Baltimore in the Age of Ultron

I wonder how many of us will watch Avengers: Age of Ultron as it comes out this week. It’s probably going to break records. For many of Americans, the rising of an inhuman an evil trying to destroy the community is not only fictitious but entertaining to watch the fanciful nationalists defend us against it. Others see the Powers more clearly, like the apostle Paul offered in his letter to the Ephesians “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

In Baltimore, it shouldn’t be hard to see something dark allowing a 25yr old to get killed for running after making eye contact with law enforcement. Six cops are suspended with pay and the department admits they should have buckled him in while in custody as well as attended to his medical needs sooner, multiple times. Although I think seeing that white supremacy inherent in the system actually requires some work for many Americans. We see burning cop cars, angry black people, and the headlines filled with “riots,” “looters,” or worse. We don’t see the inhuman circumstances that lead up to the outbursts or even the “peaceful” protests after Freddie Gray’s funeral. As a society, we see the destruction of property before the destruction of human life or community.

As much as we can point out thugs overzealous fans rioting celebrating a little too hard getting reported differently reflects a majority public opinion, we know that crowds burning stuff because Joe Pa got fired for not protecting kids from his sexual predator friend is different than Baltimore. Baltimore’s unrest, riots, or uprising stands as a challenge to white supremacy. It might be easier for you to see people damaging stuff than it is to see dead people. It might be easier to make suggestions for how desperate people should act than to stay focused on what makes them desperate.

I’ve noticed more “unfriend threats” on Facebook in the past day than in the last half a decade combined. Many by white people who are trying to be clear that they will no longer tolerate sympathy for the state/property without empathy for another loss of a black human by unreasonable policing methods. I wish it didn’t shut down dialogue or cut of relationships-even virtual ones but I get it. We all have our limits.

I actually saw this picture in my FB feed yesterday. You can read most of the original post [that not only got taken down but the profile deleted] with some commentary in this article.

While I haven’t talked to or seen the poster in almost 20 years, you might think “how can you still have a connection with him?” While admittedly, the connection is thin but I hope he reads this post. I want to influence him. If he was in the Philadelphia region, I would want him to get compelled by Jesus to see a bigger world than he’s been exposed to and get in touch with a healing agent that actually forms something more powerful than even the atrocity-spawning Powers.

I think forming the Church with Jesus actually heals the brokenness of the world. I also march (why not come out on Thursday?), organize, make deep relations with different kinds of folks, live in an urban whatnot, practice peacemaking, village parent, etc etc etc. I see Jesus still out there getting pushed around and told to be calm while thousands of national guardsmen and riot cops move to restore “order.” We are still angry because it’s actually this order that perpetuates ultraviolence here and abroad and doesn’t bring justice. We still don’t know who killed Brandon Tate-Brown. The War of Terror isn’t slowing down.

My sense of the Age of Ultron is more than a film about techo supermilitary turned back on its perpetrator/creator (like so many of my favorite robot stories). In real life there are no Avengers, only those moved by the Holy Spirit to resist & restore. We have an opportunity to take a deep breath of the Holy Spirit,  looking for something real in fiction while Jesus unmasks the fictions in reality. Let’s be considerate in our conversations and see. Maybe we can compel more people to come together and create something beautiful with our Creator even while we fight against the evil of our times.

Christians Should Definitely Submit…but when and to whom?

When my brothers and I used to wrestle with various characters and backstories, my favorite was to not only be a heel but a submission specialist. Getting one of the little dudes to give up was rewarding and often hysterical. Before your mind goes to armbars or chokeouts, I’m talking more like using The Claw.

Last month Billy Graham’s son Franklin dropped a “listen up” on Facebook that motivated some of my friends to write an open letter asking Graham to smell the systemic racism coffee that is now burning. The gist of his message wasn’t new stuff. Obey cops. God put leaders above you so you need to…wait. He was quoting Hebrews 13:17 in which the writer refers to discipleship in the church not to Roman soldiers. Uh oh.

He might have better used Romans 13 or 1 Peter 2 that actually reference submission to the state. Unfortunately for many Bible quoters, these passages most often get used to increase state sympathy and engender trust for a system that happens benefits the person doing the quoting. In the past nearly 20 years as a radicalized follower of Jesus, I have never had one of these passages thrown in my face by a person of color. When I spent a month in Iraq, none of the Iraqi Christians (there were a million at the time) brought it up to me. For Paul and Peter, who were on their trajectory [in and out of jail] on the way to martyrdom clearly had a sense that Rome was not Christ’s Shalom or the Kingdom of Heaven.

For those interested in the Bibletalk, you can’t really get Romans 13 apart from 12 and 14 (why do we make chapters of a letter seem separate anyway?) and get what Paul is driving at – transformed people with a radical sense of Jesus as the one we are actually bowing to. Peter, speaking to living in a pagan society in Asia Minor, brings home the point that Jesus will shepherd us through suffering – increasing social status and political freedom is not big enough. The state, including the one that is persecuting the people to whom he writes is not so good and is not our mission to simply fix. Peter perhaps even wrote under either the rule of Domitian or Pliny the Younger who either claimed divinity or made being a Christian punishable. Peter hardly expected them to follow all the laws or obey these masters like they demanded – having a presence of The Way meant playing a different game. The caesars were also called the Son of God and Savior of the World. Peter & Paul, along with their friends regularly made the seditiously political act of appropriately appropriating terms like these to describe Jesus Christ and the entirety of His Kingdom. This is not exactly submission, obedience, or honor of the emperor in the way that Franklin Graham’s ilk of police state collaborators would seem to mean.

