Activism, Teaching

On Teaching (and Activism)

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on August 15, 2013


When I was a kid, the first day of class was all about the school supplies. Saying goodbye to summer seemed less dreadful with a fresh box of Crayola crayons and a Trapper Keeper in my backpack. Throughout my days as a student, this excitement of the first day of class was always a constant in my life. When I was in high school and too old to buy crayons, (ok, that’s a lie, I still bought crayons) there was the excitement over AP classes or meeting new friends. In college and grad school I couldn’t wait to get see the syllabus on the first day and learn what tasks and readings would fill my semester. With the exception of a few math classes I’d like to forget, I’ve always loved being a learner.

But now I am a teacher, and to be honest it takes a bit more work to get excited about the first day of class. No one buys me crayons and I have to write that syllabus myself. But there’s still a deep joy to the first day of class. It’s the day I meet the students who will be co-learners with me for the semester. On the first day of class I remember bell hooks words about radical pedagogy in Teaching to Transgress, “the professor must genuinely value everyone’s presence.” The first day of class is the day I begin to deeply hope and believe that we’ll learn and be transformed together.

In articulating my pedagogy, I call myself a teacher-activist. I deeply believe that our classrooms should transform both students and their teachers. As a professor in the humanities (theology and ethics, to be exact) I have a great hope that our classrooms can move beyond individualistic learning outcomes and transform our communities. Eventually, they might even change the moral discourse of our society. I believe classrooms are spaces where civility can be born, where collegiality can be learned and practiced, and where difficult conversations can happen in (safe) space. But the transformative classroom does not happen automatically. It takes a deep commitment on the part of all the learners — including those who teach – for transformation to truly occur.

This past month as I worked to tweak my grad-level “Foundations of Social Justice” syllabus for the fall, I thought of all that happened over the summer. Fresh on my mind was Trayvon Martin’s death and the George Zimmerman verdict. Now, as I look forward to the first day of class I wonder how we will read Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” differently in light of Trayvon’s too-short life or the Supreme Court’s decision on the Voting Rights Act. Most importantly, I hope we will read it differently.

I like to think of the classroom as a starting place for grassroots activism. But I also know the classroom is a space of privilege. Some kids don’t get new crayons. Lots of kids don’t get to go to college. Even fewer have the time, money, or privilege to enroll in the grad school courses I teach. In East Africa where I do research on HIV and AIDS, children walk miles to go to school and sometimes can’t go because they can’t afford a uniform, or the roll of toilet tissue each student is required to bring for class. In Chicago where I live and work, parents are worried as the school year draws near about their kids crossing gang territory to get to school due to this year’s massive school closings.

Education is precious, which is why it must be transformative. If our classrooms can’t give us a space to talk about race, or discrimination, or the violence that is too common in our country, then we might as well pack up our crayons and books and go home.

But I think teachers know this well. In our hearts, I believe most of us who teach are teacher-activists whether we name ourselves in this way or not. Teaching isn’t just a job — it’s a vocation.

So here’s a challenge for all of us — teachers and learners. When we return to our classrooms in the next few weeks, let’s think about teaching and learning as activism. Let’s bring the injustice of our world with us into the classroom so we can deal with it here. Let’s draw a circle around it and sit uncomfortably for a while, listening to the stories of those who have experienced injustice firsthand. As we do, we might just learn together how to become agents of deep and lasting change as we transform more than just the classroom.

Environmental Issues

Man of Steel: Apocalyptic Eco-Justice?

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on June 17, 2013


When it comes to superhero allegiance, our house sides with the Justice League. From the time my partner was given a Superman cape as a 5-year-old, he has always been a big fan. I bought him a Superman tattoo for Christmas the first year we were married. Ten years later when our daughter was born, we decorated her nursery with Wonder Woman posters and paraphernalia. We wanted her to look up from her crib and see a character created as a symbol against Patriarchy — a strong woman who (mostly) used reason rather than violence to bring about justice. Just to be sure the image was safe, we skipped the weak 1960s incarnation of Wonder Woman as Diana Prince working in a clothing boutique!

As a theologian, it’s always been tempting to pick up one of the many books or articles comparing Superman and Jesus, but until now I’ve maintained my resistance. It seemed as if the comparison was incongruent with Superman’s Jewish roots. Christians already renamed the Hebrew Scriptures the “Old Testament.” It seemed wrong to co-opt Superman too.

Yet with every movie that comes out, Superman takes on a bit more of the Christian/Jesus mythology — but whose Jesus is this Superman?

I’ll admit I was a little shocked to learn that Man of Steel was advertised so heavily with Christian pastors and churches. Clergy were given free screenings before the movie was released. There was even a Father’s Day discussion guide and a faith-friendly film trailer. But after watching the movie I was even more troubled. Why did the filmmakers think that an intensely violent, overly apocalyptic movie would appeal to Christians? I guess because it does.

