But Really, WWJD?

I wrote this essay not long after November 24th, for a class I took last semester.

Memories of my adolescence are littered with the phrase “what would Jesus do?” Despite my family’s relative areligiosity I feel like that phrase was everywhere. On brightly colored bracelets and bookmarks my friends always had, on billboards near my home town, spoken over and over again whenever someone didn’t know what to do or when someone else had done something they disapproved of. I never knew how we were supposed to know what Jesus would do, I’d never read the Bible or really heard it preached. All I ever really heard in that phrase was “whatever you’re doing, stop that. Jesus was perfect and you are not.” Everything I heard about what Jesus would do was in the negative. In my world people talked much more about what Jesus wouldn’t do than about what he would do, and when they talked about what he would do it was still mostly judgement.

I’ve been thinking about that phrase a lot lately. I’ve been thinking about what it would really be like to live your life in emulation of what Jesus would do. Thinking about what it would mean to take seriously Jesus’ life, work, and suffering as a human. As Jordan makes so clear, many Christians don’t ever really take Jesus seriously as a human. He’s difficult to handle if he is fully human, his life makes difficult demands on our comfortable lives if we take it seriously. Christ is so much easier to handle. We can build fountains to glorify a god, but we have to give a thirsty man water. We have to accept that we might be culpable in his thirst. What would Jesus do?

It was a Monday and I had plans. I was going to get out of my house and work on a project, be productive. It’s a little astonishing how often my plans of productivity are destroyed by the moral failings of my country. Early in the day I heard that the Grand Jury decision about Michael Brown’s murder would be released that day. I’ll admit that my first thought was that I had too much to do for everything to go to hell on that particular day, but, of course it did anyway. I spent the whole day sure of what would come, knowing there would be no indictment, collecting and sharing essays, and determining where I would meet up with people to head out to protest that evening. I didn’t stop to ask myself what exactly I was doing and if I was sure I wanted to do it until I was waiting for a bus to Oakland and writing the number to the National Lawyers Guild on each of my arms. My only actual response to myself was, “don’t just talk about it, be about it” and so I went. What would Jesus do?

From the 6PM announcement until my 1:30AM arrival back in my apartment things are mostly a blur. I can remember a timeline, and I could point out specific events if asked to, but the overall effect isn’t about those details. I made a choice to “be about it” and then I kept making that choice. I made that choice until my heels literally bled, and then I kept going. There is a clear memory of marching behind the crowd, carrying a banner with a couple of UU clergy members and trying to keep some distance between the crowd and the cops, and realizing how badly my feet hurt. Earlier in the day I had seen a picture of Michael Brown’s father crying to the heavens, and had heard that his mother’s cries could be heard above the protests in Ferguson. I hurt, but they and so many other Black families and individuals hurt worse. I couldn’t end their suffering, no amount of me out in the street yelling my lungs out would actually bring their son back or end their pain, but at least I could be with them. My soul hurt and my body hurt. The pain of the world was in me, and I was going to push through. I was dedicated to suffering with. What would Jesus do?

I didn’t realize until I looked at my shoes the next day that I had bled. I didn’t cry until I was in the shower that Tuesday morning. That Tuesday I kept getting hit with it. With what had happened, with what keeps happening, with what the world demands of me. My whole body ached, my heels hurt every time anything touched them and sometimes when nothing did. For the first time ever Jesus on the cross made sense to me. What would Jesus do? Suffer with the families of those most hurt by our racist “justice” system, flip over the money changers’ tables, shed his blood for his belief in justice and liberation.

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Preaching some familiar material

I preached a version of my “God Doesn’t Give a Fuck About Your Respectability Politics” essay a couple weeks ago and was able to record the audio while I did so. It’s pretty similar to the initial essay, but different in some notable ways and also spoken! Give it a listen (rough transcript below).

In public discussion of social movements for justice and civil rights it is common – distressingly so – to hear comment on the presentation and behavior of whomever is active in the movement. Sometimes it is journalistic shock over protesters in Hong Kong cleaning up after their rallies, sometimes it is praise of peaceful tactics, but far more often it is criticism. Loudly and publicly we are told that to be taken seriously, to have our movements treated as legitimate by the powers that be, we must behave according to certain standards. We have to play the game. Flamboyance at gay pride events is condemned, visible anger and deviation from conventional beauty norms among women are slammed, young Black men are told that they wouldn’t suffer such violence if only they would pull up their pants and turn down their music. The message is: be respectable, fit in to the norms of a white heteropatriarchal society and maybe – maybe – you will stop deserving the violence you face in our society. Become well adjusted to a sick society and perhaps it will kill you less quickly.

 

In a chapter on “Disturbing the Peace” Bill Doulos, interpreting Jordan’s parables writes “Shall we be timid lest we arouse [a] threatening giant and incur its wrath? Or shall we wreate such a nonviolent ruckus that the state will give in to our demands just to be rid of us? If Jesus has indeed come to cast fire upon the earth, it will not be kindled by modest and polite women and men. The God Movement is not made up of such stuff.”

