Readers who followed my Facebook page following the end of my marriage may recall I was determined to learn the mandolin. High Strung in Durham rented me a beautiful mandolin, and I proceeded to admire it, trying to play a few chords. My daughters asked I do this on the porch, because the sounds I made were jangled, discordant – not at all like the Bill Monroe tapes my dad played on car trips. After taking one lesson from an impatient teacher, I tried to learn online. When I told my mom the reason I was not going to give up, she explained something to me. I had been determined to play the mandolin because my grandfather had played the mandolin at home with his four brothers. I had told myself a story that he had also played the mandolin after he returned from war. I had told myself a story that he played the mandolin to heal from the trauma of war. My mom, his daughter-in-law, explained to me that I had this wrong. My grandfather could not play the mandolin after he returned from war. Some wounds of trauma do not fully “heal” in the way that many people think about “healing.” Read more
If I were one of a homosexual couple — the same as I am one of a heterosexual couple — I would place my faith and hope in the mercy of Christ, not in the judgment of Christians. – Wendell Berry
A few years ago I realized that I wanted to be a bit more like those people. I realized that if I wanted to do that I was going to have to work harder to save my own soul. – David Brooks
Two links about morality appeared on my twitter feed this week. One describes David Brooks’s “moral bucket list.” The other is on Christianity and debates about homosexuality in the United States, by Wendell Berry. People within a select demographic were sharing David Brooks like caramel popcorn. While I washed the breakfast dishes, NPR announced they would be visiting with Brooks about his new book on morality. Even though this is WUNC (NPR in North Carolina) I do not remember hearing them run a piece featuring Wendell Berry, well . . . ever, even though Berry is a celebrated scholar, environmental activist, novelist, and poet from our near cousin, Kentucky. Granted, I do not listen to WUNC every waking moment. But, during the time I do listen to WUNC, I hear more from David Brooks than I think it helpful to hear.
I need to give credit to a Christian friend on twitter for pointing out that the most basic problem with David Brooks’s essay on morality is that he believes he can save his own soul. For Christian readers, this is fundamental. And some of the problems in his essay follow from this fundamental belief. Using mere snippets from the lives of three different women – Dorothy Day, Frances Perkins, and Mary Ann Evans (George Elliot) – Brooks deftly repeats an idea that is circulating on the New York Times and in the related reading and listening universe. If I am to gain myself, or “save my own soul,” I need to figure out a way actively to lose myself within a larger truth or project. Another pagan writer who has popularized this form of morality for an NPR-listening demographic is pseudo-scientist Jonathan Haidt, who encourages readers to embrace a form of “altruism” that simulates a hive of bees or a colony of ants. (Haidt has also written a NYT bestselling book on “morality.”)
The essay David Brooks featured this week helps illumine what is wrong with a “pull myself down by my own boostraps” morality. Brooks diagnoses his whole reading public with this phrase: “the culture of the Big Me.” There are obvious problems with this broad diagnosis and prescription for readers outside the NPR demographic, and even some of us who do listen to NPR. Some people need not imagine struggling or humility because we are daily struggling or dealing with humiliation. Although people struggling economically may embrace this false gospel of austerity, the popularity of prosperity gospel churches attests to people’s hunger for miracles that will grant us economic security and reassurance that we are worth saving.
Now for the more subtle problems in his essay. The words Brooks uses for these three women matter. Perkins was “shamed” and “purified.” She “turned herself into an instrument.” Day was saved by the birth of her daughter, which moved Day from living a “disorganized” life to one of direction. Becoming a mother, by Brooks’s brief account, allowed Day to lose what he calls “the natural self-centeredness all of us feel.” Mary Ann Evans “stabilized” by choosing a good man. Her writing flourishes because she found a strong partner to be her psychological splint. So, to recap, Day is saved by childbearing, Perkins through socialism, and Evans through a good mate. Do not get this twisted. I am all for mothering, socialism, and the blessed kismet of happily sexual monogamy. But none of these choices, commitments, or chances can “save my soul.” Only Jesus Christ saves my soul. Into the vacuum left by Jesus Christ, Brooks inserts serviceable hagiographies of three complicated, merely mortal women. The problem is a “Big Me,” and so three women become icons for the project of “Us,” thereby saving their own souls and offering everyone living within this “Big Me” culture a model for life. If by chance you are a non-Christian reading my blog post, and you are not troubled by the ways that Brooks is only vaguely deist, please at least note that his gender politics are Edwardian.
The contrast between Wendell Berry and David Brooks is helpful. Wendell Berry is becoming more specifically Christian and politically radical as he grows older and even more courageous. When I say radical, I mean Berry struggles with the at-the-roots-digging required for Christians to argue with one another about the mundane, local particulars of our faith. Berry has always written about individual characters and from a very specific place. He has become even more tenaciously local in the last decade, sleeping on the floor of the Kentucky state house and pulling his papers from the University of Kentucky over the ecological depredation of his home state. He has put his body and his working legacy where his mouth is.