Don’t get me wrong — there was a great take-away for people of faith and all people of good will in this movie. But I’m not talking about the intentional plot points that the filmmakers imagined might appeal to Christians, such as Superman being 33 years old, the scene in the church with the priest and the stained-glass depiction of the Garden of Gethsemane, the handcuff scene where he willingly turns himself in, or the scene where he falls through the air looking as if he’s hanging on a cross only to “rise again.” As a person of faith, I’m more interested in why Superman left Krypton. Could this be a story of eco-justice?

Unlike the story of the Messianic Christ who willingly left heaven to be embodied on earth and save the world, Kal-El left Krypton as a last resort. In this movie he was a refugee of environmental degradation. Perhaps this is the gift that the Man of Steel movie offers our generation. In other Superman stories, Krypton was unstable but its destruction was generally seen as a natural disaster or the result of war/violence. In this movie, the planet is unstable because of the actions of the planet’s inhabitants — due to an energy crisis they were harvesting the planet’s core. Even further, we learn that Krypton had been colonizing other planets by using a “world machine” that “terraformed” a planet so it could be inhabited by Kryptonians. With climate change and the ways in which the industrialized West still “colonizes” developing countries, we find relevant eco-justice lessons from the movie’s very beginning.

This fictional narrative of eco-justice climaxes with a showdown between Superman and General Zod. But while we learned a valuable lesson with Krypton’s demise, the movie’s depiction of our planet’s salvation leaves something to be desired. Like nearly all the previews for summer movies that we saw before Man of Steel began, this movie jumped straight to the overused theme of apocalypse. In 3D and XD we watched as buildings crumbled and Metropolis turned into a wasteland. Options other than war were never considered as the (Messianic?) Superman “saved” the planet from “complete destruction.” The apocalyptic nature of this ecological salvation caused it to fall short of a vision of justice.

But what if we re-wrote the story? What if people of faith refused the vision of the apocalypse and chose to instead lift up a different Messianic interpretation from the Man of Steel? Superman was never strong on Krypton. He only found great strength when he was embodied as human, living on earth. Unlike our typical theological understandings of the Jesus of scripture, Superman was not all-powerful in his origin (divinity?) but only powerful in his embodied life (humanity).

In the apocalyptic showdown, General Zod ridicules Superman by saying, “Where were you trained, on a farm?” Zod gets it right. Like any good Midwesterner, Clark Kent sees the farm — his connectedness to the land — as a deep source of strength.

Perhaps here we can jettison the apocalypse in favor of an eco-justice revision. If we are to restore the earth that God has created, it will be because of our connectedness to the land and its people. It will be because we are human, created and embodied to live as part of this planet. It will be because we are learning to care for our own embodied reality and the lives of those around us.

In the Ethics and Moral Theology class I’m teaching at Loyola University Chicago this summer, we spent this week talking about eco-justice. As we read about climate change and environmental degradation, there were no foreign villains to blame for the destruction of our planet. Like Jor-El’s impassioned speech on Krypton, we took responsibility for the ways we have all harmed and damaged our world. But we didn’t imagine an apocalyptic salvation. We relied instead on a better moral imagination as we suggested solutions to this crisis.

People of faith can certainly learn something from the Man of Steel movie, particularly in regard to the fragility of our own planet. Let’s just hope we don’t turn to an apocalypse for salvation.

Author’s note: Here’s a special shout-out to my friends who know more about Superman mythology than I do — Thanks David Garber, Michelle Brooks Garber, Wes Browning, Ken Sury, Garin Hill and Jim Gilreath for your advice on this blog post. And thanks to Chrissy Sofranko who made the rare treat of movie-watching possible by hanging out with our future Wonder Woman.


Bless All the Dear Children

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on February 17, 2013


At the Christmas carol and candlelight service our family goes to each year, I had a hard time singing “Away in a Manger.” The very mention of children, the image of a baby in a manger, reminded me of Newtown. The third verse of the song was where I had to stop singing:

Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Bless all the dear children in Newtown, in Aurora, in Oak Creek — in the far too many places where mass shootings have taken place. Bless all the dear childrenwho die on street corners in Chicago or LA from the everyday gun violence that is all too common. Bless all the dear children who have lost their lives, or become orphans, or who have experienced trauma in the wake of gunfire.

For Christians who sing “Away in a Manger,” we are reminded of a central truth of the Christian faith: God came to live among us, taking on human form. He was born to poor parents of little means. Before anyone called him Christ, he was a vulnerable child lying in a manger. While we celebrate this miracle with carols and candles, we must also pause to ask a sobering question. If Jesus were born today, would he even have the chance to grow up? If Jesus were born in Chicago or Newtown, would he become a victim of gun violence before his seventh birthday?

