Legend of Korra: Turf Wars: Balance and Relationship Fragility

Legend of Korra: Turf Wars begins a new spinoff of the Avatar franchise that continues right where the TV series ended. Though the writing is, at times, heavy-handed with its info dumping on the history of homophobia in the Avatarverse (and part of my opinion there may be that I’m above the targeted age range for the comic), I still think it’s a solid beginning to an interesting new Avatar story. The tension between spirituality and modernity is ever more prominent, with a greedy capitalist attempting to claim the lands around the new spirit portal and a new gang leader whose ruthlessness shakes the streets of Republic City.

Balanced with this setup is the official, unambiguous start of Korra and Asami’s relationship. It’s two thirds adorable and one third tense as they brush up against each other’s insecurities.

Spiritual Beginnings

I’ve written in the past about the initial nonphysical nature of Korra and Asami’s relationship and its ties to transcendence or spirituality. While I find this a significant foundation given both women’s past relationships with Mako, which got physical almost immediately, I also find it quite meaningful that their physical relationship with each other begins in the Spirit World. Korra and Asami share their first kiss in the Spirit World, this beautiful yet at times terrifying and dangerous place. The Spirit World is accessible to humans, but not predictable, and the Avatar doesn’t always experience reverence or respect. It’s a stunning, everlasting, yet delicate place. Korra and Asami’s relationship quite literally transcends worlds. Only when Korra and Asami return to the human world do they face the fragility of their relationship.

Realities of the Human World

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From Vice.com

Korra, having absolutely no chill, immediately takes Asami to her parents to tell them the news of their relationship. It’s slightly awkward and cringe-worthy because Korra always does this. She is, self-admittedly, intense, and in this moment that intensity reveals itself. It’s reminiscent of her confession to Mako early on in Book 1, and it’s in line with her rush to accomplish/do everything all at once. Although she’s learned much over the years, this seems to just be a part of her nature. The difference between this instance with her parents and those of the past is that Korra recognizes it and apologizes. She knows she’s intense and she realizes that she charged right into disclosing her relationship with Asami without talking to her about it. If Korra can’t change her tendency to rush, she can now at least catch herself doing it.

Yet this meeting with Korra’s parents is not the most fragile moment in Turf Wars. That moment comes at the refugee camp, where Korra expects Asami to help in exactly the same way that she does: by making public appearances. Korra perceives that Asami is the girl who can keep up with her intensity 100% of the time, so she concludes that Asami must always act and be on her level. She expects the same unwavering support from Asami that she did from Mako. In that moment when they part ways with an awkward “Okay,” Korra may be having a mini-crisis on the inside where she’s terrified that not being on the same wavelength with Asami means that the relationship will fall apart as it did with Mako.

Asami is also terrified in this interaction, not of Korra, but of losing Korra. She is so used to people leaving, and we see this insecurity arise in the look on her face. Both of her parents have died. She’s been cheated on and played (twice). Her company has been screwed over. No wonder she’s antsy about any perceived breakdown in her important relationships. That look on her face says “I’m afraid of losing you over this.”

Balance Nonetheless

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From Entertainment Weekly

This conflict does have a happy resolution. After inspiring the refugees, Korra returns to find Asami and Zhu Li doing what Asami does best: drawing up blueprints for a new construction project, specifically one that would provide new housing for the refugees. In this, Korra (hopefully) sees that while her own way of helping by being a public figure has value, Asami’s way of maximizing her skills and resources for justice is just as valuable.

In fact, it’s this difference in their qualities and positions in society that exemplify how well-balanced Korra and Asami are. At their best, they cover a lot of ground in making the world a better place, with Korra more in the public eye as an inspiring figure and Asami focusing on tangible, material ways to improve things.

Could Korra and Asami’s respective insecurities put a Future Industries wrench in their relationship? Absolutely, if they don’t talk about or acknowledge what they’re feeling. Yet given the foundation Korra and Asami have already built by choosing to be close and vulnerable with each other, they already have the capacity to work through it no matter how awkward it gets.

I’m looking forward to seeing their relationship grow over the next two issues, and seeing that it’s not a perfect, blissful fantasy 100% of the time. It’s still fragile and beautiful and should be shown as such.

My Church’s Witness: United Church of Christ Joins #BoycottWendys Movement

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Every two years, the United Church of Christ gathers for General Synod, where church members from all over the country come together to worship, learn, complete acts of service and sometimes civil disobedience, and vote on resolutions concerning social justice issues and the church’s operations.

This year was my second General Synod and my first time as a delegate, meaning I had voting power when resolutions came to the floor. Delegates are assigned to committees that discuss and change resolutions during General Synod, then vote to recommend the resolution to the voting floor or not.

I served on the committee for the resolution “Affirming the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ Boycott of Wendy’s,” which ultimately passed on the Synod floor. I haven’t seen much buzz about this issue, so I’m writing about it now.

