Charlottesville and the Cross: On Identity.

As a Christian, I have come to understand that proper theology includes understanding Self, God, and Neighbor. I invite you to read this text with these things in mind.

Lu, do you think we can record that song on your phone right now?

Sure!

With our beers in hand, sitting in that old basement while some friends smoked outside, we set things up to record a song. One of the verses she sang has made me smile for the past two years:

“Pathmaker, there is no road!

Only Atman, only Soul.

This is our great truth:

I am You.”

What does that mean? It is difficult to unpack. It is about identity.

A  while ago I saw a Facebook post which asked people to answer the question “Who are you?” without mentioning nationality, religion, race, gender, or profession. You may want to give yourself some time and think about it. Who are you?

Spirituality, whether it be systematized in religion, or wildly experienced in mystical moments, often deals with paradoxes.  I admit, I have a strong prejudice when it comes to people making religious statements: one-sided, simplistic approaches, with the pretense of having “figured out” God and Heaven and Hell and souls and what-have-you, tell me that all you have is a system of metaphysical talk that makes sense for you, but you still have no clue about the deeper reality of the great Mystery. My mind goes so quickly from the question “Who am I?” to the idea of the Mystery, which some call God. Who am I? Who, or what, is God?

Yesterday, at Charlottesville, Va., openly neo-Nazi White Supremacists rallied and acted with hatred and violence, in what, sadly, was rather unsurprising, although still shocking, given the recent history of the USA and of most of what has been called the Western World. Although the intensity and precise details and complications may differ from one country to the other, from North to South America, to Europe, and so on, I see a clear general thread since the end of the World Wars, and maybe the Cold War, that led to the events yesterday, and maybe worse to come:

On one hand, a sense of peace, prosperity, and moral superiority: being a good working white capitalist who helped defeat the evil Nazis and the evil communists made you feel quite good. The “right side of history”, some say. This peace and prosperity, giving people the modern luxuries of education, a sense of rights, time for leisure, and so on, with the boom of population, allowed for something amazing: the forgotten and oppressed, the minorities, began to realize they could stand up and fight for their place, fight to be treated equally, fight for rights. It had begun at the end of the 19th century with the first wave of feminism: women fighting for their right to vote. It exploded in the 60s, with black communities rallying for their civil rights, and women fighting against systemic inequality regarding property, marriage, domestic violence, etc., in what is now known as the Civil Rights movement and Second-Wave feminism.

One can easily picture a hard-working middle class white man, used to treating women and black people as less than him, believing false science that said he was smarter and superior, suddenly seeing those people stand up and call him an oppressor, saying they also want to be treated fairly, the way he is. That they are equals. For him, they want to take what is rightfully his. For them, it was never his to begin with, but everyone’s. Why should things remain this way? Religious leaders on one side would say these groups are disturbing the right cosmic order established by God, while religious leaders on the other side would say God has always been on the side of the oppressed, that the present state of affairs is a product of sin, and that God’s justice does not look like white-fenced suburban America in the 50s.

As years progressed to the most recent decades, even smaller minorities began to stand up and organize themselves, becoming loud and powerful, gaining allies from the majority, to gain their space to simply be without being treated as less-than: indigenous peoples, LGBTQ+, refugees, etc.

In a general sense, these movements can be categorized as being part of “identity politics”, in other words, political movements based on identity: calling out against the false propaganda that after the war everyone became equal and the same, groups that are not treated as well as a white middle-class male decided to stand up and shout “BULLSHIT!”, pointing to the clear statistics regarding unemployment, education, police violence, incarceration rates, domestic violence, murder, etc. Several groups have stood up to yell the truth on the public square, while churches that wished to conserve the old order deafened their ears and continually refused to address these issues, instead, simply repeating the false propaganda that everyone is the same, while clearly blessing the powerful and rejecting the oppressed.

While the idea that “everyone is the same” is clearly false if you simply walk the streets with your eyes open, these groups have fought for a society where everyone would, really, be the same. Unfortunately, by doing so, the minorities have tackled those who held the privilege of power, those who did not think of themselves as privileged, those who justify their excess, afraid of losing what they gained unjustly, and who now saw others not like them stand up and saying they also deserve a piece of it.