I started caring about guns the day I accidentally tried to break up a gunfight in the side yard beside my three-flat. I didn’t know I was breaking up a gunfight. I was only planning on yelling at my teenage neighbors who were making too much noise. But then one kid pulled a gun on another kid and I ran back inside my apartment. This is when I learned I shared a building with three gang members and their guns. A week later I remember looking out my window and seeing my 14-year old neighbor holding a Glock behind his back as he watched the kids from the high school across the street leave the building. Bless all the dear children — even the children who think they need to carry guns.

Like many people, I started caring about guns when gun violence came too close to home. This week for our nation, gun violence has come too close to home.

Today, my family still lives in Chicago, just a few miles away from that three-flat where my gun-toting teenage neighbors and I lived. But today I see things a bit differently. Having a kid of my own is teaching me the urgency of now. I know I must be part of creating a world that’s safe for her to grow up in — something Reinhold Niebuhr might have called an “impossible possibility.” In the same week of the Newtown tragedy, federal appeals court judges in my own state struck down the last remaining statewide concealed carry ban in the country. And these judges were sitting on a bench in a city where gun violence claims more than 400 lives each year.

I often tell my students that finding solutions to complex situations of injustice requires creativity and imagination. We can’t point our finger in one direction and refuse to see the complexity of the problem at hand. As we reflect on the multiple causes of the Newtown tragedy and other mass shootings, I hope we take time to listen to the stories of the survivors, for these stories will help us think creatively about just policy. Because the burdens of gun violence are being borne by victims and their families, their stories must be privileged as we move forward. Their words and stories must be raised over the voices of the gun lobby or even over legal precedent.

Its time for a new conversation, one that refuses to debate only the legal permissibility of guns but one that imagines what shape just policy might take in response to an increasing climate of violence and aggression. What is legal is not always what is moral. We might start by remembering that most guns were created as weapons of war. So, if we want our streets or our elementary schools to stop looking like war zones, then we have to do something about guns — especially the guns that cause so much damage.

We also need to look for the everyday ways we can choose peace over violence. We must not overlook the little acts — the small gifts of grace — for these can also radically reshape our world into a place of peace. Children give us a moral example of these small graces through their natural propensity for love and creativity. We can begin to respond to Newtown and other tragedies by following their lead. We can allow children to become a moral lens for how we shape our society. If we seek to create a society that is safe for children and others who are vulnerable (such as those with mental illness or those living at the margins of our society) then we open up space for the flourishing of all creation.

Tonight, as I was (not) singing “Away in a Manger,” I listened closely to the words beyond Bless all the dear children. Here the carol gives us a mandate: And fit us for heaven to live with thee there. I began to ask myself how we could ever be fit for heaven when our culture seems to love guns more than peace. How many tragedies will we experience before we stop waiting for heaven and create peace here on earth?

This week, Newtown is teaching us how to be fit for heaven. In the midst of this tragedy there were people who threw themselves in the way of harm to protect those in their care. And after the tragedy, the town has pulled together to care for each other in the midst of this deep and abiding sorrow.

Yet these sacrifices should not have been necessary. Certainly we are capable of imagining a world where we all bear away the burdens of violence so no one has to bear it alone. In this season where we talk about peace, my prayer is that peace will be more than a greeting on a Christmas card, but will become a guide and a goal for our moral imagination. Perhaps this is how we will learn to bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and fit us for heaven to live with thee there.

Environmental Issues

Climate Change and Setting the World on Fire

This post originally appeared at ON Scripture on February 10, 2013


It was Earth Day, 1988. I was in my fifth grade “Earth Science” class, a place where one might expect to talk about the importance of caring for the earth. But this was not what we were talking about that day. At least, we weren’t talking about it until one student asked our teacher about the hole in the ozone layer and whether or not she should stop using hairspray. Our science teacher replied by saying that hairspray wasn’t a problem because the end of the world was coming and the whole earth would be consumed by fire anyway.

While my science teacher did not speak for all people of faith, she also was not a lone voice in the crowd. Caring for the earth is not something Christian churches in the West have been particularly good at. We were late coming to the conversation and have been slow in mobilizing our efforts. This is ironic considering that the foundational stories of our faith, the first words in the book we call holy, commission us to be caretakers of every living thing. In a world where climate change is evidenced in super storms, wildfires, heat waves, droughts and floods, it is urgent that people of faith return to our first responsibility of being stewards of the world in which we live.

