Regenerative Spaces

3 05 2018

“The [Civilian Conservation Corp] was, as this passage illustrates, vastly more popular than the [Federal Transient Program], and in existence much longer (until 1943), enrolling approximately 2.5 million while the FTP probably provided services to less than 500,000 during its life span. Still, the two programs were enough alike that historian Todd Depastino could refer to them together as ‘zones of regeneration for defeated white men’”

Excerpt From: Margot Canaday. “The Straight State.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/the-straight-state/id731583530?mt=11

Since reading the phrase earlier this week, I cannot get it out of my mind. Zones of Regeneration. And, in particular, zones of regeneration for white men. And even more specifically: defeated white men.

The zones that fill this role today in some cases look just like they and in some they look very different than the ones of the Great Depression nearly a century ago. Today they still look like Fortune 500 CEOs, halls of political decision-making, and the heroes of history; today that may also look like subreddits, craft beers, fantasy sports, and the Republican Party. It is unwise of anyone who seeks to combat racist patriarchy to underestimate the siren song of these zones of regeneration in this day and age of rapid social change thanks to technology and demography. Unwise, but understandable. To those who have not had access to public regeneration zones, their diversification is nothing short of salvific. But to those who have had sole access to them, and who have been able to determine the extent of said access, their democratization is nothing short of damnation.

These zones can take many forms, and those forms are typically quite agile depending on the era and the locus of social power. Weed is proving to be a cutting edge where people of color, who have suffered decades of disproportionate criminalization for commensurate drug use/dealing as white people, remain under the penal thumb while white entrepreneurs strike out into the exciting frontier of legalized weed (cf. John Boehner). Political agency is an historical example, with voting being a particularly salient form. The franchise was, in America, the domain of white, land-owning, men. To this day, voting rights remains a curious (not really) quagmire of civil rights in a country that proclaims itself as the beacon on a hill when it comes to liberty. But when you apply this metaphor, it becomes readily apparent that the polling station is a zone of regeneration white men (white women are not far behind, to be fair) have been reluctant to share.

Move through time and space, history and geography, and you’ll find zones of regeneration as nimble as the social power that imbues them. The rise of Tech Bros and Bernie Bros precipitating/coinciding with the rise of Trump is no accident. The whitelash after Obama’s terms were up is no accident. The All Lives Matter response to Black Lives Matter is no accident. The success of Parkland students in catapulting gun control to national discourse is no accident. Each of these come out of zones of regeneration that feel under siege.

A person of color that threatens to be regenerated by an otherwise-white space is beset by microaggressions. Their otherness is made hyper-salient because their rejuvenation is not expected, desired, nor designed for the space. To be honest, this conception of space has given me the greatest appreciation for the otherwise-useless (to me) phrase of “create space.” I shall endeavor, henceforth, to hear “create space” as “create a zone of regeneration” to see if that helps.

It is a form of justice to observe, identify, name a public exclusive zone of regeneration. It is a form of oppression to observe, appropriate, and own a personal zone of regeneration. And yes, the very definitions of which is which are appropriated and owned by those in power. Therefore, the tech bros in San Francisco who develop an app to determine who can play soccer at what time are appropriative and capitalistic (http://valleywag.gawker.com/dropbox-douchebags-tried-to-kick-children-off-a-soccer-1644947724) whereas the smash-hit Hamilton is justice rooted in historiography, hip-hop, and people of color (https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2016/03/hamilton-casting/476247/).

Regeneration is a fundamental need of every living creature. How one goes about it will differ immensely based on genetics, disposition, culture, and circumstance. But, as time passes, and a society determines various regenerative zones as exclusively available to its preferred and privileged, then it becomes incumbent upon that society to break those zones open. Regeneration cannot be allowed only for those who can afford or access it. And it certainly cannot become a means of denigration wherein those who are unable to regenerate in the same way/place, or who are prevented from regenerating at all, or who are not told they are worthy of regeneration, are therefore less worthy.

How to work against all of this?

It isn’t easy. It means taking a hard look at the places, means, and people that regenerate you and wonder, “Who isn’t allowed?” And when ugly answers arise, it requires pushing until enough shifts occur that different answers arise. This may require you making friends uncomfortable, forsaking a beloved means of regeneration, or giving up future opportunities otherwise available to you. But, when you do, you do so knowing full well that such those friends, regenerative means, and opportunities were all a product of your privilege (aka access to exclusive zones of regeneration).

Hell, I play the game Clash of Clans on my iPhone pretty much every day. And with some frequency, someone says something racist or sexist in the chat of the clan I’m in. Every clan I’m ever in, really. I could let it slide. I could not jeopardize my standing in the group. I could meld into the background of silent acquiescence. But that would then make this stupidly insignificant clan of a silly iOS game a zone of regeneration for the racist patriarchy. I’d rather it be a zone for everyone. And so, when I didn’t call a racist out yesterday and instead passive-aggressively just reported them (which does nothing, to be honest) I regrettably contributed to a zone of regeneration for racists. That sounds bad, and I hate it.

If this sounds exhausting to deal with, welcome to being outside the zone of regeneration, where people of color, LGBTQI, women, non-Christians, and so many more people are forced to exist. And, to be frank, where allies of any and all of those populations must live. That you might have to call out people constantly, and constantly debate whether doing so is worth it *this time*, and consistently doing the complicated calculus of safety vs. dignity, and forever gauging if a new person in your life will pass the threshold you’ve developed are just facts of life when zones of regeneration are not made available to you on a regular basis. That you develop entire new words, cultural markers, music styles, religious frameworks, and more to forge zones of regeneration in an otherwise hostile environment are simply required acts of survival.

And yet, those with free and easy access to the socially-sanctioned zones of regeneration will see such acts as subversive. They will see all of the critique around words used, places sanctified, times memorialized, and people celebrated as stupid “political correctness.” And, ultimately, if they find their previous way of life overcome nonetheless, they will simply create new zones (see the aforementioned situation around marijuana) or dig-in to more vociferously defend the ones that remain (see the Second Amendment).

You, dear reader, deserve to be regenerated without regard for your social circumstance, physical ability, mental capacity, spiritual disposition, sexual orientation, or economic means. That any of those, or other categories, lead you to be excluded is a function of those on the inside perceiving a sense of scarcity about that which is, ironically, in abundance: regeneration.

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Weaponized Theology

25 03 2018

While there are books upon books written about the confluence of American religion and American politics, a phrase that piques my ire is any variation of “Owning a gun is my God-given right.” Since the Constitution makes no reference to divine bestowal of the rights enumerated therein, this sentiment must be referring to the Declaration of Independence. Since that document, dramatic and inspiring though it may, has no legal weight when it comes to the rights legally protected by the Constitution, it means that the American penchant for conflating nationalism and divine providence is once again rearing its ugly head.

Misguided theopolitics aside, it did make me want to take a stroll through the Bible to take a look at passages that speak to the role of weaponry in God’s vision for the world. This will not be exhaustive nor systematic. Instead, significant, scriptural touchstones serve as waypoints on a sojourn through weaponized theology.

