Category Archives: politics

Why Conservatives Don’t Really Have Morals and Liberals Don’t Really Care About Justice

Most culture war issues boil down to being about either sexual ethics or economic justice.

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The trending paradigm on the Left is to push for more acceptance of a widening range of sexual practices—indeed, to frame the non-acceptance of those sexual practices as human rights violations on the order of violent fascism. On this view, the most just world would be the one in which everyone can have sex with whomever they choose regardless of the sex, gender, marital status of the two partners, or, indeed, of whether there are more than two of them.

At the same time they clamor for economic justice, whether its from the more moderate standpoint of liberalism, which wants to see more government instituted economic programs, or from a more radical standpoint, which wants to deconstruct “capitalism” altogether.

Meanwhile conservatives are fighting for “family values,” and want to see the sexual ethics of by-gone years legislated in hopes of curbing the cultural onslaught of proliferating sexual identities and the erosion of marriage-based sexuality as the norm.

And these same people trying to shore up the boundaries of sexual expression want to tear down the boundaries of “regulation” in the marketplace. In fact, they want to tear down the boundary between the market and the rest of life. Anything can be improved by “privatizing” it, even things that until recently hadn’t been considered commodities, like war, police protection, and schools.   In their view, the most just world would be the one in which everything is a business, and everyone can carry out trade as they see fit, without any interference or moral guidance from the state or its regulatory bodies.

Of course, when I frame it that way (a way which admittedly lacks a lot of nuance and doesn’t mention all the folks opting for “magenta” over blue or red), it’s easy to see a kind of inconsistency in both ideological bents. That frame will also help us see what the two have in common, but let me hold off on that for a minute.     

Both of these views of the world have a lacuna, a blindspot that keeps them from really attaining the more just and equitable world they say they want to attain.

The thing they both fail to see is this: Structural injustices and immoral expressions of sexuality are deeply connected to each other. In fact, they have a cause-effect relationship that runs in both directions.

Economic and power injustices create conditions in which people are more likely to choose or be forced into sexual/family brokenness. E.g., poor woman are more likely to get abortions, men who don’t have access to work with fair wages are less likely to stay committed to their families—and women are less likely to marry such men in the first place. There seems to be a strong correlation, between income and a couple’s ability to stay married. (And I would say, just observationally, that divorced couples with significant income also have the ability to mitigate some of the negative consequences of divorce, e.g. they can maintain two economically-viable households, so their children can still see both parents). Anyone who’s wanted to go on a date with their spouse but couldn’t afford a babysitter understands there’s a connection between economics and family stability.

Conversely, sexual immorality tends to perpetuate or exacerbate circumstances that keep people in poverty or limit their life choices. E.g. children raised in single-parent homes are less likely to go to college and more likely to do drugs, promiscuous young people are more likely to have children they are not financially or emotionally prepared to raise, women who procure abortions are more likely to commit suicide or inflict self-harm, etc. It could also be said that sexual transgressions visit upon children the same kinds of injustices that structural/economic injustices do at a micro-level. E.i., a child’s rights to live, be raised by her own parents, have to strong sense of self/identity, etc. are violated by abortion, adultery, divorce, etc.

So, from this vantage point, both sides are building up with one hand and tearing down with the other—their just doing it with the opposite hands.

What’s behind this counterproductive behavior? The thing they both lack is a genuine understanding of human dignity, because both begin with woefully incomplete understandings of the human person.

The Left’s anthropology is probably best crystalized in the thought of Michel Foucault. Foucault’s primary concern was with analyzing the abuse of power, and particularly how political and societal structures impose power on the body. Foucault was explicitly critical of humanist philosophies and the notion that there is any such thing as “human nature.” By undercutting humanist notions that there is a universal human nature that forms the basis of human dignity, Foucault effectively reduces human relationships to the operation of power and human beings to bodies—bodies which are sites of the exercise of power and the experience of oppression. Foucault’s influence on the radical Left is can be seen in their inability to move their discourse beyond discussions of power and the body.

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The Right’s anthropology is typified by the likes of Ayn Rand. For Rand, the human person is viewed as an autonomous individual agent, who acts ethically when she acts on her own behalf. Because people are just living organisms, their fundamental goal is to continue to live; therefore, their primary moral obligation is self-preservation. Rand believed that the greatest good would be achieved by everybody acting in this way. Her influence on the Right is still pervasive, and apparent in the starry-eyed insistence that the Market will cure all ills—so long as we don’t impose any crazy “restraints” on it, like minimum wage, child labor laws, or universal healthcare. Because the Market, after all, is just the playing field where everyone is allowed to act in her own self interest. (My Christian readers should read this by Elizabeth Stoker Breunig on how ragingly un-Christian Rand’s thought is).

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The problem (well, one of the problems) with both of these anthropologies is that they are unrealistically individualistic. For Foucault, the human being is a body imposing power on others or being imposed on by them. For Rand, the human is a living organism trying to stay alive. Neither recognizes that the fundamental reality that humans are not just individuals but members of families. Humans are conceived and birthed and raised by parents and nurtured into adulthood by families. This is not accidental to, but constitutive of our humanity. It is not peripheral to how we make economic or sexual choices. 