This past summer, when my family moved back to Chicago, I remembered my science teacher’s words about an earth on fire. As people who do not like the heat, we decided to leave Atlanta early in the summer so we could enjoy the relatively cooler temperatures we remembered from our previous years in the windy city. But the summer of 2012 was the hottest on record for the entire US, and the Midwest was the hardest hit. Crops were dying in the field due to extreme drought and heat. One crop biologist analyzing the situation said it was like “farming in hell.”

In the midst of those summer heat waves, we felt as if the world actually might be destroyed by fire. Perhaps that is why so many of us were eager for winter, for a good Chicago snow. But then there was another record – 290 days without any measurable snow.  At one point in the winter, Dallas had more snow than Chicago. Perhaps another irony – in 2009, the Union of Concerned Scientists projected that unless significant action is taken to curb climate change, then the climate of Illinois would feel like East Texas by the end of the century.


Transforming the Earth

If climate change is going to end, an urgent transformation is needed. In this week’s lectionary texts, we’re reminded of the beauty of transformative places. That’s what Transfiguration Sunday symbolizes – a sacred space of connecting with God. In these texts, we find Moses meeting God on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35), and see Jesus on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah (Luke 9:28-36). These are sacred spaces. These are spaces where heaven meets earth; where creation is transformed through an encounter with the creator.

But sacred spaces are not reserved for prophets and patriarchs. The eschatological hope of creating a sacred space here on earth is extended to all. “Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness” (2 Corinthians 3:12). Second Corinthians reminds us that we’re not the people who sit at the bottom of the mountain and wait for the prophet to arrive. We’re not even like Moses who had to wear a veil (2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2). Instead, we have some transformation work of our own to do.


“We have this boldness”

This leads us to ask an important question. What might this hope that causes us to act with “great boldness” mean in light of climate change? Can we possibly re-create the earth as sacred? Is there still time to work toward the flourishing of the earth and all who inhabit it?

Back to my fifth grade science classroom. The hole in the ozone layer caused many of us to start caring. The first decision I ever made for the environment was to switch to non-aerosol hairspray. (If you saw my fifth grade portrait, you’d realize this was a big deal.) Because so many people saw the effects of environmental degradation, legislation was put in place to phase out CFC’s two years after the discovery of the hole in the ozone layer. While the effects of the damage are still being felt today, the hole in the ozone is finally beginning to recover.

Admittedly, climate change is a bigger problem. Even if we made drastic changes to our current carbon footprint, we would still feel the results of the damage we’ve done for decades, maybe even a century, into the future. The debt we’re leaving for future generations demands we regard climate change as an urgent problem to be addressed.

Back to the hope, back to the great boldness – remembering the slow but effective response to ozone depletion. What changes might we make two years after Hurricane Sandy or the record setting summer of 2012 that might turn the tide for generations to come?


Ashes, Fire, and Global Warming

As we move into the season of Lent, Ash Wednesday gives us a powerful reminder of transformative fire. When we wear ashes, we remember that our very bodies are connected to the earth, that after this short time we call life, our bodies will return to dust. Lent itself is a sacred space that opens up opportunity for great hope and great boldness. As we repent of our sins and shortcomings, we make room for transformation.

What would happen this Lenten season if we confessed the ways in which we’ve neglected to care for the earth? What would happen if instead of giving up the standard “dessert” for 40 days, we instead chose to reduce our carbon footprint? What might happen if we committed to 40 practices of caring for the earth, or even one new practice a week? What transformation might take place if we gave up driving, or bottled water, or non-local food, or food that is not sustainably farmed?

This weekend, Interfaith Power and Light is sponsoring a preach-in focused on Global Warming. This event is asking people of faith and places of worship to incorporate a focus on climate change into their weekend gatherings. Participants will be learning more about these issues and sending postcards to President Obama asking him to honor his pledge to do something about climate change. The preach-in is an adventure in great hope and great boldness as it affirms that if humans are responsible for creating the harm done to the environment, then they can also take responsibility in working toward its wholeness and healing.

More than 500 years ago, when Ignatius of Loyola would send a Jesuit out on a mission he would tell them to “Go forth and set the world on fire.” This is not the same fire my science teacher was waiting for. This is the fire that acts with great hope and great boldness. This is the fire that believes that change can come. This is the fire that works to bring transformation into being.


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Activism, LGBTQ

The Nugget Boycott: Week Two

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on August 1, 2012


It’s been two weeks. I’m nearly through the detox period. OK, I’m exaggerating. I do (usually) eat other things besides those tasty chicken nuggets. But like a bad diet, when you’ve set something off limits, you really start to crave it.

