Trading Optimism For Struggle

Ta-Nehisi Coates is more Christian about hope than are many American Christians.

I wrote the following for our church newsletter.

One of my favorite authors, Ta-Nehisi Coates, has a new collection of essays out this week, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy, about the years during the Obama Presidency and their connection to our current political tumult. On Monday Coates was a guest on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and the last two minutes of their conversation caught my attention. Click the video below and begin watching at 5:06 to see the exchange.

“Do you have any hope tonight?” is what Colbert wants to know and Coates is blunt: “No.” I’ve been reading him long enough to have heard Coates asked some variation of this question many different times. His writing is stark and his vision of the country and its history is bleak. He is one of our most truthful contemporary writers. His interviewers, generally white, want to know if this harsh view of our reality contains within it any space for hope.

In his previous book, Between the World and Me, the author warns his son about this country’s blindness towards the devastating truths about ourselves:

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work.

It’s not surprising, I suppose, that many Americans would read a passage like this and wonder if there is room for hope. We’ve been formed to think about this country more positively than this. On the political right we hear the voices calling us to return the U.S.A. to its mythic glory. On the left are those who believe the arc of justice to be long, but eventually inevitable. Coates’ vision is different. For him the evils we face are histories that cannot be easily overcome nor are they contemporary glitches to an otherwise functional society. The wickedness of the nation is endemic to it. To take but one horrifying example, about the enslavement of African people Coates recently wrote, “Enslavement provided not merely the foundation of white economic prosperity, but the foundation of white social equality, and thus the foundation of American democracy.” The evil of slavery, in other words, is not exceptional to what the country is but is a glimpse at its foundational logic.

You don’t have to share Coates’ perspective about this country – though I largely do – to understand why he refuses to offer his interviewers and readers assurances of hope. He is not a hopeful person and his writing provides more than enough rationale. He will not tell his readers that everything will be all right. It’s one of the things I most admire about Ta-Nehisi Coates and his bracing vision of this country.

This country and, if we’re honest, many of its expressions of Christianity, are addicted to optimism. We take our personal experiences of happiness, no matter how brief, as evidence that we are ok, that the direction our lives are heading will end well. For some of us this is especially true when it comes to race. It’s not a surprise to me that many of those interrogating Coates about hope are white. This country works to convince those of us who are – and those to whom whiteness extends its treacherous bargains – that the white supremacy, native genocide, and anti-black racism that lay at the nation’s roots can be transcended. We’re told that we shouldn’t remain bound to these ugly realities. With enough work – some reading, a few diverse friendships, a couple of hard-hitting documentaries, a church racial reconciliation workshop – we can move on to other concerns.

I say we are addicted to optimism because Christian hope is something else entirely, something more akin to the experience Coates describes in much of his writing. Hope, for the Christian is eschatological, which is simply to say that our hope is anchored in the God who will one day make final Christ’s victory on the cross. Such hope does not engender complacency, rather we “labor and strive.” (1 Timothy 4:10) This hope is not dependent on circumstances or the American pursuit of happiness, in fact such visible, transient hope is “no hope at all.” (Romans 8:24) I once heard Coates say something like, hope is struggle, a rather different perspective than the one which leads to our nation’s sanitized and deceptive story about manifest destiny and the like. This too hints at our Christian hope: “we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4) To be hopeful in Christ is to dive headlong into the struggle with wickedness and injustice, a struggle which includes suffering but also perseverance, character, and genuine hope.

Optimism is not enough for this generation. We are are hard-pressed on every side: gun violence in our city and beyond; ecological disasters; the rise of blatant white supremacy; sex-selective abortions; nuclear threats and news of genocide from around the world. We could go on. There are also our countless private struggles. Optimism isn’t enough. We need hope.

Maybe the most well-known Christian language about hope is found in Hebrews 11:1. “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.” It’s not that we don’t want to see the expressions of our hope, the righteousness of the Kingdom of God in all of its fullness. It’s just that we don’t have to see it now to still struggle for it. We aren’t optimists because we don’t require experience or even evidence to throw ourselves into the struggle. Our faith is in the One who allowed evil to roll over his head, who allowed wickedness and oppression to crash upon his body, who was lynched for the sins of the world. Our faith in him is what anchors us now, eyes wide open to all that is wrong, and right. We don’t have to lie about ourselves, and we certainly don’t have to lie about this nation. Our hope is found elsewhere.

