Don’t Blame Religion

Don’t Blame Religion

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 have lied, 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.

Now THAT’S Racism!

Now THAT’S Racism!

RACIAL TARGET: James Craig Anderson, a 49-year-old auto plant worker, was standing in a parking lot when two carloads of white teenagers allegedly jumped him, yelling racial epithets, before driving over him with a pickup truck.

A little less than a year ago, I pleaded with African Americans to stop using the word “racism” as a kneejerk response to any sort of problematic situation or behavior. As a way of demonstrating how possible it is, I vowed to abstain from using “the r-word” for at least a year, as a way of doing my part to tone down the rhetorical flame wars that have come to dominate contemporary political conversation.

My point in doing so was not to deny that racism exists, but rather, by temporarily banishing it, to allow the term “racism” to be reserved only for situations that truly call for it. The truth is that while racism still exists in various forms today, trying to call it out without subscribing to a commonly held and understood definition becomes problematic as racial dynamics in the United States of America continue to evolve. In other words, what racism is and looks like to me may be different from what it is and how it looks to you … if we can’t get that ironed out, how can we solve the race problem as it currently exists?

*                     *                       *

Today, I’ve broken my vow.

I’m sorry that I couldn’t go the whole year. I wanted to. Really, I did.

I probably would’ve been in the clear had I not read about the senseless vehicular homicide of James Craig Anderson in Jackson, Mississippi. According to eyewitness accounts and video footage, Anderson had been beaten severely by at least two young White males (whose names I will not dignify by referencing here), who had set out with the intent of bringing harm to the first Black person they ran across. And after one of them had left the scene, the other one literally ran over the victim with his truck … then bragged about it later at a local McDonald’s.

Let me say this slowly, so as not to be misunderstood.

THAT. WAS. RACIST.

*                       *                       *

That’s not all it is, of course. It’s also the work of a sociopath, whose behavior shocked his friends enough to cause one of them to lie when asked if she knew the assailant, and who, according to a local pastor, had a history of bullying other teenagers.

But make no mistake; this crime was mostly about racism.

The most sociologically accepted definition of racism is that it consists of race prejudice plus power.

The reason why the “plus power” part is added in there is because charges of racism are usually too easily dismissed by people who claim immunity because no one can see inside the heart. People in the public eye accused of racism, according to Jay Smooth of ill doctrine, usually try to turn public attention away from what they did and tend to frame the issue around who they are (“I’m not a racist! That’s not who I am!”).

Focusing on what a person did is usually a better way to resolve minor incidents, because the alternative is combing through the racial history of everyone who ever makes a racially insensitive comment or forwards a racist email, and nobody has that kind of time.

But in this particular crime, context matters. And you don’t have to be a regular on CSI to know that these crimes were, well … racist as hell.

If it had taken place in rural Oregon or Montana, I might’ve been willing to view this crime only as a momentary lapse in judgment. But the troubled racial history of Mississippi, too numerous to even attempt to recount here, casts an ominous light on this whole affair. The rest of the details just fill in the blanks.

Fundamentally, the beating and subsequent homicide of James Craig Anderson was the result of two White males, accompanied by friends, using their locus of power to inflict pain and suffering on, quite literallythe first Black person they saw. It was about them feeling entitled to inflict such pain by virtue of their racial identity, and expecting to get away with it for the same reason.

And whether or not it should be considered a hate crime, or whether or not hate crimes are a necessary classification in our criminal justice system… all of that is beside the point.

The point is this:

If THAT isn’t racist, then just forget it … the word no longer exists.

*                       *                       *

Now that I’ve spent hundreds of words stating the obvious, it’s worth reiterating my previous stance.

If we as Black people can tamp down on our use of the word “racism” as a catch-all equivalent to “wrongdoing by White people,” it will help to promote more effective communication from people across various ideological and racial boundaries.

But it’s also necessary for an entirely different reason.