Step one of our committee work involved attending an educational intensive where we heard from a subject matter expert (SME) who gave us background and insight about the conditions farm workers face and why we’re being asked to participate in the boycott. Here’s a quick summary of the SME’s presentation:

  • The Coalition of Immokalee Workers is an organization based in Florida consisting of farm workers and growers. Over the past decade, it has pushed multinational companies to join the Fair Food Program, which ensures fair wages and human rights protections for farm workers.
  • This group’s work has been successful. Due to their efforts, including a past boycott of Taco Bell that the UCC endorsed, companies like McDonald’s, Sam’s Club, and Burger King have joined the Fair Food Program.
  • Wendy’s has been the holdout despite efforts to convince them to join this program.
  • This concerns the CIW because, historically, Wendy’s has purchased most of its tomatoes from Florida farms. Recently, the company switched its suppliers to farms in Mexico.
  • Working conditions on farms are terrible. Workers are subjected to slavery conditions, sexual abuse, and low wages that have remained stagnant for 20 years.
  • In-depth reporting by the LA Times revealed the working conditions on some Mexican farms and it has been confirmed that some of the farms profiled (e.g. Bioparques de Occidente) grow tomatoes that Wendy’s purchases.
  • The UCC has a long history of advocating for farm workers’ rights, including an instance during General Synod in 1973 when the delegates voted to suspend business for 24 hours to charter a jet to Coachella, California and join protesting farm workers who were facing violence at the time.
  • Wendy’s claims that it has high standards for conduct in all of their suppliers and notes that they have a third-party inspector who visits the farms and ensures that operations match those standards. However, Wendy’s hires that third-party, and as is common in these types of relationships, it’s like that this third-party isn’t telling the whole story in the interest of keeping their client.

Frankly, for a church as progressive as the UCC, this resolution was largely a no-brainer to those of us on the committee. Our two sticking points regarded unintended economic consequences of a boycott, such as less money going to the Dave Thomas Foundation for foster children and culling of minimum wage employees at Wendy’s restaurants. We made an earnest effort to work through these concerns and see if we could add to the resolution to account for them. However, we ultimately found that adding in language to provide exceptions weakened the original resolution. While those of us in the room understood the nuances of the concerns raised, we felt that we couldn’t clearly express that in additional resolved clauses without creating the perception to readers that the church was weakening its call to action.

Of course, these exact concerns came up on the voting floor. A few delegates asked that in supporting this resolution, we also

1) support foster children in our local communities,

2) support a living wage, and

3) remind and encourage Wendy’s employees at all levels to speak with their managers/bosses about why people aren’t purchasing their products.

Personally, I rarely eat fast food to begin with, so I haven’t been eating at Wendy’s anyway. However, simply not purchasing a product doesn’t always clearly convey the message of a boycott. So if you choose to boycott Wendy’s, do so actively. Here are a few action steps:

  • Use #BoycottWendys for any articles or images you share on social media.
  • Stop retweeting and reblogging viral tweets from Wendy’s Twitter, or if you do then let your followers know about this issue. I know their banter is cute, but their corporate practices aren’t.
  • Sign this petition.
  • Write a letter to Wendy’s corporate offices explaining the boycott and asking them to join the Fair Food Program.
  • Donate and stay up to date with the movement.

As far as I can tell, this has fallen off people’s radar since last year. Keep the conversation going and increase the pressure on Wendy’s until they amend their practices.

Orange is the New Moral Dilemma: Season 5’s Tensions and Gray Areas

Like everyone else who’s been keeping up with Orange is the New Black, I, in my lack of self-control, marathoned the new season in two days despite having other things to do. After letting my thoughts stew for a bit and discussing some of them on Tumblr, I found myself thinking a lot about this season’s focus on blurred morality.

Season 5 stretches roughly four days across thirteen episodes, a significant change of pace from previous seasons, which generally cover a couple months or so. On one hand, this pacing makes sense because stressful situations, like riots, do make the days feel long. A lot happens to these characters internally and externally over a very short period of time. On the other hand, the riot felt too long. It didn’t need to last the entire season–in fact, it’s still not technically over. One reason why the season felt so slow is that several characters go through some intense changes and moral dilemmas that we as viewers logically think should take a long time to work through; however, it’s entirely possible to go through significant internal changes during a crisis in a very short amount of time.

Many of the changes for these characters involve moral dilemmas that have no easy answer. The broadest of these is “Can the inmates run a more just system than the existing prison hegemony, or will they resort to implementing the same abuse they were subjected to?”

Are We Better Than Them?

Over the years, Orange is the New Black has made us sympathetic to the prisoners, the protagonists. Now, some are dolling out the same abusive treatment they received from the guards, and whether we find it funny or repulsive depends on our sense of justice and notions of retribution. The show does this on purpose, forcing us to think about whether they are right to do so, and showing us some characters who blatantly question whether they are really better than the guards.

