Author Archives: Guest Posts

Losing my (civic ) religion

Gaining a heart for justice

 

 

My journey as a social and community activist and supporter of human rights and dignity is made up of great intersections and thresholds. It started with being in arts program that is about conflict resolution and healthy self-expression through art and storytelling. The passion got nurtured through the law and government magnet program in high school. I developed a heart for culture care and the integration of art, culture and faith through listening to The Kindlings Muse podcast and reading Makoto Fujimura’s writings on the role of art and creativity in our culture and our Christian faith. My involvement with Asian Pacific American Student Organization during my time in undergrad catalyzed the passion for racial justice. My friendship with a long time college friend who participated in the Occupy Wall St phenomenon introduced me to activists I can call friends, set in motion a drive to seek out Christians who are called to advocate for justice and the importance of economic justice. These experiences deepen my heart for humanity and my calling as an activist. At the same time, I made me very cautious and critical of various aspects of the U.S. political process, structures, leadership and domestic and foreign policy. Not just the U.S. but various nations. Creating empowering structures are important to me and the U.S. political process and structure has not always been trustworthy in being just.

During my summer trip to Washington DC in 2004 as a participant of the National Young Leaders Conference, I took in all that I learned about the U.S. government structure and the three branches, the political process, and elements of U.S. history. I got a taste of each branch of the government through an ongoing simulation where we pretended to be members of congress and senate. I even got a picture with my local congressman when I entered the House of Congress. As a law and government magnet honors student with a passion for ethics and justice, being a part of the conference exposed me the complexities of our government, politics and justice. Looking back at that experience seeing the nature of the process, it fueled my passion for justice and creating better communities. It also led me to see that being an attorney will not be a way for me to channel my passion for empowering people.

Learning about social systems and how they affect people often fascinate me because I am often passionate about having quality structures and cultures that empower and nurture people. Having a deep sense of justice, ethics and care is a part of me. Several people from my father’s side of the family are attorneys. My grandfather and his brother operated a well-respected and ethical law firm in my dad’s hometown in the Philippines. One of my cousins is now in law school, studying to be an attorney. When I enrolled in the law and government magnet program in high school, I thought I want to learn about law and being an attorney because I want to help people and make a difference. I studied constitutional law, civil law and criminal law. We had internships when we worked with offices in court houses, law offices and social services. The senior class competed at Model UN as a part of our international relations class. We performed mock trails inspired by literature we read or historical event we learn in history class to learn about the trail process. I had opportunity to learn about different government systems of other countries during my AP government class. Political and legal discussions are often an ongoing affair. We explored issues ranging from fair trade to affirmative action. The overall deep dive of law, government and politics I had as a student grounded me with critical thinking, civic education and an understanding of how the sociopolitical and legalities affect how people organized and vice versa. It was also through that experience and other experiences as an activist where I figured out not all aspects of government and political process served human rights and dignity.

I learned about the fact that white, male landowners were given privilege to vote when the country was founded. Having a black people being described as 3/5 of a person in the Constitution in the name of compromise along with slavery being primary way of labor was legal and embraced. The reparations of making sure freed slaves received the 48 acre land and mule never followed through. I learned during my third year of high school in U.S. history class. We had a mock trial showcasing the case for reparations for the Japanese Americans who were in internment camps. Much of Congress rushed to pass the Patriot Act, which lower the standard of probable cause and due process, granting local, state and federal law enforcement to search citizens’ private communication through wiretapping in the name of counter terrorism and national security. Through conversations among some of justice minded friends and from my biology teacher in middle school, I learned that marital rape was exempts from ordinary rape laws, meaning that a someone, the wife usually, being raped by her spouse is not considered a crime or even morally wrong until 1993.