With that, the identity of the hard-working white man who believes he fought hard for all that he has, even though he was given far more opportunities than everyone else, has also been strengthened. Being unaware of sexism and racism and so on, but suddenly hearing repeatedly that the problem is “white males”, many of these white males decided to own up to it. While many listened with compassion and became allies to the minority movements, others chose to long for the days when someone will “Make America Great Again” (with parallels across the Western world), in other words, days of unchallenged privilege, where money decides whether you deserve medical care, where skin color decides your opportunities, where gender and sexual orientation decides whether you are accepted in your family and church community.

Strangely, a new mantra began in evangelical circles, particularly the neo-Calvinist ones: Identity in Christ. The answer to any problem became to not think of the problem, but realize that your identity doesn’t matter, but instead all you need to remember is that you’re a Christian. It’s ok if the one black family in your church is struggling to go by month by month while your well-tithing white families can save up to send their teenage girls to a mock-mission trip to Peru, all you need to remember is that you’re all Christians and it’s all for Christ. Whatever that means. It’s ok that Christ told you to invite the beggars and drunkards and prostitutes of your city when you throw a feast, you should still tell your teenagers not to mix with “those people” and that what really matters is that they’re “good Christians”, whatever that means. [I hope you see I’m being sarcastic in these lines]

The churches I grew up in decided to ignore the social problems and offer a meaningless solution, an empty mantra. While people really suffer outside, you have privileged people crying over their sins that are, really, just the product of consistent guilt-tripping, repenting every week for the same false problem, paralyzed, never truly loving their neighbor, too busy caught up in their own empty puritanism.

Identity is a complicated thing. It is one of the deepest human paradoxes. On one sense, we have a desperate need to belong. I am my mother’s son, I am Brazilian, I am Canadian, I am white, I am male, I am a Christian, etc. On the other hand, I am much more than any of all these things. It’s the adolescent cry that says, “I am not just my parent’s child! I am myself”. We want affirmation of our own existence, not simply to exist contingently. As a Christian, I see this longing as a reflection of the God who says, “I Am that I Am”.

It is a blessing to exist and be told we are welcome, that there is nothing wrong with being, that we can go and do what we want, as long as we don’t hurt others. When you are born white, wealthy, male, in a planned family, you hear that. Sure, you will also have other struggles, but you don’t hear that you need to watch out for the police because they may shoot you due to your skin color, or that you need to work twice as hard to get recognition because you happen not to have a penis, or that your loved one won’t be allowed to see you at the hospital or be buried next to you because he’s not family, even though you wish you could marry him, if only you had the right to.

On one hand, I want my friends who are from minorities to stand up and own up to their identity, to live and exist boldly. I want them to feel as secure and fearless as I am. I want my girlfriend to talk back to bullies who will mansplain everything because she’s pretty. I want my gay friends to kiss and hold hands in the streets. I want my homeless friend to walk in to the restaurant and not worry whether his clothes are appropriate. On the other hand, I want them to feel so secure that I won’t ever hear my black friend worried for not being “black enough” if he chooses to pursue a master studies, or my bisexual friend worried for not being “gay enough” if he admits he finds women attractive. I want to be proud of my nation and culture, but I don’t want to measure who is a true or false Brazilian, or be greedy about my nation’s resources and reject refugees because I value profit and money more than their safety.

I want everyone to understand it’s ok to be, and own up to who and what they are.

But I also want everyone to understand that we are all equal. That I am You. That I can love my neighbor as myself, that nations don’t exist, they’re just imaginary lines we put on a map. That race doesn’t exist, it’s just melanin. That we are one great family under God. That there are no enemies, no “us and them“, but always “us for them“.

But I also don’t want empty words. What use is to say we’re all the same, while we close our eyes to those treated unequally, telling them to “go back to their place”? How can I say it was God’s will that someone was born in need, while I was born with privilege, if my privilege is due to my forefathers stealing from that someone’s forefathers?

Maybe there is, indeed, something to the idea of my “identity in Christ”. God, and Human. Eternal, but Mortal. One with God, bu crying “Father why hast thou forsaken me?”. Ever present, yet absent. Loud in all of Creation, yet so silent in the face of tragedy.

Christ, who died as a human for all of humanity, but who also died as an oppressed Jew from Galilee in the hands of the mighty Roman Empire and of his religious leaders, for disturbing the good order of society.

May we not lose sight of a Kingdom where there is no more male and female, Greek or Jew, Black or White, and yet, at the same time, live our incarnate lives seriously, with real tangible mercy and justice. Let our Word not be just an idea, but Incarnate.

