus: "What is truth?" Jesus doesn't get a chance to answer, but we witness the Empire's answer soon.
The clearest definition of the truth of empire that I’ve read comes from a quote by Karl Rove (President George W. Bush's campaign manager and Republican political operative). When he was questioned by a NYT reporter about he nature of truth he said the following:
“America is an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."
He means truth under empire is defined by empire. Empire is the ultimate subject of history and when the empire acts it creates new worlds, new truths, new realities. We can see, I think, that this is true. As I said before, even those who would fashion a different reality than empire still do so in reaction to empire, the ultimate truth maker.
"Martyreo Aletheia," Witness to Unconcealedness
We quickly turn from Pilate’s cynical question about the nature of truth to Chapter 19 where Pilate takes Jesus and has him flogged. Pilate activates the truth making machine of empire. The power of empire is now visited upon Jesus body. He is stripped. He is whipped. He is mocked. Thorns are forced upon his head. He carries the instrument of his death to the site of his execution and there he is murdered by the Roman state. Finally the wheel of justice turns freely as Jesus breathes his last breath.
Yet, in this death, Christians claim, Jesus has borne witness to all truth.
I'd like to suggest that this truth is, on one hand, an entirely new thing and, on the other, also the only thing—the only true thing, the radical truth at the root of existence. What is that truth?
I want to suggest our answer is in Advent.
Advent is a period of dark expectation. I don’t know about you but I feel an expectation for something new to come. I feel hope that I almost wish wasn’t there. As the days grow shorter and colder, I feel that they mirror the character of my own imagination for what’s possible.
Still, as this year ends, I look toward the four themes of Advent: hope, joy, peace, and love. And I look toward the generativity of the Spirit at work in the world, to the simple hope of a new baby and his mother’s love, to all the possibilities contained within the life of a single child.
Kings and Emperors seek to contain these generative forces. They work to cover difference, and to manage new possibilities so that they might achieve stability. Of course, stability often turns to stagnation, and Empire will always leave a few on the margins (the poor, the weak, the lame) as it pulls powers and resources to its center.
Between Jesus and empire there isn't some third synthesis that gives us a unified vision of both. There’s a shift not just in paradigms or cultural lenses but in circles of reality. I want to suggest that Christ is something new–the embodiment of an in-breaking reality: the embodiment of the end of one world and the beginning of another—another way of being, not stagnant, but open to the creative, loving existence of the presence of God.
If that’s all true, I don’t know exactly what to do. I had a friend once who told me if he believed in God nothing would stop him from running down the middle of the street completely naked. Maybe if I really believed all of this that’s what I’d do too…
But for the time being I look forward to quietly preparing myself, not for a glorious king, but for a poor baby and the love of his mother.
Air Force veteran Byron Ragland was doing his job as a court-appointed special advocate and visitation supervisor, sitting at a table at Menchie’s frozen yogurt shop supervising an outing between a mother and her 12-year-old son. As he was working, two police officers approached him, checked his ID and asked him to leave.
It turns out two employees at the store were uncomfortable with Ragland because he hadn't purchased anything. The employees complained to their boss—an Asian-American man—who called the police. Though Ragland explained he was working and accompanied the mother and son, the trio ended up leaving the store.
The Seattle Police department has since apologized to Ragland for asking him to leave.
A topic that goes unmentioned in the article is the ongoing enclosure of public spaces in this country. More and more, any indoor space has a required price of admission. Practically the only free, public, indoor space available is the library. Even outdoor spaces are increasingly enclosed, regulated, fenced, and patrolled. If you can't pay the fee or don't fit the profile of someone allowed to exist in public, you're asked to move along. People of color feel the effects of this enclosure more frequently than whites and with greater consequences.
It is also highly concerning that the employees either did not feel comfortable asking Ragland what was going on, in which case he could have explained his presence at the shop, or were not empowered to do so.
This story reveals an increasing breakdown in our ability to relate to each other on a basic level. If we cannot have a preliminary interpersonal encounter without involving the police, then frankly we don't have much of a society. If the way we relate to each other in this diminished society is primarily with fear, then I cannot see how we begin the work to rebuild it.
