MLK’s legacy in 2017

MLK’s legacy in 2017

From MLK’s letter from Birmingham jail:

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not . . . the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace, which is the absence of tension, to a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.”


On this day, which we set aside to remember the life and work of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, I think it is essential that we acknowledge that his dream of achieving racial restorative justice is one we are still fighting for today.

 
American history includes hundred of years of dehumanizing people of color. That didn’t end with slavery, and it didn’t end in the 1960s with the civil rights movement. Healing did not magically come when we ended Jim Crow or desegregated schools. Racism is an ugly, persistent, systemic force, one that leaves deep wounds and influences all of us whether we realize it or not. It is a relevant issue which still that requires our consistent opposition and personal humility.

 
This recent political season has put racial issues back on the table for all of us, regardless of our affiliation. We continue to be inundated with video footage of unarmed black men (and often children) being shot in the streets. We see the bold political divides among racial lines. We hear the rallying cries of protesters, pleading with all who will listen that their children’s lives have value. We are confronted with the fact that our prisons are disproportionately full of people of color; that one in three black men will be incarcerated as opposed to one in 17 white men. We can’t ignore these issues anymore: We have to deal with them.

 
After the election, I saw a lot of my white friends take to social media to defend themselves against any hint of prejudice: “I’m not racist, I don’t even see color.”

 
To which, I say, great: It’s good that you don’t have any ardent hatred for people who are different than you. But that is hardly the standard to which we should ascribe. That’s just the baseline assumption for being a decent person. Racial reconciliation requires more than that.

 

The next step is more difficult, because it requires us to be humble and to listen. It requires white folks to be willing to learn from people of color about their experiences of race in America. It requires seeking out their perspectives, and not overpowering them with our own. This isn’t about demonizing all police officers or furthering division, it’s about achieving something we all want: justice, equity, and understanding. This has to start with conversations in which we are humble and self-critical.

 

Even if it’s uncomfortable, we can’t remain neutral in these sorts of situations. Not when there is still so much work to be done. Dr King reminded us that silence in the face of injustice perpetuates injustice. Inactivity is always taking a side, and that side usually favors the oppressor over the oppressed.

 

God forbid I ever become the white moderate, more concerned with order than with justice, who Martin Luther King said was a bigger stumbling block to people of color than the Klansman.

God forbid I am ever more concerned with being called a racist than I am with the awful, present, ongoing problem of racism.

God forbid I decline to engage in the hard work of restorative justice it makes me or anyone else uncomfortable.

And thank God for rebel rousers like MLK who refused to be quiet about injustice.

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About a Boy

About a Boy

Ryan called us late in the summer. He did his best to mask the urgency and fear in his voice, but we knew right away that something was wrong.

He told my husband that things weren’t safe at home, and that he needed a place to stay. It was all we needed to hear- we told him to come and stay with us as long as he needed to.

This boy- my sixteen year old cousin- he is radiant. I love him so much. Hearing that fear in his voice literally broke my heart. I knew what it was about.

Ryan is sweet, smart, and funny. He loves his cat, Noodle, scary movies, and staying up late. He and I can destroy a bowl of guacamole in 2 minutes flat, and we always pick each other’s cards in Cards Against Humanity. He writes poetry, is an activist on Twitter, and likes making films. This is his Junior year of High School.

Ryan is also transgender, which basically that means that when he was born, Ryan had all the parts we typically associate with being female. But his inner self, his identity, his personhood- that’s all boy, all the way. By coming out as Trans, he’s both publicly and privately making peace with his most essential truth, and moving towards it in a healthy way.

Being transgender also means that world is a much scarier place for Ryan to navigate than it was for me as a 16 year old. Everyday, Ryan interacts with people who deeply misunderstand and fear him- parents, teachers, peers, and strangers. Coming out literally fractured the fault lines of Ryan’s life: he’s been the victim of domestic abuse, and is currently in the long, uncertain process of custody transfer from his bio mother to foster parents. He was recently forced off of his school bus by the driver because he is trans. Some of his teachers still refuse to call him “he,” humiliating him in front of his classmates.

And still, my baby cousin chooses to face this world with patient hope and optimism. He wants to educate people rather than bite them back with hate. He wants to build bridges instead of blocking the world out. I’m really proud of him for being so courageous- I just wish he didn’t have to be.


As he slept in the guestroom that first summer night, exhausted from the events that brought him to our door, I paced the kitchen nervously. I stocked the fridge with sweet tea and cheese sticks (his all time favorite) and my thoughts darted between prayer, anxiety, anger and relief. I wanted so badly to be able to wrap him in maternal wings; to shield him from the ugliness and ignorance of the outside world.

This had been the summer of the bathroom debates. Conservatives all across the country were protesting Trans people’s right to use the bathroom that matched their gender identify. Folks took to social media to announce that they were boycotting Target because it had inclusive bathrooms. Men expressed fear for the safety of their daughters, weaving  hypothetical worst case scenarios which loudly insinuated that trans people were predatory and perverted. I saw people on my own timeline- some of them pastors– liken being transgender to drug addiction, disease, and mental defect. I saw videos of religious protesters waving bibles in the air, screaming about the disintegration of American family values.

