Justice

Why I “Stand” With Kaepernick

200It was about a year ago when Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem and all hell broke loose. Here we are a year later, Kaepernick doesn’t have a job, and this is still a hot issue. I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the last year. I’ve been trying to assess what it’s all about and why it matters so much, and I’ve been trying to see both sides in the process.

I get why people are deeply offended by him taking a knee. There is something to be said for taking that moment at a sports gathering to remember things that matter more, not the least of which is showing some respect to the country in which we live and which really is a great place to live. I understand that the raising of the flag and the singing of the anthem means even more to those who’ve served in our military and particularly for those who’ve fought and are fighting in our wars. And I get that it’s hard for people for whom that means so much to watch others take a knee during it, effectively sitting out.

But with all that in mind, and having really listened to those points, I’m at a point where I’m with Kap. Everything we’re talking about when it comes to the National Anthem is symbolic. It is something that represents something else that’s real. The blood, sweat, tears and lives given in fighting in our military are real- very real- but the flag is a symbol. The song is a symbol. And I love symbols. As a pastor symbols play a massive role in much of what I do. And what I’ve said about religious symbols also applies to any symbol, and that is that while they are beautiful, they are also dangerous. When our relationship with the symbol becomes more important than human sitting (in Kap’s case literally kneeling) next to me, the symbol has begun to play too significant of a role in our life.

I believe the flag and the anthem have begun to play too significant of a role in our collective lives here in America. And what Kap did was expose it. Kap didn’t take a knee to disrespect soldiers. He took a knee because something in him said, “I just can’t stand up and give myself to a flag that has enslaved and murdered black bodies since its inception”. You see, what people of color have experienced in this country over the last few centuries is real. And though there have been many noble, good and great people who have fought for our freedom, what we white people need to start hearing and getting is that this freedom is one that people of color have (generally speaking) simply not experienced as we have.

The history on this is long, convoluted, and buried, but it’s there. Yet we’ve heard the voices of black America crying out for centuries, and in the last four years that voice has begun to cry out again in a particular way. Every time it cries, white American largely dismisses it. We pat black America on the back and say, “oh it’s ok, honey, it’s not as bad as you think”. No, friends, it’s not as good as we think. As we dismiss the cries for black lives, we not only dismiss the content, but we also critique the form, which effectively silences the cries. No matter how it is that black America cries out for justice, we tell them that they’re means are wrong, so therefore we don’t have to listen.

When I think about Kaepernick’s protest, I think it may just be perfect: First of all, why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag that, though it has given him some huge blessings in the success he’s had in the NFL, has systematically marginalized his race? Furthermore why would we expect him to stand and honor a flag and sing a song to that flag whose 3rd verse reads “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/ From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave/ And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave/ O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave”? The land of the free has slaves?

So Kap decided, “I can’t do it”. He was being honest to what is going on inside of him. To stand and sing would be a charade. I’ll be honest: There have been times in my not so distant pass where my soul has been troubled with enough doubt and sorrow that I could not stand and sing “Amazing Grace”. It would be dishonest. But as a pastor sometimes I need to do that, just as a soldier stands and sings no matter how she/he/they may feel. As far as I know, Colin Kaepernick is not a soldier. So he took a knee.

On top of all that, he did it discreetly. Certainly he knew the cameras would find him (you can only be so discreet on an NFL sideline), but he quietly took a knee on the sideline, and did not make a show of it himself. The media made it a show. And, yes, he probably knew that would happen and is part of the reason he did it, but still, he quietly knelt and chose not to sing. Not only that, he didn’t tell anyone else they shouldn’t sing. he prevented no one other than himself from honoring America, and he simply made a personal choice consistent with his thoughts, feelings, and experience.

In these ways, it’s a nearly perfect form of nonviolent protest: personal, authentic, legal, powerful, and clear.

