Category Archives: Reflections

….but the violence

Grammatically, a conjunction brings two clauses together. Rhetorically, “but” brings together the ideas while rejecting the first one. Or, put another way, everything before the “but” is bull. Just imagine if you said to your partner, “I love you, but…” Everything at the end of the sentence would overpower and dismiss the statement of love.

As protests have formed in all 50 states and in countries around the world these past two weeks, I have heard all too clearly from white friends and colleagues that infamous “but.” “I support the protests but the riots and violence…”

Those three letters serve to diminish and negate any affirmation intended in the first clause. When someone does this they say two things, one explicitly and in line with white Christian response to black people raising their voices for centuries, and the other implicit in the silence of speaker.

White Christians chastised Civil Rights leaders repeatedly for causing violence. No matter how many times Martin Luther King Jr or other leaders stated that the movement was nonviolent, white leaders and journalists countered that they were causing violence. One key example of this came in the story of a white student who participated in the Nashville sit-ins named Paul LaPrad. After a visit to Germany in 1958 and seeing the lingering scars of World War II LaPrad returned to the states and changed his draft status to Conscientious Objection. While in Nashville as a student at Fisk, he sat under the leadership of Jim Lawson in nonviolence workshops alongside Diane Nash, John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, and Jim Bevel.

When the sit-ins began in the early months of 1961, LaPrad sat at the counters with his black friends from the workshop. He was pulled from the stools and beaten briefly. A photographer captured the moment. When that image was circulated in the press, especially back in LaPrad’s home state of Indiana, his draft board revoked his objector status because he “provoked violence”.

I don’t tell this story to put the spot light on Paul. I say it simply to note that no matter the methods of black leaders, the challenge to the current social order feels like violence. So some meet the nonviolent protest with physical violence and others highlight the violent reaction as signs of the inherent violence of black voices and bodies challenging white norms and laws.

In short, the “but the violence” rhetoric is a time proven strategy of undermining the legitimacy of black voices and bodies rightly proclaiming their grievances and calling for change.

Second, surveillance and cell phone cameras are showing over and over again police violence against protesters and white looters busting windows and setting fires. Saying “but the violence” dismisses the demonstrable fact that violence is being done to the protesters or around them. The “but” fails to attribute violence to the true actors. Some, then, will say that the force of the police is warranted because of protesters throwing things. The question of violence and scale is another conversation. Here, I simply want to note that the rhetorical “but” allows white critics to avoid attributing culpability to persons other than the actual protesters.

Finally, those who invoke violence connected to the protests rarely use “but the violence” in regard to policing or police brutality. Instead, we hear that police brutality is the actions of a “few bad apples.” Set the two sentiments side by side and it is easy to see the difference.

I support the protesters but the violence and looting are just not acceptable.
I don’t condone what the officer did, but it is a just the action of a few bad apples.

In the first sentence, the violence and looting are attributed to the whole. What happens to or around the protesters is an indictment against all the protesters.

In the second sentence, individuals act and should not be seen as indicting the whole.

The difference between those two scenarios should be plain. Police should not be held accountable for the actions of individuals, while protesters on the whole are assumed to all be violent. The problem isn’t the violence. The problem is the framing of white supremacy that undermines black leadership and power, yet affirms institutional violence because it maintains the political and economic status quo. Put another way, the difference between the two scenarios is racism.

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Confessions of a Recovering Progressive

Our Sunday school class just wrapped up a great series. We have asked several persons to share how their mind has or has not changed in the course of their life. When you think about it for a second, it is a huge question! We often think of certainty and belief as something we hold onto. Any change of perspective or understanding is somehow a sign of weakness, or even worse “flip=flopping.” Thanks to the American political culture the idea that we can change or come to a different understanding is now anathema. 

After our first set of conversations I started to wonder how I would answer the question. There are a couple of things that came to mind— how I turned to look at the early church in my studies; how I came to see universalism as a problem and not an opportunity. Those topics, of course, would be enough to comprise a blog post or more (and likely light few fires along the way). 

There has been, however, a general trend in my thinking that encompasses those particular topics. In the fancy fashion of catchy titles, I’ll simply say that “how I changed my mind” can be summed up this way- Confessions of a Recovering Progressive.

Growing up I wouldn’t say I lived in either a conservative or progressive part of the country. However, the general influence of American Evangelicalism was quite pronounced. I was an early participant in after school Bible studies, and even went to See You at the Pole events. At the same time I agued for Christian non-violence and pacifism in the days of the first Gulf War. By high school I came to define myself as socially liberal and biblically conservative- not really knowing the baggage of either term. 

In my senior year I chose to attend a generally progressive college. My friends who knew of Manchester, and heartedly disagreed with what they knew about the school, wished me well by saying: “Don’t let them change you.” Knowing these persons well, I understood this as a fond farewell. But I am sure there are others who hear it as a bit derogatory. In fact, my declaration of a major— Peace Studies— probably did create some concern.

At college, my sense of not fitting the mold continued. I eventually dropped my pursuit of Peace Studies for a variety of reasons, the foremost of which was that I felt my emphasis on religion as the basis for peace making was on the fringe of my fellow students. That isn’t to say that the Manchester Peace Studies lacked a religious foundation, but rather my peers held a typically modern perspective that religious conviction is at the root of most violence. 

