Tuesday, November 13, 2012

#266- The "Mark" that will always keep us separate from the world

Editor's Comment: Special Guest Author James Wilder has a blog where he writes his thoughts down about Christianity or culture or whatever else is on his mind. He is self-conscious about this. He shouldn't be. Today he wrote a post that really resonated with me about the denomination we grew up. I think you'll enjoy.

The post is copied in full below or can be read over at his blog, here...

A new "reality" show on the TLC network, "Breaking Amish," features five young adults who have left their Amish and Mennonite communities to experience life in the Big Apple, trying to make a decision if they want to permanently leave their communities. There has been a lot of controversy about the show's "authentic" factor (surprise, surprise, a reality show that isn't "real"), but the stories told, and the concepts viewed are all eerily familiar and even accurate.

The show opens each episode with some sort of wisdom quote or proof-text scripture that the episode then shows the young adults living out, and ultimately, "disobeying." From binge drinking, to tattoo parlors, compulsive intimate relationships, learning city fashions, etc -- this is set-up as a show about how former-Amish have "lost their way" in a big City, even a "big world" that is arranged as a metaphor inside New York City.

It got me thinking, seeing many obvious parallels from my growing up as a Oneness Pentecostal. Sure, we didn't forbid all modern conveniences and live in compounds, but we did forbid an awful lot of other things on similar grounds, and even lived in a social/cultural bubble that is sort of like a compound! The sense of ostracization is one that I identified with as well -- albeit, my experience haven't been personally as dramatic as what they are depicting in the show, again the similarities are close enough.

The element that caught my attention the most was the fear the young adults had about "never fitting in." This was warnings they heard growing up, that because they were "children of God," they would never "fit in with the world." And so, it almost seems like this sort of warning is correct as it got played out over the years. I mean, the eccentric and clueless behavior the young Amish often exhibited on the show is evidence enough that these kids will never be "normal" city dwellers. Their experiences have marked them. Marked. That's the word I heard a lot growing up. For us, as Oneness Pentecostals, it was our "encounters with the Spirit" that marked us. We would forever be "horrible sinners," and "never fit in." So I decided to unpack some of the truth and misleading realities behind such observations.

Children that come out of religiously ascetic and strict homes, even communities that hold to ideas of "separation from the world," (interpreted on a more fundamentalist and hyper-literal perspective) struggle to find their way in the world. This is a truth that cannot be underscored. These who leave experience a great loss, likely similar to grieving the loss of an entire family at once! Imagine that! Real, bonafide grief made even worse, since their friends and family are still alive and well. They lose the  community of those they grew up with, the positive affirmation that healthy humans need, a support network, and a lifetime of memories and experiences that others outside these communities hardly will ever understand. More, however, is the engrained belief system that makes up their worldview-- and as much as they are ignored for more shallow reasons ("I want to find my own way in life," etc), it is conditioned to breed constant fear that either makes them an anxious wreck, or an all-or-nothing "sinner," spinning out of control, trying to sample all of life's pleasures in a short period, sort of "making up for lost time." Binging. These are the ugly results. The former is depressed, frightened, confused and insecure -- the latter using deviant choices as a method of "putting their head in the sand," and somehow thinking that this is how the rest of the world actually lives. They believe they are living the life of an outsider, and any unhappiness is projected onto the whole of the fellow "outsiders."

Returning Home
Many of these types find themselves crawling back to their homes and communities. Unresolved tensions of what they believe, the draw of community and support is greater for them. They feel at peace in a system of groupthink (a huge part to maintain community: in Amish communities, even moreso than, say, a Oneness Pentecostal culture, that is usually maintained by a primarily charismatic central figure, and then carried out through the community), and the affirmation received works for them. Some, out of fear, head back. Others, feeling like they experienced the "pleasures of the world," then return to tell their stories to the insiders about how life on the outside is, and how it's "ultimately unfulfilling." They would call these "testimonies," and use them to contain and numb others' itches to leave the community in the same fashion. But the fearful types likely trade fear and anxiety in one sense, back to fear and anxiety in another sense, masked with community and social mores that are more suitable for them. They become lulled back into a deep sleep, away from their critical thinking and existential wondering by the community's rythmn of events, spiritual ritual, etc.

Hanging with other "Backsliders"
In the circles I grew up in, those who "left the Church," were often mocked for always hanging out with others that also left the Church. (This probably mostly happens as a result of a shared background and experience that is uniquely related to.) This helped paint the picture by the community leaders that they were all bitter, and had a hard time coping and living in the real world: "marked by God." Of course the sociological realities of this are largely ignored.

True, they are "marked," but by their experiences, lack of healthy interaction with the world around them, and a huge loss of community. The task of leaving is daunting on multiple and complex layers. Not being able to work through the theological layers, and unequipped to do so, they have an uneasy relationship with God and faith. Then there's the emotional layers,  and even some level of self-reflection... being cast into the world just to "figure it all out," is a complex and dangerous task. Any human in this predicament, not conditioned or even familiar with any of the attitudes of the larger society around them, going through loss of community and affirmation, will have a hard time finding their way. There's no reason to think of this devastating result as anything more uniquely spiritual than that (though to be sure, all of life is spiritual, so this is indeed, spiritual in a non-Platonic sense). The churches I grew up around would point to these people and situations, preaching as examples to others, to somehow make a point and support their claims about how they are "marked by God." The reality is, they are marked by a theological and sociological system. And the only point proven, particularly for these isolationist, fundamentalist types, is how dangerous such a system can be for people, and the reality that many will remain by some sort of subconscious prison, and fail to critically think, fearful of the heavy realities.

