on the move

For a few years, a group of friends and acquaintances have been playing theological volleyball it seems, arguing the same points about the Cross, biblical interpretation, open theism, and the attributes of God. We’ve shared meals together, Skype chats, Google Hangouts, email exchanges, long, drawn out Facebook “conversations,” but I just feel like I needed return to writing and reading about theology again. I guess this is the best way since I hadn’t blogged in forever, but here goes, really briefly.

Team Zeus, the group of theologians who wish to prioritize Greek metaphysics over special revelation such as the Prophets argues that our understanding of divind abandonment is wrong. Jesus is not saying that God has forsaken the Christ on the Cross, it’s just a cry of pain and despair. Furthermore, our interlocutors continue to suggest that God is both immaterial and equally omnipresent at ever place in the world. Divine abandonment they have even suggest in their poems and continuous conversations online is also a not very pastoral approach to theology. We wouldn’t want a depressed person to learn that God has left them to deal with their emotional bouts, do we? That’s not nice, it’s not politically correct, I mean pastoral.

What to make of all of this? Is divine abandonment an offensive theology that doesn’t give people hope? In the words of Rosa Parks, I say, Nah homey. Not in the least. I refuse to be moved by my former and current position I once held defending God’s freedom to move. My pushback against the priority of Greek metaphysics in the reading of Scripture isn’t some personal vendetta against a few Church Fathers after Clement of Alexandria; it’s about, as I have maintained about the freedom of YHWH as God has revealed to us. Team Zeus does not like the idea of God moving from place to place, and they also don’t like the idea that God has a glorious presence that was with the Hebrew prophets and priests in the tabernacle and who enlivened the very anatomy of the Messiah (John 1). For Team Zeus, every tribe and nation gets a participation trophy and a piece of God’s presence. And in some sense, it is true, to co-opt Clement of Alexandria, God is like a river and pours out many streams. Rivers, however, must have a particular spring or bank with which they start to feed into these streams. For Christians, we must not look the Greek mythology or categories, but to the prophets. It is there that the prophets pray to God not to abandon them, for example such as in Nehemiah (chapter 1, verse 9); Is Nehemiah ignorant of the one true God? Is he being disingenuous? In either case, if we go with Team Zeus, we have no reason to trust Nehemiah’s testimony, do we? God chose out of mercy not to abandon the Israelites, but God was fully capable of doing so. But then in chapter 9, verse 28, Nehemiah describe the events of the exile as divine abandonment. What do we make of this?

One can even see in the words of Ezekiel that God took up God’s Shekinah presence, the Holy of Holies in the Temple, and left Jerusalem. King Saul was once filled with the Holy Spirit, and was a man who desired justice (1st Samuel 11) just as the God who chose him did, but what happened? Saul was disobedient and God’s Spirit left him (“Now the Spirit of the LORD had departed from Saul.” 1st Samuel 16:14). In each case, we see God is on the move. If a person doesn’t want to play by God’s rules, fine. God wipes off the dust off of God’s feet and leaves. Only in the context of divine mobility we see taught by the Hebrew prophets can we understand the fullness of Jesus’ cry of divine abandonment. Elvis has left the building; The Shekinah Glory has left the Temple (Jesus’ body) at the Cross. The Divine-Person, the Second Person in the Trinity now has the fullest experience of being human, that is experiencing the curse of Death. That is before breaking it, and remaining victorious over the Powers.

Lastly, I want to address the “pastoral” issue of divine abandonment. Now, one member of TZ suggests that we cannot tell a depressed person that God abandons people, for this would be offensive and not very hopeful. First of all, this is a TERRIBLE, condescending view of people who are suffering from depression. No one one whose read Scripture correctly would suggest God abandons people because of their emotions. No, in each and every case, God leave because of people’s moral choices. God’s being is not determined by how we feel. Such an emotional argument based on experience is very manipulative, and might I add, down right suspicious. The god of the Greek metaphysicians is a snowflake who couldn’t stand up to the passionate God of the prophets. The God we learn of in Scripture is incredibly free and mobile. The defense of divine mobility is a pastoral theology because God is free to move up and down, from heaven to earth, and back again; to the lowest rungs on the social ladder to the highest. God is free to be with humanity when we experience the most misery with victims and God is free to be with those who experience the joy of liberation and holiness. All of this is because of the freedom God chose on Golgotha.

