Our Thanks

Ever since I first heard about the Internet, I knew it was important and that I wanted to create something on it. I didn't want to just consume what other peope were doing but to make something and put it out there. The Internet is a great leveler. The ability to self-publish and have people read my stuff is still incredibily compelling to me. It would be compelling to me even if it was only a few of my friends reading my stuff and sending me a nice note now and then.

But with Disembodied Beard, people are supporting us in ways that I'm still baffled by. This probably comes across as a marketing post. I guess it kind of is. But I also just want to say a sincere thanks to everyone who reads the site, shares our stuff, subscribes to the RSS feed, listens to the podcast, buys Mark's original art (our comics) in the store, and supports us on Patreon.

We ran a sale in the store recently and people bought seven peices of art. We're supported to the tune of $37 per month on Patreon. People bought art on the Internet. Like... whaaa? And Patreon? What an incedible show of support for our work. It means so much to Mark and me that you're behind us the way you are.

Thank you.

Ramsey 19:16-30

Then someone came to him and said, “Teacher, how many campuses does my church need for me to have eternal life?” And he said to him, “Why do you ask me about church metrics? There is only one who is good. If you wish to enter into life, buy his books and seminars.” He said to him, “Which ones?” And Jesus said, “the Show; The Legacy Journey; Smart Money Smart Kids; Generation Change; Junior’s Adventures; also, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” The young man said to him, “I have all these; what do I still lack?” Jesus said to him, “If you wish to be perfect, sign up your church for Dave Ramsey’s Financial Peace University and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for his church didn’t have the budget for that.

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, middle-class existence shall be much easier in the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is middle-class to feel satisfied.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astounded and said, “Then who can be saved!?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but for Ramsey all things are possible.”

Then Peter said in reply, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. But we don’t have any of his books. What then do we have?" Jesus said to them, "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man has paid down his student loan debt, you who have followed me will also be debt free, pitying other people under the yoke of late-stage global capitalism. And everyone who has houses or credit cards or a car payment or children, will receive a stern talking-to about budgeting, and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first, so buy Dave Ramsey’s books today."

The Myth of Christian Voting

The trend in U.S. politics for the last few decades, from the conservative side at least, has been to court the "evangelical vote" by creating calls to arms around various hot-button social issues. This is often called the ‘culture wars’. A broad name, but complexities, of course, abound.

The usual push-back points are that not all evangelicals are alike, that we have a hard time defining the term evangelical in our modern context, that those who court such a vote are often Christian in name more than deed, that Christians should vote based more on the biblical teachings of Christ and less on the modern social lens through which we try to squeeze the Bible… you’ve heard them all. There are more think pieces on these subjects than one could ever read.

This is all amplified in the case of Donald Trump, as most things are. Trump seems to be courting the evangelical vote effectively, which in this case means he’s able to pull socially conservative folks who also identify as Christians and who, usually, name Christianity as a driving force behind what and who they vote for.

The response in this case has been for more than a few evangelicals to talk about why voting for Trump is antithetical to evangelical beliefs. This New York Times piece has been making the rounds; this one at Ministry Matters is well-written, too.

But both miss the point, which is that being a Christian really isn’t a matter of civic responsibility. The thing is, you are Christian apart from your role in the citizenry, and the two identities have very little to do with each other.

Here, you might say I’m not being practical. You might say, "If I believe that Christ teaches to take care of people, I’m going to vote for people and policies that help others.” And I’ll say, “Of course you are.”

But the thing is, your participation in the life of a nation, in the life of an institutional system, isn’t the same as your life in Christ. It isn’t wholly different, but they aren’t analogous. When Ben Carson spoke about it being necessary for a Muslim who wanted to hold office to renounce their religious allegiance, he missed the point that Christian politicians have to do this, too. In Christianity (though the metaphor is troublesome), Christ is king, and America ain’t dealin’ in kings.

There are lots of reasons—practical, emotional, intellectual, STRAIGHT-UP-BASIC MORAL—to not vote for Donald Trump. But being a Christian has little to do with it. Your identity in Christ isn’t a moralistic one, though how you act communally is undeniably linked. Your identity in Christ isn’t tribal, meaning that it isn’t confined by narrow categorization like party affiliation. Your identity in Christ isn’t governmental, civic, or legislated. Life and identity in Christ is something much more universal and free than any specific policy vote you make or label you choose to associate with. We humans like to put things in boxes because categorizing makes things make sense; unfortunately, the mystical nature of incarnation, of God-Human, makes categorization impossible.

So I don’t think evangelicals should or shouldn’t vote for Trump because I don’t believe in this ethereal voting bloc which is “evangelicals,” nor do I believe in labels which denote things as “Christian” or “secular.” Instead, if Christ is incarnate, in our bodies and our air and our lives lived as liturgy itself, then voting becomes quite secondary. That doesn’t mean that it stops being our civic duty, or our duty to work for our neighbor simply because they’re our neighbor. Some of our decisions will look more like Christ. Some won’t look like Christ at all. None of it is separate from the mind of God. Nothing is outside the realm of the divine life. If Paul is right, then there are no categories. We are who we are, created and free, only bound by the burdening Christianicism with which we have hobbled ourselves.

An Economy of...Something

A friend sent me this story about an recently-invented language built on the simplicity of expression, relying on 123 words and good ol' nonverbal communication to carry the tricky thing that is having contact with another human.

I dig this idea. I'm not surprised, as I've always gravitated toward the idea that we can simplify. It's a marvel then, that I somehow ended up studying theology, a field which thrives on complexity and nuance. Still, I can remember doing an architecture project in the 4th grade. We were to study different styles and draw up plans for our own house. I went minimalist, naturally, and scoffed (I was a 4th grader who scoffed, which is why you would have rightfully hated me) at the overwrought, decadent displays my classmates came up. "Why do you want so much stuff in your house?" I'd ask.

