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Archive for January, 2022

I read Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer: The Church and the Famine of Grace by Father Jarel Robinson-Brown for the Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition class I am taking online at EDS at Union with the Computer Scientist, the same class for which I read Song In a Weary Throat and books by James Cone, Kelly Brown Douglas, Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson, Stephanie Spellers and Liz Theoharris last fall. Which is to say, this isn’t the first book I’ve read about the ways the Church has missed and is missing the mark.

Also, when we lived in Georgia, I volunteered with an organization working to help people living with HIV in our county, and one reason some of the folks in the group gave for the higher than average infection rate among African Americans was that the Black church’s homophobia caused many people to hide their sexual orientation, which can lead to unsafe sex. Robinson-Brown critiques the Black church and quotes a fellow scholar, Anthony Reddie, who says that the Black church is “studiously wedded to White Euro-American fundamentalism.”

But Robinson-Brown also notes:

“It is the worship of the God of the White imagination that has led to the famine of grace in the Church. A White God who sends a White Jesus into a White world to save White people through a White church is a God whose interest is reserved only for the powerful and the comfortable, and who has no good news for the Black and Brown LGBTQ+ poor.” He goes on to say “While it has been busy telling LGBTQ+ people what to do with their desire and telling its Black members how to express their anger, it has lost its desire for the one thing that matters: God and God’s children.”

This is something Kelly Brown Douglas has lectured on in our course extensively.

Like Dean Douglas, and Howard Thurman, and James Cone, and and Pauli Murray, and many others, Robinson-Brown powerfully preaches in the final chapter of the book the true message of Jesus which was not one of power and privilege, nor of excluding people (even those his community felt were undesirable), but exactly the opposite. Jesus was radically inclusive in his ministry. So what has happened to the Church? How can followers of Jesus cause so much harm, and participate in and uphold racism and homophobia, deny women a role in ministry, etc.? Robinson-Brown’s diagnosis is the famine of grace in the subtitle of his book.

Lest you think this is a depressing topic and a book that simply spells out what’s wrong, let me share the simple, powerful message that Father Robinson-Brown builds from beginning to end in this book: it doesn’t have to be this way. He’s too good a writer for me to paraphrase, so in his own words:

“What is needed is an urgent prioritizing of a theology of grace that situates grace as the primacy of God’s love in every word we might say about the ‘other,’and that takes the crucified love of God at its word.”

and

“The demand on the White Church is quite simple: we are asking you to be more like Jesus, to let us breathe, to let us sit as equal kin at the table. It’s only difficult because if you’re honest, you do not want to give up your power and privilege.”

Yes. That is why racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, classism, and xenophobia exist. The people who have power and privilege (and as a white cis straight woman that includes me) have trouble giving it up. Not always because they don’t want to (plenty don’t want to) — the systems that make them privileged are designed to keep them that way. Which makes it hard even for people of good will — people who know grace and want to share it — to effectively change more than their own interactions with others. It’s like other kinds of reform — prison reform, police reform, education reform, etc. How can you reform what is inherently unbalanced, unjust, unfair, inequitable? Abolition may be the only way. I never understood that about policing until the beginning of the pandemic when I had a long in depth conversation with my two twenty-somethings and finally, finally, it was clear to me (you may recall that the elder suggested I read The End of Policing, which I wrote about here). Thirteenth and The New Jim Crow explain vividly why our criminal punishment system deserves to be abolished, not “reformed.”

And Black, Gay, British, Christian, Queer makes the case for the abolition of the Church, which is the establishment in England. Perhaps in the U.S. the Church has already lost more of its influence at the community level. Many people don’t consider any church a necessary part of their lives. That may be less true in the “bible belt.” And the Evangelical/White Nationalist iron grip on the Republican Party is a frightening and heretical strain that reminds me in some ways of what James Cone describes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree — church folk howling about critical race theory, stolen elections, mask mandates, or two summers ago, about BLM, are really just the latest iteration of the same church folk who justified slavery and lynching.

I don’t know how I feel about church abolition (of course I don’t — see above, I’m mostly privileged when it comes to church). I get that the church needs to be different than it is now. And it makes sense to me that following Jesus more closely is what it needs. I’m frustrated by the ways the Church causes harm or isn’t bold enough or makes excuses about not being “too political.” But I also belong to The Episcopal Church, which is trying to solve the famine of grace in many ways. In fact the EC recently took up as part of its formation a call to be A Church That Looks and Acts Like Jesus. I find that hopeful — I there is a better chance of the Church becoming grace-filled than of American democracy recovering or prison and police abolition taking hold. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I am glad to be in the course we are taking. We are of different ages, races, gender identities, sexualities, geographic and cultural origins, and backgrounds learning together about the Church, what it has been and done, and what it could be and do.

But I digress. The point of this post is to say, if you’re interested in the church, read this book.

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Last summer I read Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy, and this week, I remembered that McConaghy’s second book came out in August and I could check it out as a library eBook. I’ve been reading some heavy stuff — Pauli Murray’s memoir, books about theology and capitalism — and I wanted a good story to fall asleep with. Once There Were Wolves met that need, except instead of falling asleep reading it, I stayed up too late because it is a good story.

I will say, it’s not for the squeamish. McConaghy’s work could be called ecofiction; both books deal with environmental degradation, climate change, and species loss. But in addition to examining the darkness of the world and our utter hubris when it comes to nature, she also explores the darkness within her characters and their lives. In Once There Were Wolves, there is less environmental degradation than in Migrations, where nearly all wildlife is gone. Once There Were Wolves seems to be set in a time more like the present, where species are depleted but things haven’t yet reached the grim state of Migrations. But, the characters in Once There Were Wolves are facing all manner of human darkness.

The main character in this novel, Inti, is an Australian biologist working on a rewilding project, bringing back wolves in the Scottish Highlands, where they were hunted to extinction. She has a rare medical condition, mirror-touch synesthesia, which causes her to feel physical sensations that other humans — and in her case, also animals — are feeling. In addition to facing the opposition of local people who are afraid the wolves will kill their livestock, she and even more so her twin sister, Aggie, lives with the trauma and grief of having experienced violence and loss. Inti is also drawn to Duncan, who is her neighbor, the local police chief, and a fellow trauma survivor. McConaghy makes clear how much trauma impacts not only its victims, but also a community, especially when it’s a small rural place like the village near Inti’s wolf project. When a local man disappears, some believe a wolf attacked.

All the trauma was a bit much right now, as COVID seems to circle ever closer. Still, the combination of interesting ecology and rewilding information, a strong sense of place, some resilient and sensible folks who are in favor of the rewilding, and the mystery at the center of the story kept me reading. I found a few plot points just a step too unbelievable towards the end, but hey, it’s fiction. And actually, if we’ve learned one thing in the past few years, it’s that strange, even unbelievable events are really a part of life. McConaghy’s writing also drew me in. Here’s a passage where she describes Inti watching a wolf pack:

“I spend the morning watching two of them play, one with a long white swan feather, which brings her no end of joy, waving it between her teeth and batting at it with her paws, while the other — the male alpha — dances with the shadows of clouds for hours on end. Old male Number Fourteen, our oldest wolf, watches them serenely, while vigilant Number Ten stalks the riverbank, up and down, mesmerized by something in the water. The more I watch them, the more I understand that I will never know what happens inside a wolf’s mind. I won’t even come close. I smile at the foolish teenager in me who thought she could discover their secrets.”

Definitely an entertaining read.

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