The saints who’ve gone before us testify to the trustworthiness of this sort of hope. Though all else is torn away, Christ remains- victorious in the past, glorious in the future. Christian hope will not always appear hopeful to people raised on optimism. But try it. Test it. Repent from the lies this nation has told about itself and about you. Repent from the empty promises of guaranteed happiness and easy optimism. Instead, let us “put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all people, and especially of those who believe.” (1 Timothy 4:10) More often than not our hope will appear to the world like nothing so much as struggle. But we who struggle – who hope – will come to find in this hopeful struggle the fullness of life, heaven reaching into earth as a sign pointing toward the day when all will be made new and we no longer need to hope.

Equipment for Dying

For the man who taught me to fly through danger.

Were the safety belts green? It’s how they appear in my memory: thick, smudged green canvas laying tight across my lap, the two ends brought together by a simple metal attachment. I remember it now and the whole thing seems primitive, hinged metal locking into its looped opposite, the whole thing clamped together by pressing down hard against the wooden knob connected to the hinged latch. Was the knob painted red? Was it really made from wood?

You, of course, sat in the pilot’s seat. Through my child’s eyes I see you squirming into place behind the instrument panel and steering yoke of the six-seat Cessna; the two retrofitted metal rods slicing my view through the windshield were reminders about how little room for error there was during those jungle flights. They were made to keep the small cabin from collapsing in a worst case scenario. Your helmet was another obvious hint as was your version of the safety belt. Yours was no more sophisticated – the same green belts and the simplest of closures – but it had the added seriousness of a shoulder harness that hung down from the fuselage above your head, draped over your sweaty t-shirt, before latching together with that same wood and metal closure.

Am I getting the details wrong? Maybe the safety belt was more impressive than I remember. I’m sure it was important; you’d never turn over the engine until everyone was buckled in, the loud metal thunk was audible proof that we were as secure as it is possible to be while bumping around a few thousand feet up in the tropical air inside 3,500 pounds of aluminum dodging thunderstorms while aiming for what can only generously be called a runway- a just-long-enough patch of dirt and grass scraped into a hill, or snaking alongside a river. On every final approach that I can remember, whether craning my neck from the back or next to you peering over the panel full of knobs and gauges, you’d reach up and grab that crash bar, leaning against your shoulder harness as though to feel for its integrity, all while staring at the quickly approaching horizon. The droning engine dropped an octave, you did a sort of subtle shimmy as if to awaken all the senses and then leaned firmly back into your seat, ready to guide your passengers and cargo down for another landing.

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fullsizeoutput_1e44It’s been a long time since you squeezed into that stuffy cockpit. I was just beginning high school when we left South America and since then you’ve done a lot of different things but you left flying behind when we returned to the states. I’ve been thinking about those days over the past few months as you approach your ordination. Maybe the thought began because the two seem so distant, unrelated. You’ve been a pastor, officially, for about a decade and now, after the long process determined for both you and me by our denomination, you’re going to make your promises to the church. The nondescript hotel conference hall in Detroit where you’ll be ordained is miles away from those small airplanes loaded with food or patients or mail, lifetimes away from Mom standing in the kitchen describing the rapidly changing weather slowly and clearly in Spanish into the staticky radio as you decided whether to try to make it home to put Anne Marie and me to bed or spend the night in a hammock, beneath mosquito netting and a thatched roof.

It’s different, isn’t it, pastoring? Different from being a pilot I mean, but different from most jobs. Over these years you’ve pastored a young church in Sacramento that met in a gym, in a very small town in the Californian mountains, on a beautiful island in the Pacific Northwest, and now across the river from Manhattan. You’ve pastored across ages, regions, ethnicities, and experiences. I’d say you’ve stuffed a lifetime of ministry into these short years except that you’d already had a lifetime of ministry when you moved into the pastorate. It’s been unpredictable for you as it is for most of us in this strange vocation. Your experience seems to be a reflection of what it means to be a pastor. We deal with the unpredictable, though it’s usually of a variety more mundane than the sudden thunderstorms which scrap flight plans or an emergency call to pick up the critical patient in a remote village.

I could be wrong, but I think you love the quiet, surprising nature of pastoring. You’ve never needed the spotlight and this, I assume, helps you notice the important glimpses of revealed truth that others miss: the passing comment, the lingering after worship, or simply following up on the intuition that something specific has changed in the life of that person. It shouldn’t be so, but I still get surprised by the eclectic crowd that makes its way to your office, to your favorite coffeeshop, to the dinner table to sit and eat with Mom and you where you listen more than you talk so that when your guests return to whatever passes for normal they know they were heard, they know that God hears. This, for sure, is a life saver when the world seems against you.

Continue reading “Equipment for Dying”

Cheering Creation’s Demise

The ambivalence about climate change by many white Christians isn’t only about money and scientific skepticism.

