Sunday, December 7, 2014

Black Lives Matter

(A slightly revised version of this morning's sermon, at All Saints' Littleton NH.)
"The Christian response to injustice is not passivity. It is not responding by saying, "it is because of our sinfulness" and then moving on. 
The Christian response to injustice is turning over the tables to reveal the truth of a God who is always on the side of the oppressed. 
It is responding non-violently in a world that demands violence. 
It is naming the racism, sexism, classism, all of the isms that seek to separate God's people from God and each other.” 
@Celticwander (American Baptist Pastor)

Jay Smooth, founder of New York's longest running hip-hop radio show, writes on the decision not to have a trial concerning the death of Eric Garner by a New York City policeman:

"The man is unarmed. The chokehold is banned. The coroner ruled it a homicide. It is on video. None of this matters. I can't breathe.”

The past weeks have seen two grand juries issue decisions not to have a trial concerning high profile killing of black men by white police officers.  It is important to note that these were not decisions of weighing the evidence to decide whether or not the officer was guilty or innocent, only whether or not their use of power warranted a trial.  

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. attorneys prosecuted 162,000 federal cases in 2010, the most recent year for which we have data. Grand juries declined to return an indictment in 11 of them. 
Wilson’s case was heard in state court, not federal, so the numbers aren’t directly comparable….Still, legal experts agree that, at any level, it is extremely rare for prosecutors to fail to win an indictment….Cases involving police shootings, however, appear to be an exception. 

I can't breathe…

Mike Kinman is the Dean of the Episcopal Cathedral in St. Louis.  He has been in the midst of things ever since Mike Brown was killed in Ferguson.  He wrote a reflection on the “Sacrament of uncomfortability”:

"Because of our privilege, many of we who are white have for most of our lives been able to avoid extreme discomfort, to view things like racism as "issues" that we either choose to engage or not. But now, these voices are telling us it's not optional anymore. That we have to deal with it or they will "shut it down.” 
And we are uncomfortable ... and confused ... and afraid ... and annoyed ... and even angry. 
And we find ourselves just wanting it all to go away. More and more over the past week, people have come to me saying how weary they are of the protests and "how come 'they' can't do something positive" and "why can't 'they' just tell us what they want" ... with the subtext being "so we can get back to being comfortable again." And shouldn't I be doing something productive and reasonable instead of encouraging this nonsense? 
I feel that pain. I feel that weariness. The learning curve for we white people on this one is so, so steep (I know it is for me) because most of our own previous experiences of pain and weariness ... though certainly profound and real to us ... have not prepared us to encounter the extraordinary pain and weariness people of color have in this country just trying to live every day of their lives. 
Jesus was never one to preach comfortability. In fact, the Gospels paint a pretty clear picture of a Jesus who invited us to leave our places of comfort behind and follow him. To give up something good for the sake of something better. 
To have faith and a willingness to risk. 
To embrace the sacrament of uncomfortability. 
That is where Christ is calling us today. To resist the temptation to flee from the uncomfortablity, to lash out at the uncomfortability or even to reach for the quick and easy fix for the uncomfortability. 
If uncomfortability is a sacrament, and I believe it is, then we need to lean into it ... to dive into it even. We need to feel it deeply, knowing that it leads us to the very heart of Christ. 
If you are annoyed, angry, confused and weary by the demonstrators, I really do feel you. This is a hard time. But Christ calls us to do what is hard and promises to walk with us every step of the way. So I urge you, instead of lashing out or throwing up your hands in despair ... instead of dismissing the protesters as "thugs" or criticizing their methods ... instead lean in. 
Listen deeply.

There are lots of slogans out there right now, and arguably the loudest is the phrase “BLACK LIVES MATTER”.