Some characters want to try and prove that they are–that when you take away the corrupt agents of the prison system, the inmates will create for themselves better living conditions. This works to some degree. Brooke gets her living library, some inmates create a cafe, and others set up small shops in the hallways akin to a craft fair. When Pennsatucky gets scathed for helping Coates, Boo convinces the other inmates that instead of throwing her in the Poo, they should hold a fair trial. Ultimately, Tucky’s “punishment” is community service, which makes her happy, gives her a sense of purpose, and appears more rehabilitative than locking her in a port-o-potty.

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However, other characters care more about retribution or simply want to relish in the chaos. Leanne and Angie literally piss in Tucky’s pot, forcing Tucky to conclude that doing nice things for others is pointless–that the second she starts to feel a sense of purpose in life, it’ll just be taken away, not only by the guards (the system) but also by the people in the same boat as her. These circumstances place a pessimistic spin on the notion that subjugated people can rise up and run themselves more justly instead of emulating the practices they’ve known for their entire lives, or in this case the treatment they’ve received in prison.

Pull The Lever?

In this vein, several characters face moral choices of the utilitarian variety: sacrifice the one for the many or the many for the one? This problem explicitly arises when Piper, Black Cindy, Allison, and a few other inmates watch Taystee’s negotiations with Figueora and Figueora learns that someone shot one of the guards. It comes down to a choice of whether they should turn Daya in to keep Figueora’s quickly dwindling trust, or if they should cover for her. Piper connects this dilemma to the utilitarian answer to the trolley problem–whether you should sacrifice one person to save many more people. Ultimately, Daya makes her own decision and chooses the many by turning herself in. By taking responsibility for her actions instead of trying to get away with them like her mother always taught her, Daya manages to keep the negotiations on the table for all the other inmates to see the changes Taystee is fighting for.

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Throughout season 5, Taystee has only one goal in mind: justice for Poussey. In my opinion, she and Brooke are the only characters who keep Poussey at the forefront of their minds. Other characters, like Allison, help to solidify the anger and pain into tangible demands that can help the inmates who are still alive. Together, all the black girls lead an organized effort for all the inmates to input their demands. Then, the black girls sift the top ten demands into a written letter, and it’s these written demands that Taystee spends hours negotiating. In her mind, all of it is for Poussey. Toward the end of the season, however, Black Cindy voices her disagreement, telling Taystee that her efforts stopped being about Poussey and started being about her pride a long time ago. She believes that Taystee should accept a deal with Figueora, one that satisfies every demand except the one most immediately related to Poussey’s death: arrest CO Bailey. Should she settle for this and struggle with feeling like she caved in or lost sight of what the whole riot was really about? Or should she stick to her ideals and push for every demand? In other words, Taystee’s dilemma is whether she should help the many by taking the deal offered to her and (theoretically) secure tangible changes for all the inmates, or if she should help the one (Poussey) by seeing that her killer is brought to justice. Taystee chooses the one. She holds out on accepting the deal and getting most of the demands met. Then, the moment is gone and by the season finale, it looks as if none of the demands will be met.

Whether we think Taystee was right to stick to her ideals or that she made an entirely foolish decision that screwed over hundreds of inmates depends on how strongly we value ideals over imperfect yet real compromises. Either way, this should be a major sticking point for Taystee in the next season. She will be blamed for not having taken what she could to help the inmates who are still alive.

Personally, I never sensed as I watched that Taystee had become prideful or that she had turned the riot and negotiations into an effort to stroke her ego. I think she wanted retribution for her best friend’s death, and whether her choice becomes a good or bad decision will depend on how season 6 unfolds.

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Taystee and Daya are not the only ones who face this many-or-one decision. Gloria struggles with it as well when she learns that her son is in the hospital and the only chance she has at getting furlough is if she releases the hostages. However, that would mean betraying everyone she’s known for the past several years. Does she leave the hostages alone for the (supposed) good of the many prisoners to continue the riot and their demands for justice? Or does she choose the one–her son–above all else? Though she does choose her son, her efforts fail, emphasizing the reality that many of the characters on this show face: the best attempts to do the right thing–to change–are stacked against them because someone somewhere wants them to fail, whether it’s another inmate, the system, or the universe.

Resistance and Social Media

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I once jokingly told a coworker that sometimes, the best way to stick it to the man is to “just chill.” That’s exactly what Alex ends up doing, though she doesn’t see herself as a resistance leader. All Alex wants this season is to chill outside in her bulldozer house and not deal with any drama, yet this somehow becomes a symbol of resistance to other inmates who want nothing to do with the riot. But is it really resistance to hang out away from the fray and not partake in the chaos inside? Mostly, it seems like self-preservation. Alex herself isn’t trying to make any statement, but her “followers” do participate in the outdoor camp to resist the violence of the riot. Through one lens, they may be cowards for not participating. Through another, they may be smart for doing what they must to protect themselves. Yet the chaos does eventually reach them, and Alex ends up locked in a supply closet with only a shower curtain covering her as Pischatella ruthlessly breaks her arm. Gina catches this incident on camera, then disperses it into the world of hashtags and reblogs.