And he’s gotten black-balled for it. Colin Kaepernick can’t find a job, primarily because he’s not that great of a football player, but also certainly because of his protest. Teams don’t want the distraction. That is a natural consequence of his actions in 2017 America. If he were at a Tom Brady level, he’d have a job. It would be worth the distraction. But what’s also true is if he hadn’t been true to himself and simply stood and sang, he’d also have a job. He’s good enough in a quarterback hungry league to have a job somewhere. (I, for one, would love to see him in purple and gold backing up Sam Bradford. After all, with our offensive line, we need a QB who can run.) But Kap doesn’t have a job. And he doesn’t because he called out America’s racism in a clear and powerful way.

It’s quite amazing. You can rape women, beat your kid, bet on dog fights, and incur numerous DUIs in the NFL and still have a job making millions. But you take a knee during the anthem, and you’re out. The symbol has become valued above and beyond the way we’re treating humans (and dogs). Our relationship to the symbol is out of whack, and Colin Kaepernick called it out.

He called out the god under whom America is one nation: and that god is the stars and stripes. The god we worship is the flag and the way we worship it is by singing The Star Spangled Banner. And Colin Kaepernick gets the credit for exposing our idolatry. It is exposed as idolatry not because we stand and sing, but because of how we respond to those who choose not to.

We have a nasty disgusting sin of enslavement and genocide in our nation’s system, and we need to get honest about it. Don’t deflect it. Don’t deny it. Start really letting in the cries of the oppressed in our midst. It’s there. I get why so many boo him, and if that’s you, you absolutely have the right to do that. I’m just asking you to really examine why you boo. And I’m sorry but I can’t stomach the “men and women gave their lives to protect our freedom” rhetoric. Imbedded in that statement is the notion that every military action this nation has taken has been one to defend our freedom. We’re fools if we think that’s true.

More often than not these days, what so many women and men have died defending is western imperialism. And that is not a critique of those who have fought and died in those actions, it is a critique of the women and men who sent them there to do it. It is a critique of those at the top who exploit soldiers’ loyalty and send them off to protect national interests in the veneer of “freedom”. This is not always the case, but it is enough that we cannot give military operations a free pass. Those soldiers need to be respected and remembered and taken care of, but not necessarily the causes for which they were forced and sent to fight.

All of that is to say, I stand (or rather kneel) with Colin Kaepernick. I hear the cries, I see the pain, and I don’t want to be party to it anymore. I have a ton yet to learn, and a lot of courage to muster to fight for equality in more than symbolic ways, but for now, when I enter that NFL stadium on Thursday, though Kap won’t be there, he should be, and so I will kneel for him. I’ll sit this one out for you, Kap. And if you ever don my beloved purple and gold, I’ll sit one out with you.

Our White Rubble

My heart is heavy today. Very heavy. As I said in worship yesterday, this all began for me when I was 8 or 9 and my mom wouldn’t let me watch The Dukes of Hazzard- not because of Daisy Duke’s “daisy dukes”- but because of the General Lee and its glorious roof. I didn’t get it. It came back to me in 1991 when the video of Rodney King being assaulted by police offers was released. I got it a little more, but not entirely. Then it seemed to disappear as it was buried in a period where black Americans were imprisoned at a rate never before seen in humanity. It came back to white America in 2014 with the murder Michael Brown, and since then we’ve been in an ugly, endless, futile struggle.

It seems that about every 6-12 months something happens that takes root in our news cycle and we find ourselves in these odd social media debates around race in America. It happened again this weekend. We had actual Nazi flags being flown alongside confederate ones, as wannabe-nazis and KKK members joined forces with torches to march for the preservation of the statue of a military leader who fought to preserve slavery . It’s kind of mind boggling when you think about it.

What this stuff doesn’t take long to lead to among we progressives is a social media pissing contest to see who is the most enlightened. And while we do that, the racists, white supremacists, nazis, and grand wizards celebrate with a can of Schlitz in one hand, and a torch in the other, while progressives eat their own.