It was tragically ironic to me, because the bibles they held up in defense of their bigotry didn’t actually contain a single passage condemning being transgender. Their bible do contain, however, the story of Jesus: who told us to love our enemies, embrace the outcasts of society, defend the weak, refrain from judgement, and care for the vulnerable.

You would be hard pressed to find a more vulnerable, marginalized group of people in our society than trans youth.

Transgender suicide rates are staggering: the suicide attempt rate for the general population is 4.6 percent; compare that to 40 percent among Trans people. For Trans teens, it’s worse; hovering right around 50 percent.  Hear me- HALF of all trans youth internalize a message of  shame, self hate, and exclusion to the point that they kill themselves.

It’s worth pointing out that calls to transgender suicide hotlines doubles in the wake of the bathroom debates. Culture wars have their casualties. When we choose to humiliate, dehumanize, and dismiss an entire demographic of human beings, there are consequences. Our words have power.


Look: I know it’s tempting to view our world in terms of strict categories: boxes of good and bad, black and white, true and false. Doing so gives us a sense of security, comfort, and control over our environment. But insisting on these sort of strict binaries leaves little room for the incredible complexity of the human soul. It can be used to downplay the validity of each unique human experience, and as a crutch to keep us from truly listening to one another.

The truth is that human gender and human sexuality are not these rigid, binary categories we they are.

Whenever I want to understand the science behind something, I turn to the writings and podcasts put out by “Science Mike” Mike McHargue. One night, Ryan and I stayed up really late our living room couch,cuddled up and listened to an episode of  The Liturgists podcast in which Science Mike broke down some of the misconceptions we have about gender identity:

“Biologically speaking, these clear categories or male and female, straight and gay- they don’t exist. The fact is, the scientific picture backs up the ones we marginalize the most. Biology, neuroscience, even DNA all reinforce the idea that our popular conceptions of gender and orientation are simplistic at best, and outright harmful to come people at worst.”

He explained that during human embryonic development, DNA, hormones, and base tissue interact to create what we typically associate with a baby boy or baby girl. He was careful to clarify that “you’re talking about the same base tissue that becomes either labia or a scrotum, ovaries or testicles, a clitoris or a penis. In most cases, you get a baby boy or  a baby girl in a way that appears to fit a gender binary. But it doesn’t always happen that way.”

“In fact, about 1 in a thousand children born are gender ambiguous, which means that modern trained scientists and medical professionals, with all the equipment we have today, cannot make a clear determination of whether that child is male or female… There are some boys with x chromosomes, which is what you associate with women, and there are girls with an xy chromosome, which is what you associate with men.”

So basically, none of this is cut and dry. Not biologically, not physiologically, not emotionally, mentally, or spiritually. Human beings are remarkably complex, and when Trans people talk about their experience of their own life and their own identity, it is scientifically valid, and you have no grounds to dismiss it.

I’ve often heard people try to dismiss Trans people’s experiences by saying “Well, I just think God knew what he was doing when he created male and female.”

To which I would ask, did God also know what he was doing when he created millions intersex people, who are quite literally neither male nor female? Is not the existence of gender ambiguous people a challenge to this construct you’re so desperately clinging to?

 

The truth is that God does not create throwaway people. He creates people in his image, on purpose, wonderfully. God knew what he was doing when he created Trans people, too. Despite what he’s been told, there is nothing wrong with Ryan.

We get must get past this in order to do better for our transgender youth.

We must do better for our trans people, because they deserve to live in a society where they free from the threat of violence.

We must call for trans rights, because people’s lives are on the line.

We must reject fear, reject silence, and embrace humility, for the sake of the gospel, because Jesus told us to love people and to seek justice.

We must create a better world.

Signing off now. Going to run through haunted houses with Jake and Ryan, stay up late, and hug him still he’s sick of me.

 

 

 

Dear Christians Thinking of Voting for Donald Trump

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Dear Christians who are thinking of voting for Donald Trump,

Let me plead with you.

So much is at stake in this election. And not only in the ways we typically associate with the political circus. As Christians, it is essential that we honestly face the way Donald Trump’s words demean those who are most vulnerable in our society. We must compare his words and actions with those of our Jesus- and honestly ask whether we can usher in the kingdom of God by voting for such a man.

Donald Trump is a man who brags about overpowering and groping women:

“I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait. And when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything…. Just grab them by the pussy.”

Donald Trump has been accused of rape and sexual assault multiple times over his career- from women including his ex-wife Ivana and a woman who describes him raping her at parties as a 13 year old girl. He refers to women as “bitches” and “pieces of ass.”

These are not just words. This is inexcusable.

Misogyny is anti-gospel. And it cannot be shrugged off by evangelicals.

Jesus, our teacher, while he walked the earth, was was primarily concerned with the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society. As a Christian, that is our call, too- to protect the value and dignity of those with the least power. That includes people who are not like us- people of different color, religious background, and sexual orientation. Our God has commanded us to love our enemies, reject violence, turn the other cheek- even when it comes to our enemies. 

 

The most vulnerable people in society are Donald Trump’s primary targets. When he says, “Islam hates us,” and “Mexicans are rapists” and “blacks are living in hell,” it matters. 

