outside agitators

If you’ve seen my Facebook or Twitter feeds, then you’ve seen me sharing quite a bit about the events in Ferguson, MO. What is happening there is troubling, heartbreaking, but not at all surprising, especially if you understand how we got here. But I’ve become aware that a lot of people genuinely don’t know how we got here. I think I can help a bit with that.
But what business/right/responsibility do I have blogging about this? I had a brief chat with Hugh Hollowell (of Love Wins Ministries which does excellent work and could use your support) about whether or not to write about these things. Hugh wants to be mindful to give deference to the voices of those this affects directly and not to draw attention to himself, as white, privileged men so often do. He also wants to avoid the cynical use of such hot topic issues as a means to drive blog traffic. I completely agree on both counts. I avoid writing about the topic du jour because it feels tawdry and because it usually takes me more than five minutes to figure out what I really think or want to say about something. (For example, I didn’t write about Robin Williams’ death even though it has affected me a lot more than I would have expected, not least because Dead Poet’s Society literally changed the course of my life.)
But at the same time, I feel compelled to add my voice to the chorus highlighting the very real problems we have in our society. I had lunch with Christena Cleveland earlier this summer (Christena is one of the important voices we need to listen to in all this, click here to read her blog, and click here because you need to read her book too). I said to her almost exactly what Hugh said on Facebook yesterday and her response struck me and has really stayed with me. She told me to speak up, to use my privilege for good, not to let my desire to give deference to lull me into a silence which can be misconstrued as complacence. It will take a lot of voices speaking a lot of truth to move things forward. One of the great things about this moment is that there is no limit to who can speak or write. Adding my voice doesn’t have to detract or take away from others. My voice can amplify others.
So I’m starting a new series to contribute what I can to the ongoing conversations we need to be having. I am not going to dwell too much on the specific facts of the Mike Brown case in Ferguson. There are a lot of places offering good coverage (Twitter and Slate are the sources that have been most helpful for me). Instead, I am going to blog my way through three important documents. I keep telling everyone I can to read all three of these but I get the feeling most people never do. The first, Dr. King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” is a classic text and one that still speaks quite directly into our present situation. Dr. King wrote the letter responding to criticisms a group of white ministers have offered in a newspaper op-ed. I think I have heard every one of those misguided criticisms in the past week with regard to Ferguson. After I work slowly through Dr. King’s responses, I’m going to blog chapter-by-chapter through William Stuntz’s The Collapse of American Criminal Justice and Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century. I still recommend reading all these for yourself, but for those who can’t (or won’t), I will try to sum up the gist of the arguments made with an eye toward how we move forward.
And perhaps serendipitously, the first argument those white ministers made against Dr. King was that he had no business in Birmingham, that he needed to stay in Atlanta and mind his own business, that the last thing they needed were “outside agitators” coming in and causing trouble. I have heard the same phrase, ‘outside agitators,’ to describe protesters and even media who have traveled to Ferguson in the past week. I have seen Facebook friends complain (maybe about me) about all the postings in their feed about Ferguson. And underneath it all is this (mostly  unspoken) sentiment that white people like me have no business going on about issues affecting the ‘black community.’ I know this is not at all what Hugh meant, but even the idea that ‘other’ voices need to take the lead includes the inherent idea of separation. That there is somewhere outside and somewhere inside and only insiders should be dealing.
Dr. King began his letter by responding to this idea of being an ‘outsider.’ He rejected the argument that what was happening in Birmingham only affected Birmingham. He rejected the argument that he was an outsider or could be an outsider anywhere in the United States. We will see later on that he specifically laments the lack of white people speaking up about injustice, so though he doesn’t link ‘outsider’ with racial identifications at the outset, I think this is a fair extension of his argument. Dr. King was not an outsider to Birmingham and none of us are outsiders to Ferguson. And white people are not outsiders to the concerns of black people.
None of us are outsiders because, “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” If Mike Brown can be gunned down for jaywalking, then any amount of violence can be committed by the state against any of us (if you don’t believe me, watch this video of a young man in Greensboro arrested for walking in the non-sidewalked street in front of his own home and this video of Wake Forest police repeatedly shocking a young man with a taser for cussing in public).  None of us are outsiders because we exist in a “network of mutuality,” in other words, what affects one of us affects all of us either directly or indirectly. The same underlying causes of the protests in Ferguson are present in all of our communities: urban, suburban, exurban, rural. If you think your neighborhood is safe from injustice and violence, if you think a gate can protect your community, you are desperately mistaken. The very fabric of society, the existence of justice, the protection of life are at stake. Our justice system is broken. Our economic system is broken. There is nowhere ‘outside’ you can stand unaffected by these realities. You have to pay attention. You have to educate yourself. You have to be involved. You have to speak out. You have to support those fighting for justice. You have to pray. Your very life is as much at stake as much as anyone’s.
You don’t have to be from Ferguson to be concerned about what’s going on in Ferguson. You don’t have to be from Ferguson to pray about what’s going on in Ferguson. You don’t have to be from Ferguson to be speak out about what’s going on in Ferguson. We have persistent problems (racial and economic disparities) and growing problems (police militarization and preference for lethal force). Where ever these problems become evident, where ever the flash points of injustice occur is where we should all go, either physically or virtually. We need to hear again Dr. King’s refusal of the outsider label:
“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the prophets of the eighth century B.C. left their villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their home towns, and just as the Apostle Paul left his village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to the far corners of the Greco-Roman world, so am I compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my own home town. Like Paul, I must constantly respond to the Macedonian call for aid.
Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

Your Sunday Best

IMG_2789I taught my first college course at Lee University in 2001 (Introduction to Christian Thought). I entered class that first day rocking a bow tie and sports coat and I’ve been wearing them ever since.  After I completed my Ph.D. last year, I ramped up my ensemble with vests and this brought an excellent side effect – I was able to incorporate the pocket watch I inherited from my grandfather. When I’m wearing the whole thing, I feel ever so much like a professor. I’m sure it’s because my mental picture of ‘professor’ was formed as a child by watching Paper Chase and reading C.S. Lewis. Like when a pro athlete puts on their uniform, or Walter White slips on the Heisenberg hat, my prof duds are my teaching uniform.