I have too much stuff now. I'm still in pursuit of a simpler life. Not just simpler in the new-age, self-help sense. Not in the "let's appropriate Zen Buddhism but where we get to keep capitalism" kind of simple. A real kind of simple. Where I have an economy of language, of thought, of action. Where I'm intentional about each waking moment, but I don't even think about it as it's so fluid and natural. Sounds like a dream. I doubt I'll ever get there.

This is why I find the current political circus infuriating and damaging. It's not new, but we're definitely experiencing a heightened flavor. The rhetoric is bombastic, manic, stark-raving...so many words saying so very little. Not only is it unnecessary, it's damaging, dangerous, menacing. In not seeking together a simpler road forward, we've opened the bag wide to every form of insanity and called it liberty.

Which isn't to say that I don't want a diversity of thought, expression, players and thinkers; I do. I just want that very diverse group to be able to sit together, quietly, and think before they speak. I'd love to hand them 123 words and have them try to communicate their hate or their ignorance or their indifference. And when that became too hard, I'd like them to use 123 words to find a way to be in the presence of the other and marvel at the fact that we can exist together. Ideally, they could get that down without words at all.

Theologically, I drift toward the apophatic and, if I'm being honest, the mystical. In this way, words don't get to the heart of who or what the divine is. But we have to get through all the words before we can realize that we need less of them. Perhaps this is a model for our pursuit of communal life.

This is my dream of the economy of words, deeds, language, thought, and spirit. I'm not naive enough to believe it's how we can conduct ourselves on global, wide stages. It's also important to say that I love words. I love language. I write on a blog, for heaven's sake. Jokes, wordplay, and exposition are my daily tools. I don't want our ability to express to diminish in any way. But I would love some added value on silence and simplicity. I would love us to seek such things out, in any little corner where they might live. Maybe I'll shut up now and listen for how I might do that best.

I Am Not a Progressive Christian

Nadia Bolz-Weber (NBW), Lutheran Pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints here in Denver, CO was a guest on Fresh Air about a month ago. As a friend pointed out after seeing her speak recently, the theological tradition out of which she forms her ministry is nothing particularly revolutionary. Mainline American Protestant Christianity has preached a flavor of her message since the late 1950s. Her genius is how she says what she says, and that she takes this tradition seriously enough to preach it to people the church has overlooked for decades.

Terry Gross assumes in her line of questioning that NBW must be coming out of a younger theological tradition which has been variously dubbed “Progressive” or “liberal” Christianity. Gross hints at this when she asks,

TG: Are you more concerned about people’s actions than their beliefs.

NBW: I’m not even really concerned about their actions, no.

TG: That wasn’t the answer I was expecting.

Gross wasn’t expecting this, because she assumes NBW, as a tattooed, female, swearing pastor preaching to a largely LGBTQ congregation, must also therefore preach about being “radical” and changing the world. But NBW responds:

I don’t monitor people’s behavior, let’s put it that way. So much of Christianity has become about like sort of monitoring behavior and so far it has failed to work as a strategy for making people better… On some level Christianity became about monitoring people’s behavior… like a sin management program. And that almost always fails and often backfires.

To anyone paying attention to American culture, language about sin management systems will bring to mind conservative Christian moralism, especially as it relates to control over what people choose to do with their genitals. NBW speaks to this. But hidden here is also the flip side of the same coin: Progressive Christianity.

Much of Progressive Christianity has defined itself in narrow terms largely interested in the behavior of it's participants. In order to be a "Jesus Follower," and not a mere "religious Christian" (see my posts on the Rohr meme going around 1 and 2) adherents must, for instance: buy local, buy organic, vote Democrat, support full LGBT inclusion, and buy into a community supported agriculture co-op. Personally I'm not against any of these. Indeed, I support them. But I do not support them as prerequisites for full inclusion in the body of Christ.

The Body of Christ—the Church universal and eternal—is a rocketship propelled by the fire of the Holy Spirit. While it may hold a few people inside it, saints and giants of the faith, the fire that springs forth from it is all-consuming, gathering all people, conservative and progressive, all creation, organic and inorganic toward it as it streaks toward heaven. It claims everything for itself, it is irresistible and uncontrollable. As NBW puts it:

My job is to point to Christ and preach the gospel and to remind people that they are absolutely loved and that their identity is based in something other than the categories of late stage capitalism, for instance. That they are named and claimed by god and that this is an identity is more foundational than any of the others and that their completely forgiven and all of their mess ups are not more powerful than gods mercy and God’s ability to redeem us and bring good out of bad… I think when people hear this over and over they become free.

The job of a pastor, of our individual churches, is to appear before everyone and point to the rocketship and stand in awe and exclaim with joy, "Look!"

Really Not Really Alone

Logan sent me a tweet a few days ago of an image which has since gone viral, retweeted and commented upon and analyzed. It was this image. In it, you can see the end of days, the beginning to every horrific piece of dystopian science fiction you’ve ever encountered. You might hear the Imperial March when you look at it. Maybe you just feel cold, like that kid who could see Bruce Willis (poor kid).

Maybe you’re completely unlike me, though. Maybe you see within those pixels an image of the glorious future, of technology spreading its benevolent arms until we’re tightly wrapped within them, choking out our last bre—I’m sorry. I’m ruining something good for you. My apologies.

Of course, I felt a similar sentiment when I looked at this brilliant cartoon last week. I laughed a lot, and then I set my jaw and felt intensely grim; I was laughing because it was all so damn true. The realism of our current world feels inescapable, and it feels especially so when fantasy and imagination don't provide the outs they once did. It’s harder for me to lose myself in a book or a movie than it once was, or to lose all sense of time staring off the porch at the swaying trees, their limbs stark naked in the late-winter air. Partly, I’m out of practice. But I feel the other part is that we’re not afforded the ability to be alone.

