Sunday, September 12, 2021

Notes On Extremism

Twenty years ago, extremism collided with America. It was a terrifying day. Many things were excavated from the wreckage, things we were ill equipped to confront or lay to rest. 

Extremism by other names already drenched the soil of America, and the United States had been terrorizing for centuries, but we don't talk about that. Someone had to be punished for the destruction we suffered, we said. Who would exact such horror on us? Only extremists. 

Only an extremist would:

  • spend years planning, recruiting, and carrying out violence
  • risk friendships, family, and community for an idea
  • sacrifice their own life on purpose
  • forsake personal gain to dedicate their resources to the cause 

To be radicalized is to change your lifestyle and your choices because of a belief, knowing it will alienate you from many people who don't agree or understand. It's a departure from "normal" into "crazy." It pushes people into a head space and a life space that others can't enter without joining.

What happened on 9/11 was evil, let no one qualify that. But in our grief, we said extremism was the culprit. And that's not the whole picture. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote "So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love?”

Do we even know what it means to be an extremist for love? Most of us are wasting our purpose away through lack of extremism. Our numbness to the ongoing destruction of our personal relationships and the social fabric around us is because we stand for not much of anything, other than ourselves. If we are unwilling to face death, we will never taste life. 

Chase Tibbs addresses Jesus' claim that he came to bring a sword (Matthew 10:34). Tibbs notes that what we accept as violence and non-violence has been defined by our government and our social leaders and that feeds our notion that the sword cannot coexist with peace. After 500 years of white supremacy and the harm we've inflicted on the world and on ourselves because of it, the question is not whether we're wielding swords. The question  is: in whose interests do we wield our swords? Whose peace am I establishing with my sword? Whose peace am I reproducing? We do not want to make the belly of the beast more comfortable, we want to destroy the beast.  We refuse to make peace with it any more. The sword that Jesus brought did not defend the peace of the empire. Jesus says in Matthew 10 that this sword of extremist love is by nature divisive. 

If you defend the beast, you are still enslaved to it. 

Photo by Christian Chomiak via Unsplash

Extremism is a narrow path. Extremists put their entire beings into a belief, and we know full well that some of those beliefs are a trap. We see the extremism (long-ago turned mainstream) of white supremacy, we see the extremism of MAGA, we see the extremism of terrorism of any origin, and we are right to refuse peace with those extremes. But you can't neutralize extremism with normalcy. You have to counter it with extremist love. 

What if our response to the searing pain of 9/11 had been a different kind of extreme? A chance to humbly address the sins of our empire through repentance? What if our determination had been to become not what the extremists accused us of? The hijackers were so convinced of the evil of American gods that they sacrificed their own lives. No one deserved the results of their hatred. But we wrote off that extremism as crazy, and we've suffered for it. We chose to meet extreme hatred with extreme hatred, and we reaped and inflicted more sorrow. 

All growing up, I was encouraged as an evangelical kid to be a zealous evangelist (not by my parents, God bless them). The saying went, "live in such a way that people will ask you, 'what's different about you?'" No one ever asked me that because I could not bring myself to drag a cross through Venice Beach. I believed (and I was not wrong) that my peers would not ask because it was too different, and not in a remotely appealing way. Eventually I stopped worrying about why no one asked me why I was "different" and settled into trying to act normal enough that people would want to be my friend. I let go of trying to befriend people in order to perform a spiritual bait and switch on them. That teaching is not just different, it's abusive. Even when I made friends who didn't know Jesus, the Jesus I tried to believe in was not a Jesus that I thought anyone else would want. 

As defined by the Bible Project, "An apocalypse is a confrontation with the divine so intense that it transforms how a person views everything." When I embraced extremism, I went back to thinking the "what's different about you" thing is to be taken literally. John 13:35 "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." A lifetime of "niceness" really wasn't recognizable in me as the love of Jesus. So I got dangerous. I listened to what my friends and strangers said hurt, and I ran there. I fed people. We carried each other's fears. I made friends with violent people and I took up a sword. And some of them know me by my love. 

You know who thinks I'm extreme now? The boards of churches, lol. But I know for certain that other people will love the Jesus I now know. My Jesus despises the belly of the beast. My Jesus wants the church rescued from it's twisted definitions of violence. 

Is extremism for everyone? I think so. Extremism isn't always brash, but it is something any follower of Jesus should take seriously as a personal calling. Jesus didn't call just a handful of us to extremist love, he said it was THE marker of discipleship. 

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

A Deconstruction Catalog

The Oxford definition of "deconstruct" is: "analyze (a text or a linguistic or conceptual system) by deconstruction, typically in order to expose its hidden internal assumptions and contradictions and subvert its apparent significance or unity." You've probably heard this term by now because a lot of Millennials (and Gen Z?) are finding this name for what we've been doing for the past 15 years in response to the destructive elements of our religious-cultural backgrounds. 

Many people who deconstruct from a religious culture no longer adhere to the tenets of that cultural religion or even the religion itself. Deconstruction is not the only reason that people leave church, but through it, I no longer view "walking away from the church" as inherently a) something to be frowned upon or b) equivalent with losing faith in God. As always, different people and different churches believe different things and act on those beliefs differently. I can only speak from my experiences and perceptions. 

Most of my beliefs that stem from faith in Christ are now practiced outside of Christian community. Ironically, this is what church has often encouraged in word, but seems to find unnerving in practice.  This practice, as a function of my process of deconstruction, has often been scary and lonely, as I know it has been for others. Deconstruction is a continuous exercise in honesty, and it can result in the loss of relationships. Not necessarily in a dramatic sense, but more of a drifting apart because of different ideas that inform lifestyles. Early on, I sensed that my honesty felt dangerous to other people, and that was/is often projected as fear for me. Now, honesty is often a way to find a new community, sometimes among other escapees, and invite those who live in fear to a better way. 

I want to escape the fear and shame-based structure I was used to without minimizing its damage. At the same time, I celebrate the freedom and support I'm growing into as a person of faith. This ongoing reframing of my faith motivates me to follow Jesus in a way my old culture never did or could. This shift, in the simplest terms, translates to more love and less fear. More rescue and less condemnation. For now, less tradition and more mysticism. 

I'm grateful every time I find an idea or expression that serves as a guide in deconstructing. These usually come in the form of questions that lead me deeper into honesty or the work of people who have experienced the same pains and joys I'm experiencing now. I always resented hearing "culture" disparaged in church because most of what excites me about life comes in the form of human creativity. Christian religiosity does its adherents no favors by drawing such a firm line between the sacred and the profane. So, here are some resources and expressions that have brought me to a deeper, truer, more lovely understanding of God and my relationship to Her. 