Another way of saying this is that neither the anthropology of the Right or the Left has space for the category of love. The fundamental truth that humans are agents of love, who live in families and communities constituted by love, and make choices and decision based on love does not factor into the ideological grid of either side.

Try bringing the word “love” into a discussion of economic policy in a group of conservatives or a debate about race and oppression in a group of leftists and watch the blank stares you are met with. For folks operating under the influence of these ideological systems it literally cannot compute.

But it has to. Because it’s reality.

I don’t know know how or if love can become a category in our political discourse in the US, but I can’t imagine how we can actually make some progress toward a just and moral society until it does.

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Jesus “Che” Christ: On the Limits of Countercultural Christianity

Your revolution is limited, bent, needs work

It’s more than hemp bracelets and a Che Guevara T-shirt.

—Mars Ill, “You Can’t Stop”

In 2007 the leftist political magazine In These Times featured a cover story entitled “Preaching Revolution” about a new generation of Christians that secular leftists “need to know.” On the cover: the iconic silhouetted image of Che Guevara made over with a crown of thorns. Jesus as Che. The story, which focussed heavily on Rob Bell (then at Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, MI) discussed how the rhetoric of revolution and radicalism was out of vogue at the time with the secular left since it was viewed as too extreme to be practical, and meanwhile, ironically, that same rhetoric was gaining traction with this new generation of evangelical Christians.

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The evangelical credentials of Rob Bell have since been called into question (and I imagine even at the time he would’ve been uncomfortable with the label himself), but that’s beside the point. What the article got right, and what continues to be true, is that there is tremendous appeal—especially among Christians who are younger than, say, 50—to the idea that Christianity is radical, countercultural, and revolutionary. (In fact, a quick internet search reveals that there are lots of churches literally named Revolution).

In the seven years since, this trend has shown no sign of abating. Countercultural Christianity is here to stay, at least for a generation or two. 

Now at times, the language of radicalism is just being (what I’m sure the secular left would consider) co-opted. That is, it’s nothing more than marketing. In the US at least, there is a great deal of marketing value to the language of revolution and counterculture. It can sell computers. It can sell tacos. It can also sell churches.

Even politically moderate and conservative Christians have adopted it. Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian, is fond of the phrase he coined that Christians should be “a counterculture for the common good.” But, even further to right, the idea of being “radical for Jesus” or “resisting the culture” fits perfectly with fundamentalist theologies of cultural separatism and the persecution complex of more civically-engaged politically conservative Christians. It is not at all unusual to hear words like “revolution” or phrases like “radically living out the gospel” on the lips of the Mark Driscolls of the world.   

At other times, the ethos of radicalism runs a little bit deeper than a sexy spray-on gloss. Take, for example, folks like Shane Claiborne who have successfully brought some of the elements of Christian anarchism and radical Anabaptist theology (e.g., voluntary poverty, solidarity with the poor, abstaining from governmental politics) into more mainstream expressions of Christianity. Then there is Jim Wallace, advocating for a politically-engaged but nonpartisan Christian leftism. There are a number of popular biblical scholars, including N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann, who have emphasized the anti-imperial message running through both the Old and New Testaments—and exerted a great deal of influence on preachers in the US and UK. Or, at the more academic level, there is the Radical Orthodoxy movement, where theologians like John Milbank are in serious dialogue with leftist philosophers like Slavoj Zizek.

The ideas and praxes of this second group are not always compatible, but they have in common a sense that a more faithful Christianity will be a more countercultural one. They employ language like “contrast community,” “counter-polis,” “resident aliens” and “peculiar people” to describe what the church should be. And they see their role as a prophetic one calling Christians to be more radical, more willing to look different.

My guess is that someone who came into my church on any given Sunday would count me as one of this new generation that is preaching revolution. Admittedly, I read and listen to and like a lot of the folks in that previous paragraph. I am also, admittedly, prone to framing Christian discipleship as countercultural. However, I think that the Christianity-as-counterculture move has its limits. And they are significant enough that they’re worth thinking about.

The first is the potential the rhetoric of counterculture has to backfire. It’s intended goal is to get Christians to be more radical. That is, to be willing, for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom, to live differently than the pagan world around them. But, in the post-cultural-revolution US, we Americans have a completely inverted relationship with conformity and rebellion, wherein our first impulse (collectively as a culture) is nonconformity or rebellion. I.e., we live in the complex and somewhat paradoxical situation in which rebellion is conformity to our cultural norms. Our culture is counterculture.

In such a situation, the “countercultural” Christian can have her cake and eat it too. That is, I can identify as radical and feel that I’m being countercultural while adopting views and practices that are actually embraced and celebrated by the culture around me. This can happen on a very superficial level (“I’m so rad ‘cause I have tattoos and listen to punk rock”) or on a deeper level (“Look at me counterculturally supporting gay marriage!”).

