Millennials are Killing Stuff. Thank them!

Hi Joel,

You may have seen one of my new least favorite genres of commentary: the Things Millennials are Killing piece. This kind of writing bemoans the fact that younger people are changing the economy by their stubborn refusal to buy the consumer goods that their parents and grandparents thought signaled adulthood: cars, homes, diamonds, televisions. It is in the vein of the Why Won’t Millennials Work Like We Did essay, which complains that Millennials won’t pledge loyalty to or arrange their schedules around jobs that will never, ever pay them enough to buy the cars, homes, and diamonds that they aren’t buying. The bigger story: Millennials are questioning the relationships among work, stuff, and happiness. And science backs up their decisions to spend money on experiences–including eating avocado toast, getting massages, and traveling–rather than material goods.

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Above, mmmm…. Avocado toast, three ways: with tomato, with fried egg, and with bacon. Don’t like it? Maybe you should pay wages that will allow young workers to save up for a down payment. In the meantime, “let them eat toast!”

Why these stories get reported as emergencies is clear: there are a lot of people labeled Millennial (full disclosure: I’m of the Oregon Trail Generation, those born between the release of the first and third films in the original Star Wars trilogy: born analog but reached adulthood in the digital age, and, because of my delayed entry into adulthood (grad school), my financial habits are more Millennial than Gen X.), and they matter a lot to the economy, but as consumers. We’ve structured our economy so that many of them were graduating from college with insurmountable debt and lousy job prospects, but we still need them to buy stuff.

But the urgent tine of these essays doesn’t tell us how very important this change is. It’s a shift produced by a number of factors, primarily economic (They don’t have the money.) but also out of a recognition that rampant consumerism is unethical; it hurts the earth and, frankly, it’s pretty hard to accumulate stuff without participating in human slavery and other forms of labor exploitation. Maybe if Millennials had the money to do it, they’d buy diamonds, but since they don’t, they might as well also note that the diamond industry is deeply damaging to people and the planet. Or, as Sarah Kendzior says it in an article for Quartz, “Many millennials do not have a lot of choice. They are merely reacting to lost opportunity.”)

For our Mennonite readers (and others) who take the call to live simply seriously, we should be enthusiastically supporting Millennials who reject consumerism. And we could probably all benefit from applying Millennial’s detachment from things–especially since, in the end, they might be the ones deciding just what to do with your stuff.

 

In Christ there is no East or West

Dear Rebecca:

I’m sorry I haven’t posted lately. My silence has been driven by two things: Busyness, but also a deep anger about our politics — with heartless Republicans and smug liberals — and, well, I haven’t trusted myself to comment rationally and persuasively.

I went to church this morning, though, and got to sing the traditional version of this untraditional Mavis Staples take on an old hymn:

The United Methodist Church has an interesting website devoted to the history of hymns. About the original version, it says this:

As UM Hymnal editor Carlton Young observes, “[t]he theme of Oxenham’s hymn, one of the most durable hymnic statements of Christian unity in the twentieth century, is from Galatians 3:28: ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.’”

Though originating in the missionary movement in the 19th and early 20th centuries, this hymn gratefully lacks the triumphalism and hegemonic assumptions of so many mission hymns of this era. Perhaps the author’s extensive travel helped him develop a sense of Christian unity beyond the racial and cultural differences that he observed.

This is my animating idea when it comes to the church, I guess. It’s why I resist Christianity as tribalism, or as a force that reinforces our tribalism. If there is a god and that being is the God of us all, what excuse do we have to separate ourselves and to exult in, be prideful about, those separations?

It was a good morning to be in church. A time to be reminded of some important stuff.

Sincerely,
Joel

Books for Woke Kids

Hi Joel,

It’s summer time, which means it’s time for public library reading programs! My kids each get a certificate from the school district superintendent if they read 10 “age appropriate” books or a total of 1000 pages over the summer, plus prizes along the way from the library. We spent the morning at the university library working on this project, with the oldest reading a passage on cuttlefish from Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle and the middle child working her way through a book on women saints. The major family reading list this summer including Benito Cereno in response to Ariel Dorfman’s call for us to use Melville to understand the age of Trump.