When I run, I pass a local college with a flag pole out front. The American flag seems to rest perpetually at half mast, a sign of our constant collective tragedy. This time it's for the dozen slain in a California bar, but it will be for something else soon.
The earth over which that limp flag hangs is sick, soaked in the blood of those sacrificed to self-interest and fear. It's a rotting place where we live now, a place where wounds are never allowed to heal. These hurts are once and future. We groan when they break open and ooze across our screens, but we do not mend them. They fester and we sigh as though there were no medicine.
We treat our violence not as a sickness but as a garden to be tended. We grow death in this country, nurture it and ignore its cost while we praise the blooms it brings. Entertainment, money, self-protection, "freedom" — we point to these as reasons to persist in madness, rather than acknowledge them as symptoms of a greater malignancy. What is there to do in such a time as this? Cry for the dead? Rage at the abyss that swallows them? Pray?
For those of us burdened by the Resurrection, we cannot help but remember our call to hope. We are to be people of the third day, people who have seen life on the other side of death. For us, our task is to remember that a violence done, even the ultimate violence, is not a story's end. We are an epilogue people.
Even the Christ, he who yokes us with such a hope, does not return from death unmarked. He presents his exit wounds to his disciples, showing them that even if Death no longer reigns, Suffering and Pain still have their place in the narrative of our hope. Even in new life, there is no escaping the marks left by a system obsessed with its nails and spears. Even of Christ, we demand an open wound.
Hello all. Just a little note to let you know we've re-launched our Patreon page. We urge you to sign up if you want to be a part of what we're doing here on the blog. We have one simple tier of support at $5 per month. I don't think we can stop you from giving more than that, though? Maybe?
We appreciate you.
Mark and Logan
My boss, Ryan Taylor, and I had an opportunity to contribute to this quarter’s issue of Circuit Rider, which takes on the theme of preaching and serving from the margins. In a piece called “Becomming Poor and Finding Friendship on the Margins,” we write about what it means to offer hospitality to our homeless friends at Network Coffee House.
To an outsider, the work of extending hospitality at Network Coffee House may appear to be no work at all. That is not to say, it looks easy. Instead, it may literally appear to an outsider that social justice work among marginalized individuals is not taking place. The hospitality that we create together with our guests at Network cannot be painted on a canvas, captured on video, or advertised on social media.
Sunday on our way to church my almost five-year-old daughter said to me, "Dad now that I'm in 123 I feel all broked up." I said, "What do you mean broken up, sweetie?" She replied, "I feel broken up and switched around. I feel switched." When I pressed her again she went into a longer explanation.
She moved into a new room recently and while a lot of her friends from her old room (127) also moved to new rooms, a few still remain. So she has a new room, a new teacher, and new kids to get to know. She admitted that sometimes when her class is outside she'll peek in the windows of her old class, even though they're not supposed to. She said she can see her friends in there, and she rattled off four or five names. As a dad this is a bit heartbreaking.
Because I'm an idiot, I asked her, "What do you think you need to feel wholeness?" I mean, I'm seriously an idiot. She loves me, though, and she's only 5 so she just asked, "What's wholeness?"
As adults we know what it's like to feel broked up. Something is missing. Something feels uncomfortable. Something is incomplete. Or maybe we feel like something used to be there and now it's gone. It's not always so easy to put our finger on what the feeling is or where it comes from. Certainly the cause of this feeling isn't usually as obvious to us as moving into a new classroom.
We talked about the new friends Nora has in 123 and then I asked, "Don't you think if you went back to 127 you would miss the girls we just talked about?" Matter-a-factly she said, "No." Like, duh, dad. But I suspect she would, in fact, miss them and her new teacher and their activities.
Wholeness isn't available to us as a return. As much as we would like to be able to go home again, to be embraced as a child by mom, to return to old friends and familiar places, we know deeply that they can't embrace us as they once did. We also know that in our attempted return we will leave behind things that have become familiar, and that by returning we again leave behind a part of ourselves.
Wholeness—whatever we mean by wholeness—can only be found where we stand now. More than that, I feel wholeness is only ever something that visits us—we do not visit it nor attain it by an action of the will. We may cultivate an awareness of the presence of wholeness in our lives, interact with it, even develop an intimate relationship with wholeness as we do with a friend or a lover, so that wholeness becomes an integral part of who we are and how we act in the world.
