Burden

I am a straight, white, male, CIS,  Christian.  In a disgusting variety of circumstances, me, or somebody a lot like me, is likely to be the first to ask questions, answer questions, expound, pontificate, and attempt to take charge.  I am learning that this is a problem.

It was a bunch of years ago I started to wrap my head around this.  I first started to think about it when the film, “Cry Freedom” lead me to the book, “Biko.”  These are a portrait of a South African freedom fighter who wouldn’t allow European-descended allies to join his groups.  In college, I began to process the idea that racism, sexism, etc packs a 1-2 punch.  The obvious loss is the way that oppressed groups are made to feel as though they can’t, shouldn’t, and don’t have the answers.  The more subtle, but no less significant problem is that people in the majority like myself are socialized to think that we always have to provide the answers, that we have this burden and duty to work out these issues.

Steve-Biko-Quotes-5

Much more recently, my awesome church spent these months focusing on these issues.  I was introduced to the concept of whitespaining and mansplaining.  (If these terms are new to you, I rustled up this definition online: ” to explain or comment on something in a condescending, overconfident, and often inaccurate or oversimplified manner, from the perspective of the group one identifies with,”

I have been trying to listen more and talk less.  I am embarrassed by how difficult it is.

And yet…  here I am.  Pontificating away on my little blog.   I am hoping that this is ironic, and not hypocritical, that I am pondering these things here.

Here is the thing I was thinking about today:

In addition to all the problems and injustices that this system perpetuates on myself and others, I had this realization today about the ways that I think this fouls up my attempts at relating to God.

I have these delusions that I ought to be self sufficient.  I live on these happy lies that I am not dependent on others.  I can earn my keep and my worth is proportional to the value that I have created.  I think the world needs to hear my deep thoughts.

None of this is true in the material world.  But is also diminishes my relationship with my maker.  Because I require and fully depend on “him.”  The love “he” holds for me is not earned, and he has already thought and dismissed every silly little thought I will ever have.

Maybe this is why Jesus shows up among the starving, naked, and enslaved; maybe this is why the rich man will have such a battle in entering the kingdom of heaven.  It is such a primal lesson, how we hold ourselves in comparison to the other in our relationships.  If we can’t get past that, holding ourselves above the people around us, we aren’t likely to connect with God.

 

 

Advertisements

Straight edged

I just finished the book “Nick and Norah’s Infinite Play List.”  It was outstanding, if a bit provacative. 

The title characters are “straight edge.”  A straight edge is a member of the punk/punk rock/hard core/loud, annoying music scene who publicly take a stand against drugs and alchohol.  They often commit to abstaining from sexual contact, eating meat, and consuming nicotine or even cafienne.  It’s not a particularly new or obscure movement.  They are pretty well known and take these comittments very seriously.

While I was aware of the whole straight edge thing, I’d never given it much thought.  One of the things that occured to me, while reading the book, was “Finally!  People at ground zero of all the destruction caused by drugs and extra-maritial sex are responding to this destruction!  We can use this to do some good.”

I’ve tried to explain the second thought I had about four times now and I keep deleting it because it doesn’t sound right.  I’m going to give up on trying to be delicate here.  I hope that folks who know me know my heart and will be able to hear this the way I mean it. 

My second thought was that it’s unfortunate that the whole straight edge thing is mostly a white thing.

This is probably because the larger world of punk rock (or whatever we’re supposed to call it now) is mostly a white thing.  And I’m all for people regardless of skin color staying away from drugs, sex, etc.  It’s not a bad thing that millions of white kids are making a public stance against these things.

But I wish that it could spread into the neighborhoods of other ethnicities.  The problems that straight edges resist are at least as large in African-American communities, Latino communities, even some South east Asian communities.

I found myself wondering: Is there an equivalent to the whole straight edge thing in other communities?  A  resounding, tough, and cool “No” to things like drugs?

The two closest equivalents I could come up with are going to annoy people.  Get ready, if you’re the sort who is easily annoyed.

The closest I can come to the straight edge experience in minority communities is The Black Panthers and the Fruits of Islam of Malcolm X fame.