Books, just as much as my politically active parents and Mennonite church experiences, helped me develop the empathy, historical knowledge, and ability to see how personal experiences illuminated structural and institutional injustices. Books occupied a very special place in my upbringing. My siblings and I were never told “no” when we asked to buy them through the Scholastic book order program, and I consider that unlimited generosity one of my parent’ best gifts to us. Each of us had our own bookshelf–and not a little one, either, but something at least chest-high. I’m not sure if, growing up, you could have thrown a ball without hitting a book or stack of magazines or newspapers in our house. One of our most treasured possessions was an excellent set of gilt-edged encyclopedias, which could only be handled after we’d washed our hands.

Books matter just as much in my own family now, as the many saints who have helped us move them can attest.

My own children are now in preschool, upper elementary, and middle school. I’ve written elsewhere (specifically about supporting refugees) about how important books are to foster our hope that our children will be caring global citizens (and sometimes they get it, and sometimes it works!). Here are three favorites we’ve read and re-read, individually and as a family, to get our kids thinking about the ways we want to be in the world.

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Above, Martin’s Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shows a beautiful painting of King’s face, smiling. The book has won numerous awards for children’s literature. 

You know you love it when the book is held together with paperclips, rubber bands, or other basic office supplies. That’s the case for Martin’s Big Words by Doreen Rappaport. The book’s clear words and beautiful illustrations tell the story of a childhood King who is himself beginning to understand the racism that is shaping his life.

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Above, the cover of The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum shows a young Dorothy comforting the Cowardly Lion as Toto and her new friends Scarecrow and Tin Man look on. 

From start to finish, it’s a radical book that celebrates diversity and is unabashedly pro-queer and feminist.

 

9781902593579-usAbove, the cover of Addicted to War: Why the US Can’t Kick Militarism shows an illustration of a white man in a suite sweating as he attempts to hold too many items in his arms: tanks, military helicopters, an Air Force jet, missiles, a naval ship, and nuclear smokestacks. 

Addicted to War is a graphic nonfiction book by Joel Andreas was brought to our attention by folks at Joy Mennonite Church in Oklahoma City. It provides an accessible introduction to US military history from the conflict perspective, always asking, “How did this benefit the people in power?” If you have a child interested in warfare but you’d rather not romanticize it, this is a great choice. We’ve worn through two copies of it already and are on our third.

Readers: What books helped you see the world differently? Made you more empathetic? Introduced you to figures from history or fiction who changed your life? What books do you want your children to read? What books of their generation are you reading and learning from now?

Rebecca

 

If a White Supremacist and an Islamophobe Love Each Other Very Much… You might just get Bryan Fischer

Dear Joel,

I’m hopeful that some of our readers joined in protests against last weekend’s ACT for America demonstrations against Muslims. Claiming to be “anti-Shariah” protestors, participants chose Ramadan, a time of holy fasting and prayer to honor the revealing of the Qu’ran. Because racism tends to attract racism,racism tends to attract racism, white supremacists showed up to many of anti-Muslim ones, including in Arkansas, where the ACT for America event was organized by a known neo-Nazi.

White terrorists represent the single largest threat to domestic safety, so thousands of white Christians spend their time spreading hate toward their Muslim neighbors, despite the fact that terror attacks by Muslims are relatively rare, if widely overreported–by about 449%.  The meaningful work they could be doing to insure Americans’ safety–monitoring their own radical factions and bringing back into the fold the lone wolf actors who commit so many of the terrorism attacks we see in the US–won’t be done by them.

Instead, we get Brian Fischer, right wing radio provocateur, saying this:

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Above, Fischer’s tweet from Sunday, June 11: “The unholy trinity of hate in America: the Democratic Party, the mainstream media, and the religion of Islam.”

That’s right–the day after neo-Nazis joined Islamophobes, all enthusiastically empowered by the Trump administration’s tolerance for hate and appeal to hate voters, Fischer says the problem is… Democrats, the media, and Islam.

Rebecca

SBC would rather be silent than TOO anti-racist

Hi Joel,

The Southern Baptist Convention met this week in Phoenix, and the big news was going to be, I thought, how the newest Holman Christian Standard translation of the Bible incorporated more gender-inclusive language. Turns out that that was the least of the SBC’s troubles.

Instead, attention focused on the difficulty that the SBC had passing a resolution condemning white supremacy and the alt-right. You might think that condemning racism would be an easy decision, but it took a denomination founded to defend slavery an actual century and a half to prioritize racial healing within its organization, so let’s not be pretend to be shocked.