But we cannot go back to 127.
While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.
"Do you have any extra pants?"
There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."
"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.
Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.
Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.
By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.
I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.
I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"
She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.
She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."
I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.
Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"
Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.
As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.
"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.
The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.
Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.
This is a post for those of you who follow the blog primarily through an RSS reader. Our web stats show there are at least a few of you. If you don’t interact with The Beard on Facebook or Twitter (or Instagram) you may not know that we’ve started the podcast back up. We’re hoping to produce two episodes a month, give or take an episode here and there.
I’m going through a bit of a transition in my career. I’ve taken on a part-time position at Network Coffee House, where I have worked as Shift Director on Monday nights for four years. With this new opportunity, I am also reducing my hours at Father Woody’s Haven of Hope, the day shelter where I’ve worked as Community Outreach Coordinator for one year.
I’m excited about this change and the opportunity to contribute more at Network. The shift in my schedule at Father Woody’s will also afford me the resources to dedicate more time to this site.
I intend to post more with this new arrangement, and I hope you’ll follow along with our updates.
If you appreciate the work, please consider donating a few bucks to Network. The coffee house is where my heart is and it’s why I have the freedom to spend more time here on the blog going forward.
Date: May 24, 2018 2:14pm
I’m part of a local church group that is looking to do some volunteering. We’ve heard Poors Incorporated is doing great work in the city and we’re excited to connect. Our group would like to work directly with poor people, and we understand that you serve them. Since all of us work regular jobs we are looking to volunteer at your organization every other second Saturday starting in four and a half months. We’re planning ahead because we have a trip to help poor people in Honduras at the end of next month and the beginning of the next and the month after that we’re doing something in LA! :-)
We’re excited to work with your poor people. Looking forward to hearing back.
Subject: Re: Volunteering
Date: May 24, 2018 2:38pm
I’m glad your group is looking to get involved in our city. You’re in luck, our organization has a whole group of poors here ready for you to help them. Before we schedule your group I’d like to get a little bit more information. What would you like to work on with our poor people? Do you have a sense for how long your group would like to be involved with the poor people at Poors Incorporated? How many people are in your group?
All the best,
Subject: Re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 9:17am
I guess I’m not really sure that we have something specific in mind to work on with the poor people at Poors Incorporated. We were thinking if there’s a program or something already in place where most of the work is already done, maybe you could plug us into that or whatever. We’re up for anything but we’d like to have direct contact with poor people. In the past, some organizations have had us come do filing, and we’re not really into that so much. There are 24 people in our group. We’re hoping all of us can volunteer together at the same time every other second Saturday of each month as I said below.
Can’t wait to get started five months from now.
Subject: Re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 25, 2018 10:43am
Before you come on as a regular volunteer, we require that you spend 4 hours once a week, every week for a full calendar year at Poors Incorporated. During that time you should get to know the names of at least five poor people. Also, in that period of time the following events must occur for you to be considered as a regular volunteer: the police must be called once, an ambulance must be called at least twice, a fight must break out between two or more poor people during your shift involving a weapon of some kind—bonus points for a knife or steel pipe. Cleaning up blood, vomit, or other bodily fluids may be substituted for any one of these events. If you haven’t burned out before a year is up we’d be happy to take you on as a regular volunteer.
We can accommodate two people from your group.
Subject: Re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 27, 2018 9:22pm
It sounds like maybe Poors Incorporated won’t be such a good fit for our group.
Subject: Re: re: re: re: re: Volunteering
Date: May 28, 2018 1:06am
The following is an unpublished Op-Ed written with my friend Nathan Hunt, community organizer, theology monger, nonviolent practitioner, and all around swell guy. He keep the blog For Shalom, which you should check out not least because he's a lot smarter than me.
With the announcement that Denver has made the top 20 finalists for the new Amazon headquarters, I thought it appropriate to publish here.
We join the Denver Post editors in urging Denver elected officials to resist the temptation to compete in a “race to the bottom.” An edge gained by tax discounts is always tenuous, vulnerable to the next state or city’s reckless cut, and often relies on austerity measures which harm the most vulnerable communities.
