The City of God is Made of Intersections: Reflections on the ONA Coalition Gathering and General Synod

Intersectionality is growing as the preferred approach to unpack identity and justice. I heard the Church discuss this term much more than I expected during the Open and Affirming Coalition gathering and General Synod.

The United Church of Christ’s Open and Affirming (ONA) movement is celebrating 45 years of diligent work to change the Church from a hostile space for queer people to an affirming space. Currently, 1,400 UCC churches are officially open and affirming.

Every year, the Coalition holds a national gathering and this year it happened in the days before General Synod. Through personal connections and powerful workshops, Coalition ended up being more transformative than I expected.

New friends made the experience richer with shared meals, long conversations, and local beers. I had volunteered to help at the gathering and didn’t expect to do much more than work, but I ended up experiencing much of the programming, much of the relationship-building that is still ongoing.

Aside from that, I found space and permission during Coalition to more publicly own my latina identity and to feel less ashamed of my broken Spanish. I didn’t expect Coalition to meet me at that level either.

Perhaps the most powerful meeting of all my identities in my own House of worship was the presentation of a quilt depicting the 49 victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. I heard the story of the woman who weaved it with heavy details that I don’t think I have the right to relay, yet they revealed and confirmed to me that to be latinx is to feel deeply.

The names and faces aren’t clear in this picture, but some of the signatories included friends, family, and leaders such as Hillary Clinton.

That quilt is now in the Smithsonian. But it was presented at Coalition on its way there. Know that many of the victims were Puerto Rican (as am I). Know that some of them were not out to their families. Know that some of their parents refused to claim their bodies.

On the last day of Coalition, I read the benediction in my broken Spanish, and I relished in thinking of the Church as a place for me to be imperfectly bilingual, because I’m so used to slipping comfortably into white, American culture.

The meeting of my intersections continued at General Synod, where one night I accidentally ended up at dinner with a segment of the United Church of Christ with an opposing philosophy to Open and Affirming.

It began innocently enough. I roomed with an older lady who needed some help getting around. She spoke like Lorna Morello and was a minister like Sister Ingalis. She often got her details confused, so when she invited me to dinner one night with “these very nice people” she’d had lunch with, I agreed.

I had known this conservative faction of the UCC existed–Faithful and Welcoming Churches, they’re called, or ECOTs (evangelical, conservative, orthodox, traditional)–but I never intentionally sought them out. However, the day before this accidental meal, I had genuinely wondered aloud to some friends why such a group is even in a denomination as progressive as the UCC (especially in the national setting of the church) when they could easily have more of a voice and more community among those who agreed with them in more conservative denominations.

I didn’t actually expect an answer to that question.

Yet I walked in to that private dining room in the restaurant wearing a Kill la Kill shirt and pronoun buttons on my sleeves (English and Spanish). I introduced myself in an impeccable two minute blurb where I named my conference, my association, my church, its ONA status, and its three main ministries.

“Do you know who we are?” the gentleman hosting the dinner asked me from across the table, his face serene.

“An ecumenical group?” I said, repeating what my older!Morello roommate had told me.

“We are Faithful and Welcoming Churches, and we formed in response to ONA.”

Cue a mixture of nerves and divine humor settling in me, as well as a quick blessing that poise, diplomacy, and reserve are my defense mechanisms in uncomfortable situations.

Yet overall, the dinner wasn’t nearly as terrible as it could’ve been. In fact, it was oddly comforting revisiting my evangelical roots for a couple hours. Of course, only the people around that table heard of my alma mater and even knew several key figures associated with it (Shane Claiborne, Tony Campolo).

Despite the fact that I would never feel wholly welcome in any of their churches, this group made sure I clearly understood that I was invited to eat with them and that they were paying for my meal. As we waited for our food, they each spoke for a couple minutes about why they’re in the UCC, answering the very question I had asked the previous day and had considered rhetorical.

Most of the people around the table stay with the UCC because it is their denominational home, or they strongly believe in social justice in most other spheres (though they cannot extend their ideology to affirmation for every marginalized group). Some were welcomed in the UCC whereas in other denominations, they had no voice.

