Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A "Bitter" Activism

On Tuesday morning, Dave Ramsey, financial guru and evangelical Christian, provided the world with a definition he coined: “Activist: Bitterness that desperately needs a hobby.”

It’s difficult to know to which activists Ramsey is referring, but his all-encompassing definition of the word gives me pause. Was not Jesus an activist? Did he not dare to defy political and religious authority to feed the hungry, heal the sick, honor the marginalized and restore honor to women? Is not the very work of Jesus on the cross the greatest form of activism and advocacy which Christians celebrate? Isn’t Jesus the One who was willing to be bruised, beaten, and crucified – an activist on behalf of all humanity, even for those who reject him? And was not the Apostle Paul an activist, perhaps the greatest missionary of Christendom?

It reveals a deep historical amnesia to call activists “bitter.” Those who worked tirelessly to bring us child labor laws or voting rights or a minimum wage were all activists whose lives and efforts have changed our world for the good. Surely a Martin Luther King, Jr. or Dorothy Day or Eleanor Roosevelt or Thurgood Marshall were activists whose social and political agitation changed the course of human history?

But, of course, I don’t believe that Ramsey was referring to these types of activists, the ones which so many Christian evangelicals love to quote – the “good” activists. In his definition, “activist” is a dirty word – bitter folks in need of a hobby. Does he mean the activists of Ferguson or Baltimore or Cleveland? Does he mean the activists who launched #BlackLivesMatter or those fighting on behalf of their civil rights? Does he mean the activists who are rallying against police violence or the activists who are protesting the cradle-to-prison pipeline? Does he mean the activists who are routinely disrupting traffic, shutting down public buildings, and rallying in the streets? You know, the activists that are making life inconvenient for the privileged – those activists you want to ignore and dismiss as “outside agitators?”

And here is where so many evangelical Christians display their willful ignorance. The men and women who are even at this very moment are protesting police brutality are doing so in a longstanding tradition that connects with the biblical witness. If you serve a Jesus that disrupted the powerful and shifted paradigms, then you must bear witness to the men and women who today are speaking truth to power, making the comfortable uncomfortable, and turning the world upside down. When black women activists went topless and blocked Market Street in the Financial District of San Francisco to draw attention to black women and girls killed by police, they stood in a long line of biblical wailing women who tore their garments as a sign of mourning and protest. If you are a Christian and you have a problem with activists, you may need to discard the very scripture upon which your faith is built.

It is far too easy to dismiss the activism for basic human rights as “bitterness” when your privilege takes those basic human rights for granted. Too many of the privileged cannot imagine a world in which one has to become an activist, a protestor, and a dissenter in order to demand rights that only some have been automatically given. It is the height of privilege and arrogance to think that the disenfranchised and the dispossessed are activists because they are bored and in need of a hobby. Activism is a matter of life or death for those whose lives seem not to matter in this country; for those whose deaths cannot even be grieved.

It is far too easy to shame activists with words like “bitter,” instead of acknowledging that their activism is fueled by protests against inequity, racism, and systemic injustice. It is far too easy to call an activist “bitter” instead of acknowledging your culpability in unjust systems. I pray that the activists from Ferguson to San Francisco keep exposing the bitter truth of America’s broken and unjust systems – and from these bitter truths may we repent and restore.

© Yolanda Pierce

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

What Christianity Can Be

The headlines concerning the latest numbers of the changing American religious landscape are sensationalist: apparently Christianity in America is facing a decline and America is "notably" less Christian. The idea of Christianity's decline in America has been a recurrent theme for at least the past 50 years and the headlines reflect the fear that many in the Christian community have for "dwindling" numbers. But the headlines are wrong on at least two counts: this is not and has never been a Christian nation; and the religious landscape has always been more diverse than the numbers have suggested.

When we claim the United States as a Christian nation, we ignore the fact that its laws, policies, history, and origins have always stood contrary to the values of love. A nation founded on deliberate genocide and enslavement is not a nation that has Christian love as its bedrock. The greatest command - to love God with all one's heart and to love one's neighbor as oneself - was never the foundation of this nation's ethos. 

Our claim of America as a "Christian nation" ignores the richness of indigenous spirituality and cosmologies that were thriving before the arrival of Europeans to the shores of North America. The many nations of people who inhabited these shores had were religious people with faith practices - North America was not merely a blank slate onto which Christianity could write itself.

And finally, our claim of the United States as a Christian nation ignores the spiritual and religious diversity that also arrived with European colonization and slavery. As early as the 17th century, practicing Jews and Muslims were living, creating communities, and establishing houses of worship in North America. Simply because the dominant voice of Christianity steered the national discourse does not mean that these communities did not exist and thrive as early as early as the founding of this nation.

What the Pew data does tell us is that declining numbers of Americans self-identify as Christians. Fewer people know or understand themselves as Christians or want to be known by such a label. As a Christian myself, I greet this news with open arms. I am not worried, threatened, or at all concerned about this pattern of fewer and fewer people identifying themselves as Christians. Instead, I see this is an important opportunity, perhaps even a kairos moment.

As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will have a deeper understanding of their faith. They will embrace the fullness of being a Christian and not just adopt the term as a convenient cultural marker

As the numbers decline…maybe those who remain self-identified Christians will take the word “Christian” more seriously and not equate it with simply being an “American.”

As the numbers decline…maybe the numbers of Christian need to decline so that a more robust and genuine faith can evolve without Christianity itself.

Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more followers of Christ.

Perhaps we need fewer self-identified Christians and far more lovers of justice, mercy, and righteousness.

Perhaps we need much less civil religion, often couched in American patriotism, and far more theologically sound doctrine focused on the lost and the "least of these.”

I am convinced that Christianity needs more disciples, not members. We need more lovers of God, not pew sitters. We need more agents of mercy, not church boards.

As the numbers of self-identified Christians decline, perhaps what will emerge will be an actual reflection of the kingdom of God: those committed in both word and in deed to walk humbly, act justly, and love mercy. As the numbers decline, perhaps those who identify as Christians in the United States will be shaken from their comfort and slumber and rise up to tend to the business at hand: loving God and loving all people.

© Yolanda Pierce