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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.


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.

Technology and Privilege

20 03 2017

“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.”
Ephesians 6:14–17

Technology too often gets associated purely with computers and electronics when it applies to the most simple of implements as well, like a spear or a tent. Technology is the result of methodical, iterative crafting of a tool. And its purpose is to amplify already-present capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics. It is not the smartphone that brought maps to our fingertips — rather, it was our insatiable need to know where we are and where we are going. Smartphones’ mapping technologies amplified that behavior, just as the cartographers of old did through sextants and compasses. These amplifications make minor tendencies appear larger than life precisely because small differences play across orders of magnitude. The thrill-seeker that once jumped from high cliffs into waters below can now plummet towards the earth from thousands of feet in the sky. The writer whose writings were read by the literate few can now share their thoughts with millions with the click of a button. The murderer wreaking havoc on a township by killing one person at a time over the course of weeks can now, through technological advancement, wreak the same quantity of havoc in mere seconds. Such developments may make the underlying causes of such behaviors more immediate, terrifying, and hotly debated, but they were always there.

As he approached Lehi, the Philistines came toward him shouting. The Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon him. The ropes on his arms became like charred flax, and the bindings dropped from his hands. Finding a fresh jawbone of a donkey, he grabbed it and struck down a thousand men. Then Samson said, “With a donkey’s jawbone I have made donkeys of them. With a donkey’s jawbone I have killed a thousand men.”
Judges 15: 14–16

It is a well-covered topic, and rightly so, how technological advances confer privilege upon those with the access and means to use them. This can range from a new means of protecting a waterhole, to a novel use of clay for documenting transactions, to an updated commute system that grants economic and social opportunity to those otherwise isolated. There is no denying that countless aspects of daily life, especially in the West, are privileged because of the plethora of technology at our disposal. However, I cringe at polemics against the evils of technology, as if the tool bears responsibility for its users. Rather, the focus ought to be on usage by those employing the tool, and access to the tools themselves. Are they used for the enrichment of others or for selfish gain? Who can get to the tool and who cannot? What behaviors are revealed, enhanced, or enabled by its implementation? That last question cuts to the heart of technology-as-privilege: technology itself often exacerbates the very capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics of privilege since it amplifies the already-present, socially-endowed benefits. To see this in an historical example, let’s look back at the phenomenon known as White Flight.

The post-war boom of the 1950’s led to countless African-Americans flocking to cities for the economic opportunities found there. Consequently, White Americans fled to the suburbs to escape this influx. This social movement by Whites was made possible by, among other things, the proliferation of the Interstate Highway system and Whites’ access to cars for the family. Thus, while urban centers remained centers of industry, the vast majority of wealth and political power moved to the intentionally homogeneous, White suburbs. As poverty and social dislocation consumed urban centers, the suburbs flourished and became the idyllic emblem of the American Dream. In this social dynamic, it is not difficult to see the already-present preference for Whiteness over and against Blackness in America being played out economically, socially, and politically. The desire of Whites to maintain their way of life is enacted through redlining, blockbusting, and other de facto segregating mechanisms (including municipal, state, and federal laws themselves). The capacity for putting one’s self and one’s in-group above others plays out on a national scale through massive social movement. We see racial superiority, community gatekeeping, and social mobility are examples of technology-as-privilege all encapsulated in the phenomenon of White Flight. More tangibly, we also see highways, cars, and home ownership as tools of privilege being employed to marked effect.

“Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much. So if you have not been trustworthy in handling worldly wealth, who will trust you with true riches? And if you have not been trustworthy with someone else’s property, who will give you property of your own?”
Luke 16:10–12

But I would like to flip this script, not to disagree, but to offer yet another lens for understanding the crucial-yet-divisive concept of privilege. Rather than thinking of technology as privilege, consider privilege as technology. While the analogy breaks down, as all do, with over-reliance upon it, this may help bearers of privilege employ it justly and rightly. While both immutable and mutable aspects of one’s being and social location unequivocally confer privilege, the conversation often gets mired in defensiveness against the accusation. Usually the defensiveness revolves around two axes: either the person of privilege has had an undeniably hard life and therefore it rings hollow/condescending to be told they benefit from privilege, or there is an outright denial of the entire notion as the person of privilege’s worldview is (professed to be) meritocratic.