"The apostle Paul teaches us in the New Testament that when any one member of the body of Christ suffers, we all suffer. Russell Moore, just yesterday, spoke out on behalf of Southern Baptists saying: “We may not agree in this country on every particular case and situation, but it’s high time we start listening to our African American brothers and sisters in this country when they tell us they are experiencing a problem.” 
This is one of those instances where, yes, members of the body of Christ, citizens of this nation, neighbors, and friends are suffering. And we need to listen. 
And we need to knock off the passive aggressive response ALL LIVES MATTER. We all agree with that. Right now we need to declare with one voice, until things really change, that yes, indeed, #BLACKLIVESMATTER”

"The past three months have challenged us to 'walk the walk' as a congregation. As a community that embraces Jews of color, and has always been committed to challenging the injustices of racism in St. Louis, we could not stand idly by as Michael Brown's death touched a nerve throughout the nation, and forced St. Louis to confront the reality that there are two Fergusons, and two Americas. We have police officers in our congregation and our families, yet we must not be afraid to demand accountability from law enforcement that practices racial profiling and provocation and has done so for many years. Our core values of being a civil-minded and justice-seeking congregation guide us and challenge us to be part of the budding solution. I stand with the protestors because they are calling for a serious confrontation with institutional racism and I believe that we all need to do this work. I stand with the protestors because they have kept the peace for over 100 days by promoting non-violent civil disobedience and providing ways for many who are frustrated and angry to express themselves through marching, acts of civil disobedience and building memorials to those who have died, and by showing us what democracy looks like."

So far, we’ve heard only from white voices.  The call to listen deeply goes farther.  

The great African American writer Langston Hughes published these words in 1931:

“That Justice is a blind goddess Is a thing to which we black are wise. Her bandage hides two festering sores That once perhaps were eyes.”

Michael Brown's family's stated:  "Let's not just make noise, let's make a difference.”  As these grand jury decisions were announced, and people took to the streets, black persons also responded online.  These are just some of the responses of people I saw:  some are well known persons, others not.  It's not about whether you agree or disagree with everything that follows, but rather, that you take in what people are feeling and saying:

Marin Luther King, Jr. quotes abound everywhere, sometimes, ironically, in criticism of protesters.  Three years after the “I have a Dream” speech, King sat down with Mike Wallace.  He still advocated non-violence as the ultimate way forward, but was clear in his understanding of when violence happened:

“I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard. And, what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the economic plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years.”

"A riot is the language of the unheard." 
---Martin Luther King, Jr.

In many ways, Littleton NH seems worlds away from all that is happening.  And yet, thanks to Twitter and Facebook, I witnessed so many of these reactions in real time, concerning both the Ferguson and Stanton Island decisions.  You can likely tell that many things said by African Americans caught my attention, but perhaps because I am now expecting a child, it was this response by Petty LaBelle on Twitter that keeps coming back to me:

The next morning, she rallied, and proclaimed:

In 1962, James Baldwin wrote these words in his book ”The Fire Next Time”:

"Everything now, we must assume, is in our hands; we have no right to assume otherwise. If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of the others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world."

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,’”
John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

Listen deeply....


Wednesday, December 3, 2014

No indictments are an indictment

I have no words myself, but a profound sense of sorrow and anger...

That Justice is a blind goddess Is a thing to which we black are wise. Her bandage hides two festering sores That once perhaps were eyes. 
---Langston Hughes

"A riot is the language of the unheard."  
---Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Anonymous trolls and online gaming

Wil Wheaton, actor, writer and gamer, makes it clear:  "It's time to name names".  

His subject is gaming:  where people online anonymously produce venomous words and threats of violence.  He writes in The Washington Post:
To be sure, anonymity online has it uses and is very important. Governments hoover up people’s telephone and e-mail records without oversight, and companies track astonishingly granular personal information. If we want dissent in places where it would otherwise be quashed, whistleblowers to come forward, investigative journalism, and people who can feel like their authentic selves, they need tools like the Tor browser and GnuPGP to let them speak their minds with impunity. In the age of total-information awareness, citizens need certain protections.  
But in the gaming community, those protections aren’t necessary, and they aren’t helping. Anonymous trolls have made the gaming community toxic — especially for women — and upended the industry at a time when the games we play are finally being recognized as the incredible works of art that they can be. While I don’t believe bad actors represent gaming culture’s mainstream, I feel sure they wouldn’t issue rape and death threats, or harass other gamers, if they would be held accountable for their actions.