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Above, more than two dozen Klansman pose in their robes around the pulpit of an unnamed Baptist (denominational affiliation unknown) church in Portland in 1922. Church leaders join them for the photo. 

And, to be far, as anyone who has ever participated in a church convention can likely attest to, making movement on any issue can be hard. Rules abound for how such conversations are to proceed, and while the expressed purpose of rigid processes is to insure fairness and slow down a rush to change, these bureaucratic measures are also a form of violence. As Hannah Arendt writes in On Violence:

Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

This is as true in federal governments as in meetings of boards of the tiniest churches.

The problem with the resolution condemning white supremacy, it seems, was that the language was too harsh. The original text, posted at the blog of Dwight McKissic, Sr., the black pastor who proposed it, calls on the SBC to “reject the retrograde ideologies, xenophobic biases, and racial bigotries of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ that seek to subvert our government, destabilize society, and infect our political system; and be finally.”

That was considered overly broad and could apply to Christians who aren’t part of the alt-right.

Yes, that was the problem.

Sure, maybe it is also the case, as Barrett Duke, head of the resolutions committee said, that they didn’t want to pass a resolution that suggested that they hate their enemy, but it’s also clear that they weren’t going to move on this at all until their was a social media backlash against the failure to condemn racism.

But also: the SBC didn’t want to throw out conservative Christians who aren’t part of the alt-right but who might be xenophobic racists trying to roll back civil rights gains. These are fine lines to draw.

To summarize: white Southern Baptists felt that a resolution condemning white supremacy was, as written by a black man, too harsh and might reflect poorly on them as Christians and might alienate white conservatives who actually do oppose civil right but would prefer not to be lumped into the “white supremacist” category.

But, notably, no white people (as far as I know) suggested that the SBC condemn rising white supremacy.

Somehow the silence of whites was less offensive than the leadership of African Americans; not condemning white supremacy at all was less offensive to the  principle of “love your enemy” than was the language of the original resolution. The risk of throwing out old fashioned nativists and racists with the alt-right was too high.

A version of the resolution that demanded less of white Southern Baptists passed easily once it got to the vote.

Rebecca

PS. The SBC has lost 1 million members in the last 10 years.

When Christians Fail to Entertain Angels

Joel,

Yesterday,  I shared a sermon I’d preached at Stahl Mennonite Church in Johnstown, PA, immediately after the Pulse shooting in Orlando around this time last year. At the center of that sermon is the image of participants in Angel Action, a strategy for opposing anti-LGBTQ hate that was created in the wake of Westboro Baptist Church’s picket of Matthew Shepard’s funeral. Participants dress as angels, wearing huge wings made of sheets and PVC pipe, and stand between grieving families and protestors. Though participants are not necessarily religious, they are performing an act of love that Christians are called to do: to protect the vulnerable. In Orlando, this response was organized by the theater community.

Shortly before 2 am on the anniversary of the mass shooting, more people in Orlando stepped forward as part of Angel Action, surrounding those who had come to a private service at Pulse to honor their loved ones, with their wings again.

At a time when Christians are probably the primary reason people become atheists, we could decide to learn from angels like these. Will we be gatekeepers who keep people out, or will we be lamplighters who guide people in? What do we lose when we fail to entertain angels?

dsc_0011Above, participants in Orlando’s Angel Action. Photo from the Orlando Sentinel

 

Virgins, Oil, Angels

Hi Joel,
I don’t usually share sermons here, but I wanted to share this on the occasion on the one-year anniversary of the Pulse shooting for my friends who might find it useful. I delivered it at Stahl Mennonite Church in Johnstown, Pennsylvania the Sunday after the deadliest mass shooting in US history, a hate crime both racist and homophobic. The full text is below, and you can also find it at Stahl’s blog. 

The following text is by Rebecca Barrett-Fox, a guest speaker at Stahl Mennonite on Sunday, June 19, 2016.