The blight of institutional racism is a tragic stain on American history, and it is cheapened every time we apply that word to conflicts and incidents of a vastly inferior magnitude.

Especially when we do it over the Internet.

The repeated rhetorical equivalency of heinous crimes with comical misunderstandings has produced such a climate of jaded skepticism on the internet that the very phrase, “that’s racist” has morphed into a caricatured catchphrase meme, complete with its own alternative spelling (“thassraycess!”).

*                       *                       *

If the latest horrific crime in Jackson has taught us anything, it’s that THIS is the real legacy of racism in America.

So like I said, I’m sorry I couldn’t go the full year.

But I’m sorry to say, some of us Black folks couldn’t go a whole month, or even a whole week, without complaining about racism. And if those complaints are about something trivial, like whether or not Chris Brown gets the same kind of media coverage as Charlie Sheen, we ought to keep our mouths shut.

This Week’s Pendulum

This Week’s Pendulum


1 U.S. POLITICS IS THE REPUBLICAN PARTY HOLDING AMERICA HOSTAGE?

So many headlines and news stories are focused on whether or not it is Rep. Weiner in the tweeted picture, the odds that Palin’s bus tour could “accidentally” end up in New Hampshire on the same day as Romney’s big announcement (the odds are 1,700 to 1 by the way) and former Sen. John Edward’s indictment, that our debt ceiling issue is being overlooked! The Treasury Department is saying the U.S. may begin defaulting as early as August 2. And while many people are confident that the U.S. will not miss payments, this fiasco certainly doesn’t reassure creditors of our financial stability. In fact, a lack of faith in the U.S. economy can result in another financial crisis. Even more concerning is why the limit hasn’t been raised yet: Republicans want the legislation to include measures to reduce spending (i.e. cut Medicare). On Friday, June 3, 2011, House Speaker John Boehner stated, “House Republicans met with the president, urged him to change course,and to work with us on our plan for new jobs and economic growth in our country.We hope he’ll take us up on our invitation.” If their “invitation” isn’t accepted, the Republican Party might just resort to putting a horse’s head in President Obama’s bed.

2 WORLD MUBARAK MAY BE EXECUTED FOR PROTESTER DEATHS

Last week, the Egyptian prosecutor’s office announces that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will go to trial in criminal court for injustices against the Egyptian people and deaths of protesters. On January 25, he allegedly orderd police to fire at protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Mubarak could be executed if found guilty.

3 ART TIM BURTON’S EXHIBIT IS A TWISTED FANTASY RIDE

Tim Burton, the eccentric filmmaker behind Alice and Wonderland, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Edward Scissor Hands, opened his exhibit last week at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). The exhibit takes a tour through Burton’s career comprised of 700 hundred mobiles, drawings, figurines and other pieces of art.  The exhibit even includes sketches from his days as an artist at Disney. For Burton fans (like myself), visiting this exhibit is a must! It will be at the LACMA through October 31.

4 MUSIC RIHANNA GETS REVENGE FOR DOMESTIC VIOLENCE IN NEW VIDEO ‘MAN DOWN’

Rihanna’s new video may cause controversy due to her very public history of domestic violence, but perhaps for her, it’s just therapy. In the video, Rihanna seems like an innocent girl going through her island neighborhood, talking with locals, and drinking coconut milk. But things go awry when she visits a steamy nightclub and the man that she dances with all night follows her into a dark alley and forces himself on her. Though the video has stirred plenty of controversy, thanks primarily to Rihanna’s sad history with men, it offers a valuable lesson. When we play with fire, our innocence can be quickly robbed.

 

5 EDUCATION PRAYER OUTLAWED AT SAN ANTONIO GRADUATION

Last week a federal judged that a high school graduation at edina Valley High School, in San Antonio, Texas, could not pray during the ceremony and could not use the words “invocation” or “benediction.” Americans United for Church and State, represented by Ayesha Kahn, counted this as a victory and Kahn stated that, “the district (had) been flouting the law for decades.”  Students were allowed talk about their faith in a speech but not allowed to say “amen,” God bless you,” or have the audience bow their heads.  I don’t know where the Christians were in this debate, but one hopes they will step up and express their concern and take a stand for the religious freedom of future matriculants.