Yoga Jones comments later on that it’s hard to ignore injustice when it’s on your Facebook feed, yet she says this in a pessimistic tone. This is important because it makes the audience think about how the wider world only appears to care about injustices when we see them on social media, not at any point before. It conjures questions of the merits of social media activism and why it takes something going viral for people to begin caring about an issue. Yet social media is a powerful tool this season and its role in the show reflects its role in reality. It’s not always the vehicle for change that we want it to be. The Internet will take a serious video, autotune it, and spit it back out as a meme, as we see with the Litchfield confession video and “Black Lattes Matter.” The most viewed content coming out of Litchfield appears to be Flaritza’s makeup videos, which do contain some brutality in the background, but are otherwise silly and therefore perfect for a YouTube fanbase.

Whether it’s good or bad that it takes social media to stir consciousness about injustice depends on our sense of how people should respond to daily injustices, our views about social media in general, and how removed from a particular experience we must be to first see it on social media–or on a TV show, leading me to my last reflection.

Art Reflects Life?

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I’ve had a post about season 4 sitting in my drafts for a year because most of it consists of rhetorical questions, and I couldn’t articulate my thoughts without sounding like I was making excuses or diminishing experiences I don’t have. Season 5 has helped to bring some of that into clearer focus.

The truth is, I saw Poussey’s death in multiple lights. I saw the needlessness of it in that she was one of very, very few queer black characters on television and was therefore vital representation for so many. The season also aired during a year where it seemed like every TV show was killing off its queer women. Furthermore, one point of Poussey’s death was to stir consciousness in an audience that might not otherwise have cared about or understood #BlackLivesMatter. Indeed, some non-black fans of the show did post about how they never felt affected about this particular brand of injustice until it happened to a character they loved, and we know how some of us can be with our attachment to fictional characters. Why did queer black representation have to be taken away like that for some audiences to awaken?

In another light, I see Orange is the New Black‘s overall purpose and a particular silver lining that art, in general, occupies. Orange is the New Black has always aimed to raise awareness about life in incarceration and the mistreatment inmates face in federal prisons. Though it wavers between humor and drama, Orange is the New Black has always had realism in its serious plot developments. That intention on the writers’ parts is clear. The reality of a black person dying at the hands of a federal or state authority figure is well within the scope of horrors that Orange is the New Black could reflect back to its viewers. The show has always aimed to be provocative. One of fiction’s roles is to stir outrage and reflection upon broken parts of society, to make readers and viewers care about people and issues and realities that they might not have otherwise known or cared about. The great thing about all of this happening in fiction? It’s not real. This is why fiction is a safe(r) place to encounter these situations. At the end of the day, Samira Wiley is still alive. Poussey herself is just a fictional character, one who is well-developed and certainly feels like a real person, but still a character nonetheless. That is our level of removal from any story we read or watch, and sometimes, that removal is protective. Does Poussey’s death reflect what happened to Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Sandra Bland? Absolutely. Poussey not being real doesn’t mean that her story isn’t realistic or that it isn’t based on reality. It just means you can sit there taking in what happened after that fade to orange and know that this particular case is only a story.

Would Poussey’s story have turned out differently if the Orange is the New Black writer’s room wasn’t mostly white? I’m not sure, but I think about how Dear White People had Reggie almost shot by a campus security guard and how that provoked a similar sense of outrage among the characters. Not only did Reggie not die from that incident, but the audience also saw the psychological aftermath–both the trauma and friends gently checking on Reggie. To me, this was just as powerful and made as much of a point as Poussey’s death did, but Reggie lived.

Personally, I could go back and forth with myself on this and many of the other tensions Orange is the New Black presents to us. Although I’m starting to sense that this series is spiraling out of control and is nearing the ends of its run, I’m still invested enough to see it through to the end.

Almost Adults: I Like It, But…

Almost Adults follows two best friends, Mackenzie and Cassidy, during their last years of college as they grow up and grow apart. Mackenzie comes out as a lesbian while Cassidy navigates her way to independence after ending a serious relationship with her boyfriend. Natasha Negovanlis and Elise Bauman of Carmilla fame star as the main characters, so naturally I had to watch it as soon as it came on Netflix.

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I did like this movie. I thought it was funny and I enjoyed the story of two friends accepting that their lives are taking different paths because that’s real–that’s what happens in your last years of college. It’s nice to see Negovanlis’s humorous side since Carmilla is such a broody gay vampire, and her acting chemistry with Bauman is worth the watch in and of itself. Since they played lovers in Carmilla, it’s great to see them pull off best friends in this film.