I listened, because despite how much I say when I write anything of any sort, I’m a good listener. I get a feel for any new group I’m in before participating in the conversation. I chose to see their intersections rather than whittle them down to an ideology that, at best, doesn’t know what to do with me in the church and, at worst, would rather I change before being among them. It’s harder to view a person as mere rhetoric when you’re looking them in the face and hearing their voice. I’d like to think they experienced this, too.

And I told them so, though not in those exact words. Surely, we were all blessed because only God could make such a meeting an occasion of radical hospitality. Anyone in the UCC or anyone who calls themselves a Christian at all ought to be theologically, mentally, and emotionally prepared to practice radical hospitality in spite of and because of our intersections. The presence of conservatives in the UCC tells me that this church is serious about its progressivism. I am not confident that a more conservative denomination would allow its progressive churches voice in the national setting or give them a table at its gathering. If progressivism means a wider inclusion, then when I am face to face with people who may not see my intersections at all or consider them valid streets, I prepare myself nonetheless to take communion with them at the church on the corner. Yet I cannot do this perfectly this side of the eschaton, for if a bigot comes at me in the street with a torch and a clenched fist, I will either run or block and land a finger strike to the eyes. How far can I extend this ideal to those who have lost any semblance of their humanity?

Some may find my position weak or coddling, but the dogmatic progressive and conservative ideology I see all over social media would have us become ever more siloed and fearful. This doesn’t mean we have to willingly associate with those who harm us, but it does mean that we receive the bread and the cup together and attempt, albeit imperfectly, to live out their implications.

Additionally, I have held for several years now that some white people will only listen to other white people discuss racism, some men will only listen to other men discuss sexism, some straight people will only listen to other straight people discuss homophobia, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. It shouldn’t be this way because theoretically we should all listen to each community itself, but that is not the reality. So likewise, there are some conservatives who would only listen to other conservatives talk about a church like the UCC. For the people around that dinner table discussed how remaining in the UCC has caused them to reflect and change in positive ways (their words, not merely my interpretation).

All of this said, I now more strongly encourage LGBTQ people to make sure a church is officially ONA (or any equivalent in other denominations) before visiting or deciding to join. At the very least, ensure that your prospective church is not Faithful and Welcoming (here is a list of such churches). You should be able to bring all of who you are to Jesus and do so safely or else you won’t grow.

The UCC cannot and should not force every local church to be as progressive as it is in the national setting. This is, at times, frustrating and means that marginalized groups still have to exercise some extra caution when looking for a church. But believe me when I say that there are affirming churches out there and being part of one has spiritually enriched me in ways I never would’ve imagined.

One of those ways is the stark imagery that Rev. Traci Blackmon provided in her sermons during both Coalition and General Synod. At Coalition, she preached about Paul’s shipwreck and our movements for justice. So long as we stay on the ship together, we will make it to the other side. The ship may not, but we will. At Synod, she preached about wheelbarrows, tying the imagery to a performer in the early 1900s who crossed a tightrope over Niagra Falls. He would ask volunteers from the audience if he could carry them across the water and they’d say he was crazy, but he’d always make it. Once, he asked a volunteer to get in a wheelbarrow and he’d push the wheelbarrow across the tightrope over the falls. This is the connection Rev. Blackmon made to Jesus, and since her election as the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness Ministries at General Synod, Rev. Blackmon has been living into this in a big way. She was arrested for protesting the GOP healthcare bill, and as of this writing has become a strong voice on the front lines of the Charlottesville aftermath, for white supremacy has no place among the people of Christ.

Lastly, I’ll mention a few resolutions that passed at Synod. I’ve already written about boycotting Wendy’s, but the UCC took a stance on several other justice issues at General Synod.

The UCC has much more to say about so many other issues. Like everything else in this world, it will never be perfect this side of the eschaton, but this church makes me proud–this community makes me proud. In so many spheres in so many sectors of society, we do work that attempts to make the gospel good news for everyone.

This display at General Synod served as a backdrop for honoring the youth of Standing Rock.

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

-Micah 6:8 (NRSV)

4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God,
the holy habitation of the Most High.
5 God is in the midst of the city; it shall not be moved;
God will help it when the morning dawns.
6 The nations are in an uproar, the kingdoms totter;
he utters his voice, the earth melts.
7 The Lord of hosts is with us;
the God of Jacob is our refuge. Selah

-Psalm 46:4-7 (NRSV)

 

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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.