Silence (2016), directed by Martin Scorsese. Two young Jesuit priests in the 1600s journey to Japan in search of a missionary who they've lost contact with. The cinematography is beautiful and the sound editing (for which it won an Oscar) plays ingeniously with the theme of silence on several levels, including how often Christians struggle with the sense that God is "distant". Then there are several other themes exploring doing God's work vs. professing faith in God's and the gospel's cultural context and implications. I've recommended this movie to a lot of people and I'm not sure everyone loved it as much as I did (it's very long, pace is slow, and it's pretty brutal), but I've watched it several times and have been thinking about it for 5 years now. It plays nicely into one of my deconstructing principles, which is that asking good (hard) questions is at least as important to faith as having answers. I'm fascinated by any mainstream media that engages religion without mocking it (see also the show Ramy). It's currently available on Hulu.

Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again by Rachel Held EvansBefore reading this book, I had been following Evans on Facebook and heard her on several podcasts. Especially on podcasts, I was struck by how she didn't give air time to railing against trolls and toxic Christianity as much as she invited everyone into communion, and that felt like something GOOD. I am always alarmed by the virtue of gentleness. Were it not for my trust in her tone, I probably would never have read her book Inspired because I am extremely wary of Christian literature. However, I'm very glad I did because it aided me with the confidence and encouragement to approach scripture without some of the filters of what I "should" take away from it. She argues that we should be horrified by some things in scripture (just because something happened or was even condoned at the time does not mean it's acceptable today), it should make us question, it is valid that different people take different lessons from the same passages, etc. If that's not revolutionary to you, then I'm happy for you. A lot of deconstruction for me has been learning how (or if) to re-approach things that might have merit but have often been weaponized or that I have negative associations with. 

POSE (2018-2021) on FX/Netflix. Apart from being a visual and story-telling treasure, this TV show about LGBTQ+ ballroom culture during the AIDS crisis in 1980s NYC has been both a cultural and spiritual education. God save the Queen Billy Porter. Of course I love the clothes, and I'm forever preening at having witnessed a costume buyer for the show negotiating with a dealer at the Pickwick Garden Vintage show. But mostly Pose gave me a glimpse into a world (or a version of it) that I'd never had, and ultimately helped me not only sympathize but see myself in some of the characters with identities that were previously portrayed to me (whether explicitly or subliminally) as disgusting. I don't have a nicer way of putting that. I experience waves in my deconstruction that are simply sorrow over how I judged or avoided people because of twisted beliefs that I adhered to. One of the things that struck me most about Pose was how the community portrayed - though certainly catty and vicious at times - loved, forgave, and cared for one another unto death. You know what that reminds me of? It's what the church is supposed to look like.  

I used to wonder how to reconcile what the Bible seems to say about sexuality (and how it's been taught to me) with wanting to be inclusive. In the end, I was simply released from asking that question at all, nor do I try and answer it for other people. Someone else's sexual preferences don't depend on my understanding or acceptance. My aim is to respect others' identities and to recognize the image of God in everyone. That's very liberating for me, both theologically and practically.  

The documentary Disclosure on Netflix is also an astounding, eye-opening resource and education on how to treat Trans people with the dignity they inherently command as human beings. It really does need to be taught since many of us are subliminally, if not overtly, accustomed to dismissing their humanity. 

The Bible Project videos explore books and concepts of the Bible in 5-10 jam-packed minutes. In my opinion, they could be interesting to non-Christians because they explore narrative and imagery in a way that is independently compelling. They are also engaging for kids without sacrificing complexity. This style of learning appeals to me because it contextualizes concepts that are often pulled out of scripture and used as soundbites. I especially liked their explanations of apocalyptic literature as a genre, which I explored a bit more in this post. 

I've benefitted from Scott Erickson's (@scottthepainter) work. It is full of symbols, which I'm always drawn to. His perspective draws me out of box-thinking, affirms the possibility that God is good and loving, and invites me to engage in wonder and celebrate mystery. 

May my growth be matched in depth ⁣
as much as it is in height. ⁣
And may I weave this dual growth ⁣
in everything I do. ⁣

(Image and words from Scott Erickson)

I believe I discovered Scott Erickson through @cultrkpr, aka Jonathan Randall Grant. He's an Anglican artist "exploring aesthetics for the future of a queer, creative and anti-racist faith practice." I find the things he shares in his stories to be jarring in the most compelling ways, and I love that so much of what he shares leads me straight to something I love, but have never heard of before (that's rare when Instagram for artists feels like a closed loop sometimes). 

Cindy Wang Brandt and the group she admins on Facebook have been instrumental in guiding my practice of parenting while deconstructing. What do I believe that I want to pass on to my kids? How do I guide my kids in what I believe is right while respecting their autonomy as humans? So much of my experience growing up in Christian culture was spun as my personal choice, but it would have been absolutely unacceptable to *not* choose it. Cindy's group was my introduction to Gentle Parenting, a philosophy I'm trying to embrace and am pretty bad at, but ultimately follows the example of Jesus more than "Christian parenting."

Luxury, the band. They started putting out music in 1995 but I didn't hear them until they were on NPR for their 2019 album release. Their song titles, lyrics, album covers...I wish I could retroactively be a life-long fan. These guys met at a tiny Christian college and originally signed with Tooth & Nail, but most 90s Christians were not prepared for Luxury's content and they never became widely known. The band suffered a terrible car accident and the members moved on to - you'll never guess - become Eastern Orthodox priests!? Then they got back together and kept making punk albums. There's a documentary about them called Parallel Love, which a band member explained this way: "The film is called Parallel Love, [because] you have two different trajectories that run parallel to one another. They're not exactly the story of bringing rock and roll into Orthodoxy. It's people of faith living authentic lives and doing the things that they feel gifted to do." For me, watching their story is like looking back on my own, but cooler. Their catalog as a band and as individuals or offshoot projects is immense (The Shroud, Lee Bozeman, They Sang They Slew, Canary, All Things Bright and Beautiful, Champion Leader, Orient Is His Name), and also old-school in that most of it is only available on bandcamp or on CD. 

Ginseng Roots by Craig Thompson is a comic series. Thompson is one of my favorite graphic novelists in general, but this series is about his childhood in a tiny town in Wisconsin that produces the prized ginseng root and remains home to his cultishly-Christian parents. The Chinese connection and how Thompson uses Chinese mythology to mirror Christian concepts are especially intriguing to me, but the overall tone is sadness as he reckons with memories and characters that can't acknowledge the pain they caused. So far I've only read the first 6 issues, but they prompted me to write an almost weepy fan letter which is pretty much always the reaction I have to feeling seen in very specific ways. 