We suggest Denver issue a challenge for Jeff Bezos and Amazon: shape the next 50 years of urban economic community development and corporate/government partnership not only in Denver but across the United States for equity and sustainability.
This challenge is important in the light of a recent Zillow report on the connection between rising housing costs and homelessness. Zillow found that in an urban center like Los Angeles, 2000 people would fall into homelessness with a 5% increase in rents. Denver should not pretend it is immune to these kinds of market forces. Amazon adding 50,000 high-paid employees to the population would be a disaster for residents earning 50% of Area Median Income and below. Houston, the nation’s fourth largest city by population, has shown it is possible to head off the connection between rising rents and homelessness by building more attainable housing. Denver can and should provide housing as Houston has done, but we can do more.
Far from Denver courting Amazon, Amazon ought to court Denver, a city that is first and foremost the people of this place. Our position is that Denver is not improved unless all of its people have an equitable share in that improvement. We have some questions for the company to determine if it is a suitable partner.
- Would Amazon’s arrival improve education for all classes regardless of neighborhood, race or class?
- Would Amazon’s arrival improve people’s ability to attain and remain in quality housing with easy access to work, school, groceries, and play?
- Would Amazon’s presence provide good jobs for the people already living here who want them?
- Would Amazon help Denver become the ecologically sustainable city we need in an era of increased environmental instability, including natural disasters like droughts, floods, fires, and hurricanes?
If the answer to these questions is not a strong “yes,” then we suggest Amazon build its new headquarters in a city with lower expectations of for its corporate neighbors.
Amazon says that the city chosen for its second headquarters will enjoy $5 billion in construction investment and estimates that its investments in Seattle between 2010 and 2016 resulted in an additional $38 billion to the city's economy. The way this money is allocated matters if we are prioritizing the common good of all Denver citizens. Our recommendations for investment allocation follows:
- 20% toward Community Land Trusts to retain neighborhoods and allow working class neighborhoods to withstand gentrification
- 20% toward new attainable housing creation, principally invested for those earning below 30% Area Median Income
- 20% toward rail, bike, and bus infrastructure and clean energy investment
- 20% toward public education and workforce training to move local people into Amazon-esque jobs
- 20% toward commons investments like parks, public spaces, arts, and local food systems
Faceless economic investment mechanisms are not enough. A good corporate neighbor would value and invest in our local assets. True social responsibility would mean adopting an “anchor institution mission” by prioritizing local hires and whenever possible making procurement and construction contracts with local worker-owned, people of color owned, and/or women owned businesses.
As the Denver community considers inviting a corporation like Amazon to be one of our neighbors and economic partners, we must ask: how would Amazon contribute to a city where everyone can thrive—particularly people who are currently marginalized and struggling? If Amazon cannot affirmatively meet the challenge detailed above, we see no reason to welcome the corporation to our city.
I’m worried about the Yellowstone Super Volcano. Just in general. There were some reports recently that we’re overdue for an eruption, which is pretty scary and also inaccurate hyperbolic click-bait according to experts. Still, there’s a 4000 cubic kilometer chamber of magma and gas trapped under Yellowstone National Park. It wouldn’t be that scary if I didn’t have kids, but when you have kids you go a little bit crazy.
Normally I worry about things that directly impact my life, over which I may have some degree of control. But the super volcano looms out there in the distance, in Wyoming, threatening to kill us all at a moment’s notice.
Why worry about it then? Why this generalized worry instead of my normal personalized anxiety?
Because of Trump.
He’s an apocalyptic figure. I’ve maintained this since the beginning of his insane primary campaign. Remember when he stood on stage with 14 or 15 other GOP candidates and told us all that the other guys on stage with him were up for the highest bidder? Well, he wasn’t wrong. He revealed something to us—he said it starkly and without the niceties that makes the poison shilled out by career politicians go down so smooth. If he wasn’t such a disgusting character maybe people could have heard him.
And then of course there are the right wing nationalists, white supremacists, neo-nazis, and KKK hillbillies who feel emboldened by Trump’s insane, nihilistic, macho rhetoric and racist dog whistles. Before Trump, this diseased pus was just under the surface of our culture. Push and prod a bit and you had a sense it was there but it was mostly hidden away and easy to ignore. Trump’s election lanced this blister of extremist stew, and the festering ichor has spilled out into our culture. Where once there was a hiding place now there is an open sore exposed to light and the fresh air. It has been revealed to us, to all of us; it has been uncovered.