Wheaton highlights the principles of sportsmanship and full knowledge that the opponent is a living person, and that the situation of competition is temporary.  So it does matter how we react to the results of the game:
I’ve seen players fight for every point in tournaments, then graciously congratulate each other, regardless of who won. I’ve sat down with complete strangers — just like the random person I’d likely encounter online — and had an absolutely wonderful time being obliterated by them, because not only were they more skilled than I was, they were also nice and decent human beings. 
Wheaton's pitch for funding his independent online show, TableTop, is framed by this spirit:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sacred Ground

Another of our current Christian Formation series is our book study, Sacred Ground:  Pluralism, Prejudice, and the Promise of America by Eboo Patel.

One of Patel's defining points is the concept of "sacred ground".  Patel writes in his introduction:
The strangest part of the Cordoba House debate for me was the idea of sacred ground.  The people opposed to Cordoba House insisted that the blocks around Ground Zero constituted a holy area.  Those who believed Cordoba House ought to stay in Lower Manhattan liked to point to the nearby strip joint and off-track betting parlor and say that that patch of land is just like any other.  "Why can't you just move it ten or twenty blocks away?" a CNN anchor asked me on air at the height of the controversy.  But that would still be sacred ground, I thought to myself.  A hundred miles north, a thousand miles south, two thousand miles west---it's all holy. 
I believe every inch of America is sacred, from sea to shining sea.  I believe we make it holy by who we welcome and by how we relate to each other.  Call in my Muslim eyes on the American project.  "We made you different nations and tribes that you may come to know one another, " says the Qur'an.  There is no better place on earth than America to enact that vision.  It is part of the definition of our nation.... 
Pluralism is not a birthright in America; it's a responsibility.  Pluralism does not fall from the sky; it does not rise up from the ground.  People have fought for pluralism.  People have kept the promise.  America is exceptional not because there is magic in our air but because there is fierce determination in our citizens.  "The greatness of America lies not in being more enlightened than any other nation, but rather in her ability to repair her faults," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote.  Every generation has to affirm and extend the American promise."

What are the places that we consider sacred?  Why so?  What makes them sacred?  

Patel seems to be suggesting that one part of honoring sacred ground is honoring pluralism:  a land with many peoples.  How do people embrace their "responsibility" for seeing and holding things sacred; redeeming assumptions and broken relationships with people different from them?

Friday, October 17, 2014

God and Jesus: no bill to be paid...a union to be named

This Fall, we have two groups of people at All Saints' Littleton gathering for Christian Formation/Spiritual Growth by exploring a video series called Embracing an Alternative Orthodoxy:  Richard Rohr on the Legacy of St. Francis.  I will be posting some of what we hear from Rohr and his conversation with a group of Episcopalians on the blog, in hope that people beyond our group may participate.

Beginning of Session One:  Two viewpoints...

Western theology mainline position:  Jesus died for our sins.

Based on Dominican argument, using quotes from the New Testament, that a transaction was necessary to make humanity alright with God…and that transaction was the death of Jesus.

Creates a barrier to mystic exploration:  God's love had to be bought...

Franciscan minority viewpoint within Western Christianity:  used other New Testament texts to illustrate that the Christ existed for all eternity, and so Jesus’ life is part of God’s inherent love for creation.

“Jesus did not come to change God's mind about humanity...God's mind didn't need change...Jesus came to change humanity on the idea of God!”

No bill to be paid...a union to be named.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

More U2 conversation: Christian band?

Episcopal Cafe covered some more U2 conversation, the often discussed "Christian band?" question:


This just in. U2 is a "semi-secret Christian band" that fills their lyrics with religious themes, makes no secret of how the members attempt to live their faith but does not aligns itself with a particular denomination or segment of the Church.

