The Persecution Complex

Someone I know shared the following image on Facebook. (See the original posting of this image). It’s a commentary on the (not popular enough) “coexist” bumper sticker. The stupidity of this poster is baffling and barely worth commenting on. However, the general message of it got me thinking.

The poster alleges that the bumper sticker is directed at Christianity and that this is ironic because Christianity is the only group who poses no threat to the others. This assertion is contradicted three sentences earlier, where it states that gay rights has been suppressed by all religions, of which Christianity is a subset. Logically, Christianity suppressed gay rights. It also overlooks the myriad of ways in which Christians have and continue to perpetrate violence against other groups. It’s blatantly Islamophobic. It complete misunderstands pacifism. It’s dismissive towards Paganism and Taoism. But hey, Christianity isn’t the problem, all those other guys are!

All of this self-contradicting aside, the statement that fascinates me the most is the one that states that Christianity is who the sticker is directed against. This statement is a generalization, of course, as the author could not possibly know the motivation of every person who buys a “coexist” bumpersticker. Based on the small sample of individuals who own this sticker whom I personally know, none of them bought it to specifically accuse Christianity. From this small sample, I would hypothesize that only a small minority of people who buy this sticker do so to solely criticize Christianity. By “Christianity” I infer that the author (and certainly from the person I know who reposted it on Facebook) is referring specifically to conservative, evangelical Christianity.

It’s strange to me that on a bumper sticker that names seven demographic profiles, that the creator of this poster interprets it as being directed primarily against his demographic. Nothing about the bumper sticker (or the people that I know who own one) suggests that this is the case. The creator, it seems, felt singled out. Why? I call it a persecution complex.

Growing up as a conservative, evangelical Christian, I had a persecution complex. I was instilled with a sense that my faith was under attack. I was shown examples of such attacks (no prayer in schools, being taught evolution in biology class, stories about martyrs from around the world, etc.) and even received “training” on how to resist such attacks (called apologetics). Yes, my adolescent self was convinced that Christians were persecuted for our faith. Society was intolerant of my faith.

This perceived action by society–persecuting me–was not actually an action at, but rather a reaction. Christianity (or at least the flavor to which I belonged) acted with intolerance, demanding that society conform itself to the values or behaviors promoted by conservative, evangelical Christianity. Society reacted by refusing to conform, and Christianity cried, “foul!” The perceived persecution is actually the reaction to an intolerant demand.

A functioning society requires that that the groups and individuals within it adopt a basic level of tolerance and acceptance in their actions towards others. When a group or individual act outside of this basic level, a well functioning society reacts against it. Of course, society could always acquiesce to the group’s demand, but the word that we use to describe such a society is “tyranny.”

In the words of John Stewart, “You confused a war on your religion with not getting everything you want.”

Bringing Race Back into the Conversation


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A couple of years ago, I would have told you that I was colorblind. I didn’t look at the color of people’s skin, I looked at who they are inside. This seemed like a solid approach. After all, the media seems to uphold colorblindness as the ideal racial perspective. Even the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said in his most famous speech ever, “I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” [See note at bottom.] Stop seeing color, and we will stop judging by color. Right?

At the time, I only had one close friend who was a person of color. I don’t remember this friend ever objecting to my perspective, so I assumed that it was valid. As I built relationships with more people of color, I naturally began to have more conversations about race. Primarily assuming a listening role in the conversations, I increasingly heard criticism of colorblindness, especially from those active in the work of racial reconciliation and justice. The crux of the criticism, as I understood it, was that refusing to see race is to deny seeing a facet of a person’s identity. Furthermore, they said that “not seeing color” usually means “seeing everyone as white.”

In her book The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander said this:

A survey was conducted in 1995 asking the following question: “Would you close your eyes for a second, envision a drug user, and describe that person to me?” The startling results were published in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education. Ninety-five percent of respondents pictured a black drug user, while only 5 percent imagined other racial groups. These results contrast sharply with the reality of drug crime in America. African Americans constituted only 15 percent of current drug users in 1995, and the constitute roughly the same percentage today. Whites constituted the vast majority of drug users then (and now), but almost no one pictured a white person when asked to imagine what a drug user looks like. The same group of respondents also perceived the typical drug trafficker as black.

She points out that white people are more likely to use, abuse and deal illegal drugs. In fact, young white males are more likely than any other demographic to violate drug laws. Statistically speaking, the face of a drug dealer is that of a young, white male. Despite this and for a myriad of other reasons, the face of a drug dealer that is ingrained in our national psyche is that of a young black male.

This is troubling in and of itself. It demonstrates that—however colorblind our conscious though processes may be—racism is still deeply ingrained in our national subconscious. However, more frightening is the way that this subconscious discrimination manifests itself—with devastating effects on the African American community. Our justice system discriminates against people of color from their point of entry through to sentencing, growing exponentially more egregious with each step.