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via natvanlisgifs.tumblr.com

But given that Almost Adults is about two college kids who are still immature in many ways, there are some aspects of the writing that miffed me or made me roll my eyes.

The film often uses people with disabilities as the butt of a joke, particularly those with mental disabilities. While it shows how ignorant, dense, and selfish the main characters are (especially Mackenzie), it comes across as crass whereas the intention seems to be humor. The same can be said for the possible transphobia in the story Mackenzie tells about her ex-boyfriend. On the surface, it’s intended to be a roast of his genitalia and nothing more (though it again points to Mackenzie’s childishness and is fitting for a character in a film called Almost Adults), but some of her language is easily coded as transphobic, particularly the whole “it was totally an innie; it was practically a vagina” thing.

There’s also the dig Mackenzie makes at herself for being pathetic because she’s a 22-year-old “virgin,” not only discounting the experiences she had with her ex, but also perpetuating the harmful notion that it’s pathetic to not be sexually experienced by your 20s. This attitude is rampant in queer media and in some queer communities, but I don’t think it does anyone any good. It only feeds people’s insecurities and makes sex a bigger deal than it has to be.

Levi, the stereotypical gay best friend, pressures Mackenzie to come out to Cassidy. Pressuring someone to come out is inappropriate as is shaming them for not coming out. There’s no timeline for this and no one says you have to come out to everyone all at once, which is what Levi seems to want for Mackenzie. At least Mackenzie later stands up to Cassidy for giving her the same bull.

Speaking of coming out, Mackenzie’s disappointment that her parents didn’t make a fuss over her being gay is a bit strange. Sometimes, it seems like she’s being sarcastic, but other times she seems genuinely disappointed that her parents are supportive, like she was mentally gearing up for a big a fight or a dramatic rejection. At least the audience gets cathartic relief from Levi rolling his eyes in the background. Mackenzie’s reaction is perhaps the most revealing of her character: she thrives on some level of tension or drama in her life, and perhaps she believes that her coming out isn’t legit unless she faces rejection from her parents, which is a pretty messed-up way to think, but it again points to her immaturity.

All of these moments of selfishness and immaturity, though, do fit with the point that Mackenzie and Cassidy are almost adults. Of course they’re still childish, selfish, and petty. They have to grow up and get used to their changing relationship.

This film holds up The L Word as its basis for what it “should” be like to be a queer woman given the numerous references to the show (many of which I thought were funny) to the actual plotting and characterization. Even though I enjoyed The L Word (a lot back when I watched it), I wish we could stop using it as the pinnacle on which all other wlw media is based. I get it–it’s a classic and it has its place in LGBTQ media history, but as a result it tends to become definitive for the way real queer women live their lives and what they can expect from relationships. One of the reasons why I enjoyed Carmilla so much was that it doesn’t have this air of “this is how you’re supposed to be a lesbian and this is what your relationships will be like.”

Speaking of Carmilla, the fact that I like Negovanlis and Bauman so much as actresses is one of the reasons why I enjoyed this movie as much as I did. They do have great acting chemistry and I’ll probably watch anything they’re cast for in the future because I’m interested in seeing the different roles they can play. While their characters in Almost Adults aren’t carbon copies of Laura and Carmilla, Mackenzie and Cassidy are pretty similar. Both Mackenzie and Laura have a dorky naivety to them, while Cassidy and Carmilla have this tendency to run away from things (Cass breaking up with Matthew because he proposed, Carmilla for centuries trying not to get attached to the girls her mother has her take). I really hope these ladies don’t get typecast.

So while Almost Adults does, in some senses, depart from typical queer narratives of dramatic coming out stories and equally dramatic relationships, focusing instead on a friendship story, it doesn’t do much to dispel some of the harmful rhetoric of the wider world. Even though I liked the movie and genuinely laughed out loud at many scenes, I think it perpetuates some notions that many wish would just go away.

Loving the Enemy and Building Community in My Little Pony and Steven Universe

As I prepared for the sermon I preached at my church several weeks ago, this notion of loving the enemy stayed fresh in my mind and I joked with the youth group that I’d preach about Steven Universe (some of the kids are fans). Both this series and My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic have told us redemptive stories of seemingly unlovable characters which, in my view, express the gospel’s call to radical hospitality.

A million years ago, when I was still in college, I wrote a blog post analyzing Princess Celestia and Princess Luna’s relationship in season 1’s pilot episodes, and how the reconciliation between the two sisters aligns to the classical Christian narrative of redemption and salvation. In this case “redemption and salvation” mean that Luna is healed of Nightmare Moon and is welcomed back into community with Celestia and Equestria at large (although she barely gets any character development after this).

