Saturday, December 27, 2008

Radical Christmas Greetings

Some of you celebrate Christmas, some of you don't, but I'm sure that most of you have come across the civil, polite Christianity that portrays the virgin Mary as a proper, white Victorian lady. I have found this hard to reconcile with the fact that she was a prophet of a colonized people, and Bethlehem is still colonized today. I wanted to get out another Christian perspective, one which recognizes how revolutionary Jesus' life really was. So here's a reflection on Christmas under occupation that I wrote a few years ago:

The Nativity has been made into a pastoral scene, peaceful and calm, on a Hallmark Christmas card. It can be hard to celebrate such a pastoral holiday knowing that the world is still in flames.

In reality, the world was in flames at the first Christmas too, and the message of Christmas is one of liberation from oppression.

In reality, Jesus was born into a war zone, a colony. The shepherds that gathered at the manger would have been considered lower-class, undesirable elements by Roman elites and it would have been a point of unspeakable shame for an unmarried woman like Mary to "wrap her child in swaddling clothes and lay him in the manger."

It was a time of turmoil. The great wars were over, the world pacified and unified under the "civilized" iron fist of a tremendous empire. All across the known world, economic development progressed as the imperial armies built roads and outposts for their local puppet governments. The empire proclaimed an era of peace, of tolerance and diversity, claiming that every religion was welcome to flourish as long as the people bowed down to worship the emperor.

And yet, the Middle East proved to be a thorn in the side of this Empire. A small minority group, "backwards and uncivilized" in the eyes of the elites, refused to partake of the so-called progress that had been offered to them. They remembered a time when they had their own kings who had ruled with God's mandate. They were strict religious zealots, willing to die for their God in order to purge their land of the infidels. They launched guerrilla attacks against the legions of Empire, prompting swift unilateral military invasions that left thousands of civilians tortured, maimed, or murdered.

It was the 1st Century C.E. A time much like our own. The Empire was Rome, the rebellious colony was Israel. Into this arena, a strange man was born. Mary, his teenage, single mother gave birth to him in a barn in a rural backwater of this colonized nation, shamed and cast out by all of the innkeepers. Noone believed her when she told them it was God's son. They probably called her a slut and threw here into the street.

She married a worker and together they raised this child like many other children were raised - to work with wood, to fish, to pray, to make a meager living and to get by. Fearing the future, the local puppet ruler was hell-bent on snuffing out the prophesied leader. So when this boy was young, his family had to flee political persecution. He grew up as an illegal migrant in a foreign land.

Everyone was looking for a king, a new ruler who could shake off the empire and govern the people with discipline and strength, bringing back the rule of God's law. Because of the miracles he performed, some thought this child might be this long-awaited King. Yet when this boy grew up, he refused to become such a ruler. Instead, he gathered the people - the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast, the prostitutes, the sick, the shunned, the sinners, the marginalized. He led them by preaching that His kingdom - their kingdom if they chose it - was in their hearts. Rather than bowing to him, he asked them to bow to the Spirit of God within themselves and amongst themselves. Using parables and stories, he taught them to embrace their dignity as children of God. He preached that these - the oppressed, the marginalized - not some messianic King - could rule in the world he embodied for them. The law was not simply a strict reading of religious texts. The Law was in their hearts, manifest by his divinity. It was Love, a law through which they would liberate themselves.

Indeed, he taught that they would inherit the Earth. As a result, he was killed by the occupying army as a threat to national security.

The Prophet Isaiah foretold that when the Messiah came to earth, "the government would be upon his shoulders." Isaiah's listeners probably interpreted this to mean that He would rule the Earth as a monarch. Jesus subverted this dream: the Government that was upon his shoulders was the cross.

Looking at the circumstances of Jesus' birth completely changes the significance of his life and message. This is key, because the harsh conditions of Jesus' birth have not lessened over the past 2,000 years. Bethlehem is once again under marshal law, governed by an occupying army: Israeli apartheid. (It is this occupying army that is currently bombing and starving out civilians in Gaza). It was the Romans who killed Jesus, not the Jews as the Christian anti-Semites like to claim. But the state and ruling class of Israel today have made a pact with the new Rome, the American Empire. And our rulers still seem hell-bent on snuffing out any prophesied deliverance.

Yet as we know, this was not and will not be the end of the story. Jesus embodied the hope that revolutionaries must live by: faith that the dead shall rise again. As CLR James puts it, "touch that, and the whole thing goes." His movement dispersed, his body broken, Jesus knew that history, as always, goes on. The cross, the Imperial symbol of persecution, was transformed into a rallying cry of hope. Like a dispatch from the underground, the message remains: "He goes before you to Galilee."