Nothing is inherently wrong with having one’s cake and eating it too, but, if genuinely radical discipleship is the goal, this situation is most definitely NOT shaping people to do that. When push comes to shove and actual nonconformity/rebellion/willingness to be persecuted and hated by the world is called for, I’m almost certain my tattoos will not have prepared me for it. If anything, those of us in this situation are atrophying our capacity for genuine resistance by stroking our own egos. The kid who buys the “WALMART SUCKS” T-shirt at Hot Topic is engaging in praxis that is shaping him to be a consumer, not praxis that is shaping him to resist consumerism. The pride with which he wears the shirt only makes it worse.

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Case in point, the struggle that avowedly countercultural Christians increasingly have with fully embracing the (actually) radical sexual ethic of historic Christianity. The article mentioned above quoted Jim Wallace as saying of young, revolutionary Christians “[they are] breaking away from the Right in droves – but they will never be captured by the left. They’re going to challenge the left on a lot of things: For these Christians, sex is covenantal and not recreational. And they oppose abortion and they are not going to move away from that.” Seven years later, these words ring hollow. Many of the revolutionaries have indeed been “captured by the left” on sexual ethics, and very few are “challenging the left” on these issues. (Though see Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig for a refreshing example).

The second concern I have is that, depending on one’s social context and historical moment, Christianity isn’t always countercultural. There are always some points at which the values of the dominant order overlap with the values of the kingdom of God. But it seems that we countercultural Christians are conditioned to be opposed to, or at least suspicious of, anything “conservative” or “mainstream.” The danger in this is not merely that it sets us up for knee-jerk thinking, that it shapes us into haters who are automatically against whatever we perceive is part of the regnant order. The greater danger beyond that, it seems that folks for whom the countercultural-ness of the Christian faith is its central appeal are prone to choose being countercultural over being Christian when the two come into conflict.

Sometimes the way this plays out is that people allow a political ideology to shape their views more than the faith and then do a lot of biblical or theological gymnastics to maintain their ideologically-shaped views are Christian. But I also know folks who eventually left the faith altogether because other, more radical lifestyles/worldviews were more appealing.

Don’t get me wrong, I still want to be part of a revolution. I’m not ready to let go of the language of counterculture just yet. In fact, I think it’s a pretty necessary lens for viewing the Christian faith. But those of us for whom it’s our favorite lens need to do some careful thinking about how we use it, to make sure we’re using it to clarify, and not distort, what it means to be faithful to the kingdom.

My Bike and White Privilege Revisited

A few weeks ago, I posted this about white privilege–explaining how riding a bike for transportation has helped me to understand it more. And it has gotten quite the response. Way more hits than anything else on the blog. Reblogged all over the place. Almost 1,000 comments so far. Obviously, white privilege is something people want to talk about.

A lot of people said it was helpful, but lots of other people told me it was dumb or terrible or racist. So I’d like to respond to a couple of the arguments and critiques that I see as themes in the comments.

First, a lot of people pointed out that the analogy fails at the point where I choose to get off my bike. This is a really valid point to make. The experience I have as a cyclist—the disproportionate sense of power, the inequality of our road system, the fear of getting squashed—those all disappear for me when I get off my bike. For people of color, however, there’s no getting off the bike. I didn’t say that explicitly in the original post. But I understood that when I wrote it. So I really want to validate that that IS important to remember.

But I also don’t think it damages the usefulness of this analogy. The analogy still works at lots of other salient points. If you read through the comments, you can see where people made lots of smart connections and extensions of the analogy. (Warning: you will have to wade through a lot of dumb comments, I was pretty hands-off with the moderating).

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Second, a couple of people were offended because they felt like the comparison was belittling. I just want to make clear: I was in no way saying that my experience as a cyclist is EQUIVALENT TO what people of color experience in terms of the level of inequality or the amount of struggle that it creates in my life. It was meant as an analogy, not a direct comparison.

The point was that having an experience where I am a) a minority, with b) significantly less power, who is c) trying to operate in a system that is designed around the majority—an experience that I don’t have very frequently as a white man—has helped me to empathize with folks who have those kinds of experiences in life for other reasons. I shared my experience because I know that other white people have trouble listening to privilege talk and analogy is a way of coming at it sideways and hopefully building some empathy.

In addition to those two critiques of the analogy, there were lots of other commenters pointing out other ways they thought the analogy broke down (or just unsubstantiated complaints that it was a bad analogy). To all of those folks, I guess I would just say, that is the nature of analogies. They show likenesses between two unlike things in a way that helps us understand one of them better. The two things being compared are necessarily not EXACTLY the same, otherwise there would be no point in comparing them. And on some level, this how all language works. We connect abstract ideas to concrete pictures so that we can better grasp their meaning. See, I just said “works.” Language doesn’t really work, but the concrete image of a person or a machine working helped you get what I meant. (Ah, I just did it again, “see” and “get” are not what’s actually happening when…You get the picture…Oh!) One commenter, Colubris, in response to someone who didn’t seem to get this, said all this much more succinctly (and sarcastically):

Yeah, metaphors can be hard. Keep working at it.

In short, if you didn’t like the post just because you were able to find some point where the analogy breaks down, your beef is with language, not with me.

