Tuesday, June 23, 2020

One Day, in the Dark of an Endless Night

A person woke up, waiting to be fed. Do I need to tell you that he is a man? Of course not. Who else wakes up waiting for the bread of life to fall into his mouth?

Not all, of course.  But him? Always.

He will read this and feel vindicated. "Yes," he will think, "This is real."
He tells himself he is ready for real truth however it comes. As long as he is at the center of it. As long as it is spoon-fed onto his tongue by gentle hands. As long as he doesn't need to harvest it himself. All he needs to do is what he does naturally, shining as the planets spin around him. Wait, which is he, anyway: Sun? Prophet? God? So many hats. The burden is great.

This story would be of more value if it were permanently deleted.  Then it could offer no more of what he expects: wisdom dropping like ripe fruit into his open, sleeping mouth.

Forget the story, then; consider only the image. We live in a culture where the image says it all. Those of us who write ought to know better than to waste breath on words. But you work with what you have when what matters is what is true, and you get used to it, over time, the way no one reads. There's freedom here. At least there isn't the burden of attention. In case you had not considered the terrible heaviness of such a burden, listen to the man waking up with a spoonful of cake waiting to drop into his open mouth, if only he would stop moving it to complain.

"What a chore," he moans, "to shine so bright, with everyone taking."

Pearls of wisdom are still dropping from trees, whenever he's moved to harvest for a moment or two. Along with the waiting cake, the endless abundance, manna from heaven enough for an army of men while he cries poverty.

Now he will find it and think it is just for him.  Do you blame someone for this sort of thinking, when it is all they know?

If I were a prophet I might have an answer. I am no prophet and I am no sun, and I never imagined myself to be either. In this lowly state, all I can know is the endless black, one foot in front of another, and only hunger scraping against these insides at the end of the day, and at the end of every day, this gamble: if I give into sleep now, will it disappear?

No answer ever comes.

Except for him. For him they always come. I guess this is what it is like when you are a prophet, when you are a chosen one.

He stretches his hand out while he's still in bed, and Behold! The abundance of gifts in his direction is a fact as central as gravity, except he never names it. He gets more attention crying, or presenting himself as The Giver Himself, bright and central as the sun, shedding light on all the anointed at his feet. Groggy with the burden of fulfilling such a great obligation, he stumbles around. He can't find the light switch. In his disarray, he knocks over the forkful of food presented to him as it had been presented every day for the last thirty years. Every day someone rose early to bake him a fresh cake. He let it mold and waited for the party to leave. Then he cried about how hungry he was, and all of the recipes he meant to make, and how there were never the right ingredients on the shelves at the right time.

He remembered a tree, vaguely. He remembered himself, vaguely content with it. But the garden was long gone. What happened? Why did gardens always die? How depressing. And never any food when you needed it. How was he supposed to deliver all these prophecies to people when he was so hungry? It was so hard to be the sun, waking up every morning in the dark, the center of the solar system, expected to keep it spinning and lit.

One day it will happen that at a moment when he is yawning, the forkful of food that had been presented to him every day of his adult life, while he pontificated his daily complaints, will fall into his mouth. This will stop him for a moment.

"What a sudden gift!" he will think. "How appropriate that this should come now!" No thought is too meager to keep to himself. He is, after all, a generous god. Hence the sun salutations, the gratitude and willingness of so many, awaiting his pronouncements. Assuming he is the first to behold such a gift, he must proclaim!

Of course the same forkful of food has been presented to him every morning for the past thirty years. But if he were to accept it he would not be able to prophecy like the sun, and he would have had no excuse for his tears. Better to cry and prophecize. With duties like that, who had time to look?

 Such are the unanswerable questions one must bear when they bear the weight of the sun.

"Look at me!" he announces. "I am eating this food!"

"Look!" he says, finally grabbing the fork in his own hands. "What a discovery! I must tell the people!"

"Yes!" he proclaims, "Watch me as I shine!" Here is a great feat indeed. He finally clutches the fork.

But no one sees it, because everyone has grown tired of watching their cakes grow mold. He clings anyway.

"Look at me!" he says, "You thought I wouldn't come through, but look at me now, doing my part!"