 

Featured image: African-American university student Vivian Malone entering the University of Alabama in the U.S. to register for classes as one of the first non-white students to attend the institution. Until 1963, the university was racially segregated and non-white students were not allowed to attend. Font: Wikipedia

Weightless Love

While looking through Facebook memories, I recently came across an old heated argument. The comments were filled with hate. In fact, the phrase “I HATE YOU!” was strewn throughout.

Of course, the proper Christian response to hate is love, or the Christian platitude “I love you in Jesus.” Like clockwork, that love-phrase was said each time a hateful comment appeared.

“I love you.”

Such simple words. It’s a paradox, really: deep meaning imbedded in a simple phrase. 

I believe we’ve been fooled by this simplicity. We declare love to strangers without thought or concern for love’s profundity.

Making matters worse is our social media context. It’s easier than ever to say “I love you” or “I hate you.” We don’t need to see people’s faces or know their voices, yet we love and hate them–people we barely know or don’t know at all.

Looking through this old status, I asked myself: is there something deeper and unspoken going on?

Are our empty love declarations infused with subconscious, personal agendas? Now, when I say “agendas” I’m not referring to sinister, conscious agendas to harm people. Religious agendas–in particular– are often altruistic, in their own way. A person may sincerely believe that those who fail to believe in Jesus are on their way to damnation, making it a Christian’s responsibility to spread the faith. But how much evangelism is infused with personal agendas of acknowledgement? We want our Christian friends to affirm our Christianity–to see that we respond to hateful Facebook comments with online love declarations. But we don’t love these people. We love ourselves and we want our friends to love us. We want acceptance in our own communities, to be called “brother” or “sister,” especially by top tier Christians. 

I say this because that was me; I was the one responding with empty Christian platitudes to the hateful Facebook comments.

In fact, much of my Christianity and my Christian acts/words were pleas for affirmation among my fellow Christians. Self doubt was my struggle. And if it was my struggle, chances are it’s the struggle of many others. We think we’re being loving to our neighbour, but we’re really being loving to ourselves, at the cost of empty words.

As I recall, I never contacted those Facebook people again. They were left with the impression that Christians carelessly declare love for social media strangers. And I left feeling affirmed.

Now, not everyone is like I was. Some people truly mean it when they say they love strangers. But love costs; it costs more than finger taps on a keyboard. According to Jesus, the greatest form of love is laying down your life for someone–to die for them. Is that the length you’re willing to go when you declare love to someone you’ve never met? Or are you throwing words around to feel accepted by your community?

Love is expressed by the way we live. And how we live shows the real weight of what we say. The weight of my love for those people on Facebook was that of a feather.

So count the cost before you speak, because love is never cheap.

A Humble Theology

The other day I had an interesting conversation with an anti-religious person and an atheist–both were curious about my studies in theology. I approached the discussion cautiously, not assuming possession of solid theological truth. After all, I am but a man and can only form ideas and theories of what God is.

At one point, the conversation was interrupted by another friend’s stance on predestination. The two gentlemen–the anti-religious person and the atheist–quickly turned from sincerely curious to sternly objectional.

This is not the first time I’ve seen this. Conversations between religious and non-religious people often turn to debates over doctrinal issues, straying from the humbling mystery that is God.

In the past, I debated over doctrine, like my friend–defending my tradition’s theology. I would argue and argue until I turned blue with rage, failing to understand why anyone could disagree with what was clearly absolute truth. But then, humility hit me in the face. 

It was in academia that I learned theological humility. Theology taught me that theologizing is ultimately vaporous. But it’s not vaporous in a useless sense; it’s vaporous because finite creatures cannot understand an infinite being. 

Now, this doesn’t mean theology should not be done; trying to understand things is normal–it’s what we do. But we must recognize that theology is formed and maintained by faith. We have faith that our traditions are correct, but our claims are based more on faith than on fact.

When we approach someone and claim objective truth concerning spiritual matters, we appear arrogant. It’s as though we, being as human as anyone else, have figured life out. But faith balances this, providing recognition that we’re as finite as anyone else.

Most of us want to know why we’re here and what this life is, no matter our tradition. But in our brightest wisdom we can only form ideas about God, flawed ideas from flawed creatures. 

I’ve often heard inter-religious dialogue compared to blind people figuring out an elephant by their hands. Though they touch the same elephant, each touches a different part. It goes without saying that God is far more complex than an elephant. 

This is why the key to healthy theology is humility, and not arrogance. In my tradition–Christianity–we hope with faith for Christ’s return, and we’re called to share this hope with the world. But we were never told to do so arrogantly. Nobody wants a religion of arrogance.