Alexander continues:

A study sponsored by the U.S. Justice Department and several of the nation’s leading foundations, published in 2007, found that the impact of the biased treatment is magnified with each additional step into the criminal justice system. African American youth account for 16 percent of all youth, 28 percent of all juvenile arrests, 35 percent of the youth waived to adult criminal court, and 58 percent of youth admitted to state adult prison.

Colorblindness does not permit race to enter the conversation. Yet, clearly, race is still a substantial issue in the United States. As much as it would soothe all of our consciences to believe that we have moved out of slavery into Jim Crow and out of Jim Crow into a post-racial society, the facts belie these possibilities. Yet the media has so championed the cause of colorblindness, that speaking of race has become somewhat taboo.

I believe race must be reintroduced into the conversation, though it may be unpopular and uncomfortable to talk about. This introduction must be done with extreme sensitivity and with a willingness to forgive honest mistakes, for there will be many. However, we can no longer afford to pretend that it does not exist. Acknowledging race is necessary if we want to address the inequalities that are associated with it. Subconscious biases must become consciously acknowledged if they are ever to be eradicated.

King said that he did not want his children judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. Today our own subconscious still discriminates according to the color of people’s skin. Does the content of our character possess the courage to reject colorblindness and bring race back into the conversation?

[Note: I am not suggesting that Dr. King was arguing that our nation should embrace colorblindness. I mentioned that quote because I used to interpret it as an avocation for colorblindness. I now believe that my original interpretation was incomplete. Furthermore, I believe that Dr. King would have strongly object to my interpretation—especially in today’s context.]

Quotes from On the Mystery


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I just finished reading On the Mystery by Catherine Keller. It’s a fantastic book, and I’d highly recommend it. In then vein of Process Theology, Keller explores the tension between the perspectives of the absolute (frequently fundamentalist, conservative evangelicals) and the dissolute (frequently liberal, progressive agnostics). She shines a light on the problems within each interpretation and attempts to offer “a third way,” as she calls it. Not absolute or dissolute, but resolute. Unlike the absolute and the dissolute, the way of the resolute opens doors rather than closes them. I found her reflections on scripture and other sacred stories to be refreshing and beautiful. Here are a couple quotes from the book which stood out to me.

It is not Jesus’ death that transforms but his life–a love-life that had the power to persist beyond death, as the stories of the resurrection mysteriously suggest. Granted, that mystery has been almost ruined by dogmatic “I believes.” But for those with ears to hear afresh–the purpose of a Christian life is not whatever sacrifices it entails. That purpose is a way, a life, and a truth. It will entail sacrifices of various kinds, and sometimes, in the face of Pontius power, terrifying ones. But they are never the purpose. They are the risk. No more than Jesus did Gandhi, King or Romero want or seek to die. Even when they could predict their imminent death, as each seems to have done, they were not choosing to die, but to persist in love. Love “risks the adventure.”

In order to avoid the misunderstanding to which “kingdom [of God]” can now give rise, I often stay with the original Greek term. The basileia is not a political programme. But neither does it leave politics alone–especially when a contemporary empire draws upon Christ for legitimation. “The best English translation,” argues John Cobb, “may be ‘commonwealth.’ This term, besides not emphasizing the controlling power of a ruler, suggests that the realm may be organized for the common good.” The “commonwealth of God” resists every human superpower. Jesus meant it “to be a world in which God’s will is done, God’s purposes are fulfilled.” He saw his work and that of his community as “foreshadowing” that world–by beginning to actualize it here and now.

Within the Christian narrative, the incarnation in Jesus of that divine Logos, that world-creative Wisdom, is portrayed as a distinctive event. Indeed, it may be considered unique in this strong sense: only this person, as far as we know, has so realized the divine lure as to become “at one” with it. That intimate union or “sonship” is not a metaphysical given but an event of becoming, itself symbolized by Jesus’ baptism.  But does this make the incarnation an exclusive revalation of God in the final or competitive sense usually meant by identifying Jesus as the “only Son of God”? To the contrary: the whole point of the unique incarnation is to open up a new intimacy with the infinite. The one Gospel that features the incarnation, the “becoming flesh,” signifies this open process powerfully: “to all who received him,” writes John, “he gave power to become children of God” (John 1:13). In other words, to embrace this logos is to become a son or a daughter of God. The standard notion that only Jesus is the son of God directly defies the same Johannine text!

When we say that Jesus is the Christ, we mean that from our point of view the Jewish expectation of a Messiah was in a certain sense realized. If it was fulfilled in the person of Jesus–it is because he resolutely realized the possibilities tendered him by what he called abba. We might say that the initial aim for him moment to moment was to realize the messianic age, or the basileia, in the midst of his own limited circumstances. But this is precisely not to say that the messianic process was completed or exhausted. On the contrary: the possibility of its actualization in our own limited context was given a supportive communal shape and therefore a new imperative.

Osama Is Dead, but Was Justice Done?


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“Osama Dead!” screamed the headlines today. In huge block letters, the Red Eye–quoting President Obama–declared, “Justice has been done.”

