When Christians Fail to Entertain Angels


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.



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.


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.


“Men at some time are masters of their fates”: Yes, let’s politicize Shakespeare

Hi Joel,

I appreciated your forthright statement that the NYC Shakespeare in the Park production of Julius Caesar’s theatrical assassination of a Donald Trump-like Caesar is exactly that: a dramatic retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most-read plays speaking to our time, and that includes commentary on contemporary US politics, just as, in its day, it was speaking to British anxieties about the successor to Queen Elizabeth, who had no children and instead passed the English throne to James I.

Why shouldn’t we let art–even art that is over 500 years old–speak to our present moment?


Above, a still from the 1953 MGM production of Julius Caesar, starring Marlon Brando as Marcus Brutus. Here, he stands over the dead, bloodied body of Caesar. 

Sure, the greater point of Julius Caesar is that political assassination is a bad idea.  But I bet that the scene most of us remember in whatever version of the play we have seen is the murder scene–an anguished Caesar realizing that it is Marcus Brutus is part of the crew of assassins. Et tu, Brute? “You too, Brutus?” It may be a question, as Caesar recognizes that his protege (and possibly his illegitimate son) has literally stabbed him in the back. Even you, my dear son? Or perhaps it is the invocation of a curse: “Your turn next, Brutus!” In any case, the play invites us to think about which of the Trump inner circle will betray their leader first. Et tu, Melania?


Above, Donald and Melanie Trump at his inauguration. The entire set up–family insiders in competition for power, loyalty oaths, naive political leaders getting gamed by Russia–begs to be understood through Shakespeare. Not a day goes by that I would surprised to find Trump poisoned, stabbed, run through with a sword, or killed by a viper bite. 

Which is to say that we don’t need to be upset about this. This is just one way that art works.

And while we are feeling confessional: Yeah, As You Like It is totally queer-positive (as the title suggests!), Titus Adronicus is anti-imperialist, Coriolanus is about the high costs of militarism, The Comedy of Errors about the arbitrary allotment of power based on birth, and The Tempest (which is my local Shakespeare in the Park’s summer offering) is a critique of colonialism.This isn’t to say that Shakespeare is always a radical; his work consistently affirms the role of the monarch as divinely ordained, for example, and he doesn’t love the Puritans and other dissenters who were offering critiques of the Virgin Queen and James I. The Merchant of Venice is rightly criticized for relying on anti-Semitic tropes, and Othello is probably racist and Taming of the Shrew is sexist.

But you don’t have to be an English PhD to see where Shakespeare speaks to modern political concerns.

If you want to support the production of Julius Caesar, which has lost some corporate donors over their politically-charged choices, you can do so here. 



PS. You think it’s tacky? This is the start of Celebrity Apprentice and a man who made a guest appearance in a Playboy pornographic film. I’m not worried about degrading his brand.


Hammer of Thor v. Jesus’ Wounds: Trump’s Appeals to Violent Religion

Dear Joel,

So, as some of our readers might know, I’m currently co-editing, with John Shuford, The Encyclopedia of Hate, and, yes, it is exactly what it sounds like. Among my other duties is assembling a list of hate groups and identifying experts on those groups to write entries. I’m currently working on white supremacist groups who identify their ancient Norse religion as a source for their beliefs. (You might have heard a bit about Norse neopaganism inspiring, at least in part, groups such as Sons of Odin on NPR recently.)

While Norse neopaganism and white supremacy don’t have to go together, we have seen an increase in the number of executed or planned attacks against racial minorities in which some version of the religion has been cited. The most important (and deadly) case by far was the mass murders of Anders Breivik in Oslo, Norway. But these groups are in the US. Frazier Glenn Miller, who killed three people on an anti-Jewish rampage in Kansas, found meaning in the religion, for example. More recently, the murders of two men opposing the harassment of Muslims on a train in Portland, Oregon were committed by a man with connections to Norse neopaganism.



Above, a tattoo of the hammer of Thor, a symbol of Norse neopaganism used by white supremacists as a symbol of a violent religion. 

Many of the adherents come from Christian backgrounds but reject Christianity as being too passive–and too closely related to Judaism. They are looking for a religion with its roots in clearly white cultures, not Middle Eastern ones. And Jesus’ “turn the other cheek”/””humble to the point of death” attitude doesn’t make sense for them. They’re committed, ideologically, to the idea that they are fighting a race war, that they are being threatened with “white genocide” and that they must fight back. Norse neopaganism venerates those who die in battle, not those who die on a cross.