IMG_2498I’m also a Vineyard pastor which is pretty much at odds with my professor get up, since Vineyard was the birth place of the “come as you are” church trend. It started as a hippie thing. Hippies would literally accept anyone, regardless of attire or pretty much anything else, and the hippies who became the Jesus people who became the Vineyard carried that vibe forward and accentuated that acceptance applied most especially to coming to church. This was important since some of these folks came to Jesus while naked or high on LSD or both. (Go ahead and read that sentence again and let it sink in.) They were known to get stoned (so no telling what they were wearing) and then read all the way through an entire Gospel together out loud, with everyone weeping at the end. So “come as you are” was a necessary part of their existence as a community of faith.

Of course, now we’ve reduced that to just mean “go ahead and dress casual,” and most churches have adopted it, since the overall culture has gone casual anyway. This led one pastor to complain in a CNN article back in April, decrying the tacky state of church attire in America (you can read the article here). The article made the point that in lowering our standard of dress as a culture, we show a lack of gratitude and respect in general, which is not a good posture for believers to take before God. A few days ago, fellow local pastor (and acquaintance, he set up the security system at our church last year) Bill Rose blogged about this, showing respect for the other pastor, but concluding that God overlooks our tacky dress because God cares more about our souls than our clothes (click here to read Bill’s post).

I wanted to weigh in on this because there are a couple of aspects of this I have not seen discussed, either from the CNN article, or Bill, or anywhere else so far. The first has to do with how clothes function in our lives (beyond their obvious practicality). There is both social and personal psychology to clothes – clothes cause others to think of us in certain ways and us to think of ourselves in certain ways. And these aren’t isolated, they inform and feed on each other. If your clothes make you feel more confident, others pick up on that confidence and it affects what they think of you and probably impacts how they ‘read’ your clothing. I don’t think many of my students are overly enamored of my Paper Chaseesque attire, but the self-confidence it gives me tips the balance in this social-personal cultural nexus. It helps me feel like a professor, so I talk and act in a more professorial way and my students respond accordingly.

sandalsI shift gears when I pastor. I wear sandals (I preach in these most Sundays), jeans (occasionally shorts), and a casual button-down or tee shirt. I do this intentionally because I stand in a certain tradition, the Vineyard, and this is part of who we are. We’re this odd mix of hippie, Quaker, and Pentecostal, and preaching in flip flops helps me live into that vibe the same way bow ties, vests, and a pocket watch help me get my professor on. Once in a while, my worlds collide in the best way and I look what a Vineyard professor might look like (if we had such a thing, see last pic below). The fancy term for this is “enclothed cognition” (read this Forbes article for more info). All of these clothing cues inform my self-image and the image I project to others.

But notice that this nexus is two-dimensional. At no point does it involve God. What you wear has no impact on what God thinks of you. Zero. God doesn’t have to “overlook” what you’re wearing. It simply doesn’t matter. God cares whether you have clothes to wear or not (see Matt. 25.31-46), but your fashion choices are not of divine concern. And it’s not that your clothes are “filthy rags” to God; that thinking goes along with the idea of “total depravity” which just isn’t true (read an old post of mine for more on that). We get so stuck in our Western, business-casual thinking, that we forget our fashion choices are recent inventions and that our cultural conventions carry no divine mandate. In a time when the middle class in the U.S. is poorer than it has been at any time since the Great Depression, we need to back off on giving people grief about what they wear to the store or to the park or even to church. People can’t afford clothes like they could back in the day, well, except for when we buy clothes made by slave labor around the world. Trust me, God would rather you dress sloppy or tacky in clothes you already own than have you further contribute to the suffering of others. These are the things God cares about.

IMG_2672But this doesn’t mean that what you wear to church doesn’t matter at all. It does matter because it matters to you. The point of going to church is to connect to God and to your community of faith, to meet God in worship and in the preached Word, to lift others up in prayer and receive ministry from them as well. You should wear whatever facilitates these activities for you. I freely admit that this entirely subjective and it has to be because we worship in different contexts and our deepest selves are in different places. Some of us have issues with our own body images. Some of us have been subjected to painful shaming (too often in church!). Some of us need to dress up to connect to God. Some of us need to dress down to connect to God. You should dress in whatever way helps you best connect to God. You should find and be part of a community of faith that best helps you connect to God. Clothing doesn’t matter to God because it’s only a two-dimensional thing. But life is not two-dimensional. Life is three-dimensional. You. Others. God. Don’t let what others think of you – or what you think of yourself – get in the way of connecting with God. Don’t let church get in the way of connecting with God. Don’t let anything get in the way of connecting with God. Pray naked if you have to (though I really can’t recommend the LSD, don’t do that, seriously). Your Sunday best is whatever helps you connect to God the best.

What do you think? What sort of clothing helps put you in a good mental/spiritual state to connect to God? What has your experience with church been like in the past surrounding this issue? Please comment and let me know.