If you carefully attune your ears to U2’s lyrics, you’ll find there are 50 or more references to Bible verses in their songs. In “Bullet the Blue Sky,” for example, they sing about Jacob wrestling with the Angel of the Lord (Genesis 32) and there is a reference to speaking with “the tongues of angels” (1 Corinthians 13) in “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” Bono even belts “see the thorn twist in your side”—an obvious reference to the Apostle Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:7—in the song “With or Without You.”

If by "Christian rock band" you mean a group that repetitively parroting pop-culture with theologically homogenized lyrics then, no, U2 is not a "Christian rock band." If you mean a band that takes a more complex view of faith and life, then that's something else. Maybe what you have is a rock band peopled by Christians.

Much of the confusion around U2’s faith stems from the fact that they’ve never been an “officially” Christian rock band. The ambiguity goes back to the band’s origins, in the Dublin of the late seventies, during the Troubles. In a country divided along sectarian lines, little about organized religion was attractive. U2 were teen-agers when they got together (Larry Mullen, Jr., the drummer, was just fourteen), but they were beginning to see outside of the faith traditions of their families. Bono’s father was a Catholic, his mother an Anglican. Adam Clayton (the bassist, English) and David Evans (the Edge, Welsh) came from Protestant backgrounds; Mullen had Irish-Catholic parents. In “North Side Story: U2 in Dublin, 1978-1983,” Niall Stokes, the editor of the Irish music magazine Hot Press, writes that the members of U2 were “primed” to ask what it meant to be Irish. They were “as close as you could get at the time, in an Ireland that was monocultural to an extraordinary degree, to a licorice all-sorts of nationalities and faiths.”Their break with organized religion was probably inevitable. But it was still traumatic, which is perhaps why almost every U2 album contains a song about their decision to belong to a band rather than a church. (“One,” for example, is about the challenges of joining together with your friends to try and find God on your own.) Greg Garrett, an English professor at Baylor, a Baptist university in Waco, Texas, explains U2’s lack of religious identification in his book “We Get to Carry Each Other: The Gospel According to U2.” In high school, Bono, the Edge, and Mullen grew close to a faith community called Shalom, whose members Bono has described as living on the Dublin streets “like first-century Christians.” The group was a big presence in their lives during the recording of U2’s first two albums, “Boy” and “October” (“Gloria,” the best song on “October,” has a liturgical chorus, sung in Latin). The turning point came just as the “October” tour was set to begin: the Edge announced that he wanted to leave U2, because the twin demands of piety and rock stardom could not be reconciled. (“If God had something to say about this tour, he should have raised his hand a little earlier,” the band’s manager, Paul McGuinness, said.) Ultimately, of course, U2 stayed together: Bono, Mullen, and the Edge left Shalom. “I realized it was bullshit, that what these people were getting close to … was denial, rather than willful surrender,” Bono told an interviewer. 
The tension in spiritual life—between discipline and vulnerability, order and openness, being willful and giving in—became U2’s central preoccupation, and gave it its aesthetic. During the Troubles, the band witnessed the consequences of an approach to faith that had become too organized and martial. Against that, they argued for “surrender,” in both its political and its religious senses. When Bono ran around onstage with a white flag during performances of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” he was expressing not only an approach to politics but also an approach to faith (often, the song suggested, they were the same thing). U2 were learning to infuse their music with a sensibility that had been unreachable in their religious lives—a kind of militant surrendering.

It is always important to mention that U2 is NOT part of the Christian music industry, which tends to frown on deep exploration and anything that suggests ways to God other than Christianity.  The faith journey found in U2's music continues to resinate in me, and millions of other fans (watch any of their concert videos to explore this idea).  I can't wait until they tour with these new songs...

Wednesday, September 10, 2014


Not only did U2 surprise everyone by releasing Songs of Innocence yesterday, their 13th album, but now it appears that there will be a SECOND album in the not to distance future, Songs of Experience!!!