One of the more wrenching aspects as an activist for human rights is the constant reminder that a lot of systems are often not up to par in serving the common good unless communities and various social movements pressed it and created their own solutions. Depending on the nation’s history and collective consciousness, there were solutions that worked out while there were others fell short, suppressed by the backlash and political climate. As I became connected with other activists and community members who are participating in various social movements, political battles, community organizing and human rights advocacy communities, I lamented at how deep and embedded the injustice, cruelty and power hoarding is in our systems, paradigms and hearts. I am often overwhelmed with empathy, bewilderment and ache.
I remembered the outrage and shock I felt three years ago when I received the news from my friend’s Facebook that she had been wrongfully arrested and charged for suspicion of inciting a riot along with her five other friends who were doing a protest demonstration at the Pasadena Civic Auditorium against the Mexican ex-President Vicente Fox. Fox was there as one of the speakers for the “Distinguished Speaker Series”. The Pasadena Police charged her ‘crime’ as a misdemeanor. She invited me other friends to her home for dinner after being released to explain what happened. The protest was to call out Fox for enabling and instigating state violence toward the Indigenous population and to call for international solidarity with autonomous Indigenous communities called the Zapatistas. What the protesters did was outreaching, and passing out flyers and literature to educate pass byers and attendees about the State violence toward the Indigenous communities. There was no civil disobedience involved. Yet it still end up receiving confrontation with the Pasadena Police. My friend came to the demonstration at a later time since she spent time supporting a friend of hers who was a victim of unlawful eviction earlier in the day. When she walked to the protest site, the police didn’t think she was with the protesters until they saw her walking toward her friends. It did not help that racism and racial profiling played a role in this. When she and the five others were arrested, four of them were charged with felonies while she and her other friend got charged with misdemeanors. My friend is white while most of her friends that charged with felonies are Latino. Most of them are male as well. It was chilling and scary that this happened in my backyard.

There were times that I wished that I did not know the things that I know about the banality of evil and injustice in the mist of my backyard and beyond. I questioned myself on whether I am actually impacting anything. Since I am a part of the society and its systems, am I automatically complicit of its destructive nature by virtue? Is there more that can be done? So many injustices to tackle, so many movements to connect with, so little time. Where do I start? Many thoughts like these raced to my mind more than once. Once one starts a journey to stand for the least of these, that person’s life will not be same. It will be a living tension to face the depths of injustice while remaining to be giving and open to receive love and grace. Between giving care to yourself and constantly find ways to put yourself out there to be in solidarity with the disempowered and tackling symptoms and root causes of injustice.

I can say that it is through the grace of God that my heart is still the heart of flesh. The fear, the sense of powerlessness, the hurt, the guilt and disillusionment and the feeling that everything is futile can make you want to drop off the face of the planet and shut off everything. I often remind myself that I am dealing with principalities and powers and that everyone is my neighbor. Stepping away and dropping out is not option. If I just drop out, I know that I will be enabling the banality of evil, separating myself from being a part of the possibility of a transformed world. I have no faith in the imperialist structures and ideologies that made up the American political process. However, I am called to bring Shalom in this world and it means engaging with the political realities that my communities and other communities.
It is ongoing emotional labor to stay plugged and to continue with relationship and community building. I keep my finger on the pulse to sense transitions, conversation and consciousness shifts and collective morale. Being a social and community activist since my last year of high school, I have observed a lot of conversation shifts and movements ranging from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter. From the increased interest in economic alternatives to capitalism to gentrification. I also saw shifts regarding presidential election cycles in every four years that is revealing a long overdue major wakeup call regarding the truth on how the systems actually functions to serve the principalities and powers. The overall experience is nothing short of overwhelming but dropping out is not an option when so much is at stake. Rather, I accepted the call to be a vessel of God’s goodness, love and justice, bringing forth the new heaven and earth through transforming ourselves, our relationships and our communities.


Xeres Villanueva wears many different hats between a budding entrepreneur, a comrade and a social activist for various social justice issues. She worked with InsideOut Community Arts as a mentor, an art education organization dedicated to empower middle school students. She was involved with various groups, past and present, such as Asian Pacific American Student Organization, Gay Christian Network, St. Monica Catholic Community Gay and Lesbian Outreach, Food Not Bombs and Stop the Traffik. Xeres is currently a part of network of social justice thinkers and practitioners called Asian American Pacific Islanders Christians for Social Justice and Jesus for Revolutionaries.
She also wrote an Oral Oratory speech “Living Miracle”, which won the 2005 Spirit of Hope Award. She takes delight in reading, cooking, and watching live music performances.