Violence, drawing upon Hannah Arendt, is the use of instruments to amplify/multiply one’s strength. And violence is a very complicated subject within the Bible, with the Bible coming out looking pretty rough in numerous places. But if we, for a moment, set aside the dramatic, terrible stories of violence, is there any time and/or place where divine opinion is given on weapons? In other words, I am more interested in the theology of the donkey jawbone rather than of Samson’s killing a thousand men with it. The latter may inform the former, but that is secondary.

Let’s start with Genesis.

It seems worth noting, at the outset, that the famous murder of Genesis 4 makes no mention of a weapon. While this may seem to play into the infinitely stupid rallying cry of “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people,” it more importantly escalates the Biblical narrative from mere disobedience introducing death into Eden to murder just east of Eden. This is a telling and scary anthropological statement. But we find no divine guidance with respect to weaponry.

Just before that fratricidal story, in Genesis 3:24, we find what appears to be the introduction of the first weapon in all of creation: “After God drove [Adam and Eve] out, God placed on the east side of the Garden of Eden cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth to guard the way to the tree of life.” In my personal devotions of late, I have taken particular interest in the lack of etiology for so many things in the Bible; it is remarkable how much knowledge the Bible presumes on the part of its characters, let alone its readers. This is a prime example. What is a sword? And not just a sword, but a flaming one! God felt it necessary to ward any- and everyone away from the tree of life with an enflamed blade. Also note, cherubim are also stationed there. The weapon is not alone in guarding the tree of life. Also note, it is described as actively “flashing back and forth.” It is not concealed nor sheathed. And, most importantly, the very first weapon of creation protects the tree of life. This is not the same tree from which Eve took the famous fruit. The tree of life would allow anyone eating its fruit to live forever. To put it bluntly, weaponry’s sole purpose is to keep humanity from the Garden of Eden, from the ideal state of creation, from life eternal.

Moving onto Exodus 5: 1 – 3.

Afterward Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and said, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the wilderness.’”

Pharaoh said, “Who is the Lord, that I should obey him and let Israel go? I do not know the Lord and I will not let Israel go.”

Then they said, “The God of the Hebrews has met with us. Now let us take a three-day journey into the wilderness to offer sacrifices to the Lord our God, or he may strike us with plagues or with the sword.”

The dramatic return of Moses to the royal family is one that apotheosizes the newly-discovered differences between Pharaoh and God’s chosen messengers. Moses and Aaron open by giving voice to God specifically and Pharaoh demands to know whence the authority of this Israelite God. Disturbingly, Moses and Aaron indicate that God has need of sacrifice and, should this not happen, then they may be struck down with plagues or with the sword. The narrative tells us Moses and Aaron are giving us God’s wishes verbatim. Thus, when they tell us the consequences of not fulfilling God’s wishes, they are granted the same weight. This frames weaponry as divine punishment for unfaithful behavior. More to the point, Moses and Aaron imply that the very reason Pharaoh should listen is because God will use weaponry to punish them. In other words, Moses and Aaron seem to be attempting to provoke empathy rather than displaying power. “Our God will kill us with weapons if we do not do what is required.” Weaponry is, once again, utterly antithetical to life. This also further establishes the use of weaponry is divine response to humanity’s disobedience.

Later on, in Exodus 22: 22 – 24, we have this:

“Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless.”

A couple chapters before, it is established that this is God speaking directly. This means that the first-person language is God referring to God’s self (autotheology should be an area of study; probably exists and probably has a better name). Once again, God threatens the use of a weapon as a consequence of disobedience. Unlike the previous examples, this is a remarkably direct and personalized threat with a weapon. Any time someone casts aspersions at the Quran for being inherently violent, passages like this come to mind. Well, this and the whole bit about splinters and logs in eyes.

The other piece that fascinates me about this passage is what drives God to raise the stakes: taking advantage of widows and orphans. In other words, abusing marginalized populations in your community is not only against God’s desires but makes God so angry, that God will personally kill you with a weapon.

The last note on this passage is how gendered it is, which is telling given the level to which it raises weaponized theology. Weapons, violence, and (dis)obedience is the realm of men. Loss, dependence, and passivity is the realm of women. These correlations are not incidental.

The famous story of the Golden Calf, specifically Exodus 32: 27 – 28, is our next stop:

Then [Moses] said to [the Levites], “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘Each man strap a sword to his side. Go back and forth through the camp from one end to the other, each killing his brother and friend and neighbor.’” The Levites did as Moses commanded, and that day about three thousand of the people died.

Curiously, despite the narrative detailing entire conversations between God and Moses, God never says what Moses attributes here. Literalists will have no trouble with this as Scripture doesn’t necessarily record every single thing spoken by God or the prophets, but it is remarkable nonetheless. Especially given that at the end of the chapter, the method of punishment God chooses is a plague rather than death by a sword.

To the point of this scriptural stroll, here we have our first actualization of divine displeasure with the use of a weapon. Heretofore, it’s been a threat. Now, we see death come from God’s ordained use of weaponry. While I am less interested in the violent acts themselves, it is noteworthy that unarmed Cain killed one while armed Levites killed thousands.

The jump to Leviticus gives us a taste of the other side of the coin. Consider Leviticus 26: 6 – 8:

“‘I will grant peace in the land, and you will lie down and no one will make you afraid. I will remove wild beasts from the land, and the sword will not pass through your country. You will pursue your enemies, and they will fall by the sword before you. Five of you will chase a hundred, and a hundred of you will chase ten thousand, and your enemies will fall by the sword before you.”

Here, God is personally and specifically describing what will come if “you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands” (v. 3). And so, the circle appears complete. Disobedience is met with weaponry; obedience is met with a lack of it. The “pursuit” of one’s enemies suggests that an obedient servant of God will never be on the defensive in their own land. They will, instead, chase their enemies (i.e. expand their territory) and kill by the tens of thousands. Note how the number of deaths continues to increase.

There are countless instances of references to weaponry after that Leviticus passage, but they retread familiar ground. Sometimes more intense (see Deuteronomy 32: 39 – 47 and Judges 8: 10), but they continue the main theme we’ve discovered: weapons are antithetical to life and punishment for disobedience. Then we come to Samuel 13: 16 – 22.

Saul and his son Jonathan and the men with them were staying in Gibeah in Benjamin, while the Philistines camped at Mikmash. Raiding parties went out from the Philistine camp in three detachments. One turned toward Ophrah in the vicinity of Shual, another toward Beth Horon, and the third toward the borderland overlooking the Valley of Zeboyim facing the wilderness.

Not a blacksmith could be found in the whole land of Israel, because the Philistines had said, “Otherwise the Hebrews will make swords or spears!” So all Israel went down to the Philistines to have their plow points, mattocks, axes and sickles sharpened. The price was two-thirds of a shekel for sharpening plow points and mattocks, and a third of a shekel for sharpening forks and axes and for repointing goads.