Both of these groups have done and said terrible things.  But these terrible things have been distorted, over generalized, and taken out of context.   The Black Panthers, particularly, have done some remarkable things that get conveniently forgotten.

And so this makes me wonder: Do we set these groups up?  Out of one side of our mouths, do we wish for more “moral” behavior out of minority groups, but when minority groups actually behave this way, do we fear them and beat them down?  (The “we” here is a collective “we.”  All of us.  Society, the press, the whole thing.)

There is another important question here: Why can’t we, as followers of Christ, create something with the persuasive power of the straight edges?  That dude on the MTV music awards was an idiot.  But he went after promise rings, not straight edges.  Why are Christian morality stances such easy targets?  Is it simply because a straight edge doesn’t necessarily take a stance against violence?  Do they mantain an heir of cool and toughness because they’ll still stomp you with their combat boots, even if they are sober? 

I know that I’ve taken a sabbatical from politics lately and this might seem a violation of my self-imposed exile, to some people.  Clearly my reflections here have political overtones.  But I’m o.k. with that.  I’ve still got lots to work out around the whole Christian/political thing.  (And please know that it was so tempting, this week, to post quite explicitly about the goings on recently in politics)

One realization that is crystal clear, through this sabbatical is that in some sense Jesus didn’t at all care about the political ramifications of his actions.  He never tried to be political, I think, anymore than he tried to be apolitical.  He just was.  And if people saw that as political, or if they saw it as apolitical, it seemed to not matter at all to him.

And that’s how I feel about this topic a bit: I think that I’m speaking the truth as best as I can, here.  It’s quite irrelevant to me if we label this as a politically charged truth.

Deconstructing Race in 10,000 B.C.

I’m not going to write about what a dumb movie 10,000 B.C. was… Though it was dumb.
I’m not going to spend much time on how silly it was anthropologically, geographically, or logistically. Though it was quite silly on all counts.
I’m not even going to go on about how somebody needs to learn what “story” means.

**Spoler Alert: If you’re foolish enough to waste time and money seeing 10,000 B.C., I will reveal some of the climax below. **
I’m much more focused on the subtext of the movie, what it says with regards to our views of race and ethnic differences.
The movie revolves around a tribe of light skinned (European-looking) Cave people. The mystic/wise-woman/shaman of the tribe speaks a prophecy. The main point of the prophecy is that it’ll take somebody with blue eyes to set everybody free. I think that detail is worth noticing: only the blue-eyed person will set everybody free.
These light skinned cave people go on this journey across their frozen tundra. After days of walking through the snow they suddenly find themselves in a jungle. (I laughed outloud. They walk into this scene with all kinds of ferns and trees and steam in the air and you see the snow ground about a hundred feet behind them.) They find this group of dark skinned (African-looking) cave people. These light skinned folks eventually trip upon some sort of prophecy of the darker-skinned people. The European-looking caveman ended up leading an army of African-looking tribes to recover their family and friends from the evil slave traders who had torn through all the lands and tribes and made slaves of all the other people.
It eventually becomes clear that these slave traders are Egyptians working on the pyramids. Much is made of the idea that the Pharoah is treated like a God. If the protagonists are clearly Europeans, if the army is clearly African, then the Egyptians are clearly middle-eastern.
I recognize that if you look at a map Egypt is in Africa. I realize that by most reasonable descriptions, Egyptians should be considered African. The truth is that most people think of Egypt as being part of the Middle East. I’m resisting the urge to take a tangent of speculation around why this might be the case.

I believe there is a subtext in all this. A ludicrious re-casting of history itself. Europe and Africa should be such good friends and the Middle East is the source of all evil. Of course, none of this is stated out. Christianity and Islam don’t even exist, of course, at the time that the movie is set in. I have no idea if this recasting was intentional or not.

