The following is the text from my presentation at the Lights for Liberty vigil in Nashville, TN on Friday, July 12, 2019.
As we’ve watched the news cycles these past weeks, I, like many of you, have felt helpless in the face of abject cruelty and evil. These past few years in particular have been hard on each and every person here in various ways; I know I’ve been worn down, and exhausted, and feeling helpless in the face of this wave of darkness that has reached an apex since 2016.
But this darkness didn’t burst into being in 2016, it’s been here, since the foundation of our country, sometimes in big and obvious ways, but more recently, lurking in corners and beneath the surface, trying to hide from our sight, from the sight of white voters anyway, to push an agenda of racism and xenophobia into every aspect of our government. Crises like this one are the fruit of these day-to-day abuses.
And I’m sure I’m “preaching to the choir,” because here you all are, on a Friday night, standing up to be counted and to say to this administration “not on our watch!” “Not in our time!” And I hope that there is a huge turnout tonight across this nation to say to the powers as we look in their face and say, “no!” We say, “never again!”
I want to be part of a country that is a light to other nations, a country that opens its arms and welcomes the stranger, the immigrant, the poor, the oppressed. I want us to be a nation built on hope, and not fear. I want us to be a nation that operates out of a sense of abundance and not scarcity.
I want all of us tonight to move through our sorrow and frustration, and to take these torches up, to light the fire in our weary hearts and go out into our communities and call people into a vision of a country built on hope and abundance. Greatness does not come from fear. Governments that rise to power preaching fear of the other are toppled by those who believe that fear cannot and will not rule us.
And I still believe that if we go back to our communities and call our neighbors into a vision of hope and abundance that we can start to shift the conversation, shift the mindsets, gradually calling people to walk along with us into the nation that we want to be–a nation that truly is committed to liberty for all, justice for all, and where all can breathe the air of freedom, which first and foremost must mean freedom from fear, freedom from hatred, freedom from violence. And those are freedoms worth fighting for, a vision worth fighting for, and a country that all of us would love to live in.
Everyday resistance, lots of acts of resistance by everyday people, of various sizes all add up like many small streams coming together to be a mighty flood. Some of us got our feet wet at the first women’s march. Some of us have been marching for something since the 1960’s or so. The first time you come out to something like this requires a little extra bravery, so thank you all for showing up to be counted! Let’s keep going out and finding the brave thing to do this week, next week. Let us all commit to showing up, standing up, and speaking up from here to the voting boxes and the very doors of the detention centers until we have set these people free and made new laws and new policies that ensure this truly never ever happens again!
As 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. 😉
If everything happens for a reason, if the prosperity gospel is taken literally, then we don’t have to help anyone. It works great for easing our consciences on the poor, the sick, the refugee, the prisoner, or anyone else we can call the “other.” Everything happens for a reason means that they are responsible for their own situation whether it’s through bad actions, lack of faith, or maybe just God’s will. And who are we to interfere with that?
When author Kate Bowler got sick with stage four cancer, people told her that maybe God had let her get cancer so she could help other people. (See her TedMed Talk). There’s multiple parts to this sort of statement. And I haven’t read her book yet, (it’s on my list!), she may get more into some of this, but here’s my take on everything happens for a reason.
People desperately need to make some sense out of bad things that happen. The world can be scary and dark and chaotic, and maybe, just maybe, if the bad things happen for a reason, then there’s sense to be made out of it all. People quote or misquote that Bible verse “All things work together for good for those who love God and are called according to his purpose.” (my paraphrase of Romans 8:28 but it is similar to multiple translations of this verse). This verse, this one tiny phrase from the whole library we call our Scripture, gets turned into “everything happens for a reason,” the beloved American proverb quoted by religious and non-religious alike.
This misquote or misunderstanding is scary; this underpinning of a five-word phrase that can literally shape the course of a nation. It is so commonly said, commonly quoted, commonly believed.
Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from someone who is suffering rather than entering into their pain with them. When I got pregnant the first time, I made the mistake of telling a whole lot of people right away. So then a few short weeks later, I had to go and tell them that I’d miscarried. I received so many reactions, and almost all of them were distancing ones. People needed to put distance between my pain, my loss, and their lives. “Oh, everything happens for a reason!” “The baby must have had something wrong, this is a good thing!” “At least you know you can get pregnant.” Needless to say, all of those rubbed salt in my wound. I was excited to be pregnant, excited for the possibility of a child, and my hopes and dreams in that moment were dashed. The second time it happened, I was somewhat wiser, but as it was later along and I had one child, I needed support. It was hard to find people to just come watch my kid so I could deal with the physical symptoms I was experiencing. People don’t want the awkwardness. I had one friend who volunteered, just one. To be fair to some of my long-time friends, they didn’t live nearby and I know they would have helped if they could.
Everything happens for a reason allows us to distance ourselves from poor people and from addressing poverty as a system of injustice. If God blesses those with the “right” kind of faith, then they are poor through their own fault, right? And people who are sick are sick because they lacked faith, and the prisoner is in jail because of their actions and the sentence was surely just because, everything happens for a reason. And the refugee, and the immigrant, well, if their faith is right it will get them where they need to go, no need to reform immigration, or offer our aid.
It’s great for justifying ignoring everyone, putting all the onus on God to bless or not bless, and then we can just sit here and judge people because of their lives, after all, aren’t their lives the fruit of their faith?
And that’s all well and good for soothing consciences, except…
Except, literally none of that is scriptural. In fact, it’s as close to the opposite of the story God is telling us in Scripture as I can think. The story that follows God trying to be in relationship with messed-up, broken people. That follows those people of God through slavery, through the desert, as refugees, as people displaced from their homes and carried off into captivity. And yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about how those people disobeyed God and brought all that one themselves. Everything happens for a reason, after all. But if we follow the story, it was God that led them to Egypt in the first place as a salvation but they were later enslaved. Where babies were killed because Pharaoh was worried they would outnumber the Egyptians and take over. If God led them to Egypt and left them there, and everything happens for a reason then God is the author of all that evil too. But we don’t usually like to think of the full implications of that statement. Obviously there’s more there than can be tackled in one blog post, but it bears thinking about.
Perhaps most clearly, everything happens for a reason ignores the very Saviour it claims to worship. The Saviour that was born a poor brown baby in a kingdom ruled by an evil king. A Saviour who had to flee a massacre–becoming a refugee from violence–when he was just a little boy. A Saviour who did nothing but kindness and mercy and healing, but was still wrongfully convicted by a justice system that was anything but just, and put to death at the hands of broken, messed-up people who thought they were doing God’s will.
If Jesus came to show us God, and also came to show us how to be human, then what Jesus shows us is a God who enters into human particularity and doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. Doesn’t blame people for circumstances wrought by unjust systems, doesn’t leave those who are grieving or without hope. He sits with those society shunned, touched the unclean, and broke the rules of the religious orders of the day. He was executed by the government for fear he would cause an unrest. His arrest was instigated by religious leaders because they thought he’d blasphemed God.
The cross has many lessons for us, but the one for today is this: we must be very very careful thinking we know what God looks like, especially when that picture of God we hold looks like us and agrees with us. Scripture shows us that wherever God is moving it’s disruptive. Things that Jesus did in Scripture were revolutionary and even transgressive. So we must be wary of a picture of God that makes us too comfortable with what we believe, because there’s a good probability that picture is an idol.