Thursday, April 4, 2013

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

When Following Jesus Becomes Difficult

This post is meant to be a thoughtful reflection on a trend that has recently had a resurgence in a different form.

"You have heard it said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy'. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you so that you may be children in of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect" - Matthew 5:43-48 (NRSV).

When I first left for Shimer College, I was pretty disillusioned towards the Church. I am speaking of course of the universal body of Christians united in calling and purpose; my frustration was aimed at anyone and everyone who represented this. I had gone through a very tumultuous separation from a close-knit community of Christian theatre people. About a year later, my views had changed radically and a group of Christian friends disassociated themselves with me because they couldn't stand me anymore. They couldn't put up with my views which were so radically different from the ones I used to hold. In this second example, I did play a big part in the final decision to disassociate, which was that I antagonized them whenever they said something I didn't agree with. I make this distinction because in my first experience, I was the victim of an abusive relationship within a community whereas in the second experience I was equal parts victim and victimizer.

Fast-forward to the past few weeks, I've been feeling really uncomfortable in my chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. As a follower of Jesus who is neither morally nor politically conservative, I stand outside the traditional conservative variety of Christianity. Most, if not all, the people in this chapter are pretty traditional Christians of the Catholic and conservative branches of Protestant denominations. Most Thursday nights I didn't want to attend our regularly scheduled Large Group events. Going felt like such a chore and with my already busy Thursdays (literally, I get up in the morning and go from work to the gym to class to lunch class to event and then to bed) and so the last thing I really want to do is spend an hour and half at something that I'm not comfortable doing. Guest speakers and peer talks cater to the conservative values and interpretations of Scripture without any regard for who else might be listening. It occurs to me just now that this is what it's like to be in the minority, though it's not the same as being in the cultural or ethnic minority in America (and I want that point to be very clear). I'm a white male so I almost never have the experience of being in the minority and even when I am in the minority (in a neighborhood that's predominantly non-white for example) I still don't lose the privileges afforded to me by being white.

While all this is happening, I'm also coming under fire for my opinions on political issues by acquaintances from my home state of Minnesota. Most of this is happening on Facebook, so what ends up happening is that it isn't just a criticism from the acquaintance, but criticism from the acquaintance and their four or five friends. In one instance, the father of my friend made it his personal mission to tear me apart. He would say that I was "just a liberal" (or socialist, or communist, or whatever label fit his mood), that I was brain-washed by my liberal college, and at one point my own salvation was brought into question. My friends, it was painful enough to have my college and my political beliefs chalked up to liberal propaganda, but when he called my salvation (a matter which is between G-d and me) into question, that's when I lost it. I sent the father a message and explained exactly what was wrong with what he did and why, but he persisted. Eventually I just blocked him and the problem seemed to go away. Then another friend, someone who was closer to me than the previously mentioned friend, began to assault my opinions with that pesky label of "liberal" and so forth. It was basically the same problem repeating itself. This time I sent multiple messages trying to extend an olive branch. It wasn't until we got into one last debate that ended with him apologizing, but it was too late; I was too hurt.

"Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions" - Romans 14:1 (NRSV).

"[...] For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?" - 1 Corinthians 3:3 (NRSV).

In my own selfishness and pride, my desire to have my views and opinions vindicated, I often times engage in debates. The funny thing is, I've been preaching for a month or so about how ideology works and the problems it creates, but in so defending my beliefs against others I have inadvertently allowed my own ideology to take precedence over the Gospel. These debates that I get into are part of the problem of why people attack me. It's two ideologies, like an unstoppable force that meets an immovable object, warring with each other and neither side is going to budge. This is the danger of ideology. I had to be right, they had to be wrong and in the end nothing was accomplished. Nobody saw things my way and I have zero respect for them.

But Jesus was all about loving the people who hated him most. In his final moments he asked G-d to forgive his executioners for their ignorance (and not like some of us do when we say something like, "G-d help you, you ignorant piece of [expletive]"). Jesus calls his followers to do the same.