So on the day of the battle not a soldier with Saul and Jonathan had a sword or spear in his hand; only Saul and his son Jonathan had them.

I highlight this passage for one reason only, and cannot dwell on it since it isn’t weaponized theology: weapons associated with self-defense and self-determination is a strong challenge to the themes we have seen so far. Certainly previous passages referred to various armies attacking and defending with weapons, but here we have a disarmed population converting tools into weapons for the sake of fighting their oppressors. Since the right to bear arms has ever been a highly racialized and gendered right in the US, I cannot gloss over this passage without acknowledging this biblical justification for oppressed populations crafting weapons for themselves.

Only a little later on do we come to the famous story of David and Goliath in Samuel 17. Our attention is on verses 45 – 47:

David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

The book of Samuel gives us another major reversal, but one that fits much more in our in line of inquiry. Verse 45 flips everything on its head. God doesn’t use weapons. God IS the Weapon. This is weaponized theology par excellence. Likewise, David says that God doesn’t save by weaponry. It cannot be overstated how huge this shift is. Weapons bar the way to life and they are not the means of salvation. If God is the Weapon, what manner of weapon is God? David still couches this revelation in martial language, so it appears God-as-Weapon isn’t all that different. But we must not forget that at this point in the biblical narrative, the Israelites are an occupied, defeated people.

Many, many references through numerous books trace the pre-Samuel themes we have discussed. Kings and Chronicles, for example, constantly refer to people being “put to the sword” or its ilk. Those acts of violence do not help us in our task, but when we reach a most famous passage in Isaiah (2: 4), we resume our analysis:

He will judge between the nations
    and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
    and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
    nor will they train for war anymore.

A famous, prophetic vision of the future is, in fact, a recollection of what came before. This is the fundamental nature of Hope: it is a memory of the future. The Garden of Eden, the that was and the one to come, contains no weapons. I will say it again, weapons are antithetical to life. This passage gives us a powerful contrast to Samuel 13. There we saw tools made into weapons whereas here we imagine weapons made into tools. Samuel’s powerful revelations will return later in our considerations, but any consideration of the role of weaponry in one’s theology cannot escape Isaiah’s powerful vision.

After bypassing another slough of remarkably similar weapon-references, we come to Joel 3: 9 – 11:

Proclaim this among the nations:
    Prepare for war!
Rouse the warriors!
    Let all the fighting men draw near and attack.
Beat your plowshares into swords
    and your pruning hooks into spears.
Let the weakling say,
    “I am strong!”
Come quickly, all you nations from every side,
    and assemble there.

Once again, a nation scattered and occupied provokes God to offer the opposite vision of Isaiah. However, where Isaiah describes an idealized future state, Joel describes a very concrete response to lived experience (see verses 1 – 8). God’s call to convert tools of agriculture and harvest into weapons of war and death is once again in response to God’s people being threatened.

Our analysis becomes more interesting without making more than a perfunctory acknowledgement that we’re moving into the New Testament. Jesus in the Gospels as the Incarnated Word of God, but this does not suggest some discontinuity in the themes we’re exploring. Matthew 10: 34 – 36 is where we pick up:

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn “‘a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’”

This iconic passage is surrounded by Jesus demanding elevation of himself, as God’s Son, above things like reputation or even terrestrial family bonds. A commitment to God can cause conflict. Jesus reminds his listeners that conflict is not antithetical to the divine enterprise, but rather can be a consequence of it. It is worth noting that while Jesus is the Incarnation of God, he speaks of a weapon as external to himself. Jesus does not say, “I did not come to bring peace, I am a sword.” This eternalizing of the weapon stands in contrast to David’s weaponizing God in Samuel.

Later, in Matthew 26: 52 – 54, another famous scene takes place:

“Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”

Here, Jesus directly rebukes the use of a weapon and, in fact, places the use of a weapon in direct opposition to the fulfillment of Scripture. God’s Incarnated plan is not effected through the use of weapons. Notably, Jesus does not one-up the use of the sword by referencing a bigger, badder weapon of God but rather through legions of angels coming to his aid. To be fair, numerous references to angels involve them being armed with swords, so perhaps his listeners would infer them being armed (not to mention “legion” being a Roman military term).

Without delving into the Synoptic Gospel idiosyncrasies, in Luke 22: 35 – 38 we get context for the violent clash between Jesus’ followers and Jesus’ arrestors:

Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?”

“Nothing,” they answered.

He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one. It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors’; and I tell you that this must be fulfilled in me. Yes, what is written about me is reaching its fulfillment.”

The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.”

“That’s enough!” he replied.

This scene, absent in Matthew’s Gospel, gives Luke’s reader a sense of where the swords came from. And not only that, there is a clear directive from Jesus to purchase weapons, though apparently two are sufficient. However, Luke also narrates Jesus being against the use of the swords during his arrest. So why encourage their purchase? Jesus says it himself: “It is written: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’” Jesus had been pegged a rebellious figure; what better way to provoke his antagonists than to be surrounded by armed followers? A transgressive act prompts the Roman collaborators to catalyze events Jesus has foreshadowed countless times. In essence, Jesus converts the weapon of the enemies to his own purposes. It other words, swords are beaten into plowshares.

We will return to the Gospels at our conclusion, but let us move on to a dangerous development in weaponized theology found in Romans 13: 1 – 5:

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and you will be commended. For the one in authority is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for rulers do not bear the sword for no reason. They are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

One of the most pernicious Scriptures in history given its application to promote injustice, subdue its resistance, and perpetuate an unjust status quo. For our purposes, this passage shifts God’s power to institutions. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily novel for God did similarly through the institutions of the Israelites, but this passage is devoid of tribal reference. Paul’s letter to the church in Rome sanitizes God’s kingmaking so that anyone in power can take advantage of it. And that authority is notably armed, for the sake of punishment, which implies that what once was God’s domain — weaponized punishment for disobedience — has been delegated. In a country with militarized police, that was born out of state-sanctioned genocide and slavery, this passage offers terrible, divine justification.

Moving to Ephesians 6: 14 – 17:

Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

This only requires a cursory connection to our Samuel passage wherein God is the Weapon. Here, we have the word of God, which is Jesus, described as the sword of the Spirit. Jesus is also now identified as the Weapon.

Which brings us to our conclusion, as the rest of the New Testament makes use of weaponry in much the same way. The strongest through line is that weaponized theology is the antithesis of life, to punish disobedience, and is not in line with the purposes of God Incarnate. This is illustrated throughout the passages that describe God’s use of weapons to punish the disobedient or reward the obedient. However, when this is turned inside out and flipped on its head, as was done first in Samuel, then the Weapon takes on a different character. When God is the Weapon, we must understand its nature. And this is where we return to Samuel, Ephesians, and, ultimately, the Cross.