David Brooks, in contrast, is attractive to Christians who want a form of morality that skims across the surface and can travel across the boundaries that slightly distinguish people who read The New York Times. Brooks’s form of self-salvific, blurry Judeo-Christian morality is like Veggie Tales for grown-ups. It is shallow, and it is not Christian.
The two essays that came across my radar this week really crystalized this problem for me. Read Wendell Berry’s words on Christian faith, homosexuality, and what it would look like, in particular, if Christians in the United States ask governmental authorities to become involved in the policing of sexuality. Berry dares indecorum:
If one accepts the 24th and 104th Psalms as scriptural norms, then surface mining and other forms of earth destruction are perversions. If we take the Gospels seriously, how can we not see industrial warfare — with its inevitable massacre of innocents — as a most shocking perversion? By the standard of all scriptures, neglect of the poor, of widows and orphans, of the sick, the homeless, the insane, is an abominable perversion.
Do we need a legal remedy for this? Would conservative Christians like a small government bureau to inspect, approve and certify their sexual behavior? Would they like a colorful tattoo verifying government approval on the rumps of lawfully copulating parties? We have the technology, after all, to monitor everybody’s sexual behavior, but so far as I can see so eager an interest in other people’s private intimacy is either prurient or totalitarian or both.
Perhaps the most dangerous temptation to Christianity is to get itself officialized in some version by a government, following pretty exactly the pattern the chief priest and his crowd at the trial of Jesus . . . For want of a Pilate of their own, some Christians would accept a Constantine or whomever might be the current incarnation of Caesar.
I would recommend also his granularly poetic essay on the challenge of living in the supposedly “new” south and being committed to a particular community and patch of land. Wendell Berry is not against my becoming part of an “us.” Or your becoming a part of a cause or project or family larger than yourself. But that “us” will not save my soul. Also, the particulars of morality will involve “our” commitment to much trickier, stickier dynamics than those that divide like-minded, cosmopolitan moralists.
One comment on Twitter put this beautifully. I noted that some of my former (usually male, southern) students who love Wendell Berry like his writing inasmuch as they can use his work nostalgically, to harken back to a Mayberry, NC that never was. This beautifully candid, United Methodist pastor wrote in response:
I grew up there, so I get the appeal . . . well . . . a poorer, more narcotics addiction, and violent Mayberry. Ok, maybe not Mayberry.
That is just it! Mayberry was not ever Mayberry. If I am looking to a nostalgic prior where morality was simpler, and people were better, I am not only deluding myself about the past, I am likely to blur the lines of the real divides that keep neighbor from neighbor and sibling from sibling. The cosmopolitan “everyone” that Brooks assumes is perhaps, basically, his own “Big Me” written large onto the moral universe. Brooks’s problem may be ego. I do not know him. But to shoe-horn all of everything that is “morality” into the need for humility and loss-of-self is to lose perspective on one’s actual neighbors and friends. Wendell Berry risks offense by calling out his actual neighbors and friends, sitting down with his actual body, risking bad-manners for the sake of truth-telling. (His Jefferson lecture, linked above, is a specifically blessed piece of truth-telling for people who work or study at Duke, by the way.)
On the odd days that I realize I cannot save my own soul, and that only Jesus saves, I am a little more apt to feel freed to reckon even with the contentious politics of sexuality in my beloved home state of North Carolina. I am more apt to listen to the anxieties about change that lead some people to view their gay and lesbian neighbors as competitors in a struggle for mere survival. What I am led to is less about “altruism,” and more akin to something like obstinate solidarity. At least for this “big me,” that work of listening, trusting my own wisdom, and finding the truth is harder than losing myself, purifying myself, or making myself into an instrument for any project – local or larger. My father is fond of telling me that I cannot save the world. That job has been taken. My sisterly message to David Brooks is this. You cannot save your own soul. That job has been taken. Thank God.
We are delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton, pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, to Profligate Grace once again.
I stood on the muddy quad in front of Duke Chapel today and heard the adhan, or Muslim call to prayer. Why did I go?
I don’t know the motivations of all those who gathered at Duke today. I imagine some standing there were merely curious. There were a few news reporters and security personnel paid to stand on the fringe of the crowd. I’m sure others were there to support the free speech rights of American Muslims. But, why did I go?