Metanarratives and Stories
We all buy into a story that we are part of, and living through. How we view our purpose in life, what we view as the problems in life, what the solutions are and what the ultimate Utopia would look like, varies from belief system to belief system, whether religious or irreligious, philsophical or some other ontalogical form. Many spiritual wanderers will, for one reason or the other, leave these circles while still living in the same narrative/story, which causes a great deal of tension. The world around them pressures them into throwing away their God narrative, and since they only know one God narrative, this brings more confusion. Some dramatically exchange the story they are living for a hedonistic or "carefree" alternative story. Of course, most don't realize they are "story-searching" at all. This isn't exactly a conscientious grocery shopping expedition of worldviews. But this is what is happening, and why the complexity of leaving a social community into a desolate wilderness (or an urbanly dense over-stimulated noise of ideas)-- this is why it's hard, and this is what the preachers aren't saying. Instead, it's overly-spiritualized sermon fodder to "warn others of the ways of the unrighteous."

SIDE NOTE: I embraced a Gospel story-narrative, one that I feel find tension with, but one that I feel almost too good to be true, and one I want to believe... one I really want to believe. One that points the solution/redemption away from me, and to a Perfect Other -- an Other than redeemed me not because of anything I did -- and an Other (Jesus) who paints the picture of redemption in something far more Utopic than any human can imagine. This One makes all things right, brings redemption to all the cosmos, and promises peace and justice.

So watching this new show, despite the production put into it, is like peeking in to a narrative I once knew and identified with,  and relating to the characters that I sometimes chuckle at, yet sadly understand, trying to "find their way in the world."

It's no wonder so many end up feeling abused and faithless, or move so quickly to another dangerous story-line to make their own. They are indeed, marked... marked by religion, broken systems, bearing wounds of rejection and hurt from the many false stories they've bought into. Fortunately, marked people can find healing too.

Friday, November 2, 2012

#265- The American Evangelical Love Affair With Mitt Romney

Various aspects of this post have been running through my head for some months now and I just thought I should get them out before the election. So, here it is. I'll admit that it's less polished than some of my other posts and it's not nearly as humorous, unless you take after the Horkheimer/Adorno school of comedy, where true laughter only comes from the pure horror, which in this case fits nicely. Anyway, please read and feel free to comment.

Antonio Gramsci died in 1937 after nine yeas of imprisonment at the hands of Benito Mussolini's fascist government. A member of the Italian parliament and the Communist Party, Gramsci died for his opposition to the actual oppression of the National Socialists, as opposed to the farcical fear mongering of conservative pundits over President Obama's insidious plans for the America of 2016.

(A helpful hint: history and common sense tells us real socialist dictators don't run for two terms or downsize the military as precursors to destroying democracy, but then again, no one ever accused hardline conservatives of making any sense or having a grasp of actual, non-made-up history.)

I can't help but to think about Gramsci when I see the wholehearted support for the Romney-Ryan ticket my fellow Christians have poured out since the sad battle of attrition that was the Republican Primary. Let us embark on a short comparison. Unlike Romney, Gramsci was an actual self-made man, born to a poor countryside family and making the best of his scant opportunities. Mittens and Ann would like you to believe that they know what it's like to struggle, that they're down with the folks on Main Street, but aside from having to tough it out in a condominium or classic townhouse right out of college—you know, in the bad part of town next to the trashy New Rich—their lives have been anything but a Rand-ian Objectivist Bildungsroman. The most glaring disparity is also the one that continually surprises and depresses me about the Christian support for Romney; that while Gramsci never wavered from his lifelong mission to better the lives of poor and working class Italians, even in the face of imprisonment and death, Romney has very famously done and continues to do the exact opposite. Gramsci wasn't perfect, of course, because no one is, but the instructive point here is that Gramsci's life and death are the very antithesis of Mitt Romney, a man whose campaign represents the very height of political cynicism.

Liberals will often call Romney a liar for his flip-flopping on everything from his policies to what he had for breakfast yesterday. It really isn't fair to call him a liar, though, because changing positions on an issue is a necessary strategy for all politicians. It makes sense to change your stance on something as public opinion shifts and every politician who rises to national prominence has more than likely done it. It's just that Romney does it so often and so shamelessly, you can't really put him side by side with other political opportunists.

Visiting the “Political Positions of Mitt Romney” Wikipedia page is like reading a doctoral dissertation on the “Edit” function. Seriously, the first paragraph of his Agriculture position reads thus:

“In his 1994 Senate campaign, Romney called for the "virtual elimination" of the federal Department of Agriculture and for reductions in farm subsidies. In 2007, when questioned about these views, a Romney for President Iowa campaign spokesman responded: "Governor Romney believes that investing in agriculture is key to our economy and families."