The more I learn about history, white history, and the history of Christianity it seems clear to me that I am only going to be more dissatisfied with the direction the Church has gone, but following Jesus means loving the people who misrepresent my faith. They may not deserve it, but the call doesn't discriminate based on the deserving and undeserving since all were undeserving of the grace and love of Christ yet it's offered freely to everyone who wants it. In the end it all boils down to love, not the fruity-flaky variety that ends when the odds of ever seeing its triumph are slim, but a trans-formative love that transcends "common sense".

This is my calling, and by G-d, I will do it.


Monday, January 21, 2013

Dr. Jekyll

Today is one of those days where I find myself more emotionally volatile than most, thus I have split this entry into two parts one of which is here and the other of which is on tumblr. For those who are not aware, I post my unchecked venting/ranting posts on tumblr so as to provide myself a place to say things I would not normally write for all to see.

When I was younger I didn't know racism was still an issue. On days like today, I was led to believe we were celebrating Dr. King's victory over racism. I also thought that one of the main reasons he went on to oppose the war was because he had stomped out racism. Then I'd have these thoughts, more like moments of extreme discomfort, being around someone who was different than me. Maybe it was a Latino who was talking to his friend in Spanish, maybe it was a black guy using African American English Vernacular (AAEV), or maybe it was just another white person who didn't speak English as a first language. What I didn't know is that the society I was raised in was racist. The TV shows I watched portrayed various degrees of racism, even Star Trek wasn't immune; my music had racist undertones, the church I grew up going to had racist narratives woven into its dogma, the school I went to was full of racist stereotypes (I dressed up as one of Tisquantum's companions for a Thanksgiving day performance in third grade- complete with shirtlessness, red marker all over my face, and a paper feather headdress).

It's not as if my parents' church, my school, or the friends I grew up with were intentionally being racist. I grew up in white culture, a privileged white culture. Imagine with me, if you will, that white culture is like an underwater city. In this city things are not perfect, but the systems of law, equality, and morality worked as well as anyone might hope. When you dial 9-1-1, the police/firefighters/EMT's arrive as soon as possible. When someone commits a crime against you, they are punished to the extent the law permits. When you apply for a job, you're hired or not hired based on your qualifications for the job as well as your performance during the application/interview process. Your doctor is a well-trained medical professional who makes a large salary and lives comfortably as compensation for the demands of his/her job and the expertise it requires to maintain their proficiency. Your local grocer has various kinds of fresh fruit and vegetables available almost all year around at prices you can afford. Your rent/property tax doesn't spike when new neighbors from another area of the city move in. This is privilege.

You might resent me using that word, "privilege" since it's getting thrown around quite a bit these days and it seems like there are new types of privilege being invented everyday. Privilege in the context we're using it is not a bad thing, unless it's not available to everyone. Male privilege, I can walk the streets without guys hooting and hollering with suggestive comments about my ass/legs/chest. White privilege, I can talk to police officers without fear of being profiled as a trouble-maker based on the color of my skin. Thin privilege, I can find clothes that fit me in every department store. These are all privileges afforded to me, not because I'm not a white male of an average body size, but because we believe in principle that everyone should be able to walk the streets without being sexually harassed, talk to police officers without being profiled based on skin color, shop at a department store and find clothes that fit. Despite these principles, the world in practice doesn't work like this except in the privileged white culture. Did you notice the negative tone the word "privilege" took the way I just used it? Privilege just doesn't seem so awesome when it's not available to everyone.

What boggles my mind is how angry I get when I'm on the receiving end of prejudice. It's so rare that I was almost in denial that it was actually prejudicial when it started happening over the summer, I just wanted to write it off as a bad joke. Then I ran into a person who told me just what he was thinking by asking, "What the fuck are you doing here? Huh? Go home!" It didn't matter that my apartment was just a couple blocks down the street, I was living in a demographically and culturally black neighborhood at the time and white people who moved there had been known to be there because they wanted something from the community. I took it with a bit lip and hurried steps. I knew before I had even moved my stuff into that apartment that I was not entirely welcomed in the neighborhood. I was definitely out of my element and others saw that. Reflecting on how I felt about being on the receiving end of prejudice, I think about Dr. King's commitment to nonviolence and suddenly I'm struck with awe. Here's a man who lived with bold-faced racism, segregation, and intimidation coming against him from multiple sides yet he still wanted to solve problems nonviolently.