That is why we can celebrate. So have a Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 22, 2008

The two most dangerous forms of American idolatry

1) Giving thanks to BoldGod for something that you or your ancestors actually took from other human beings. For example, the Puritans stole land and food from the natives and then turned around than thanked God for what they had stolen. For example, many middle class white people thank God for all of the privileges "He" gave them and then reflect very piously about the responsibilities (or should I say burdens) that come with them.

In reality, their ancestors created an unjust system that gave them these privileges. God had nothing to do with it. God is not in the business of giving the well-off more wealth. He is in the business of taking away their wealth in order to give it to the poor... or possibly multiplying the loaves and fishes so that everyone has more than enough to live joyfully. As a wise woman of color once said, "My soul magnifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my savior.... he has thrown the mighty down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly" (Luke 1:46-55). So when you thank "God" for lifting up the mighty and throwing down the lowly, you're basically worshipping the opposite of God.

2) Convincing yourself that you are Moses when you are actually acting like Pharaoh (or at least Pharaoh's loyal and wretched servant). Given the fact that God is in the business of throwing the mighty down from their thrones and lifting up the lowly, human beings are most spiritually alive when we are in the process of helping God tear down thrones.

Someday, hopefully before the second coming, we'll live in a society where the deepest moments of human spirit and striving come in peace and playfulness. But we're not there yet so at least the near future being fully alive means being the underdog struggling to tear down the thrones of our masters. Jesus said if we want salvation we have to take up our crosses and follow him.

That's easier said than done. One of the greatest modern temptations is the belief that we are taking up our crosses when we are really just sweating and getting a backache hammering the nails into Christ's wrists.

If being fully alive means being the underdog tearing down thrones, the modern middle class could easily be left out of this story. They are not lowly and they don't have a good record of tearing down thrones (yes, I know, they had their moment in Paris in 1793 but it was the working women of Paris that scared them into it!). So many modern middle class people have trouble placing themselves in the Biblical stories. How are you gonna be Moses when your entire life is based on enslaving Moses' people?

Well, one thing you can do is pretend to be Moses by becoming a nationalist. Modern nationalism is based on creating a mythology about how your people were wronged and how you need to fight your enemies to vindicate your national pride. It allows you to play the role of the underdog. It allows you to live the vibrant, intense life of struggle against oppression without actually fighting for justice. You can wage this struggle from your throne, comfortably shouting orders to exterminate your "oppressors." It helps to have "oppressors" with no money or weapons.

Nationalism has some validity when a nation is ACTUALLY oppressed - when it is fragmented and needs to pull itself together to fight for justice. For example, the revolutionary nationalism of people of color fighting colonialism is a good thing.

But nationalism is dangerous when Pharaoh wages it in order to play Moses. For example, consider white nationalism in this country. The soul of American religion consists of variations on the theme of "Go down Moses, way down to Egypt land.... tell old Pharaoh to let my people go." This spiritual was forged in the Black liberation struggle against slavery and has been taken up by the rest of the oppressed multitude that built this country including immigrants from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. But white nationalists like the Aryan Nations and Christian Identity flip this on its head. For them, Pharaoh is Black and the enslaved Israelites are white. They claim Black people run the world, and they claim Black people are oppressing them through things like affirmative action, welfare, and crime. They try to convince other white people to wage a national liberation struggle against Black people.

This is all bullshit. We live in a white supremacist society where a multiracial but largely white ruling class subordinates and dehumanized Black people. Most affirmative action and welfare historically have gone to white workers.

Now this doesn't mean that white workers can't join Moses..... just that they might come out of their whiteness when they come out of Pharaoh's Egypt. They might be reborn, baptized in the Red Sea as part of the mixed multitude.

In reality, many white folks ARE oppressed, just not in the way the white nationalists claim. They're not oppressed by Black people, they're oppressed by the white nationalists! What do you think these little Hitlers would do if they actually did manage to kick out the Latinos and Blacks who are "stealing" "white" jobs? They would give these shit jobs to white workers and they would treat them like Negroes.

In the meantime, white workers are oppressed by their white bosses who take away their health care and evict them, who send their kids to die in Iraq, who divide and conquer them, turning them against workers of color to prevent a rebellion of the motley majority against the rich white minority - to keep the true Exodus from beginning.

The international, multiracial working class is the most dynamic new Israel alive today. It is the most vibrant nation on Earth precisely because it is more than a tribe, it is a collection of unique peoples forged together wandering in the desert marching toward freedom.

Pharaoh is jealous of this nation, so he starts wars to prove how he can be badass too.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Brick Collage

This is a spoken word poem I've performed a few times. In the past I've mostly written free verse, non-rhyming contemplative poetry, but I'm trying to branch out now.