This could be what scares me so much about a bunch of slack-jawed goobers fawning over VR headsets in eager hopes of making WALL-E non-fiction. It could be what scares me so much about the current U.S. political climate. Don’t they want to step back? Don’t they feel crushed by all that forced connectedness? Don't they want to just take a breath?

Everything is constantly in our face, and even what looks like an ingenious technological escape to some seems like a Philip K. Dick novel to me. I don’t mean to sound like an old person on a cable news channel railing against the kids and their smartphones. I’m a millennial, though on the outer edge; I get the arguments my peers use for why they’re always looking at a screen. Some say it allows them this sacred loneliness of which I speak, that even in a crowd of distempered people then can retreat via apps. Others go the other way and use devices to wax poetic on the newfound ability to find community anywhere and everywhere. I get those arguments, too.

The problem is, it’s a trap either way. Just like so many of our political/social/religious modes of being, we’re fed two narratives and are expected to pick one. Rarely do we talk about a third thing. Leaving the party to read an article on your phone doesn’t make you anymore alone than the Oculus wearer. You’re still tethered, a string of data and ideas and intention swiftly and firmly grasping you from the end of the writers’ pen, from the coders’ fingertips. Where is the escape hatch, really? Maybe it was never there. Even the desert mystics went to commune with. Did even they get a moment away from God? Did they want one?

I’ve previously searched for a balance between connection and solitude, thinking that I could straddle the line between the high values I place on community and relationships as well as on my own needs as an introvert and generally “in my head” feller. But perhaps I was misguided. Perhaps I should’ve been striving not for a balance, but for a mode of living that supports both, sans dichotomy.

What would it look like to practice loving relationships in a community that encouraged your need for true solitude? What would it look like to be truly happy in a moment of complete disconnect, knowing that your appreciation of the inevitable reconnect was just as profound and just as worthy? Maybe what I’m describing to you sounds like a monastic experience, which it might be, but I’m thinking of something different. I’m thinking of a societal shift which would build us from birth to be completely at home in the realms of the "totally alone" and the "totally with" because it never believed they were two separate realms in the first place.

We’re jumping away from the practical here, I know. I said recently that I’m trying to give up cynicism for Lent, which is incredibly difficult when you’re constantly bombarded by reality, doom-flavored as it typically is. But I think that effort contains just the seeds I’m looking for when trying to figure out how to cultivate a nourishing and fruitful way of being for myself and others like me who wish desperately to be both tethered and untethered.

The seeds are those of hope, wonder, and love. When we allow ourselves to be fully opened in relationship with another, be it God or your significant other or your neighbor, maybe then we can be released—and feel comfortable releasing—into the void. We take the space walk without a cable because we are connected by something less tangible but more powerful. Your hope in who I am, my love for who you are, the wonder we have at how that can even be…that’s our breadcrumb trail back. We can go be alone, and know we’ll get back if and when the getting back is necessary. How lovely.

Christianity Beyond Memes

I’ve been thinking about this post of mine recently. Mostly because that Richard Rohr meme continues to show up in my social feed.

It occurs to me that both “options,” or ways of doing and being Church offered by this meme, potentially leave out a group of people for whom Jesus would seek to show care and concern. Here I'm thinking of people who experience severe developmental delays and disabilities. Usually these folks need a high level of care from those around them whether they be parents, family members, or specially-trained healthcare workers.

Such people usually exist on the margins of the Church. Our churches do a poor job including anyone in worship, service, liturgy, missions, and outreach who does not conform to the narrow parameters of body and ability that most of us exist within. This is a failure of underlying ecclesiologies (theology about the Church) which demand “belonging and believing” on one hand or “following the way of Jesus” on the other.

The Way

“Following the way of Jesus” is especially problematic in its privileged assumptions. It flirts with the notion that one must first attain knowledge about how to live, and then have the ability to live within the narrow constraints of that knowledge. It is a kind of gnosticism: one has special knowledge that leads to salvation. It should be obvious how limiting this is for people with cognitive disabilities.

Belonging and Believing

“Belonging and believing” has problems of its own. Believing is an especially fraught requirement for those whose with impaired cognitive abilities. What does it take to “believe” a certain set of precepts? What does it mean to live those precepts out?

However, "Belonging” offers a wider frame. With very few restrictions, one may belong to the body of Christ. This is a community that makes an universal offer to all: come and reside with us, with Christ. This kind of community can and does encompass an incredibly wide variety of ways of being human. In this case, those who confess Jesus Christ as Lord comprise the body of Christ alongside those who may not have the capacity to overtly confess as such. As saints, they share a common belonging within the metaphysical ship we call Church.

Individualism

Which brings me to my final point about the popular meme that is the occasion for these two posts: it falls into the post-Enlightenment, American Protestant trap of foregrounding completely the work, knowledge, faith, and being of the individual person. Even the side it seeks to negate (“belonging and believing”) falls almost completely on the action of the individual.

What of Christ’s being? That is what ecclesiology really is: applied Christology. In becoming part of the Church, or by seeking to follow Jesus, the focus really ought to be on joining Christ’s being, Christ’s life, Christ’s teaching, Christ’s work, Christ’s crucifixion, death, resurrection, and Christ’s faith. It is the work of God in Christ and the enlivening power of the Holy Spirit that hold all things together—even stupid memes.

Feel the Bern, Feel the Ash

“Seems like the best way to decide if someone is electable is to hold an election.” — Logan


Lent begins today. I pass people with ashes smudged across their foreheads, reminding me of a time when I observed the start of this holy season with a different attitude. I used to spend the weeks leading up to Lent figuring out exactly which thing I should give up which would strike the delicate balance between “will make me suffer” and “really doesn’t make me suffer at all because suffering sucks.” I wanted to feel like I was doing something meaningful without actually doing something inconvenient. Eventually, I stopped thinking of God as someone who gave even one damn about what I did or didn’t give up for a month and a half. I became especially convinced that God didn’t care what I gave up when what I gave up was so trivial, so privileged to begin with, so utterly materialist in my attachment to it anyway. Unfortunately, while I stopped thinking of Lent in those terms after I finished high school, most of American Christianity kept right on going.