As angry and discouraged as I was to hear about Officer Slager killing Walter Scott this week, I received a sense of hope because the Feidin Santana‘s video surfaced. I was even more hopeful when I read that the cops had a different story cooking before they knew about the video as it sheds light on dark places. Maybe there is a similar reason why police won’t release surveillance footage of Brandon Tate Brown’s killing (or say who killed him), even though the police already found themselves to have acted appropriately. The Lawncrest neighbors just up the road disagreed. As we marched last Saturday to mark the martyrdom of MLK, we still insist that BLACK LIVES MATTER to God and to us but historically and currently not to this state. We want justice for the family of Brandon. We want a $15 minimum wage.

Submitting to police when you are unlikely to get shot for less than a good reason might seem normal. Let me reframe in another time and place. You probably wouldn’t tell Christian Iraqis to submit to the Saddam Hussein era which could mean carrying out inhuman orders or allowing family members to randomly be disappeared, abused, or killed – right? That era is usually on the “bad guys” list for Christians – and basically Christians understand that you shouldn’t listen to bad guy states like Nazi Germany, Khmer Rouge, etc – only good guy states like the US. I’m calling into question the goodness of the US – illustrated by just this moment of state violence against our Black brothers and sisters.

I’m also trying to swim into the deep end of what submission means. First Christ’s followers submit to God and one another, and then figure out what it means to submit to the state. I think we should show respect and care for those caught up in the system and stand up against the injustice it perpetrates. Submitting isn’t just giving up like in WWF wrestling. The New Testament is littered with disciples submitting all over the place and somehow changing the world.

The dress that out trended Trayvon and other things we can’t handle

Last Thursday bunches of my friends were talking/posting about the dress that broke the internet. I think that whole thing was fascinating. It was trending hard and even famous people weighed in on which color combination they saw. The same day, other friends of mine were talking about another “color issue” that wasn’t getting as much buzz in our national consciousness – the third anniversary of Trayvon’s death. The week after he NAILED IT with the Keystone XL veto, Obama was hanging out with Trayvon’s parents to commemorate the anniversary. That’s a nice gesture, but many of us are feeling the Spirit move us to more than sympathy – after all we still don’t know who killed Brandon Tate Brown on Frankford Ave!

Monday the execution of Kelly Gissendaner was postponed for a second time – the first one because of snow and this time because of an issue with the lethal injection pharmacist – supposedly. My friend shared this open letter to Georgia Christians yesterday that has some insight into her story as well as an appeal of putting a limit to the violence. Her case is really wild – and with so many under-represented people of color in the same system, I hope putting off this form of state sanctioned violence is a trend.

Today I read about Brett, the “Soldier of Christ” going back to Iraq with some other Americans vets to join the Assyrian Christian militia to fight ISIS. Not only is he Polish/Irish (yay!) but quotes Matthew 25 in needing to take care of the vulnerable in a day when the US left things worse than how they found them. I admire his courage and commitment, even though I have a different interpretation of how to live out Christ’s directive. Maybe you can feel the tension that I do – at least he’s doing something. It sometimes feels like I’m surrounded by a generation of people who hear about horror stories or know about injustice or oppression (more about it than any generation before) and the only response we can muster is to complain or do internet things.

When we are facing more injustice than we can handle, what do we do? When we are suffering does God care enough to move? At one of Circle of Hope’s meetings last Sunday night someone from my cell brought into our discussion this tension and asked if “God will never give us more than we can handle” is actually in the Bible. A friend who worked as a chaplain was quick with the clarification (1 Corinthians 10:13 – God will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, God will also provide a way out so you can endure it) as something about keeping our hearts from being set on evil rather than dealing with pain. Tye Tribbett even wrote a song about it.

I’ve heard people tell me that God gave them cancer to teach them something. I heard Ricky Gervais joke on his HBO special that God also gives AIDS to babies in Africa as part of bit about problematic Godviews. I think the advice “God will never give you more than you can handle” might be a useful self-help mantra at times but is probably more of a capitalist “buck up, cowboy” that got attached to the faith. I think that it’s nice to think there are limits to suffering and that Jesus cares about it. Rather than getting tougher, however, I wonder if we can get softer and let God in to care about us. Can we be tender enough to allow Christ’s compassion to move us to heartbreak with others? Can we be open enough to let the Holy Spirit deploy us to work for justice in some rather complex times?

Lent is a good opportunity to explore what we can’t handle. There’s a lot. I think Jesus was finding his limits in the desert, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Let’s be honest about those limits, those spaces where we feel the tension with courage and see if God doesn’t move a bunch of us to become a healing agent there.