One question I’ve been asked is, “Why boycott?” Good question. I am not arrogant enough to think that Chick-fil-A will miss the $7 bucks I give them once a week for that nuggets combo. And unless Dan Cathy and his buddies stumbled on my article by googling themselves, they likely don’t know I exist. This is OK because here’s the thing: I’m not boycotting to get revenge. I’m not trying to “stick it to them.” I’m boycotting to save my own soul.

You see, each time I walk past a Chick-fil-A without stopping in, I reaffirm my commitment to not contribute to an organization that marginalizes people based on their sexual orientation. In this small act, I am paying attention to my own moral formation. The decisions we make each day, especially the ordinary ones, shape the people we are becoming. In boycotting, I am less concerned about Chick-fil-A’s reaction, and more concerned about my own conscience. Changing ourselves is the first step in creating change in our world.

Of course, I would love it if Dan and the good folks at Chick-fil-A saw things differently. I honestly wish that they knew some of the good people I know. Lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender folks who live each day in loving, committed relationships with God and each other. Folks who raise their kids with care and faithfully sit in the pews and serve in their churches on Sunday mornings. I want them to know that Christians on the “other side” are reading the same Bible they are reading, but coming out with different conclusions. This is because we have realized (from knowing each other and seeing God in each other) that in the time the Bible was being written, there was simply no concept of committed, loving or even consensual same-sex relationships. The same-sex relationships we know today would have been nearly impossible in a biblical world ruled by patriarchy. And while we’re on the subject, opposite-sex relationships where women were not property would have been nearly impossible as well.

We all want people to see things the way we do, or at least to hear us out. This is our human nature and I believe it comes from our longing to be in community with each other. From the way Chick-fil-A spends their money on anti-gay campaigns, I can assume that the good folks at Chick-fil-A might wish that people like me on the “other side” would see things their way too.

A lot of people have assumed that I’m boycotting Chick-fil-A because of Dan Cathy’s personal views on “gay marriage.” (There have been letters!) But that’s really not it. I have friends and family members who share his same view. We still go out for lunch and coffee and have yet to “boycott” each other (unless you count those people who have unfriended me on Facebook this week). My response is about the civil rights that I believe should be extended to all people. It is about the$5 million that Chick-fil-A has given to organizations that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled as “hate groups,” groups who are trying to convince us that civil rights are only for straight folks.

Some of the money that Chick-fil-A is using to fund these groups came from my wallet, which means I share in this brokenness and violence that has been done in the name of Christ. As a person of faith, as a former customer at this establishment, I am also responsible, and therefore I have a responsibility to respond.

So here’s my response to Dan and the good folks at Chick-fil-A and to any others who might find themselves listening: Perhaps I’m too optimistic, but I would like to think that a church built on the teachings of Christ could agree on at least a few issues in this “debate.” Yet, instead, we’ve entered into a war of words where it has become too easy to do violence against each other or violence against ourselves. Some words that are being spoken are in themselves violence. These words forget that we’re not talking about an issue, but real living and breathing people, all created in the image of God.

As a follower of the Christ, who said we will be known by our love, I believe that its time to find some common ground. Contrary to the opinion of a few pastors who have spoken hate from the pulpit, I believe that most Christians agree that hate crimes are wrong. Should we not also agree that hate speech, which too often incites violence, is also wrong? When Christians like Dan Cathy evoke images of God’s judgment, then they are contributing to an environment where people feel compelled to take this “judgment” into their own hands.

I was glad to read this week that Chick-fil-A has decided to not make any more statements on same-sex marriage. This is a start but it’s not near enough, not as long as they are paying others to speak hate for them. I guess we boycotters will wait for next year’s financial reports to come out to see what Chick-fil-A has done with their charitable giving. After all, Christian Scriptures tell us that “where your treasure (or your money) is, there your heart will be also” (Luke 12:34, NRSV). Until then, I guess we’ll all just learn how to make our own Chick-fil-gay sandwiches at home.


2 Samuel 11:1-15: The Story of Patriarchy and HIV/AIDS

This post originally appeared at ON Scripture on July 29, 2012


This week, more than 20,000 people are meeting in our nation’s capital for the 2012 International AIDS Conference. Activists, doctors, people living with HIV and AIDS, development workers, theologians, social scientists and all kinds of folks are currently attending this event.

In the 31 years since the discovery of HIV and AIDS, nearly 30 million people have died from the virus with 34 million peoplecurrently living with the disease. The epidemic is at its worst in sub-Saharan Africa, and women are affected the most. In fact, 59% of people living with HIV and AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa are women.

Statistics like these are mind-numbing. Though necessary, they can nearly cripple our response as they point to the inefficacy of our actions. This is why, when I teach or write on HIV and AIDS, I prefer to tell stories. And as people of faith, we need stories, both ancient and new, to help us navigate our response to social issues such as HIV and AIDS.