Overall, I’m a cynical person. I don’t give the benefit of the doubt often, especially when it comes to folks expressing their religiosity, or, as they more likely see it, their innermost personal faith.[1] I realize that Christians who still approach Lenten practice as “I’m going to give X up for the next few weeks” are, for the most part, genuinely trying to get at what the church is asking us to do during this time. I think they're missing the point, but that's judgmental of me. If I'm assuming the best of them, which I'm terrible at doing, I should admit that they’re working at self-denial as a means to reflection and contemplative faith practice.

That goal is a good one. But I’ve long lost the ability to trust in our modern means of reaching it. I tend not to trust a lot of things the church in my context does, foremost because I see American Christianity (the only version Christianity I know personally) as irredeemably tied to the capitalist economic system that drives our everyday lives. Church and faith culture so often fall into the traps of selling us a false scarcity, of perpetuating the need to belong “rightly,” which is usually to say “uniquely,” though the actual vision of the Kingdom is supposed to be universal. It seems, therefore, a little trite to think about how giving up your favorite soda is doing anything at all. But I suppose in an environment which says consuming is everything, not consuming is supposed to be something.

My cynicism stretches beyond the bounds of how others practice Lent. It’s in overdrive right now given the amplifying political spectacle at work. It won’t be a surprise to anyone who knows me—and shouldn’t be to anyone who reads me—that I’m a staunch Bernie Sanders supporter. I feel the bern. So when I’m constantly faced with arguments on why this particular candidate isn’t “electable,” all I want to scream is “Anyone is electable if you go elect them!” I’m in a struggle to deny what I know about the American political landscape and instead choose a vision of the future, a vision I believe Bernie and many others share, which emboldens communities to be better at being communal. I’m keeping my cynicism at bay so that I can carry on doing the work of seeking a compassionate way forward in this time and place in which I live.

In a way, it’s probably the most obvious Lenten observation I’ve made in years. For the first time in so long, I’m denying a part of myself in favor of the work all Christians are called to do, namely the work of building the Kingdom here on earth. So as long as I’m putting down the cynicism, maybe in the same way you put down chocolate[2], I guess I’m participating in a tradition I thought I’d left behind long ago. I’m preparing for a vision bigger than myself, bigger than one election or one person seeking an office, or even one movement which is trying to bring about specific change in a specific region. Rather, I’m looking toward a future in which all are lifted up as created ones, valued and cared for, a world inherited by the meek. It’s a resurrection vision, an Easter-people’s hope.

Take the offering of my cynicism, Lord. I’ll try to give it up as long as I can.

[1]: See what I did there? I’m rich in cynicism. Loaded.
[2]: Dammit. I did it again. Don’t take it personally, please.

Michael Marshall: Noise

For some background, you may want to read my two previous posts (1 and 2) about Michael Lee Marshal.

Narrative Power

In my post published January 22nd, I wrote that language had failed. Except that isn’t what has happened. Mike is dead and we are left with competing narratives: the injustice of Mike’s arrest, police brutality, what is “necessary,” the worth of black lives, homelessness as a social issue... So it goes.

This is how people make meaning in reaction to events and ultimately how they exert power.

Recently, I have found in myself a skepticism about my own thoughts. I don’t quite trust that my patterns of thought, prejudices, or reactions are really my own. I’m not saying there’s some other personality at work whispering in my mind. But I question whether my opinions about public events (especially events as fraught as Mike’s killing) are generated within me or whether I simply default to whatever narrative happens to have been convincing enough to gain power over me.

Of course, this is also a narrative I tell about myself.

Noise

Working with homeless folks, I’ve sometimes noticed and grown to suspect that speech is a distraction from true presence. In part this is because with people experiencing homelessness, you’ll often find yourself buffeted by a stream of words that frankly don’t make sense. I find myself nodding and smiling and thinking to myself “I don’t know what this guy is talking about.” I’ll look at the volunteers who work with me and we just sort of shrug and shake our heads. “Who knows?”

But other times, when I feel particularly grounded or, more often, when I’m just too tired to put on the stupid play of active listening, I have experienced a deeply spiritual connection with the person who is speaking. In these moments of revelation, speech becomes exactly what it is: noise. I wish I could explain the uncovered fullness of another person I’ve experienced in these moments, like the envelope containing the world has been opened for a moment to something cast just beside us, always there at hand but hidden by our narratives about how the world “really is,” but of course I can’t.

Opportunities for this kind of encounter with Mike are over. His narrative has ended. As a single individual, one must resist the tempting offer to take up the easy narratives offered by competing powers.

The truth is language really has failed. It failed before the sheriffs who killed Mike restrained him so brutally. No dumb narrative will bring him back to life. There is no justice for Mike, only silence. To claim anything else is to attempt to make meaning out of his meaningless death, and to use his story to wield power.

Snow Days

Humans are ridiculous. Fickle, impulsive, and nonsensical. Ridiculous.

And we’re aware of it, usually more than we’re even willing to admit. There’s nothing like a good snowstorm to make you assess the reality. I spent the past three days trapped at my house thanks to the momentous amounts of snow and ice moving through the South on its way to the coast. First, I must say that I recognize the privilege of having a home where I could stay warm, of having enough food in the house to outlast the weather and then some, of having a job that pays the money to have any and all of these things. Which is why I know it’s a ridiculous thing to have so desperately hoped for a few “snow days” on Thursday only to stoop—literally stoop, with some scrap metal for a makeshift ice scraper in an effort to free one of the cars, any car would do—to desparate measures in order to escape our driveway three days later. Our driveway, fully covered with a half-inch of ice underneath at least nine inches of snow. Our driveway, first my friend and excuse to miss work, then my nemesis.