Was justice really done? Is this justice? It is some form of justice perhaps, but it is a fragmented and incomplete justice at best.

Justice such as this is an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. As Gandhi so aptly observed, “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.” Such an imperfect justice falls victim to the myth redemptive violence. Responding to an act of violence with an act of violence may satiate our anger temporarily, but catharsis only delays and numbs. It does not heal. An act of retaliatory violence does not fix the hurt or remove the pain. It only anesthetizes our compassion. We may not feel as bad, but we aren’t any closer to healing. To make matters worse, an act of retaliation will only embitter our enemies and strengthen their resolve. This imperfect justice breeds more hatred and stifles compassion.

Osama was killed yesterday, but justice was not done. True justice brings healing… on both sides of the conflict. True justice brings reconciliation. True justice is enemies laying down their swords and recognizing the humanity of the other.

Our country does not seek justice. We seek revenge. Either way, celebrating is entirely inappropriate. I was sickened by the crowd that gathered in front of the White House, celebrating, waving U.S. flags, and chanting “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Did anyone in the crowd consider what message they were sending to the world? Did they consider how their actions might be perceived by the rest of the world, or by Muslims, or extremists? Is this the message we want to send?

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

Why Life Always Is neither Pro-Life nor Effective

Life Always, a “pro-life” group based in Texas, has created a lot of controversy recently from the billboards that is has put up in New York, Chicago and Atlanta. The first billboards to go up in Chicago read “Every 21 minutes our next future leader is aborted” and have a picture of President Obama. According to an article in the Chicago Tribune, shortly after the billboards went up a group of community stakeholders covered up two of the signs with banners that read “Abort Racism” and “In 21 minutes this sign should be gone.” Undeterred, Life Always seems to be continuing in their plans to put up 30 such billboards around Chicago’s South Side. There are at least six in my neighborhood already.

Photo credit: Heather Charles, Chicago Tribune / April 4, 2011

I’ll admit, abortion is a fuzzy and conflicting ethical issue for me. I’ve written before regarding my thoughts on the matter: Pro-Life: Call It Like It Is and A Further Thought on Being Pro-Life. Abortion makes me squeamish. I’m not wild about the idea. Then again, the people who I’ve known who have had an abortion weren’t wild about the idea, either. Contrary to the way that some pro-life extremists paint it, I doubt any woman who gets an abortion does so flippantly; I doubt anyone considers abortion the ideal choice. I’m also squeamish that any legislation that is passed regarding abortion comes from a political body comprised of 83% men. In case you were wondering, men don’t have abortions.

But enough rambling; to the heart of the matter. Life Always is not pro-life. What they are is anti-abortion. There’s a distinct difference. Let’s break down the etymology of the name “pro-life.” The prefix “pro” comes from the Latin “pro,” which means “for.” The root “life” comes from the English word “life” which means “life.” Being pro-life also means you’re anti-death. Texas, the home state of Life Always, has executed more people than any other state… by 400%. Yet instead of focusing on state-sponsored murder in their own state, the group from Texas is putting up billboards in Illinois. Life Always wants people to choose life… as long as those lives are babies and not adults. Sure, plenty of the people who are executed in Texas did bad things, but can one really be “for life” and approve of killing people. Can you really call yourself “Life Always” and remain silent to the murder being committed in your own back yard? (I could go on about the vast racial inequalities of Death Row and the entire prison-industrial complex, but alas… we’ll save that for another post).

This is the real reason that the ad campaign by Life Always is ineffective. They don’t actually care about the lives of the people who see the billboards. If they actually cared, they would have engaged the community in a meaningful way. Instead, they chose to lob condemning, guilt-laden messages onto billboards 1000 miles away, where they’re safe and sound from having to actually relate to the mothers who live in these communities.

Life Always cares about life? What do they know about the life of a child in Woodlawn, Englewood or Washington Park? Nothing, clearly. The women of my community comprise the backbone; without their leadership our community would crumble. Yet Life Always chose to target them with their messages of condemnation. Has anyone from Life Always made the choice to raise a kid in a neighborhood like Woodlawn? Doubtful. Otherwise, they’d understand–for example–that a mother of four might be hesitant to bring another boy into the world when, in her community, 80% of the men have a criminal record, kids join gangs and get shot, and men are more likely to go to prison than college.

It’s abundantly clear that Life Always is completely oblivious to the real message that they’re sending. That message is this: We don’t care about you or your situation.

If Life Always actually cares about babies on the South Side of Chicago, perhaps a better way to demonstrate that is to help our community instead putting up condemning billboards. Find a pregnant, single mom who is thinking about an abortion and adopt her kid. Or take her shopping and buy groceries for her every once in a while. Or volunteer to play child support. Or mentor a kid. Or start a scholarship fund. Hell, I don’t care what they do. Just do something helpful and productive, something that lets us know they actually value our life.

Go ahead, Life Always. Put up as many billboards as you like. Nobody is listening.