That's from a letter to U2 fans posted a short time ago on where Bono basically re-introduces the band after the long hiatus between albums. In addition to talking about today's album release, he says we can expect a second album (while also admitting that he's said that in the past):  
"We're collaborating with Apple on some cool stuff over the next couple of years, innovations that will transform the way music is listened to and viewed. We'll keep you posted. If you like Songs of Innocence, stay with us for Songs of Experience. It should be ready soon enough… although I know I've said that before…"  
You might recognize the titles from your high school literature classes: There's a famous book of poetry by William Blake called Songs of Innocence and of Experience.

Been listening threw my work today to Innocence:  this is epic work....

Sunday, August 24, 2014

"Who do you say that I am?"

(This sermon is inspired, in no small part, by David Lose's awesome weekly gift to preachers, "Dear Partner in Preaching" found on his " the Meantime" blog.  Lose created and wrote "Dear Working Preacher" while he was at Luther Seminary.)

It is arguably the most important question for us to answer, whether we are 1st, or 21st century Christians:

Who do you say that I am?

"(Jesus) is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.”

This was Peter’s answer in Matthew’s Gospel.  And here, they get high marks from Jesus.

But what do these words really mean for Peter, the Gospel writer, and those who read them? 

That isn't necessarily clear...

We have certainly tried to explain them.  We have this big Creed that we say every week together:  words that have been worked over by important people in the Church’s history.

These words are well and good for our weekly ritual, in part because they encompass so many possibilities in their potential understanding.  Perhaps they do indeed best explain who Jesus is.

But even if we use Peter’s short version:  “You are the Messiah:  the Son of the Living God”,
What do we really mean with these words?  How would we describe what they mean?

Who do you say that I am?

…another way of saying that, is this:
What do you believe about Jesus?

If I was required to avoid theological language:  if I was not allowed to use any words that required further explanation, I’d make these two statements about Jesus:

—-In Jesus, I see God’s love for the world.

—-In Jesus, I see what is possible through God.

David Lose essentially said the same thing, but in a more classically preacher sort of way…as he self-admits...with “lots of words”.  He wrote:

“I think Jesus is God’s way of showing us how much God loves us and all people. God is so big that I think we have a hard time connecting with God. And so God came to be like one of us, to live like one of us, in order to reveal just how God feels about us. In this sense, Jesus revealed God’s heart, a heart that aches with all who suffer depression and think seriously about ending their lives, a heart that is upset and angry when a young black man is shot dead for no explicable reason, a heart that is torn up in grief at the desperate situation and violence that rips apart the land we’ve named Holy, a heart that loves us like only an adoring parent can and so not only wants the best for us but is always eager to welcome us home in grace, forgiveness, and love. 
But it’s more than that, too. I think Jesus also came to show us what’s possible. And so rather than give into the threat of disease, Jesus healed. Rather than surrender people to demons, Jesus showed compassion. Rather than let people starve because there’s not enough to go around, Jesus fed people who were hungry. Jesus refused to be satisfied or limited by the status quo and invites us to do the same, because if Jesus’ life and death show us how much God loves us, Jesus’ resurrection shows us that that love is more powerful than hate and fear and even death. Jesus shows us, in short, that God’s love wins.”

I think David’s words are extremely well said.  But the question, again, is not what some theologian, your priest, or even what The Church or The Bible says about Jesus.…

It’s Jesus saying to you:  “Who do you say that I am?”

What do you believe about Jesus?

If you use Biblical words like Messiah…or theological claims like “Son of God”…or other deep metaphorical language...that’s fine.

But if you're using those kind of words...layered with generations of symbolism...what do you really understand them to mean???  How would you explain your answer to those with no concept or history of these words?

What do you believe about Jesus?

So, here’s your challenge. 

Come up with a sentence or two that describes what you honestly believe about Jesus.

Then use those words…your confession…to shape the way you live your life in the days that follow.

Be honest with yourself, even if it doesn’t exactly match what Peter says, or what we say in the Creed.