Would Jesus punch a Nazi?

When I was in high school, my mom gave me a black and white “What Would Jesus Do?” bracelet that I would wear to class everyday. She wanted me to be reminded whenever I came across an ethical dilemma (important, especially being that the campus’ population was predominantly white , and in particular, being the only African American in honors courses wasn’t the best of times, let me tell you), all I would have to do is look at my wrist and ask myself, “What would Jesus Do?” The question of “What Would Jesus Do?” would once more make itself relevant years later when I was in seminary. In our Christian ethics classes, we would explore questions of faith, weekly case studies, and various approaches to Christian ethics. As a learning community, we made our way through Thomas Aquinas, situational ethics, virtue theory, and deontology (the study of duty). What would Jesus do in a post-truth world where the Alt-Right is seeking world domination? And more importantly, what would the LORD of all creation have us to do while living in the midst of a fascist regime? The question of WWJD is not only a question of ethics but also one of theological speculation. I side with liberationist theologians: God is as God does. God is a God of freedom and justice, and leads the way for the poor to experience redemption for the sake of all peoples. A god who would do nothing to resist tyranny can be seen either as apathetic or as complicit in suffering of victims.

The question of punching Nazis is the case study of 2017. It all started during Orange Julius’ installation that a reporter from CNN gave white supremacist Richard Spencer a platform on national television to spread his hateful views; subsequently, someone from the black bloc group of resisters punched Mr. Spencer from behind. The internet was filled with think pieces after this event, everything from rejoice to remorse. So, the question I say that Christians seeking out spaces of resistance must ask today is, “Would Jesus Punch a Nazi?”

Eclectically liberal continental philosopher Slavoj Zizek answered the question in a definite, “No!”

Quartz: So, is it OK to punch a Nazi?
Žižek: No! If there is violence needed, I’m more for Gandhian, passive violence.

That was his answer from a Quartz interview on January 27th, 2017. Zizek goes on to continue to praise Gandhi’s “passive violence” as something in the abstract and to be emulated in all contexts. What Zizek neglects to do in his appropriation of Gandhi’s approach to nonviolence is that Gandhi did not believe that peace was for everyone, particularly the dark skinned Black peoples of subsaharan Africa whom he considered to be savages. And speaking as a survivor, one should definitely not overlook his views on rape victims and probable CSA.

When we talk about violence, and by extension anger, it is very important that we speak of these concepts not in the abstract and universal, but in the particular and contextual. Whenever one discusses violence as if it is without context, there is an accentuation of that violence. Whether it is philosophers like Zizek or theologians like say, a Stanley Hauerwas for instance, the central problems that human beings face are ones of violence, war, and fragmentation. The very fact that there are divisions and people choose to live within these divisions are depicted as acts of violence. If non-unity is something of a determining factor of human existence, that means that war and bloodshed has the final say over human life. This is why Zizek, who has been caught red-handed plagiarizing White Supremacist propaganda, can argue with a straight face that critical race theorists are “reverse racist” because they rely on racial violence as part of their narrative. Zizek’s argument, as Amaryah Shaye contends, enables white progressives to outright dismiss the perspectives, thoughts, and words from marginalized populations. Zizek’s proposals are part of pushback against what is oftentimes called “identity politics,” the praxis of oppressed people groups to reclaim their stories and very lives from their oppressors. Part of this reclamation project may indeed involve some anger, anger at the state of subjugation faced by Blacks, women, People of color and sexual minorities; outrage at the negative stereotypes and tropes that are repeatedly used to justify oppression; last but not least, the fury at the institutions and systems that hold us in bondage.

When one asks, “What would Jesus do?” “Would Jesus punch a Nazi?,” one is ultimately asking a question of identity. “Who is Jesus?” “Who am I?” Christians profess Jesus as King of Kings, and LORD of LORDS, and as such, Our Liberator is free to choose his own action and way. Therefore, I could not answer this question with any amount of certainty. I think the idea that we can place Jesus in any situation today, and then claim to know what he would do is the height of arrogance. The picture I shared above (Jesus walking with a Nazi and carrying his gun) is a case in point. Not only is Jesus’ commandment for his followers to go the second mile with a soldier taken out of context, it’s an embarrassing anachronism that reeks of fundamentalist emotionalism. Emergent Christians with bad histories of defending abusive members of clergy comparing modern-day Nazis to the woman at the well (a woman marginalized for her sexual history) are actually the ones who should be considered “the worst.” Steve Bannon and Richard Spencer choose to embrace an ideology of genocide and white racial supremacy. The history of White Supremacy cannot be solved by foolish comparisons and false analogies. It must be confronted with the truth.