It is my prayer that I can help those who have carried on Dr. King's legacy of nonviolent response to discrimination.

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

Monday, December 31, 2012

Vulnerability and Communication

It's 20:05 and I'm trying to compose a text message asking this woman I really like if she'd be up for getting together to talk. I sat there nervously laughing at myself as I floundered through draft after draft of the text message, struggling to get the damn thing to say what I mean to say. It's funny because all I'm asking her to do is go out for coffee so we can talk and that's a pretty easy thing to do, right? I mean, I've gone out with her twice already so this should be a walk in the park. I can't really mess up too badly unless I peter-out and not send the text message. The worst that could happen is she says no.

Some of you are probably smirking or doing your own equivalent of the amused look at this point and I'm glad I can be a source of amusement for you, but I have bigger fish to fry. What freaks me out about talking to her is that I want to share my thoughts and feelings. Since there's no manual on how to have a great date, or at least there's not one I've seriously considered reading, I just sort talked about whatever. Family, friends, a few experiences here and there, feminism (that comes up a lot in various ways), and where we're from... That's all fine stuff to talk about and on the second date there was a little more freedom to just talk about thoughts and feelings on stuff, but it was still only surface level stuff. Now before someone sits back in their chair and says, "Well, what did you expect on the first two dates?" You're missing the point and that's partly my fault.

Communication, the real stuff that breaks past the layers of junk which normally distorts what we're saying (cynicism, sarcasm, fear, self-doubt, doubt, anxiety, anger, sadness, etc), that's a really hard thing to have. It probably has some fancy term that you'd learn if you took enough interpersonal communication classes, but instead I'm just going to call it authentic communication. The difficult thing about authentic communication is that it requires being vulnerable. It requires a level of intimacy (in-to-me-see) that I haven't had to have with people on a regular basis. I didn't even realize that I wasn't communicating without my personal filters until this summer when I spent so much time building an authentic community with five other people. We'd stay up late into the night talk through stuff and it would finally come out what I was trying to express and suddenly it donned on me that I had been talking around what I was really feeling and thinking. I've had some time since my first realization and now to practice getting to a place where I can communicate authentically.  

It's really a humbling experience to find yourself practicing what you want to say. Not like in those cute romantic comedies, but it feels more like the longer I think about what I want to say the more I realize that it would have been so much easier if I had learned how to communicate authentically since the time I could talk. Over the years I practiced talking without sharing what I'm really thinking and feeling that when I want to do just that, be open and vulnerable about what I'm thinking and feeling, it's really difficult. There's nothing funny or cute about trying to figure out what it is I'm really trying to say without any pretense or inhibition. For me being vulnerable is hard, it's scary, and yet I believe it is essential to having great relationships (and not just romantic ones).

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Church Lacks Imagination

 For several months I have been trying to articulate some thoughts I have on the Christian Church in America today and I feel like I was finally able to some of those ideas in response to something that was floating around Facebook a little over a week ago.

This came out shortly after the Sandy Hook Elementary massacre that had everyone arguing over gun control. I am adamantly against guns and violence and frankly I'm quite sickened by the culture of death we have in America. You might be wondering what a culture of death is and I would point to the fact that we find it acceptable to kill a person who tries to steal a television in your house. Nevertheless, that is not what this blog entry is about so I will return to what I've purpose to write about. I wrote the following in response to this,

