As a child I kept a love/hate relationship with my barbershop. On the one hand, like any mischievous little boy worth the scars on his knees, I despised the idea of getting a haircut: all a haircut did was pull me away from playing baseball and filling my pockets with dirt. Plus it took a really long time – let me emphasize this – a really long time for one person to get a haircut. The phrase, “I got three heads in front of you,” basically means, “Come back tomorrow.” For women in salons, a short delay can easily turn into a sleepover.
On the other hand, I never receive more compliments or feel better about myself than immediately after a haircut. The teenage me felt empowered by a fresh lining, and – I’ve done the math on this – life becomes 35% better after a haircut. Not just your life – ALL life becomes better.
Almost like church, right? (riiiight) Nowadays the barbershop is the hood’s sanctuary.
More than a Haircut
What we all know about barbershops and salons is almost universally true: it’s not about the haircut. Those take forever, are priced arbitrarily, and there’s no figuring out the person who handles your hair. No way.
But we don’t go to Supercuts instead, because efficiency doesn’t matter that much. (And because, Supercuts). Instead we go to, and sometimes endure, barbers shops and salons because of the experience. There is something about the ability to speak freely in a company of our peers that really makes a difference.
Really, it’s the difference between McDonald’s (Supercuts) and Soul Food Sundays at your grandmother’s house. I’ve been searching for years the right words to capture this experience – the barbershop – as have many books, dissertations, and movies, with varying success. What we know for sure is that it’s more than a haircut.
For sure, it’s the open conversation. The barbershop is where you can truly speak your mind. Whether in Eddie Murphy’s Coming to America and their argument over the greatest boxer of all time – Sugar Ray Robinson or Cassius Clay (“his momma called him Clay, I call him Clay”); or in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, where the shop declares, “Ain’t no law for no colored man except the one sends him to the chair”; barbershops have a way of invoking truth telling and raw emotion that is rarely seen outside of the barbershop. A writer I love says it best:
There is no place like a Negro Barbershop for hearing what Negroes really think. There is more unselfconscious affirmation to be found here on a Saturday than you can find in a Negro College in a month or so it seems to me.
-Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (1953)
We need more barbershops, and national media gets this. There are certain conversations we follow on CNN and ESPN—conversations like whether Lebron is greater than MJ—if they seem familiar it’s because these are barbershop debates. Even the panel-style format that pervades talk television today—The Talk, The Chew, and Bill Maher—these are nothing more than barbershop conversations with higher production value. Extreme opinions in the same room? A charismatic ringleader? The View has existed for years in beauty salons; in the early 20th Century they were called “hush harbors.” Safe space. Vibrant, neighborhood space.
Our barbers and stylists are conversation hosts, and they create a space where we can simply BE. We don’t all have to agree, and we usually don’t, but the opportunity to speak and be heard is what I value more than anything else. Protected space.
In a generation before us, the shop was even a political space, where injustices were aired and stories were shared. It’s hard for us to understand this, but for our parents the barbershop was a place to be human in a world that treated them far less: a humanizing space.
And stories are shared; plenty of stories are made up too, but there too was a purpose in this. Mythical space.
And it is still today a place to form our values and affirm ourselves in the way that most sociologists agree is best: with others. We form ourselves in community. We judge ourselves in the presence of others who are like us. The barbershop is, for better or worse, a cauldron of Black identity. Survival space.
And you thought you were getting a haircut…
Better Churches, or More Barbershops?
There’s a narrative of decline in the Black church (all churches really), that churches are dying and aren’t relevant, and being a believer in public is like wearing a scarlet letter. If you’re asking these questions, pay attention to all of this the next time you are waiting in a barbershop or salon—the way you must go this often, and how your appointment has become a ritual of necessity. Everything I’ve said about your local ’shop we should also say about church.
The way one physical space is many different things at the same time for many different people.
The way conversation is open and debate is valued.
The way life outside this space matters, and we’ll help you make sense of it here.
The way people feel like they have to come, because they can’t get this experience anywhere else.
The way my barber even takes Mondays as his day off…Sabbath (preachers should taken note).