The crucifix was a weapon. It was a tool of violence for the Roman Empire to punish those who disobeyed the State. Jesus Christ was crucified on a cross, thus a victim of state-sanctioned violence, handed over by his own, oppressed and colonized people because he obeyed God’s commands. Not that God commanded Jesus to die, but rather by truly embodying God’s will, earthly powers reacted lethally. What we have is perhaps the most powerful weapon of the State versus the most powerful Weapon of the created order. Jesus Christ, who came not to bring peace but the sword, is put to death for obeying God and disobeying the Empire. This is yet another inversion wherein disobedience does in fact bring death by weapon, but this was not God’s desire nor is it aligned with God’s purposes. And it therefore does not have the final word.

In John, the dead body of Jesus is pierced by a spear, another weapon engaged in the work of death, but that act is subsumed into a larger, prophetic purpose. Since weapons are antithetical to life, nor are weapons the means through which God’s purposes are achieved, the Empire’s methods are no match for Life Everlasting, the Prince of Peace, and Love Incarnate. Likewise, efforts to maintain weaponry when one is in power, to use implements of violence to maintain control, or to weaponize divine authority via human institutions are all ultimately doomed to failure. The way back to the Garden of Eden is blocked by a weapon. Primitivistic and regressive approaches to faith are the way of death. It is only by looking forward, filled with Hope, that we can remember what is to come of the weapon for we have seen what happened to the Weapon: swords beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and God surveying creation and once again seeing that is good.





Video Game Design, a Metaphor for Whiteness

6 01 2018

One of the most popular and critically-acclaimed computer games of all time is Half-Life 2. Without delving into the details overmuch, it’s a first-person shooter that immerses the player in a dystopia where aliens reign and humanity is in a state of resistance. The protagonist the player controls is Gordon Freeman who uses various weapons, vehicles, and objects to overcome adversaries and puzzles. The game, developed by Valve and released in 2004, was given “Best Game of the Year” accolades numerous times, named “Best Game of the Decade” by some, and continues to hold immense cultural cachet within the gaming world.

Gordon Freeman, the playable protagonist, pictured next to Alyx Vance, an unplayable resistance fighter.

While I personally have never been able to finish the game due to losing interest in the genre after a time, this is no fault of the game itself. The storytelling and mechanics are top-notch and deeply satisfying. In fact, one of the elements of the game that delights me the most is its level design. It never fails to impress with its ability to create a linear gameplay experience without actually making me feel forced to follow a particular route.

For a nice walkthrough of what I mean, in a very limited sense, watch the video below from where I cued it to start until the 18:10 mark.

As you can see, there are countless design decisions that create this immersive experience. But, for my purpose today, the main design element that captures my imagination and attention is the crafted barriers and interactions that guide the player along a particular route. As the video above references, this is a game-design decision. Some games make levels that are entirely non-linear (think of open-world games like World of Warcraft or Skyrim) whereas others are totally linear (e.g. classic side-scrollers like Mario Brothers, or rail-shooters like Time Crisis). In every instance, the player is given tasks and challenges that make narrative progression contingent upon their decisions and actions. In fact, the greatest illusion of these games, especially the least linear among them, is to give the player a sense of autonomy and freedom despite the opposite being the case. The locations, choices, interactive items, visible objects, dialogue options, everything is crafted. Playing an evil character in an RPG is the result of making “evil” choices at prefabricated decision points, just as completing a challenging puzzle to get to the next level is the result of using tools provided to overcome it. Even a game like Minecraft that lets players create things the game otherwise doesn’t provide is still predicated on tools, resources, and systems that are provided (including the “recipes” or “blueprints” or “templates” of permissible creations). The problem and the solution are both provided before the player loads the game. One measure of game quality is in how organically or cleverly the game presents player(s) with moral decisions, skill challenges, or problem solutions. In more recent gaming trends, with open-world crafting games on the ascendency, this is taken to a new level where obstacles can be as simple as getting food and water while players determine their own goals. They could build grand structures, collect items/creatures, fight enemies (including other players), etc. It imbues the player with a sense of power over their experience, but clearly this is very much mediated and mitigated.

It is with this lens that we then try and understand whiteness a bit more. We have to rely on these metaphors and abstractions because otherwise we are as fish trying to understand wetness. And, as with all metaphors or analogies, this will not cover all aspects, will fall apart when stretched (and in fact, will likely sound overly-deterministic), and will contain my idiosyncratic blindspots. My hope is that it illuminates the pervasive power and influence of whiteness just a bit more.

I was taught the popular folktale of racism: that ignorant and hateful people had produced racist ideas, and that these racist people had instituted racist policies. But when I learned the motives behind the production of many of America’s most influentially racist ideas, it became quite obvious that this folktale, though sensible, was not based on a firm footing of historical evidence. Ignorance/hate -> racist ideas -> discrimination: this causal relationship is largely ahistorical. It has actually been the inverse relationship — racial discrimination led to racist ideas which led to ignorance and hate. Racial discrimination -> racist ideas -> ignorance/hate: this is the causal relationship driving America’s history of race relations.

Excerpt From: Ibram X. Kendi. “Stamped from the Beginning.” iBooks. https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/stamped-from-the-beginning/id1209968742?mt=11

Whiteness functions like a well-designed video game level. Not that racism, race dynamics in society, or racial history are frivolous, which games are often thought to be (spoiler: they’re not). But that locations, choices, interactive items, visible objects, dialogue options, everything is crafted. Playing a rebellious character in white society is the result of making “rebellious” choices within prefabricated decision points, just as completing a challenging life-event to move to another phase is the result using the tools provided (by whiteness) to overcome it. The problems and solutions are both provided before a white person is even born. One measure of white supremacy is how organically or cleverly white society presents white people with moral decisions, skill challenges, and problem solutions. In more recent social trends, this is taken to a new level where obstacles can be as simple as Black people kneeling and mattering while white people (continue to) determine their life’s goals. They could build huge companies, get as much money as possible, crusade against social evils (including minorities), etc. It imbues white people with a sense of power over their experience, but clearly this is very much mediated and mitigated.

For example, Brown v. Board found separate public schools for black and white students to be unconstitutional. The separation of black and white students was a solution in the wake of Plessy v. Ferguson, a SCOTUS case that declared separate-but-equal to be constitutional. That, itself, was a result of the Civil War. So on and so on back it goes, but let’s now look from Brown v. Board forward. In Arkansas, the governor used the National Guard to prevent integration of Little Rock Central High School. President Eisenhower used the Army (without its black soldiers) to force integration. Drama followed integration across the country, but racial inequality persists in education to this day. In this most recent Presidential election, Bernie Sanders added an immensely popular education plank to his platform: tuition-free college (Hillary Clinton later brought out her own debt-free, rather than tuition-free, plan, but we’ll focus on Sanders’ for numerous reasons). Later, after his election, Donald Trump appointed Betsy DeVos as his Secretary of Education – a strong proponent of school vouchers.