And he sits alone in a dark room, chewing the first forkful of food he ever lifted to his own mouth. Surely the spotlights will come on soon. Surely the band will play soon. Surely there will be a great party beginning any moment.

He waits. It is dark. The darkness goes on and on and still he does not see. He weeps, thinking how sad it is that everyone is waiting for the sun. What a burden. He weeps into a pile of cake crumbs collected over thirty years. How hungry he was. How sad. How forsaken he felt, to be so neglected and unseen.


Don't worry. Weep not. Of course they will come. You don't have people showing up every day baking cakes for nothing, no matter how unreliable you are. People love their false idols.

They come, they bow at his feet. He talks about the struggle, how real it was. How grateful he is to have persisted.  How grateful that he had the drive and the follow-through to struggle through the desert wasteland.

"I have seen!" he proclaims. The crowd erupts in ecstasy.

Then there is a great speech and vast quantities of applause. It is unheard by the woman who shows up every night to quietly clean the mess of crumbs at his feet.  She throws them in the garbage knowing there will be another pile the next night, and the next, and the next. Probably the piles will grow even bigger, now that he has found so many more willing subjects. There's going to be a lot more cake now, and a lot more crumbs, and a lot more tears.

The trash bag is full again. What would it be like, she wonders, to live in a world where the trash bag was never full, and the question was not between cleaning the cake crumbs or sleeping with bugs?

One day, if she ever get's a moment less ripe with crumbs to clean, she'll have to ask the prophet.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Reading the Martyr Image

"Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted."
(Matthew 5:4, NIV)
In these heated times, many of the more powerful symbols of the movement have involved depicting George Floyd as a martyr, sometimes by naming him as such, but mostly by invoking this image with imagery of halos, wings, and robes. This is problematic for some, for reasons that are understandable. Various people have expressed confusion over this -- most notably among these, Candace Owens, who seemed, when I saw her video for the first time the night before writing this post. Knowing nothing about Owens, I assumed her to be a thoughtful black teenager speaking from her heart as is her right to do.  Considering her apparent youth, it seemed like she was raising alternative and controversial perspectives for the sake of argument in a way that seems at first not unlike the habits of many young people I know and work with. *

*Knowing nothing about Owens but what I could see in her video on George Floyd, I wrongly assumed that she was a teenager. At the time that I first published this post, I originally wrote: "I do not wish to discredit the value of her words for furthering a conversation, for it is also her responsibility as a young person to challenge all of us. But sadly, her voice is being misused by many in a way that serves a racist agenda of death."I have since learned that Owens is in fact a thirty-one-year-old pundit with a history as a spokesperson on alt-right media outlets. While I find her presence both fascinating and deeply troublesome, I am going to decide to leave any speculation about her motives out of this post, since they are irrelevant here. I now know that she is more than the thoughtful [albeit misguided] young woman she appears to be, but it is not my role to cast aspersions on her character or motives. Rather, I want to address this confusion in hopes that this may not be the sticking point that it currently is. Because, right now, this understandable confusion over the use of the term "martyr" is being exploited by right wing media outlets in a manner that soothes and justifies certain covert racist beliefs, offering a balm to the conscience of those looking for a reason to discredit the whole movement. 

The effect on the listening end, among many, seems to go something like, “See? he’s a criminal, not a martyr. These people are crazy.” It’s the classic red herring move, distracting people from the central issue at hand. I have noticed the discussion and confusion around this and been troubled by the capacity for this confusion to sow further division.

I did not know George Floyd, but from what I gather from various sources it is safe to say that he was an imperfect man who was loved.  At this essential level, this makes him much like anyone I know. It is also clear that he was murdered by police, and that his murder follows a predictable pattern of killing.

One definition of martyr involves standing for a cause, and by that definition George Floyd fails, except if you reduce “cause” to its simplest possible interpretation, which is wanting to live. As a black man in certain communities, in certain lights, this is cause enough — and fraught enough with difficulty, to absorb the weight of a burden that we typically associate with a responsibility greater than staying alive.