I like this. These thoughts excite me. How about…
The way the barbershop/salon is decidedly not a consumer product. It is a respite from the market, where local artisans (OK, bootleggers) but also chefs and designers and artists can find a community of support. Shouldn’t churches be known like this?
I think there’s a lot for us to learn from our barbers, and also, a few lessons we’ve already borrowed that we need to unlearn. Like how some church services take forever to finish. Or how women and kids aren’t always welcome, and vice versa for beauty salons. Or, and perhaps most critically, how we lose our boldness once we leave that space: our words are muted and we begin to play along in the systems of the wider world. Why do we change once we leave? The question is valid of barbershops and churches.
During my last haircut, we somehow had a conversation about religion and boxing and violence and relationships and politics all at the same time. And those who listened soon got involved. I laughed, and one time I cringed, but I thought about it all later. I spent a little money—for support—and I was in community, and the entire experience was a gift. Most of all, I knew I was coming back. On the way home I thought…
“I wish churches were more like barbershops.”
Maybe we’re not so far off. I hope not—for our sake, and for the sake of the many people who have never known God’s love and couldn’t care less about church, but never miss a haircut.
Wanna learn how to start a fire in religious circles? Pay attention to Jefferson Bethke, the spoken-word rapper/poet responsible for the viral video “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus.” When it comes to starting fires, Bethke is an Eagle Scout.
(Click THIS link to read his lyrics and watch the video.)
In “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus,” which at current count has registered some 17 million views, Bethke opines over the lack of authenticity in religious leadership, calls into account the dangerous compound of faith and politics, and berates the self-righteous. (Amen!)
However, in making a few good points, Bethke may have thrown the baby out with the bath water.
If you’ve ever played the Blame Game before (who hasn’t?), then you know how this works. Something goes wrong, someone gets blamed. This literally takes on “biblical” proportions when you think about the scapegoat and its origins. As long as humankind has existed together in community, it’s been someone else’s fault. Why do we always need something to execute?
Wars have indeed been fought in the name of God. Priests, vicars, monks, nuns, and pastors havelied, cheated, stolen from and exploited the innocent. Politics and religion do make strange bedfellows, and the Religious Right does have a “special” (almost impressive) way of loving Jesus while ignoring the ethics of the gospel.
Bethke is right. There are huge churches that condemn single mothers and fail to feed the poor — a huge mess. But “spraying perfume on a casket”? One day he’s gonna want those words back.
Besides the conflation of terms (“RELIGION” is not a monolith); or the tautology of using the Scriptures (a religious text) to argue against religion; or quoting scripture in irresponsible ways (God does NOT call all religious people “whores” in Jeremiah 3), there’s the grandiose, re-tweetable statements like “Religion is man searching for God/Christianity is God searching for man.” Whether Bethke knows it or not, his statement was likely influenced by Rabbi Abraham Heschel, a very religious man whose classic books God in Search of Man and Man Is Not Alone build an argument for the philosophy of Judaism and the practice of religion. Bethke’s statement almost sounds like Rabbi Heschel; instead, it comes off as pretentious nonsense.
There’s no need to maliciously pick everything apart; it is quite clear that Bethke has good intent. He wants people of faith to have more integrity; for their ethics to match up with their jibber-jabber; for our theology and praxis to align. Is this not also what God wants?
BREAKING IT DOWN: A screen shot from Jefferson Bethke's video, which is edging toward 18 million views.
Bethke’s honorable goal of encouraging authentic faith has been the aim of religious practice since we started ritualizing our history by burying the dead (which is arguably the beginning of “religion”). *Vast Generalization Alert* One arc of the Hebrew Bible rails against folks who have become too loyal to law and ritual to connect with YHWH. This is what Jesus comes to do: reorient humanity to the Law, not abolish religion. After all, did he not then come back and use Peter to start a CHURCH!?!
And here is the whole point. Jesus came back and created community. He didn’t start a new religion; he simply said, “Here’s a better Way to live. Now go out and create communities of people who can live better together. Create disciples of this Way.”
Religion is ALL ABOUT COMMUNITY. If you’ve ever stood in a circle and shared prayer requests together, you know this. If you’ve ever been to a funeral, you know this. If you’ve ever sat around and shared old stories with your family, or if you’ve ever felt the warmth and comfort of being around other people … These are religious impulses, and they are so ingrained in our daily experience that we cannot avoid them.