I took the bait. So my heart is heavy.brick-white-wall-1468830718LdH

I’m a cis-gender, straight, white, male, Christian pastor. I’m trying to find my way through actually doing something about privilege, white supremacy, and equality. I’m
deeply concerned about the systemic racism that is alive and well in our world and which continues to marginalize and oppress people of color. And I’m trying to do what I can as a faith/community leader to move my sphere of influence to work for a better, more whole, and equal world. And here’s my confession:

I have no idea what I’m doing. But here’s what else: I don’t know if anyone does.

My heart is heavy because all we seem able to do is lash out on the Twitter and Facebook machines about how horrible it is. And it is. And while limousine liberals like myself duke it our for social media king-of-the-hill, nothing changes. It’s not getting better. And I think part of why it’s not getting better is that we seem to be more concerned with rhetoric than we do actual change. We want to hear white supremacy condemned, and we seem to be satisfied with that.

White supremacy needs to be condemned, but if we want actual change in our culture, we’re going to have to do a lot more than preach and post on social media. This is going to take hard work that goes to the soul of whiteness. We don’t get off the hook because we preached about it Sunday. We don’t get off the hook because we called out those who didn’t. We don’t get off the hook because a black friend liked or shared what we had to say. I don’t get off the hook for writing a blog. We’ve got hard work to do. We need to get into our respective white communities and start to have the hard conversations, rather than surrounding ourselves in our echo chambers that make us feel better ourselves. And we need to be supporting and resourcing one another along the way.

My heart is heavy, because here we are again, arguing it out with people we don’t know, most of whom probably want the same end, but rather than helping each other, we’re eat each other along the way. Meanwhile white America will continue dreaming, marginalized and oppressed people will still get harmed as they are buried more deeply in our white rubble, and the Nazis and white supremacists will continue to prop up a 300 year old system that protects their (and my) privilege and power. So my heart is heavy.

It’s very heavy today. The cycle seems endless. Unless those of us who truly do want equality stop tearing each other down, and start helping one another in the fight, we will lose. Or rather, people not like me will lose. Because that’s who always loses.

Evangelicalism at Iliff School of Theology (Wait… What?)

IMG_8059The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. In 2012 I wrote a piece I called My Journey to No, which was my way of not only publicly opposing the Minnesota marriage amendment to ban same sex marriage, but it was also my way of publicly announcing my theological shift in regards to the humans I had previously whittled down to the “issue” of homosexuality. That is, I had moved from someone who bought and taught conservative evangelical theology on “matters of human sexuality” to someone who believes in a more generous Gospel of Christ, and believes that not only should LGBTQ people be accepted fully into the fold of Christianity and humanity, but also should be called to be our leaders, teachers, and mentors in and of the faith. It is statements like this that I know often upset my evangelical sisters and brothers, but the truth is we cannot hold a generous Gospel in one hand, while holding a charge against Bishop Oliveto in the other.

Nearly five years after writing My Journey to No, last Wednesday I found myself in the Iliff School of Theology chapel in a near full-on heave cry as I was led in one of the most powerful worship experiences of my life. Bishop Karen Oliveto was scheduled to preach, even though she had just returned home from hearings in New Jersey regarding whether her election to the Episcopacy last year was valid simply because she is a publicly professing lesbian. I can’t imagine the painful words she had to endure in those hearings…

…Oh wait, yes I can imagine those words, because for the first 15-20 years of my Christianity I believed those words, I said those words, and (and here is where I really cringe) I taught those words to teenagers. You see, I was an evangelical. That meant that I had a responsibility to spread the good news of Jesus Christ, which when it came to LGBTQ people meant “you’re an abomination, but I can help you.” We can spin it all we want, but that essentially was our “good news”.

