Love thy Neighbor

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The longer I do this thing of trying to walk through life calling myself a Christian and trying to figure out what that means in a world where everything feels increasingly urgent and conversations and relationships have become increasingly fraught, I find myself wondering what is the minimum essential belief. Is there a basic statement we can boil down this thing called following Jesus to that all of us who claim to be trying to do that can agree on–or dare I say, should agree on.

And I’m not one for pulling verses out to support my position because I feel like it’s too easy to do that and miss how those words connect into the grand stories that span the whole of the Bible and can’t be understood without connection to the other, but there is this one statement, this one instance, where it seems stunningly clear.

Don’t get me wrong, the context is still very important, as is the way that Jesus answers this particular question. The question comes in a series of questions. Two different religious groups wanted to trick him into saying something illegal or blasphemous so they would have grounds to get rid of him. They had realized he was talking about them in his parables and they “wanted to arrest him” (Matthew 21: 46). And the very next parable Jesus tells had to be rubbing salt in the proverbial wound talking about how all the people they called unclean, and undesirable, sinners and righteous alike, and brought them to the wedding banquet instead of the original invitees. Now if we zoom back out on this story for a second, and look at all the times God tried to invite humans to God’s party and they mistreated God’s messengers, you see why they end up missing out on the party altogether. But only because they refused to come. Folks, there’s a whole other post in there, but I’m trying to set the stage for this one statement so I’m going to move on.

Fast-forwarding here there were several other trick questions about taxes and the resurrection, and finally they come out with the one they think will really stump Jesus. Now if you go through these stories in Matthew 22 you’ll see Jesus frequently returns questions with questions and in a broader context of the gospels, returns questions with stories.

So I believe it is very significant here that Jesus returns this question with a concise and brief statement. One of the religious leaders, who was also a lawyer, asks Jesus,

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?”

And Jesus answers him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandmant. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

I mean, this is huge. This is about as clear as it can be. The Hebrew Scriptures are called the Tanakh which is an acronym for the law (Torah), the prophets (Nevi’im), and the writings (Ketuvim). So saying “on this hangs all the law and the prophets” is short-hand for saying, “All scripture hangs on this.” And since Jesus is standing there in the flesh, pre-writing of the rest of what we Christians recognize as Scripture, I think it’s safe to assume all of what we call scripture hangs on these two commandments, which are so intertwined, that even though this lawyer asked him for the most important commandment, Jesus gave him two.

So I’m breaking down all my theology and beliefs and re-analyzing all of it. Is it based on love of God and in the same breath, love of my neighbor?

Because when we are radically committed to love of our neighbor, it changes how we preach, how we vote, how we interact with people we disagree with, it changes everything. It requires we put the well-being and thriving of our neighbor over and above any other goals and forbids us from supporting things that prevent human flourishing in any sector of this planet. I could get specific with examples, but I think any issue in the church or in the world can be measured with this, and if people are really trying to come up with solutions that hold the love of your neighbor in first place, then we would be implementing a whole bunch of things differently. Does that belief love your neighbor as yourself, does that policy put the flourishing of your neighbor above all else, does that movement put the safety and peace of your neighbor in first place?

What would you change if you put love of neighbor first?

One last thought and then I may come back to this in other posts, but if you’re wondering who your neighbor is, Jesus has a story about that for you too. And just for kicks if you haven’t done it, look at what the people he was telling the story to thought of Samaritans and vice-versa. Jesus loved to get in there with stories that would have been considered transgressive to the religious leaders of his day.

And one more extension of this who is my neighbor. If this tied up with love of God is the most important thing to believe and act on, then Jesus showed us what that means very literally in the cross. And he died for the whole world, meaning if we are to walk in his footsteps, then the whole world is our neighbor.

Okay last, LAST, caveat. I’m thinking on a broad scale right now, and trying to hold up both theological and political beliefs to this light. In no way does this apply to you staying in toxic relationships that are sucking the life out of you, or are otherwise abusive. Staying in those relationships enables abuse and doesn’t help anyone. Removing yourself from those loops and calling out the toxic person or abuser when necessary and safe to do so can also be an act of loving your neighbor as well as yourself. But most importantly, if you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for your neighbor. Taking steps to promote all human flourishing means that you and I get to flourish as well.

Power and Participation

#RubyWooPilgrimage
#RubyWooPilgrimage

In my talk for the Lights for Liberty vigil, I mentioned the feelings of helplessness that can often overtake us in the face of such overwhelming evil such as the current human rights violations being perpetrated in our name at our border. It’s easy to sink into a sense of complete impotence as an individual against such a large problem, or to turn away, overwhelmed and just try to pretend it’s not happening.

And I get it, I struggle frequently to find balance between staying aware and not looking away from the atrocities in this world and living my life, being present for my family, and finding joy in the good of creation that is still all around us. Between the human rights violations and the ecological disaster that we are poised on the precipice of, I feel like I can barely breathe some days.