Antigone in Ferguson

On Saturday 1/21/17, over half a million people gathered in Washington, DC for the Women’s March and hundreds of thousands more gathered in cities across the nation. Several members of my church family went to DC, making it known that whatever version of Christianity that is now in the White House is not in line with the promise of God’s love and justice for all people, all of whom are fearfully and wonderfully made.

I did not make it to the march, but I did go to a performance of Antigone in Ferguson in Baltimore. It was a collaboration between Theater of War productions, the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Choir, and local leaders.

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Before the performance, the organizer explained the genesis of the show–how St. Louis embraced the production and claimed this 2,500-year-old play as something relevant that speaks to their experiences today. After all, Antigone is a young woman who wants justice and proper remembrances for her brother that died in war and was painted as an enemy of the State by the new, irrational king who decreed that the body should be left unburied to rot.

Antigone becomes the mothers, daughters, sisters, and all those left behind when a black person is killed by police. Police officers, as enforcers of the law, carry the power of the State behind them and that is one among many reasons why this particular injustice is so hurtful. Michael Brown’s body was unmoved for four hours after he was killed.

Ismene is that well-meaning person who is saddened by the death of her brother, but will follow the law and the decrees of the king, even if that means not giving her brother a proper burial. She urges Antigone to follow the law, but then later when Antigone is receiving her punishment, she wants to be put to death as well as if she had a part in Antigone’s actions. Ismene is the late ally–the one who stays back in the moment and then later wants recognition for something she had no part in. But also, she feels powerless as a woman to defy the law like Antigone does. She fears the consequences.

Creon is the new king who is impulsive and stubborn, making rash decisions and refusing to listen to reason. He is the State and it is his power, his agenda, and his system that results in all the death by the end of the play. He’s the one who makes the law that Antigone’s brother not be buried and that anyone who disobeys this law will be punished. He clings to law at the expense of his humanity and his own family, which he does not realize until it’s too late. Creon is the oppressor who benefits from the system he creates and cannot see the devastation it causes. It’s only when he finally reclaims his humanity and casts himself away from Thebes that the city is freed from his impulsive, irrational ruling (i.e., the system is dismantled).

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The actors sat at a table on stage with a gospel choir behind them that sang the parts of the Chorus. They performed a dramatic reading of Antigone and afterward, four Baltimore community leaders took to the stage to share their immediate impressions of the performance as well as the work that they do for the city. Then, the floor was opened to a community discussion with the audience.

Some were police officers or justice department employees. Some were community advocates and organizers. Some were people of faith. Some were white people trying to navigate themselves through the discomfort that will always comes with these sorts of discussions–when white supremacy, racism, and white anxiety are named and analyzed.

One big difference that I have to note between these conversations in person and the ones on social media is the perceived tone. One of the many reasons why moving your feet is important, as John Lewis said at the Women’s March, is that you get a fuller picture of someone when you look in their face while hearing what they have to say and you hear their tone of voice. Too often, it seems like people are put off by discourse on social media because they’ll read a Twitter thread or Tumblr post by a black person (or any marginalized person) and hear in their head loud, screaming anger or even hatred. I’m certain that if the discussion were typed up word for word and posted on Tumblr or Facebook, some people would read an abrasive, hateful tone into it and may not even realize that that’s how they’re processing the information. That just has never been the tone I’ve heard when going to events like these in person. Passion and conviction? Absolutely. Frankness and sternness about naming realities and experiences that are sometimes uncomfortable to hear about? You bet. But never hatred.

So the feel of the evening was shared discomfort and that’s not a bad thing. It’s a necessary thing. The refrain that stood out to me the most was go into your own communities, your own spheres of influence, and effect the changes to the system because there’s already black community leadership in the cities that is working and getting things done. They are just unseen, unreported, and often face barriers in getting grant money that other non-profits have access to.