It’s a messy world, and religion finds a way to still create community. Better than any other institution or worldview. And I believe that nothing has more potential for fostering genuine, loving, ethical, Beloved Community than religion. That’s why I am a pastor.
Jefferson Bethke’s poem seems focused on the problems; our vision should be consumed by the potential. He sees the dirty water and calls for a cleansing; we should see the baby in the tub. For all the woes of this world, and the many ways our faith has caused them, there yet remains hope in the gathering of a few who believe in something greater than humanity. For all we’ve done, for all we’ve ignored, for all we’ve hurt — God still calls us together. God still loves us.
Jefferson Bethke apparently does hate religion: his video inspires no community and breathes no hope. But I’m not sure that’s loving Jesus.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY: Denver Broncos starting quarterback Tim Tebow offers up a prayer to God before a recent game versus the San Diego Chargers. His gesture of Christian devotion has become known as "Tebowing." (Photo: Michael Zito/Newscom)
In 2009, the Word of the Year was tweet; In 2010, it was app (both are better than 1999’s winner — you guessed it — Y2K). Words like “gleek” and “drone” will no doubt occupy (my personal favorite) the 2011 shortlist, but the wordologists better make room for a late surge by two serious candidates: Tebowing and Tebowmania.
Call it a fourth-quarter comeback.
The question about Denver Broncos star Tim Tebow is not (for once) whether he is a good QB. He wins games, and that’s good enough for me. He wins ugly, but with six fourth-quarter comeback wins in 2011 alone, Tim Tebow has become a phenomenon. His jersey sales are through the roof; ESPN spends at least four hours of daily programming dedicated to his name; and, for better or worse, Tim Tebow is the most polarizing name in sports (I just heard LeBron James sigh in relief).
Let’s be honest: Most of the love/hate relationship that fans and critics express regarding Tebow has nothing to do with sports. This is about a man’s faith — which for some is inspiring, and for others sickening. This is about a man who does more than wear Jesus on his sleeve; he draws Scripture verses under his eyes. Some people say it’s too much.
There’s nothing odd about Tim Tebow’s public displays of faith (PDF). He is “on fire” in just about every way that evangelicals use the term: unapologetic, loud, and inspiring. He begins most every statement in true Grammy-fashion: “First of all, I want to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ …” We knew who Tebow was back in high school — he is devout and virginal and has superior character to match his athleticism.
If you are a Christian, there’s a lot to LOVE about Tim Tebow. I know pastors who applaud Tebow for his abandon of spiritual censorship: he loves Jesus and he doesn’t care what you think (shouldn’t we all be so faithful?). Lately though, I’ve been wondering if his abandon is reckless abandon, and if his public displays of faith are doing more harm than good.
It began after one of his signature fourth-quarter wins where — while still on the field — a reporter approached him, breathless and in amazement, asking a very simple question, “How are you able to continue doing this?” Tebow replied with stone eyes, “My God is Big.” Whoa. He made that exact phrase a few more times, mixing in some thoughts about defense, finally closing with, “I serve a big God.” (Cringe.) Then last week, one teammate of his reported that Tebow said God speaks to him during the games. That’s when I decided that I would side with the critics — Would you just shut up already?!? — and for altogether different reasons.
My basic concern about PDF is that it is an ironic conquest. Openly giving God the credit for “miracles” seems to be exactly the opposite of what Jesus himself wished. There’s Mark 7:36 (and 8:30), and Luke 5:14 — “go and tell no one what has happened.” But then there’s Mark 5:14 — “go home and tell your friends” — so the “Messianic Secret” is far from answered, even in the Gospels. It seems to me, though, that the overwhelming portrait is of a quiet and humble Jesus who doesn’t want to be thanked at award shows or after athletic contests. Not because God isn’t worth recognizing, but something more dangerous happens when we too readily open our mouths in the Winner’s Circle. God becomes a “God for Winners.”
The most famous story of this is with Michael Chang, a tennis prodigy who at 17 was the youngest player to ever win the French Open. At the press conference, when asked how he was able to defeat Stefan Edberg, Chang replied, “I won because of the Lord Jesus Christ.” Well, he’s giving God glory, right? No, (according to John Feinstein, who reported deeply on this in 1989) Chang believed that his victory was the result of his having a closer personal relationship with Jesus than Edberg did. He honestly believed that.