That should sound antithetical to Christianity. But listen to this:

“And as you know, we’re under siege–you understand that. We will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever. You watch…. I have one goal: to fight for… America First…. The forgotten men and women will never, ever be forgotten again.”

That was Donald Trump, speaking on Thursday (while Comey was testifying to Congress) to the Faith and Religious Freedom Forum, an effort by the lying, cheating Ralph Reed to re-create the Moral Majority. The “we’re under siege” part certainly refers to widespread demand for an investigation into the president’s corrupt actions, including his relationship to Russia and his firing of James Comey. But it resonates with many white Christians’ sense that they as Christians (and as white people) are “under attack”–by gay rights activists, by subhuman Democrats, by multicultural threats to Christian hegemony.

Above, a video of Trump speaking to conservative evangelical Christians in Washington DC this week, telling them that they are “richly deserve” to have political power. He told them that they have an “unbelievable future.” He told them, “We are winners.” As evidence, he points to a “historic increases in military spending” and the continued militarization of the US border. He demands that “people who come to our country should love our citizens and embrace our values, our values, folks.” The appeals to white Christian hegemony continue for 35 minutes. 

Trump’s speech focuses (as usual) on how he won the election, to the surprise of the mainstream media, and he thanks his audience for how they made that happen (“You picked a winner!” at 14:30)–in sum, telling them that they do have power. (He also tells the audience how much they should thank him for his work on their behalf. Check out his demands for gratitude at 13:10: “It [undermining the Johnson Amendment] was a very important thing for me to do for you.”)

At the same time, he tells them that their ideas will be heard in government, with the implication that, somehow, conservative Christians have previously been silenced. In a moment almost breathtaking in its mendacity, he invokes Isaiah 1:17, as if the members of his audience, gathered in DC with the president speaking to them, are somehow oppressed. He warns them that his enemies will “lie, obstruct, spread their hate and prejudice” (Oh, the projection!) in order to disempower them–but that they should never give up.

In the end, the faithful will be rewarded with cultural dominance: they will be “bigger and stronger,” “never forgotten,” and, most importantly (and, in Jesus’ perspective, dangerously), “first.”

Those words should make Christians protest, not cheer.

I put these two examples next to each other not because I think most of the Christian nationalists trotting behind Ralph Reed are violent extremists hoping to start a race war in order to establish an all-white nation.

But, they are racists, many of them at the individual level and all of them at the structural. They are power hungry. And they are building on the same frame as violent white extremists: fear and a promise to lord power over those they see as enemies. And some of them will hear in Trump’s words permission to use violence.


Prison Labor as Redemptive? If You’re a White Person Benefitting from the Labor


You recently asked us to think about what it means that Hillary and Bill Clinton, like other First Families of Arkansas (and Louisiana and, at the time, Missouri), used prisoners as unpaid laborers. This fact is old–Clinton wrote about it in her 1996 It Takes a Village, but it’s gained traction in recent days in part because of the work of Samuel Sinyangwe and Jeannette Jing. Jing linked Bill Maher’s use of the term “house n—–” and Clinton’s acceptance of the “longstanding tradition” of using imprisoned black men as free laborers as a way to “keep costs down”–a most impressive euphemism!

Here is Clinton, in 1996, writing about encountering black prisoners working for free in the governor’s mansion:

Screen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.51.47 PMScreen Shot 2017-06-08 at 4.51.53 PM

I appreciate your concern for Clinton, which comes from an empathetic place. As white people, it’s easy to miss the injustice here. (In fact, many white people continue to defend the practice of using unpaid prison labor to serve government interests. If it were up for popular vote, I bet many states would do more of it.) Can we judge Clinton today for her thoughts back then? After all, 13th hadn’t come out, so how were white people supposed to know that there is a direct historical relationship between the end of slavery–which “deprived” white people of the free labor of blacks–and the mass incarceration of black men (which Clinton supported) and a corresponding reliance on the free or very, very, very low cost work of prisoners?

How could we know?

We know because this didn’t happen by accident. It happened on purpose. If we white people didn’t know, it’s because we didn’t want to know.