My friend Pierre wrote an excellent piece for the Christian Century a month ago, Alternative Facts in Bonhoeffer’s Germany. In our post-truth world, as with the Third Reich it’s “not just little white lies but are constructed with the aim of shaping public opinion. It first requires an antithesis to a particular idea or person(s)” as Keys pointed out. The metanarrative of Aryan Supremacy ruled over logic and humility in post-World War I Germany. The Emergent Church in the 21st century U.S. American context, although having separated itself from White evangelicalism, still to this day centers itself on the narrative of a more liberal, passively violent White supremacy. The teachings of a blatant xenophobe and racist like Zizek or a non-violent theologian with a history of sexual assault, say John Howard Yoder, are viewed as more important and objective than the work of People of Color. It’s the little white lie that White Men’s work is more valueable and trustworthy than those from women and people from the margins that sustains white supremacy. It’s the little white lie that sexual violence, anti-Black violent rhetoric, Islamophobia, and domestic violence should be dismissed as little more than just “passive” or “symbolic” violence rather than the real violence of Ghandi’s child sexual abuse or so-called pacifists tepidly defending rape culture.

For these morally confused times with life under immoral leaders with their immoral budgets and wall building, Christians ought to opt to join with those people who are suffering, to live with those being crucified today, because that is where the Spirit of God is present. Living today under Orange Mussolini also means a more honest assessment of biblical literature. My friend Jason has already point out the reasons why Jesus would instruct his followers to go the Second Mile, the fact that Jesus lived in a more shame-based culture with the goal of shaming Roman soldiers and their commanders. The Messiah is able to inspire liberation by instructing the Church of the Poor on how to creatively resist without embracing the logic of their oppressors.

Reading Scripture in context is the best way forward for Christ followers. Conservative, mainline, and emergent Christians have a duty to preach and teach Scripture responsibly. There is desperation on the part of those persons who seek to solely make this ancient text relevant for today. It is a selfish approach, and centers us rather than Christ the Shepherd and his Sheep, the poor and marginalized. The Bible does mention people who shared the ideology of genocide, persons like the corrupt aristocrat of biblical lore, Haman the Agagite. He plotted the destruction of the Jews who were already living in exile in Persia. He is mentioned in the story of Esther, which, I have observed, is about the complete reversal of fortune through divine intervention and the power of prayer (both praying and acting on behalf of the oppressed). Esther heard the cries of the people on the margins, prayed with them, and worked with them to foil the plans Haman had for their extermination.

So the question remains, “Would Jesus punch a Nazi?” It’s a mystery, it really is. It’s beyond our comprehension because God’s ways are not our ways. I could only point to Jesus’ actions and words that are attested to in the Gospels.(1) The purpose of Jesus’ mission was summed up in John 10:10 (KJV): “I am come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.” If Jesus came to earth so that we may have life abundant, then Nazism, the group of people and set of ideals which seeks to destroy and steal life is the complete anti-thesis of Christ and his mission. Nazis are “free” to express their opinions, but they are not free to their own facts, and we as resisters have been given the freedom to resist their hatred; also, Nazis are not entitled to building their platforms or enriching themselves for spreading white supremacist propaganda. The Spirit of Jesus, however, calls for us to creatively resist oppressors and to leave no room(2) for the devil (Ephesians 4:27).

 

(1) Just for fun, I took a poll on twitter with the question, “Would Jesus punch a Nazi?”: see the final tally: here.