Grace’s Story

Grace, whose name has been changed to protect her from stigma, is a woman who lives in the Lake Victoria basin of Tanzania. At fourteen years old, she ran away from home with a man visiting her village because her parents could no longer pay her school fees. Grace and her husband had two children together.  Although she married young, she valued her marriage. But once her husband got money, he took another wife without her consent. Her husband and his second wife were married in a Christian church. Even though polygamous marriage is illegal for Christians in Tanzania, Grace said churches rarely check to see if the partners are already married.

Grace didn’t know what to do. She tried to live in this new polygamous relationship, but it became too much. After her husband took a third wife, she ran away to Nairobi, where she found a job as a maid. After she left, her children did not do well without her. Her oldest son was especially distraught. She managed to pay his school fees for his first two years of secondary school, but by his third year her situation had changed. She could no longer afford the school fees, and the father refused to help as long as the boy’s mother was no longer acting as his wife.

In her job as a maid, Grace was constantly harassed sexually by the owner of the house. She refused to sleep with him for nearly a year, but then he offered to pay her son’s school fees in exchange for sex. She still said no, but after hearing her son had been crying for two weeks, she finally gave in. She knew her poverty made it impossible to care for all her children, but she said, “Let me fight for just this one.”

The only weapon Grace had for the fight was her body. As a result, she contracted HIV by giving into her boss’ demands. This was how she protected her family. Grace’s son has now grown up and graduated from college. He is smart, dedicated, and cares deeply for his mother. He also has no idea that his mother contracted HIV while trying to secure his future.


Bathsheba’s Story

While Grace’s story shocks and angers us, the story is parallel to Ecclesiastes 1:9 “there is nothing new under the sun”. The story of a woman being forced into a situation where she uses her body as a tool for survival is a story as old as time.

This is Bathsheba’s story as well. She was bathing on the roof when King David, who should have been at battle, saw her and sent for her. 2 Samuel doesn’t tell us much about the encounter, only that he sent, she came, and he slept with her. Missing from the biblical record is Bathsheba’s voice. The only words we hear from her mouth is her message to David: “I’m pregnant.”

What we do know is that in this time period, women had very few choices about their bodies.  When a king sends for you, you come. We remember other stories, like the story of Tamar, who was raped by David’s favorite son, Amnon, and we remember how David did nothing in response (2 Sam. 13).

Commentator Robert Alter notes that David’s love stories take place amidst conflict and death. Bathsheba is not the only woman David married in the midst of pain or death. Similar stories can be found in his marriages to Michal (I Sam 18:20-29) and Abigail (1 Sam. 25).


Patriarchy’s Story

Though separated by thousands of years, we find a common thread in Grace and Bathsheba’s stories. Both women were at the mercy of the men in their lives, forced in to situations where their bodies became their currency for survival.

In doing fieldwork in Tanzania on Christian marriage and HIV/AIDS, the women in my study told me that they could not refuse sex with their husbands: if they did, they would be “beaten first and raped later.” I wonder if Bathsheba would have told a similar story about her encounter with David. I wonder if she submitted because she feared for her husband’s life. The text following this passage shows us clearly that David controlled Uriah’s fate (2 Sam. 11:6-27).

Like the story of David and Bathsheba, death and love are too often linked in the stories of women living with HIV and AIDS in Africa. If we want to see this pandemic end, then women must be given space to have power and control over their own lives. One way to do this is for Christian churches to advocate for women’s rights around the world. This global pandemic reminds us that its time for some stories – like the story of patriarchy – to come to an end.


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Activism, LGBTQ

Chicken Nuggets and Family Values

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on July 18, 2012


I have one fast food weakness — an eight-pack of chicken nuggets in a white and red box. I could go years and never crave a fast food burger, but I’ll admit I have a deep kinship with Chick-fil-A’s version of fast food. As a kid growing up (Christian) in the south, Chick-fil-A has always been part of the good food I loved. They donated free sandwich coupons to our church fundraisers, and as a teenager I attended community prayer breakfasts that met at our local Chick-fil-A. True story: I’ve even dressed as a cow to get free food.

But today, we’re parting ways. For the past few months, I have been following the news that Chick-fil-A donates money to groups such as Marriage & Family Foundation, Exodus International and the Family Research Council. These groups and others have contributed extensively to the religious hate speech that marginalizes lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. They have spoken out against civil rights for LGBT individuals and have even discouraged anti-bullying campaigns that seek to prevent LGBT teens from taking their own lives.

I’m not one to rush to a boycott. I recognize that many of the places I eat have unjust practices. Even when I cook in my own kitchen, I have little knowledge of whether or not those who grew, harvested and packed our food were paid a fair wage for their work. Beyond buying a label that says “organic,” I have little information about whether the process of growing my food hurt or healed the earth.