Thankfully, I had lots of people tell me that it did help them get white privilege for the first time, so, whatever its weaknesses, I think it works. In fact, I had folks say the analogy was “perfect,” that it was the “best analogy they’ve ever heard,” and that it “moved them to tears.” So, I think we can still trust the power of language, specifically metaphor, to convey meaning. Some white people said, “OK, I get it. Now what do I do?” My friend Noah wrote a good what-now? piece here (in which he cries a lot about me copying him).

Third, a lot of white folks said that the problem with my post was that it just whined about my experience as a biker and didn’t make specific connections to analogous experiences people of color face. E.g. John Klapproth of Anchorage, AK, who read the article over at Quartz wrote in:

You do not define, in any way, what white privilege is, nor do you give any concrete examples of white privilege.  You make a nice comparison to bike riding but you don’t tell me what it is you’re comparing the bike riding too. 

This is a valid critique of my post as an argument for the existence of white privilege. But my post is not an argument for the existence of white privilege. It is an attempt to help people hear the language without automatically getting defensive. A thought experiment to help create empathy in folks who might otherwise have trouble empathizing. It was a way of helping white people (other cyclists at least) to be open to the idea that in the same way they know they experience something on the road that drivers don’t see—because of their vantage point—people of color experience something in life that white folks have trouble seeing because of our vantage point.

To draw out all of the specific connections between cycling under-privilege and racial under-privilege would be to put me in the place of speaking for people of color, which I tried not to do. I let people speak from their own experiences in the comments. Some folks pointed out some more subtle things like media (mis)representation of black people or studies that show that non-white-sounding names on job applications are less likely to be called for an interview, but one commenter went right for the jugular:

The white privilege of not having your murder justified by showing “thug” pictures, pointing to marijuana use… and militarizing against peaceful protests in the name of said victim.

Fourth, a lot of people accused me of being racist for simply using the term “white” or bringing up racial categories at all. I can understand why some white people think the color-blind route is the way to go. But here’s the thing: most people of color are saying it’s not, so maybe we should listen to them. This is complicated, because “race”—as we’ve come to understand it in the US—is most definitely a socially-constructed thing. As a Christian, I am definitely a non-essentialist, i.e., I believe we are really all a part of the human race. And as someone in a “mixed-race” family, the socially-constructed nature of race is transparent to me. Within the confines of my home, “race” disappears. My kids don’t see me as a white dad, they just see me as dad. I don’t see them as my black kids, I just see them as my kids. As in, we literally forget about race. But we don’t live within the confines of our home. We have to go out into the world, where people say dumb things like, “What country were your kids adopted from?”, where I have to worry about how they might be treated and how it’s impacting their self-understanding, where, as one of them is about to be a teenager, I have to worry if he might get arrested for wearing a hoody, or worse, get shot.

So the fact that race is fictional—or as Henry Louis Gates says, race is a trope—doesn’t mean that just invoking the human race will make all the injustices it has caused or perpetuated go away. We have to acknowledge it still matters if we’re going to work toward a future where it matters less.

Lastly, a lot of drivers argued that I was just wrong about my experience as a cyclist, or made some kind of comment about all cyclists being jerks or drivers being justified in thinking all cyclists were, because most of them are. Like Mike S.:

….sometimes [drivers] are just frustrated that many bikers act like superior jerks who own the whole road and put multiple people at risk with bad behavior.

Ironically, even though these folks completely missed the point of the article, they accidentally proved it. Drivers who think that cyclists aren’t facing significantly more risk on the road, or that we don’t have to do more work to get to the same place, or that the transportation infrastructure isn’t made for cars with bikes as a mere afterthought, can only be speaking from a lack of experience of riding a bike for transportation. Thus, they demonstrate the point about white privilege–you don’t see it because the system is designed for you. (I’m really, really tempted to say they need to check their privilege here…but I won’t). 

What My Bike Has Taught Me About White Privilege

The phrase “white privilege” is one that rubs a lot of white people the wrong way. It can trigger something in them that shuts down conversation or at least makes them very defensive. (Especially those who grew up relatively less privileged than other folks around them). And I’ve seen more than once where this happens and the next move in the conversation is for the person who brought up white privilege to say, “The reason you’re getting defensive is because you’re feeling the discomfort of having your privilege exposed.”

I’m sure that’s true sometimes. And I’m sure there are a lot of people, white and otherwise, who can attest to a kind of a-ha moment or paradigm shift where they “got” what privilege means and they did realize they had been getting defensive because they were uncomfortable at having their privilege exposed. But I would guess that more often than not, the frustration and the shutting down is about something else. It comes from the fact that nobody wants to be a racist. And the move “you only think that because you’re looking at this from the perspective of privilege” or the more terse and confrontational “check your privilege!” kind of sound like an accusation that someone is a racist (if they don’t already understand privilege). And the phrase “white privilege” kind of sounds like, “You are a racist and there’s nothing you can do about it because you were born that way.”

And if this were what “white privilege” meant—which it is not—defensiveness and frustration would be the appropriate response. But privilege talk is not intended to make a moral assessment or a moral claim about the privileged at all. It is about systemic imbalance. It is about injustices that have arisen because of the history of racism that birthed the way things are now. It’s not saying, “You’re a bad person because you’re white.” It’s saying, “The system is skewed in ways that you maybe haven’t realized or had to think about precisely because it’s skewed in YOUR favor.”