(2) Editor’s note: I assume some readers will be lead (and mistaken) to believe that the author’s position is to unfriend and block friends and family members who are supporters of Orange Mussolini. This could not be further from the truth.  I am just going to speak from my personal experience. Just as being a responsible Christian reader of Scripture calls for great care and nuance in understanding historical context, being a responsible person and friend calls for understanding the complexities of political choices. It would be rather unwise to label every Hillary supporter a “neoliberal” or “warhawk” because of a few choices of their own candidate ;just like it would be unwise to call every Bernie supporter a xenophobic brocialist because of the voting record of their candidate.  Political allegiances fluctuate and they can change, political parties come and go.  Political candidacies aren’t worth losing friends, and I speak from experience, having had folks from both sides of the spectrum turn on me because of my views.  But that is my choice, others can feel free to choose differently. If you’re friends with a Nazi or want to by a book by a Nazi, I say this: drop them like yesterday’s news, and don’t buy.

(Photo Description: the scene is a dusky road in ancient Palestine, a white Nordic looking male which is the author’s vision of Jesus is clothed in a white robe and carrying a rifle. The man is turned to his left, gesturing his hands in conversation with a German soldier from the Third Reich, whose uniform is black  with a red  band with a swatzika on it. Image was shared on facebook , but the artist is Michael Belk whose work is found here )

Get Out (2017) vs. Neoliberalism

 

Get Out: A Satirical Critique of Neo-liberalism

This weekend two seemingly unrelated events happened to me within the span of 24 hours.
First, on Friday night I went to the 10:50 pm CST showing of the movie Get Out. For those who do not know the premise of the movie is about a young interracial couple (black male and
white female) who go to visit the woman’s parents. When the boyfriend gets to the parent’s
house he notices something is different about the black people that work for the woman’s
parents. The next event occurred a little more than fifteen hours after seeing the movie, I
spoke on a panel for the American Academy of Religion Southwest regional conference. The
panel was entitled “Black Religious Lives Matter: An Exploration of Black Religiosity in the
Midst of Trauma.” The aim of the panel was to use different methods to explore the
meaning of black religion after tragedies such as Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Jordan Davis,
and Terrence Crutcher. Ironically, in my opinion the most interesting aspect of the
presentation came from one of the panelist who was unable to attend because of illness. I
read the panelist’s outline on what he planned to present on, namely, a pastoral care
perspective on the way that young black males have been demarcated through public
media perceptions with particular respect to cases such as Michael Brown. After the
presentation, a topic that came up for discussion involved what to make of the
simultaneous portrayal of Baylor football players for their athletic feats while also handling
the demonizing of many of the same players because of the rape scandal. Reflecting on this
discussion alongside of the movie Get Out I have concluded that a common theme for both
is the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies.

While I am almost certain that Jordan Peele did not intend for his film to be a critique of the
capitalist superstructure (maybe he did who knows?), it certainly can be viewed in that way. Contrary to the rather weak criticism by “leading left” magazine Jacobin offered that Get Out can be dismissed as black nationalism and not able to awaken people politically, I do believe there are possibilities within the film itself.

According to Marxism 101, society is composed of both a base and a superstructure. The
base is composed of the modes/ means of production and relations of production. Means of
productions include the land, labor, and resources necessary to create a product. While the
relations of productions describes the different classes that are created by access to the
means of production. The simplest division is between the capitalist class (bourgeoisie)
and the working class (proletariat). The most important thing to know about this is that
Marx says it helps to shape and maintain the superstructure, or all of our ideologies.
Ideologies include our views on politics, religion, race, culture, media, education, etc. In
essence all of society is viewed from the logic of capitalism. Marx uses commodification to
describe this term. Commodification allows for knowledge, friendship, nature, and even
people to be viewed based on their monetary value. A contemporary examination of this
phenomenon is the basis for neo-liberalism. Get Out examines, in some not so subtle ways,
the logic of capitalism in relation to black bodies.

The film begins with Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) packing to go with his girlfriend Rose (Allison
Williams) to her parent’s house upstate. It is significant that her parents live in an affluent
upper-class neighborhood. They als enjoy very successful careers in the medical field. In
other words, they are from the capitalist class. As such, they control the means of
production or commodities necessary for the capitalist system. In the film the commodity
that Rose’s parents hope to control are the black bodies that come into the neighborhood.
Chris notices early that the family seems to overly accommodate for him. At first he
believes this is because Rose’s parent do not want to seem racist or disapproving of their
daughter’s interracial relationship. Eventually Chris comes to the realization that it is
because of something far more sinister. Rose’s parents only value him because of the
physical usefulness of his body. He is only viewed as a product that can be used as a part of
their grotesque experiments. During one scene, one of the more subtle instances of humor
in the film, Rose begins to look for her next target on the internet. As Chris tries to escape
the house of horrors, Rose is seen searching for black male athletes on the search engine
Bing. This is a very clear example of the search for a black body that she views as a valued
commodity. Although Get Out should be seen as a satire, that does not mean it does not
possess universal truths. In this case, it hints at the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies through popular culture/ media images.