But take heart, and be kind with yourself as well....

This isn't a test you can pass or fail.

And Jesus doesn't ask the question for his sake:  seeking praise of him or God.

Instead, the words you come up with have the power to continually transform your life, and those around you.  As Lose wrote, your words "...are ones of power that will help root us in the love and possibility that Jesus offers." 

“Who do you say that I am?”

What do you believe about Jesus?

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tragic news of Robin Williams’ death

I came home from the movies last night, unaware of the news that Robin Williams had taken his own life.  There are a number of news reports (and more will follow) about his challenges with addiction and depression:  and it is my sincere hope that it will raise awareness, and people will seek and find help in their own lives.

Williams is often thought of primarily for his remarkable manic and rapid-fire comic style, but is career is filled with movies that are fertile grounds for the intersection of pop culture, religion, and ethics.  Dead Poets Society and The Fisher King are two that I’ve led conversations on, but Awakenings, Good Morning Vietnam, and the obvious What Dreams May Come would also work quite well.

Good Morning Vietnam, to me, is actually still underrated because Williams' historical (and hysterical) monologues tend to dominate our memories.  But in addition to lots of laughs, the movie was a striking look at Vietnam, and explored how wars were censored (no “real news” allowed, less people might be reminded that there was a “conflict” going on), relationships were challenged, and real heartbreak in the midst of a war zone.  The use of Louie Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World”, set with the images of the war, is among the most powerful use of a classic song in a movie (and forever challenged and changed the way I heard the song).  I am always struck at how I'm laughing throughout the closing words, when all of a sudden, I find myself crying.

Dead Poets Society is most likely my favorite Williams movie.  The movie challenged the point of education (create rule followers, or people who will think for themselves).  It brilliantly used Walt Whitman and other classic poets to connect with the promise and passion of life, the message to “seize the day”, and “contribute your verse”.

The contrast of the two leading students and roommates, the outgoing, passionate Neil, and the quiet and reserved Todd, was central to the story.  Williams chemistry (as Professor Keating) with the young actors was essential to showing their character's growth as human beings.  As Todd was pulled out of his shell by Keating and Neil, Williams shows just the perfect amount of subtle worry that Neil is not be honest with his father.

And of course, Neil isn’t.  And it leads to his suicide.

The actor Kurtwood Smith (in a phenomenal performance) is the kind of strict unyielding father you love to hate in movies.  But every heart breaks when he cries out “Neil!!!  Neil!!!  Oh my God!!!  Oh, my son!!!” 

The cascade of profound loss and consequence the suicide has in the film is so real and immense.

I can’t help but lament that Williams could not remember the power and message of this movie, and that he wasn’t able to translate it to the profound loss people now have over his suicide.  Depression is a powerful force that can isolate the strongest of people.  

O ME! O life!... of the questions of these recurring; 
Of the endless trains of the faithless—of cities fill’d with the foolish; 
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?) 
Of eyes that vainly crave the light—of the objects mean—of the struggle ever renew’d; 
Of the poor results of all—of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me; 
Of the empty and useless years of the rest—with the rest me intertwined; 
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life? 
That you are here—that life exists, and identity; 
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.  
---Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

I trust that Williams is at peace with God, as I pray for his family and friends who now mourn and find ways to carry on.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:  No matter what problems you are dealing with, we want to help you find a reason to keep living. By calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area, anytime 24/7.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

More on “Black Jesus”, and the power and problem of

A regular weekly addition to my inbox is a email tailored to my interests:  sign someone’s petition against someone else’s outrageous behavior., along with other groups that use email and social media to gain signatures, have an instant way to gather like-minded individuals, and with a quick few clicks, can collect and distribute signatures in a way that was not possible before.  I’ve signed plenty of petitions, along with others as well.  I can say, without a doubt, that some of these petitions have had positive results in righting wrongs.

The potential problem with such emails is that they are always framed as clear.  