They say the kingdom will come in fire by night
Maybe the kingdom will come in these foggy lights
That scout the ridge between our neighborhoods and the rich whites

Cuz the segregation line at 35th is dark tonight
Pacific rain is falling hammering their side tight
And while they sit and meditate and contemplate their birthright
Their screen painting’s shanked by someone angry at their rent hikes.

Cuz they tore up the fabric of our family backyards
Shape up they said
You’re gonna be working real hard
So keep yourself solid like the face of an old God
Fashioned from the platinum of a dead master’s idol rod

Stone hearted genocidal flag waving factory yard
Stone hearted genocidal flag waving birthing hard.
Stone hearted genocidal flag waving church guard.

I’m tired
Of their bleached out petrified race card
I wanna cancel my membership
By burning up that draft card

Brick collage shattered glass makes the stained saints
Pieces of these histories a sample of the old grace
Dripped with color like the other pain of a new face
Rain, rain muddy water paint over soul chase

So while I try to reach the other
People of the valley class
I have something to confess
Many times I’ve tried to pass
Bread and wine with vinegar to neutralize the tear gas
So pass a bottle light it up
Chameleons of the street crash

Cuz someofthe families down Delridge to White Center
Have rusted cars and houses full of lead splinters
Just like the spot when I was young that my family rented
The wealthy kids called us white trash for living in it

Brick collage shattered glass makes the stained saints
Pieces of these histories a sample of the old grace
Dripped with color like the other pain of a new face
Rain, rain muddy water paint over soul chase

Though my house is not still
I sneak out into the clutter world
Night of the soul
ever listless on the tiltawhirl
A carnival of silence
Their residue in retinaswirl
Keeping the closure of a cold peace
In the world

Brick collage shattered glass makes the stained saints
Pieces of these histories a sample of the old grace
Dripped with color like the other pain of a new face
Rain, rain muddy water paint over soul chase

If I shout Halelujah will awakening come back?
Long enough to sit
Buddha style of the train tracks?
Long enough to stop the traffic
Rolling over Outbacks
And find a place to REST
Where the heavens
Can stay Black
And we can lay back
And never hold back

Where God can nurture sprouts
Of the messiah in our child’s play
And she can stop the wreckage
Of their false prophets’ new day
And we can pick up the pieces
And try to do it our way
With grace flowing down our skin in colors like the new way
Forward inward outward upward
Finding faces in the crowd
Together all our bodies are so spiritually well endowed
That we can move mountains that will register in ultrasound
And we can part the waters that the government can’t get around
And we can smash their submarines
On dry land
In Puget Sound

Brick collage shattered glass makes the stained saints
Pieces of these histories a sample of the old grace
Dripped with color like the other pain of a new face
Rain, rain muddy water paint over soul chase

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Fragments of Contemplation

Yesterday I was driving home after an exhausting but productive meeting, weighed down by a weak of dealing with conflicts.

The Seattle gloom suddenly broke open, revealing the sharp contours of the Olympic and Cascade mountains, Puget Sound sparkling like flint, and the clean, sharp snow of Mt. Rainier.

I was overcome with a flood of desires pulling me in a hundred different directions. All of the parts of myself that I had been ignoring in order to focus on my organizing and teaching the past week came crying out, competing with each other for attention. I felt like a herd of goats let out of the barn the first day the snow starts to melt, running in circles.

I tried to keep my focus on the road, feeling the anxiety of rushing cars, suddenly aware that I could die in an accident while watching Rainier and so much would be left unresolved, unrepentant for, and unborn.

And yet, this thought didn't grow into the prayer that it should have become. Instead it turned into a strong desire to get home and wrap myself up in all of those desires, crawl into myself, fold myself into them, and fall asleep in a cocoon of blankets where I'd be safe from sunlight, mountains, cars, and relationships with other people.

At church this morning, I realized that this is one of many moments were I've been offered a choice between heaven and hell, and I chose hell. Hell is isolation from people, a false contemplation that turns us inwards seeking relief from the responsibilities of caring for other people. It inflates our egos so we can crawl inside desperately seeking warmth, solace, and false peace, as if this flabby, temporary, changing thing we call ourself were God - we mistake our own self-pity for God's compassion.

In contrast, heaven is that raw, visceral, clean, clear and sharp desert - the desert rhythm of conversations, glowing snowy mountains, wet city streets - the shifting, risky, wild, and spontaneous landscape of love.

This reminds me of the movie Magnolia, which I watched with friends on Thanksgiving evening. It is a series of intertwined stories of broken American lives. The first half is brutal in its unrelenting exposure of the nihilistic, selfish, violent choices the characters make as they attempt to keep their own self-images from shattering. They cheat on each other, abuse and exploit their children. For a second, it seemed like the movie was going to drag on and on with no redemption, no moral vision, just poking fun at and almost celebrating the fragmentation and barbarism of our society. Because of that, my partner was like "is this some sort of hipster movie?"