“Donald J Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of all Muslims entering the US.” He told a roaring crowd. His treatment of the Khan Family proved that he included all Muslims in that statement- even Americans who fought for this country, and veterans who and made the ultimate sacrifice while in service. He still promised to excommunicate and ban them all.

That is racism, plain and simple. It is a rejection of religious freedom. It is unconstitutional, anti-gospel, and it is terrifying for all Muslim people listening.

How can we, as Christians, love our Muslim neighbors well while simultaneously supporting a candidate who wants to ban them and keep them on a registry?

Muslims, minorities, and Syrian refugees are the scapegoats on which Trump has attached society’s anxieties and fears. Never mind that the majority of Syrian refugees are children, and that not one has participated in a domestic terror attack since 9/11, Donald still says “I will look Syrian kids in the face and say, go home.”

Compare that sentiment the words of your Jesus: “Depart from me, you evildoers. For I was a stranger and I knocked at your door, and you turned me away. Whatever you have not done for the least of these, you have not done for me.” (Matthew 25)

Compare Donald Trump’s inciting his supporters to violence, punching protesters,and throwing people out into the cold “without a coat”  to Jesus’s call to love your enemies: “But I tell you not to resist an evil person. If someone slaps you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also; if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well.”

As a teacher, I’ve already seen the effects of this campaign in the classroom. I’ve had a Muslim girl stay after class, quietly deteriorating into tears because of cruel words whispered to  her. Other schools have had to deal with similar issues- such as students bringing “build the wall” signs to basketball games, taunting and screaming at Mexican teens as they play.

If a candidate for President for say it, why can’t they? How can we punish this cruelty in our schools if it’s accepted by one of the most potentially powerful people in the world?

We must remain aware that, historically, when powerful groups of people have systematically targeted vulnerable groups of people, dehumanizing them and blaming them for societies problems, that is when we have seen the greatest capacity for human evil.


 

This man we are considering electing to the highest office in the land- this reality TV star with a third grade vocabulary, this person with no political experience whatsoever- he is more than just a political danger. Donald Trump is a xenophobe, a proud vulgarian, and an accused rapist. His popularity is proof that racism and fear of “the other” are still powerful forces in America, boiling just beneath the surface of the American psyche. We have seen White Nationalists gather from the fringes and rally in the mainstream to support Donald Trump- including members of The Ku Klux Klan.  We should not ignore the significance of that.

As followers of Jesus, we cannot give into this- we have to stand against it, call it into the light, and oppose it. We must remember that racism, implied or explicit, it fundamentally wrong, and fundamentally against the will of God. We cannot give power to a man who wields it for political gain.
Fr. Richard Rohr said “The evangelical support of Trump will be an indictment against its validity as a Christian movement for generations to come.” 

I believe that’s true. We will be asking ourselves how we let this happen for years to come. To vote for Donald Trump is to be on the wrong side of history. It is to vote for a man whose words and actions come into direct opposition with the teachings of Christ.

I encourage you to join the many Evangelicals who have stood up in opposition to Trump, refusing to support his toxic rhetoric or try assimilate his message into a Christian one. Read through this Declaration by American Evangelicals Concerning Donald Trump, which has been signed by over 80 prominent Evangelical figures and continue to prayerfully consider this important decision.

 

 

 

Wake up, and Don’t Be Silent-There’s Still Work To Do.

Wake up, and Don’t Be Silent-There’s Still Work To Do.

 

About a month ago, I sat in a room full of people of all different colors and backgrounds, and together, we talked about race. We had gathered in a college classroom to speak honestly about how racism and prejudice affected us, how it shaped us uniquely from a young age, and how, hopefully, we may begin to dismantle it.

We came to break the silence. We came to listen to one another. We came to be vulnerable, to be angry, to confess our sins to one another, and to mourn the senseless injustice all around us. We came to begin the process of shedding light into dark places, even if those dark places existed within our own hearts.

We admitted to our silence.

“I admit that I have been silent as my white friends have attempted to excuse or justify the murder of black people at the hands of police,” I confessed to the group. I made a commitment to not succumb to comfortable, easy apathy in the face of injustice- but to face it honestly.

Since that day, about a month ago, there have been more gun shots, more children rendered fatherless, more black bodies left to bleed and die in the streets.

Yesterday, the nation watched the disturbing video of Terence Crutcher’s death. The 40 year old father of four was on his way home from a college class when his car broke down. His hands were in the air when the men circling in a helicopter above decided he looked like “one bad dude.” He was unarmed when he was shot to death by police. His name was added to the ever growing list of hashtags we use to commemorate the dead.

Where there should have been wailing, cries for justice, and arms linked in solidarity, there have been shrugs of indifference,  excuses, and skepticism. Perhaps worst of all, there has been silence.

I’ve already seen people online try to justify this killing- to explain it away- to invent a narrative in which  this innocent man’s actions made him deserving of a death sentence. It happens every time: instead of lamenting, instead of listening, instead of mourning with those who mourn, there are those who immediately make a case for why, maybe, the unarmed black person deserved to die. Maybe they weren’t being compliant. Maybe the armed police officer felt threatened. Maybe it had nothing to do with race.

It’s the same sentiment expressed by Bill O’Reilly when he responded to Michelle Obama’s recent speech: she said, “I wake up every morning in a house built by slaves.” He responded, “Yeah, but slaves weren’t treated that badly. They were well fed.”