These are both solutions for a problem crafted by whiteness. Consider this excerpt from Slavery By Another Name:

Whites had chafed at the notion of black education as long as Africans had been imported to the United States. Instruction of slaves was illegal in the antebellum South. After emancipation, government-collected property taxes were used to open new schools for all children. Whites gawked at the schools opened for blacks during Reconstruction — even the crude one-teacher variations that predominated in the region. Per pupil spending on education for black children and white children was essentially identical, leading to wide resentment among whites — especially in the cotton plantation regions where whites owned the vast majority of land and paid nearly all the taxes, but were enormously outnumbered by African Americans in population. That “white taxes” were spent for the education of black children, rather than solely their own, was infuriating.

Douglas A. Blackmon. “Slavery by Another Name.” https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/slavery-by-another-name/id420265974?mt=11

How money is spent to fund public schools, especially ones that serve nonwhite populations, has long been a social puzzle with white anxieties determining the solutions. Let’s now look at the aforementioned solutions offered by Candidate Sanders and President Trump, both of which are products of a problem created by whiteness. Let’s start with the latter.

Voucher programs have not only been found to be ineffectual with respect to education outcomes, they also have done nothing to address racial segregation in education. Instead, they provide means for school segregation to continue privately rather than only publicly. In essence, the push for providing for school choice is to provide white families a means for escaping public schools where their children may be forced to learn in failing schools. That families of color may use the same voucher system to their own ends does not absolve the solution of its whiteness. The ease with which we can connect school segregation of old with these provided-tools of modern segregation is not by chance. The level design is weaker here as the problem and solution are less cleverly crafted. The hand of whiteness is not nearly invisible enough.

Let us consider a more insidious example of whiteness protecting itself.

Candidate Sanders tuition-free plan helps higher-income families more, according to numerous analyses (more on that here, here, and here). While racial inequality with respect to wealth is immense and persistent and therefore may seem to make this plan more popular, I want to focus more on why the offering of “tuition-free college” gained such traction. Why is that solution popular? What problem does it actually solve? Or, to put it more bluntly, what white problem does this white solution address?

Undergraduate enrollment figures include all students, regardless of age, enrolled either part time or full time in undergraduate studies at a degree-granting institution. Between 1976 and 2008, total undergraduate fall enrollment increased for each racial/ethnic group…. White enrollment also increased, but at the slowest rate of all racial/ethnic groups. Although White enrollment rose from 7,740,000 to 10,339,000, White enrollment as a percentage of total enrollment declined from 82 percent in 1976 to 63 percent in 2008.

https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/2010015/indicator6_24.asp

Students at public four-year institutions paid an average of $3,190 in tuition for the 1987-1988 school year, with prices adjusted to reflect 2017 dollars. Thirty years later, that average has risen to $9,970 for the 2017-2018 school year. That’s a 213 percent increase.

https://www.cnbc.com/2017/11/29/how-much-college-tuition-has-increased-from-1988-to-2018.html

Higher-education has historically been the domain of whiteness, in student bodies, administrations, and faculties. The increase in diversity over the decades does not diminish how white the expectation, aspiration, and experience of attending college remains. This also means that the expense of attending college is an issue near and dear to numerous white families. Add in political leanings due to numerous political and cultural factors, and you have an experience and expense that is significant to a vast number of white, liberal families. To have a candidate for President push to eliminate that expense without taking away the experience is ambrosia for a particular demographic. This solution to the socio-economic problem of skyrocketing college tuitions is one designed to appeal to white ears while sounding like it appeals to everyone (despite the obstacles to equal opportunity in K-12). In other words, it’s a very well-designed level.

This is a fundamental and frustrating aspect of whiteness, and why the level-design metaphor fits. My preferences, desires, interests, tastes, and perspectives are so thoroughly crafted by the social value placed on my white skin that I am predisposed to certain political viewpoints, religious sensibilities, and social ideals. Therefore, it can feel like my most cherished values are not my own but rather ones crafted to help me solve problems presented to me as the most important. What is liberating is reckoning with the fact that it feels that way because it is that way. In fact, the reason what I just said runs roughshod over white sensibilities is because it flies in the face of the white virtue of rugged individualism. To acknowledge one’s choices are the product of social position is one thing; to recognize the very options available to you are as well is entirely different. It removes agency, confers collectivity, and demands humility. These also go against the siren song of whiteness.

To put it another way, Steven Lukes writes the following in “Power: A Radical View”:

To put the matter sharply, A may exercise power over B by getting him to do what he does not want to do, but he also exercises power over him by influencing, shaping, or determining his very wants. Indeed, is it not the supreme exercise of power to get another or others to have the desires you want them to have that is, to secure their compliance by controlling their thoughts and desires?

Whiteness is like a well-designed level. The environments I see, the obstacles I perceive, the resources I can access, the dialogue options I am presented, the moral choices I make are social constructions. I can roam about the landscape doing good, destroy plot-necessary items, or just attack other players. Even if I am endangered, the game will treat me differently. If I perceive I am not being as helped along as others, I assume they’re cheating. On and on the metaphor goes. The world experienced by me is a racial one because it was designed that way at each point: the world, the experience, and me.

Returning to Half-Life 2, take a look again at the promotional image I used at the beginning. Note the characters’ orientations, stances, and, of course, race. Even in a first-person shooter, where your avatar’s appearance is rarely the focus, we have a white man assuming the role of savior with a woman of color looking to him for safety, guidance, etc. The superb designs of Half-Life 2’s levels suggest that the choice of avatar is also well-thought out and intentional. But, what is perhaps more likely is that this was the default: Gordon Freeman is white and was always going to be white. The silent protagonist, whose surname is equally befitting a Black man, courageously fends off tyranny through levels, interactions, and cinematics designed to illustrate his potency, autonomy, and control. Whether through foreknowledge of Freeman’s race, the presumption that he’s white by narrative omission, or in the event we see his reflection or image, we associate those qualities with a white person because in our society they are qualities we associate with white people. The player, in a well-designed level, is equally played.





Philando and Genesis 18

17 06 2017

This week’s lectionary readings are Genesis eighteen, verses one through fifteen followed by Psalm one hundred sixteen verses one through two then verses twelve through nineteen:


A Police Officer appeared to Philando near the great trees of Mamre while he was sitting in his car in the heat of the day. Philando looked up and saw another cop nearby. When he saw them, he knew he needed to meet their expectations, so he kept his eyes to the ground.

He said, “If I have found favor in your eyes, Officer, please pass your citizen by. I have done nothing wrong, but I will nonetheless provide you documents and announce my owning a gun. I will comply with your requests, so you can be refreshed and go on your way, now that you have pulled me over because of my wide nose.”

“Very well,” they answered, “do as you say.”

“So Philando said to Diamond, “Slowly,” he said, “be sure to film whatever happens.”

Then he reached for his valid, requested identification to give it to the Officer, who saw this as dangerous. He then felt multiple bullets pass through his left arm and side. While they panicked, he died near them still buckled in.

“FUCK! WHY DID HE REACH FOR IT?” they asked him.

“His ID was there, in the pocket,” she said.

Then one of them said, “I will surely pay for my crimes, and Diamond, your daughter will see justice done.”