Tebow and Chang are of the same evangelical cloth; we have to wonder if Tim Tebow believes his wins are the direct result of his personal relationship with God. His PDF is beginning to convince me he does. So what’s wrong with that?
God — if we may so feebly name the divine — is not a “Winner’s God.” More than half of the Bible is written for an audience that is losing, whether it be in culture, politics, or economics. In fact, by all societal standards (and messianic expectations), Jesus fails. And despite the adrenaline rush of victory, there’s nothing wrong with NOT winning. Hearing Tim Tebow only after victory may send an uncritical message about our “big” God: He creates and loves winners.
What about the losers of our society, the poor and the politically oppressed? Does God only love the 1%? Is this “God” only on one sideline, rooting against those with lesser faith? Is God BIG for Tebow and small for Marion Barber?
I don’t want to believe that God cares that much about sports: that would break my heart considering how much real pain and suffering yet remains in this world. And I certainly don’t want to believe that God loves only the winners, as the poisonous Prosperity Gospel proclaims (that would explain the Cubs’ “curse,” though. Hmm …). But that’s the impression we get from these snapshots of Tebow’s faith. Admittedly, he probably needs to break it down further, and a press conference is not the time.
So rather than a half-baked faith, I say to Tim Tebow: SHUT UP ALREADY! Not for me, but for the teenager who idolizes you and prays and fasts before games, just like you do, believing that God will “show up” for him on the field. When that young man loses, it won’t be because of the size of his God, it will be because the other team was better on that day (and even in defeat, To God Be the Glory).
We didn’t hear much about Chang’s God when he started losing. I wonder if the same will be true for Tim Tebow, though we may not find out this season. When the defenses do finally catch up to Tebow, will it be bad for Faith as well? That’s my only concern.
SPEAKING OUT: Penn State University students (from left) Evan Ponter, Alicia Archangel, and Ryan Kristobak protest outside of Penn State's administrative building in State College, Pennsylvania., on Nov. 8. Football coach Joe Paterno was fired the next day. (Photo: Newscom)
It is the kind of scandal that just doesn’t belong in the sports pages — the athletic stadium is supposed to be a place for retreat and hope. As in October 2001, when in the thick of post-9/11 perplexity the New York Yankees nourished the nation in a collective daydream. Or in February 2010, when the New Orleans Saints won Super Bowl XLIV, just four years after Hurricane Katrina had devastated their city. Save the conspiracy theories, these and other moments of sports history — think, for example, of Jackie Robinson, Hank Greenberg, and Arthur Ashe — prove that sports often transcend the realm of simple athletics to signify something greater. These moments provide humanity with an opportunity to recess (in the truest sense) and affirm the goodness, or at least the possibility of goodness, in a broken world.
In other moments, sports reveal more broken images of humanity. As in October 1988, when holier-than-thou Notre Dame played then-troubled Miami University, in a game marketed by Notre Dame students as “Catholics vs. Convicts.” Yuck. Or worse: when the stability of a college football program is justifiable reason to cover up the sexual abuse of multiple children over multiple years.
Let’s be clear: There is nothing GOOD about the Penn State story. As an advocate for child rights, I cringe at every new detail. But whether any good comes out of this story depends on how much we pay attention. Even the worst story has a few good lessons. I’ll tell you what we won’t learn.
We won’t learn what students actually learn at Penn State. Not from the thousands of kids who rioted and destroyed their own property in the name of a coach who was complicit in the abuse of multiple children. I’m worried about the lapse in critical thinking that allows college students to be so reckless. That’s formidable ignorance.
DEFENDING JOE PA: Penn State students showed their support for their football team's former coach, Joe Paterno, prior to the school's Nov. 12 game against Nebraska. Paterno was fired earlier that week. (Photo by Matthew O'Haren/Newscom)
We won’t learn about the college football program those students love so dearly. As you may already know, the NCAA is already involved in a vapid hypocrisy around the (unfair?) treatment of college athletes. It goes like this: colleges make a LOT of money, student athletes make none, and can face harsh violations if they even accept a free lunch. I know college life — I’m taking all free lunches.