Where in the world does this urge come from? Why is it so bafflingly common? When people of color express anger and frustration about these deaths, why do so many white people react with defensiveness and denial instead of compassion and humility? Why are we unwilling to listen to what it’s like to be black in America from black Americans? Why do we assume we know better than they do what their own experience of prejudice has been?

The truth is, an enormous amount of white people are more concerned about being called a racist than they are with the actual consequences of racism. They defend their white comfort with a vicious ferocity, because they value that comfort more than they value liberty and justice for all.

Here’s the reality: when you account for the fact that the white population is approximately 5 times larger than the black population in America,  data shows that unarmed black Americans are FIVE TIMES as likely as unarmed white Americans to be shot and killed by a police officer.

This doesn’t mean that all police officers are corrupt or bad or racist. It means that there are systems of prejudicial injustice in our country that still affect us and still need attention. It means that there’s a problem, and all of us- including good, honest cops, should want reformation in it’s presence.

 

We all exist within a society influenced by systemic racism. Our country has a long history of dehumanizing of people of color. Sadly, slavery, segregation, and the murder of black people is woven into our foundations. That kind of baggage does not just disappear from a culture overnight, and it is foolish to claim that we are living in a post-racial society. There have been powerful movements in this country which have led to significant change, such as the Civil Rights movement, desegregation of schools, and the abolition of Jim Crow laws. But racial prejudice still affects us all, largely in ways we are unconscious of.

We still have work to do. 

 

The progress made during the Civil Rights movement was not enough to keep white officers from executing 12 year old Tamir Rice just 2.0 seconds after they pulled up on him playing with a toy gun in a park. It was not enough for Michael Brown, Jordan Davis, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and hundreds of others.

My friend Rudy Darden, the same professor who invited me to the aforementioned gathering, took to social media yesterday to express his frustration and sadness. He mentioned that he usually likes to go running to relieve stress, but even something as innocent as taking a jog is haunted by fear when racial prejudice is so often lethal.

In my high school class yesterday, I thought about all the mothers of my students who would once again be battling fear tonight. My students were drawing self portraits in charcoal and hanging them proudly on the walls. I thought about the fear some of them felt themselves- fear that they must mask with strength- strength that is interpreted as dangerous and threatening by our culture.

As we reflect on yet another senseless death, let us make the choice to respond with humility and courage rather than denial and silence. Let us not remain asleep- let’s wake up. Let us mourn with those who mourn, confront injustice head on, and roll up our sleeves- because there’s still work to do.

 

 

 

 

A Moment Like This

A Moment Like This

It happened as we slept. We woke up in a daze, in disbelief, and watched helplessly as the death toll climbed from 9 to 20 to 50. We spent the morning absorbing the news, praying together, feeling sad.

The next day, we got that horrible phone call. My husband picked it up and just said  “No. Oh no. Oh my God.” Jake’s friend and coworker, Antonio, was among the dead. The call came from my sister Katie, who also works at the store and had said goodbye to him as he left his shift the night before.

Jake fluctuated between sadness, silence, and disbelief. He mentioned how surreal it was that he was killed- not by a disease or a sickness, but gunned down in a place that should have been safe. This was national news- the deadliest mass shooting in modern America History- and it was all unfolding in our backyard, effecting us and the people we knew.

It was all so surreal. I felt heartbroken and helpless. I tried to sleep but it crept into my dreams. On social media, some people were using this violent, hate fueled tragedy to further their own agenda. A few were even trying to arouse hatred and fear of our Muslim neighbors- to further divide and marginalize people in the midst of this horror.

It was exhausting .

I found comfort, hope, and strength where most of us did: in the long lines at the blood banks, the outpouring of encouragement and love from the community, and a willingness to serve which seemed to pour in from all corners of the city.

At the Vigil, my friend Leena and I stood on the lawn by City Hall surrounded by thousands of our Orlando neighbors. We listened as Pastors and Community Leaders spoke words of encouragement and hope into the darkness we were experiencing.

“God is love.”

“You are loved by God, whether you are gay, straight, trans, queer, lesbian, or bi.”

“Love will conquer hate- every time.”

It felt like an act of resistance to stand together and to speak those words- to believe them.  We held up lit candles in silence as the church bells rang out- 50 times. Hot wax dripped past our fingers and tears fell from our eyes.

For a moment, we were able to cut past all the politics and social media storms by standing in one another’s physical presence, breathing the same air and standing on the same soil. Strangers embraced like brothers and sisters, weeping and comforting each other. A Sikh woman passing out water and food saw me crying, and stopped what she was doing to embrace and kiss me.

It was healing, it was good.

But we still have so far to go.


 

This is a defining moment in history. Right now, the LGBT community is mourning a horrific act of violence. Many people are hurting, and many people are feeling vulnerable. This act of hatred and violence came within the context of an already marginalized group of people.

If there is any moment to be the church, this is it. This is not a time to be silent. This is a moment to surround, to embrace, to serve, to listen, to lift up, to mourn, to be humble. 

It is my hope that as Christians, we would take this opportunity to develop a fuller, more genuine compassion for all LGBT people. I believe that by doing so, we are following in the footsteps of our radically inclusive Jesus, whose life was defined by his love for society’s most marginalized people groups.