Sonja Sohn, an actress from The Wire played Antigone. She also talked about the documentary she’s directing, For the Love of Baltimore. She said that when she first had the idea to make a film shortly after the Baltimore Uprising, she approached a few directors and producers she knew, two of whom were white and all of whom were male. She figured that since they had better connections and more experience, she needed to have one of them direct it. Instead, they all said that she had to do it, that she was the only person who could. Sohn explained that this is the sort of support and empowerment that’s needed–not for men and white people to lead and execute on a black woman’s idea, but for them to be the voices that build up and support what that black woman creates.

It’s not white people’s task to go in and create new structures to save whatever struggling area outside of our community that we come across. Instead, we have to listen to and support the leaders that are already there doing work and do our own work in our own spaces–work, school, church, every community that’s a part of our own daily lives.

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The community discussion largely centered on justice issues, but the performance itself contained some interesting theological themes. With a gospel choir playing the part of the Chorus, the Christianization of ancient Greek culture was more evident. The final song, performed after Creon exiles himself in the wake of his entire family committing suicide, declared, “I am covered by the blood of the Lamb.”

I found the juxtaposition strange at first–a praise song right after this man exiles himself as he’s laden with guilt for his actions? But that’s the classic dramatic narrative of salvation–hitting rock bottom and finally turning to God for redemption. Taken another way, it’s the Chorus of the city singing this song, so they’re praising God after having been liberated of this terrible leader. Yet who was the “lamb” that paved the way for Creon to reclaim his humanity? Antigone, her future husband, and Creon’s wife.

This begs the question, why do the oppressed have to die for the oppressors to realize the error of their ways? It’s a reality that this is what happens, but the outrage and concern for people should come while they’re still alive. The silver lining that fiction and art provides us at least lets us see this dynamic in action without a real person actually dying.

That’s the takeaway and the continuous challenge.

Why I’m Supporting #HamiltonElectors

Over the past couple days, I’ve been watching the #HamiltonElectors movement grow. If you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s an effort led by a group of actual electors to spread awareness of the Electoral College’s role in elections and to encourage GOP electors to consider voting for another Republican candidate such as John Kaisich or Mitt Romney.

Though it’s a shot in the dark, it’s a perfectly legal effort. The Electoral College was designed to prevent a popular figure unfit to wield power from assuming the presidency. Everyone’s favorite Broadway star A.Ham proposed this system to prevent a “tyranny of the masses.”

As I’ve expressed in the past, the work of the Church to uplift the oppressed and bring justice to the marginalized continues regardless of who controls the State. Only God’s kin-dom/kingdom is truly just, but until it arrives in full, Christians must work to keep that as our vision and not become too cozy with any political regime. At the same time, we must still be active in the broken systems that we must deal with and we should be knowledgeable of how they work.

I support #HamiltonElectors for several reasons.

  1. It’s a practical way of attempting unity without quietly accepting a man who appoints white supremacists to powerful positions. The fact of the matter is that GOP electors would never in a million years vote for Hillary Clinton instead. Thinking that they would is the result of the liberal/progressive echo chamber, which like all echo chambers shows no signs of understanding the other side’s language.
  2. The President-Elect has appointed a white supremacist a chief strategist. This should alarm every Christian, especially those who proudly proclaim that they support Israel and the Jewish people. No one who takes the calling of Christianity seriously, regardless of where they are on the political spectrum, should passively let this one slide.
  3. Even though we hold that only God will reign in the end, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t exhaust every possible avenue to prevent such violent ideologies from being further justified here and now.

To be clear, no president or politician is a savior and they shouldn’t be treated as such. Injustice will persist this side of the eschaton no matter who is in power, and so will resistance to injustice. We continuously must look for avenues in unjust systems to prevent further injustice. That is what I see in this attempt to utilize the Electoral College as it was established in this manner (yes, the Electoral College system itself is pretty unjust), and I would encourage Christians who take seriously the command to love thy neighbor as thyself to consider it among other forms of resisting oppression. Some may think this is just a bunch of people with their panties in a bunch who can’t accept the outcome of the election. For me, at least, it’s more than that. I see a President-Elect who is legitimizing and emboldening violent, deep-seeded mindsets and my faith simply cannot let me be utterly silent in the face of this.

To learn more about this effort, visit the Facebook page and Twitter account.

 

I’m On Goodreads!

I know, it only took me 600 years to get an account.

Feel free to add me!