The whole event was somewhat anticlimactic. Anyone who came out expecting to see fiery protests or anything worse was sorely disappointed. The call to prayer was explained. It was sung in English and Arabic. The Muslims left to go into the basement of the chapel to pray (which they have been doing for years with much less attention). I spoke to a few friends and then wandered off to eat lunch and think more about the sermon I will preach on Sunday at the church I serve. I posted a photo of Duke Chapel on my Face Book page with the caption “The chapel is still standing” lest anyone think the bell tower had been brought crashing down on us by the words of the adhan.
There were no protests against the adhan or Muslims yet, in the days leading up to today’s event, many objections were heard. The loudest voice of opposition came from Franklin Graham, son of the great evangelist Billy Graham. This is not the first time Franklin Graham has loudly voiced invective against Muslims. He has been a fixture on Fox News in recent years denouncing Islam and proclaiming dire warnings against those who adhere to it. Earlier this week he called for alumni and other supporters of Duke University to withhold financial support until the decision about the adhan was reversed. He quickly got his way.
Franklin Graham may be crowing in victory but what he did in the past few days has revealed something vile and disgusting within the soul of many Christians. He has spouted a theology of ignorance, intolerance, and fear. Graham has spiced up his comments with a dash of American exceptionalism and a pinch of childish bullying along with a spoonful of good ol’ fashioned misunderstanding. The whole recipe is indescribably delicious to many yet it is hard to see much Christianity in what Graham is saying and doing. His stand on Muslims seems to be inspired more by the gospel of Dick Cheney than the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
I am not naïve about the dangerous rise in Islamic fundamentalism. There should be appropriate concern about ISIS and Al Queda and Boko Haram. We should all grieve and condemn the recent hateful and deadly attacks in France and Australia and Nigeria. The rising tide of violence and extremism across the world is a cause for concern and attention. I do not believe Islam and Christians are identical in what we believe. There are clear differences that must be acknowledged.
Islamic extremism and the violence of terrorism however was not at all what the hoopla at Duke was about this week. The uproar in fact had very little to do with Islam. The real issue in play is instead something rotten at the core of much of what passes for Christian faith these days. The problem is not Muslims wanting to pray at Duke. The problem is the reaction of many Christians when they hear about this desire.
Franklin Graham’s words and actions perfectly illustrate this problem. The underlying dilemma with Graham and his ilk is that they are consumed by fear rather than being filled with hope. Fear has long been the weapon of choice by demagogues and ideologues throughout history. Fear is the well-played card played during every election. Fear is the constant undercurrent in our society today. I am always amazed at how gullible we the people are to unspecific “threats” and meaningless “raisings” of the so-called terror alert system.
Living in fear may be something many Americans find acceptable, but fear should not influence Christians in the same way. Christian faith is ultimately about the hope given to us by Jesus Christ who died on a cross and rose from a grave so that fear might be banished from our hearts once and for all. Jesus is the center of Christian faith, not a beautiful chapel or a preacher claiming to be a defender of that faith. Faith that can be eroded by the expression of another, albeit different faith, is not much faith at all. Jesus cannot be diminished by the adhan or any other non-Christian religious observance. The only thing that can diminish Jesus is when Christians choose to replace him in their hearts with the scourge of fear.
Allowing the adhan to be sung at Duke Chapel today was not the beginning of the end of Christianity at Duke or in this country. It was instead a mark of generosity and hospitality that is at the core of believing in Jesus and living by his example. Jesus said, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12, NRSV). Yes, I know many Christians are not allowed to freely express their faith in other nations. This is a concern. Yet, instead of responding in kind, I choose to respond as Jesus tells me to do. I choose to live with the hope of Christ as my lodestar rather than the fears preached by Franklin Graham.
Why did I go to Duke today to hear the adhan? I went because Christ led me there.
This is a draft of a chapter for a forthcoming book called “Why People Matter,” edited by John Kilner. I am expanding on questions and affirmations Kara Slade and I made when we gave a keynote address at the Society for the Study of Christian Ethics. That essay is online here at this site. It is thanks to Kara also that we are posting this draft here. Having worked on it for so long, I’d lost perspective on whether or not it is helpful. She says it is! And thanks so much to Meghan Florian for editing this draft and creating the bibliography! – ALH
Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground without your Father’s will. But even the hairs on your head are all numbered. Matthew 10:29-30 (RSV)
I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free, For His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me. Civilla D. Martin, 1905
You and I are not only individuals. Each individual Christian is part of a larger body. We are part of the Body of Christ. But we are not “just” part of the Body. The Body of Christ cannot itself be measured or parceled. Take the Lord’s Supper as a weekly reminder of this fact of Christian faith. Christians believe the Body of Christ is indiscriminately there, on the table, across the world in ways that not even Google Maps can map. And each individual in the Body of Christ cannot be authoritatively measured or parceled or evaluated numerically. Being part of Jesus Christ means that each individual, as a whole, is whole in an incalculable way. We are each, as little bitty parts of the Body of Christ, unto our own, beloved beyond reckoning by God as individuals. Here I further suggest, with centuries of Christians, that Jesus came in one single body with a name and a history and a story for a reason. Jesus is not a “symbol” of some other truth that is beyond his particularity, whether that truth is political or spiritual or aesthetic. His individual body marks our individual bodies as known by God in ways that must shape how we seek to know one another not as symbols or instantiations of another reality but as real, as incarnate. Numbering people – and trying to know them by a category that can be counted, and assessed, and sent by experts into the right pen – is a lie that Christians need to refuse. This essay is one way to explain why the particularity of Jesus Christ matters for the particular matter that makes each person a unique person. You, and I, and that woman next to us in the pew, each one of us is too inscrutable for a larger description and decisive evaluation by another human being or another group of human beings who seek to study us. Read more
We’re delighted to welcome the Rev. Alan Felton to our pages on this fourth weekend in Advent. Alan currently serves as the pastor of Resurrection UMC in Durham, and in his copious spare time he’s also a preceptor at Duke Divinity School.
