HOW We Tell the Story Matters

For the past few weeks, I’ve watched a power struggle play out between those on the Right who are opposed to the inclusion of the 1619 Project in public materials (a project that tells the story of systemically racist pieces of the United States’ history) and those on the Left who want the curriculum included in public materials.

Some of the coverage makes it sounds as if it is a struggle between those who only want to tell the “positive” aspects of American history (“positive” at least from a white, heterosexual, middle-class perspective) and those who only want to talk about the “negative” aspects of American history.

The larger issue for me in this issue is the challenge for us all to examine the WHOLE of American history – both what we deem to be “positive” AND “negative”.  It’s so much easier to tell only the pieces of a story that reflects OUR personal experiences or values.  It’s much more difficult to tell a story that reflects the personal experience and values that are different from our own.

I was reminded of this today when a friend sent me an article titled “Religion Both Helped and Hurt During the Pandemic.”  The article talked about the ways in which Christian churches helped (by offering spiritual and emotional support for their members), as well as the ways in which churches hurt (by making decisions about reopening church doors at times when it was not medically responsible to do so).

When compared to the coverage of the 1619 Project, I was thrilled the authors’ of the religious article  did not paint the role of all Christian churches with one brush.  They presented a more balanced overview of the situation.  The article, however, raised a different issue for me regarding a balanced telling of the story.

In a sizeable amount of media coverage, whenever people talk about Christianity they often lead with the Evangelical segment of Christian community.  They either leave out the moderate and progressive voices – or tack them on at the end of the article as an afterthought.  This frustrates me beyond belief.

Why?

It’s because there are HUGE differences that exist between the Evangelical community and the Moderate and Progressive communities.  And nowhere was this truer than during the COVID situation.  

You see large segments of the Evangelical community decided early on to fight the medical measures that were being instituted to protect public health.  They claimed that shut down orders, mandatory masks, and social distancing were all attempts to eliminate their First Amendment rights.

Moderates and progressive Christians, on the other hand, took a very different approach.  Our communities understood that as people of faith we had a serious obligation to our members to ensure their safety and wellbeing.  That’s why we were more than willing to comply with state and federal guidelines – and find ways to practice our faith that didn’t risk the health of our members.

And when our Evangelical siblings complained that we were being discriminated against because many businesses were allowed to reopen before churches – we moderates and progressives pushed back because we understood this was because most businesses had the resources to clean their facilities between use that most of our local churches simply did not.

The article reminded me that when it comes to telling the whole story, we not only have to balance the positive and negatives aspects of the story.  We also have to be extremely careful in our portrayal of the “players”.  We cannot simply pick one segment of a religious community and portray their actions and values as indicative of all those within the larger community.

So as we go forth and share our stories about events ranging from systemic racism to COVID-19 to any number of issues, we must make sure we do so in a fair and balanced ways that steers us in the direction of deeper, more nuanced conversation and away from snap judgments of others.

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Feeling Okay – About Ourselves (and Others)

While some thought the work of pastors would decline during the COVID pandemic, most of my ministerial colleagues have found the opposite.  For not only did we have to carry out most of the duties we had prior to the pandemic (i.e. leading worship, teaching classes, doing pastoral care, etc.) – we now had the additional challenge of figuring out how to do those things in new ways.

The increased workload was the primary reason I haven’t been blogging the past couple of months.  The past two weeks, however, I’ve realized that I need to stop and prioritize the activities in which I engage.  If I don’t, I will be pulled away from those things that feed my soul and spend the majority of time doing things that simply meet the demands of others.  That is a surefire recipe for burn-out.

One of the things I most enjoy is the opportunity to write.  And so, with that said, I’m back to blogging.

Today’s question comes from Yvette.  She wrote: “So Pastor Craig, why do I feel guilty for pointing out the obvious and being a decent human being? I recently put someone in their place.  While claiming to be a good human, they were not. Let’s just say it was “Mask” vs “No mask” debate. I pointed out the selfishness of this person, and yet I feel badly. Why?”

Your question raised at least two possibilities for me (and I know others will have different possibilities to add to my list as well).  Let me lay out my two responses based upon my personal experience.

The first thing I’ve thought a LOT about the last several years is how we as Americans are increasingly losing our ability to differentiate between a person’s opinion/perspective and a person’s worth.  If we disagree with someone on a topic, for instance, instead of focusing on the issue and sharing information – our heart starts pounding as we feel locked into a battle of life and death.