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
Luke 21:1–4 NIV

Imaging privilege as technology means, rather than privilege inhering to one’s very being, it is a tool. A tool that can be used actively or passively, like a scalpel or a dwelling, to either maintain oppressive and unjust social realities or dismantle them. This is not to suggest that social categories deemed desirable aren’t still inextricably bound to who one is. This does not externalize privilege so that it can be simply discarded like a conductor’s baton; for example, skin color, sexual orientation, or your first language cannot be set aside and ignored. Such realities are carried daily, as mantle, spectacles, noise-cancelling headphones, and winged shoes. The goal is for the frame to shift from questioning if society has benefited you unduly or not, to discerning how the implements in your toolkit enable you to combat injustice and inequity. Rather than thinking privilege somehow protects you completely from adversity, think of it more as a shield: it deflects a lot, though not everything. Something as simple as a mundane American accent can prevent countless antagonistic interactions, thereby shielding you from the emotional duress, economic costs, and relational strain they can otherwise cause. Will that accent guarantee you’ll get a job for which you interview? Of course not. Does it fail to raise flags or question marks in the listener? Of course. Your ordinary accent is privilege-as-technology precisely because it is an innocuous tool of communication.

And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God.”
Luke 12:16–21

In conversations where someone calls out a privileged action, filter the charge through this privilege-as-technology sieve. “The producer of La La Land does not deserve praise for simply doing that which is expected: vacating the stage for the rightful winners, the cast and crew of Moonlight. That he is heralded for this unremarkable act is White, Male privilege.” This critic is pointing out that the intersections of White and Male privilege are being used as amplifiers of what is otherwise a completely unremarkable action. They are technologies being employed to enhance the rudimentary actions of a human being. The fact that this entire event occurred to the detriment of an African-American cast and crew makes it all the more stark. Rarely did you hear a commendation of the grace of Barry Jenkins, despite him showing more.

The tools of privilege are used to amplify, to elevate, one action, one person over the other, thereby telling (confirming) a story to the world of whose grace, whose behavior, and whose presence is socially desirable. The question to ask yourself then is, “What tools do I have at my disposal to mitigate injustice now and prevent it in the future?” It may be your Whiteness, it may be Maleness, or it could be a TV show you write for; an Internet forum you participate in; or a conversation with a group unaware of the layers involved.

“A rebuke impresses a discerning person more than a hundred lashes a fool.”
Proverbs 17:10

“The institution of marriage is for only one man and one woman.” This declares that those who wish to participate in the institution of marriage and together constitute a “man” and a “woman,” are used as a means of highlighting the differences between heterosexual relationships and every other kind. Emphases on procreation, tradition, or the nuclear family make each of these institutions into technology. They all, in turn and in unique ways, get employed in the efforts to amplify certain capacities, behaviors, and social dynamics to the detriment of others. Privilege is an implement that must be regarded with the same seriousness as the countless instruments we recognize as carrying both great power and great danger: weapons, transportation, communication, etc. It is not a matter of whether the tool exists, it is a matter of how it is used.

Then Jesus’ mother and brothers arrived. Standing outside, they sent someone in to call him. A crowd was sitting around him, and they told him, “Your mother and brothers are outside looking for you.” “Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.”
Mark 3: 31–34

Just like the more conventional forms of technology we all interact with regularly, privilege is born out of the same process of systematic iteration that gave us rocket ships and water desalination plants. It is a methodical, though not linear, historically-conditioned crafting that builds upon, and goes beyond, its products. Privilege constantly manifests in forms familiar yet novel, that exaggerate, undercut, overwhelm, or minimize perennial aspects of our shared humanity. It is incumbent upon those who have privilege-as-technology at their disposal, whichever they possess, to apply diligence, responsibility, and empathy in their implementation even unto the point of actively forsaking their benefits. Especially if there is an adverse pattern to their use, effects, or availability. To do otherwise ignores the amplification of injustice flowing from the very capacities, behaviors, and dynamics that make us human, together.

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’” “Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth. Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”
Mark 10: 17–23


16 01 2017

This past Sunday’s homily was, rightfully and predictably, made to connect with Martin Luther King, Jr. The priest talked at length about him, without a hint of animus, yet something about the sermon felt off. I dutifully waited my turn to greet him after the service and, while we shook hands, I said to him “I may have missed it, but I do not think I heard you use the word ‘race,’ ‘racist,’ or ‘racism’ once. May I ask why not?” His response: “You’re right, I did not. Dr. King was one who did not seek to shame anyone. And I wanted to honor that while I invoked his name.”

I was bewildered and wished to follow up, but the Father had to attend to other folks. I walked home working over his choice. It felt to me, initially, to be a sin of omission, but the more I thought on it, the more it became clear that this was a sin of commission. The priest actively chose to avoid speaking to the issue of racism, and he did so in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Church leaders of countless denominations fall into this trap often, and despite good intentions. It is particularly baffling when it’s done to Jesus, but it’s done to numerous historical figures: they get domesticated into pocket-pets, pulled out when calendar, event, or whim dictates. Jesus is made into a blonde, blue-eyed shepherd and Dr. King gets made into a colorblind, docile orator.