Batman #44 and Why White Allies Aren’t Heroes

Rick Quinn lives in Nashville, TN where he writes and is part of the core team for The Encounter@Edgehill, a multi-racial movement of authentic community in the city fostering vital conversations, compassionate community, and life-giving action. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt Divinity School where he earned his Masters in Divinity and pursued graduate studies in theology at Vanderbilt University School of Religion. Rick has served as a director of Christian Education at the local church level, in the non-profit social service realm, and has taught in adjunct and visiting professor roles at Perkins School of Theology at SMU, Trevecca Nazarene University, and Fisk University. He blogs at RickTQuinn and can be found on Twitter @apophatic1

Even before seeing it, I think I have always resonated with the self-affirmation meme “Always be yourself, unless you can be Batman. Then always be Batman.” Batman is my favorite comic book hero. He is the pulpy, ink and pencil incarnation of a dominant American mythology. Bereft of super powers, Batman is nonetheless exceptional. The exemplary solitary individual, he transfigures his trauma into rigorous discipline, an unwavering passion for justice, and honor. Guided by his code, Batman confronts a violent world with measured violence; he will not under any circumstance take a life. He relies on his keen mind, his disciplined physical prowess, and always true moral compass in the service of redeeming Gotham City from the evil that plagues its streets. Never a victim, he is the noble hero who rises phoenix like from the ashes of tragedy to restore order to a disorderly world. Beaten back at times, he is never bowed.

He is America.

He is also white.

And he is enormously wealthy.

What I am proposing is that the Batman mythology coincides neatly with aspects of a certain American mythology. Mythology is the story we tell about ourselves to situate our lives and experiences within the wider world and to provide sense and meaning. It is an interpretive act and a fictive act. In his 75 year history as a pop culture character, Batman has embodied several traits endemic to the story we tell about ourselves. He is a self-made man. His enormous wealth is used only in the service of good. While prone to injury, he is, for all practical purposes, invulnerable. He doles out fierce, brutal punishment (always deserved) but never takes a life. What might look like torture or excessive force is really necessary enhanced interrogation. He is a vigilante but a real threat only to the criminal element. His extrajudicial activities have the tacit approval of the police powers. His interventions and preemptive strikes are seen as necessary excursions around red tape in the service of justice. His wealth affords him technological powers of surveillance, an electronic incarnational symbol of towering gaze from a perch on one of Gotham’s skyscrapers. He embodies our faith in the raw power of the solitary hero (or nation state).

Of course this is a sweeping overview. In recent decades pieces of this general mythology have been d troubled within the Dark Knight’s corpus. Various stories have toyed with the question of whether the appearance of Batman is a deterrent to crime or if his unilateral interventions unintentionally create more extreme villainous responses. Scott Snyder’s recent run as writer for the Batman title has sought to present a more human, conflicted origin myth where we see a hero in process and the process is often messy and gray. Co-written with Brian Azzarello, the most recent issue, while not breaking continuity, is a stand alone story. But packed within this stand alone piece is a powerful primer on the deeply interconnected causal threads of most social situations and a warning that many situations do not need the usual intervention of outside “heroes.”

Titled “A Simple Case,” it is anything but. It begins with the Dark Knight alone, investigating a dead body in the marshes on the outskirts of Gotham. The young victim has been shot multiple times but the puzzling cause of his death is injuries sustained after a catastrophic fall from enormous heights. The unnamed narrator delivers the comforting promise that faith in this powerful hero and his self-assured sense of justice will reward: “He will catch someone for this. He will punish the one who did it, and stop it from happening again.” This is comic book mythology 101. It is the driving narrative of our most precious myths and the common theme of most hero stories. Yet, it is this promissory note that Azzarello’s and Snyder’s story will deconstruct throughout this incredible book for the purpose of encouraging more substantive and sustained action rather than promoting cynicism.

This deconstruction is performed by a narrative mirroring as Batman learns bit by bit the story behind the death of Peter Duggio, the young black male shot multiple times who mysteriously fell from the sky. He is a kid from “The Narrows,” a neighborhood in Gotham blighted by urban decay. Like Bruce Wayne’s, Peter’s actions are spurred by a family crisis and impending loss. He takes the situation into his own hands and seeks to carve a solution through ingenuity, power plays and bargains. His tragic end could be written off as another unfortunate but expected occasion in a neighborhood gone to seed. Or, mirroring the narrative character shading that too often occurs in establishment media to young, black victims of violence, Peter’s story could have been “explained” by his poor choices and associations (he does reach out to the Penguin, after all) even though he is shot unjustifiably by a reactionary police officer. Instead, Snyder and Azzarello use Peter’s story to tell the story of “The Narrows” which is a story of Gotham, its white power structure and the deep interweaving of the narratives of systemic racism, redlining, urban decay and exploitation. It is unfortunately an all too American story.