 

When we are passionate about and active for justice in this profoundly unjust world, we do not – we should not – have time or space for respectability politics, and yet they appear over and over again. We are cautious about who we’re seen as, we speak “nicely” – we unlearn our accents and stop using slang, we don’t swear and try to never appear too angry, or too emotional. Even as we claim to speak for the most downtrodden we rarely speak with them. Jesus hung out with prostitutes – when was the last time you saw a leader of a religious movement for justice even talking *about* sex work as something other than a tragedy? Are our congregations safe for sex workers? Safe for trans* folks? Safe for people who aren’t educated like we are? Who don’t talk like we do? Is our space safe for freaks? Can we come together and be truly ourselves?

 

Doulos says “Is there any recklessness that we can muster, or have we become too civilized for membership in God’s family? Have we made ourselves at home with the “peace” of this world?”

 

It is easy, and altogether too common, to look back at movements past and see black men in suits marching arm in arm and think that somehow they won the battles they did by means of a well tailored suit. We don’t like to look at the pictures of those same men in those same suits being beaten and imprisoned for years before anyone bothered to listen. It is easy and common to think that as soon as we convince everyone that gay people are “just like them” the violence and hatred will stop. But what does it mean to be “just like them?” and who do we have to leave out to move in to power in the way that suggests.

 

To quote again “If our enlightened society calls this behavior “ugly,” we must remember that God has a different notion of beauty. Perhaps the measured wisdom of our culture is itself ugly and oppressive.”

 

God doesn’t give a fuck about your respectability politics, and, frankly, neither do I.

 

I do not mean to say that one should never employ them, nor that no one has ever made useful progress by means of working in the system. I mean to say that if we want the kingdom of God, if we want Justice with a capital J then we have to get over trying to please a system that is built on keeping people out. Maybe we will make more money never saying anything that really unsettles power, maybe we will be safer, but I can see no path to true justice that doesn’t involve upending the entire concept of some people being “correct” and others not. In my space, in my movement, in my work I would much rather flamboyant queers, angry and “unfeminine” women, and young Black men with loud hip hop and sagging jeans telling the truth than the entire world’s supply of polite and perfectly dressed people unwilling to really challenge the social order. I think God would too.

God Doesn’t Give A Fuck About Your Respectability Politics

This was initially written as a weekly reflection paper for a course on Clarence Jordan’s Cotton Patch Parables. The book referenced here is “Cotton Patch Parables of Liberation” by Clarence Jordan, ed. Bill Lane Doulos. 

In public discussion of social movements for justice and civil rights it is common – distressingly so – to hear comment on the presentation and behavior of whomever is active in the movement. Sometimes it is journalistic shock over protesters in Hong Kong cleaning up after their rallies, sometimes it is praise of peaceful tactics, but far more often it is criticism. Loudly and publicly we are told that to be taken seriously, to have our movements treated as legitimate by the powers that be, we must behave according to certain standards. We have to play the game. Flamboyance at gay pride events is condemned, visible anger and deviation from conventional beauty norms among women are slammed, young Black men are told that they wouldn’t suffer such violence if only they would pull up their pants and turn down their music. The message is: be respectable, fit in to the norms of a white heteropatriarchal society and maybe – maybe – you will stop deserving the violence you face in our society. Become well adjusted to a sick society and perhaps it will kill you less quickly.
I do not get the sense that respectability politics have ever actually lead to respect. It is common in these conversations for people to point to images of Dr. King and other Civil Rights protesters marching in suits and dresses. “See,” they want to say, “they wore suits so they were respectable and people listened to them.” Besides being wildly ahistorical – anyone who has taken more than a cursory glance at history should be aware that that particular fight for civil rights was not won by means of well tailored clothing – that message suggests something with which I am deeply uncomfortable: that justice consists of convincing those in power to let you in to power. I have very little use for this and, beyond that, it is increasingly my sense that God doesn’t have any use for it either.
Near the beginning of the chapter on Disturbing the Peace we are asked “Is there any recklessness that we can muster, or have we become too civilized for membership in God’s family? Have we made ourselves at home with the “peace” of this world?” (71) While I see much of this chapter as an argument against the sort of don’t-rock-the-boat incrementalism that is so common among the comfortable, it also strikes me as being in direct conflict with the respectability politics that insist that we behave politely and in line with society’s existent values in order to be deserving of even crumbs of human decency. “If Jesus has indeed come to cast fire upon the earth, it will not be kindled by modest and polite women and men.” (78) As I read, the refrain in my head was this: God doesn’t give a fuck about your respectability politics.
Since parables are about stories, and my approach to explanation also tends to be about telling stories (and since I rarely think about swearing in class or in a paper without thinking about this), it seems appropriate to end these thoughts with a story. In the fall of 2012 I was traveling around the country visiting some of the seminaries I had applied to. While visiting Iliff School of Theology in Denver I had the opportunity to sit in on a class on social ethics with Dr. Miguel De La Torre. I cannot remember the particular topic of that day’s discussion, but one moment in particular has stood out in my mind since then. The discussion had gotten passionate and a student said something to the effect of “that doesn’t make any damn sense” and then immediately began apologizing for her language. Not knowing the culture of the school, and with propriety high on my list of concerns about entering the ministry, I found myself very anxious to hear the response. “I would rather ministers who swear like sailors and tell the truth,” Dr. De La Torre said to a room full of rather surprised looking faces, “than pious ministers who never say anything real.” I would much rather flamboyant queers, angry and “unfeminine” women, and young Black men with loud hip hop and sagging jeans telling the truth than the entire world’s supply of polite and perfectly dressed people unwilling to really challenge the social order. I think God would too.