But this is where engaging and participating actually comes into play as the ultimate win-win situation. You see, by engaging and finding something we can do to help the situation, we not only find a way to make the world better, we make ourselves better in the process. And in doing that, we also can find the space to breathe, to be less overwhelmed, to be present in our own lives and in the lives of those in our communities. I find this advice from Rabbi Ruttenberg to be absolutely essential in continuing to find energy to move forward.

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Pick something you can do, do it. Keep doing that week after week. Write your representatives, talk to your friends and call them into the movement, read books and articles and get a better education and understanding of current events, attend events, go to a protest, check on your local organizers and activists. If we all just keep doing what we can in the moment, it doesn’t really matter how “big” or how “small” our contributions are if we just keep at it. It all adds up to a big movement, with lots of various-sized parts, and it will make a difference.

The education and engagement factor is why I want to go on the RubyWoo Pilgrimage this fall. I want to be better equipped and educated so I can come back and share that with my community, and then we can go forward together and make a bigger difference collectively.

If you want to help get me on that bus, you can donate to my Facebook fundraiser here, and then follow this blog for updates as I go on that trip this fall!

I have nothing to prove to you | Captain Marvel | Examining our prejudices and reclaiming our power

61983807_10158444916529307_6995147865592954880_oAs I’ve walked through the last few years where so many of the fault lines running through our society have been brought to the surface and exposed, I’ve committed to having hard conversations, to sitting down with people I don’t agree with and listening to their point of view, to fostering true communication between people wherever I can. However this commitment has come with a hidden pitfall that I’ve only recently begun to understand, and it has to do with people who assume that I owe them a conversation. I’ve even had it thrown in my face that I said I was committed to hard conversations and so on, therefore I have to talk to them. And thinking I had to be true to my commitment I would often engage, only to be attacked and railed against, had my own perceived statements and identity held up to what I was saying in the moment as though they had a right to pit me against the version of me in their head.

And I’ve felt like I couldn’t withdraw or somehow I’d be proving them right. It’s a toxic trap. It’s pseudo-communication because true communication is a respectful exchange of ideas and working for understanding. True communication is not a series of attacks, verbal traps, and “gotcha” moments.

Other markers of this type of communication are an unwillingness to allow you to frame the conversation in any way, shutting down, interrupting, questioning facts you present, while presenting facts of their own in a breezy carefree way as though they are infallible facts and all the burden of proof is on you to disprove it. Something you are never ever allowed to try yourself though.

And then there’s the way they define you in their own minds, and try to make you debate your values and defend your identity. That is particularly insidious and can leave you trying to remind yourself of who you are in the midst of and after the encounter, feeling like you need to redefine yourself and your boundaries.

The thing is this kind of person will never respect your boundaries, will never agree to an equitable conversation, will always be seeking to attack and wear you down. The motivations behind this type of behavior can be many on the surface, but they all have the same result. And the origin is often the same, a toxic-masculine upholding of the patriarchy. And yes, sometimes it’s women doing this, but that doesn’t change the origin of this type of false communication.

You do not have to have this conversation. Say what you need to say and if it’s not respected, when it becomes clear that this person is there to argue endlessly, just say, “I have nothing to prove to you,” and walk away.

I finally watched Captain Marvel the other night and several of these things finally solidified to me in a way that was somehow clearer than before. Like many epiphanies, this one had been coming on for a while, but the movie–the first female led, written, and directed in the Marvel universe–solidified it for me. Here are some of the key moments:

Jude Law’s character early on in the movie tells Brie Larson’s character, Carol: “I want you to be the best version of yourself.” But the insidiousness behind this lie is that the best version of you is defined by them. And this them is often a man in your life, surprisingly often one that has no business making this assumption, one who has no business being in your inner circle. It’s even harder to recognize when it does come from someone who should be close to you, a parent or other relative or a significant other.

“What was given can be taken away.” This lie is that somehow the gifts of the woman are given to her by an authority figure instead of emanating from the woman herself. The patriarchy disguises itself as benevolent, dispatching gifts or rights and so on that were never its to hand out in the first place. This lie keeps us fighting with one hand tied behind our backs.

Jude Law: This casting is brilliant. Based on what we are led to believe, he enters as good-guy, mentor etc. However, I doubted him when he told Carol that her emotions were a handicap, that anger only serves the enemy. I didn’t know how the movie was going to be written though, so I wasn’t sure that this was a signal in the movie as it should be in real life. It was an indescribable relief to realize that they’d actually done it right in the movie, that this was signaling an untrustworthy character.

Vers: They gave her a name that was a tiny part of her identity and insisted that this is who she was, that’s all she was, and there was never any more.