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Since season 1, there have been several other character arcs where an evil or unlovable character has not merely been defeated, but welcomed into the friendship of the Mane Six. Discord, Sunset Shimmer, Starlight Glimmer, (The Great and Powerful) Trixie–all of these former antagonists, to some degree or another, get a chance at reformation and are permanently changed after experiencing friendship when no one else would give it. Some characters, like Sunset and Starlight, undergo a more dramatic change than others, but the end result is still that there is room at the table, whether that’s the literal table of Twlight’s court or the figurative table of community.

But being in a community isn’t as simple as accepting the invitation and living happily ever after. Learning how to be a friend is a continuous process, and even the Princess of Friendship herself still has a thing or two to learn, given her severe distrust of Starlight and Trixie’s friendship. Discord struggles with unhealthy, possessive behavior over Fluttershy. Sunset, both in Equestria Girls and the main series, has to overcome her guilt and the stigma of her past. All of these problems surface because being accepted into a community itself is not perfection. It’s an agreement to grow with others, and from what we’ve seen so far in six seasons of My Little Pony, there is nothing that anyone can do among the Mane Six that would permanently oust them from friendship.

This notion of integrating the “unlovable” into a community goes hand in hand with loving the enemy, although in My Little Pony and Steven Universe, it takes a more literal meaning. As I said in my sermon, loving the enemy doesn’t mean that what the enemy does or did is okay. Even though Discord and Starlight Glimmer experience the friendship of the Mane Six, neither that friendship nor their turning points in which they realize the error of their ways sanctifies their past or future actions. Discord gets a stern talking-to when his jealousy of Tree Hugger at the Grand Galloping Gala makes him violent and possessive. Starlight Glimmer continues to make mistakes and sometimes slip back into her old ways as she learns more about friendship. Even though these characters still make mistakes, and their pasts are not entirely brushed to the side, they are still much better off having experienced friendship from those who were once their enemies. If radical friendship had not been extended to them, where would they be? Discord would still be a threat to Equestria and Starlight Glimmer would still be out messing with ancient spells that alter reality. And both characters would still be incredibly lonely.

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Steven Universe is perhaps even more intentional with this recurring narrative of love and redemption for enemies. Whereas Twilight Sparkle and the Mane Six seem to attempt friendship as a last resort, Steven reaches a point of embracing and understanding those he conflicts with much sooner. Peridot and Blue Diamond are two notable examples. It takes a while with Peridot, but once Steven decides to open himself up to Peridot and extend his friendship, both the Crystal Gems and the audience begin to change their perception of Peridot. This Homeworld gem who was once the primary enemy is now invited into the family, and the result is that Peridot switches her loyalties to protect Earth rather than destroy it. Equally important is that she now has a community in which she can grow and develop gifts that she didn’t know she had (e.g. the gem equivalent of metal bending). This is because she’s welcomed into a group that lets her break out of the mold she was created for. Is the transition easy? Absolutely not. I’ve written previously about the initial tensions among Peridot and Garnet as Peridot’s Homeworld ideas are challenged at every turn. Currently, Peridot is still figuring out her place within this new dynamic.

Blue Diamond, I’m predicting, will be another such redemption tale, although the consequences will be much more dramatic given that she’s a matriarch and holds formidable power. She is one of the pillars of Homeworld’s society and hierarchical structure, so any change she undergoes that affects the way she rules will undermine what seemed so fix and may very well cause a war.

Yet we’ve also seen in recent episodes that Steven’s tendency to accept former enemies backfires. In “Room for Ruby,” Navey (Navy?) takes advantage of Steven’s kindness, exposing it as naivety to reclaim her ship. Such is the risk of radically and unquestioningly inviting enemies into the community. Situations like these may make us want to keep others at a distance. It’s a constant tension between hospitality and self protection.

Steven also seems to be learning that inviting people (or gems) into the Crystal Gen family does not necessarily mean they’ll genuinely change. Ronaldo doesn’t change. Navey/Navy doesn’t change. Who’s to say that the next gem Steven reaches out to will change or accept the invitation to join his community? Will he become more guarded or still unashamedly attempt to create a welcoming space all around him?

All of these are challenges, dreams, and realities the Church faces and will continue to face. But no matter the outcome, the call is still the same, though that doesn’t make it easy.

3 Writing Lesson from Martial Arts Training

One of the several activities that has kept me busy over the last few months is the kung fu and tai chi classes I’ve been taking. Martial arts is currently my only form of exercise; I train hard and feel physically healthier than I have been my whole life.

I had many reasons for deciding to study martial arts, but one of the subtler ones was to improve my writing. Fight scenes and training montages are some of my weak points. I’d get to these sections in my stories and simply not have the language to describe the action I saw in my head nor the experience to write how my characters felt during these encounters. Although I’m still a beginning student, here are three writing lessons I’ve taken away from my training so far.

1. A character with little to no athletic background, training, or prowess will likely not have the endurance or technique to last through a long fight.