But we are what we eat — isn’t that what they say? And as it turns out, I can’t eat hate. Over our breakfast of fair-trade coffee and organic fruit this morning, my husband and I read Dan Cathy’s latest anti-gay comments in The Huffington Post. In talking about the article, we both admitted we’d felt guilty every time we popped into Chick-fil-A for nuggets or that delicious cookies and cream shake. But we knew what we needed to do. As people who grew up in the churches that fueled this dehumanizing anti-gay rhetoric, we’ve stomached enough hate for a lifetime.

As I read where Dan Cathy talked about the “the biblical definition of the family unit,” I couldn’t help but think of the teenage girl in Louisville, Ky., who was beaten by a group of adults who shouted anti-gay slurs as they broke her jaw the day after his comments. Unfortunately, the “biblical definition of the family unit” that Cathy speaks of would not seek justice for this girl. After all, those who were considered an “abomination” could be stoned for their lack of conformity to the patriarchal norm. Did I mention that the place where this teenage girl was beaten was in front of two churches? Words have consequences, and the words that some churches have been speaking are still creating an atmosphere where violence can be justified. The consequences of our words are coming back to our doorsteps to call us to account.

As cited in HuffPost, when Dan Cathy was asked by Baptist Press about his company’s support of the “traditional family,” he replied, “Guilty as charged.” Like Cathy, churches that speak hate through exclusion are “guilty as charged” for the violence we incite. By promoting (or simply ignoring) speech that marginalizes people — any people — we deny that we are all made in the image of God, deserving of human dignity and human rights — no matter who we are (or aren’t) having sex with.

As a kid, I not only loved Chick-fil-A’s nuggets, but I also loved that Christian values shaped their business. I loved that they hung out a sign to say they were closed on Sundays. I still believe that, as people of faith, we are called to live out our faith in whatever work we are called to do. But hate is not a Christian value. Jesus, who never married, did not come to marginalize people but to proclaim justice. Perhaps Dan and his family will understand. I’m hanging out my sign. I won’t eat at Chick-fil-A on any day of the week because I can no longer be part of these contributions that fund hate. Words have consequences. I don’t want to be “guilty as charged.”

I have a 1-year-old daughter who also loves her chicken nuggets. Unfortunately, if Chick-fil-A continues to donate money to groups who speak violence against LGBT individuals and their families, then she will not grow up with same love for this food that my husband and I had as children. A small sacrifice, I guess. I just hope she grows into a world where hate crimes become uncommon, where people are not beaten in a church’s front yard for being different, for being queer.

Throughout the Christian church’s history, food has always been a sacred space of sharing. The common religious ritual that forms both liberal and conservative churches is communion — the act of taking part in the table of Christ. Willingness to participate in the life of Christ — willingness to drink the cup and taste the bread — has always been the signifier of our faith, not our sexuality. I teach ethics, and during a recent class the subject of homosexuality came up. When some students began to cite the biblical reasons against homosexuality, another student felt marginalized by the discussion. She said, “I’m glad to hear everyone’s voice, I’m glad that as a church we can come to the table, but I can’t come to the table if people are throwing food at me.” The violence is not only at our doorsteps, but at our altars as well.

On my daily commute to work, the only Chick-fil-A in the city is 10 feet away from my subway stop. To leave the train and walk the one block to my office means I will pass Chick-fil-A each day. But now, instead of stopping in for a chicken biscuit and coffee, I’ll keep walking and say a prayer for peace. I’ll pray that love will conquer hate, that justice will roll down like waters and that I’ll have the strength to keep on walking.


“First World Problems”

In a class I’m teaching on Ethics at Lexington Theological Seminary, I recently gave a lecture where I argued that the work of ethics involves creating new language – a concept I learned well from one of my own advisors, Aana Marie Vigen. I gave the example of women theologians in Africa (such as Musa Dube) who are using the term “Two-thirds world” instead of “Third-world” to name their reality. The old terminology of “third-world” is outdated, and to many, offensive. The terminology was coined in the 1950‘s to name countries who were not aligned with capitalism and the West (the first world) or communism and the USSR (the second world). In popular speech, the designation “third-world” now refers to countries that some would call “developing” or “emerging” states. It is a comparative way of talking about poverty and a lack of infrastructure. The more apt designation “Two-thirds world” reminds us that those in this category make up the majority, not the minority, of our planet’s population.

As we talked about this, one student asked me what I thought about the chatter around “first world problems.” To be honest, I haven’t quite made up my mind. I think in some ways, the concept is an important pedagogical tool. It can be helpful when it is used in a constructive way to remind us or others that people in other places deal with different, and often more painful problems. One student chimed in to say he calls “first world problems” “luxury problems.”