Now Diamond was listening while seated in the car, which was beside him. Philando and Diamond were young and full of life, and Diamond was already mother to a beautiful four-year-old daughter. So Diamond laughed to herself, “After all of the injustice and anti-Blackness of this country, will I now have justice?”

Then the Officer said, “Why did you laugh and say, ‘Will you really see justice, after all that has been done?” I just shot your boyfriend, is anything too hard for me? We will meet again in the court of law at the appointed time next year, and you will have justice.”

Diamond was afraid, so she lied and said, “I did not laugh.”

But he said, “Yes, you did laugh.”





I love the Lord, for You heard my voice;
    You heard my cry for mercy.
Because You turned your ear to me,
    I will call on God as long as I live.
The cords of death entangled me,
    the anguish of the grave came over me;
    I was overcome by distress and sorrow.

Then I called on the name of the Lord:
    “Lord, save me!”
What shall I return to the Lord
    for all your goodness to me?
I will lift up the cup of salvation
    and call on the name of the Lord.

I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all your people.
Precious in the sight of the Lord
    is the death of your faithful servants.
Truly I am your servant, Lord;
    I serve you just as my mother did;
    you have freed me from my chains.

I will sacrifice a thank offering to you
    and call on the name of the Lord.
I will fulfill my vows to the Lord
    in the presence of all his people,
in the courts of the house of the Lord—
    in your midst, Jerusalem.





Resurrection

7 05 2017

As a consequence of centering the experiences I described in my previous post, I am left with some novel (for me, at least in significance) questions on the Resurrection of Christ.

God is. That is my rock. That is the irrefutable position I hold because of the Other that I encountered.

I am not alone. That is my house built upon that rock. It is the undeniable message conveyed to me in those encounters.

These two statements, inseparable yet distinct, are profound beyond description. If I ever am faced with an existential threat, theological challenge, or interfaith conflict, I can stand firm on them for they are not exclusive yet are not flexible. They represent to me, perhaps, the only two theological statements I am able to proclaim, at present, with utmost certainty.

With that said, I also know that flowing from each experience has been a strong reaffirmation of my Christian faith. The experiences themselves along with the framework Christianity offers dovetail so seamlessly that I cannot separate them. I do not mean that because I had undeniable experiences of, what I shall call, Truth that my schema for understanding them are therefore Absolute. I mean that for me, with my entire being, I find the Trinity to be infinitely consequential. I do not find fault with other modes of expression for these truths, nor do I require others to consent to them. I hold them closely, dearly, and unconditionally. They are not predicated on acceptance from friends, foes, or strangers nor are they dependent on the striving against other perspectives. I am so strongly for these statements that another may feel I stand against them, but that is like perceiving opposition from a deeply rooted tree.

The conviction these statements emplace bring deeper meaning to the Incarnation of Christ, an already absurdly powerful means for me to understand God’s activity in the world. For the Incarnation is, sometimes literally, an incredible method of God assuring us that we are not alone. Scripture even uses the name Immanuel, or God With Us, to describe this divine promise.

But something routinely glossed over is the remarkable, reality-shattering event that is the death of God. “Good” Friday memorializes this event and I never feel it adequately captures the significance of the event. I am unsure how anything could, so this is not so much a demand for more as it is a lament of how short we fall. I imagine that this failing is simply due to our inability to grasp how the Source Of All That Is can be killed, how Life itself could succumb to death. It defies explanation and rejects all efforts to rationalize. It is the penultimate mystery.

What is the Ultimate mystery you may ask? The one to which most hearts and minds, when faced with an absolutely irreconcilable matter, understandably jump: Easter Sunday. Because while the death of God ineffably and inconceivably shattered reality, the Resurrection compounded the matter by reconstituting it. Again, this is fundamentally beyond our comprehension as our all-too-human language and experience, heretofore, have no reference beyond it itself.

Now, the questions I am left facing revolve around where is best to locate Christian Hope? There are four basic places, each necessarily occurring within the Christ event.

The Birth of God. This is one not often named as a source for Christian Hope, but it is one powerfully terrestrial experience that Christ shares with each and every creature. Because the Incarnation is, itself, a wonder to consider, the event of God’s birth carries immense significance with respect to God’s relationship with the world.

The Life of God. Event those outside the Christian faith often cite the life of Christ as an admirable one without reference to the divine. In the words and deeds of Jesus one can find a lifetime’s worth of tools and insights for overcoming the trials and tribulations of the world. Hope based on the life of Christ is also one that can resist (perceived) threats from empirical data, critical study, or secularism as it can fit within, or subsume, those frameworks with minimal conflict.

The Death of God. The salvific significance accorded the Crucifixion makes this, for many, the practical Ultimate source of Christian Hope. On the Cross, the saving act is made manifest and is actually effected. The Resurrection becomes almost a mere bonus since the mechanic of God’s saving grace hinges on death (especially when it is understood under the rubric of a ransom).

The Resurrection of God. On paper, this event often gets marked as the definitive source of Christian Hope. In this event, the powers of sin and death are forever undone and therefore we can anticipate Life everlasting. However, while on paper this event is prioritized, its (typically) delayed fruits (the world to come, the life hereafter, etc.) lead many to render it nothing more than lip service. This is largely why I historically struggled with the Resurrection’s significance: it always felt as though its benefits were latent counterweight to the egregiousness of current circumstances. Such theology, which left the oppressed and suffering to dream of a world to be, never will sit well with me. Thus, locating Christian Hope in the Resurrection often felt like immensely performative, loudly proclaimed, conspicuously expensive lip service, but its day-to-day impact fell well behind the life and/or death of Christ.

While in my past the Incarnation via the Birth of God, let alone that which followed, offered me a deep well of motivation and meaning-making. This is not diminished in the slightest in light of these encounters I must center; to expand on what I said before, I previously viewed the Incarnation as the Ultimate form of God’s message: “I am with you.” However, to make our Hope ultimately natal would mean that the event we are remembering is already behind us. While there are numerous Scriptural passages speaking to rebirth, there is a constant motif of there being a difference between being born of the flesh and being (re)born of the Spirit. If we try and name a point where Christ undergoes rebirth to establish the proleptic moment, that moves the goalpost from the birth to the life of Christ. While theologically significant, the Birth of God cannot be the Ultimate source of Christian Hope.

In similar fashion, for another portion of my life, the Life of God served as the Ultimate form because it is in the life and teachings of Christ that we can find ourselves, lose ourselves, and find ourselves again. I cannot deny the appeal that this event offers because it minimizes the dissonance between so many competing authorities in our world. But in the end, ironically yet understandably, it is precisely the almost-banal accessibility of Christ’s life that simultaneously imbues it with world-changing power yet robs it of reality-changing power. It, too, cannot be the Ultimate source of Christian Hope.