Thank you for the kind introduction. And thank you all and especially to pastor Bob Brown for the invitation to be here. I’m especially grateful for the presence of guests at Stahl Mennonite today. It’s wonderful to be sharing space up here with Krista and Leah Rittenhouse, who are old friends from my days at Hesston College. Their presence is a real blessing to me. And I also want to recognize Father’s Day and to acknowledge that this day can be painful for some. For those for whom it is difficult to come to church on Father’s Day, thank you for being here.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins. I must confess to you that I have chosen, in response to the fact that you all are studying the parables this summer, one of my least favorite passages of scriptures. I neither like nor understand the parable of the virgins—which should have been good reasons for me not to select it for today’s passage. In fact, I really don’t like it, and I really don’t understand it—or maybe it is more fair to say that I fear I do understand it, and I don’t like what I understand.

To recap the story: A wedding is about to happen. Traditionally in first century Jewish culture, the bridegroom would come to the house of the bride’s family, where they would go through a marriage ceremony, then the couple would leave, sometime after dark, to parade through the streets on the way back to his home for days of celebration. Attendants would need to carry lamps or torches along the way to light the street. Those who participated in the marriage parade without a light might be assumed to be wedding crashers or, worse, thieves.

Ten women are waiting for the bridegroom to come. Five of them are ready, with their lamp in hand and oil in jars. Five, though, were not prepared. They were “foolish” in this story, because while they had their lamps, they did not have any oil.

The groom was taking his time coming, and the ten women fell asleep. When midnight rolls around, they hear the procession coming their way. They awake! It’s party time!  They all get their lamps out, which is when the foolish virgins realize that they are without oil. They ask to borrow some from their wiser friends, who tell them no—each wise virgin has enough oil for herself but worries that she won’t have enough to share. Each wise virgin refuses to share, just in case. The unprepared virgins are told to go buy some more oil if they want it. The foolish virgins head to out to find someone to sell them oil at this late hour, and, while they are gone, the groom arrives. They miss it.

The wedding party who is present go into the banquet. And get this—they shut the door behind them. The five women who are looking for the oil they should have already had are locked out. When they finally get the oil and return, they knock on the door and ask to come in. The groom tells them, “I don’t open the door for strangers.” Ouch.


Let me tell you a different story about two virgins. One of them spent a considerable number of hours of her teenage years stranded at the side of the road, having run out of gas, too distracted by the radio to notice the bright red indicator light on the dashboard telling her that she would, indeed, soon be flagging down a stranger for help. The second virgin was never so irresponsible. She probably still never lets her minivan fall below empty. The first virgin is wiser now and knows exactly how many miles she has left when that indicator light comes on, though she may also have pushed her luck sometimes and continued to drive even when the computer chip in her gas tank tells her that she has 0 miles left in the tank. The second sister–Did I say “sister”? Oops.—well, the second sister, she has never let the tank get to 0. The first sister arrives for a visit, a day late or a day early, or maybe two days late or two days early, with a passel of kids and a dog and a fish that she carried the whole way from Arkansas in a travel coffee mug and a bundle of dirty laundry and a lot of love but no plan at all. The second sister has a Google calendar that she sends in advance to make sure their schedules coordinate. Of course, they cannot, because the first sister has no schedule.

It’s true—that was a biographical sketch, and though many of you don’t know me well, you do know my sister Sarah, a lay leader at this church. Sarah kindly invited me here, and before I arrive in town, she sent me her Google calendar. I had heard of such things, but, like Good Housekeeping and Pinterest, had avoided Google calendar because that kind of thing makes me feel inadequate. In fact, when she sent it, I let it linger in my inbox. I couldn’t even open it for a few days because I was so intimidated by that level of organization. When I did open it, I immediately felt bad about myself, so I shut it and haven’t opened it since.

And you can now guess why I don’t like the parable of the virgins much. I tend to be the kind of virgin who is too busy doing something else to notice that I’m out of oil. In fact, even if you remind me that I’m out of oil, I might go to the oil store and get there and forget entirely what I came for and end up buying the tools for some other project that I may or may not begin and may or not may finish, plus some Swedish fish at checkout because I got distracted, plus I forgot to eat lunch. I’m sure that would not happen if I had a Google calendar, but there I am: out of oil. And just in time for the party to start!

And so, in this story, I’d be out there, finally with oil in hand but still missing the banquet.


Picture[Photo courtesy of Ailecia Ruscin; all rights reserved.]

Let me switch topics.

I have spent a number of years now studying Westboro Baptist Church. It’s a small—larger than Stahl Mennonite, but not by much—congregation from Topeka, Kansas. It’s an independent Baptist church, not associated with any denomination, though they call themselves Primitive Baptists, theologically speaking, though other Primitive Baptists say that they aren’t. How many folks here have heard of them? And has anyone seen them in person?