As I wrap this up, I'm wondering whether these materials that have helped me have anything in common. I feel let down by the material that was available or condoned to me within Christian culture in my younger years. I wanted something beautiful and what I got was so sterile and boring and I was told that was beautiful. I needed to feel and express when I was in pain, but I was too often told I was expressing it wrong and that I couldn't trust the "un-saved" to express it either. In Philippians, there's a verse that says, "whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (4:8). If you are seeking honesty, allow yourself to seek the excellent things worthy of praise in places and people that you were not allowed before. It is all around us. 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

A Mysterious Love

Nothing comes from nothing. I am often nervous to publish my thoughts because they are always evolving, and fed by many sources. I wonder if it makes any sense to others or if it might seem like I make great leaps of thought without any supporting structure between them. Lately I'm drawing on themes of mysticism and anti-hierarchy as an expression of love, so that's informing my processing. 

About a year ago, I finished Rachel Held Evan's book Inspired which is about learning to read the Bible again if you've been burned by the way it was taught to you. I was encouraged that it is a proper and valid response to the Bible to be appalled by parts of it. The fact that something is recorded in the Bible does not mean we should like it or emulate it (lesser repercussions for abuse of sex slaves than regular adultery in Leviticus 19:20-22, for example). 

Recently I was writing about marriage for a work project. I have been "unequally yoked" for 12 years with a partner who wants screen captioning on at all times. Nevertheless, I'd recommend marriage if you find someone who is willing and able to grow with you. I noticed while digging around for my project though, that if I was going on scriptural references of marriage alone, I would not want anything to do with marriage. Almost all scriptural references to marriage allude to a sort of bizarre power dynamic that doesn't seem to play well with the gospel at large. 

There are 3 possible reasons for this, as I see it, baring in mind that I believe there is something good in the practice of a healthy marriage and that there is truth in the Bible. First, scriptures were recorded in a cultural context that is different than present day; maybe the emphasis in passages about marriage are very particular to the ethos in which they were recorded.  Secondly, the time in which I am reading and writing has it's own cultural context; maybe I can not help but see these passages in a certain light because of ethos of my religious history (less than stellar). Third, maybe neither of those first two is the case and I am simply not understanding what scripture is saying about marriage.

Here is 1 Peter 3:7 (ESV), which is strange and doesn't make sense as a progression of thought to me. It barely makes more sense in the context of the rest of 1 Peter 3, either. My thoughts in parenthesis:

Likewise, husbands, live with your wives in an understanding way (good advice for anyone), showing honor to the woman (yes, good) as the weaker vessel (???), since they are heirs with you of the grace of life (true), so that your prayers may not be hindered (what does this have to do with anything?). 

Scripture holds contradictions and does not break. That's not unique to scripture, it's the reality of nature. We live in a both/and world more than an either/or world. For example, we are to obey the law of the land (Romans 13), but also it's right to go against bad laws (Exodus 2, lots of Daniel, etc.). They don't negate each other, they both hold wisdom. When I accept that the Bible encompasses a multitude of truths, I stop treating it like a legal document. I can set aside the fact that marriage in the Bible is distressing and return to what I know is solid ground - the way the trinity engages with women. 

The least distressing (but still sort of weird) theme surrounding marriage in scripture is the relationship analogy of Jesus Christ and the church (the collective of disciples throughout the ages).  Ephesians 5:25-33 gives a not-very-clear explanation of this. It tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loves the church - that is the ultimate love, and a lofty and noble goal between humans. How to go about that, according to Ephesians, involves purification, and I'm not sure I'm tracking with that part, but neither does it trip me up too much. 

Then we reach verse 31, which is a quotation from Genesis (strange, but not that difficult to understand). “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” Then verse 32-33: "This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church. However, let each one of you love his wife as himself, and let the wife see that she respects her husband."

Note that the author himself (Peter) acknowledges or admits that this is a "profound mystery." Even though Peter is referring to the relationship between Christ and the church, husbands and wives should go ahead and get back to this lopsided expression of unity. Maybe that is the point. The church can not love Jesus as much as Jesus loves the church because we are not perfect in our loving. That makes sense to me, but it is unfortunate if the party lacking in perfection is associated with a female partner in a human marriage. If that is what scripture is alluding to, it's an analogy that sets up a false and harmful distinction between men and women. 

Let's revisit the "mystery" part, even though this mystery is currently reading like a gas station romance novel. I am interested when scripture makes a point of saying something is hard to understand. A search of the terms "insight", "understanding", and "mystery" is worth making. Many things of mystery in the scripture are revealed even within scripture. Other mysteries remain mysterious, as far as I can tell. 

This calls for wisdom. Let the person who has insight calculate.... (Revelation 13:18, 17:19)

He who has ears, let him hear. (Matthew 11:15 and 5 other instances)

The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding. (Philippians 4:7)

He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. (Isaiah 40:28)

You have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children. (Luke 10:21)

Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed... (1 Corinthians 15:51)

They must hold the mystery of the faith with a clear conscience. (1 Timothy 3:9)

Part of the practice of mysticism is embracing the unknown. A mystic's lens toward scripture and faith is also profoundly accessible. As image-barers of God, we each have innate access to God. Some of the tricky ideas confound the learned, but are obvious to hearts that have no frame of reference (Luke 10:21). Even though I don't fully understand what Jesus was talking about when he stated that kind of revelation of mystery, Luke said that it filled Jesus with the joy of the Holy Spirit. Whatever it is, it is a good, good thing. 

Illustrated by Natalia Ramas for Esther Perel

One of my sisters is a member of the Anglican church. In the Anglican tradition, sacraments in the church carry an aspect of divine mystery, almost as if something magical happens. The sacraments of marriage and communion are considered especially magical (my words) because within those practices, God is imparting divine grace to those partaking. 

Divine grace and the relationship between Jesus and the church are not gender specific or exclusionary. It can be true that marriage is a union in which we are gifted divine grace, but it is also true that we can access divine grace without experiencing marriage. Covenant male-female unions are not more divine than other unions, such as the union between an individual and their community, for example. The innate worth and God-reflection of each individual stands alone. Marriage is not more holy than celibacy or singleness. Men are not more holy than women. Women are not more holy than men. Men and women are not more holy than non-binary people. 

I do think that part of our God-reflecting nature as humans is that we're created for relationship. We are not worth more because of our affiliation with others, but we can compliment one another. I use the term "compliment" gingerly since Complementarianism as a theory is a mine shaft. I'll start by explaining what we already know - from individual to individual, we have different personalities, giftings, interests, struggles. Human diversity is amazing. My friend Mark described our souls as shards of light broken off from a prism. We are each born of this original whole (God), and the full realization of our beings is to regroup as the Whole (oneness with God). I asked him to repeat it like 3 times, so I hope I represented his idea correctly (he doesn't describe the original whole as God, but the analogy works for me). 