In the middle of all of this, there is a Black kid who raps a cryptic poem laced with prophecy: "when the sun don't work the Good Lord sends the rain." The cop who he's talking to doesn't get it, and just keeps telling him to watch his language.

This marks the turning point in the movie; he is like a voice crying in the wilderness.

Seemingly random, visceral events begin to intervene in the characters lives to shake up their sin-hardened hearts so they can take a chance on redemption. The TV quiz show whiz kid pisses his pants so he can't win the competition, and this prompts him to stand up to the producers and his father who are exploiting his talents. Two of the old rich Hollywood actors and producers are dying and have to confront their lives of self-centered manipulation of other people, from cheating on their wives to abusing their children. This goes on for the second half of the film, as the characters stories begin to intertwine and they have to face the need to forgive each other.

The problem is, there is no way to make sense of, let alone forgive the meaningless evil these characters had committed - at least not according to "normal", everyday concepts like justice and fairness. There is no way they can make up for it, and some cheesy deathbed conversion is not enough to help them comprehend the karmic ripples of their actions, the devastating chain reactions their sins have caused in the lives around them.

Ultimately, this takes an apocalyptic break of biblical proportions - frogs begin falling from the sky ( a reference to Exodus 8:2 "And if thou refuse to let them go, behold, I will smite all thy borders with frogs")

The extra-ordinary, almost supernatural character of this event suspends the normal expectations that govern human relationships, and opens up a space in which the characters can make an existential choice to forgive and to let go of their burdens. In this case, it takes the chaotic, bloody pounding of frogs on the windshield and through the skylight to make the recklessness of compassion and forgiveness actually credible.

A lot of Christian reviewers of the movie see this Biblical event as a punishment for the characters' sins. But it's more than that. It is also a radical break with the world and its principalities and powers - its addictions, neuroses, and lacerating whips of desire. It is God marking a different type of time, a kairos, or crisis moment where the characters can wake up and be free. In this sense, it is like the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God in all of its scandalous, physical particularity. It saves us from a slow heat death, from dissipating like a scream into static, like entropy dissolving into nothingness. It erupts from within the world like a thief in the night, splitting it open, rising from its contradictions and giving its history and its bloodstained biographies the possibility of a real ending.

The moment of sharp winter sunlight over Seattle steel, water, and mountains could have been a moment of the inbreaking Kingdom just like the moment when the frogs fell in the movie. In reality, we are confronted with kairos moments like this all the time in our lives. Thomas Merton calls them the "seeds of contemplation" that the universe is constantly planting in us. Usually we kill them before they sprout because the comfort they offer stands in direct contradiction to the comfort we usually seek by turning into ourselves and wrapping ourselves up in our own desires.

A lot of the Christian reviewers of the movie are like the cop figure (who happens to be a Christian himself)- they miss the prophecy running through the film because it is told in vulgar, confrontational language just like the boy's rap. But what the film - just like contemporary hip hop - tries to do is to take the jagged fragments of contemporary culture and to weave them back together like disparate samples woven into a new beat which can build a path for new prophetic words.

These Christian conservatives miss the point. They think that by shielding themselves, by folding themselves back into a world of cocooned peace and porcelain civility they will somehow be able to avoid temptation and sin. In my own experience, such desires to avoid the messy contradictions of contemporary life are actually the root of temptation and sin. All sorts of addictions - whether to alcohol, food, drugs, sex, or self-righteous prayer - arise when folks try to escape the world of other people and find peace in the false solitude of self-gratification.

The alternative is the spiritual desert. The early Christian monks embraced the harsh, sharp, and dangerous spontaneity of the Egyptian desert because here they literally had to pray to stay alive. They denied themselves the option of going home and wrapping themselves up in some preoccupation to forget the world. If they did not concentrate on every action - getting water, making tools, carefully fasting to preserve their food - then they would die. In the process, they died to their egos and were able to be at peace in the middle of harshness and conflict. This allowed them to help other people without burning out.

We don't' have to go to a literal desert to find this unity-in-struggle, this peace-in-contradiction. The city is a spiritual desert, full of dangerous confrontations and harsh edges. Rather than running away from these dangers, we should use them as a grinding stone to grind down our egos and selfishness through daily practice so that we can better love our neighbors.

When we do this, we will become more open to the seeds of contemplation that the clean winter wind is blowing into our faces as we drive home, stuck in traffic on the I-5 bridge among millions of people waiting for the advent of the Kingdom.