Petition emails are almost never presented as open for dialogue or conversation.  Instead, it it “here are the facts*, here is what those people have done or said**, here’s the place for you to be against them.”  *(may not actually be "facts")  **(may be taken out of context)

Consider the “Black Jesus” boycott from my last post, and presently found on  Imagine if you don’t know anything about the show, and haven’t watched the trailer, and you suddenly receive this email:

Cancel “Black Jesus” TV Show
This is blasphemy and an insult to all believers of Jesus Christ. This TV show has twisted the words of our Lord to make a mockery of him and simply can't be tolerated. This show is also racist and degrading to the black community. 
If you believe in the power of God, Please take 2 minutes to sign this petition and remove this blasphemy off our tv shows.

or perhaps…

REMOVE television show "Black Jesus" from the Airwaves
Cartoon Network and Adult Swim have opted to desecrate and openly MOCK Jesus Christ with their upcoming television show, Black Jesus. It is a complete disrespect to the name, character, and faith in Jesus Christ. It should NEVER make the airwaves and our petition is to have Cartoon Network remove this show from the airwaves. 

Each of these emails provide the trailer of the show for you to watch.

If you don’t accept these descriptions at face value, you might choose to watch the trailer. The problem is, the context for watching the trailer is “twisted the words of our Lord to make a mockery of him”, and “racist and degrading to the black community”.  Those are tough charges for a 2 to 3 minute video to overcome.  And if you don’t know that the creator of the show is Aaron McGruder, the African American satirist and The Boondocks creator, one might assume that, at best, this show is solely an attempt for cheap laughs built on racial and religious stereotypes.  

It might actually indeed be that:  I can’t tell just from a trailer that pulls scenes out of context to provide interest in the show. 

Consider what McGruder wrote a few months ago, as he stepped away from The Boondocks television show:

What has never been lost on me is the enormous responsibility that came with The Boondocks – particularly the television show and it’s relatively young audience. It was important to offend, but equally important to offend for the right reasons. For three seasons I personally navigated this show through the minefields of controversy. It was not perfect. And it definitely was not quick. But it was always done with a keen sense of duty, history, culture, and love. Anything less would have been simply unacceptable.

That’s his well articulated quest as an artist.  Guess what he said next:

As for me, I’m finally putting a life of controversy and troublemaking behind me with my upcoming Adult Swim show, BLACK JESUS.

Heh:  right…there’s the satirist.

Aziza Jackson writes on the culture behind why “You can’t talk about Jesus unless it’s in a love song, or as Christians call it, gospel music. His name is to be exalted and revered. Anything else is blasphemy.”:

All of this makes it easy to see that, although “Black Jesus” is a satirical television show and not a documentary on the life and works of Jesus Christ, this makes no difference to many conservative black Christians who find even the concept behind it to be fundamentally offensive. The reason this implacable point of view is embedded in complex layers upon layers of black history, culture, identity, and spirituality that this article has not even begun to scratch the surface of. 
McGruder knows this, and is using every one of these complex layers as material for the show, turning it into both a mirror on the culture and a reflective tool in order for society to see its true self, just like he did with “The Boondocks.” Only this time, it’s black Christians’ turn to see themselves reflected in it.

Now that I’ve read what I’ve read, I would be surprised if “Black Jesus” is primarily about laughs (no matter what the trailer excerpts).  The show may ultimately disappoint (and almost certainly will offend many).  There’s only one way to find out…

BTW:  Marcus Halley, in response to those who read his comment on the UBE website, has now written a blog post on the subject.  It is really well done!

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

“Black Jesus”: On calls to boycott movies or TV programs

In general, I’m extremely reluctant to embrace any call to boycott a movie or TV series without first watching the film or series.   I’ve had that policy in general, even if I’m pretty sure that I will be on the side of those boycotting.  I forced myself to go see Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in part because so many people had condemned movies like The Last Temptation of Christ, Dogma, (or even Harry Potter) without ever seeing for themselves.   If I’m going to condemn a movie or TV show, I feel obligated to do so from first hand experience.  And even then, I usually prefer active conversation about the movie or series, rather than an outright boycott.