This one’s pretty obvious, but I really came to appreciate it and experience it for myself during my first couple months of training when merely doing our warm-up exercises left me exhausted and heaving for air. Adrenaline may give your completely untrained character a temporary boost of power, but that doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly know where to aim on their opponent’s body.

I’m in much better shape now than I was when I first started training and even though my endurance has improved, sparring is the one thing that zaps me of all my energy and leaves me just as winded as warm-ups used to. If your character goes on a journey from untrained everywoman to awesome warrior, do understand that they will probably pass out or come close to it if they train super hard and it really would take constant, daily training for them to get in shape and be proficient with their fists or weapons in a plot with a time crunch.

2. A character going from novice to expert fighter in a relatively short amount of time is pretty unrealistic.

Yeah, it’s a common plot device: such and such magic/fighting technique takes years to master, but there are only six months until The Bad Guy Does Things™. So, the unlikely hero spends their free time training between other plot problems as the big confrontation gets closer and by the time the battle comes, they’re a total badass. Sure, it sounds cool, but it’s pretty hard to believe.

The easiest solution, aside from some insane in-world magic that gives your characters quick power-ups, is to have your characters partially or fully trained from the start. In Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang only has about a year (maybe less) before Sozin’s comet arrives and the Fire Nation completes their conquest. In that time, he has to learn waterbending, earthbending, and firebending, plus master his other Avatar abilities. What makes Aang’s journey believable, and what makes him able to gain enough proficiency with the other three elements to face Fire Lord Ozai is that he’s already a master airbender. That gives him enough basic fitness, agility, and stances to work with as he learns the nuances of each style.

3. Just because a character can spin a staff doesn’t mean they understand how to apply techniques against a live opponent.

At my kung fu school, we learn empty-handed and weapon forms as well as sparring. As a beginning student, there’s a huge disconnect for me between what I learn in form and what I have to do in sparring. Part of that is because forms might exaggerate a few things to look nice, but another part is that it’s not yet second nature to get the practical application of the techniques I practice in form. The practical applications are there; they’re just not as apparent to me as a beginner (and that’s totally okay).

So if a lot of your character’s training involves them practicing forms or techniques solo, consider that a potential hangup for them would be this disconnect between form and practical application.

Studying martial arts is not only fun, but it’s also given me a lot of personal experience with how my characters might feel as they go through training. I can now think about what my body goes through on a typical day of training and recall details that I don’t think I would’ve considered otherwise like how the outside of my hand feels sore after spinning my wooden short staff a bunch of times or the 900 little things I need to pay attention to as I’m doing tai chi.

Just because we’re writers doesn’t mean we have to do everything our characters do or master everything they’re interested in, but I think gaining some personal experience can certainly help us improve.

Movement, Movement, Movement, and Repose: A Sermon

On February 19th, 2017, I had the privilege of preaching at my church. I framed my sermon around the Revised Common Lectionary texts for that week, which included Matthew 5:38-48; 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23; and Psalm 119:1-8. The following is the text of the sermon.

So, I read an article a couple months ago about a lesbian that was out having dinner who overheard the people at the table next to her disparage and bemoan a nephew who had recently come out of the closet. They expelled the usual rhetoric–they were “disgusted” and vowed to “pray to Jesus for a cure.”

I have heard similar sentiments throughout my life. Many of them were not directed at me specifically, but some of them were. So I wonder how this woman at the restaurant felt–angry? Frustrated? Exhausted? Sad? Maybe all of those at once? Here again Jesus was being invoked as a tool to change a fearfully and wonderfully made nephew into something that jived with his family’s sensibilities. Yet this woman did not get into a fight with the family, nor did she merely post a rant about the experience on Facebook. Instead, she said she decided to actually act like the Jesus she grew up learning about. She paid for this family’s meal and wrote them a note that said, “Happy holidays from the very gay, very liberal table sitting next to you. Jesus made me this way. P.S. Be accepting of your family.”

In our Gospel lesson today from Matthew, Jesus talks about turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. These verses are often candy-coated, made safe for people to say in response to the marginalized standing up for their rights or responding to injustice in any way. They’re easy catch phrases and platitudes to pull out when someone makes us uncomfortable by calling us out. But in fact, these concepts of turning the other cheek and loving your enemy are very radical ideas. Marcus Borg wrote that, in Jesus’ society, any beating or striking was done with the right hand, so if a peasant was being beaten by a superior and then turned the other cheek, that superior was then challenged to hit the peasant as an equal. Likewise, Roman law gave soldiers permission to force civilians to carry their gear for one mile, but anything longer than one mile was considered abuse. Yet Jesus says to go the extra mile–to force the soldier, the agent of the State, to see the injustice in their request. Because to perform these offerings–these niceties–in an exaggerated way exposes oppressive hierarchies for what they are and calls the oppressors to reflect on their humanity and the humanity of the person they are oppressing.