I’m describing a familiar topic. In our modern world, we’re well-versed in the language of angst, of existential discomfort. Sometimes we couch the smaller episodes in sarcastic phrases like “first world problems,” which is problematic in its own way. Other times, we chalk it up to the natural human tendency to be dissatisfied, especially in an age where many of us in developed countries actually have the time to be bothered by too much down-time, by forced relaxation or minimal confinement.

In any case, even though I was not alone during the few days I was snowed in, it was so nice to get out Sunday night and have dinner with friends in a humming, busy restaurant. It was also just as nice to go home right after dinner and crawl in bed for a hard, fast sleep.

I wish I could explain this sense of unease. People much smarter than me have been at it for as long as humans have been critically thinking about their humanity, so I could just look to them. Or I could be content to accept my base introvertedness with its moments of manic need for group interaction, my occasional longing to be somewhere else just because its not where I currently am, my overall distrust of the big, open night sky tempered by my desire to be folded into its mystery.

I’m fickle, impulsive, and nonsensical. I’m ridiculous. I’m a human. Leave it to the smallest dose of cabin fever to remind me just how much.

Logan's Failure of Imagination

I have been trying to figure out more to say about Mike who was restrained by Denver Sheriffs and sent to the hospital where he would later die.

What I’ve written so far feels entirely too small. But the situation makes me feel small. The enormity of the mechanism that generates these incidents of injustice is impossible for me to comprehend. My imagination isn't good enough. I'm reduced to doing small things and writing small thoughts.

Words about sin, justice, homelessness, race, responsibility, and reconciliation feel like empty placeholders or feeble attempts at meaning-making. When language fails, what are we left with but to lie down and die or get up and keep going? For too many people, language has utterly failed. All but a very few get up and keep going.

Network Coffeehouse can be hard sometimes, but Mike always made me feel like I was doing good work, and doing it well, and that I could keep going.

Michael Lee Marshall

How much a dollar cost?

My friend, Mike, was recently killed by sheriff’s deputies at the Denver jail. “Homicide,” said the county coroner, which just means he didn’t kill himself, not that anyone did anything wrong.

Mike was picked up on suspicion of trespass and disorderly conduct and held on $100 bail. He had an incident with another inmate and was restrained. Choked on his own vomit. Suffered a heart attack. He lived until his family had him removed from life support.

If I was someone without experience with mentally ill, addicted, sometimes aggressive, often erratic people, I might think it wasn’t unreasonable for sheriff’s deputies to restrain Mike to the point where he died. Except I have weekly experience with people just like Mike. If I can resolve erratic, psychotic, drug-induced behaviors nonviolently, then a Denver sheriff’s deputy sure as shit can.

But on November 11th 2015, Mike’s life was worth less than a hundred dollars.

Merely Religion

I find it odd that certain Christian spiritualities preach a so-called “way of Jesus” that is supposed to be available to us outside of the context of religion. This “way” is almost always presented in contrast to “organized religion,” or “the Church,” or “institutionalized Christianity,” or simply “worship.” A Christianity lacking institution would be preferable—Christianity which is not instantiated but which is instead an airy "way of being."

Richard Rohr puts it this way in a meme I see shared often:

We worshiped Jesus instead of following him on his same path. We made Jesus into a mere religion instead of a journey toward union with God and everything else. This shift made us into a religion of ‘belonging and believing’ instead of a religion of transformation.”

There has been tension between the "religion of Jesus" and the "religion about Jesus" for about two millennia, give or take a few decades. Frankly, I think the religion of Jesus—informed as it was by second temple Judaism, the Pharisaic movement, and various charismatic movements (Essenes, etc)—is essentially inaccessible to us in the form proponents of the “way” would have us believe. As readers of the book, we get glimpses of the way Jesus lived, the way he called us to live, but only parabolically—in a thrown-to-the-side kind of way. Our access to the way of Jesus is glimpsed out of the corner of the eye, never grasped. Our spiritualities make attempts to gain focus, to polish the glass, but clear understanding is always experienced as a gift, as apokálypsis, as an uncovering, as revelation. To claim that these ways of seeking understanding are somehow irreligious is simply marketing jargon.

The religion about Jesus and the functional edifice of the capital 'C' Church is a technology for carrying (some would say defending) the message of the gospel and the story of Jesus' life. Rohr's "mere religion" is the vehicle through which the message of and about Christ has been carried through the millennia. Without it, the way of Jesus would not be available to us.

I take an Augustinian view of a church within the Church. People who hear the call toward discipleship and transformation comprise this spiritual body and press the wider Church to conform to the fullness of the gospel. We may argue for a way which seeks belonging and believing, or discipleship and transformation, or fear and faithing, but one way or the other we argue for a religion. Christianity must be instantiated. It must be represented, as God was in Jesus, by something with actual being which claims existence for itself. This is merely religion.

Advent Lament

It’s been a busy month for the cycle of awful, devastating news. A guy shoots up a Planned Parenthood. A couple shoots up an office party at a center for the disabled. A leading presidential candidate advocates for religious persecution. We have seen lots of hate. Lots of death. Lots of blood. Events happen before, the same day, and after that we don’t even hear about. We’ll see more.

It’s difficult, even as it makes a kind of sense, to see all this in the light of Advent, a season where we are waiting on the bringer of Peace. We wait in a darker world, hoping it gets lighter. Not only do we wait, we are active in our preparation. We have our role to play. But the weight of that role seems heavier when the shit, deep and horrifying, rests itself on our daily lives. How can we anticipate the new when the tragedy we see every day is anything but new? It’s old hat at this point.

Our society is used to seeing people die on the other end of a barrel. We are used to seeing hatred spread across the faces of our neighbors, an entrenched hatred for the other who is also our neighbor. We are caught in between feuds that, more often than not, only one party knows exists. This is the world in which we do Advent.