Get rid of the dates and specific issue and you more or less have the blueprint for Romney's political strategy. (1) Say one thing when it is politically beneficial to you. (2) Say something else when it's politically beneficial to you. (3) Rinse and Repeat.

EDIT: I thought I'd add this delightful tidbit, courtesy of Gawker: Rudy Giuliani has made his post-mayoral and post-failed-presidential-nominee career as the Republican Party's blustering mouthpiece lately. In 2008, he was an opponent of Romney for the Republican nomination and said this about the Governor: “This is a man without a core,” he said. “This is a man without substance. This is a man who will say anything to become president of the United States. I think that is a great vulnerability.

But maybe you didn't like that I used Gramsci as a comparison earlier—too Marxist for your tastes? How about this: Abraham Lincoln. It's actually pretty good; Lincoln was quite unpopular during his own Presidency and his decisions didn't often win him many fans. We remember him as the Great Emancipator, but although he was personally opposed to slavery, he felt it was a states' rights issue for the majority of his two terms as President (much like Obama on the issue of gay marriage. Just as Frederick Douglass was disappointed for Lincoln's lukewarm support of the rights of blacks, so are LGBT groups similarly disappointed with Obama's meager answering on promises. Also similarly, both of Lincoln and Obama have been attacked for their personal and private, but less than actual and tangible support for these groups). Lincoln eventually changed his stance, of course, and he paid for it (and the South's loss) with his life. Simply ask yourself, does this type of change in position, from one that was not popular to one that was even LESS popular, sound like anything Mitt Romney would do, given his history?


I've made it through the entire post so far without mentioning the infamous 47% video. You've seen it, right? Seriously? Well, go watch it, I'll wait.....


Back? So, yeah, there's that. I'm not going to go into a lengthy breakdown of it, because many people far more intelligent and better paid than I have already done so. With that said, I've argued that the video tells you less about what Romney thinks about many Americans—which we really should have already known by now—and more about how Americans view themselves. The fact is, huge swaths of the 47%, many of whom sit in UPC pews, can watch this video and be completely blithe to the fact that Romney is talking about them. He doesn't care about them, he mocks them at a $50,000 per plate dinner at the home of a billionaire who also hosts poolside orgies with Russian sex-workers (yeah, look it up), and they remain blissfully unaware.

I could really go on, but the information is out there, you really just have to look, and not even that hard. I'm tempted to rely on Gramsci's famous concept of Cultural Hegemony to explain the Evangelical Christian worship of Republican policy, even and especially when it has no actual direct benefit for their lives and basically never has, but that's too easy and a bit to high handed. And anyway, it's probably easier than that.

In as simple language as I can possibly muster, here's the deal: Mitt Romney does not stand for God, for you, your family, or your values, because he does not stand for anything other than what he needs to win the election in this moment or the next. Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and their campaign advisers have no respect and no concern for your intelligence and wherewithal as a voter and citizen. Some time ago the Romney campaign realized that American Conservatives, a great deal of whom are Christians, hate Barack Obama so much that he could literally say anything, even if it contradicted what he'd said previously and what he would say soon after, as long as it is delivered as some kind of attack on the President.

If he felt like it, Romney could stand in front of the press tomorrow and detail a tax policy that would eviscerate Americans making less than $250,000 a year and Conservatives would hail it as the sensible plan and the complete opposite of what Obama would do. That Romney can with a straight face critique the Affordable Care Act, a program which is an almost exact copy of the health care program his administration enacted during his tenure as Governor of Massachusetts, and and not even referencing the moral grounds Christians hate the Act for, sums up perfectly the kind of hypocritical blinders Christians have worn during the election cycle.

The overwhelming emotion I will have after this election, regardless of the outcome, is shame and depression, because if nothing else, this recent cycle has taught me that Christians have a powerful capacity for hate. It is telling, even incriminating for our alleged status as Christians, that we can in one breath pray for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to receive the Holy Ghost and follow Jesus and then in the next cross our arms when the pastor asks us to pray for President Obama, a fellow Christian. Need more? Why do Christians hate President Obama so much that they'd call Romney a “Man of God” when they would otherwise look down on him as a lost Mormon, as lost as a Buddhist or Muslim?

I can't do everything for you, use your imagination.

Oh shoot, let me make it a little easier, just for fun! Here's a list of some things Christians think President Obama is, even though we know he isn't and one thing that he actually is. See if you can find it!

1) He is a Communist.
2) He is a Marxist or Socialist or something else -isty and un-American.
3) He is a Kenyan, non-American (or something, I'm not sure)
4) He is giving the gays all of the rights they don't have yet.
5) He's turning America into the only non-sovereign state member of the UN, thereby turning us into the only non-nation in the United Nations.
6) He plans to legally force everyone to get abortions at least once and to make churches pay for them, solely.
7) He is a Muslim.
8) He wants to take everybody's guns away.
9) He wants to make all the drugs legal.
10) He wants to get rid of the military and paint a big sign that says "INVADE US" at every border patrol station.

Hmm....any more?

Ah, yes,
11) He is an African-American.