I am white. So I have not experienced racial privilege from the “under” side firsthand. But my children (and a lot of other people I love) are not white. And so I care about privilege and what it means for racial justice in our country. And one experience I have had firsthand, which has helped me to understand privilege and listen to privilege talk without feeling defensive, is riding my bike.

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Now, I know, it sounds a little goofy at first. But stick with me. Because I think that this analogy might help some white people understand privilege talk without feeling like they’re having their character attacked.

About five years ago I decide to start riding my bike as my primary mode of transportation. As in, on the street, in traffic. Which is enjoyable for a number of reasons (exercise, wind in yer face, the cool feeling of going fast, etc.) But the thing is, I don’t live in Portland or Minneapolis. I live in the capital city of the epicenter of the auto industry: Lansing, MI. This is not, by any stretch, a bike-friendly town. And often, it is down-right dangerous to be a bike commuter here.

Now sometimes its dangerous for me because people in cars are just blatantly a**holes to me. If I am in the road—where I legally belong—people will yell at me to get on the sidewalk. If I am on the sidewalk—which is sometimes the safest place to be—people will yell at me to get on the road. People in cars think its funny to roll down their window and yell something right when they get beside me. Or to splash me on purpose. People I have never met are angry at me for just being on a bike in “their” road and they let me know with colorful language and other acts of aggression.

I can imagine that for people of color life in a white-majority context feels a bit like being on a bicycle in midst of traffic. They have the right to be on the road, and laws on the books to make it equitable, but that doesn’t change the fact that they are on a bike in a world made for cars. Experiencing this when I’m on my bike in traffic has helped me to understand what privilege talk is really about.

Now most people in cars are not intentionally aggressive toward me. But even if all the jerks had their licenses revoked tomorrow, the road would still be a dangerous place for me. Because the whole transportation infrastructure privileges the automobile. It is born out of a history rooted in the auto industry that took for granted that everyone should use a car as their mode of transportation. It was not built to be convenient or economical or safe for me.

And so people in cars—nice, non-aggressive people—put me in danger all the time because they see the road from the privileged perspective of a car. E.g., I ride on the right side of the right lane. Some people fail to change lanes to pass me (as they would for another car) or even give me a wide berth. Some people fly by just inches from me not realizing how scary/dangerous that is for me (like if I were to swerve to miss some roadkill just as they pass). These folks aren’t aggressive or hostile toward me, but they don’t realize that a pothole or a build up of gravel or a broken bottle, which they haven’t given me enough room to avoid–because in a car they don’t need to be aware of these things–could send me flying from my bike or cost me a bent rim or a flat tire.

So the semi driver who rushes past throwing gravel in my face in his hot wake isn’t necessarily a bad guy. He could be sitting in his cab listening to Christian radio and thinking about nice things he can do for his wife. But the fact that “the system” allows him to do those things instead of being mindful of me is a privilege he has that I don’t. (I have to be hyper-aware of him).

This is what privilege is about.  Like drivers, nice, non-aggressive white people can move in the world without thinking about the  “potholes” or the “gravel” that people of color have to navigate, or how things that they do—not intending to hurt or endanger anyone—might actually be making life more difficult or more dangerous for a person of color.

Nice, non-aggressive drivers that don’t do anything at all to endanger me are still privileged to pull out of their driveway each morning and know that there are roads that go all the way to their destination. They don’t have to wonder if there are bike lanes and what route they will take to stay safe. In the winter, they can be certain that the snow will be plowed out of their lane into my lane and not the other way around.

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And it’s not just the fact that the whole transportation infrastructure is built around the car. It’s the law, which is poorly enforced when cyclists are hit by cars, the fact that gas is subsidized by the government and bike tires aren’t, and just the general mindset of a culture that is in love with cars after a hundred years of propaganda and still thinks that bikes are toys for kids and triathletes.

So when I say the semi driver is privileged, it isn’t a way of calling him a bad person or a man-slaughterer or saying he didn’t really earn his truck, but just way of acknowledging all that–infrastructure, laws, gov’t, culture–and the fact that if he and I get in a collision, I will probably die and he will just have to clean the blood off of his bumper. In the same way, talking about racial privilege isn’t a way of telling white people they are bad people or racists or that they didn’t really earn what they have.

It’s a way of trying to make visible the fact that system is not neutral, it is not a level-playing field, it’s not the same experience for everyone. There are biases and imbalances and injustices built into the warp and woof of our culture. (The recent events in Ferguson, MO should be evidence enough of this–more thoughts on that here). Not because you personally are a racist, but because the system has a history and was built around this category “race” and that’s not going to go away overnight (or even in 100 years). To go back to my analogy: Bike lanes are relatively new, and still just kind of an appendage on a system that is inherently car-centric.

So–white readers–the next time someone drops the p-word, try to remember they aren’t calling you a racist or saying you didn’t really earn your college degree, they just want you to try empathize with how scary it is to be on a bike sometimes (metaphorically speaking).