The Death of God is a source of Christian Hope to which I have never gravitated. Its aforementioned significance is gravely understated, but Hope through death is not compelling. Recall that Hope is memory of the future. To mark death as proleptic is to indicate it is the totality of what lies ahead for us all, individually and corporately. While there is an element of solace, perhaps, in the idea that God goes before us in death, thereby reducing its terror, placing death as the end and End of God runs counter to virtually everything else Scripture tells us about God and God’s purposes. Additionally, to make the Crucifixion the Ultimate salvific act, and therefore identify it as our source for Hope, is to prioritize theological mechanics over divine relationships. When the Death of God becomes primary, or outright necessary, in a theological system, it reduces all other elements to cogs of fatality. The Death of God means God is no longer, and therefore we are alone; since that runs afoul of my experience, this means it cannot be the Ultimate source of Christian Hope.

By process of elimination, we arrive at what must be our Ultimate source: the Resurrection of God. It not only contains the crucial elements of providing a memory of the future, it also explains how God can assure us “You are not alone” despite having died. As I said before, the language required to adequately capture the significance of God’s Death is unavailable. Suffice it to say, that it rends the fabric of reality as we know it. In similar fashion, the reconstitution of reality through God’s Resurrection cannot be truly fathomed. We can only see dimly, as if in a mirror. This is precisely because we are looking back to not only understand how we came to this moment, but to also know what is to come in the future. It is an event that doesn’t transcend time; it shapes and defines it. “That which was is that which shall be” and “Remembering the future” and their ilk read as plays on words only because of the aforementioned linguistic inadequacy. Furthermore, Resurrection follows an experience that anyone reading this has yet to have: death. Therefore, in stark contrast to the Birth of God, Resurrection offers a continuation of Life rather than a recycling of it. In stark contrast to the Life of God, Resurrection loses the banality of good and evil and raises the stakes to Good and Evil. As an added factor, to emphasize the Life of God over the life of God allows for the latter to be sublimated in the former, enhancing its importance and imbuing it with eternal significance. In stark contrast to the Death of God, death becomes not something that happens to life but rather something that happens within Life (to paraphrase Howard Thurman). In inadequate summary, Resurrection of God overcomes the limitations/deficiencies of the other Christ events as sources of Hope, thereby making them penultimate.

Now, this leads me to questions that may, or may not, have marked impact on everything that I just wrote.

Does the Resurrection of God need to be literal? Does it need to be bodily?

Akin to the breakdown above, we’re left with various answers resulting from combinations of the options available.

Figurative and spiritual. This approach would mean that the story of Jesus is a commentary on the human condition rather than a recounting of the divine actually living it. As such, the Resurrection does not involve a raising of a dead person, but rather serves as a spiritual lesson. Since the Resurrection itself is not literal, there is no literal “spirit” to bodily or spiritually affect. This approach offers the lowest Christology possible as it requires nothing divine or preternatural to be involved in the entire worldview.

Figurative and bodily. This combination means that no actual Resurrection occurred, but rather a story emerged describing how Jesus underwent a bodily Resurrection. This may be seen as a skeptic’s version of what is found in the Gospels: nothing extraordinary occurred but members of the Jesus community developed an extraordinary story. Various theologians have adopted this approach, seeing the Resurrection story as, for example, a product of the communal grieving process. There are also not a few folks who adopt this approach as it provides a means of reconciling the Gospel narratives with the world as we know it (i.e. where resurrection is the domain of fiction).

Literal and spiritual. This quadrant, if you will, would mean there was a literal Resurrection that occurred. However, rather than a body, the Spirit of God is what continues on after Death. The body is not involved. One version of this approach is the Gnostics, due to their belief that the material world was Evil and therefore God, who is Good, could not possibly have actually been enfleshed. Rather, the Spirit of God inhabited a material body but remained metaphysically distinct from the material world. So, the post-Resurrection appearances by Christ are only of God’s Spirit; there is no body involved. There may be other means of achieving the same ends, sans the rejection of materiality, but the key is the result: while there was a Resurrection of God, there was no body involved.

Literal and bodily. This is the traditional interpretation of Christianity. Simply put, the Gospel narratives describe an actual Resurrection of God’s body. Because this draws upon the traditional approach there isn’t much more to explain since I will tease out the consequences of each below.

What is the impact should either or both be answered in the negative? Whichever the answer, what is the effect on the other Christ events?

Figurative and spiritual. As mentioned above, this is the most “down-to-earth” approach to the Gospels. It requires nothing extraordinary and, in fact, rejects it. This means that rather than each Christ event corresponding to a divine experience, these are just apotheosized narrations. As this approach invalidates God’s Incarnation in Christ, this runs contrary to my experience that God is and the Incarnation being the Ultimate Christian statement of “I am with you.”

Figurative and bodily. This approach, while I appreciate its attempts to connect the Gospel narratives with lived experience, does not fit my requirement for Hope being a memory of the future. I do not need to remember coping mechanisms. Especially as the act of grieving, I think, ought to be contextual to the loss and those grieving. Certainly Scripture and a spiritual community can be that context, but this approach, in the end, supplants Hope with Grief.

Literal and spiritual. This approach can seem to offer a lower barrier of entry to the entire question as it doesn’t ask for bodies to be involved. The eschewing of corporeal Resurrection leaves everything in the far more amorphous, malleable realm of the spirit. My biggest issue with this approach is that it does not sufficiently honor the significance of God’s Incarnation. If we take the enfleshment of the divine seriously, then to ignore the body at the Resurrection mitigates that commitment. Again, this pathway was essentially adopted by the Gnostics which was rejected in the course of Christianity’s development because it did not adequately view Jesus as both fully human and fully divine. That double-fullness is, I think, necessary to meet the demands of Christian Hope as I have sketched it out here. The assertion that “God Is” reflects the Fully Divine portion while “You are not alone” reflects the Fully Human portion. In the final analysis, I struggle to perceive any benefit to God leaving the body out of it. Undeniably do I factor in the history of eschewing the body in favor of the spirit, and it has led to terribly misogynist theologies and societies.

Literal and bodily. Thus, we come to what I must admit not only accords with Christian Tradition and Scripture, but also with my Experience. While it runs contrary to Reason in the empirically-driven sense favored by this epoch, it fits a sense of Reason to which I subscribe: logical coherence. If a theology manages to harmonize all four sources, then there is naught to do but surrender to it. The other Christ events, and the other versions of the Resurrection, contain necessary but insufficient qualities that do not fully fit within the experiences that I cannot deny nor ignore. Like a double-helix, the strands of “God Is” and “I am not alone” form the basis for everything else, and from it do my convictions with respect to the divine flow. The Incarnation of God, given the fullness of its consequence, is a totally-human, totally-divine experience. The Life of God is a fully-human, fully-divine experience. The Death of God is an utterly-human, utterly-divine experience. And the Resurrection of God is a definitively-human, definitely-divine experience. It is through that definition which the other events retain their eternal character and significance. It is through that definition that Immanuel can be just that — God With Us — throughout the millennia. And it is through that definition that we not only have the everyday, lived, reality-changing Resurrection Hope that God Is and We Are Not Alone, but also the memory of that which is to come. While we may not have a bodily Jesus roaming the world, we have the memory of what is to come: Embodied Life Everlasting Accompanied By The God “I AM.”