The graphic medium utilizes its intertextual power to the fullest. Artist Jock along with color artist Lee Loughridge and Letterer Deron Bennett give life to Snyder’s and Azzarello’s complex story and social criticism in a way which only the medium of comics could allow. The color scheme is mostly gray, metaphorically critiquing Batman’s pursuit of the simple answer and solitary culprit to be brought to justice. Primary colors are shaded in certain panels with powerful effect like yellow, red, or blue filtering on black and white film. The narrative dialogue boxes and illustrations are overlaid at certain points by the inclusion of pieces of news clippings from Gotham’s history. These fragments, out of context with words obscured, serve as archaeological fragments that trouble any simple narrative rendering of this story. They are echos of the Penguin’s mocking observation to Batman’s black and white approach, “You..really don’t know anything about this city, do you?”

Through these snippets we piece together a powerful counter narrative of redlining, systemic denial of access to public goods and services, civil rights movements and the fierce response from the powers that be, police brutality combined with lack of training and disconnect between the police force and the neighborhood, and the not so benign effects of the paternalistic “benevolence” of gentrification.

Piece by piece as the story of Peter Duggio is put together, Batman’s mythology is called into question. Like white Americans (myself included) who rush into the battle against racism with a burning sense of justice and, if we are honest, a paternalistic messiah fantasy, we quickly find ourselves implicated in that which we seek to fight. Along with Batman we discover that our crystal clear sense of what counts for justice and ethical behavior is wrapped in privilege. Our judgments of others is blind to the complexities of their condition and our implication in these conditions through passive acquiescence. As the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates observed in a recent television interview, much of the pathology we identify with oppressed communities is a direct result of the “boot upon their neck.” To address the pathology is impossible without removing the boot on the neck. In this comic, Batman/Bruce experiences the painfully necessary discovery of the outline of his foot within that collective boot.

Like any truly honest narrative, there is no neat resolution to the story. There is no single villain whose tracking, pummeling, and capture can serve as the ceremonial scapegoat for our complicity. In a last brilliant ironic gesture, the writers and artists place the title of the comic, “A Simple Case,” on the last panel as an ironic critique of the tendency to ignore complex social situations. Batman though, decides to stay in the midst of The Narrows, but not as the hero. “Because he got it all wrong.” He stays to listen. Even if in that listening he is implicated and his mythology is decentered. In that sense, perhaps he demonstrates that white allies are not nor should not aspire to be heroes. In embodying that very lesson perhaps he is, to paraphrase Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, not the hero white America wants, but the example that it needs.

The Black Church: Menace To Society

Kyle Canty is a married father of three. He works for Lifeway as the P2 Missions and World Changers City Representative for Philadelphia. He is also an assistant pastor at Great Commission Church located in Philadelphia. He holds a B.S. (Bible) and M.S. (Christian Counseling) Degrees from Cairn University and an MDiv (Urban Studies) from Biblical Theological Seminary (Hatfield, PA) and is currently working on an DMin degree in Urban Missiology at Biblical Theological Seminary (Hatfield, PA). As an aspiring blogger he looks forward to writing more around the intersection of Christian theology, African American History and the marginalized. His blog The Rooftop can be found at thecityrooftop.com or follow him on twitter at @kcanman. Check out his interview with Shane Blackshear here

Originally posted here

 

Jesus said to the angel of the church in Philadelphia;

…These are the words of him who is holy and true, who holds the key of David. What he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open. I know your deeds. See, I have placed before you an open door that no one can shut. I know that you have little strength, yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. (Revelation 3:7-8)

The African American church represents various things to many, but one universal irrefutable common characteristic is its strength in the face of oppression. Oppression is noticeable to those familiar with its sting. Sadly, many place oppression in the same category as global warming—a negotiable reality. An inconvenient truth is that slaves walked the streets of Philadelphia. In this city former slaves Richard Allen and Absalom Jones were disrupted from prayer but responded by establishing a unique translation of the church. (Genesis 50:20)  Their response came to be known as the Black church in America. This institution was a response to an oppressive system designed to distinguish Africans as individuals unworthy of real community. A door forced open became a flood gate for change. Dark skinned residents wanted to worship without restriction and so they formally set out to establish liberated space.  Here is Richard Allen contemplating establishing new space for Black worshipers;

I soon saw a large field open in seeking and instruction my African brethren, who had been a long forgotten people and few of them attended public worship…I raised a society in 1786 for forty two members…We all belonged to St. George’s church….We felt ourselves much cramped;…We established prayer meetings and meetings of exhortation, and the Lord blessed our endeavors, and many souls were awakened; but the elder soon forbid us holding any such meetings; but we viewed the forlorn state of our colored brethren,  and that they were destitute of a place of worship. They were considered a nuisance. [1]

The result of the efforts of Allen and Jones is the establishment of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1791 and The African Church established in 1792, later known as the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas. Prior to the establishment of Mother Bethel, Richard Allen and Absalom Jones established the Free African Society, an organization set-up to meet some of the social needs created by dominant class suppression. Oppressed people must be creative in their endeavor to meet the needs around them. Allen and Jones were able to step in and help a city going through a deadly yellow fever crisis. In this particular context planting a new church was a necessary step towards eventually destroying the much beloved American institution of slavery.