6 MONEY STATE REVENUE REACHES SURPLUS, AND STILL NO PEACE

States across the country have unexpected surpluses from increased tax revenue, but still cannot settle on budgets. Pennsylvania alone expects to close the year with $500 million in surplus, while California received an unexpected $2.5 billion in tax revenue. States that have this additional revenue have found a new problem when settling the budget. Some have proposed that they should use the money toward areas that have been neglected due to budget cuts like education and social services. Others propose that states should save the revenue as cushion for an unpredictable economy. What do you think?

7 TECHNOLOGY MAKE A SECOND INCOME WITH IPHONE CAR RENTAL APP

GETAROUND may help you get some of your gas money back in this harsh economy. It’s a social car sharing service where you use the iPhone app to rent out your car to others in your neighborhood for a fee. The service provides hourly and daily rentals that a renter can search by car type. Depending on the condition and make of your car, you’ll be able to rent out your car for a more pricey fee. Expect to rent at anywhere from $5/hour for a ’98 Honda Civic to $50/hour for a Tesla Roadster. It’s a brilliant concept, so long as some heavy legal work is done to protect the renter. As a city dweller, I’d definitely give it a try.

8 TV DOCUMENTARY CHANNEL HIGHLIGHTS BLACK DIRECTORS

On Tuesday, June 28 at 8p(ET/PT), BURN:The Evolution of an American City will premiere on the Documentary Channel. The award-winning film is directed by Harold Jackson III and tells the story of the worst recorded race riot in American History: The Tulsa, Oklahoma, Race Riot of 1921. The conflict lasted for 16 hours with aerial attacks, mobs, and martial law. It left 10,000 residents homeless, 35 city blocks destroyed, and many dead. The Documentary Channel will feature the film as a part of its Black Documentary Cinema, which spotlights Black filmmakers the last Tuesday of each month.

   

 
9 MOVIES TARAJI P. HENSON PLAYS TOUGH-LOVE  GOLF COACH IN ‘FROM THE ROUGH’

From the looks of this preview, it will provide much of what you’d expect from the headline. A mixed group of boys from different backgrounds come together to find purpose in their lives through an unlikely golf coach. I doubt there will be any surprises from the story line, however, the film may capture a few surprising performances. I’d still give this film a view due to its potential to inspire and perhaps even steal our hearts like The Great Debaters.

 

10 CELEB MEET THE BLACK, 15-YEAR-OLD AMY WINEHOUSE

I’m not quite sure what image 15-year-old Dionne Bromfield is going for just yet, but with a voice like Billie Holliday and Amy Winehouse (the sober version), this girl is about to be a game-changer. Step back blue-eyed soul, here comes a sista from the UK that has a long career ahead of her. She released her debut album, Introducing Dionne Bromfield, in 2009 through Amy Winehouse’s record label. That album featured all cover songs. This year, Dionne is making her debut with original material. Her single, “Yeah Right,” released in January and was a hit in the UK.  It’s only a matter of time before she spreads like wildfire in the US. Check out her new web series, “Down with Dionne,” and her video for “Yeah Right” below!

Fighting Back

THE WRONG WOMAN: It's not for the money, says Shirley Sherrod about the lawsuit that she filed against her defamers; it's to make a point against reckless journalism that can destroy lives.

The innocent victim of a political attack, Shirley Sherrod recently filed a lawsuit against those who twisted her gesture of racial reconciliation into a charge of racial discrimination and caused her to lose her job. Had her accusers done their homework, they would’ve realized that trying to nail a “reverse racism” label on a woman of Sherrod’s history was not wise.

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