I don’t think anyone will disagree when I say that the church has had a tragically bad track record of inflicting hurt rather than healing on the LGBT community. While there are certainly many within the church who have long affirmed and served LGBT people, the overwhelming message many gay people have received from the church has not been one of genuine love, but one of caution, fear, correction, and rejection.

Often, rhetorical “love” which is offered by Christians comes qualified with condemnation and disapproval.

It is important that the church be humble and realistic about the ways hateful rhetoric and exclusionary attitudes within our circles have contributed to a culture in which LGBT people feel shame, fear, and exclusion. 

This is hard. But so important.

We must remember that our culture wars come at a cost. Since the debates over the Bathroom Bills caught fire, calls to suicide hotlines for trans people nearly doubled. LGBT groups- teenagers in particular- already have the highest suicide rate of any group in the country. The Washington Post reports that the suicide attempt rate among transgender youth at 57 percentChildren, who made in the image of God and deeply loved by him, are internalizing shame, guilt, and self hate to the point that they are killing themselves. This fact is statistically linked to exclusionary crusades waged from behind a keyboard.

This violence and these deaths should be in our minds as we mourn the violence and death which took place on Sunday.

 

In a post I wrote about a month ago, I said this:“In our limited understanding of complex issues, it is my prayer that the Evangelical Church would err on the side of graciousness rather than judgement; inclusion rather than exclusion, and empathy rather than condemnation.”

I still believe that. I am still trying to remain humble and open to how I can best be a reflection of God’s love to my neighbors. And I am still learning.

I am learning that it is almost always more important to mourn with those who mourn than debate someone you think is wrong.

I am learning to listen to the voices of LGBTQ people rather than assuming I know what they think, feel, and need.

I am learning that love which must be qualified with moral correction hardly ever feels like love.

I am learning that it is not always my job to be the mouth piece of God to gay people- that often, it is gay people who show the ministering love of God to me.

I am learning that nearly 50 percent of the nations LGBT population identify as Christian. These people are more than an issue to debate- they are my brothers and sisters.

I am still learning to remain hopeful in the powerful, healing grace of our God, which is not too small to include all the people he has made.

Animals, Dominion and the Sacredness of Creation 

Animals, Dominion and the Sacredness of Creation 

If you condensed the history of the universe into a single calendar year, with the big bang occurring on January 1st, the stars of the Milky Way forming a galactic spiral in May, our solar system taking form in September, and the first animals rising to life in early December, then comparatively, human beings have only existed for the last 60 seconds before midnight, December 31st.  Written history only extends back in time about 5 seconds.

That’s it. Human history is a breath. 

Science feels like existential poetry when you remember that the light of the stars is billions of years old and the dirt beneath your feet is filled with ancient bones. The earth is scattered with the memory of creatures who lived before us. Their skeletons lie fossilized, curled and preserved in rock, waiting to be exhumed and remembered. Bones are a promise that there was once flesh, there was thought, there was life.

Maiasaura, “The Good Mother Dinosaur” left us her nest full of hatchlings. Her babies had grown past their newborn state but had remained in their nest, proving that she regularly returned to care for them.

Gigantopithecus, “The Giant Ape” left us his teeth. Towering at 10 feet tall, this prehistoric giant lived in the forest alongside early humans for nearly a million years, feasting on a vegetarian diet of bamboo and fruits.

Maiacetus inuus  “The Mother Whale” left us her body, still pregnant. The protective cage of her skeleton shielded her child, who was pointed outward, face first, suggesting that these primitive whales gave birth on land.

There is something profoundly reorienting for me about the fact that thought predates humanity. Memory predates us. Pain, play, fear, maternal love, sight, joy, grief- these were experienced by creatures for millions of years before man ever drew breath. Across the millennia, in ancient seas and skies and in the treetops, lives were lived. The earth inhaled and exhaled and shifted with the vibrancy and drama of real, relational, communicative existence. Birth and death, sunrise and sunset.

According to the creation story in Genesis, God’s spirit was there all the while, hovering over the waters, weaving unspeakable wonders, whispering “It is good, it is good, it is good.”  All the years which came before us were not empty. They were not “filler time.” They were not less significant because they did not include us. They mattered.

The poetry of the psalms declares that all creation worships its creator, and that the whale’s song is really a song of praise unto God. If that’s so, than even worship itself predates the human mind. There is a divine purpose for the  faraway galaxies and ocean depths which human eyes will never see; there is magic and there is glory still unknown to the human heart.

The bedrock foundation of my belief systems began to shift when I became convinced that we do not give significance to everything else. We are a part of the cosmic story, but we are not the whole story.  We are one expression of God’s vast creation undoubtedly a unique and special one-  but we are not the sum of all things.

In recent years, I began thinking about something which has always been right before my eyes, yet was strangely absent from my moral consideration: the value and significance of animal life.

I was fascinated to learn about the vivid inner worlds of animals like whales and dolphins- creatures which lived in a mysterious, watery world, had complex social structures and modes of communication we are still just beginning to understand. I learned that whale and dolphin brains contain Spindle Cells, which are responsible for complex social responses such as empathy.  There is even a part of the cetacean brain which humans do not have- called the Paralimc Cortex, which is associated with processing emotions and may contribute to their highly elaborate social groups. They suddenly seemed like aquatic alien life forms, fascinating in their uniqueness.