So yes, perhaps the concept has a place. However, I really don’t like the “we’re so lucky” attitude that sometimes accompanies it because that doesn’t lead to justice. Too often, when I tell people about my work in sub-Saharan Africa, they respond by saying something along the lines of, “We should count our blessings for all we have,” or “I bet its a sacrifice to live there.” Not really. Its not a blessing to consume too much, as our overdeveloped culture does. Its not a blessing to be unable to live with less, even if we’ve learned how to make fun of it.

I have friends in places like Kenya or Tanzania who, by the standards of the West, would be considered poor. I’m not talking about gut-wrenching-can’t-feed-my-kids poverty – we should never romanticize that. I’m talking about everyday folks who make ends meet but live well-below what’s considered poverty in the US. Yet many of them lead lives that are full and flourishing, filled with family and commitments to their community. This reminds us that material wealth is sometimes not wealth at all.

So my question is this – can the concept of “first world problems” lead us to justice? Can it be a tool in helping us curb our consumerism? Can it lead us to give more or become more aware of life outside our borders? Or will it only be something trending on Twitter that leads to no real change?


On finding your voice…

shapeimage_2-8This past Friday night, I bundled up my three and a half month old in her Moby wrap and met my good friend downtown for a protest. We joined 2,000 people and marched through downtown Atlanta, asking the state to grant clemency to Troy Anthony Davis, a man who is sitting on death row because he never got a fair trial. While Davis has been in prison, another person has confessed to the crime and seven of the nine witnesses have either recanted or altered their stories. The trial, which took place in 1991, was fraught with police coercion and judicial mistakes. No murder weapon or DNA evidence ever linked Davis to the crime. In short, there is too much doubt surrounding his case. (You can read more about it here.) If you’ve been following the story, you know clemency wasn’t granted. As I write, the case is still undecided. A one hour delay has been granted on the night Troy Davis is set to be executed.

On Friday night when we got home, my little girl had a new trick. She had learned to scream at the top of her lungs. Something about the protest brought it out in her. She found her voice – she learned to be loud. In fact, she practiced her scream – a happy, loud scream – all night long.

As an ethicist who loves a good metaphor, I couldn’t help but but be thrilled that my daughter found her voice at a protest. As I tucked her in bed that night, we prayed for Troy Davis. We prayed for justice. We’re still praying. As I write, I know that it is possible that the state I call home will silence another voice – an innocent voice – for the sake of consistency and process. There’s too much doubt, and death is irreversible. All we can do is pray for justice.

Tonight, as we watch the news and wait, my baby girl can’t sleep. For some reason, she’s not herself. She’s fussy and needs to be held. I hold her tight and hope for a better world. I hope that this vengeful, unsafe place where she was born will become more just because we’re learning to lift our voices together. I’m glad she’s learning that sometimes, you just have to scream.


The importance of being present

shapeimage_2-7One of my favorite spaces of contemplation these days is the space where I am a parent. My sweet little girl is starting to grow up. At three months old she’s moved from the lethargic-but-cute baby stage to the look-at-me-please stage. As she grows, we’re watching her personality form and blossom.

This week, she’s teaching me about the importance of present. I can no longer get away with reading a book or looking at my iPhone when I hold her. While she’s sometimes content to play on her own, at other times she needs undivided attention. Eye contact has become all important.

This week on NPR’s Speaking of Faith, Krista Tippett interviewed Sherry Turkle, who directs the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self. The interview was about making technology a little more human. It was about unplugging, or rather, learning when and how to “plug in” or “unplug.” My favorite part was the reminder that we need to be present with each other, especially with our children. That putting down a phone (or better, turning it off) lets those we are with know they are more important. It creates room for meaningful conversations and interactions.

During my time living in East Africa, there was a way of being that I found foreign to western culture. It was a way of being present. If you were on your way to meet a friend, and ran into another person along the way, you didn’t rush off for fear of being late. That would be like telling the person you encountered that the person you were going to meet was more important than they were. And when you showed up late, it was always understood. Life had happened along the way.

Technology is important to our lives, but it is not all important. I hesitantly admit that my daughter already has her own “iPhone.” Its a cast off from a family member and its sole purpose is to play the tibetan waterfall soundtrack that helps her sleep. But she already loves the bling of technology. She stares at iPhones and cameras that take her picture. She even “talks” to her grandparents via video chats, mimicking their facial expressions and sending digital smiles. But even in this technology-loving family, we’re trying to tread carefully. We’re hoping to teach our daughter how to unplug as well.

Too often, we stay plugged in. We don’t let life happen along the way. We are so accessible to everyone and everything that no one has our full attention. Life is better lived when we learn the importance of eye contact.