Granted, sometimes such slavery (and, yes, readers–it is slavery: the forced, unpaid labor of someone who is physically controlled by another. And it is legal under the 13th amendment.) is hidden from us so it’s hard to see. That is the trick of capitalism: to keep the parts that make us squeamish hidden. This is why businesses want to hide the repulsive gap between CEOs and workers, why the “ag-gag” prevents journalistic coverage of what happens on feedlots and slaughterhouses (under the guise of protecting us from terrorism), why we ship manufacturing jobs to places where we can’t see the abuses of workers that would violate US labor laws. The system is designed to be hard to see because if we see it–11% of the world’s children trapped in child labor, in diamond mines and tobacco or chocolate fields–we might decide to celebrate Valentine’s Day a little differently.

We can see Clinton’s misgivings in the passage from It Takes a Village. She’s uncomfortable with the prison laborers. But it quickly becomes clear that this discomfort is not with a system of exploitation but rather with concern for her own safety. She goes on to talk about how the prisoners were vetted and notes that she found, as she was told that she would, that the murderers made the best employees; it was the people in for property crimes that caused the problems in the mansion. These men, she tells us later, don’t have low IQs but were “emotional illiterates.” Sociologically speaking, she rejects biological arguments about prisoner inferiority and instead suggests, as so many good liberals do, that they come from a deprived culture. This is still a “kinds-of-people” argument, one that places blame on the individual and their culture rather than a system that crafts laws to imprison black people. The idea that a hundreds-year old system of exploitation is rigged to insure that black men are disproportionately jailed doesn’t seem to have crossed her mind.

Instead, 1996 Clinton accepts her fate as the (white) mistress of the house, overseeing black slave labor. (Please, readers, don’t argue that these folks aren’t slaves. Legally, they are. We wrote the 13th amendment to say so. We could have written it otherwise, and Radical Republicans Thaddeus Stevens and Charles Sumner tried. This slavery is not legally racialized, though it is de facto racialized. This slavery is not inheritable, as was slavery in the 19th century and before. But it is slavery because the Constitution says that it is.)  She even manages to use a tone to suggests that this labor was for the good of the prisoner. Indeed, such programs are often called “rehabilitation” programs–as if the benefit is to the prisoner, not to the state.


Above, black prisoners work in a field while an armed guard watches them from horseback. Not 1900 but today. In addition to working for state governments, prisoners work for free or nearly free for major companies, including Whole Foods, McDonalds, Wendy’s, Walmart, Starbucks, and more. Such labor keeps costs low but also provides an unfair advantage to companies that can access the prison labor market. 

But look: if these murderers are rehabilitated, they can be freed. Clinton notes that some of them are in their 30s and have already served almost two decades, about half their lives.  In many cases, they could be freed without risk of reoffense. If they couldn’t, they wouldn’t have been working in the governor’s mansion.

If “rehabilitation” was the goal, then prisoners options wouldn’t be to sit in a cell and “do nothing” (or, more accurately, learn and participate in the violence of prison) or work for free; it would be to do the work of fixing their problems and making their wrongs right.

This argument–that unpaid prison laborers are being reformed by performing work for the very political leaders who craft policies that deprive black Americans, free or imprisoned, of legitimate opportunities for success are being improved by their slavery–isn’t new. It’s older than Emancipation. Robert E. Lee, writing about the burden of whites to “improve” the lives of blacks (Slavery, he says, was harder on white than on enslaved black people.), says it this way:

I think it [slavery] however a greater evil to the white man than to the black race, & while my feelings are strongly enlisted in behalf of the latter, my sympathies are more strong for the former. The blacks are immeasurably better off here than in Africa, morally, socially & physically. The painful discipline they are undergoing, is necessary for their instruction as a race, & I hope will prepare & lead them to better things. How long their subjugation may be necessary is known & ordered by a wise Merciful Providence. Their emancipation will sooner result from the mild & melting influence of Christianity, than the storms & tempests of fiery Controversy.

Lee, of course, was the leader of a treasonous military effort to defend that “longstanding tradition” of free black labor for white profit, justified by saying slavery was for the good of blacks–a favor, really, that whites generously offered and one that Lee embraced as the owner of slaves. Clinton was a far less powerful First Lady. But could she have done it differently? Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, and thousands of prisoners who have worked in chain gangs would have said so.