This is not so different from many movies. Consider historical pieces like “Ghandi” or “Cry Freedom” Both invent or distort the importance of European figures, making them seem much more important than they actually were. Take a look at most theatrical tellings of the Jesus story. Though many have done a much better job in the last few years with making the characters look remotely Middle Eastern, almost without exception the character playing Jesus will have the lightest skin. Even kids cartoons: notice who has the foreign accents. Almost always it’ll be the villians or the fools. (A friend of mine, many years ago was finishing up her Master’s Degree in American Studies. She wrote an entire thesis on the ethnic stereotypes embodied in the Go-bots cartoon… And yes, there was a Go-bots cartoon, believe it or not.)
If any of these culture happenings existed in a vaccuum I could write them off as coincidence. If there was a countervaling subtext in other films, I could accept the accusations of a liberal, poltically correct media. Maybe those realities exist on the surface of what’s going on in the media, but there is something pretty ugly underneath.

The theology of Black Snake Moan

On a whim, I rented “Black Snake Moan” Partially because of the way they marketed it (particularly the cover of the DVD) I couldn’t figure it out. I was afraid I was getting something really sleezy.
The movie was quite the opposite. In some sense, though, I think it was intentional… Setting up a situation that activates all sorts of assumptions, preconceptions, even prejudices. Seriously, what do most of us think when we see a strong man with a chained up, half-naked young woman?
Do our preconceptions change if we locate race: The man is black and the woman is white?

I wish I could say that I didn’t fall into it. But again, I think it was partially intentional on the part of the brilliant film makers, playing on our assumptions and preconceptions.

It’s this amazing commentary on race, gender, mental health and illness, power dynamics, and Christianity.
There were numerous scenes I found brilliant, touching, insightful. This was one. The back story to this scene is that the main character, Lazurus, finds Rae left for dead, half-naked right outside his yard. She is mentally ill, sexually acts out, suffered horrendous abuse and is wildy and desperately in love with Ronnie. (Niether Ronnie or Lazurus appear in the scene below.) Lazurus decides that can lead Rae into wholeness and chains her in his living room so that she can’t leave and go back to her old ways. R.L. is Lazurus’ pastor and oldest friend. This scene is the meeting between Rae and R.L.

***

Rae
You a preacher?

R.L.
That’s right.

RAE
Can I ask you a question?
(R.L. nods)
People always say, you gotta get good with Jesus, if you want not to go to hell. That you say sorry for all you done and… and Jesus would let you go on to heaven.

R.L.
You could put it that way.

RAE
But that’s so ****’n stupid.
(she catches herself)
I’m sorry. Didn’t mean to curse.

R.L.
What’s on your mind?

RAE
You can’t hurt people… and then just say, I’m sorry, and then everything just gets washed away. Why would heaven want people like that. People who… do what they want and then… switch.

R.L.
I’m gonna tell you somethin’, and it’s just gonna be between you and me.
(Rae anxiously nods)
I think folks carry on about heaven too much. Like it’s some all-you-can-eat buffet up in the clouds.
And folks just gonna do as they’re told so they can eat what they want behind some pearly gates. I can go to Shoney’s for that.
(Rae grins. R.L. leans closer.)

R.L.
There’s sin in my heart. There’s evil in this world. But when I got no one… I talk to God. I ask for strength. I ask for forgiveness. Not for peace at the end of my days when there’s no more life to live and no more good to do, but today. Right now.
(Rae has never had anyone talk to her like this. She is listening. She is understanding.)

R.L.
What’s your heaven? What gives you peace?
(Rae looks at her bare feet. She tries to respond but the pain in her chokes back the words. Tears come to her.)

RAE
(struggling to speak)
Ronnie.

****

There are some sexually explicit scenes in the movie. There are themes that are disturbing, and others that are simply mature. If these things are stumbling blocks for you I’d obviously reccomend you stay away.
But even if you don’t watch the movie, I hope you’ll join me in admiring the truthfullness in the scene quoted above. The characters of Rae and R.L. name such real stumbling blocks that few people really name explicitly:
Non-Christians find the idea of God’s forgiveness ridiculous. We’d be wise to simply own the ridiculousness of it all, and affirm it as truth anyway.
Christians, on the other hand, all too often, simply pass the time in this world while waiting for the all-you-can-eat-buffet in the sky. We’d be wise to carry on about heaven less, I think, and do what we can to bring God’s kingdom about us in the here and now.