One last thing: Now, I know what it is like to be a white person engaged in racial reconciliation or justice work and to feel like privilege language is being used to silence you or to feel frustrated that you are genuinely trying to be a part of the solution not the problem but every time you open your mouth someone says, “Check you privilege.” (I.e., even though privilege language doesn’t mean “You are one of the bad guys,” some people do use it that way). So if you’ll permit me to get a few more miles out of this bike analogy (ya see what I did there?), I think it can help encourage white folks  who have felt that frustration to stay engaged and stay humble.

I have a lot of “conversations” with drivers. Now, rationally, I know that most drivers are not jerks. But I have a long and consistent history of bad experiences with drivers and so, when I’ve already been honked at or yelled at that day, or when I’ve read a blog post about a fellow cyclist who’s been mowed down by a careless driver, it’s hard for me to stay civil.

But when I’m not so civil with a “privileged” driver, it’s not because I hate him/her, or think s/he is evil. It’s because it’s the third time that day I got some gravel in the face. So try to remember that even if you don’t feel like a “semi driver,” a person of color might be experiencing you the way a person on a bike experiences being passed by a semi. Even if you’re listening to Christian radio.

Part 2 of this post here.

If Everything is Awesome, Nothing is Awesome: The LEGO Movie, the Death of Resistance & Transcendence, and the Only Way Out (Part 1)

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I am a Lego parent, twice over.  So it was pretty hard not to enjoy The LEGO Movie. All of the clever references about how kids play with Legos and what kinds of junk get mixed in with their Legos are really funny to me. And of course the visual effects of the movie are just really impressive. (Not awesome, but really impressive.)

But trying to come to some sort of resolution about what I thought about the message of the movie is sort of making my head spin.

In a sense, it is a perfect illustration of our postmodern predicament. I mean, it’s a movie about a mass-produced consumer product—a toy, an entertainment—and while the film pretends to be about some real human themes like belonging and rebelling against authority and authentic self-expression v. conformity–it ends up ultimately being about none of those things but really only about Legos…and playing with Legos. Like everything about our postmodern moment, the film is mired in layers of meta, and the gestures that it makes toward transcendent meaning are in fact just distractions from the fact that it really only points back to itself. (Thus, the decidedly un-awesome title, The LEGO Movie, is really quite telling).

If I were going to invite three people to a conversation about this movie to help me get a grip on it and stop my head spinning, they would be Michael Chabon, David Foster Wallace, and Thomas Frank. (I would invite Marshall McLuhan too, but I’d like to also be able to follow the conversation myself).

Chabon, a writer and a dad, wrote an essay a few years back lamenting the advent of cross-marketing into the Lego world. In the days of his youth, prior to the introduction of the licensed mini-figure, Chabon remembers, a box of Legos could literally become anything a kid imagined. Legos did not come with pre-imagined characters from existing story worlds (Lego Batman, Lego Harry Potter, Lego Star Wars, etc.), and the point of Legos was not to replicate a scene from some existing movie by building a model designed by an adult. Kids could make up, whole-cloth, worlds and characters and scenarios, exercising genuine imagination. Chabon writes how miffed he is by the “authoritarian nature of the new Legos,” and the fact that playing with them is more like solving a puzzle with a singular solution that has already been provided than actually creating anything.

But just as you think Chabon is going to end the essay as a lament on the triumph of marketing over imagination, the inevitable dumbing down of the next generation of late capitalism, he pulls it back and offers hope. His kids, he’s noticed, once they follow the instructions the first time and build the corporately predetermined sets, don’t leave them that way. That’s not the way kids actually play with Legos, he realizes. No, once they’re built once, they get broken up and tossed into the box and mixed all together into a giant postmodern Lego chowder. And his kids cross-pollinate all these cross-marketed sets. (E.g., his son liked to put a Lego ghost costume on a Lego Green Goblin minifigure, set it on a horse with a light saber to do battle against a Darth Vader minifugure [also on a horse] bearing a bow and arrow). Chabon sees this pastiche (I’m tempted to say “this brick-olage”) on the part of his children as revolutionary. The childish imagination cannot be trammelled, it transgresses the “structure of control and implied obedience to the norms of the instruction manual.” In short, Chabon’s final scoreboard reads: kids/humanity/freedom/imagination: 1; authority/control/corporations/conformity: 0.

But so here’s the first head-spinner: The LEGO Movie, produced by the aforementioned corporation/authority that is the target of Chabon’s critique, appears to have the very same message as Chabon. The movie’s supposed main theme is that conformity, synecdochized by the trope of following the instructions, is bad. The main character, Emmet, is a portrayed as a nob, a total dufus, held up for our derision and mockery. And his despicable characteristic is that, in a world of conformists, he is the most conformist of them all. At one point he stands in a long, robot-like line in order to buy a $36 latte, to which he responds, “Awesome!”