Also, I think the time has finally come for me to get a Kindle. I still love print books, but I don’t have room for all of them. Mostly, I want to buy ebooks of my used books (because buying used books does not directly support authors) and buy nonfiction books that are otherwise huge tomes, or expensive.

A lot of the used nonfiction books I have actually aren’t available on Kindle, so I’m stuck there, but I still have a list of 15 ebooks that I’m gonna buy to replace the print versions and/or buy to pay the author.

I’m leaning hard toward the Paperwhite since I don’t want a tablet. Theoretically, I could just read on my phone and that’s what I’m doing for now, but the phone screen is a bit too small.

I absolutely still have print books and will continue to read them, but I know a lot of theology is in my future and I don’t necessarily want to have a 600 page book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer sitting in a stack on my already full bookcase. Plus, I should be able to sync everything to my desktop and that’ll be super helpful when I’m looking to cite something in a blog post.

I’m gonna attempt to keep to a biweekly schedule here. Between work, kung fu, and church commitments, I have a lot going on every day of the week and need to reconfigure my writing time.

Over on Tumblr, I’m taking fiction prompts to celebrate 100 followers. Send me one! Otherwise, I’ll just keep finding prompts on my own.

Finally, I need to plug this Sailor Moon book called Her Eternal Moonlight. It examines the impact Sailor Moon has had on women in North America and is a great nostalgia trip for all of us 90s kids. I’m one of the many interviewees and plan on writing up more detailed thoughts once I read it. On my Kindle. That I’m gonna buy.

Anyway, be my friend on Goodreads, send me fiction prompts, and check out the Sailor Moon book. Good talk, team.

On Advent and the Secularization of Christmas

It’s that time of year when Christianity makes headlines by decrying the lack of Jesus on things like coffee cups and resenting anyone who says, “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” The secularization of Christmas is, for many, yet another sign of the declining importance of church in the United States. With membership and participation generally down in many denominations (e.g., mainline Protestants), church leaders are constantly facing the reality that Christianity is loosing its place in mainstream American society.

Yet Christmas is the one time of year when you do hear a tiny bit more about Jesus in mainstream discourse. The loudest parts of such discourse are the demands to put Christ back in Christmas and remember that Jesus is the reason for the season. This need to center Jesus into the mainstream is one reason why that Starbucks article went viral several weeks ago.

Other than the fact that Starbucks has never had explicitly Christ-mas themed holiday cups, I do understand on some level where the offense comes from. The thinking goes something like this: thousands and thousands of people buy Starbucks coffee–imagine how many people would be reached by seeing an image of Jesus on the cup. Imagine how much it would speak to our culture, reminding people that Jesus is there–that Jesus is the most important part of Christmas.

This is why we have shirts with “Jesus Christ” written in Coca-Cola font. Take the existing piece of culture, put Jesus in it, and it becomes a tool for evangelism. That’s the hope, at least, so that Christianity becomes relevant again.

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The part of me that infinitely enjoys bad puns loves this.

And that’s more or less how the Christmas season began centuries ago. Once Christianity became the dominant faith (or those in power determined that it should be dominant), the church overlaid Jesus on top of existing feasts and practices. Christ likely was not born on 12/25, nor did he initially have anything to do with this season. Christmas gradually blended with and replaced pagan holidays. In that sense, calling for Christ to be put back into Christmas seems arbitrary since he was never in it to begin with.

That said, it’s possible–and in fact preferable–if Christians recognize this bit of history, not to swing the other way and utterly reject Christmas because of its pagan roots (though some may choose to), but to actually have a deeper appreciation for the tradition that the Christmas season passes down to us. We talk a lot in churches about God meeting people where they are. Centuries ago, how did God meet people where they were in their existing cultural feast times? The obvious flipside is that a lot of Christianity’s pervasiveness in Western culture is the result of forceful, sometimes violent implementations. However, Christians ought to be willing to look that tangled history in the face and know just what exactly was passed down to us.