Once that dynamic kicks in, all bets are off.  And increasingly the “winner” of the conversation is the person who is the most aggressive and dogmatic.  You will note that those two qualities (“most aggressive and dogmatic”) are not affiliated with a particular political/social/theological position.  Folks can be on the Right, Left, or Center and still strive to be the “most aggressive and dogmatic”.

The key to shifting away from this approach is to separate the issue (and information attached to the issue) from the participants’ self-worth.

Of course, every time I say this in the conversation about certain topics like masks there are some who say, “But I can’t separate the two because my position is absolutely right.  There is an absolute right and an absolute wrong.  So I MUST defend the facts and crush my opponent!”

I learned how dangerous that approach can be nearly 25 years ago when I worked as a health educator and outreach worker with the local health department during one of the last global pandemics: HIV/AIDS.  In the 1980’s and 1990’s there were individuals who felt differently about what activities were okay/safe and which activities were not okay/unsafe.

Never once in my years working as a health educator and outreach worker did I change a person’s heart using facts alone – no matter how aggressively or loudly I argued.  Instead, I learned that first I had to connect with the individual and communicate my honest concern about their well-being.  Once I did that, I could begin to share the medical information that I felt was relevant.  Once I did, I would step back from the information and give them time and space to respond.

I never succeeded if I judged or shamed the individual if – at the end of our conversation – they seemed wedded to a course of action that was medically risky.  I worked hard to keep the channels of communication open so that after they had sat with the information, they could later return and ask follow up questions.

I was amazed at the miraculous changes in behavior and attitude I witnessed when I took this approach.  Sadly, it is an approach that has become increasingly rare over the past few decades.  So the first thing I would emphasize is moving away from a “win/lose” approach and tend to the relationship so people can then hear the information you want to share.

The second thing that was raised for me in Yvette’s question concerns something called codependence.  As a person who has participated in Codependents Anonymous for over 10 years now, many of us suffer with separating our self-identity and self-worth from how others respond to us.

Codependents like myself, for instance, are prone to think they are okay if other people agree with them and seem to like them at the end of the conversation.  Non-codependent people, on the other hand, are unable to feel good about themselves even if another person disagrees with them and expresses ill will toward them at the end of the conversation.  In short, codependents feel responsible for taking care of others and CANNOT feel okay in the face of disagreement and tension.

Us codependents have really struggled in these polarized times when so many have adopted an “either your with me or against me” approach to life.  They are regularly thrust into the position of either suppressing their ideas and simply pretending to agree with another just so they can get their “hit” (i.e. acceptance, agreement, or approval) from others.

If you are prone to codependence, the key lies to working on separating your identity and self-worth from external sources such as other people.  Once you do that, you can walk away from a delicate conversation about masks and still feel okay – not only about yourself, but even the person with whom you disagree!

I am grateful that Yvette raised this question.  For it touches on some of the most challenges issues of our time.  I hope you will think about the question Yvette raised for yourself and share your ideas with others.

I look forward to reconnecting with you – my readers – soon.  Please don’t hesitate to send in topics you would like me to engage.

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Spotting Injustice In the Moment

One of the most insidious dimensions of having power and privilege is that you often can’t see one’s power and privilege in the moment.  This is particularly true when we are in a moment of crisis.  In the moment of crises, we unconsciously (or in some cases, consciously) tap into our power and privilege when our survival instinct kicks in.  It’s when we have the luxury of looking back from our position of safety that we bother to deconstruct the injustice of how things played out.

I’ve known this to be true for many years.  I am seeing a powerful example of this play out now right before my eyes.  Let me tell you what I’m talking about.

Last spring and summer – in the days following the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor – people understandably and rightfully took to the streets to protest the long-standing pattern whereby some law enforcement figures targeted Black Americans in the use of excessive violence.  The refrain was that we need to look at systemic expressions of racism and address them.

“Absolutely!” I would agree.

But did we mean ALL forms of systemic racial injustice, or just those forms involving the police …

Fast forward seven months to the rollout of the COVID vaccine.

The early numbers indicate we are currently experiencing a profound racial imbalance in those who are receiving the first doses of the vaccine.  There was a great article in the Los Angeles Times today (sadly tucked away in Section B rather than the front page) that discussed the racial disparity in those receiving COVID vaccinations.  They cited a statistic that indicated the rate of Latino deaths (40 deaths per 100,000) is nearly three times that of whites (13 deaths per 100,000)!

There are a lot of systemic factors that play into it.  Access to health care via health insurance and access to technology that speeds up the sign-up process being just two of the factors.