That’s what an apocalypse is, an uncovering.
Finally, there’s the #metoo movement. Women in every industry have come forward to give reports of the misogynistic underpinnings of American power. The dam has broken. From Hollywood, through the restaurant industry, right into politics, we are now forced to confront the everyday violence endured by women and the ugly silence we maintain to prop up ugly men. We “knew” that the reality we now confront was true before 2017, but it was concealed, covered up, and we left the cover on. That is until an accused rapist and self-professed perpetrator of sexual assault was elected to the highest office in federal government.
Hillary Clinton as President would have been empowering for women to a degree. Much as I disagree with her neoliberal politics, I’d have been proud in November 2016 to tell my daughter that a woman had been elected to the White House. But Trump has unknowingly galvanized women and men alike to take up their own, individual agency and demand that the truth should be covered up no more. Every woman who publicly says, “Me too,” participates in a revolutionary, revelatory politics that would not have been possible under Hillary Clinton.
Apocalypse also marks the end of the world. Can you feel that the world we lived in has ended? Perhaps it ended on September 11, 2001. The post Wold War II consensus, Cold War, globalizing American capitalist hegemony was wrecked that day along with the towers and thousands of lives.
Francis Fukuyama was right in 1992: the end of the 20th century was the end of history. But the end of history didn’t usher in an eternal utopia for Western democratic capitalism, it introduced an entirely new world, one we cannot grasp with our old ways of being and knowing.
Now with Trump we have a lens that helps us step back and widen the frame, to clearly see the shape of our obsolete schemes and systems, and the space to imagine something new.
It is difficult for Americans to imagine South Dakota as a place. People from east of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers or west of the Rocky Mountains, when meeting someone from South Dakota, express shock that a person would be from such a place. Perhaps only Wyoming rivals North and South Dakota as a blank void in the imagination of America. Yet even Wyoming has her jewel: Yellowstone National Park.
It is no surprise that 210,000 gallons of oil have leaked into the soil of South Dakota, for South Dakota is exactly the kind of place Americans expect oil to be spilled. For viewers in New York and California, the ocean is a less remote and more tragic place for oil to spill than South Dakota, about which they know nothing.
That the oil leaked into ground adjacent to an Indian reservation removes it even more from the imaginative grasp of millions of Americans.
The very rational, pragmatic concerns of Reasonable People are much easier to imagine for the average American, though they are less concrete. Oil powers the global economy, after all, and the American economy. It influences the price of milk. Oil must remain cheap for all to thrive. The safest way to transport crude oil to refineries is by pipeline. Trucks and trains pose too many risks. Surely one wouldn’t argue that a land ought to remain unspoiled in the face of the needs of millions for the lifeblood of the earth which has accrued to humanity. Shouldn’t we strive to strike a balance between environmental concerns and the needs of our human economy?
Never mind that these commenters know nothing about the place they would balance their scales.
As for the Indians, their tribal representatives negotiated passage of the pipeline through reservation lands. Who else were the oil companies to negotiate with? That the tribal councils are notoriously corrupt wouldn’t occur to such a Reasonable Person, but before they saw the news of the spill on their Facebook feed they never had a thought about South Dakota or remaining tribal lands.
Anyway, according to environmental officials, though the leak was large, the location is “very rural, which is very positive,” and “the location of this is not in a sensitive area.” Very positive indeed.
Author and Essayist Marilynne Robinson writes, “Wilderness is where things can be done that would be intolerable in a populous landscape.”[^1] In this sense, everything is permissible in South Dakota. The vast, empty, horizon embracing flatness of the place allows us to deceive ourselves. Such a place absorbs any amount of oil along with the silenced thought that such a disaster reveals the fundamental sin of our present age—our failure to imagine our neighbor. In our hurry to balance the scales, we fail to imagine a South Dakotan, an Indian, or the earth as our neighbor.