Double Standards

I recently found an audio tape that was a staple of my adolescence. The tape was an early Nine Inch Nails. I was a bit schocked. There were portions that were quite obscene. As a whole, it was quite comparable to many of today’s rap C.D.’s, in terms of smut.
Something in me resisted this comparison… But this resistance, it’s a rationalization which borders on racism. It occurs to me that there are a number of activities that we give a pass to the person in the majority (straight, white, male, adult) that we would criticize someone in the minority for engaging in exactly the same thing. Similarly, there are many activities which we engaged in as kids but we find ourselves much more annoyed by the modern versions of these things… even when the principal comes down to the same.
Let’s begin with a variety of music examples:
Consider a bunch of suburban kids listening to some “edgy” music associated most often with white listeners: industrial, heavy metal, punk, etc. There is no shortage of unhealthy sexuality, mysogomy, drug use, condoning of violence, etc in these genre. Yet it seems like it’s much easier to criticize rap C.D.’s which glorify these activities.
I’m not sure if rap has more of these things or not. But quantity isn’t really my point. My point is how do we react when some kid pulls up to us blaring DMX ( a rapper) out his car stero. Compare this with gut reactions to say the Sex Pistols (punk) coming out of the car next to us.
Or consider an adult example:
Imagine a middle class sales rep. This person is filling out paperwork for reimbursement of his expenses. Or he is filling out paperwork stating his sales to recieve a commission. How do we feel when the sales rep pads his numbers to increase his pay check? He is effectively stealing from the company, right?
Compare this reaction to someone walking into the store– perhaps a minority. They grab goods sold by the company and walk out without paying for them.
I’m not saying that stealing is o.k. I am saying that morally there is no difference between the two examples. Both people should be criticized. But do we treat both theives the same?
Or consider a single mom at a park who is talking with her friends instead of supervising her kids. (This one drives me nuts!) We might — and should– feel annoyed with her for neglecting her children.
But what about the dad who impregnated the mom and took off? He is ditching his responsibilities in a much more significant way. Where is our righteous indignation for him?

This last example is going to stir up something, I suspect.
Imagine a pair of teen agers. Kissing passionately in public. We’d most likely be a little annoyed, especially if we had young kids around. But we’d exhale, and go on with our lives.
Now… what if the teen agers were of the same sex?

I understand all the beliefs that homosexuality is wrong. But that’s clearly not the issue with public displays of affection. We didn’t like heterosexual displays either. If it was all about the fact that heterosexuality is wrong, then we’d have no problems with the “straight” kids.
I further understand that there might be two issues with the gay kids: issue #1 is that they are displaying any kind of sexuality. Issue #2 is that they are displaying the wrong kind of sexuality.
But it seems to me that this just shifts the burden back on to us to demonstrate and explain to society at large why homosexuality is wrong (Assuming we believe it is wrong). Given that we failed doing so, we live in a world where homosexuality is considered o.k. We might not like this fact. We might not want to live in this world. But we do.

Last example: Many kids I knew growing up had a stash of Playboy magazines. I don’t know where they all came from. But it was almost a right of passage.
I’m not saying that it’s right. I’m not saying that we should have had them. But we did.
Today’s kids don’t need a physical place to stash smut. They have the internet.
Is there any difference between a 12 year old boy hiding pornography in his bedroom in 1980 and a 12 year old boy engaging in internet pornography in 2008?

I am not condoning obscene lyrics, stealing, inapropriate displays of sexuality, or pornography in any form. There can be real differences between these. As a society, we need to deal with a thief who steals 1 million dollars differently than we deal with a theif who steals 100 hundred dollars.
Spiritually and morally, though, sin is sin. Furthermore, external shoplifting and internal embezzlement are treated differently; It’s tempting to give punk music a pass while critiquing gangsta rap. These are areas that differentiating makes no sense whatsoever.
It’s telling, I think, the way we make these determinations. I consider myself a pretty enlightened guy, and I know that I have to actively combat my tendency to make some of these judgements. I don’t think I’m alone.