Martin Luther King’s image is often held up in contrast to other victims of racialized violence, as a way to discredit the current movement. King was a man of the church and he gave his life to the cause. It seems worth mentioning that he was also called a thug in certain circles, and worse. But there are many men and women of the church, many who devoted their lives to working for the cause of the modern Civil Rights movement, and they were not murdered. Was King, in the end, murdered for no better reason than being a black man in America who failed to “know his place?” This is a deeply disturbing idea. It is easier, in many ways, to martyrize King, because the narrative of the persecuted liberator is familiar. To think that King's murder was the result of his blackness is in many ways a more difficult pill to swallow.

George Floyd was no MLK. The only thing that the murdered black men and women have in common is a common liability, which is being black in America. It is time to recognize this.

It is also time to stop wasting time debating the term martyr. People are moved by symbols and in the times we live in now, an idea doesn’t gain traction without an image and a hashtag. Many also took issue with #blacklivesmatter for similar reasons, objecting, with unnecessary reminders about the sanctity of all lives. This argument deserves further study now. To anyone still arguing that all lives matter, it may be helpful to notice the lack of a qualifier in this term. It is not "all  those who have never done anything wrong" or "all lives with no public record of their missteps." Passing a test of model citizenship should not be a prerequisite for life. None of us should have to prove we are saints to be protected from murder.

The halos around George Floyd’s head should not be seen as awards he earned for being an upstanding citizen.  They should not be misunderstood as misguided calls for his canonization. What he did or didn’t do is irrelevant here, because similar actions, done or not done, do not typically lead to the state-sanctioned murder of a white citizen. George Floyd’s death is a tipping point in a long series of racially-charged murders, and these deaths are symptoms of a much greater disease. Racism in America is so rampant, so omnipresent, and so deeply embedded into the fabric of the nation (and our bodies, as Resmaa Menakem explains), that unless you are actively working against contagion and transmission, you are sure to be spreading it.

So it may help here to stop worrying about whatever intentions, misunderstandings, or differing opinions may be behind any of the martyr images, and recognize the larger symbolism of these images should invoke, and this symbolism should be readily accessible to those professing to follow Christian principles.  To any person of faith, any available halo/martyr imagery should invoke nothing more complicated than the teachings of Jesus, the heart of which is effectively captured when he declares, in the days before he is crucified, that those who wish commit to following and loving him must recognize his face and his image in the bodies of persecuted people everywhere.

“Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 24:40, NIV
The martyr/ saint imagery should not be misunderstood as a campaign to canonize any of the victims, but as a call to recognize Jesus' face in the persecuted of the world.  George Floyd needs no greater justification than his humanity here, and being a black man murdered by police is enough to justify his place among the persecuted.  To fail to stand with those who mourn is to reject the most urgent call of Christ's teaching. He sat with criminals, prostitutes, outcasts, and persecuted everywhere -- not to condone any sins they might have been accused of, but to demonstrate against the larger sin of judgement -- in the name of God's love, a term that Christians are called to recognize as synonymous with life.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Weep Not

I write in a moment that needs no introduction. The image speaks for itself. I'm going to get right to it. Friends, be angry that this happened. Hold your rage. Decide how to use it. Above all, know that this is nothing new. The pharisees stood before a church when they demanded that Jesus be crucified. This is a critical context for the moment we live in. Power mongers have always sought to align themselves with some church or another. But the church is not a building. It is a people. And we, the people, are now called to remember what we stand for. Evil does not wear the face of a monster; it doesn't come in a dragon costume. It aligns itself with symbols of righteousness. Those who count these symbols sacred have a sacred obligation to call the bluff for what it is: an old, dirty trick -- predictable and worn out.  But the key is this. The pharisees posing before the church don't get the last word. Without the Crucifixion, there is no Resurrection. It's time to hold on. Stand your ground. Remember the battle. It's an old one.

"Daughters of Jerusalem, weep not for me, but weep for yourselves, and for your children. For, behold, the days are coming, in the which they shall say, Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bare, and the paps which never gave suck. Then shall they begin to say to the mountains, Fall on us; and to the hills, Cover us"

(Luke 23: 28-31).  
Then: on the third day, he rose from the dead. The hour comes again. Take heart. Hold.