[^1]: The Death of Adam, 247
He leaned in to dab her forehead with the wrung-out cloth, the cold sweat beading clearly under the fluorescent lights. He gently swiped a damp string of hair to the side of her head and moved in close to kiss her fevered brow. She smelled of antiseptic and heat, now almost indistinguishable from the rest of the hospital's perfumed decay. The bed creaked as he placed the weight of his body on his hands beside her fading frame. He leaned closer, remembering all the times he'd done this before in their own bed at home. He thought of how she had been a late sleeper, though easily awoken with a light touch to her blanketed shoulder. She would not be waking now. Softly, he brushed her skin with his parted lips, whispering a last sweet nothing in the silent room. "What's up, chicken butt."
Ezra was there the day Hosea left. He'd overheard the month's worth of conversations between Hosea and Father leading up to Hosea's exodus. He'd been the one to draft the bill selling Hosea's share of Father's land, making them all poorer—though they were nowhere near poor. Hosea hadn't spoken to Ezra about it. They didn't talk. Not really. Not without arguing.
The day Hosea left, Ezra sat at the long, blackwalnut dining room table surrounded by papers. Three hours of numbers to be typed methodically into Quickbooks, then checked, then bills and reports emailed, printed, faxed, payments made, orders placed. The day Hosea left—just before he left—Father paced the house: dining room, kitchen, sitting room, front room, foyer, sun room, dining room, kitchen. On and on he went.
Surrounded by his work, Ezra watched from the dining room through two doorways to the foyer where Hosea stood with Father in front of the old oak door. The Grandfather Clock ticked out its measure to Ezra's right. Father looked up at Hosea, at his hazel eyes, his shoulder length brown hair poking out of his baseball cap. Evening light spilled through the stained glass transom window and lay on the pair thickly like globs of paint. Maybe the paint would dry and they would freeze there, thought Ezra. He would have to clean them up after he finished working.
They murmured at each other mostly. Then Father gripped Hosea by the shoulders and said loudly, "Are you sure?"
"Yeah, Dad. I am," said Hosea smiling.
"I love you."
"I love you too, Dad."
Hosea hefted his pack onto his thin shoulders, turned to the door and opened it. He turned back and looked at Ezra, then looked down at the table, then back again to his brother. He nodded and Ezra nodded back. Then Hosea stepped outside.
Father closed the door. Pressed his palms against it for several seconds. Ezra went back to the numbers. He heard ice clink into a glass and a few moments later the sound of Father lowering himself into his chair in the sitting room. He would be staring out the big picture window now, Ezra knew, and would fall asleep there.
Hosea had left. Ezra had stayed. He'd stayed through Mother's failing health, her dementia. He'd managed in-home caregivers, woke up all hours of the night to usher her back to bed, like she was an infant, like he was her father. She couldn't remember Ezra's name, though she asked about Hosea often. "He's fine, Mother," Ezra would say not looking at her.
Ezra had stayed through Father's drinking. His worrying. His pacing. He'd found a way to keep everyone on who worked for their family. To keep paying them even without the acres sold for Hosea. He'd found a way to keep the lights on for all of them.
They heard from Hosea at first. Not regularly but often enough. After they'd talked, Father would sit clutching the kitchen phone, the plastic creaking like he was trying to hold on to his son, to embrace him.
He was traveling, he'd said. He was meeting people and seeing things, the world, the real world.
"All these people Ezra, they're incredible, they're beautiful."
"The world is real enough here," Ezra had replied, "Joshua's wife is pregnant."
"Great! That's great," Hosea replied. He sounded pleased.
One more person to keep the lights on for, thought Ezra, as he stared out Father's picture window.
Then they'd heard from him less. And still less. Then it said his number was disconnected. Ezra had checked Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for clues. He checked couch surfing websites that hadn't been updated since they were created in the 1990s. There was no sign. No sure sign. Maybe he'd died, Ezra thought, ashamed of himself. It had been years.
Ezra was gray now; well gray-er. And balder. And fatter. Joshua's daughter was 10. Mother was dead. Father was... old, older than the years that had passed, older than the good, oak barrel aged bourbon melting the ice in his glass.
And now here was Hosea on a Sunday morning. Ezra was sitting down at the dining room table and the oak door swung open and there stood Hosea in the frame, looking at him.