The Last Shall Be First

10 Now when the first came, they thought they would receive more; but each of them also received the usual daily wage.[c] 11 And when they received it, they grumbled against the landowner, 12 saying, ‘These last worked only one hour, and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the day and the scorching heat.’ 13 But he replied to one of them, ‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for the usual daily wage?[d] 14 Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. 15 Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’[e] 16 So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” –Matthew 20:10-16

The secularization of Christmas as the mainstream holiday we’re all familiar with is, on the one hand, a deeply maddening phenomenon in which consumerism and greed run rampant. It’s supposed to be about Jesus (specifically, waiting for Jesus and then finally celebrating the Incarnation), but it’s really not–and it’s really not. Even so, one can make the argument that secularism has co-opted what Christmas initially set out be when it became “Christmas,” which makes Christians uncomfortable as non-religion becomes the new norm. If Christmas becomes totally secular, what’s left? This is why some people raise alarms over a lack of Jesus on coffee cups. Wider culture needs to be redeemed, and what could be more relevant than coffee cup Jesus?

But why do we need Jesus on a coffee cup–especially one from a giant company like Starbucks? If Jesus absolutely had to be associated with a company, it would probably be one that ran like vineyard he talks about in Matthew 20:1-16. I get that notion from the Jesus I have encountered through regular worship and deep study of scripture, both academically and spiritually. Where do I have most of those encounters? In a church that hasn’t utterly thrown away tradition with the aim of becoming more relevant. We follow the liturgical calendar, which gives us not a season of Christmas necessarily, but a season of advent.

Yes, Christmas is a part of advent, but the season of “advent” hasn’t been blended into secularism and hasn’t lost its deep ties with Christianity like the season of “Christmas” has. If the concern is about an increasing, mainstream turn toward secularism, then Christians can simply look back at the names and meanings of seasons that have been part of the liturgical calendar for centuries. For better or for worse, Christianity has 2,000 years of history and traditions that all get tossed to the side because no one thinks they’re compelling enough to draw people into church (especially millennials). Yet where secularism strips Christmas of its meaning and turns it into a time of rushing and materialism, advent refocuses the significance of the season. Advent isn’t as easy to secularize because it’s about waiting and anticipating the Incarnation. Our culture isn’t that great at waiting, especially around Christmas time.

Houses Built on Rock or Sand?

If a lack of an obvious Jesus symbol on a common product is cause for concerns about the very essence of a holy day falling apart, then I have to wonder if the way Christians understand Christmas is grounded in anything substantial. The person I was in high school would likely have had a much bigger problem with the secularization of Christmas. The church I went to back then did not emphasize or teach us much about the liturgical year, so I had nothing to attach Christmas to. I knew generally that some amount of weeks leading up to Christmas was called “advent,” but that was it.

I think what happens when we don’t connect in some fashion to tradition is that we can easily become swept up in the definitions our culture gives to holidays. In America, Christmas is on December 24th-25th and the few weeks beforehand are just generally called the Christmas season without any set guidance on what that really means. When churches don’t observe advent in any tangible way or teach people what it’s meant over the years, we hardly have anything that builds up to Christmas and that’s why we can fall into thinking that a lack of Jesus on a Starbucks cup spells the end of Christ’s significance at this time of year. Are we building our foundation on Christ himself, or on the notion that he needs to be explicitly depicted on mass-produced objects of everyday culture in order to have any power?

All of this makes it sound like I hate Christmas. I love Christmas, actually, not as much as some people, but I enjoy all the decorations and the music and the reruns of those 70s animated cartoons and the specialty drinks at Starbucks! A wise Tumblr user once reblogged a post that said you can like Things™ and still be critical of them.

Viral Christian Narratives

But there’s a whole other side to this that I haven’t touched on yet. Mainstream news loves stories like this Starbucks cup thing because it’s an easy way for progressives and other left-leaning folks to say, “Wow! Look at these Christians wasting their time being offended by coffee cups! Don’t they have anything better to do? Why don’t they care about the real issues like racism or poverty?” So, the story goes viral and perpetuates a false narrative that faith, Christianity especially, is never at the forefront of any real social change, but instead is stuck on arbitrary things. Progressive Christians in their criticisms also help spread this divide sometimes by participating in the reblog/repost/retweet chain. Honestly, I’ve seen more people mocking or getting pissy about people being offended by coffee cups than people being offended by coffee cups themselves. (I, in turn, have achieved meta status by remarking about the people who are pissy about the people offended by coffee cups.)