Nonetheless, over time I found myself self-identifying as a progressive Christian. I even bought a book or two by John Spong. I was simply running in the crowds that valued a clear sense of being progressive and I had cut my theological chops among them. By the time I entered PhD work, I had even made my position clear as so many did in the early 2000’s— on Facebook. I listed my “Political Views” as progressive. 

Along the way though, I have never really felt too at home in that circle of liberalism. I have often felt at odds with the general assumptions about Modern Liberalism. Here I should say that Liberalism is the dominant perspective of America. The assumptions and ideologies of Liberalism frame our cultural and religious debates from religion and science, politics and faith, to economics and social good. It is the genus for the two political species we call “progressive” and “conservative.” In essence these two camps are arguing with each other as to the best understanding of the liberal perspectives ushered in by the politics and philosophy of modernity (Kant and Descartes, just to name two). Basically, progressives and conservatives are arguing about how to be the best Liberals.

At one point this finally came to a head as I argued with a fellow Brethren theologian about the ways the liberal dichotomy of progressive and conservative impact the debates of the day. He quickly commented that even as I say these things my Facebook profile labeled me within that liberal construct. The chipping away of my progressive credentials had begun, and I deleted my own label. 

Certainly, as many of my blog posts attest, I am not all that liberal. I have found Post-Liberalism to reflect more of where I stand, especially in my critiques of modern assumptions and the false dichotomy of progressive and conservative. In 2012 I posted a piece on the surge of interest in Neo-Anabaptism. There I tried to say that those of us within historic Anbapatist circles that find the emerging camps of Neo’s helpful and interesting are drawn to the Post-Liberal perspectives of thinkers such as Stanley Hauerwas. In a way, I was making my position much more clear, stating plainly that my constant fringe feeling within liberal circles, even before I knew the word Post-Liberal, was indicative of not having the right category. 

So thanks to my friend and fellow NuDunker Andy, I picked up Nancey Murphy’s book on liberalism and fundamentalism. There I found the exact sentiment I had been experiencing all my life, and had tried to encapsulate by saying I was socially progressive and biblically conservative. In her opening argument Murphy sums it up this way (in paraphrase): To the liberal we sound like fideists, and to the conservatives we sound like relativists. And there it was! I finally saw in print the exact feeling I had in high school and college. Progressivism simply did not have space for the deep sense of faith and tradition I often argue for in my theology. At the same time, conservatism simply did not have room for the pastoral and contextual perspective I often bring to ideological debates. 

So despite my strong critiques of capitalism, the death penalty, and the American warring culture, I am just not a progressive. At the same time, I am not do not think that returning to anything actually is possible or helpful (there are things like patriarchy that I simply do not want to recover). 

Of course, there is a lot more to say about changing my mind. There are a lot of tapes that run in our heads, especially in our political climate where liberalism in both forms defines so much of our language and perspectives. Pressing pause on those tapes, or even playing them backwards, takes time and energy. To do so, is often the source of some personal frustration and draws side glances or outright conflict from others. Yet, I have to say I am a recovering progressive in search of better words, more options, and less antagonism in the ways we understand our world and our discipleship. For now, it is enough to just say I am more at home among those for whom faithfulness is our social capital and not progress, where the politics of the world are but shadow games in light of the Politics of Jesus, and where economic presuppositions are based in mutuality and sharing rather than accumulation of wealth as a sign of success and blessing. 

And in the end, I remain a recovering progressive. 

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I am apart of all whom I’ve met

This morning I received word that a friend and mentor passed away on Sunday. While I grieve the loss of such an important person in my life, I could not say I was sad. My friend did not pass suddenly. In fact, he lived a beautiful 88 years- years which took him from a family farm in Illinois, to a Mennonite college as a student and later as a teacher. He served as a minister, established and led study terms in South America, raised a beautiful family, and graced me with too many stories to recount.

As I was finishing my MDiv at Candler, my friend graciously agreed to serve as my site supervisor. Many of our conversations at the office or at his home often started  with the reminder that he was not trained like these academic theologians and pastors. Yet, each conversation inevitably led to me learning something of his wisdom. We usually had to suspend our conversation for the lack of time, not of insight or interest.

One such conversation began with a bit of self revelation on his part. In the time since I had serving as interim pastor, he began seeing a woman he met at an afternoon bible study. He had lost his first wife a few years before, and the companionship was something he clearly cherished. The congregation had quickly welcomed her and rather enjoyed seeing the two of them together. In truth their relationship bloomed quickly and at that particular time they had been together for but a few months. That day he mentioned that they were talking already of getting married. I smiled and nodded. And honestly, I don’t remember what I said. Later, as the congregation sent us off to my next venture in studies, he mentioned that particular conversation. “You didn’t even blink an eye,” he said. I was honored to officiate at their wedding with her pastor, a memory I will forever cherish.

For the two years we were together I learned more than I can recall in a simple blog post. Yet, I do remember one quote from Tennyson he often shared in the course of his stories. “I am a part of all whom I have met.” I can only hope my own stories will include such a keen observation.

I can’t make it back to Atlanta for the funeral, though I will be closer than I have been in years. I almost grieve that fact more than I grieve his passing. There is something about gathering with his loved ones to celebrate the many gifts he blessed us all with. He was simply a strong and compassionate guide for his family, his students, and the congregations he served.

From a distance, then, I can only say he is indeed a part of me.

God Speed Vernon.

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