Conversely (in the supposed message of the film), genuine self-expression and rebellion against authoritarian structure is good. When Emmet is first tested to see if he is a Master Builder, he asks “Where are the instructions?” Wrong question. Master Builders don’t use instructions, man. They can see through the structure of this world—like Neo in The Matrix—to visualize the potential of all the bricks around them. They deconstruct the existing, imposed instructions-generated structure and reconstruct it into imaginative solutions to their problems. The Master Builders inhabit a world—Cloud Koo-Koo Land—completely unlike the pristine, bland worlds ruled by President Business (the villain, obviously). It’s a colorful, zany mishmash of de/reconstructed sets. A world where Lego Batman and Gandalf and Shakespeare and Unikitty are friends with a pirate with a shark for one arm and a canon for the other. I.e., it is just the kind of world built by Chabon’s kids.

I.e. the movie pretends that its message is the same as Chabon’s: Don’t follow the (our) instructions! Don’t be a conformist! Rebel against, you know, like authority and marketing and stuff!

I say “pretends” because, in actuality this seeming proclamation of Chabon’s revolutionary chant is really just a way for them to close the door on the way out he has provided from their “structure of control.”  It is a move by which this resistance is entirely absorbed/incorporated/neutralized.

The best illustration that the movie has absorbed and neutralized Chabon’s resistance is, of course, the toys. By which I mean not the toys in the movie, but the merchandise—the real-life, physical toys marketed and sold in conjunction with the movie. This movie ostensibly about not following the instructions or building the predetermined sets or being a mindless consumer of course has a whole array of licensed, predetermined sets for sale—complete with instructions—so that kids can recreate scenes from the movie about how they should be imaginative and not just recreate scenes from movies. And these boxed sets, since they are made up of toys representing characters & scenes from the movie, come pre-pastiched and pre-mashed-up and pre-de/reconstructed. It appears Chabon’s solution, his escape route from corporate, authoritarian, imagination-crushing consumerism has been swallowed up by said corporation, chewed up, and spat back out as merchandise.

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Which brings us to head-spinner #2: As I said to my wife when we were shopping for LEGO Movie Legos for our 9-year-old’s birthday, “You realize that these are not toys. These are meta-toys.” Because the film’s toys are not so much toys per se as they are references to “real” versions of themselves. E.g., if you go out and buy a Benny the Astronaut mini-figure today, it is not just an un-ironic, “direct” Benny the Astronaut toy. No, it comes with a pre-broken helmet and a pre-scuffed space logo, because it is a toy version of a film version of a toy Benny the Astronaut. Yup, it is the toy of the movie character of the (same) toy. So, like the title of the movie of which they are the merchandise, the toys are actually references to themselves. (As in, the original Benny the Astronaut was a reference to actual astronauts, but the LEGO Movie Benny the Astronaut is only a reference to a Lego astronaut).

If all this recursion and self-reference seems clever but otherwise meaningless—sort of like a hall of mirrors—it’s not. In fact, these layers of meta are the crux of the whole matter here. They are the move that keep us from asking for anything more than “bread and circuses” because they make us feel like we’re leaving the circus when we’re just moving to a different seat. But that’ll have to come in the next post. (In case you’re wondering, I am going to connect this to God/religion/theology eventually).

OK, Folks, It’s Time To Be POST-Post-Evangelical

America's Smallest Church

I have never really been an evangelical. I grew up in a half-Catholic, half-Hindu(ish) home and had a conversion experience in college that ultimately landed me in an evangelical church. But unlike many of the popular critics of evangelicalism—the Rachel Held Evanses and the Rob Bells—I never really occupied that space as home. I came into the evangelical church already steeped in postmodern philosophy, already aware that there were many brands of Christianity with incompatible doctrines. Day One of my voyage into evangelicalism, I was already critical of the idea that the bible “clearly teaches” anything, already OK with evolution, already not OK with CCM music.

So, when the “emergent” and “post-evangelical” movements came along, I was excited, but I was technically not one of them. Because I wasn’t post- anything. I hadn’t gone to college a credulous Christian and had my worldview rocked by some proselytizing Philosophy professor. I hadn’t, like Shane Claiborne, been a raging political conservative who then met real gay people and real women who had had abortions who humanized the issues and changed my mind. But even though I had come via a different route than the post-evangelicals, I had landed in basically the same place. And I was glad there was now a voice for the critiques of evangelicalism they had to offer. 

One of the most important and enduring of these critiques was/is the call to extricate the church from politics. Or at least from conservative politics. Different demographers and historians tell the story somewhat differently, but the basic narrative runs like this: The Boomer generation had gotten tangled up in this thing called the Religious Right, sold their collective soul to the Republican party, and they had expended all their energy fighting culture wars. They lost sight of things like caring for the poor, defending the oppressed, and just being the church in their local contexts. In the process, they had ruined the Christian brand. Young people now saw the Church as homophobic, anti-woman, and xenophobic. Not-so-thoughtful, mean-spirited white men, like Jerry Falwell and George W. Bush, had become the face of evangelicalism.