Humility in theology opens conversation, while religious arrogance closes doors. Though a person knocks and knocks, the door is shut.

God is God and we are not. God is paradoxically knowable and unknowable, within our reach and far beyond our grasp. We are but grains of sand trying to comprehend the ocean. And God laughs–with childlike laughter. How can the creature understand the maker of heaven and earth? We’re more than severely limited. 

By all means, discuss God and think on him. But in your conversations with unbelievers and those of other traditions, theologize with humility. 

Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.

“How strange it is to be anything at all!”, exclaims Jeff Mangum in one of my favorite songs.

It is a rather strange thing, indeed, to exist.  Maybe you don’t think so, you might think you have the answers for why we are here and where we are going, walking around with a “road map to life“. That’s ok. Personally, I find it eerie, upsetting, and rather awkward, that without your consent, without a choice, you were brought to existence, born from parents you did not choose, in a country you did not choose, taught and indoctrinated with customs and ideas about everything without ever been given a second to pause and think twice. Time keeps pushing you forward whether you like it or not, with every single choice you make remaining forever a part of your history, impacting you and others around you in infinite collaterality. Everyone who was here before you experienced this constant pressure from time, too. Everything they taught you was the best way they managed to figure out what exactly is going on, but not everyone concluded the same things, and who knows who is right?

Time never gives you a second chance. If you pay attention, you will notice decay and mortality all around you. Flowers blooming and withering, your own body changing, loved ones dying. Opportunities lost. Nothing can ever be undone, only reconciled. Offenses can never be taken aback, only forgiven.

It’s easy to feel insecure. Continue reading “Easter Reflection: On Mortality, Knowledge, and Strangeness.”

“Lord, who is my neighbour?”

It was a cold, Sunday night in late February. My wife and I exited an evening service at church to snow-covered steps, in an ongoing snowstorm.

“Wow! That fell fast!” I exclaimed

“Yeah, must be 20 centimetres,” said my wife–Esther–as we carefully made our way down the steps, towards the small parking lot attached to church.

Our car sat covered in snow, above it and around it. I opened the car door and reached for the snow removal stick to wipe snow off the car. My wife entered our 2001 Toyota Corolla to heat it up.

While wiping the snow away in the minus 15 cold, I thought back to a prayer request during church for the Arab refuges crossing the Canadian border from the States. I couldn’t imagine crossing the border in mid winter, especially in a snowstorm.

When finished, I joined my wife in the car. She wanted to drive but decided to complete a few work calls before leaving. So, I sat there as time passed.

A while later, she started the engine and lightly pressed the gas.

“Brrrrslssshhhhhhh,” came the sound of the wheels, spinning in place on the ice.

She tried again.

“Brshhhhhhhhh….”

No luck. We were kept in place by a thick blanket of ice hidden beneath growing layers of snow.

“I’ll go push,” I said, exiting the car.

Behind the vehicle, I placed my hands on both ends of the back and steadied my feet.

“Okay, go!” I shouted. 

My wife pressed the gas, as I pushed and pushed with all my strength. The car moved only a few feet before once again spinning in place on the ice covered ground.

We kept trying, but made no progress. Even with our metal tracks for the wheels, it wouldn’t move. 

We tried for 30 minutes, but my cold and wet feet forced me back inside the car.

By then, it was late–passed 11pm–and the temperature wasn’t getting warmer. I suggested we take the bus and come back tomorrow with help. But my wife’s persistence kept us trying. She wasn’t willing to give up just yet. Besides, even if she wanted to take the bus, she had too much work equipment to transport. 

We were really stuck.

As I warmed my feet, my wife called emergency services. The first service told her they couldn’t help, unless we renewed our account with them. There was no way we could afford the renewal fee, not with our student budget.

My wife then tried our insurance company. The lady on the other end informed us that our insurance plan doesn’t cover roadside assistance. The lady did–at least– provide phone numbers for nearby towing companies. But of course, these would cost money.

Thankfully, the first towing company we called was not too expensive. We called them at 11:50.

“We close in 10 minutes; we won’t be able to add your car to our towing list.” said the receptionist. “My truck is already out there getting another car.”

“Okay… well, could you direct us to another service or something else?” 

“Sorry Ma’am, I can’t help you. We’re closing.”

We were left in the -15 snowstorm.

I sighed, deciding to go back outside and try breaking the ice with our metal wheel tracks. It would take a while, but at least we’d be making progress.