"I am most definitely not a conservative but I'm not a rank-and-file pro-choice advocate. I do not believe legislating against abortion will have the effect my fellow Christians think it will, but instead will widen the gap of understanding and communication between pro-life and pro-choice people. I think that if Christians want to see the end of abortion, we should try something really radical (something Jesus suggested) and knock the locks off of churches and welcome in anyone and everyone who may be seeking help. Regardless of whether they're gay, straight, pregnant out of wedlock, or what-have-you. Apostle Paul adamantly stands against using the court system as a method of doling out moral precepts on those who don't believe. For Paul that wasn't really even a consideration since during his writing the religious authorities (both pagan and Jewish) were in the process of figuring out what to do with Christians and an out-and-proud Christian was likely to be shunned by the community or worse."
I hear it all the time from the pulpit of churches that being a Christian is more than just a Sunday-Wednesday or a Christmas-Easter gig (and all the youth turn red-faced because the pastor just used "gig" to try to sound hip). I also hear that the Church is more than the building we meet in to worship together, but rather that the Church is the people who gather in the unifying name of Christ. There are quite a few more catchphrases I could spit about the church being a hospital and all that, but suffice to say they've become quite cliche.

I finished off my thoughts on that first graphic by saying this,

"The Church has failed the community outside the four walls of its cathedrals and buildings when it comes to the issue of abortion. Instead of embracing the people who may need guidance and help in figuring out what to do, Christians have slammed the gavel down and passed judgment. We have heaped loads of fear and shame on those who we should have been welcoming in. Until we change this, Christians are not in a very good position to say one way or another how to handle the issue of abortion. Until we have done everything to mend the wounds of our every hateful word and deed; until we have done everything to make ourselves available to lend a helping hand without passing judgment, we stand with powerless words. As a cis-gender male and feminist, I don't feel it is my place to tell women and trans-men what they can and cannot do with their bodies."

Folks, the message of the love of Jesus Christ was worth dying for and yet somehow the Church has been pigeonholed into a very narrow way of thinking and approaching problems. This is exactly the opposite of the way Jesus did things. When  Jesus needed to pay the temple tax, what did he do? He told Peter to go fishing and pull a coin out of the mouth of fish (Matt 17:24-27). I don't know about you, but all the times I've gone fishing have not ended in me being a dollar or two richer than before. I'm usually lucky to catch something worth eating, much less get enough money to pay the highway toll or something like that. We see it in some of the great prophets, like Elisha, who did a little CPR on a dead boy and then G-d the boy sneezed back to life (2 Kings 4:34-35). Are you getting this, my friends? G-d is far stranger, far more imaginative than we can possibly conceive but we have been given a sample of that (think of it like the trial version). G-d gave us imaginations of seemingly unlimited potential, so I ask why are we not using it to enhance the kingdom of G-d? Why do we fight with weapons of the world and play their political games? I know we're all pretty used to it, but most of us were pretty used to breast milk and as far as I know none of the people reading this are still living off of breast milk.

Do you know what breaks my heart about all of this? Many people will agree with what I'm saying, but tomorrow they will wake up and go about their day and argue about the same stuff in the same way they did yesterday. Something tells me that must be a bit like what Jesus feels when watching the modern-day disciples twist and pervert The Way into a nationalist American propaganda piece.

Peace that surpasses all understanding,

Thursday, December 6, 2012

From My Dead Cold Fingers

"They can ban smoking on campus when they pry my cigarettes from my DEAD cold fingers!"

I said this in exasperation when I heard that there were people on campus trying to put forth a campus-wide smoking ban. First let me say that I understand why people would want the ban. Smoking smells bad, it's a toxic air pollutant, and there are more than just a few smokers who regard the "15 feet from the building" rule with apathy and to an extent bitterness. The hostility felt towards smoking is not without merit. Smoking is a lethal habit that has taken the lives of family, friends, co-workers, employers, employees, partners, celebrities, thinkers, and so on. It doesn't just kill people, rather it maims them to the point where death might be preferable. For someone who doesn't smoke, it may be really hard to understand why smoking is still around. In Chicago, the average cost of a pack of cigarettes is around $10 and may see another price spike if the tax increase proposal goes through. With all these negative consequences of smoking, I suppose it may sound insane to be a smoker.