I am weary. I spend more time than most reading the words of, and interacting with, those who cannot agree with me on the pacifist nature of the Gospel. Over the years, my faith has taken large turns, some lovely, many tragic. It is unrecognizable from what it once was. I’m happy about that for the most part, but not for everything. Still, while much of what I felt I agreed with and understood about Christian life has left me, the commitment to non-violence has remained. Such a pity, then, that I should maintain this tenet in a world obsessed with violence. More the pity that I live in such a callously violent nation, especially one which so arrogantly touts its love of civility and lawfulness.

Things are dark in these Advent days. This is as it should be. The light of Emmanuel, God With Us, is not yet here. Oh, that it would be here. Oh, that people could see the gift that is our ability to lay down our swords for ploughshares. If only it were a world of our readying work, of our actions to bring about Love, Joy, Hope, and ultimately Peace. If only it were a world that kept the lamb close and let the lion roam. If only we remembered to continue the work on December 26th.

Peace. Peace. Peace be with you.

Thought and Prayer

Today there have been a lot people turning their ire at the "thoughts and prayers" platitudes that follow an American mass shooting event. It's the go-to phrase for politicians, who are forced to say something after a public event. Annoying.

But a lot of other people say "thoughts and prayers" too. Look, it's a formulation. The words, "My thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and families," don't really mean anything regarding the way they were originally arranged. For politicians it's like saying, "I acknowledge this event happened and will now engage in the appropriate way of saying so." For others "thoughts and prayers" means, "This event makes me sad," or, "Oh shit," or, "I wish this wouldn't have happened."

"Thoughts and prayers," as a phrase, does a bunch of heavy lifting we don't necessarily want to do in public. This is especially true when we're limited to 140 characters.

I don't get the ire. Living in a country as violent as the United States and railing against the phrase "thoughts and prayers" is like living next to a coal plant and shouting at the sky about air quality.

Anyway, quiet, contemplative, even conversational prayer is fine. Even good. Posting about it on social media doesn’t effect your reach, though. God don’t care about “likes” and RTs.

Lord, have mercy.

Trees

"Paris! Paris!" they shouted.
"Beirut, Beirut," some whispered.
"What can we do?" I asked.
"Bear the storm & seek the sun," said the trees.
"But Trees, do you not snap from the force of the storm?" I asked.
"Sometimes," they replied. "All the more reason to be rooted together."
"That is a wise thing, Trees. But what of the hurt? You lose so many," I said.
"The losing will always hurt. But the standing helps."
"That's also a wise thing, Trees, but hard to do."
"The world is a hard place. It is why we forest & grove together, making the soil soft."


I wrote this yesterday in pieces via Twitter. Sometimes, it’s easier to work out grief and tired frustration in tiny bits. I shared it with a few people, and it seemed to resonate. So I share it with you.

From Beirut to Paris to Yola (and minutes ago Kano, another Nigerian city), it’s easy to lose yourself in the emotional exhaustion. How, unless it is our loved one, do we keep up with grief in this world which seems so content to hand us so much? At some point, we just don’t. We accept the numbness to the violence, to the images of death and hate, and we live our lives as best we can knowing that we’re surrounding by terrible things that await just beyond the light of our tiny campfire.

Which is why I talk to trees about it. Or to the breeze or the stars should the trees be otherwise occupied. But the trees are the best listeners. They remind me that time is long, stretched to accommodate ring upon ring upon ring. That time is hard, hell-bent on stripping protective bark. That time is lonely, content to outlast the best and the worst of us until all our noise is the quietest quiet. We can learn a lot from the trees. I think we have to, lest we give in to our anxieties about how we can possibly make it in this hard world. And maybe some of us will give in. Some just do. But if we collect ourselves, grow ourselves collectively, then maybe it’ll be that much easier. Maybe we can love others when we can’t love anything else. Maybe they can do us the same kindness. Maybe. And then, maybe the world will be a place of trees again, which is a nice thought.

The Reactionary Christ

The Starbucks Christmas coffeecup fiasco:

Apparently there are no liberal or conservative Christians in America, only reactionary Christians. Without fail, when public awareness turns its gaze upon the next feast day of the Christian liturgical calendar (except Pentecost, because no one knows what it is), this or that wacky corner of American Christianity will complain about some such nonsense and then it is open season for the reactions.

As a friend put it recently, we are now encountering fourth-level meta reactions: “outrage about the outrage about the outrage.” Every year some piece of nothing is presented as the foundation for quickly building a moralistic platform out of plywood and glue. This year it is Starbucks’ stupid red cups. In response, the holy, morally pure objects of the True Meaning of Christmas are thrust into social media: foster children, refugees, homeless people, poor nations, real religious persecution, the environment, Syria, something about Advent. Never you mind that people spouting these moralist tropes have little to no actual encounter with any of the people they're talking about. Liberal reactionaries need only wait as their conservative brethren dutifully choose the outrage du jour for the season.

Worse, news outlets that pass along the story appear to be reporting on a phenomenon that has no existence outside of one man's viral video and the echoing likes and shares of the unthinking masses. The moderately liberal moralist response to these kinds of non-stories shows the utter lack of politics among liberals. Far from building a constructive political foundation addressing the realities of life in America, liberals are in a constant state of reaction—reacting even to essentially fabricated movements on the right. As for conservatives, their response to this liberal cacophony is to double down on a felt sense of persecution and injustice that allows these kinds of stories to flourish in the first place.

This would merely be a disappointing trifle if reactionary politics were not a hair's breadth from fundamentalist politics. The right and left feeding off each other in the way described above cannot help but devolve into feuding fundamentalisms, each spouting its own doctrinaire moralistic truisms and working to dehumanize and silence its opposition.

What is required is a politics of reconciliation and love wherein disparate individuals are encouraged to hold political tension together and work through problems based not on whatever common wisdom they bring to the table with them, but through encounter of each other and the world with eyes unburdened by fear, hatred, loss, and the will to power.