The coffee cups make it easy to point to Christians and state how out of touch we are with what matters and these stories make headlines because they’re so easy. Christians are offended by something trivial? Millions of shares. Christians acting as leaders in social justice movements? Their work is celebrated, but their faith is often hidden either because they don’t make it known or because of the way their story is presented.

Shaun King, a prominent #BlackLivesMatter activist, cites Christian faith as an important part of his life’s journey, even though his own beliefs are nuanced, as is the case with many progressive Christians.

During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, the United Church of Christ (UCC) was involved in a high-stakes lawsuit to prevent a license renewal for a Mississippi TV station that was giving little to no air time for black issues, instead focusing only on the white perspective.

The UCC is involved in a number of other social justice matters. I personally know of a group of clergy that recently organized a protest at Governor Hogan’s office in Maryland regarding his rejection of the Syrian refugees. At General Synod this past summer, the UCC passed resolutions that included a call to dismantle the new Jim Crow and to end mass incarceration. One of the ordained members of my church is constantly involved in petitioning or lobbying our state politicians on such issues as a follow-up, or in some cases a precursor to Synod resolutions.

Do Christians ever do social justice perfectly? Of course not, nor are we always the start of any given movement; and of course on many issues, we’ve lagged behind the rest of the world. But the viral things in our news cycles that are most explicitly tied with Christianity are the things that spin a narrative which separates Christianity from substantial social change and instead make the faith seem like one of our primary battles is a coffee cup.

The Purity of Christmas is to be One Thing?

Ultimately, this time of year is full of multiple holidays and that doesn’t need to be a terrifying thing. There are a plurality of Christmas celebrations within Christianity itself, especially outside of the Western world. I think the concern about the secularization of Christmas stems from a notion that Christmas has only ever been one thing without taking a closer look. Advent/Christmas/Epiphany have much more staying power when considered theologically and spiritually rather than just literally and with slick catchphrases.

NaNoWriMo 2015

Well, friends, it’s that time of year again: the month in which I attempt to write 50,000 words of a thing. I wanted to prep enough blog posts here to post throughout November while I take a hiatus off of most social media, but I spent most of October completing a draft of another book. So that said, I won’t have any new content here until December.

But don’t fret! I have plans, outlines, and/or partial drafts for several posts, which include the following:

  • Peridot, “defective” Crystal Gems, and Homeworld’s -isms
  • Personal sin, systemic sin, and Ragyo’s Westernism
  • Scream Queens & Kill la Kill
  • Scream Queens’ Denise & the strong/nurturing black woman trope (but I want to read Fierce Angels first to better inform my analysis). I saw the author on a panel at a book fest last month and she said how somewhere in the process of writing this book, she was asking people about/coming across this trend of a lot of black women being security guards and how that ties into this notion of black women having to be/do everything. I immediately thought that Denise Hemphill in Scream Queens might be an embodiment/exaggeration of that idea, just as everything else in Scream Queens is an exaggeration. So I want to read this book to get a better sense of this.
  • Something about The Facts of Life
  • Perhaps something about RWBY
  • Perhaps something about Akame ga Kill
  • Perhaps something about the recent Hearthwarming episode of Pony

So, there’s a lot to look forward to!

Now, ever since I graduated from college and started working full-time, I’ve never finished NaNo. Actually, I’ve only won twice in all of the years that I’ve done it and both of those times were during college. One year, I actually did all of my November homework in October so I would have as much time as possible to write (it helped that most of my homework was reading books and writing papers that my profs had already specked out in the syllabi).

But I can’t work ahead like that anymore. Work is work and I’ve also got church commitments this year. I’m on two committees and there’s an association meeting I have to go to. That’s one of many reasons why I’m cutting out a lot of social media for the months (and TV too). However, it also feels great to step away for a set time, which is why I make similar cuts during Lent.

At the end of the day, you make time for the things that are important to you. I’ve been feeling more strongly about this lately, mostly with church and the excuses I hear people make about not having time for it or any missions or growth activities, but also in general. For me, writing and church life/work are not merely extra curricular activities. Though my commitments to both will sometimes conflict like they will this month, I do take them seriously, so they get first dibs on my non-working time and cutting out watching my shows or playing on social media helps with that focus.

And that about does it! See y’all in December!