This afternoon the president announced that he is withdrawing the nation from the Paris Climate Accord. Many who oppose this move – like me – will see the motivation by the president and his supporters to walk away from the commitment to reduce climate change to be about two things: the economy and/or a disregard for science. Mostly what we hear from those who disregard climate change is that it is either a fiction or, slightly more benevolently, that we must prioritize our economy while, eventually, addressing environmental concerns. There’s another lens through which to view this decision, and its one made most visible by the support by so many white Christians of this president and his environmentally-destructive agenda.

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Photo credit: pawpaw67

The Bible is full of imagery and metaphors taken from creation. The biblical narrative begins in a garden and ends with a return to Eden, this time within God’s Holy City. We’re told that the creation groans for redemption and humanity’s vocation from the beginning was to work with God to care for the earth and all of its inhabitants. So why the enthusiastic support by Christians for a presidential administration that so blatantly disregards basic Christian beliefs about creation?

Greed and scientific skepticism are not enough to explain this strange phenomenon. For this we need to recognize the power of white supremacy as a guiding, if generally invisible and unacknowledged, force when it comes to how many white Christians see the environment and their role in caring for it. The history of white supremacy as the beginning of the construct of race and racial hierarchies that we experience today is rooted in a moment that combined the colonialist enterprise with a supersessionist theology which detached Christianity from its Jewish roots.

In his important book, The Christian Imagination, tracing this historical development, Willie Jennings writes that the “earth itself was barred from being a constant signifier of identity. Europeans defined Africans and all others apart from the earth even as they separated them from their lands.” Rather than viewing the new cultures and peoples through the lens of creation, the colonialists began viewing people through a racial gaze. He goes on: “They saw themselves as those ordained to enact providential transition. In doing so they positioned themselves as those first conditioning their world rather than being conditioned by it.” [Emphasis mine.] In other words, as Europeans began understanding themselves as racially white, they no longer viewed themselves as being formed by God’s creation; now they were the ones with the racially-sanctioned ability to categorize, form, and exploit those with whom they came in contact, as well as the lands these cultures had long inhabited.

When white Christians forsake the clear biblical mandate to care for God’s creation and cheer for the president’s call to put our economy first while ignoring the obvious threats to this earth and its vulnerable inhabitants we are simply exhibiting the logic of white supremacy. In accepting our detachment from creation and claiming a god-like place of “conditioning” the world through our racialized gaze we have closed our eyes and stopped up our ears to the plight of this world.

When white Christians applaud policies that will further our planet’s destruction we might rightly feel many things, but surprise can’t be one of them.

Faith & Race

This video is long, rambling, and about as lo-fi as it gets, and I think it’s pretty great. Pastor Michelle Dodson and I recorded this a few months back for an all-day Faith & Race workshop that our church recently facilitated. I regularly have really interesting conversations about these topics with really smart, thoughtful folks like Michelle so it’s nice to be able to share this one here.

“True spirituality is one that is incarnate in acts.”

Even if I must be reckoned a materialist, I shall add that I scarcely believe in a spirituality that is content with interior states. Just as it is unhealthy to be content with observances without caring about what goes on inside, so we are deceived by cultivating sentiments not translated into any practice. Pharisaic exteriority has  a no less deadly counterpart: pure interiority, combining beautiful states of soul with middle-class comfort. True spirituality is one that is incarnate in acts. The realism of the ancients understood this well. To despise these concrete practices that make the man is to separate the soul from the body, to enter into a sort of death, to fall into angelism and illusion.

 Adalbert de Vogüé, To Love Fasting: The Monastic Experience (1986).

Good luck finding this book – I had to borrow it through my seminary’s inter-library loan – but it’s worth it if you can. Vogüé, a Benedictine monk, has for many years practiced the regular fast in which only supper is eaten each day. He uses his experience as a way to explore fasting and why it has slowly fallen from favor within much of Christianity. His happy approach to fasting is a surprising and helpful entry into a subject we usually think about with some discomfort, if not dread.

“Forgetfulness is the easy way out…”

Innocent history is selective forgetfulness, used precisely to avoid the consequences of a more realistic memory…

Responsible remembrance, on the other hand, leads to responsible action. A clear example is the repeated injunctions to Israel: “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:21); “Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deuteronomy 10:19); and an even more radical consequence of that memory of pilgrimage, “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine; for you are strangers and sojourners with me” (Leviticus 25:23). For white North Americans to remember that they are immigrants and that the land is not theirs would lead to an attitude toward the original inhabitants of the land, and toward more recent immigrants, that the present order cannot bear. Forgetfulness is the easy way out, just as it was for the children of Abraham who refused to remember their bondage in Egypt.

-Justo González, Mañana (1990).