Well, this church is most famous for its picketing at funerals. Since the early 1990s, they have shown up at funerals, as well as many, many other events, including high school graduations, concerts, public lectures, and other events, to preach their message. For the first 15 years or so, that message focused on their claim that God hates people who are not heterosexual. In the mid-2000s, as American casualties from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan started climbing, they turned their attention to God’s hatred of all of America, as evidenced by soldiers killed in combat. It was that claim that landed them before the Supreme Court in 2010. They picketed the funeral of a Marine from York, Pennsylvania, and though they did not break the law in doing so, the father of the fallen Marine sued them. He won, then he lost the appeal, and he lost before the Supreme Court. So they continue to picket.

This week, they have spent time in Orlando, Florida, picketing funerals there. Their message is that God sends violence, that God is responsible for human suffering, that God makes such suffering happen.

Most Christians find this behavior and this theology repulsive. I will take just a minute to explain it. And, because I’m a college professor, I have a PowerPoint slide for you, because, frankly, it’s a bit confusing, and you might get to the end of my explanation and have to look at the whole thing again to understand it.

Westboro Baptists are Calvinists, like Presbyterians and some kinds of Baptists and some other common strains of religion. Like other Calvinists, they hold to TULIP, which is a sweet acronym for the contentious theology that explains predestination. The picture shown here stands in the church sanctuary so that people can see it every time they gather.

The “T” is for Total Depravity—that all people are born hopelessly evil, by our very natures, and thus we can do nothing to close the chasm between us and God. Now, other Christians, including non-Calvinists, may believe this, too.

The “U” is for Unconditional Election—the idea that God saves not because of our merit, not because we deserve it. Because we are totally depraved, we can do nothing to make God love us. Again, this is not unique in Christianity.

The “L,” though, is where Calvinists start to distinguish themselves. It stands for Limited Atonement, which means that the salvific death of Christ was limited in its scope. In other words, Jesus’ death was not for all of humanity but only for some. For whom, then? For those God selected—or elected—at the start of time. In other words, before we were born, God decided if Jesus’ death was for us or not. Remember that, because we are all depraved, none of us deserve it. And those who receive it do so without any consideration of their merit—that is, unconditionally.

The “I” is for Irresistible Grace, which means that if God elected you, you can’t say no. If Jesus died for you, then you will be saved. And that will be reflected in your life of obedience.

The “P” is for Perseverance of the Saints, which just means that if you are one of the elect, not only will God have you—he will keep you. You won’t lose your salvation. You never earned it in the first place, and you can’t lose it.

Now, Westboro Baptists are not just Calvinists but Hyper-Calvinists, which is a word that can be used pejoratively, though I do not mean any negative connotation. I mean that they add two doctrines to TULIP: double predestination and absolute predestination. “Double predestination” means that God doesn’t just choose who is going to heaven—God also actively choses, at the start of time, and without any consideration of our merit who goes to hell. A Westboro Baptist once explained it to me this way: We are all on death row. Every single human is a sinner and deserving of death and eternity in hell to follow. If the governor calls and pardons the death row inmate in the cell next to me, I cannot complain. Both of us deserve death; if he is excused from it, not because of his merit, but because of the grace of the governor, I cannot complain. In fact, I can only praise the governor for having mercy at all.

And by “Absolute Predestination,” I mean that God preordains not just salvation, not just who is going to heaven and who is going to hell, but everything. If you hit a red light on the way to church, God made that happen. If you got a mosquito bite this morning, God made that happen. Everything is not just under God’s control but an expression of God’s will.

Because of these beliefs, Westboro Baptists cannot ever know who it is who God loves and who is bound for heaven. Remember: good behavior doesn’t get you into heaven, so we can’t assume that just because someone is behaving well (that is, as defined by the church), that they are heaven-bound. Life-long members of Westboro Baptist Church could be damned! But by this theology, Westboro Baptists can know who is definitely going to hell: the disobedient. In other words, being obedient doesn’t get you into heaven, but being disobedient is a sign that God hates you and damned you before you were born.