Now, judgmental words over the dinner table are not quite as extreme as hitting someone or forcing them to carry your things, but the nature of the woman’s response is very much in keeping with the spirit in which Jesus speaks when he talks about turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Loving the enemy does not mean that what the enemy does is acceptable. Turning the other cheek does not mean choosing to stay silent. What it does mean is exaggerating kindness and humility to expose evil for what it is.

This understanding of Jesus’ words in the gospel laid a foundation for the non-violent resistance of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists. Last month, Congressman John Lewis appeared on Christa Tippet’s On Being podcast titled “Love in Action.” He spoke about how a strong, faith-based foundation prepared him and other activists for arrests, police dogs, hoses, and other tools of state persecution. They trained in church halls, roleplaying every possible scenario. They practiced subtle tactics like always looking the other person in the eye no matter what they did to you and purposefully took to the streets in their nicest clothes. All of it was to compel the police officers, the politicians, the system at hand to come face to face with their own evil as they were forced to recognize the humanity in black people.

It is this foundation that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians: “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it.” Though Paul says he has laid a foundation, in another sense he is the one building upon Jesus’ foundation. Paul recognizes that he only built his foundation because of God and he also recognizes that the Corinthians, Ephesians, Philippians–all these new groups of Christians he writes to–are building on his own foundation.

This pattern repeats throughout history–Paul founds on the foundation of Christ, the Church founds on the foundations of Paul and Christ, ordinary people yearning for justice found on the foundations of Christ, Paul, and the Church. And what sort of building are we moving to build?

mewithoutYou is one of my favorite bands. They have a song called “Paper Hanger,” which is where I got the title for this sermon.

The last part of the song goes,

“Our lives are not our own.

Even the wind lay still.
Our essence was fire, and cold, and
Movement, movement oh,
If they ask you for the sign of the Father in you
Tell ‘em it’s movement, movement, movement, oh!
And repose.”

It’s a reference to the Gospel of Thomas, which is not in the biblical cannon. However, I think the sentiment holds true of the Church and what Jesus asks of us in turning the other cheek and loving the enemy. Movement and repose. Movement is walking that second mile with the soldier and making them uncomfortable. Repose is turning the other cheek, daring to be struck as an equal. Movement is marching from Selma to Montgomery to the ire and confusion of white America. Repose is paying for a meal in the face of homophobic rhetoric. And all of this is done with the hope that grace and liberation will replace fear and oppression.

Yet it’s hard to understand these concepts as a single unit. Movement and repose seem like opposites–one telling us to act and another telling us to keep it classy. Somehow, we should do both at once.

Our faith is full of such seemingly illogical ideas that we’re asked to hold as true–a person being dead and then alive, Jesus being both fully God and fully human, the kingdom of God being already here but not yet here, God being one and three, the least of these here on Earth being first in the kingdom of God, God the all-powerful creator and God the infant, God the servant.

So Jesus asks us to resist in a similarly illogical manner. Dare the oppressor to continue their persecution beyond what is permissible by law. Dare to love the enemy to present evil in stark relief, including our own evil. Because we go beyond the ways of this world when we refuse to play their divisive games, and we go beyond their ways when we refuse to accept the status quo as the perfection and abundance that God desires for our lives. When we hold illogical God things close to our hearts and let them compel us to movement, we transcend into an experience and an existence that the best metaphors fail to fully capture.

And no one said any of this was easy. I certainly don’t claim to perfectly wrap my head around it or act on it all the time. Perhaps this is why our Psalm reading comes from one of the longest Psalms, where the speaker constantly repeats the promise to keep God’s statutes and by the end is begging for deliverance in order to continue keeping those statutes. To me, it sounds like desperate bargaining–your statutes are great, God! They’re the best statutes! I totally keep them all the time, but I need your help because I also suck at keeping them! So deliver me, please! And I’ll keep keeping them! By the way, did I mention that these are great statutes?

None of what God asks of us is easy. Many times, it goes against our basic instincts. Secular progressive morality might have told that woman in the diner to interrupt the family’s meal, make a public embarrassment out of them. Pick that fight. Don’t let them stay comfortable. Paying for their meal isn’t the punishment they deserve.

Well, no, it’s not the punishment they deserve. It’s the grace they don’t deserve. That is the transformative power of the gospel. And sometimes when we extend that undeserved grace no matter how difficult it is and no matter how much we think we hate the other person, we too experience grace.

To reach that place spiritually, emotionally, and mentally requires an openness and humility to God to utterly transform us. So, I’ll end with another quote from another mewithoutYou song called “C-Minor.”

“Open wide my door, my door, my Lord
(open wide my door)
To whatever makes me love you more
(0pen wide my door)
While there’s still light to run towards
(open wide my door)”

May it be so among us. Amen.