What would you do?
What would you do if year after year unarmed members of your community were gunned down in the street by police officers?
What would you do if year after year the legal system returned no justice for these acts of violence?
What would you do if you lived under the constant pall of suspicion and distrust by your neighbors of other races?
What would you do if the American dream of peace and prosperity were denied to you over and over and over again?
What would you do if you were repeatedly told to respect a “system” that was never designed to respect you?
What would you do?
You might do what was done recently in Ferguson, Missouri. You might do what was done in Los Angeles a generation ago. You might do what was done in Watts and other communities still another generation in the past. You might just go out burn the bitch down.
Media outlets were quick to broadcast the anguished reaction of Michael Brown’s mother hearing that her son’s killer would not be indicted on any criminal charge. That broadcast included the boiling over anger of Michael’s stepfather who repeatedly screamed to “burn this bitch down.” Part of Ferguson went up in flames soon thereafter.
The media was quick to focus on this angry response and blame it for the violence happening in the wake of the grand jury’s action in the Michael Brown case. The media was quick to do this because it allowed them to take the focus off the real crime, the killing of an unarmed black kid, and return to telling the comforting myth that our system “worked” even though not everyone agrees with the outcome.
The media also wanted to feed the desire to name “good” and “bad” guys.” The violence was quickly dismissed as the work of a few criminal elements or “outside agitators.” The so-called looters were obviously “bad” elements. They were the anomaly. They were misguided. They were the ones who didn’t respect the process. Maybe (never said directly but strongly implied) they were the ones who just didn’t know their place.
Yet, what would you do if were Michael Brown’s mother or father or stepfather? What would you do if your son’s body had been left lying in the street on public display for nearly five hours after he was gunned down? What would you do if your dead child’s character had been demeaned and vilified for months after his body had been assassinated? What would you do if you were part of a community where these things and worse happening are not unusual but the norm? What would you do?
I grieve the violence in Ferguson. I am sorry for those who lost their businesses. Yet, I don’t grieve them more than I grieve the death of Michael Brown. Insurance can rebuild at least most of what was lost in the flames of Ferguson. There is no replacing what was lost when Darren Wilson and Michael Brown met in the street on August 9.
That’s why I urge us to not be so quick to condemn a grieving stepfather when he cries out “burn this bitch down.” I don’t condemn him because that is exactly what I wanted to do when I heard the decision of the grand jury. My first inclination was to go grab a rock or a bottle or whatever I could get my hand on and go throw it through a window somewhere. My first thought after hearing the news from Ferguson was “I hope they burn that bitch down.” I didn’t go to any of the marches taking place that night or since because I was sorely afraid I would pick up a rock or make a Molotov cocktail and start doing just that.
I’m well educated and middle class.
I don’t have to worry that my son will be harassed or shot by police.
I’m the son of a retired police officer.
I’m a pacifist, a student of Gandhi and King.
I’m a pastor.
I received the news from Ferguson sitting in the church I serve with the cross of Christ I preach under every week in front of my eyes.
And, still, all I could think was “yes, let’s go burn this bitch down.”
W.E.B. Dubois once wrote, “A system cannot fail those it was never meant to protect.” For those of us who are protected, always have been protected, and always will be protected by the American legal system, maybe it is hard to understand the angry reaction to the grand jury decision. Yet, for those who not only read what Dubois wrote, but live it every day, it’s not so hard to understand the anger and the violence.
I can’t possibly understand the depth of anger and grief experienced by Michael Brown’s family. But, I can refrain from condemning them. I can try to walk a few feet in their shoes. Maybe if more of us would do that, we might go from wanting to burn this bitch down to celebrating justice for all.