However, as the presentation of one my fellow panelist alluded to, athletics are probably
the most glaring example of how popular media images commodify black athletes. To be
sure to adequately cover this topic involves a great deal of complexity. However, for the
purposes of this piece I will only sketch out the neoliberal commodification of black
athletes in relation to the Baylor rape scandal. I will also preface this by stating although
this analysis does not directly speak to the victims of the rape scandal it does acknowledge
the seriousness of the irreparable harm that has been caused to both the victims and their
families. To the point of this piece, the media depiction of these black athletes is consistent
with the neo-liberal commodification of black athletes. It has become a part of popular
culture to classify skilled black male athletes as a beast. In many instances they are
encouraged to act like a beast on the field. Some would argue that the current use to the
term beast is a throwback reference to when black males were described as buck. Both
terms connote the animalistic physical dominance of black bodies. However, beast is more
of a reference to the potential production value of the athlete. The more the athlete
produces on the field the more monetary value they have for the University. Thus, these
athletes are consistently pushed to produce great athletic feats on the field because it will
directly impact the amount of capital generated by the school from sports.

In this neoliberal capitalist system athletes are only valued only in so far as the product
that they create (wins, conference titles, individual accolades), which has a direct impact on
their portrayal in the media. They are viewed as heroes for their great accomplishments
and the revenue that they help to generate. At the same time, much like in the past, they are
viewed through the lens of their sexual and aggressive nature. According to previous
generations, the black male as a buck was a wild untamable animal that lived for sexual
prowess and domination. Society needed to be protected from him, and in particular the
white female needed protection. It is not a lost fact that the vast majority of cases in the
rape scandal involve black men and white women. It is also not lost that Baylor University
repeatedly prioritized the product created from the labor of many black bodies over the
health and safety of the victims. Capitalist interest or the superstructure took precedent
over everything else. The point here is this, the portrayal of of the black male athlete as a
beast in many of its connotations is a result of the neo-liberal commodification of black
bodies.

So what is the impact of the commodification of black bodies? Well from watching Get Out
the answer is pretty obvious. In the film , the bodies of black people are literally taken over
by white people. Their consciousness is sent to the “sunken place,” where they are able to
see what happens to them but are paralyzed from controlling their own bodies. What
happens, in more realistic depictions of commodification. Well, in the case of Baylor
football players they are viewed as either superhuman or subhuman. When the athletes
achieve great feats on the field they are recognized for their superhuman abilities.
However, when they damage the product of Baylor sports or the potential revenue
generated from sports they are viewed as subhuman. Both depictions of the beast as either
a positive reflection or as a negative reflection of the university’s culture are equally as
dehumanizing to the athletes. In short, the neo-liberal commodification of black bodies
denies these individuals of their humanity because they are only valued as products. This a
point that brings this analysis full circle. When black bodies are denied their humanity it
becomes easier to trivialize black lives. It is this devaluation/ trivialization of black life that
created the images we now know as Terrence Crutcher, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis and
many many more. It is also the reason why it is important to critically evaluate films like
Get Out and panels dedicated examining the scope of black humanity.

Watch this space for Rod’s take on Get Out (2017) and religion and its refreshing take on Black culture.

Recommended reviews on Get Out (2017)

Get Out More Than Just Apparent: Assessing Jordan Peele’s On White Liberalism and the Gender Paradigm by Dr. T. Hasan Johnson

Get the F*ck Outta Here & Get the F*ck Outta Here: The Sequel by Son of Baldwin

Also see the whole treasure trove of reviews and commentary over at Very Smart Brothas: VSB on Get Out.

(photo description: the picture is a screen shot from the movie trailer for Get Out (2017). There is a black man (the character Rod Williams) wearing glasses and sitting on a brown leather couch, on his cell phone talking to the protagonist, who is also black and male, Chris.)