The leather of Father's chair creaked and Ezra heard footsteps pad toward the tall, shaggy man. Father appeared in the foyer in his dark blue robe and his red slippers and grasped at Hosea like he was trying to draw fog or mist to himself. He plucked at Hosea's ratty clothes, green, brown, tan, and gray, at his scraggly beard, at his matted hair. Father gripped Hosea's shoulders and Ezra could hear the plastic of the kitchen phone creak in his mind.
“What the fuck," Ezra whispered. Ezra noticed himself breathing faster, like he was ready to run, like he was ready to fight. Then his father turned to him. Father's face was radiant, thought Ezra, alive, on fire.
"Call everyone," Father's croaked. Then more clearly, "Call everyone here, Ezra. Invite everyone. Invite Joshua's family, invite everyone's family! Call the caterer or, or order something, order, I don’t know, chicken, whatever." The words tumbled out of Father's mouth as Ezra stared, motionless.
"What are you doing, Ezra?" Father asked.
Ezra scratched his forehead and looked down at the ever-present spread of papers on the dining room table. Ezra hadn’t noticed he had stood up. He adjusted his glasses, sitting back down and began signing checks.
Hosea’s smell proceeded him into the room. He smelled like a pig, Ezra thought, except pigs were clean. Hosea sat down across from Ezra at the table and looked at him, his eyes brimming with tears. “What can I do, Ezra?” he asked shaking his head just a little.
Ezra set his jaw and stared at his brother. Hating him. Loving him. “Nothing,” he replied.
And then to himself, “Nothing.”
A post detailing the 12 Reasons Millennials are Over Church has been making the rounds on my social feedz this week and is widely praised by youngsters and sympathetic oldsters alike. The church has failed to adapt to Millennials' needs or include the voices of younger people, says the author.
Missing from the conversation is the fact that Boomers are experiencing a severe loss of cultural capital as Millennials come of age. On one hand we have (until recently) the largest, most powerful generation in American history. No generation in 241 years has inherited a greater horde of wealth, power, and unprecedented economic growth than the Boomers. On the other hand we have... their kids, another huge generation with enormous cultural capital and an unprecedented ability to connect across geography and create culture unbounded from traditional gatekeepers. In fact, Millennials have surpassed Baby Boomers as the country’s largest age group, according to Census data.
This is a power struggle. Boomers know how to wield power and Millennials are just learning what it means to have some. We see this across every institution: the church, education, even in the CIA.
Usually people don't just give up power. Many of the institutions Millennials are rejecting or seeking to change (Boomers taught us to disrespect institutional authority, by the way) were built from nothing by Boomers. It's no wonder they feel a little threatened when Millennials question the way those institutions function, or point out they're no longer relevant.
People usually don't just give up power, except Christians are to be a people who specifically live out a sacrificial love which inherently forfeits power for the good of others. We must forgive Boomers and Millennials alike for lacking spiritual formation the church rarely has sought to offer.
One day the money was gone. It had been gone for some time. I did not know that, but one day I found out. The sinking feeling was above my childhood intelligence, a drone hovering just above my ken striking with precision and grayed-out calculation.
I welcomed anger after a time, anger at those who pulled from underneath us the threadbare rug we were told could cover our world's floor. We were safe. Then we were not safe. I let this anger live in me and I cherished it, fed it kindling and praised its warmth.
One day, a decade later, the hope of money was gone. I had reconciled the anger long enough to choose a way forward. There was a plan, until Financial Sector Greed swept through my life (and many lives) as a typhoon sweeps upon the beach. I did not know what to do. I still don't. I welcomed despair, let it live in me and wrapped it in swaddling clothes. I cooed to it and let it whisper back to me.
People like to mince words with the Gospel, tsk tsk to you that the love of money is evil, not money itself. But they are made lesser for money's existence and cannot see what parts of themselves have been cut away by a world-sized scalpel. Money is evil; there is no doubt. Systems built upon it are corrupt at their foundations, as the human holding the precious dollar can never mean as much as the dollar itself. If they ever did, the system could not hold.
I do not welcome anger at this opening of the eyes, nor despair at the sights I have learned to see. I have wept what I will weep. The only path to walk is the one pointed toward the end of capital. It is a long walk. There will be no extra energy available for hatred or despair. Only a setting of the jaw and a resolution to step one step before another will do. You can call that love. That's what the death of money will look like. Me, loving you, loving me.
