Wednesday, November 26, 2014

White Christianity, Black Anger

I request a lot of random stuff from NetGalley, because I have a book-hoarding problem. Most recently, I read a book called Unoffendable by a conservative evangelical type called Brant Hansen. The title intrigued me, because when I requested the book I didn't know where Hansen was coming from, and I was kind of hoping for a radical argument for a new social justice coalition that transcends the worst excesses of petty holier-than-thou progressive infighting. Obviously that is not what I got, but I still tried to read with an open mind, because there are certain overlaps between the things that offend a conservative evangelical Christian like Hansen and the things that offend a radleftist SJW Christian like me, even if it's almost always for very different reasons.

This is a hard week in America, a sad and scary week for my Black friends. White supremacy is flaunting its ugly face even more brazenly than usual, and Black grief and anger is rippling throughout the country. Inevitably, white people who believe they speak from a lofty position of reason and objectivity are telling Black Americans what to do with their anger: suppress it, let it go, rise above it. Most perniciously, these white people are co-opting the words of a Black martyr and saint in service of their craven complicity with the white supremacist status quo.

To my fellow white people I say: How dare we? How dare we commit this twisted sin of white supremacist apologetics? When we steal Martin Luther King Jr.'s words to demand that Black emotion and Black action be directed toward the maintenance of this racist society, we murder him – and Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin, and Tamir Rice, and Jesus Christ – all over again.

Brant Hansen does it too. He not only quotes MLK in support of his anger-quashing agenda, but he also makes an example of his Black friend's story of convincing an actively racist white guy that Black people are human. This is the kind of narrative white people love: focus on the overtly racist individual, and elide the existence of the profound systemic racism on which this country is founded and through which it continues to operate.

The thing is, Hansen's book actually has a pretty good message for a specific audience. It's shot through with theological assumptions I do not share – Christian exclusivism, penal substitutionary atonement as the entirety of soteriology, a patriarchal He-God, an emphasis on heterosexual nuclear families and fetal personhood, that baffling evangelical tendency to assert that conservative Christian values are somehow countercultural – which make it clear that the book is written within and for a white conservative evangelical context. Hansen would have done much better to be upfront and explicit about this. With such a disclaimer, this could be a helpful text for conservative white cishet Christians: one of their own telling them they need to quit getting so angry and offended about stuff is definitely something they need to hear.

Without the disclaimer, though, and with the MLK-quoting white-supremacist sanctimony, it comes off as yet another instance of white evangelicals trying to universalize their contextually-circumscribed circumstances: yet another instance of white people telling Black people what to do and how to feel. Black men are constantly subjected to the dehumanizing narrative of the angry Black monster-man whom a white cop or a neighborhood vigilante can murder with impunity because any “reasonable” person would see him as a threat. They have absolutely zero need for condescending whites to tell them what to do with their anger.

Hansen calls for Christians to stop perpetuating the idea that humans can have righteous or justified anger. He says that anger is never a force for good. But the thing about marginalized people is – and I have felt this as a trans person, as a queer person, as a person with depression, and I can only imagine how it feels as a Black person – sometimes our anger is the only thing keeping us alive. Sometimes (too often), my white-hot rage at a society that doesn't want me to exist, that doesn't see my life as having worth, is all that empowers me to say, I won't let them win.

I don't have answers, I don't have solutions, I don't have a call to action. All I have is this little flame, a grief and anger too deep for words, and the assurance that God, too, lost a child to state-sanctioned violence, and she knows how it feels.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

"Blessed are you who are poor ... woe to you who are rich."
"Blessed are you who are hungry now ... woe to you who are full now."
"Blessed are you who weep now ... woe to you who are laughing now."
"Blessed are you when people hate you ... woe to you when all speak well of you."
(Luke 6:20-26)

The Gospel of Luke is easy to love. In social justice-oriented contexts, Luke's is the go-to gospel because it so clearly portrays a Jesus who is deeply concerned about the social and material circumstances of the poor and the marginalized. It's the natural source for a Christian theological call for justice (assuming we're ignoring all the Hebrew Bible prophets, which as Christians we probably are. Thanks, supersessionism!). In Luke's rendition, the Beatitudes are a pretty uncompromising set of eschatological reversals, "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable," as we bleeding-hearts like to say.

Matthew, on the other hand, is a little more difficult. I've never heard anyone say that Matthew was their favorite gospel. Matthew is fussy and literalist to the point of being nonsensical, as when he tries to fulfil a Hebrew Bible prophecy by having Jesus enter Jerusalem riding two donkeys simultaneously because he's never heard of hendiadys. And look at what Matthew does with the first Beatitude:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven."
(Matthew 5:3)

For starters, note that Luke's Jesus is addressing the poor directly (as well as the rich, whom Matthew doesn't mention), whereas Matthew talks about them as though they are absent or even abstract. The most glaring difference, though, is that Luke's "poor" have become for Matthew "poor in spirit." It seems like a pretty clear-cut instance of Matthew softening the call for justice in order to avoid upsetting the wealthy and to accommodate the status quo.

I think there is potential for a more generous and more interesting reading of Matthew 5:3, though, and it arises from the question: what the hell does "poor in spirit" mean anyway?

Historical-critically, or with respect to the author's intentions, your guess is as good as mine. The reading I'm proposing has nothing to do with source criticism, the historical context in which Matthew's Gospel was written, or the nuances of the Greek terminology. It's just a reading I think is interesting, challenging, and kind of cool.

Luke's Jesus says: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." It's a promise of straightforward reversal: those who currently lack resources and comfort will receive abundance

Matthew's Jesus: "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." If this is also a reversal, Matthew is clearly not using "kingdom of heaven" in quite the same way Luke is using "kingdom of God." Neither the reward nor the affliction are material in nature.

What does "poor in spirit" mean? I suggest that we can read it quite simply, as the reverse of "the kingdom of heaven": the poor in spirit are those who lack a certain sensibility, which for want of a better term I call "religious." Not those who do not believe in God, who have no use for that hypothesis -- it's perfectly possible to be religious without believing in God -- but those who have no sense for, well, whatever you want to call it: the transcendent, the liturgical, the impossible, wonder, the perhaps. Something precarious, something humbling, something greater than oneself. The people with the shallowest, most mean-spirited view of what humanity can be (I'm sure we can all think of examples, including some who call themselves religious and believe in God) are blessed. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

This is no way replaces Luke's vision of material abundance for the materially poor, but it's a thought-provoking supplement. For someone like me, steeped in leftist academia and liberation theology, "blessed are the poor" is normative, but "blessed are the small-minded" is a real challenge.