Law’s character spinning the story of Mar-Vell: “That sounds like a Skrull simulation. Stop. Remember your training. Know your enemy. It could be you. Do not let your emotions override your judgement.” In other words, you can’t trust yourself or your memories, or your emotions. You need to listen to me in order to make sense of your own life. That whole bit was followed up with “We’ll get to the bottom of this, together.” As in I’m the only one you can trust to find the truth and I’m on your side. Again, a lie veiled in affection, or regard, or respect even, but in reality, it’s none of those things.

Carol starts to reclaim her power when her friend Maria (Lashana Lynch) speaks the truth of her identity to her. This is the function of true friends, to call us back to ourselves, and the person they see, because that kind of seeing calls us to be more truly ourselves.

“That’s my blood coursing through her veins.” And he (Law) says that as if that somehow give hims ownership of her and her power. “I made you the best version of yourself.” “What’s given, can be taken away.”

“Without us, you’re weak, you’re flawed, helpless. We saved you.” Anyone who speaks these words or any version is trying to control you and you’re better off without them in your life.

“I’ve been fighting with one arm tied behind my back, but what happens when I’m finally set free?” She realizes that the thing that supposedly gave her the powers has actually been dampening them down. Trying to converse with people within the structures they set when they refuse to allow you input into those structures is fighting with one arm behind your back. Own your power, free yourself from those engagements, and go do something worth your while.

“Can you keep your emotions in check long enough to take me on? This is that moment!” Law’s character tries to set the boundaries of the engagement. She’s just blown up a freaking spaceship by flying through it, and yet he tries to convince her that his judgement is still what matter, she’s not enough until she measures up to his standard. This will absolutely happen over and over again as you try to truly become yourself. To that person, to those people, it will literally never matter how much you’ve accomplished or how powerful you are, they will always try to keep you subverted by getting you to believe that their measurement of you is what matters. I’m so used to entertainment propping up the lies of the patriarchy that my heart sank. I was sure they were about to show me a long drawn-out battle scene where she ultimately wins, but is dragged down and bloodied etc. It was again an immeasurable relief when she blasts him across the desert and delivers this amazing next line.

“I have nothing to prove to you.” And she looks at him as though he is the small pathetic being he always was. Whining about not going back empty-handed. As though after all that, she still owes him something. When he loses his control, he still tries to manipulate her by playing on her sympathy. These people will literally never quit, you can only claim your power and keep it by ending the interaction. It probably won’t be as spectacular as firing them off the planet in a space ship, but it can be as emotionally satisfying.

And while I’ve framed this in the context of toxic masculinity and the patriarchy, that’s just because that’s where many of us will encounter this type of relentless conversation. As part of toxic masculinity, men can find themselves on the receiving end of this type of interaction as well, it’s just that many more women will be in that position and far more often. It can also just come from toxic people, so women could deliver the same kind of doubt and so forth to their victims, just again, women are more likely to be on the receiving end of this type of behavior and communication than men are.

Bullies and despots are always afraid of their victims learning to stand in their power and banding together. And that’s all the patriarchy is: a network of men so weak they cheat and bully to stay in power because deep down they know nothing they stand for is legitimate enough for them to stay in power without cheating. And by weak I mean a poverty of spirit because strong people—truly strong people—lift up those around them and don’t operate on an economy of scarcity because they know there’s room for everyone to thrive.

The other thing I thought this movie did really well was play against stereotypes and make you examine your prejudices. The handsome white man was the untrustworthy and manipulative bad guy. While the Skrulls, who are given a dodgy-sounding name, who are green and can shape-shift–all of which are things we’ve been taught to distrust in these types of films–and yet they turn out to be the persecuted minority. Their snarls are of desperation, their only goal is to save their families and find a place they can be safe, and for this they are hunted by the majority government of that world.

They even cast Ben Mendellsohn, known for playing villains, to play Talos, the Skrull general, yet another misdirection to make you question your prejudice.

So while they still cast a thin, blonde, white woman as the main character, this movie made several good steps, big steps even, toward showing us a better society. And yes, it’s “just” a movie, but art reflects life and life reflects art in a never ending back and forth, so art is always saying something about who we are, and showing us something we can be. A world where women claim their power and speak power to each other and a world where we examine our assumptions, dismantle our prejudices, and realize that the story we’ve been told all along may not always be the truth.

Note: as to the terms “toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy,” I believe I’ve stayed fairly mainstream in their usage here. Toxic masculinity is damaging to everyone as it inhibits all of our abilities to thrive and live into who we truly are by casting limiting roles and narrow definitions on infinitely complex, diverse, and beautiful humans.

There’s been much written about these terms that informed my use, if you are unfamiliar with it, I invite you to use google and do some reading. If you come here on my page or on my wall and want to take issue with my use of these terms, then I’ve got nothing to prove to you. 😉