Penn State is yet another cog in a wheel that needs destroying. They protected a known sexual predator (yes, they knew; we’ll get to that), and for obvious reasons. Think now: Penn State’s football program brings in $50 million a season — on a bad year. That income stream depends upon the stability of TV contracts and bowl appearances. Gotta have a good team for that. Gotta have good players for that. Gotta win recruits for that.
What do you think would happen if a recruit found out that the defensive coordinator of the football team was a child molester? A lot of greasy palms get dry very fast. Can’t happen. So when a family comes forward — in 1998, mind you — with allegations of abuse against Jerry Sandusky, Penn State allows him to retire, quietly and comfortably, with emeritus status. District attorney decides not to pursue charges, police drop case, Sandusky keeps an office at Penn State. In 2010, Jerry leaves the charity he founded — The Second Mile — citing “personal matters” he needs to handle. Here’s what’s personal: another child came forward, told the charity, and they flipped. The only reason they didn’t call CNN immediately? Penn State. It’s not that they want to protect Jerry Sandusky, but they have to protect Penn State football.
In doing this, the university has placed a value on children’s safety — a cardinal sin that occurs daily outside of sports — and Penn State football just made my “Not a Fan” list (your list might be named something different). The bitter irony in all this protecting and shadowing is Penn State didn’t even win a National Championship from 1998-2010! They can’t even do wrong right.
We can’t learn much from Jerry Sandusky, except for how to pass “Go” many times before heading to Jail (a higher authority will deal with our frustration — check Matthew 18). You don’t wanna be Jerry Sandusky.
Neither are the innocent children in the scope of our learning. All they have are my prayers for a fulfilling life to overcome the dark days ahead.
That leaves Joe Paterno, the legendary football coach and resident idol of State College, Pennsylvania (“icon” is too soft a word). He is at the center of all this. Remember those riotous college students? The college football cover-up? The continuous flow of children that Sandusky had access to because nobody wanted to spoil the pot? Keep pulling that string … Joe Paterno is holding the other end.
He’ll have you to think he’s a victim — gotta love those folksy, front-lawn press conferences — but let’s be clear: the ONLY victims are the young boys (now men) who must live in shame of being exploited in their vulnerability. Everyone else here is a casualty of the cowardice of Joe Paterno. Let me explain.
ABSOLUTE POWER: Former Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Before his firing on Nov. 9, Paterno had been a coach at Penn State since 1950. It was revealed today that he's battling lung cancer. (Photo by Scott Audette/Newscom)
When families came forward in 1998, the president and board of Penn State turned to “Joe Pa,” and he took no decisive action. When then-graduate assistant Mike McQueary found Sandusky in the showers performing sexual acts with a 10-year-old boy in 2002, the first person at the university he told was Paterno.
The jury is still out on why McQueary didn’t go directly to the police. Did he not know that sexual abuse is a criminal act? More than that: How powerful are you that if someone is being raped, people call YOU before the police? Try to grasp that.
Nevertheless, Paterno had a chance to take immediate action in the 2002 incident but didn’t. Instead, he waited a full day before reporting the information to Penn State’s athletic director, and even then nothing was reported to the police. The administrators who were technically Paterno’s superiors worked to cover up the mess that was brewing, and both have been arrested and charged as a result. But even then, Paterno could have stepped in and made sure Sandusky’s alleged crimes were reported to the authorities. But that didn’t happen.
It’s easy to see now that Penn State’s reputation, and the preservation of its precious football program, were the chief concerns of these adult individuals who could’ve put an immediate stop to Sandusky’s interaction with children.
The teachable moment is yes, absolute power corrupts (and Joe Pa’s power was pretty absolute), but also that genuine leadership means the power and permission to change or destroy lives. If you have enough authority to save a life, you can probably ruin one as well.
Those are the conversations I hope students at Penn State and elsewhere will begin having in the aftermath of this tragedy. For America has an unquenchable entrepreneurial spirit — we are training leaders and affirming the use of power and influence to make this world better. But there is such a thing as integrity and justice. And for a few years, the most powerful man in the state of Pennsylvania lost sight of that. Look what happened.