What amazes me is that so many people who talked about the importance of addressing systemic racial injustice when it came to one issue (police reform) are now looking the other way when it comes to another racial injustice (health care access) in order to benefit from the injustice.

Of course, the matter of COVID vaccines isn’t the only way this manifests itself.  Sadly, there are so many areas of our society where it is so difficult to see one’s power and privilege when we are in the midst of a crisis.

I wanted to share my thoughts on this matter as a way of provoking us (myself included!) to be more aware of our power and privilege in the moment.  For while it is important to protest injustices after they occur – it can be even more powerful to identify those injustices while they are happening and refuse to participate in them.

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Individual Rights and Community Well Being

After a long break, I’m excited to return to writing.  Today’s question comes from Yvette.  Yvette actually submitted the question a month ago, but I was too tired to respond.  I’ve caught my second wind and am now ready to respond.

Yvette wrote: “Pastor Craig my comment is actually a question of Christianity— why do so many ‘Christians’ put their ‘freedoms’ above the teachings of Christ and still claim Christianity?? IE— wearing a mask of COVID19 to protect his fellow brother and sister?? I am truly baffled.”

Great question, Yvette!  I am bafflected – and saddened – by the way so many people of faith have responded to the COVID crisis as well.  Let me see if I can respond based upon my experience.

In a perfect world, those who follow Jesus would be SO committed to that journey that they would be able to rise above the social context in which they live (i.e. the prejudices and biases) and walk exclusively in the ways of Jesus.

Sadly, that has rarely been the case.  Like most folks, followers of Jesus tend to get shaped by the culture and times in which they live.  Instead of using Jesus’ radical vision and values to reshape the world, they instead use the world’s vision and values to reshape their understanding of Jesus.

Let me give you an example.  Many followers of Jesus, for instance, grew up in a society that reviled and persecuted LGBTQ+ people.  The persecution and revulsion was often embraced in the name of Jesus.  When the laws began to change and treat LGBTQ+ people as if they were equal, these followed of Jesus ignored biblical injunctions that said, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 – ESV) and instead screamed that their First Amendment Rights were being violated that allowed them to discriminate/hate on their sister or brother.  Notice their appeals for the right to discriminate are based on the Constitution and NOT Scripture.  I have wept many times over how regularly some have tried to twist Jesus to justify their bigotry.

Of course, this is not a new phenomenon.  It has been going on for centuries.  Those who participated in the slave trade in this country four hundred years ago used certain passages of Scripture such as the book of Philemon to justify the existence of slavery.  In the late 19th and early 20th Century, many followers of Jesus used the pastoral letters in the New Testament to justify their decision to deny women the right to vote.  I could go on and on with examples of these horrors, but I think you get the idea.

In all of these cases, individuals are elevating THEIR personal agendas (and their personal interpretations of Scripture) over what’s called the metanarrative of the Christian Faith (i.e. “The most important [commandment] is this : ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  There is no commandment greater than these” – Mark 12:29-31 – NIV).

That’s the part from which many followers of Jesus need to repent: putting our perspective over Jesus’ ways in ways that denied our love of neighbor.  As the first Republican President of the United States – Abraham Lincoln – said so powerfully over 150 years ago: “Sir, my concern is not whether God is on my side; my greatest concern is to be on God’s side, for God is always right.”

Which takes me to the other half of the equation: our cultural obsession with elevating the desires of the individual over the welfare of the community.  This is something that was created not just by those who profess to follow Jesus – but by people of many traditions, and no traditions.  It’s not only the followers of Jesus who have put the individual before all else.

If we are ever going to move forward and care about the welfare of others/community, each of us will have to find a way to balance individual rights with the community good in our own lives and relationships.  It’s going to take hard work.

I am certainly committed to balancing what – in my religious tradition (The United Church of Christ) is referred to as the balance of autonomy (individual) with covenant (relationships with God and others).  My question for each reader is this: “What will YOU do to balance the rights and demands of the individual with the welfare of the community?”

The only way we can solve this challenge is if each and every one of us – Christian or not – commits to doing our part to restore the balance.

So what do you think?

Also, what other questions are on your mind as we start this new year?  Thanks Yvette for getting us started in 2021!

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An Important Message for Our Times

My friend Stevie sent me this link to a 2017 Ted Talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The title is “How We Can Face the future without Fear”. In these days following the election, Rabbi Sacks offers words that can move us forward – together.

I hope you will listen to the 12:36 message. Please feel free to share your responses as well.

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