My inability to change frustrates me. Recently, I’ve tried to avoid looking at Twitter or news feeds immediately upon waking. I used to tell myself that there was some good reason for doing so. Maybe I’d awaken to see that some national tragedy had befallen us while I slept; maybe the world was on fire; maybe aliens were at the door and I should get dressed.
But more often, I see what I’ve always seen, which is what you’ve always seen: maddening politics, inane entertainment news, and some sports talk. The sports talk is fine. This morning, predictably, my eyes adjusted in the middle of reading a New York Times article detailing the North Carolina legislature’s newest bullshit. Having lost the governorship to a Democrat after a protracted post-election battle, they decided it’d be swell to strip the governor’s office of several key powers, including the ability to oversee state colleges and their trustee appointments.
If irony wasn’t dead, I’d say how ironic it was that in the midst of this season of Advent, in which we look to the nebulous future, a time-not-yet shaped by our ability to be patient and hopeful and tense and a bit sorrowful about what we cannot see but hope we shall soon see, our societal life is filled with those for whom there is no future.
Immediacy is king in politics. Moves like the one in North Carolina mirror so many other political actions and conversations that they begin to run together. Surely our memory is not so short as to have forgotten the debate over the “nuclear option,” in which Senate Democrats were faced with option to neuter the filibuster so as to fast track certain decisions with a simple majority. A primary element of that argument was that such an action might be appealing now, but could (and most certainly would) be used by the GOP when it arose to power once more. We should, said some, think of ourselves as the future minority party and consider what powers we’d want in that situation. Such caution only kept Senate Dems from amending some filibuster rules, not all (though the changes that did pass will almost certainly come back to haunt them now).
Still, that kind of cautious thinking requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we collectively appear to have set on fire.
While conservatives tend to make the headlines for this kind of news, liberals are far from blameless, lest you think shortsightedness prefers red or blue. Resting assured that you have someone's support because you've historically had it—even though you've done little to nothing to see that support as an agreement from a human who has real human struggles and needs real human things from you—is as warped as anything I can think of. Couple that inflated ego with a decade-long unwillingness to stop the erosion of your influence and effectiveness on a local level despite believing in your moral superiority, and you've got a medically-diagnosable lack of imagination.
But imagination requires an acknowledgment of the future, which we threw out the window after we set it on fire.
Flaming acknowledgments aside, our current political reality couldn’t be much more opposed to our religious season if it tried. If Christians are to be people of hope, we must be those who consider a future, for hope is predicated on the to-be-but-not-yet. That’s future talk. Advent is a time of hope set against sorrow, a time when we feel both and seek resolution and reconciliation in the coming of Christ. Christ is born into our brokenness; that’s what Emmanuel, “God with us,” is all about. Not “God watching over us,” or “God up ahead from us,” but with us in all our present maladies.
One of those maladies is clearly our political climate, which isn’t some separate realm from our daily life. Politics is a complicated way to frame the simple idea that people live together and have to figure that out. Throwing out the notion of a future, then, becomes a disastrous way to handle our togetherness. For those of us passionate about our planet and the health of its natural environment, this inability to couple current tension with the possibility of future resolution (good or bad) has been our long-running source of high blood pressure. “How can you not look toward the not-yet and see the potential? The flourishing or the reckoning?” we cry.
But politics work in much the same way currently. Folks who feel no good future awaits them begin to see the lack of potential as no future at all; their decisions then become those defined by no possibility. And if there’s no possibility, why not burn it all down and see what happens? Why not operate as if today’s victory is ultimate?
It’s hard to be an Advent person right now, with the world seemingly antagonistic to the long view. But our faith is of the not-yet, of the to-be, of the possible but not inevitable. Which makes it all the more important to put our hands to the plow right now. Waiting is not stagnant, after all. Waiting is the sprinter hiked on the starting blocks. True patience is a tense state, one fraught with preparation and more activity than can be seen. Waiting with an eye on the almost-but-not-quite is combative and upending. Let us be ready. Let us be against those with no future in mind. Let us be Advent people.