If we think of ourselves as these light reflections, each of us is already In The Image, but we are a brighter segment of light when we gather. Complementarianism makes sense if we think about it like pieces of light. Unfortunately, it's often used to make small the union of male-female marriage. I think partners within a healthy marriage can and should compliment one another's skills and nature and grow in the ability to work together toward the best representation of a team that they can. Who holds each portion of the complimentary whole should not be bound by gender, nor should it be static. Women are not by nature better at caring for children. Adults working as a team generally benefit children. Men are not by nature better leaders (and exploring "leadership" is a whole other thing). There is nothing that I know that nature or the gospel supports as more suitable behavior or aptitude for one gender over another. 

Within marriage I think complementarianism of gender is somewhat redeemed if we get rid of the "two halves make a whole" idea and embrace the yin-yang. It's not perfect, because you're still looking at two "opposite" parts creating a whole, but it's better. The yin-yang illustrates that within the light there is dark, and within the dark there is light. Within the female there is male, within the male there is female. The portions are not mutually exclusive. The yin-yang also illustrates contrast over opposition. "The small dots represent the idea that both sides carry the seed of the other. The curvy line signifies that there are no absolute separations between the two opposites. The yin-yang symbol, then, embodies both sides: duality, paradox, unity in diversity, change, and harmony" (source).

I don't mean to be esoteric as I'm making up words to try and capture ideas, but I am eager to embrace the freedom of mystery. I think God is most accurately Beyond more than God is my understanding of Whole. Both wholeness and beyondness mean that God is not only genderless, but contains all representations of gender because God is the source of our light fractures. God contains the divine feminine, even though God is not only feminine. I think that when we crave to be viewed apart from our gender (and its cultural associations), part of that longing is us reflecting our original state and connection to God's Beyondness. My identity is my worth as an image-barer, not in my womanhood. If there are no boundaries, we may risk shapelessness and maybe nothingness. Even so, there is something holy in the notion of fluidity and pinging between boundaries. "There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Galatians 3:28).  

I have a hard time thinking about relationships outside of the context of hierarchy. That is part of why passages about marriage in the Bible are so difficult to grapple with. Men are clearly above women in most cultures, including the human cultures recorded in the Bible (I say "human" because I do think the gospel/Jesus upends that). Teachers are clearly above students. Adults are above children. The free are above the slave. All of those things are true in so far as they usually play out in our world. They are not true in terms of human worth. Why then, do we distinguish between positions of worth (universally equal) and social roles? 

Part of the practice of living in the Kingdom of God (here and now) is imagining Beyondness before it is achieved. I feel the same resistance against dismantling of hierarchy that you probably do, because life as we know it would unravel without hierarchy. But isn't our end goal exactly to transcend life as we know it, in part by remaking the world we are in? Since we did not create ourselves, I don't know that we can or want to ever be equal with That which created us. But MAYBE that is part of profound mystery of love Peter referenced...."the two shall become one...This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church."

In my current understanding, ultimate love erases hierarchy. Anarchy, by one definition, is a society or group of people that rejects a set hierarchy. I think a healthy partnership within divine grace (marriage) is an erasure of hierarchy. Recognizing the worth and dignity of women, children, the impoverished, the unwell, and the imprisoned is an erasure of power structure and an act of holy love (Matthew 25:31-46). Instead of descent into chaos, I think radical love is an ascent into anarchy - a mysterious love without hierarchy. 

Monday, January 11, 2021

2020 Recap & 2021 Hopes

Around New Year's 2019/2020, we asked the boys if there was anything they'd like to do in 2020. While I was hoping for "be kind to each other" or something like that, I had fully intended to honor Ishmael's actual wish, which was "go to Chuck-E-Cheese." That was literally the only ambition he named for 2020 and it kills me (both humorously and with sadness) that despite the fact that I *hate* "child and mechanical rat casinos" and we have a Chuck-E-Cheese within a block of our house, it was a uniquely impossible goal for 2020. 

Most of my ambitions for 2020 were similarly unmet, but I walked away from what was undeniably a wrenching year for us all with more clarity and purpose than I could have expected. In therapy there is a practice of speaking to your childhood self to try and relay the message you had needed to hear that maybe you didn't hear in childhood. I haven't done that in therapy, but I have wondered if there is anything my childhood self needed to hear. In other words, what was my greatest fear or longing? I heard the affirmation that I didn't know I needed in 2020, and that was:

You will find your place in the world. 

It took me a long time to even name my fear that I might have no place or no purpose (at least not one that I genuinely believed in). Now that I'm learning my space, it's not always what I thought it would be. Through a series of events and learning and growing, I find myself engaging in the prison abolition movement. This feels informed by (and informs) my theology, my family, and my nationality. I feel like "finding my place" has not been propelled by my own hand, and I hope that that means it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Here's my meme-format summary of my face effected by the events and trajectory of 2020. 

If a pandemic happens roughly once in a 100 years, many people will be born and die before we see another one. I don't want to rehash all of 2020 - all of us who survived it know it intimately - but I don't want to forget it either. I've wished there was more information and personal accounts of the 1918 pandemic. I imagine it reached China, but I've never heard those stories. This year I read an autobiography of Don Freeman (renowned children's author and illustrator) who arrived in New York City to find his way as an artist on the very day in 1929 that the stock market crashed. He acknowledges the struggles and the chaos and the upheaval, but also life went on in the midst of that. 

What stands out in my mind about my experience of a pandemic year; being sick in March. Jonas almost certainly had Covid, my symptoms were less classic. There were not tests available to us yet to confirm. Both Jonas and I were furloughed from work roughly from March to August, and I was ultimately laid off from the food-service industry. Grade-school for our kids became at-home school for... everrrrr. We ate a lot of fried chicken sandwiches in 2020. There were blessings in the close quarters, but also much frustration, heartache, and uncertainty.  My creative outlet was themed dress-up outfits at home. We got our cat Soy who has been a wonderful addition to our family. I started a new job editing radio scripts from home (which I love) that has also given me opportunity to engage with the Bible in ways I've never been interested in doing before. Our community work in our neighborhood shifted with Covid of course, but that also held hidden opportunities. Some friendships deepened as we clung together over Facetime and Marco Polo. Others were strained as beliefs about Covid (and how to live in light of it) diverged over the months. For me, the daily mind games I play with myself are the hardest side affect. I am immensely grateful for the nurses and teachers in my life. Even with (or because of) the extra head space and slower pace of parts of 2020, I drastically rethought how I view money and hope that I can continue to grow in generosity. It felt like every day held a momentous political or economic world event. The Beirut chemical explosion sticks with me as gut-wrenching. Certainly the murder of George Floyd awakened much that was asleep behind White eyes, propelling me to new reflections and actions. Uyghur genocide began to get the global attention is warrants. US politics were chaos, but I felt freedom from expecting otherwise. 