I started to consider the vast array of diversity of life on earth. I imagined life though the eyes of chimps and pigs and ravens and the dogs sleeping at my feet. Even those animals without hyper evolved intelligence or cognition were still sentient, and that sentience seemed to matter. A calf leaps for joy when released into an open, sunny field, and cries out in pain when it is caged too long.

Within my Christian circles, these sorts of discussions often descended into abject debate over whether or not animals possessed a “soul” as we define it. I was focused on something more immediate-their experience of their own life. I knew that whatever they were, they weren’t nothing. God endowed them with minds to think, he made them capable of feeling joy and of experiencing pain. I knew that whatever spark of life it was that gave my dog her personality, whatever spirit caused a mother elephant to weep over the body of her dead child, whatever awareness enabled Kanzi the bonobo ape to learn a language and use it to communicate with his keepers- it was a spark of life given by God. Surely his love and mercy were certainly not too small to include these creatures he had made. Surely he regarded them as something more than disposable commodities, and cared about their suffering and their pain.

I began to believe that animals possessed an intrinsic value which was altogether separate from how they could be used, appreciated, eaten, or otherwise utilized by man. 

This was a significant perspective shift for me- me, who emerged from an anthropocentric tradition, from a humanity whose histories, mythologies, and philosophies have always centered man as the nucleus of creation. Me, who was raised in a religious tradition which often depicts God as only being concerned with human affairs, which has a blundered history of rejecting scientific findings which threaten to replace mankind as the center-most character in nature.

Before the Theory of Evolution came along, it was easy to draw a bold red line between man and the rest of the beasts. Darwin blurred this line of separation when he revealed that we are in fact connected to all other living things in a literal, biological sense. Although we are unique amongst the animals, we share a kinship with them as well.

In scripture, the thing which separates humanity from the rest of the animals is the Imago Dei, “The Image of God.” 

When I was a little girl in Sunday school, wearing my frilled dress and munching on glazed donuts from the sanctuary lobby, I learned-with the help of a green felt board- that God blessed Adam with this distinction gave him dominion over all the animals in the Garden of Eden. 

“And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Growing up in the Evangelical Church, the topic of animal suffering was almost never brought up. The Church’s silence spoke loudly to me about how secondary, how utterly unimportant this issue must be. The only thing which seemed somewhat clear was my understanding of dominion, which essentially meant that man is not only better than the rest of creation, he is the rightful ruler over all of it. Dominion was our God-given right to do with the environment and animals what we pleased. I have heard it used to excuse deforestation, mass extinction of species, intensive farming, and even global warming.

Dominion, rather than serving as a mandate for responsible ecological caretaking, is often used as a license for man’s complete control over everything else. Rather than emphasizing the importance of our relationship with the earth, it defends our tendency to make environmentalism a “none issue.”  Too often, it is used as an excuse for the catastrophic mess we are making of the natural world, as if the complete domination and degradation of the earth were our birthright; as if widespread abuse, mistreatment, and disregard for animal suffering were somehow sanctioned by God.

This attitude is made worse by the belief that the earth is essentially disposable. As Mark Driscoll told conference attendees in 2013: “I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV.”

If you believe that the eventual destiny of the natural world is to be reduced to a burning, discarded trash heap, one which the souls of the saved will be evacuated out and away from, that leaves no incentive to protect or conserve the environment. If anything, it gives permission to treat God’s creation like garbage.

But if you believe, as I do, that the Creator of the Universe is fiercely committed to the restoration and renewal of all things, to healing what has been broken and reclaiming what was once called “good,” then baring his image means bringing forth the first fruits of that renewal into the present by actively caring for the world he has made. 

Romans chapter 8 says this:

19: The creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that  the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

It is true that we wield tremendous, terrible power over the rest of the planet. No other creature compares to us. There is not an animal on earth we cannot kill or natural landscape we cannot decimate when it suits us. The landscape, the atmosphere, the oceans, the rainforests, countless species of animals- they are all ours to do with what we will; to either protect and defend or abuse and destroy. All life on earth rests in our human hands. 

Being endowed with the Imago Dei  means we have a responsibility to reflect God’s image back into the rest of creation. And who is our God? Our God is Jesus- not an abusive tyrant, who savors and misuses his power, but one who made himself like a servant, emptying and sacrificing himself for the sake of the undeserving and the small. Christianity always calls for the the strong to defend the weak and the powerful to be kind to the powerless.

Our oldest commandment is not one of totalitarian power. It is not a license to inflict violence on creatures or ecological holocaust to the planet. It is a sacred call to join God in his mission to protect, care for, and liberate creation: to help set it free from it’s groan of travail.  

In recent years, Christians have slowly but surely begun to warm up to the idea that caring for the Earth is part of our Christian responsibility. It’s now time to ask what that means for animals.

Consider, if you will, this information:

  1. We are currently experiencing the largest mass extinction of animal species since the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Each day, dozens of species of animals disappear off of the face of the Earth forever. 99 Percent of the time, these mass extinctions are the result of human activities.