As soon as I saw Bishop Oliveto walk in I felt tears well up. The worship experience was beautifully crafted and led mostly by Iliff’s LGBTQ community and included great music, including a powerful acoustic rendition of “Blessed Assurance”, as well as some other beautiful choruses and original pieces. But in all the beauty, something wasn’t right in me. I couldn’t figure out what. My soul was aching as though it was waiting to crack open and unleash something. What was this about? I’ve been through this. I’ve come to terms with my evangelical past and have since worked to be an ally (not always well, but I’m learning). What was happening? Why was my soul so unsettled.

The coup de gras for my aching soul came when a fellow Iliff classmate read a poem they wrote for this occasion. It cannot be described, nor can it be merely read. This was true poetry: It needs to be experienced. Take six minutes and give it a listen/viewing (yes it’s a six minute poem, and it needs to be, and it’s beautiful):

As the recitation went on, I found myself beginning to mildly convulse as I tried to hold back the tears that were beginning to pour out from my soul like a spring of abundant life. I didn’t want the drama of my soul to distract from the beauty being breathed into the Iiliff Chapel air.

The poem finished and I was torn open in all the good ways. This unveiling of my soul felt like what I imagine the tearing open of the veil of the Holy of Holies to be. Something was exposed. Then it hit me. How many students have I silenced? How many teenagers sat in my youth rooms desperately needing a safe space to be, express, and live into who they are, and I silenced them? I know there’s grace, and I know I’ve changed, and I even know that in those days, my motives, though misguided, were not to cause harm. But I did. My intentions do not change the fact that I silenced. As students gathered for confirmations and baptisms, I put white robes on them to homogenize them when perhaps all they wanted or even needed was to live into their unique, colorful, fully alive, and not always normative selves.

My soul laid bare, I collected myself, as Bishop Oliveto began to preach. I can’t tell you what an honor it was to be in that space with her and other dear friends, most relatively new but one I’ve known for well over half my life- one whose story is intimately and inseparably tied to mine. In Bishop Oliveto you could see that the pain was real and deep, but more so, it was not the final word. Resurrection will have the final word. Resurrection will precede the final punctuation mark of her story. And mine. And yours. Hope began to swirl in the air with the grace of gentle but felt summer breeze. The kind that messes up your neat and tidy picnic table.

And then another classmate of mine for whom I have great admiration sang a song he wrote for Bishop Oliveto. The poem broke open my aching soul, and this song became a healing balm for it, not closing it back up, but leaving it laid bare and vulnerable and free: “I’m made in the image love…” poured into the air like an aspirated baptism drowning me in grace and healing with every breath. Listen to it. All of it:

I walked out of this worship experience with an undeniably felt experience of the very Spirit of God. She swam through that room with a kind of power and beauty that takes your breath away. In a time of such bad news in the life of LGBTQ United Methodists, hope, grace, and healing echoed off the walls of the Iliff Chapel that morning.

Bad news came later in the week. On Friday the UMC Judicial Council ruled by a 6-3 vote that Bishop Oliveto’s election to the episcopacy did violate church law. It was another crushing blow in the hope for inclusion in the United Methodist Church. But I did not leave hopeless. Still wet from the drenching of the Spirit in chapel on Wednesday, my soul rose in protest against this ruling. And isn’t that what worship is? A protest? Isn’t this thing we call worship- that is, the gathering of the community- intended to be a protest against the current condition of the world? A protest against bad news?

As the world spits out more bad news of hate, exclusion, destruction, and fear, the gathered community is intended to stand in opposition as a anthem of good news. The Greek word in the New Testament that translates to “good news” is εὐαγγέλιον (euaggelion). It’s where we get our word “evangelical”. In this sense, at its most raw, evangelicalism is a protest against the bad news of the world. Because of this, the only word I can use to describe my experience in the Iliff Chapel on Wednesday is “evangelical”.

The journey has been long, at times painful, and mostly liberating. It’s becoming a more common story, that of people leaving evangelicalism. But leaving that worship experience on Wednesday, I’m not so certain I left evangelicalism eight years ago. I may have just finally found it.