As a smoker of three years, I have seen the hostility of those who hate smoking and I have seen the apathy of smokers who have little respect for the rules and the people who hate smoking. It's a passive-aggressive game between lobbyists for the rights of those who don't smoke and the smokers who don't appreciate being treated like second-class citizens. That may sound like a strong statement to be making, but once I explain this a little more I think it will become more clear.

Every morning when I get up I can usually go about two hours before I really need my first cigarette of the day. From the last half of October through the end of March I have to get fully dressed and throw on a coat, hat, and possibly gloves just to have this one cigarette. I stand outside and shiver, sometimes even cursing loudly if it's a bitterly cold morning. I stand in dirt and mud because standing much closer to the door- where the sidewalk is- will likely incur the wrath of someone living on the first floor of my apartment complex. In between classes I have to hurry outdoors to get a cigarette in before my next class and I may not even get that if I have to use the bathroom or drop something off at an office. Walking to and from Shimer, I get these looks from mothers and fathers who are with their kids... They're praying on the inside that their kid will never end up to be like me... A smoker. Friends, acquaintances, and even people I don't really know have no problem telling me that I smell like smoke. They remind me that's how awful the smell is, as if I wasn't aware, but in their defense I can't smell it anymore and actually enjoy the fragrance from my own cigarette. Maybe because I'm a nice guy or because I'm inculcated with guilt, I feel bad whenever someone mentions this to me. I sometimes want to leave the room to alleviate their suffering, but when that's a classroom I can't readily do that. Occasionally I'll find a place to hang my outdoor wear so as to minimize the smell.

There is of course the people who want to try to "help" me quit. I once tried to monopolize on this by starting a campaign that if someone caught me smoking they would get a dollar. Eventually I just found other places to smoke without getting caught, or caught less frequently, and when I upped the reward people made some pointed criticisms that I had inadvertently shifted the responsibility of quitting onto those who spot me. When I tell people that I'm a smoker they will actually follow my statement up with, "you should quit smoking". In my mind I'm thinking something to the effect of, "no shit, Sherlock". I try to explain to them that smoking is more addictive than heroine, how much of social life is centered around the fact that I smoke, and cite all the times and ways I've tried to quit smoking. John Cheese from Cracked wrote a great article about the problems smokers face when trying to quit called, "5 Lessons You Only Learn Through Quitting Smoking". People don't realize that telling me to quit is insulting. It's like holding the carrot on a stick in front of my face. On a bad day I have a hard time calming myself down enough to avoid an altercation.

The problem with the ban is that it won't make people stop smoking. It will just further incite hostility between smokers and non-smokers. So far the requests non-smokers have turned into legislative action have not been terribly unreasonable. As much as I hate standing outside in the cold freezing my extremities off, it's not an unreasonable request to ask smokers to take their smoking outside where the stench and pollution are less likely to harm non-smokers. This ban would solidify the feeling smokers have that the rest of the population hates us, the people who smoke. They don't care if we spend our free time volunteering, if we're really good with kids, if we care about the poor, if we're pro-gay rights, or anything like that. All that matters is that we're smokers and that is reason enough to hate us. They hate us because they hate smoking, but the distinction between disgust of smoking has not been made separate from the people who smoke.

Now that I have cooly and calmly explained the problem, I have only one more thing to add...

Peace that surpasses all understanding (hopefully this doesn't come to violence),

Smoking with match picture courtesy of Bernhard Classen/Alamy

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Crisis (Why am I so anal about my jobs?)

No, I'm not in a crisis, although I wish I was sleeping better.

The other day (Saturday at 17:23 to be more precise), the power failed across half the campus. I was in my room trying to finish an entry for the Shimer Blog about getting to see my childhood hero, Bill Nye the Science Guy. I was looking at my phone and then set it down when I noticed the music stopped, but quite quickly I noticed that it wasn't just my music: my computer was totally dead. I took a step outside and looked around, a few people were standing outside just as confused as I was. I joked around with my RA for a few seconds and then informed him that I was going to the first floor to check on the Community Desk Assistant (CDA, a person who sits at the front desk of the dorm building) and make sure Public Safety had been notified.