2. As a culture, we consume more meat at lower prices than any other society in human history. In order for this to be possible, nine billion animals are slaughtered annually in Factory Farms in the United States. In these factories, sentient animals are utterly devoid of rights and treated like pieces of machinery. They are routinely dismembered without anesthetic, kept in such tight confinement that they are unable to stand or turn around for the majority of their lives, and pumped so full of antibiotics (to preemptively guard against diseases in the filthy conditions) and growth hormones that their bones break beneath their own weight. Weak or sickly piglets are routinely picked up by their hind legs and swung hard onto the concrete floor so that their skulls are crushed. Male “layer” chicks are also of no use and are therefore ground up alive. Many animals which are not properly “stun gunned” are dropped into boiling vats of water fully conscious, beginning the process of slaughter while still slowly dying.

I don’t think it is extreme to say that this is a grievous, shameful, horrendous treatment of the creation God has given us to cultivate and keep.

No one wants to cause an animal pain or suffering unnecessarily. But if you’re willing to look behind the curtain, you’ll quickly find that our smallest convenience is worth their worst pain: an afternoon snack for us is worth a lifetime of suffering in darkness for them, a day at the zoo for us is worth a lifetime of unnatural confinement for them.

As Matthew Scully writes, “We are called to treat animals with kindness, not because they have rights or power or some claim to equality, but in a sense because they don’t: because they all stand unequal and powerless before us.”

Today, I want to urge you to reconsider the relationship we have to the rest of the animals God has made. To widen your circle of empathy, to see that the promise of renewal is not to small to include them.

This Messy Renewal

This Messy Renewal

In the past few years, my faith has been deconstructed, shaken, rearranged, re-imagined, worn thin, beat up, and in many ways, renewed.

Of course, for me, renewal has been less like flipping a switch, and more like shedding my skin. It’s like giving birth; long, drawn out and messy. It’s come through existential crisis, dark nights of the soul, genuine frustration, and long periods of feeling spiritually homeless. It comes through doubt, honesty, reading, talking, and whispered prayers. 

The extra-martial affair and subsequent suicide of my pastor in the fall of 2012 fractured the ceiling of my worldview, and little cracks followed along the fault lines. I was devastated, angry, and heartbroken. Questions flooded my mourning mind, and they were questions no one seemed to know how to answer. 

Isaac knew the bible better than anyone I know. If he believed the things he preached, why didn’t they help him in those final moments of despair?

How do I know that any pastor or leader I listen to is not also living a double life of secrecy? How can I trust anything church leaders say?

These public scandals, falls from grace, and moral collapses of mainstream ministers seem to be so common and widespread. What does that reveal about the way we’re structuring the church model? How much of this damage is a result of an unrealistic expectation of perfection thrust upon our pastors? How much of it is a result of an unhealthy imbalance of power between congregants and leadership teams? 

While it is true that the church is made up of humans and will therefore always be imperfect, isn’t it worth considering whether these catastrophes are symptomatic a sickness?

It amazing how once you begin questioning one thing, the floodgates of your mind open up and you start questioning everything else. I saw sickness everywhere I looked, and I tried in vain to swallow my mounting cynicism. Well-meaning Christian friends and family members would provide me with the standard Christian answers to my questions, but they now seemed pale, thin, and unhelpful. 

I realize now that the death of my pastor was probably the catalyst which unleashed all of the doubts and questions I’d kept at bay over the years. Growing up in the American Evangelical tradition, I had gotten the message that my Christian salvation is largely based upon believing in all the right things. And when your salvation depends on believing the right things, asking the wrong questions can be dangerous: getting the wrong answer is heresy.

During my college years, I existed on a pretty steady diet of neo-reformed teachers like John Piper and the other members of the Gospel Coalition. These days, when I see a “Desiring God” article appear on my news feed, I agonize over its often burdensome, extra-biblical, and legalistic content. But I didn’t back then. Once, it had felt safe and reassuring to be deep in this evangelical mainstream: a place where everything was black and white, right or wrong. There was an answer provided for every question, a higher purpose for every action, and a monopoly on truth which kept the mysteries of the universe tidy and organized. 

But then that fell apart, too.

I started to read the disturbing things Piper has said about women, like, that they should endure physical and emotional abuse “for a season” so as to not overthrow their husband’s authority over them, or that they shouldn’t be police officers because they are not to “have authority over a man.” Around that time, his buddy Mark Discoll was calling America a “pussified nation” and progressive Christians “pansies” and “homo-evangelicals.” Scandal circulated around his misappropriation of church funds, his domineering, bullying behavior, and his promotion of violent, macho masculinity.

The deeper I got into some of this neo-calvinist theology, the more it twisted, dark, and unrecognizable it became to me. Piper teaches that human beings are totally deprevaed, and that in order to display his glory, God made some people to be recipients of his saving grace, and he made others just to send them to hell. He also teaches that God does not just allow but ordains sin and suffering, and that he does so for the sake of his glory.

But if child rape, genocide, and slavery are not enemies of God which Christ came to conquer but tools God uses to make himself look good, then that was a God I did recognize.