The best thing I read was James Baldwin's A Fire Next Time. Other things I read are logged on GoodReads. I've listened to Hannah Bowman's theology of abolition at least 3 times already and was encouraged by the Bible Project, particularly their explanation of the meaning of apocalypse. Of course there was a lot of TV watching. I can't possibly recall it all, but things that stand out are the shows Jiri/Haji and Bob's Burgers, and the movies The Pillow Book, My Octopus Teacher, A Portrait of a Lady on Fire, and Mirai. I listened to a lot of Rosalia, Joni Mitchell's Cactus Tree album, HAIM's Women in Music 3, Joao Gilberto, Gillian Welch, and the Chick's Gaslighter album. I spent almost a month cross pollinating a rainbow of flowers in Animal Crossing and then creating an in-game replica of the Huntington Gardens.  

My niece Beatrice Jane Sears was born on January 30! We visited my sister in North Carolina in February to meet Beatrice, right before the pandemic. We ate at Roses', which was the best new (to me) restaurant of the year for me. I visited my brothers San Diego in August, my parents and sister Annelise visited us from NC in the fall, and we spent Christmas with Jonas' brother and his family (with many precautions) in Los Angeles. Written out in a list, that sounds like a lot of travel for this year, but I think I left Santa Maria about 6 times between March and December, and several of those drives were to neighboring Central Coast cities.

Things I blogged about in 2020: my grandmother, artist Sam Szafran, early pandemic feels, the set designs of Bernard Evein, changing my mind on purpose, apocalypse and revelation and service (church history and church future), reflections on wealth, pandemic feels in the style of dark mythology

Review of 2020 goals. 

  • SLOW DOWN. I want to have and make the time to play, engage in my hobbies, explore, entertain, cultivate relationships. I've been too drained and busy and stressed to do those things and I want to fight through the things I *have* to do to get to a place where things I *want* to do are woven in. I want to feel the peace and contentment that comes from not being over-scheduled all the time. 
  • Write a book outline.
  • Build a good credit score. Getting a credit card has been such a huge obstacle for me. 
  • Spend intentional time with each of my boys, not multitasking.
  • Take a digital design class. I doubt this will happen in 2020, but it's a goal to keep in my head.
  • Get a website and a start a mailing list. 

I'm thankful to feel like I've found security in my purpose recently. With that, my need to map out my future feels diminished. After thinking for a few days, I still found some goals for 2021, but they're less work or growth related than usual. It goes without saying that I'd like to grow and mature in the areas that I am "finding my place" in the community and the personal and practical work that entails. 

Goals for 2021:

  • try more of the Lompoc underground food scene
  • fix my hair
  • source my dream 2-piece suit 
  • plan a Japan trip 
  • more crafts/creative projects
  • focus less on imaginary/undefined evils (I can get caught up in railing against ideas instead of loving whoever is right in front of me)
And to all, an apocalyptic new year. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Princess of Hades

The clock oozes to 2:59, I pick up my ball of string. 

We enter into the mind labyrinth. 

It is dark, but I join Minotaur with ease. He has been waiting. 
A gentle kiss. We walk softly down the corridors and I hum the impulses of my mind. How I long to tip the dinner candles onto the table cloth, watch that destruction lap up the balcony, the life outside, the sea, the sky. I tell him he was the one I always loved the best.

Lady C droops on her throne. Shrouded in veils, as untouchable as cloud matter. She is the object of so much fear, hatred, despair. Misunderstanding makes her melancholy and increases her power. She is the hapless child of a monarchy, unable to abandon her role before her time is up. Each brazen lover that comes before her grows tired before the night is through. They turn away, but she cannot. She follows silently, helplessly faithful, head bowed. Daughter of Medusa, her charms are a strange version of her mother's before her. She is quiet, so quiet, pale to the point of invisibility. Those who look her in the face and show her respect are spared, but those who turn away are turned to stone in their beds, unable to breath alone. 

Cappella Sansevero

Lady C is not spiteful or discerning. She is from another world, the contours of her touch a mystery to the world above her. Who can dethrone her? None can tell, we do not know. She is my friend. I do not fear her, though I fear forgetting her. 

Tonight, as every night, Minotaur displays a banquet. There are two delicacies beneath glistening steel domes. One contains the luxury of hope, one the expectation of chaos. Night after night, I sink my teeth into the flesh of darkness because it is more manageable. It falls off the bone like butter, marinated in a full bodied flavor of familiarity. 

Minotaur, sweet Minotaur. How I wish you could cross the threshold of the labyrinth and come with me into the light. Together we could take the string and bind together love and anarchy. Instead, without you I feel

A match lit in my stomach, nowhere to grow
Quiet shame of the haves
A finger cut while cooking
A novel finished painfully
A tension wire between contentedness, freedom, rest
Listlessness, anxiety, maybe laziness
A heatwave
The corners of my mouth move up imperceptibly
When people say, see you in May
I don't think you will  

Conceptualized April 2020 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Into the Eye of the Needle

Living in the time of Corona has transformed my perspective on money. 

My regular life, and that of my family - school, work, socializing, volunteering - ground to a halt for 5 months. Our income was up in the air, but our expenses also decreased. I didn't start my car for 3 months. It still feels miraculous (I mean truly divine) that through this experience I've become less concerned with having money. 

I've spent my entire life worrying about not having enough money. Since being adults, Jonas and I have never earned enough income to transcend the poverty bracket in California. I've long suspected that the only people who say "money can't buy happiness" aren't poor. I've always been incredibly careful with money out of fear. We have small savings, but not enough for a down payment on a house and monthly expenses. 

In March of 2020, there suddenly seemed no better use for savings than to use them for what we needed and share anything we could. All the long-term plans I had for money didn't seem so important. Having everything that we needed and the privilege to adjust our work schedules wasn't lost on me.  

Meanwhile, migrant workers with no legal status have no access to government assistance. Workers who kept jobs at businesses that remained open were at far higher risk but paid less than those who were furloughed or laid off and got stimulus money. In our city, households in which all adults are in-person workers have to choose between leaving children home alone, paying for childcare or risking group childcare, or quitting a job, all of which could result in financial ruin and homelessness. 

Many people wanted to be helpful to others in the beginning of the pandemic, and it was wonderful to see. There were varying degrees of success with help. We watched as some celebrities became more laughable than enviable. It didn't look like a privilege so much as a tragedy that anyone could be so delusional about how most people experience uncertainty. It was clear that even their money didn't shield them from loneliness or fear. For a moment, it was easier to stop glorifying the lifestyle of apparent ease and fun that we think extravagant money will bring. 

Heads Might Roll 

People laugh every time I make this comparison, but the early days of Covid19 made me think of the French Revolution and how much I wanted to take care not to be an aristocrat while other people were starving. When times are desperate, I want to be sure that people come to me knowing I will share food, not come for me because they know I have food that I'm not sharing. Certainly the rancor toward Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has increased as he's not only insulated himself from "the masses", but directly profited by exploiting them. Any desire I had to be fabulously wealthy is no longer appealing in this light.