This is the politics of the cross.

To Hell with Civility

Trolls used to be a phenomenon relegated to the comments sections of the Internet, lurking there to call someone a name when they disagreed, construct a straw-man argument, be nasty for an unrelated reason, etc. The confidence to be an asshole to strangers was based in confidence afforded by anonymity. Did you know it’s super easy to be a jerk to someone when you're not face to face?[^1]

The evidence that the anonymity no longer matters is all around us. Look at Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Just the other day, Ben Carson chided the victims of a mass shooting because they didn’t do enough to stop from dying. Can you imagine somebody letting their idiot flag fly so proudly even just a few years ago? Donald Trump trolls a new group every week, so you can find your own examples there. These are just two. Just two. There are a multitude of other examples to show that civility, while needed and necessary, is a relic of our shared past.

I’m an editor by day. I write and edit web articles, and I moderate the comments that appear beneath them. This is to say that I’m acutely tuned in to how people talk to each other online, even on a site dedicated to faith. Some of it is done under the veil of semi-anonymous profiles, but some isn’t. Like the guy, using his real name, who condescendingly told me to “keep reading and studying” and to “please dig a little deeper before you write your next article” because he “expected better” of me as an editor. I don’t begrudge him his opinion, and—to his credit—he certainly could have been a lot nastier. Still, I think I’d have been happier being called a “libtard” than have someone speak down to me with such pomposity.

I’m not sure things were ever civil. Maybe that’s just a view of history tinted by nostalgia. But even if social interactions weren’t more civil, they were at least contained to local spheres through lack of technology. Now we hear what everyone thinks from every corner of the globe, and, in keeping with human form, a ton of it is utter nonsense.

I don’t know the answer. I don’t know what it’ll take for people to return (or get there the first time) to a sense of relationship to the person(s) they’re speaking to. Entering into relationship with someone is usually the best way to not treat them like garbage. That’s the empathy piece Matt was talking about. But until that plays a major role, our corrosive politicking (by which I mean the way we do all things social) will continue to be tiring for me as an individual and exhausting for our culture.

I don’t have a ton of hope for some glorious turnaround of these behaviors. This unpleasant way of talking to and relating to one another seems to be the new norm. None of this is to say that we can’t be passionate, that we can’t be bold about saying how we feel or what we believe or what we think needs to be done to take care of people and the world we share. But there has to be a healthier way to do that, right? Because if not, what’s the point of being the body politic at all?

And that’s the crux: maybe this idea of the body politic as a healthy, functioning entity is doomed, and the best we can hope for is some form of hospice care for it. That remains to be seen. In the mean time, I’ll step back, walk in the woods, be silent, and try to cultivate a small bubble of kindness that hopefully spreads to one neighbor, then two, then communally until I don’t feel like saying “to hell with civility” anymore.

[^1]: Louis CK talked to Conan about that once.

Kim Davis, Freedom of Conscience, and the American Tradition of Religious Pluralism

Kentucky county clerk Kim Davis has been in the news for refusing to issue marriage licenses to gay couples on the grounds that her religious beliefs forbid it. She has been jailed, national politicians have jumped to her defense, she has been both demonized and trumpeted as a hero. The pluralism of belief in the United States means that the place of religion in public life will always have the potential to be one of the most divisive topics in American politics.

In the documents that form the United States and in their own private lives and discourse, our Founders intended to establish a society where freedom of conscience reigned and no one would be subject to coercion in their beliefs by an official of the government. Because the U.S. is an increasingly religiously diverse nation, an authentic, ongoing, sharp-edged pluralistic discussion is a necessity if the unity of the United States is to be maintained and a just society is to be cultivated. Otherwise, our rhetoric will devolve into the vitriol we have seen surrounding Kim Davis and the gay marriage question in the last few weeks.

A Christian Nation?

Kim Davis, Mike Huckabee, and Ben Carson would not exactly see eye-to-eye with the Founders who made concrete their Enlightenment principles in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States, and the Bill of Rights. While the Founders certainly carved out a place for religion in America, they never gave credence to a specific religion.

A well-known document crafted by John Adams and the U.S. Senate puts this bluntly. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli. Specifically Article 11:

the government of the United States... is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.[^1]

President George Washington, for his part, was no Christian. According to Brooke Allen, on his deathbed Washington did not speak of heaven or ask for a minister to preside over his death. Rather, "his last act was to take his own pulse, the consummate gesture of a creature of the age of scientific rationalism."[^2]

Other Founders went to greater lengths to impose their rationalism on the world. Thomas Jefferson founded the University of Virginia with no religious affiliation, and "even banned the teaching of theology at the school."[^3] It is well-known that Jefferson edited his own version of the New Testament, which he called "The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth." Jefferson carefully deleted (literally cut out of the Bible with a scalpel) any miraculous passage of the Gospels that did not conform to Jefferson's understanding of reason.

These three examples don't cover the entire body of men who shaped the beginnings of the United States,[^4] but they represent a sample of the kinds of sentiments that operated among men of their standing and generation. For the Founders, the main concern about religion was that the new nation be free from bondage to its rule. With this concern, the Founders established a possibility for pluralism and laid the groundwork for the great flourishing of religion we see today.

The Founders understood that the power afforded the banner of religion by its adherents could be a corrupting agent in government. They knew that governmental power and religious power combined could be catastrophic to the new nation. They sought to mitigate the threat to individual freedom posed by the confluence of religion and government.

In the person of Kim Davis, we can see the outcome when government power and religious doctrine meet. In her power as a clerk in Rowan County, Kentucky, Kim Davis has unilaterally limited the constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of her fellow citizens based on her religious beliefs alone.

There is an overwhelming feeling in the United States that the country will tear itself apart over issues of religious diversity, including secularism. However, according to John Meacham “history suggests… that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.”[^5] The question is why, even with all of the challenges presented by a society like the United States, the Union still stands.