To combat this, in one particular, insufficient, and not-remotely-exhaustive way, is to make it clear that shame was most certainly a tool employed by Martin Luther King, Jr. Without further ado:

“A second basic fact about [nonviolent resistance] is that it does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding. The nonviolent resister must often voice his protest through noncooperation or boycotts, but he realizes that noncooperation and boycotts are not ends within themselves; they are means to awaken a sense of moral shame within the opponent. The end is redemption and reconciliation.” – The Current Crisis in Race Relations, 1958

First, note that the title of the article includes the phrase “Race Relations” so we already can see that omitting race from an MLK sermon does not do him justice. But, more to the point, Dr. King explicitly names shame as a means to an end, and he demarcates it from humiliation. This is the key difference that white people (or people protecting whiteness) confuse. Dr. King himself does not define nor clarify the difference between these terms, but given the context, I offer the following:

Shame: the emotion following realization one’s conduct has caused a loss of respect

Humiliation: the emotion following realization one has been disrespected

The former is a cornerstone of nonviolent resistance and arises in the oppressor, the latter of bullies and tyrants and arises in the victim. The problem is that white people think that when they feel shame, they are being humiliated. While these emotions can be causally linked, it is not a necessary connection. On the one hand, I can give a drunken toast at my friend’s wedding and humiliate myself, which, upon sobering up, leads to shame. On the other hand, I can forget a dear friend’s birthday and feel shame for having done so, but not humiliated. Or, more to the subject at hand, you could try to arrest someone for social deviance (say, a Black person daring to tell you their life matters), and they could respond with such grace and aplomb that you lose your peers’ respect.


Now, if it were left just there, then a significant problem would be perpetuated: the mechanism of nonviolent resistance would be the left to the oppressor and the oppressor only. The “peers” in the above scenario would be the white actors or white onlookers. On the contrary, the protestors become peers through their self-assertion and self-esteem. Martin Luther King, Jr. consistently spoke to the Black imagination being renewed and the consequent radical reevaluation of self-worth.

“In time many Negroes lost faith in themselves and came to believe that perhaps they really were what they had been told they were — something less than men. So long as they were prepared to accept this role, racial peace could be maintained. It was an uneasy peace in which the Negro was forced to accept patiently injustice, insult, injury, and exploitation.

Gradually the Negro masses in the South began to reevaluate themselves — a process that was to change the nature of the Negro community and doom the social patterns of the South. We discovered that we had never really smothered our self-respect and we could not be at one with ourselves without asserting it. From this point on, the South’s terrible peace was rapidly undermined by the Negro’s new and courageous thinking and his ever-increasing readiness to organize and to act…. We Negroes have replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity.” – Our Struggle, 1956 (original emphasis)

Thus, it is, in fact, the Black person who becomes the true peer, the true arbiter of the oppressor’s conduct while the white actors and onlookers are forced to recognize what was moments ago an object has become a Subject. And it is in this mirror created by courage and protest that we, the oppressor, come to feel shame. The parallels to today’s Black Lives Matter movement are plain and easily drawn. However, again, the white power structures of the US are emotionally (not institutionally) fragile and swift to circle the wagons. They convert shame into humiliation at every opportunity. Consequently, whiteness continues to protect itself through opprobrium at every challenge, whether nonviolent or otherwise. This plague is also endemic to white allies, such as myself. Shame is unsettling. Shame is challenging. Shame is necessary. But its necessity is usually sacrificed on the altar of comfort, and so shame is converted into humiliation, which leads to white anger and racial resentment, which leads to the centuries-old cycle of racial relations in the United States.

Someone demanding their humanity be afforded equal opportunity, liberty, and protection ought to induce shame because the demand should never have been necessary. It should not, however, produce humiliation because the demand is for equality rather than superiority. White allies and enemies alike, however, often mistake a challenge by someone claiming equality to be an insult by someone claiming undue special treatment. This can range from the Civil War over the right to own people to the 60’s fight for Blacks’ voting rights to #Oscarssowhite of 2016 and down to you getting called out for unconsciously only responding to or Liking white people’s thoughts on race and racism (especially when a person of color is in the conversation).

Do not neuter Martin Luther King, Jr. He was disliked by the vast majority of white Americans before he was murdered by one. He was eloquently insightful and remarkably brilliant, and he was also ceaseless in his critique of racism in the United States, which is to say that he did not mince words with whites in America.

“Yet the largest portion of white America is still poisoned by racism, which is as native to our soil as pine trees, sagebrush, and buffalo grass. Equally native to us is the concept that gross exploitation of the Negro is acceptable, if not commendable. Many whites who concede that Negroes should have equal access to public facilities and the untrammeled right to vote cannot understand that we do not intend to remain in the basement of the economic structure; they cannot understand why a porter or a housemaid would dare dream of a day when his work will be more useful, more remunerative and a pathway to rising opportunity. This incomprehension is a heavy burden in our efforts to win white allies for the long struggle.” – A Testament of Hope, 1969 (published posthumously)

To take race out of conversations about him is to remove the soul from his life’s work, which is, unsurprisingly, what fragile whiteness loves to do. Shame.