I'm not going to attempt to define wealth. Wealth is relative and about perspective, in addition to numbers. Thanks to many aspects of 2020, I consider myself unmetaphorically wealthy, and I didn't used to. How we calculate wealth is deeply dependent on our social beliefs about money and work. 

What is the purpose of money? Try and answer this for yourself, right now. 

Money, to me, has largely been about security. I've focused much of that thinking toward the idea of home ownership and reliable vehicles. I would like not to feel conflicted about every purchase. If I were to achieve my desired sense of security, then I think money would be about comfort and enjoyment. I dream of a variety of vacations. Perhaps I could buy craftsman level decorations for my dream home. 

Much of my thinking about work has supported my ideals about money. For a long time, I not only accepted, but venerated a capitalist model. Capitalism is "industry privately controlled for profit". To "profit" essentially means to create wealth. I liked the idea that I could find work that I enjoy and profit from it to shape the lifestyle that I envision. But when my priorities shifted, my thinking about money and work also changed. 

I am not suggesting that a proper alternative to capitalism is state-controlled profit, but rather that the model of work for the sake of wealth accumulation is immoral. Poverty in the United States exists in part because of the for-profit model. Most workers do not make enough money to be able to afford the price of goods or services, including housing and healthcare. The profits of the businesses that are underpaying workers goes toward business owners or shareholders to increase their personal wealth. This is greed - workers are exploited for the personal gain of owners or shareholders. 

Economics for Feral Housewives

Beyond compensating workers appropriately for their labor, the model of operations used by non-profit organizations holds potential beyond its current manifestations. Non-profit companies are organizations whose ultimate purpose (in theory) is to improve people's wellbeing. By contrast, a for-profit company's ultimate purpose is to create wealth for its owners. One could argue that wealth contributes to the well-being of the owners, but as I'm going to seek to illustrate, unchecked wealth accumulation on the part of owners is detrimental both to workers and ultimately to the owners themselves.

My brother in law Andrew Sears currently works for a Fortune100 for-profit company, and previously ran a variety of non-profits. He wrote the following section via text in response to my questions. 
If my for-profit employer makes $100 in revenue and spends $50 in expenses (including labor), it has $50 left. It can invest $50 back into building the business or it can distribute $50 among its owners (shareholders) pockets. Even if it invests back into the business, the goal of that investment is to increase the value of the business which increases its stock value, which increases shareholder wealth. Investors in for-profit companies give money expecting to receive more money in return as the company grows. 

Now consider a nonprofit hospital. It gets $100 in revenue through donations and patient payments. It spends $50 on expenses (including labor) and has $50 left. The hospital doesn't have shareholders to pocket $50, so the $50 is invested to improve the services the hospital provides. Investors in nonprofits (charities or individual donors) give without expectation of return but as in investment in positive social impact. 
Why don't we replace capitalist structure with something akin to non-profit organizations? To continue with the Fortune100 analogy, Andrew asked: 
Would you donate money to my employer without any expectation of return just so we could develop software that will never be of interest or use to you? It's unlikely. We generally only donate money to causes we care about deeply, and that doesn't describe most of the for-profit business world. But businesses need money to grow. Thus, capitalists devised a system in which people (investors) were incentivized to give money to businesses (invest) because they can expect a reward (return on investment). To replace this system, we'd need to think of alternative ways for businesses to get the money they need to grow. 
Having run a (very small) business myself, I understand the necessity of profit. Sometimes I would purchase a book for 10c and resell it at market value, say $10.00. Sometimes my profit was hundreds of times what materials had cost me. That profit went toward expenses: packaging materials, postage, new stock, and to some degree the operation of a car and internet without which I couldn't have a business. As a one-person business operation, all leftover profits went to my bank account, where I used it for all the regular stuff: bills, groceries, things I wanted, gifts. Whatever wasn't spent was savings. I don't know if this is a perfect analogy since I wasn't making enough profit to generate personal wealth, but my tentative answer to "how should businesses get money to grow, if not through the investment structure", is that if the demand for a service or product isn't high enough to generate enough profit to grow without additional investment, maybe it has reached it's natural size already. 

If your business produces enough profit to support your needs, is further growth not just pursuit of wealth? If the demand for a good or service is beyond the ability of the owner to meet, an employee or partner is introduced and the additional revenue coming from increased productivity goes toward  increased labor. When wealth (unallotted profit) is introduced into the equation, I think the balance between work and profit begins to derail. Rather than create class disparity or inflate demand for a product, unallotted profit should play a positive role in society. 

Most of us own things that we don't need. This isn't wrong in itself, but unclear (or immoral) priorities fuel rampant consumerism, and capitalism feeds on consumerism. Any model of business only survives if the demand for its goods or services is sustained. For example, I know that I pay much more for my iPhone than it costs to make it, both in parts and labor. But I'm still willing to pay that price because of the value I place on what it provides for me. In essence, I support Apple's profit margin with my dollars, even though I'm in conflict with the implications of that profit. 

What would it take to change that? The demand for iPhones at their current price would have to shift, either from a boycott or a comparable lower-priced alternative that drove demand for iPhones down enough to cause a decrease in price. Consumers have more power to cause good change than we typically harness in economics. 

It's very difficult for those in poverty to make morality-based decisions about purchases if they have the option to buy products that are cheaper due to the exploitation of whoever harvested or made those products. Convenience and price keep Amazon the behemoth that it is, but the speed and cost at which those items are available are only possible because of the labor of a host of poorly-paid, poorly-cared for workers. In this way, capitalism again traps the poor - you only work an Amazon warehouse job if you don't have a better paying, less back-breaking option. 

What if society's values demanded that profit go to workers first (the profit-sharing model, or ESOP, does exist, but isn't common), and then either into the improvement of goods and services or to common good; medical research, food equity, affordable housing, sustainable farming, reforestation, disaster relief, etc. (Look up @healthcareforthepeople2020). Basically, why don't we cut out the monetary advantage of ownership and shareholding? At some point, a good or service ought not to need more capital to improve it. There is always room for invention and innovation, but consumers have the power to choose what direction they want for innovation. Is money better spent on a yearly redesign of the exteriors of luxury cars or in testing how to power a jet with non-pollutant energy? We should use "exploration" money for things that are truly value-added and put the rest back into our communities. 

The Land After Capitalism

Not to get too far ahead of myself, but if profits went primarily to laborers and social improvements instead of owners or shareholders, I see 3 major benefits. First, workers would be more like partners in their places of work. The profits of their labor would sustain them comfortably and wealth disparity between owners and workers would diminish. Moreover, seeking wealth through stock ownership would be irrelevant if you made that same money from your job. Of course, many wealthy owners and stockholders don't work at all (in which case their wealth becomes morally obscure, at best), but more on that later. 