So who are the ones Westboro Baptists know are damned? Well, all non-believers. All non-Christians. All non-Westboro Baptists. Americans broadly, but not just us. The whole world. In fact, you can visit their website God Hates the World to find an interactive map. Click on any country, and the church will tell you why God hates it. God hates coal miners, like those killed in the West Sago Mine explosion. God hates astronauts, like those killed in the Columbia explosion. God hates Justin Bieber, Vince Gill, Lady Gaga, women with breast cancer, police officers, the entire US military, and all Christians who all also think gay people go to hell but don’t say so at their funerals, including Jerry Falwell, Franklin Graham, and Pat Robertson.


Picture

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The list of what they think God hates is so extensive that it is actually hard to make fun of because anything seems like it could possibly fit. The image shown here is from a Comic Con convention, where fans of science fiction and fantasy and comic books and such gather to share their interests. Westboro Baptist Church picketed a Comic Con, and this counterprotestor, using humor to address the situation, came out wearing his Star Trek uniform and holding a sign that says “God Hates Jedi.” The joke, of course, is that there is some tension between Trekkies and fans of Star Wars. In the other image, a man holds a sign that says “God Hates Kittens”. Its ridiculousness points to the ridiculousness of Westboro’s signs. And, after you read enough of the signs, you might think that there is some way that a person could conclude that God does, in fact, hate kittens.

One former member recalls holding a sign that says “Gods hates bikinis,” which helped her see the level of control the church sought over its members (who were forbidden from wearing bikinis). God hates bikinis? What about tankinis? What about one piece swimwear that shows a lot of cleavage? And how do we know this? How does God feel about panty hose that twists? Spanx? Itchy elastic? Does God hate the seam in socks as much as my daughter does? Is the person who invented double knit polyester burning in hell right now? Can I stone my neighbor for mowing his grass while wearing shorts, socks, and sandals but no shirt?

Well, I am teasing a bit. Westboro Baptist Church would say that there is logic behind their signs, that there are reasons for every prohibition. Mennonites are familiar with these prohibitions. Indeed, my daughter heads off to a Mennonite camp this week, where two-piece swimwear is prohibited. I don’t necessarily disagree, though I can’t imagine this rousing God’s hatred. Here perhaps I assume that God is too much like me and figures that he’ll choose his battles and not fuss about children’s clothing unless it’s really important, like wearing clothes in public and shoes at the grocery store. But that’s me—the virgin who is careless with her oil. In the parable, the groom seems a lot more likely to hold a grudge.


Back to those virgins, the ones who got kicked out. Many Christians have read that story as being about preparation for Jesus’ return. Those who aren’t ready are out, damned, headed to hell. There have been some good refutations of that vision of salvation, including the Rob Bell’s Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. For an even better read about hell, though, I have to recommend You’re Not Going to Heaven (and Why It Doesn’t Matter) by Wes Bergen, who was just installed as a pastor at Morgantown Church of the Brethren, just down the road from you all and, like Stahl, in the Allegheny Conference.  I will not say much about their views on heaven, which are worth reading—especially Wes’—but I will say that there is some scholarly dispute about whether Jesus actually told this parable or whether it was added by first century Christians who were a bit obsessed with Jesus’ return.

What does Westboro Baptist Church have to do with those foolish virgins? It is this: Westboro Baptist Church spends a lot of time sorting people into wise and foolish virgins, figuring out who might be in and who is out, who God hates and who might God love.  I’ll agree, in my worst moments, that this is a fun hobby, especially if I’ve had a bad day at work or am grocery shopping at 5 pm when every other person who forgot to set out dinner hits the store. Thankfully, though, I’m not God, because my list of “foolish virgins” would include students who ask questions that are clearly answered in the syllabus, people who talk on their cell phones in public, and those who chew ice. I assume that the saving grace of Jesus is powerful enough to save ice chewers, but I hope they live in a separate section of heaven from me so I don’t have to hear them.