 

The elites of Philadelphia wanted a pure worship experience, free of their ‘other’, ‘less human’ neighbor.  These elites carried their Bibles alongside their accounting logs. These Philadelphian’s were prudent entrepreneurs who used others to accumulate and maintain wealth and status. These Quakers, Methodist and Congregationalist were all astute in their theological positions, but it must be said that they were also astute concerning their property; human and otherwise. Many of these religious explorers landed on shores desiring freedom from oppression, but once they achieved a desired order and stature they systematized a comfortable existence through the exploitation of others.

Allen and Jones seemed to recognize two key things; they could no longer acquiesce with the current church paradigm and serving their neighbor was both necessary and godly. The formal genesis of the African American church came out of protest and it just seems right that this would mark the practice of the contemporary African American church. This church was founded under the premise of ‘hearing and doing.’ Although many are convinced that the Christian life is best experienced following one’s favorite expositor or purchasing instructions to obtain the ‘anointed life’ or ‘coming up under’ a personality—in reality these preoccupations devalue the rich past that reach back to the example of both Allen and Jones. The fresh new fades that ‘chuch folk’ like to follow will not keep young black men and women from being tossed on the ash heap of urban life.  Allen and Jones decided against praying in their place, far away from the ‘others’. No more balconies carefully constructed to keep sensibilities intact all while deepening self community scars. These kinds of contradictions work in the world of artistic expression where colors and hues are bounced against one another but these contradictions strike a raw nerve for those enduring inequality and hypocrisy.  The St. George Methodist Episcopal Church of Allen’s day represented a kind of privilege that benefited those in the dominant class but disassociated the ‘other’.

The church needs to rediscover its past. Revisiting the early black church (much like the first Christians in the first century), we observe leaders willing to experience the discomfort of going where no one has gone before. Looking at history through the experience of Richard Allen and Absalom Jones, we observe real disciples willing to follow Christ into systems of injustice in order to establish ‘shalom’ where social and relational confusion shapes the ungodly narrative. These men were prophetic in their action—they recognized, like Elijah and Elisha, that working outside of the established system can be more Christ-like than the elites would have you to believe. Paradigm shifts can be beneficial, and oftentimes, necessary.

 

I recently had the opportunity to talk to some church planters in Philly and burbs about their efforts and why they’ve established new works in specific neighborhoods. Those who have spent any significant time in Philly will be aware that there seems to be a church on every corner. I’m sure there are some who would suggest that more churches are unnecessary. I would have to agree—we don’t need any more buildings occupied by concert goers or preacher groupies. However, there is a real need for liberated space where those in real need can come in contact with the Savior and find freedom. Its sad that there are places in this great city where the burdens of tradition are heaped onto the backs of wearied people. Folk need freedom from sin and stale expressions of religion. What if there were ministries grounded in sound Biblical teaching, authentic community and vibrant worship of the Savior?  What if there were churches not afraid to ask questions and listen in order to meet real tangible needs knowing that we must not only share good news but be good news.? Imagine a city that produced women and men who recognized the culture and demographics of neighborhoods and held a strong commitment to Christ and understood that a marked up Bible does not necessarily equal real discipleship or Christ like living but “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” (James 1:27)

We need leaders who understand what systemic injustice looks like in all its forms and are not afraid to claim that Jesus speaks to real social issues that black people face as a perpetually marginalized people. The boldness to found the Free African Society proved instrumental in the effort to establish shalom for a broken people. Allen and Jones were the fathers of a prophetic Church which was seen as a menacing religious presence in a White Supremacist society. It is remarkable that these two men and those who followed their leadership did not give up on the church that persecuted them. They were able to establish the true church as a means for liberation and sanctification rather than one of oppression and comfort.

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  1. Mays, B. E., & Nicholson, W. J. (2003). Origins of the Church. In C. West, & J. E. Glaude, African American Religious Thought; An Anthology (pp. 14-28). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. p.15