The second benefit would be that many systemic societal dilemmas like homelessness and hunger could largely be addressed through profits feeding into the public sector, even if some members of society will never be able to "pull their own weight" in terms of labor. Some mental health issues would be alleviated by better economic standards, and those who are chronically ill could at least get decent, consistent support and care from healthcare workers who themselves were economically secure. 

Third, a private-profit funded approach to social wellness ought to drastically decrease taxes. If business profits were invested in social betterment, there would be little need to pay the government to perform the same services. Our government doesn't seem to be very good at it, anyway. Society could also choose what was really beneficial to itself which I believe would exclude international land-grabbing and nuclear warheads. Land-grabbing for oil or other natural resources has always been about increasing wealth. Imagine focusing energy and money into your own society instead of robbing someone else's or even returning what has been robbed. It's practically revolutionary

So much corruption - political, environmental, economic, social - is rooted in a quest for money. 2020 has lifted the veil on that more than ever and has made it that much clearer to many Americans that part of the reason they don't have enough is because of deliberate theft. It's hard to keep viewing America as "good" for us or to us. Capitalism has a net benefit for a precious few, and it's not the workers. 

If a non-profit model based society sounds like a communist utopia or democratic socialism or marxist economics, maybe it is. As this funny video points out, what existed before capitalism was feudalism, and feudalism disintegrated and was replaced over a period of several hundred years. It is extremely unlikely that we will see capitalism replaced in our lifetime. Actualizing the non-profit model means giving up the for-profit model, and historically, that's not popular with those who are profiting. So really what I'm trying to do is explain to you how I want to change my money habits and work toward moral, social benefit. And if you see any merit to it, maybe you will change one tiny habit too. 

The Misery of Midas 

The pitfalls of the for-profit model deepen when there is great disparity between workers and bosses, such as Jeff Bezos and the warehouse worker, or property owners who extort renters. Exploited laborers naturally want a better situation, and capitalism beckons us toward the lifestyle of the owner - perhaps if you break your back for long enough, you can gain the power and money and ease that allows you to yacht around while your employees suffer to increase your wealth. 

Many of us want(ed) that life, but we don't stop to think of how unlikely it is or what it requires of us and others to get there. No one becomes a billionarie because they worked harder than everyone else. If hard work was in a direct ratio to wealth accruement, as we so often say that it is, field workers would be very wealthy. Jeff Bezos doesn't worker harder than his employees,  he robs them. What's more, Bezos' money has long since passed being of service to him. He could not even spend 200 billion dollars on himself if he dedicated the rest of his life to shopping. When I'm not feeling disgusted at his ill-gained billions, I feel sad for Jeff Bezos. I wonder if he knows what he's lost. 200 billion dollars can buy caviar, and I hope he enjoys that, but it can't buy community, trust, or happiness. Insulation from poverty is also insulation from those who are in it, and that takes a massive toll on one's morality, no matter how much you make.

What does it benefit us to gain the whole world, but we ourselves are lost or destroyed? (Luke 9:25)

I think Jesus was being literal when he told a rich young ruler, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Then the passage says, "when the rich young ruler heard this, he became very sad, because he was very wealthy." Then Jesus said, "Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Luke 18:22-25)

Jesus really went hard against love of money. He talked about money a lot, actually - 11 out of 40 parables, more than the topics of faith and prayer, combined (source). Pre-Covid, I never considered myself wealthy, so I'm sad to say I just glossed over most of what Jesus teaches about money. Jesus doesn't vilify those with wealth so much as lament how easy it is for those with wealth to be blind. When a corrupt tax-collector named Zacchaeus had an encounter with Jesus, it prompted Zacchaeus to give away half of what he owned and repay those he had cheated at a rate of 4 times the damage he had caused. Jesus celebrated Zacchaeus' decision. (Luke 19)

God doesn't call everyone to the same roles, but I think too many of us have been hoping (assuming?) he is calling us toward roles that involve personal wealth. The American church (as a broad culture; certainly exceptions apply) seems pretty assimilated into the capitalist structure, and even gets into some exploitations of its own. It's both funny and sad to realize how much I was enticed by Christian riches. Heaven is talked about in children's songs as a place with individual mansions and golden streets. The reward for good works is jewels in our heavenly crowns. For all I know, those things are true, but it took me so long to discover that that's simply not the point. It took me not quite as long to realize that a jeweled crown just wasn't going to cut it as life long motivation. I've spent a lot of time feeling secretly unnerved that a Heaven based on glorious riches is sort of shitty. I only care to go there as an alternative to something more painful. What a bizarre way to view the present and the future. 

Jesus made the present quite a bit more clear. "You cannot become my disciple without giving up everything you own" (Luke 14:33). "No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62. Harsh, but radical). "Where your treasure is, there your heart will also be" (Matthew 6:21). "You cannot serve God and money" (Matthew 6:24). 

The Workers Are Revolting 

After being furloughed from my job in March, I was laid off in August. Those 5 months were long enough for me to fully internalize that I had been working too much. I fear what will happen if I don't work enough to make enough money, but that cycle was broken enough to realize my worst fears did not materialize. Even the necessary components of work and money can create a whole that is not good. 

My relationship to money as leisure (I love to thrift shop) was also put into perspective. Rather than feeling deprivation (though certainly I experienced a sense of loss during early Covid days like many others), I became acutely aware of how I could not only survive, but thrive without accumulating more things. I became content with what I have. That train of thought has aided my goal of shifting away from supporting corporations known to exploit workers. 

I had already been aware of my perpetual exhaustion at working 3 jobs. I never had time or energy to look for other work or to build hobbies into sustainable work (the dream, supposedly, for many creatives). Not to mention that maintaining relationships and investing in my community got the leftovers of my energy and attention. There was an illusion that we'd "get somewhere" at some undetermined point in the future. We'd have worked long and hard enough to... I don't know.... stop? Rest? Which is code for get rich or retire, I guess. That's the base assumption of the American Dream - anything is achievable if you work hard enough. Ironically, the rewards for all that hard work are material, and you probably won't have any time left to enjoy them, let alone be able to part with what you worked so long and hard for. We are slaves to this dream. 

Money as the reward for life (or afterlife!), i.e. capitalism, leaves no room for rest. There is no space to say "no" to working more and harder to the end of time. For example, Jonas' job has not infrequent "mandatory overtime". There are penalties for not fulfilling a work quota in most jobs - namely, you'll be replaced by someone who will work more. In some cases, doing your best work only leads to increased expectations on productivity. 

America was born not out of truly Christian values but out of a twisted view that everything here is here for the taking to those who work for it. We consider hard work toward our own gain one of our greatest virtues. A byproduct of this view of work is that we tend to believe that those who aren't wealthy just haven't worked hard enough yet. At the same time, Americans live with a deeply ingrained scarcity mindset. If the person next to you works harder than you do, there will be less for you to gain toward your own wealth. 