If that seems petty, it’s precisely illustrates why people have no business figuring out who is in and who is out. It’s hard not to let our personal prejudices creep in. But even when we think we have a clear standard—“what the Bible says”—I argue that we don’t. In this story, the only sin that the foolish virgins committed was not having oil ready. Yes, this was a big deal, but, geez, was it enough of a big deal not to be able to enter the banquet. After all, we don’t know what they did the day of the wedding. Maybe they were so busy doing other bridal attendant tasks that they just forgot or ran out of time. Sure, we condemn them for not having oil, but maybe they were out getting extra ice, or they realized that there wasn’t enough handicapped accessible parking at the party and so were valet parking cars for elderly relatives. Maybe one of them was the mother of the flower girl and had to spend the whole day at the beauty parlor, watching the hair dresser fix the home-made haircut her toddler decided to give herself just that very morning.  Point is, we don’t know, and before we join in condemning women for failing to get everything on their to-do list done, we could take a moment to remember all the times we forgot the oil for the lamp, the overdue school lunch money, the donuts for the morning meeting, the anniversary gift, the permission slip for the child’s field trip, maybe even the actual child, who we forgot at daycare.

This parable suggests, in the reading I’m giving it here, which is actually a pretty typical reading in the kinds of conservative churches I research, including those far more polite than Westboro Baptist Church, that we can get kicked out of God’s kingdom, out of relationship with other Christians, out of the kingdom of God, and out of heaven, for an offense as simple as forgetting the oil. What I don’t like about that is that it seems so unpredictable; the bridegroom seems so spiteful, so fickle, his approval and welcome so precarious. What kind of bridezilla won’t seat a late guest? I know, it’s rude to be late. I know it’s rude to be late. I know, I know, I know. (Ask me how I know. Because I have heard the lecture numerous times over my life.) But I don’t see how it’s a relationship breaker.

And so I get a vision of God, from this reading, that is spiteful and picky about things I can’t anticipate. Someone who condemns me for not having oil might also condemn me for a million other things that I don’t see as such a big deal. Eating shellfish, wearing mixed fiber clothing, planting two different seeds in the same hole in the ground. You can’t get ahead of this God because you can’t know what the rules are because there are so many of them and because they aren’t grounded in anything useful. Maybe God does hate Jedi and kittens. Maybe God does slam the door in the face of those who don’t have their spiritual house in order. Maybe God wants us to slam the door in the face of those who don’t fit what we think the Bible says, too. Maybe this passage is our permission slip to kick out those who are not meeting our expectations.  Maybe that includes some of the same people Westboro Baptist Church says God hates.

Because these are presumably the words of Jesus, I can’t ignore them. I also can’t square them with the others parables of Jesus, who tells us that the shepherd finds every lost lamb and the widow searches for every coin, who throws open wide the gates even though the road is narrow and hard. The indomitable Michele Hersbherger, who teaches Bible at Hesston College, teachs her students that “when the Bible seems to disagree, Jesus is the referee.” I love that saying, which reminds us to see through the lens of Christ. But here, it’s exactly Jesus’ parable that is my problem.

So let me approach it again: No matter what those ten virgins had to do, they also had to have oil for the lamps. It was their most important job. Why? Because the oil would allow them to welcome and protect others who were attending the festivities. The oil in the lamps would guide other people to the groom. The oil welcomed people to the party. The light of those lamps said, “You are included. Come here and be part of this banquet. Come and these lights will keep you safe.” In this reading, the mistake that the five foolish virgins made is a grave one. It is one of not welcoming and caring for the guests. If everyone is invited to the kingdom of God, our gravest mistake—the one that will land us on the outside of the banquet hall and have Jesus denying us—is our failure to welcome and protect those who need our welcome and protection.

The last picture I share with you today comes from yesterday’s Miami Herald. It is of people participating in Angel Action, which is a counterprotest against Westboro Baptist Church that was created in response to the church’s picket of Matthew Shepard’s funeral. You might recall that Shepard was a gay college student murdered in Wyoming in the 1990s. His funeral was one of the first high-profile ones that Westboro Baptists picketed. In response, Shepard’s friends sewed these costumes. You use PVC pipes and white sheets to create “wings” that work on a lever system. When you pull down, the wings rise high in the air—8 or 9 feet, easily—and block the signs. Westboro Baptist Church is still able to exercise its right to be present, but these Angels—in Laramie, Wyoming, in Orlando, Florida—stand between their signs and those trying to come to the banquet, using their protective wings to guide those who want in.

Picture

In the parable, the groom arrives anyway, but the virgins’ foolishness risked his guests. The groom does not need help finding his way. His guests, though, need the protection of a lit path. My hope for Stahl Mennonite is that you will always be a church that keeps your lamps lit, not for the groom, but for his guests.

–Rebecca