Meanwhile, the swirling cloud of exclusionary rhetoric coming from Evangelicals in public and political arenas did nothing to alleviate this Christian identity crisis I was having. I struggled hard with the dissonance I sensed between the teachings of Jesus and some of the actions of my tradition. I mourned the casualties of these culture wars being waged by the Religious Right in the name of Christ. I felt pressured to denounce LGBT “lifestyles” and to vote a certain way, despite my conscience. 

Pillars of fundamentalism crashed around me, disappearing beneath dark waves. Whenever I touched one, it broke apart like dust, leaving my hand to grasp for something sturdier. There were a couple years when my faith was muffled by sadness and apathy. I slept in a lot of Sundays.

There must be more to the Christian imagination than compiling these lists of rights and wrongs, more to salvation than an intellectual response to a theological question, more to God’s redemptive promise than saving souls out of a ruined world. 

Then, something incredible happened. I started to hear an echo of my experiences in the voices of others: in the pages of books, on blogs and in 140 characters or less.

I read Rachel Held Evans’ book Searching for Sunday and wept nearly every time I opened its pages. Her words were sweet and sacred to me, they hugged and rocked me back and forth as I read them on my bathroom floor at 3 am. They were proof that I was not alone, they were a reminder that Jesus was walking towards me through this fog.

It felt like a fresh wind was blowing through the halls of my soul. It rushed in unannounced, waking me up from sleep, shaking loose old tenets of my faith, forcing me to my feet. I saw, with renewed excitement, there was more to the mission of God than I had previously thought. During this time, I realized how starved I was for the holy, ministering voices of women. I had been deprived of hearing women teach from the pulpit my whole life, and receiving their wisdom felt like water. God brought women into my life to encourage and embolden me, women who inspired me to find a voice in the midst of my struggles.

My husband, too, was a steady, wise, compassionate voice of reason as storms raged around my soul. He was a real flesh and blood reminder of how deeply good, honest, reasonable, and accepting Christians can be. I was lucky enough to fall asleep next to him every night, and talk his ear off about everything I was thinking and reading.

Slowly but surely, I began to believe that God wasn’t afraid of my questions, doubts, and differences of opinion. Maybe he even encouraged them: maybe he wanted the full, honest engagement of my intellect. Maybe wrestling with him was what was keeping my faith alive.

As I investigated multifaceted and nuanced theological problems, I began to suspect maybe God deals with people uniquely, as individuals, instead of requiring that everyone fit into narrow, rigid categories. Maybe his grace fills in the spaces where our theological boxes remain unchecked.

My take on evangelism became less about a mission to gain Christian recruits and more about a challenge to sincerely listen to and love people. My goal shifted away from trying to convince to people to think like an evangelical, and moved towards an effort to introduce people to Jesus by meeting their immediate needs. 

And although I maintain a strong belief that there is Truth to be found, I became realistic about the fact that none of us knows it completely. Since we are all learning and growing, since none of us has all of the answers, our salvation can’t possibly be contingent having the right intellectual response to a theological problem. There had to be something more to it than that.

As I took these steps, and I breathed in these freeing thoughts, it felt like a contorted mask was falling off the face of God, revealing a face more loving, wild, and beautiful than the one I had been led to believe in.


 

On this journey, I’ve met so many people whose story resonates with my own. I’ve listened as they shared their own painful church experiences, with trembling hands clasped over cups of coffee. I heard stories from people who experienced abuse within the church walls, controlling and bullying behavior from church leadership, or had long been taught damaging doctrines. I heard from people who felt silenced, abandoned, or just plain out of place in the church pews. These wounds were deep, widespread, and far too common to count.

A lot of these people make up the drastic statistical drop in church attendance and religious affiliation in America.  While I cannot speak for everyone, I know that a lot of us feel spiritually homeless, but not spiritually hopeless.

We’re frustrated by what we’re seeing. We’re disillusioned by what we’ve experienced. We don’t quite fit into the spaces available to us. But for many of us, that doesn’t mean we’re ready to walk away from the faith. We want church. We long for it. Though we have seen that the church can wound, but we are unwilling to give up hope that it can also heal. It can surround. It can embrace. It can lift up and restore.

Contrary to being “too consumerist,” most people from my generation don’t come to church looking for a concert, a performance, or an advertisement. We come in search of a safe place to bring our whole, authentic selves; doubts, differences of opinion, and all. Despite our differences, we want to be bound together with the saints who came before us and the saints to stand beside us by tasting and reviving the sacraments.

If there’s any validity to the experience of people like me, the church owes it to themselves to self to listen to our concerns with an open mind and an open heart. As author Zach Hoag said, “The decline of Christianity in America is not a problem to be solved but an opportunity to be embraced.”  The church must be willing to continually examine itself, as an institution, a denomination, a congregation, and not be above reproach. It must be willing to examine the ways in which certain methodologies or ideologies may contribute to unhealthy patterns, made way for unfair power structures, been complicit in abuse or oversight, or taught damaging doctrines.

Even though some days its hard, I am committed to rejecting cynicism and rooting myself in the hope of Christ. I am committed to this messy, arduous, imperfect process of continual death and rebirth. I am sustained by the belief that our invisible, unknowable God looks like Jesus Christ, and that he will not abandon us in this.

If you’re reading this and you’ve felt the way I have, please know that you’re not alone. Know that you don’t have to be silent. Know that you don’t have to have it all figured out. Reach out and tell your story.