Fitting, really. It describes quite perfectly the sentiment of my tattoo, the fruits of my Holocaust Pilgrimage, and the character of my Christian Hope: God Is, Therefore I Seek.





On Hope

19 04 2017

Hope is memory of the future.

Christian Hope is the memory of God on earth, which is a future event. To remember that God embodied God’s self in Christ is to say that it will come to pass.

My Holocaust Pilgrimage from a couple of years ago came to an unceremonious and unexpected end yesterday. I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and was struck by how I did not feel the familiar sense of theological crisis emanating from the walls, screens, and photos. I felt sadness, shock, and other emotions commensurate with tracing the rise of Nazi Germany to the mass murder of so many people, primarily Jewish ones. That epoch has served as something of an antithesis to my faith for over a decade. It will always challenge me theologically. But what I could not deny, as I passed by images of places through which I have now walked, is that the relationship has changed.

While I did not know it at the time, I traveled to Germany and Poland in an effort to overcome Despair. My faith, desert-like for years, had gradually lost more and more oases. I had no real idea what I expected to find in the bowels of death engineered by the Nazis, but I had a feeling that they would be among the last places God would show up. If I’m really honest, that was part of the draw. If God would not meet me where I was, then going where God perhaps could not meet me felt something akin to a huge middle finger. A big ol’ “Fuck you” as I sought not Life- but Death-Abundant.

When I was in Berlin, roughly the middle of the journey, I took up residence in the hotel bar and started writing while a server kept drinks flowing. It was here, in anticipation of Auschwitz, that I came to realize that Hopelessness had brought me to this time and place. To come to that diagnosis, however, required me acknowledging how alone, apart from God, I felt. More to the point, I had lost faith in God being an active presence in my life. When I looked back, I saw no clarity, no purpose, no coherence. I saw a painfully slow withering of a relationship. And these horrific places I was exploring each day emplaced these feelings with respect to history: looking back, ours is not a world with clarity, purpose, or coherence. Antisemitism is still rearing its ugly head, white supremacy is alive and well, xenophobia was not temporary but is as native as it is nativistic.

In the midst of all of these thoughts and drinks swirling about inside of me, I decided to let go any narrative through-line of my faith and instead recall, discrete experiences that served as touchstones. There are two primary ones (though Berlin was to become a third): a crisis of faith in college where I spiraled into the darkest of places and a baptism I performed while serving as a chaplain at UCLA Medical for a summer. Without going into the details of the events themselves, the commonalities that stood out to me in that hotel bar were the following:

    – I experienced an Other in the room with me, that was as palpable and undeniable as it was not physical nor visible

    – I did not speak to this Otherness, but was “spoken” to

    – It assured me — absolutely, intimately, and unequivocally — “You are not alone”

Theretofore, those events had served ancillary functions. Do not misunderstand, one of them saved me from myself. But in the (re)construction of my theology after both events, they were significant-but-peripheral. They were the starting gun: startling, catalyzing, dramatic, but quickly left behind. They were the life-preserver: comforting, bouyant, tethering, but discarded once back on your feet. What occurred to me in Berlin is to center those experiences. Rather than simply use the fact that I am not alone to rebuild and carry on, what if I made those revelations the crux? What if I made Revelation the Crux?

In the past, I was drawn to Descartes’ use of doubt to find truth. He stripped away everything until he came to the succinct, but powerful: I think, therefore I am. In that hotel bar, it became clear to me that I cannot end where he did without denying my revelations. Cartesian Doubt centers the self, and makes being dependent upon (cognitive) action. My revelations reversed that script: center the Other, and make action dependent on Being. Or, to put it another way, rather than action guaranteeing being, Being guarantees action. This led to me crafting the rebellious homage: Deus Est, Ergo Quaero. “God Is, Therefore I Seek.” And the significance of this new understanding led me to getting this phrase tattooed where I can be daily reminded of these revelations.

It was this inversion that changed the quality of the entire trip. While I had traveled into the dark night of the Holocaust to actively pursue Absence, a new significance to Presence was brought into the light. I realized that forgetfulness was the essence of sin and all sin can be traced back to forgetting. Not the forgetting forced upon us by trauma or disease, but rather the forgetting produced by marginalizing, ignoring, or discounting revelations of the divine. By focusing upon the revelations that I had experienced, the message imparted to me became Gospel: “You are not alone.” What better news is there than this? And, for me, there is no better way for God to illustrate this than to become one of us, walk our earth, taste our food, drink our wine, as well as be born, beaten, and killed. Not to impart necessity to the manner by which Christ lived — or more to the point, died — but to not forget that these events took place.

And so we return to the beginning. It was not so much, perhaps, that the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum did not pose an existential threat anymore but rather I had an existential answer: Hope is memory of the future. To remember that I am not alone is to know what is to come. To eat of the bread and drink of the cup is to recall that which is not-yet. To recollect the life, death, and Life of Jesus Christ is to celebrate the world as it will be. This is not Christ Triumphant, who blithely glosses over the unspeakable tragedies of the world. Quite the opposite. This is Christ the Memory-Keeper, who carries the entirety of the world’s experience, never forgetting, perfectly remembering, Immanuel.

I remember my affliction and my wandering, the bitterness and the gall. I well remember them, and my soul is downcast within me. Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for God’s compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion; therefore I will wait for God.”
Lamentations 3:19-24





Trials of Ordination

14 04 2017

I got ordained yesterday.

I forsook ordination years ago.

But I got ordained yesterday.

When I was in Seminary, I decided to not pursue it for numerous reasons.

I needed to deprofessionalize my faith.

I needed to traverse the desert that my faith life had become (and continues to be).

I needed more than the purely political function Protestant ordination confers.

I needed the liminal moment of ordination to carry greater weight.

I needed to deconstruct, to distance, to disrupt, to disavow, to ditch God.

I needed out of the parish-centric mentality that surrounded me.

I needed, in good Protestant fashion, to protest.


I got ordained yesterday.

I forsook ordination years ago.

But I got ordained yesterday.

When faced with a requirement of the State, I decided to pursue it for numerous reasons.

It has no professional association whatsoever.

Deserts can put things in perspective.

It is a purely political function in response to a purely political need.

My liminal moment was not where the weight lay.

I need to construct, draw near, irrupt, vow, and stitch God.

There is no parish involved.

I needed, in good religious fashion, to bind.


I got ordained yesterday.

I forsook ordination years ago.

But I got ordained yesterday.

My co-officiant for a wedding did not feel welcome nor safe to come to my country.

The profession of his faith scares the State.

My spiritual ecology is a surd of my environment.

Xenophobic politics are purely (mal-)functioning.

This, this liminality, utilitarian and without ceremony, is nothing.

God has/is/will destruct, present, erupt, fidelity, and bitch.

So that we may not perish. That I may absurd.

I needed, in good Christian fashion, die to myself to find myself.


I got ordained yesterday.

I may (not) get Ordained someday.

But I got ordained yesterday.