If wealth is your goal, you can not escape slavery. 

Working Class Morality

If you could have something better than you have right now, wouldn't you take it? A nicer house, a better job, a newer car? I've always thought the obvious answer was yes! At what point do we stop answering yes? If we can't determine that point at which we have everything we need, it will pass us by and we will find ourselves enslaved.  

So much that we thought we deserved or we earned of our own merit turns out not to be our right. As we recognized, hard work does not necessarily equal decent pay. There are lots of reasons someone might have enough or more than enough in their life, but as a person of faith, I view the things I have as a gift. Not a reward, but a gift. 

Capitalism suggests that wealth is personal. Afterall, what's mine is not someone else's, right? If I give something that is mine away, then I have less for myself. Is it wrong to have wealth? Your money, your decisions, right? In the sense of free will, that remains true. But if you view what you have as a gift, you become the vessel that wealth passes through, not its destination. 

If we stop viewing wealth as our individual concern, it ought to affect our choices far beyond our possessions. In July, I found myself in a position in which I knew that the right thing for me to do as a representative of a brand was to publicly and unequivocally denounce a statement that had been made against Black people. The brand I was representing not only rescinded my statement, but forbade any further mention of the topic. It was risk management from the brand's perspective, but the feeling of telling the injured party that there would not only be no restitution, but no public acknowledgment whatsoever made a lasting impression on me. For the first time in my working life, I confronted the idea that the return for my labor (money) was not worth moral ambiguity, not to mention direct harm. 

Setting your own needs above or against those of others is literally antithetical to the gospel. How much more egregious if you already have everything that you need? If we refute the idea that we should be working toward the benefit of those who have less than we have, what sort of Christianity are we defending? 

Looking a Gift Camel in the Mouth 

When you feel taken care of or have your own wealth put into perspective, it's much easier to be benevolent toward others. Unless you're greedy, which is perhaps more of an insecurity than a moral flaw at first. Some greed originates from feeling that you aren't taken care of. Wealthy people do have their economic needs met, but many seem to lack the benefits that come from being in community with others and sharing common goals.

As has been covered, immense wealth is not the result of work, but the amassing of the profits of other people's work. This wealth creates an erosion of perspective as one can not fathom poverty or even reality. An absence of wealth sharing drives a wedge in community. I experience that pretty often - that which I have no concept of can barely affect my lifestyle or my choices. Some poverty, even local to my city, is so far outside of my own reality that I am unaware it. Even if someone described it to me, I might find it truly unbelievable. That is privilege. Even without a ton of money to my name, the money and possessions I do have are only possible, in part, due to the labor of others. I can not fit through the eye of a needle if I do not pass on every gift I have been given. 

Work is good. Having good things is good. Stopping there is not good. After discussing much of this with my sister, she was feeling guilty for wallpapering her bathroom. Sure, wallpaper isn't a necessity, but I don't think it's immoral as long as it's not instead of sharing wealth. 

Those who have a lot should give away a lot. "Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more" (Luke 12:48; Context is about responsibility rather than explicitly about money, but I think it applies).

Literally giving money away is yet another Covid-fueled revelation to me. 

I experienced a dilemma when I knew we'd be receiving a stimulus check signed by Donald Trump. On the one hand, I was not immediately in need of the money and I'm wary of the economic consequences of trying to stimulate capitalism by printing money. On the other hand, the future was more uncertain than usual and it seemed like burning rotten money was of less use than simply giving it away to fund the legal expenses of the exact people Trump's administration has vilified for challenging his violent authoritarianism. I went with the latter, and it's very cathartic. 

Christians will be familiar with the concept of tithing - giving roughly 10% of your profits (which are a gift), back to God. Having grown up hearing this all my life, I was never quite on board. Overall, giving to the church always felt shame-based to me. I knew I was supposed to do it, but I didn't want to. It's supposed to be given to the church in the same spirit in which we received it - as a gift. My heart was never in it. I also felt that I didn't have enough money to give any away. Finally, I didn't like how churches use the money they are given a lot of the time. 

All of that melted away when I began to see anyone in need as my neighbor (Luke 10:25-37), and giving "to the least of these" as giving to Jesus (Matthew 25:35-40). Christian philosophies will vary here, but I believe that mutual aid is a legitimate form of tithing. Am I, as a Christian working together with other Christians, not an embodiment of the church? Not passing money through a church organization is not less churchy than acting as an extension of the church myself. Many churches are not giving to the same people in whom I am seeing the image of Christ. In fact, I think that for some people, traditional American tithing factors into that wealth wedge I was talking about - without direct contact with the poor, you have no personal awareness or investment in helping. Giving to a church organization can become a passing of the buck, if you will (lol). 

I am not saying it is wrong to give money to churches. In fact, a local church does monetarily support Jonas and I in our community work and thereby church members are indirectly supporting some people in our city who they do not even know exist. BUT, I think it would benefit these church members to give their tithe directly to their neighbors in need, as I have seen a magnificent benefit in my own life from doing. 

Many people in the church are much more generous with money than I ever have been. It can also be true that many of them aren't connected to the ground floor of local needs. Especially in church culture, Christians tend to recognize the needs of the impoverished elsewhere in the world. I am glad churches give toward international needs. I wish more churches recognized their hometowns as places where there are people who desperately need help, if only we could collide our world with theirs. 

We have got to stop pausing to form a hierarchy of other's needs as we try and pivot away from the clutches of individual wealth. I've wasted a lot of time looking for "the neediest" or figuring I'll give tomorrow when a disaster closer to my heart strikes. I'll give tomorrow when I can better understand the predicament of someone asking for help. Just say yes today. "Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you" (Matthew 5:24).

Due to my entrenched scarcity mindset, I have always struggled to ask for money (because that must mean I'm not working hard enough!) and I didn't like being asked for money either. As I'm learning to give, I'm also learning to ask. I've noticed that people who are poor tend to both give and ask for money and resources much more freely than those who comfort themselves with wealth. Those who are wealthy don't need help and so they rarely experience money as a gift. 

Trust what other people say their needs are. Maybe some people will exploit the money you give. Remember that Jack Johnson lyric, "somebody else needed something so bad, they took everything that somebody had?" When we stop viewing our riches as our own, we stop feeling robbed when other people take what they need. Anything we have is a gift that we've been given for the very purpose of giving it away. 

Sharing wealth should be a lifestyle, not a checkbox. We must be invested in the long-term health of our community, and that happens through relationship. I am working every week to learn the needs of our community and I'm sharing those periodically, mostly in my Instagram stories (@weird_eyes). If you're not local to my city, I promise there are people who need help directly or those who need help in helping the community very near by you. Look for them, and don't stop until you find them. 

I hope I never forget what I've learned in 2020. I began to give away what I have to the poor and gained a sense of wealth I've been chasing my whole life. 
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