Grabbing a metal track, I began smashing the ice and praying to God, asking what I might learn from this situation. My first thought–as if in reply to my prayer– was patience. I’m learning patience.

Lost in thought while breaking the ice, I didn’t notice someone approach me from behind.

“Can I help you sir?” came a middle-eastern accent.

I turned around to see a tall Arab man, who sincerely wanted to help.

“Sure,” I replied, motioning to the back of the car. “Thank you. Thank you so much!” I said as we positioned ourselves behind the car.

When we signaled my wife, she pressed the gas and we pushed. But–again–the car barely budged.

The man turned to me: “I can get more people.”

“Okay, thank you! That’s awesome!” 

 I didn’t wait long before he returned with two other men.

Once behind the car, we counted: “1… 2… 3… go!” My wife pressed the gas. This time, with the force of four men, we moved the car halfway across the parking lot. After a couple more tries, including a push through a 3 foot snow mound, we safely removed the car from the ice infested parking lot.

I gathered the tire tracks, as my wife offered the men a 20$ bill, but they refused. We insisted and insisted, but still they refused. 

“I just saw you from my kitchen,” the first man said, pointing to a nearby apartment complex, “and I knew you needed help. You don’t have to pay me for that.”

Instead, he gave me the shovel they had used to clear out the snow. “Take it in case you get stuck again.” 

Deeply touched, I smiled at them and asked, “Do you know the good samaritan from Jesus’ parable?”

They nodded.

“That’s you guys tonight,”

We all smiled.

“May God bless you for this.”

“God bless you too,” they said. “Be safe on your way home.”

Entering the car, I thought again about the refuges crossing the Canadian border, as a tear trickled down my cheek.

“What’s wrong?” my wife asked.

“The Samaritans… in the Bible. They were rejected by the Jews, seen as outcasts. We treat Muslims the same… worse even. Yet it was Muslims who helped us tonight.”

Tears welled in both our eyes, as we thanked God for the good Samaritans–our neighbours.

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man…? The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

Today it rained

Yesterday, together with some of my dearest friends, we laughed and drank to celebrate the day I was born. We told our stories, and we talked about the things we care for. We became closer, as we knew each other better, as we exposed and uncovered pieces of ourselves, as our lives became part of each other’s. We talked about how we had come to know ourselves better in the past years, by living, and paying close attention to Life, and to what it tells us. All that we had unlearned, all that we had discovered.

This morning I woke up, and spent my day answering a few questions to my professor, so he could grade whether I understood the things he spent the semester trying to teach. Later in the afternoon, I went to class where groups of students discussed their answers, and we all finally gave our papers with notes to the professor. We had discussed the way in which one can study religion. How a religious experience can be understood, and, mostly, how it can’t. Really, we discussed how we cannot understand most things, but that in University we need to pretend we do. In Church we need to pretend we do. The Government needs to pretend it does. We all pretend we do, even though we don’t.

We have to pretend, because it’s really scary to not know. Continue reading “Today it rained”

Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics

The world has seen the inauguration of an American president whose online supporting community proudly calls “the absolute madman”. The world has also seen, in the past decades, the same country engaging in vicious forms of capitalism that subjugate and exploit poorer countries’ workers, accompanied with more bombing and killing than any other country, terrorizing and decimating families across the globe. The world has seen this country’s public debate overtaken by questions of police violence, constant shootings and gun control, racial struggles, LGBTQ movements, feminism, privilege, and revolts against the acclaimed 1% richest of the world in times of economical unrest. With all this struggle, being “politically correct” became pejorative, and increasingly labels like “liberal” and “conservative” are tossed back and forth in a constant polarization. All of it with the USA as some sort of symbol for several other countries, with its liberal and conservative, left and right dichotomy being reflected back by them, with a rising tension everywhere between those who push for one side and the other: the stereotypical religious white fascist defending traditional family and good values, versus the colored women and queer socialists who attempt to claim their rights for choice and equality. All of it being led by smart educated people on both sides, who are followed by uneducated, unquestioning parroting masses unable to break the dichotomy, unable to think that maybe, just maybe, it’s possible to agree with one point and disagree with another without defending indefensible party positions.

Amidst this global chaos, of which America is the eye of the storm, I see some Christians affirm each other by saying it is all going to be OK. That their citizenship is in heaven alone, so none of this is their business, they can sit back and mind their lives.

It makes me want to cuss, badly. Continue reading “Christian Responsibility and The Hope of Another World: On Politics”