The Founders knew this would be a divisive issue for their new nation. Their solution was to separate the state from the power of religion and religion from the power of the state. These separations were grounded in freedom of conscience.

Freedom of Conscience

What does freedom of conscience mean? Basically what we’re talking about here is freedom from external coercion directed by the government. However, it cannot mean that individualism and total self-sovereignty reign. That is the way being tested by Kim Davis and her supporters.

If freedom of conscience is to flourish, it must be based first on respect—perhaps even love—between individuals, and it must be guarded by the government. Freedom of conscience, guaranteed by America’s framing documents, promises something deeper than freedom to act, speak, and assemble; it promises that the right to think freely will be defended by the government, as long as citizens respect each other.

The Founders did not seek to separate “faith and politics” or “religion and public life.” No. They sought to separate the institutions of religion and government. Separating the public spheres of religion and government was not about secularizing society, it was about “protecting conscience by insisting on clear institutional boundaries.”[^6] Personal faith could inform politics, private religion could be manifest in public life, and how an individual chose to exercise her religion was her own business. But faith itself “should not be singled out for special help or particular harm” among private citizens.[^7]

In a nation as diverse as the United States, the government and its officers have a responsibility to the free thought of every individual under the government’s power. Importantly, the Constitution’s religion clauses exist not only to protect doctrinaire believers, but to “protect the right of religious dissenters.”[^8] For the Founders, the greatest sin was to impinge upon another human being’s freedom of thought and ability to choose. Here the reader may herself connect the issue of “religious dissenters'” rights being impinged upon to the actions taken by Kim Davis’.

For Americans, the way forward is paved by freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution and in respect for one another. For Christians, the way forward is paved by love of neighbor grounded in Christ and in freedom of conscience grounded in the Constitution.

Pluralism

”Freedom of conscience is, in a sense, the reason for pluralism and also the appropriate and just response to pluralism.”[^9]

Pluralism is forever an attempt. The point of pluralism is not to achieve perfect agreement on all matters and tastes. Pluralism is not the savior of society; it will not fix all ills or erase sin from the world. What pluralism does do is aim at achieving relationship. Only if we openly, respectfully disagree can we come to understand our disagreements and begin to find common ground. The Founders knew this and so built freedom of conscience into the Constitution through separation of church and state, providing the foundation of plurality itself.

This is all well and good, but if the discussion of who we are devolves from respectful dialogue to angry muttering, idealistic positivism (as in the Kim Davis case), or outright violence, then we should begin to worry.

A generation of pluralism is not enough. A commitment to religious literacy, respect, understanding, and the responsibility of citizens to teach their children the way of pluralism is required. For Christians, pluralism means dedication to Jesus' command, “You shall love your neighbor.” American Christians should be the champions of pluralism. It is time that we worry less about politics and more about love. Building a perfect society is an unattainable goal. We will not save ourselves from sin. But pluralism grounded in freedom of conscience and love of neighbor grounded in Christ are steps toward a society that cherishes justice for all.

The Anger and Outrage

We’ve devoted space here on The Beard to the subject of outrage, to the increasing acceptance of wasted or misplaced emotion boiling over and making no tangible difference whatsoever. But since it’s still a major part of our modern social reality, and it seems like it’ll continue to be, there’s still something to be said when this outrage modifies, or even directs, the major events we witness.

I do my own share, of course. I like to believe it’s all righteous anger. In some cases, it is. I’m angry that Kim Davis is some twisted Christian anti-hero. I’m angry that I still get comments on my recent gun article that are tragically misinformed and, in some cases, so unintelligent that it’s legitimately scary. I’m angry that “all lives matter” is a thing. Still.

These, I like to believe, are examples of righteous anger, upset born from witnessing injustice toward and hatred for beings of worth. But I’m also guilty of indulging my own form of worthless outrage, outrage done for its own sake. I get riled up by what certain politicians say, even when I know they’re saying it to get a rise. Or maybe they actually believe the stupid thing they’re saying; either way, it’s predictable, boring even at this point, and it’s not something I should spend energy hating.[^1]

But this isn’t the real problem. I can parse out these moments of faux upset and make myself think carefully about why I’m mad when Mike Huckabee is a moron. He’s a moron; why be mad when he acts like it? The real issue is when my legitimate anger bleeds beyond the boundaries of righteousness and becomes a caricature of itself. Anger, in that situation, is the singular tool that I let take over and run the entire machine.

You can make progress that way, but it’s unsustainable. Emotionally, it’s draining. Intellectually, it’s unstable. Spiritually, it’s dangerous. Anger has to transition at some point. And really, it can’t be the initial driver anyway. Righteous anger has to arise from love first; it’s not righteous otherwise. Love for what matters is the origin for our rage when what matters is threatened. If we do not love, our reaction will be indifference. Really, that’s what makes faux outrage so terrible; it’s indifference masked as emotion, aimed at something to elicit personal gain. All this is to say that starting from a place of love is threatened by not returning to love.

What does that mean practically? It means that even the most righteous of causes can be corrupted by our outrage over harm to those causes, over ill-will others have for them. Instead, we must harness our outrage and employ it as a catalyst to spark the engine that sets us moving. If we do not, that spark can become a fire beyond our control. The righteousness of anger can only be marked by its fruits, by how we put it aside in favor of working for the betterment of who or what we felt anger for.

So I get to be angry that Kim Davis thinks that her brand of faith trumps the inclusive nature of God. I get to be angry that a bunch of people agree with her. That anger can spur me to think and act in ways that address the issue. But if I don’t let that anger recede back into the love for the humanity of others from which it comes, then I can’t live or act in ways that express that love. And if I’m not doing that, I’m no better than the crowd, waving cardboard crosses and rallying around their collective, beloved fear.

[^1]: I mean, I’m gonna do it though.