Their children were embarrassed by this. And had some legitimate biblical/theological grounds for seeing much of this as unChristian. And those Gen Xers and Millenials who didn’t leave the church decided a course correction was in order. And they made three basic moves to get the hell away from the Religious Right trajectory:

#1 was the “soft power” route. This move says we still recognize the mandate to shape the culture, but we learned from our parents that trying to “legislate morality” is counterproductive, so we’re going to get out of politics and into culture making. We’re going to influence the culture as members of the creative class, make movies and music and websites and art. This route was taken by bands like Over the Rhine and publishers like Cameron Strang, who created Relevant, a magazine about “God, life, and progressive culture.” (A far cry from his father, Stephen’s Charisma magazine).

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#2 was to simply switch teams. Younger evangelicals reexamined the issues of the death penalty, war, gay marriage, Israel/Palestine, abortion, welfare and immigration reform, and found biblical bases for taking the opposite sides their parents were taking. The bookish ones exposed themselves to Christian feminism or queer theory or Marxism. So they kept the evangelical bent toward political activism, but invested their energy on the other side of the aisle. They joined the Religious Left. (A more moderate version of move #2 is the sort of apolitical, Bono-style activism that avoids ideologically-charged issues altogether and focusses completely on noncontroversial things like human trafficking and clean water).

Jesus Bleeding Heart Liberal

And #3 was what we might call the Anabaptist or anti-Constantinian move, the retreat from the idea of directly influencing the world at all. Taking cues from thinkers like Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder, these folks decided that the church’s job is to “be the church,” to worship, to pray, to love one another, to care for hurting neighbors. And trust that these acts are revolutionary in God’s politics and will ultimately be used for the kingdom, whether we ever see the results or not.

Of course, these three moves are not mutually exclusive, and most younger Christians have adopted some hybrid of the three. (And of course, few of them actually self-identify as post-evangelical because, well, its got the word “evangelical” in it). But so as I was saying, when this critique of evangelicalism came along and these three alternatives began to be proffered, I was thrilled. Totally on board. Each of these moves has some merit, and—when adopted with some nuance and balance—represents a much better theology of mission than the Christian=Republican model.

But so, here’s my point, (which is why I began by going out of my way to say that I am not a post-evangelical because I was never really an evangelical), as a non-post-evangelical who was initially really glad to see each of these three post-evangelical “moves” gain some traction, I have to now say that I think they are being over-applied by a whole generation. These three post-evangelical moves can be just as unbiblical or foolish or counterproductive to the kingdom mandate as the Religious Right tack taken by our parents. A reaction to a reaction is still reactionary.

Most of the Christians I interact with, and most of the people I minister to, could be said to be in this post-evangelical camp. And I would say that I can see the shadow of their parents’ politics lurking in almost every conversation. Like Rachel Held Evans or Brian McLaren or Rob Bell, they seem to be almost compelled by their negative experiences of a repressive or ignorant evangelicalism to land anywhere but where traditional evangelicalism would have them land.

And don’t even get me started about the public performance of these post-evangelical identities. My Facebook feed is a continuous stream of people going out of their way to let the world know they are not that kind of Christian. Challenging, mocking, or critiquing every traditional Christian position or doctrine. Quickly berating conservative Christian responses to current events and legislation. If I see one more “Christian” post about what a**holes the Hobby Lobby owners are or what the bible “really says” about gay marriage, I’m going to have to de-activate my account.

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Now, of course, every identity is formed in the crucible of its social context, and everybody’s thoughts and positions are subject to his/her personal history and negative experiences, but I think it’s time for post-evangelicals to get a little more reflective about how they are reacting against their parents or the Religious Right or a personal history they are ashamed of—and how they can start reacting to the love of God extended to us in Jesus Christ.

For example—and I’m just going to go straight for the jugular here—abortion. A good percentage of the younger Christians I know have ended up being either actively or passively pro-choice by making one of these three post-evangelical moves. Conversations about it almost always revolve not around the question of the morality of abortion itself, but rather the errors in the Church’s response in the past generation. Post-evangelicals are just cringingly embarrassed by angry abortion clinic picketers and “fetus worship” and the idea that their secular counterparts might see them as the indoctrinated kids in Jesus Camp. Some of them (the #2’s) have bought the secular feminist line that “reproductive rights” are the linchpin of justice for women. But even those who haven’t (the #1s and 3s) are desperate to find some kind of “third way” solution and not be viewed as in any way traditionally pro-life. (A common move: “What if instead of focussing on criminalizing abortion, Christians were willing to adopt all those unwanted babies?” Uh, last I checked, they were.) 

This is not a post about abortion. My point is that abortion is not a new issue for Christians. The idea that abortion is objectively evil is not something conservative evangelicals cooked up in the 80’s. It’s something Christians have always believed (E.g., check out the 1st c. Didache).  It is not an issue in need of re-thinking.

My point is that, while all three of these post-evangelical moves have their place, we seem to be reaching a critical baby-with-the-bathwater type of point. As someone who never really was an evangelical, I can say “objectively” that evangelicalism didn’t get everything wrong. Much of what evangelicals believe stands within the broad tradition of historic orthodox Christianity and is, to use it’s own language, biblical. So, whether you identify as progressive or post-modern or emergent or radical or post-evangelical, at the risk of getting all cutely meta, I think it’s time to start re-thinking your re-thinking of the Christian faith, time to question your questioning of mom and dad’s politics. It’s time to become post-post-evangelical.