There are some exceptions.  Reality TV show controversies often occur because of what the participants say in real life (consider Duck Dynasty):  I don’t have to see the show in that case to react to the actors words or actions.  I totally respect Doon MacKichan’s call to boycott shows that have “…storylines that use violence against women as entertainment.”  And I actively asked on my blog if I had to go see God's Not Dead in order to be critical of it (I chose not to see it).

“Black Jesus” is a real quandary.  I just heard of the show, thanks to a Huffington Post article covered by Episcopal Cafe.  While I expected right wing groups to voice vocal dissent (just as they did with the SNL sketch DJesus Uncrossed), I was surprised to see this statement from The Union of Black Episcopalians:

CALL TO ACTION: Cancel "Black Jesus" - "Black Jesus," is a comedy show slated to premiere, on August 7, on the Cartoon Network during its child-unfriendly late-night spot, which they call Adult Swim. (Cartoon Network is owned by Turner Broadcasting, which owns CNN.) 
As Christians and Americans of African descent, the Union of Black Episcopalians, finds the trailer for this show to be very offensive, religiously and racially denigrating; and regardless of the audience to which it may be intended we do not see ANY redeeming or affirming qualities. 
It denigrates Jesus, the faith AND our race and we take responsibility for our own request that this show be cancelled and not aired on the Cartoon Network or other outlets. We ask our members and supporters to join with us in making their voices heard through signing on to the petition at: or taking other direct action.

I have complete respect and admiration for this group, so I take their claim seriously.  One Facebook reply from Marcus Halley (an Episcopal priest), however, is very sound:

I will say this, as a person familiar with Aaron McGruder's work. He's a satirist, one who uses humor to raise some problematic or troubling paradigms to the forefront. The Black Community needs to engage very seriously our understanding of Jesus because there are some truly toxic theologies out there that are not liberating and salvific in the least - theologies that only reify slavocracy and disempowerment instead of reinterpreting the liberation theology proffered by Absalom Jones, Jarena Lee, Alexander Crummell, James Cone, Jacqueline Grant, and more. Satire may not be the tool the church wants, but it's a tool the church can use to start the conversation. Black Jesus is not a problem to be stopped, but an opportunity to be engaged. 
Instead of the Church advocating censorship (which violates Amendment 1 of the U.S. constitution as this does not present a "clear and present danger" to anything except our ostensible hegemony on Christological God-talk), what if we engaged the conversations that will be raised by "Black Jesus"? What if we allowed our own interpretations of Jesus to be challenged and thereby create opportunities for growth? What if we created spaces for the world to dialogue about the situations raised by Black Jesus instead of ending the conversation before it even begins? 
The Church cannot be threatened by this type of public discourse? It's happening out in our communities and if we want to reach this generation with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, perhaps our call is to enter the conversation, to find new and innovative ways of getting our message heard as broadly as "Black Jesus," and to be the truly welcome, open, and affirming Church that we are. 
If we're going to protest anything, let's protest the movies that come out of Hollywood or the miniseries that come on the "History" channel that write Black people out of a history we know we are in. Let's do that instead of being threatened by he work of a satirist whose very work is meant to challenge and offend, but in the end raise interesting points of engagement.

McGruder has been controversial on numerous occasions both for what happens in his comic strip/TV show The Boondocks, and for public statements he has made (see his Wikipedia page, to start).  But I can also say personally that The Boondocks’ comic strip has had profound moments of insight into American culture, and has raised or commented on important contemporary issues.

Watching the trailer (the sole evidence for boycotting the show), it’s hard for me to see clearly what the overarching message of the show will be:  especially with McGruder's satirical history.  While I’m not anxiously awaiting it’s premier, I’m more inclined to side with Halley’s point:  the Church might be better entering the conversation, rather than boycotting it.

UPDATE:  I wrote more the next day about this as well.