When I got downstairs, the CDA looked at me like he had a million questions he wanted to ask me, I've seen that look before. It's the look I get every time something goes wrong in my apartment complex. Last year the fifth floor had been flooded because someone intentionally clogged the drain and put both the hot and cold on full in the utility sink. I had been talking to the CDA, you know, trying to get to know the people who sit at those desks for hours on end when I heard water pouring down the elevator shaft- guess who made the phone calls and answered all the questions about the who, what, when, where, and how; yes, that was me.

I don't do it on purpose, per se. I enjoy seeing a problem get resolved smoothly, but I'm not out looking for problems. My own shift as a CDA sometimes requires me to respond to a crisis, usually in the form of an intoxicated student who drank way more than their body can handle and needs to be transported to the hospital. I hate having to be that guy that's always enforcing the rules, but I do enjoy helping people see the practical application of certain rules we have. I enjoy seeing the rules that were established long before I got here work in my favor. I like rules, I can't deny that, although I fear for the person who tries to enforce a rule I don't like. Anyways, crisis, it's funny that I use that word because what constitutes for a crisis in my job is very minimal in comparison to things I was trained to handle.

Yeah, I was trained to handle worse. I never really thought about it, but I was drafting an e-mail to my supervisor to explain why I was so upset when I went into the office yesterday and it suddenly struck me- I am not an average CDA. For the past two years I've looked back at my days of wanting to be in the military, of participating in Civil Air Patrol - Search and Rescue, and all that with great disdain. I didn't want to remember those days, they were (and often still are) are the subject of nightmares. Those days are the reason why I take a particular interest in psychological research done on abuses of power, the Stanton Prison experiment, and Milligram's authority experiment. Nevertheless, thanks to that stuff I've been trained to handle problems under pressure... It's true, I may not have the reflexes and discipline necessary to perform under the kind of pressure I was trained for, but I doubt I'll be rendering life-saving first aid to any injured pilots any time soon.

What I do really well (by comparison to my co-workers) is see a problem in progress and think. Most of my co-workers seem to see a problem and panic, which is pretty normal. Panic, in this situation, is caused by a conflict between the recognition of the problem and the emotional response to the shock of it happening. The fact is that CDA's are very accustomed to showing up for their shift and doing homework most of the time without much incident. When something like an intoxicated student trying to get past the front desk happens, the natural tendency is to panic and then reactively let the student pass by. It's uncomfortable to try to explain to an intoxicated person, or what usually happens it that you have to explain it to their sober friend who's carrying them, that you need to contact an RA and possibly Public Safety. You don't know if the drunk student is an angry or violent drunk, you'd probably prefer to not find out, but it's all a part of the job.

It's gets a bit more tricky when you're, say, a 3rd shift clerk at a gas station. At a gas station you are not obligated to handle drunk people, at least that's what they tell you when you sign up for the job, but drunk people come into gas stations all the time. They want some snacks, they want cigarettes, or they just need to use the ATM machine to get cash for the taxi fare. Drunks, as I have said elsewhere, are not people. They are subhuman primates that are incapable of higher cognitive and complex motor skills. They will not understand why you can't sell them cigarettes without an ID or why the ATM machine swallowed their credit card when they stood there for twenty minutes staring at the advertisements on the screen. My policy has been two-fold, as long as they aren't harassing me or my co-worker and they are not driving, then they can buy their stuff and leave. As soon as they break one or both of those rules, I'm going to come down on that shit like an anvil to a fly. I also refused to tolerate the high school kids dealing dope in the parking lot. We caught them on multiple occasions, but only once did we manage to get the police involved.

It's the perfect storm, between my previous experiences and my training, I am pretty much one of the biggest hard-asses you could get. I won't take offense if the majority of you don't want to work with me from here on out. Rest assured, there are jobs where I don't take this hard-assery out on other people, but none of you are likely to work that kind of job (just kidding!).