PS. For goodness sake, yes, she’s better than Trump, who campaigned on a promise to imprison even more black men, and of course I voted for her and donated to her campaign. And, no, I’m not holding her to a higher standard than male political leaders. And–trust me on this one–I get how hard it is to enter Arkansas culture as a progressive white woman from the North. I understand that she said this 1996, not 2017, and that times have changed, even if Clinton has not changed as much as I would hope. I think Clinton has done some remarkable work on behalf of some vulnerable populations.

And I still think she should have known better. And I do think that this passage suggests an orientation toward work, race, and criminal justice that I haven’t yet seen the mainstream Democratic Party challenge.

Political Anger and Political Violence

Dear Joel,

Let’s talk about threats of political violence.

No, not Kathy Griffin. (Though we can talk about her, too. I think a severed Trump head is a fine form of political speech, not a threat against the president, and I wish that someone cleverer than Griffin had done it, that the image had been more meaningful, not less graphic. In fact, I’ve been warning conservative Christians about the risks of a symbolic Trump beheading for awhile now.)

I mean Kim Weaver, a Democrat running who was running against Iowa’s Steve King for a seat in the House. King is a racist and a nativist, and he’s quite open and proud of those beliefs. Weaver had run against King in 2016 and was gearing up to run against him again for 2018. She dropped out of the race this week, though, citing, in part, the toll that constant threats–including death threats–was taking on her.

And I mean Stephanie Clayton, the Kansas House Republican who was threatened with hanging on social media after she announced that she was voting with her moderate colleagues to keep guns off Kansas’ campuses, a choice that most faculty on those campuses support.

And Clementa (“Clem”) Pinckney, a Democrat serving in South Carolina’s House, who was killed when a white supremacist opened fire during his church service two summers ago.

And I mean Gabby Giffords, who had been targeted by violent right-wingers high on the violent rhetoric of Sarah Palin and others long before she was shot in a mass shooting that killed 6 others, including a Judge John Roll–who had also long faced death threats–and a child.

And Robert Smith Vance, a federal judge killed in his Alabama home by a mail bomb sent by a man who’d also been bombing civil rights advocates.

And James M. Hind, the first member of Congress assassinated. Hind, representing Arkansas in the House, was gunned down by a Klansman for his support of the rights of former slaves.

And John W. Stephens, a North Carolina state senator, who was murdered by Klansmen for his popularity among black voters, whose support had brought him into office.

And Tomás “Tomasito” Romero, a Pueblo who was assassinated after his capture for daring to rebel against US annexation of Mexico.

Above, Clayton, Hind, Vance, Pinckney, Giffords, and Stephens–all threatened or murdered by people whose political conservatism drove their violence. 

What do these folks have in common? They all represented a symbolic threat to the rule of conservative white men, and they were all threatened or killed because of it.

It’s not the political violence doesn’t happen to conservatives or that those on the left don’t commit violence (McKinley was assassinated by an anarchist, as just one example.) But the violence and the violent rhetoric trends one direction: conservatives fomenting violence and hatred toward those they see as liberal or progressive.

Compare the rhetoric of the Women’s March to that of any Tea Party rally.


Does he know he’s quoting Malcolm X?

[Above, a man at a Tea Party rally wears a hat indicating that he’s a Desert Storm veteran. Behind him is the Gadsen Flag, which has become associated not simply with the Tea Party but with anti-government extremist and hate movements. He holds a sign saying “By ballet or by bullet restoration is coming.”] 

Ask yourself: Do Democrats have to monitor their events to insure that participants aren’t unfurling a Confederate flag?

Consider the millions of racist images of the Obama family, including images of President Obama lynched. Or find the online images of a digital Hillary Clinton being sexually assaulted. (Better yet, don’t.)

In an attempt to find common ground in what feels like a very polarized America, it’s tempting for good liberals to suggest that we’re all guilty of othering our political opponents, that we’ve all engaged in debased language, that we’ve all been demeaned by the current political climate.

But we’re not all equally guilty. Not by a long shot.

Our pal Erick Erickson, in an article denying that we should be concerned about the Trump administration’s ties to Russia, said recently that he “would actually be really surprised if we make it to December 31st of this year without people in this country taking up arms against each other.” He’s part of the problem, of course–and he’s ignoring the fact that it’s almost always been social conservatives who have threatened civil war and see it unfolding with every new sign of equal treatment for women, African Americans, and LGBT people, not progressives. Factions of the right have been living in 1832 South Carolina for all their lives. They’re slobbering for a fight–all the time.

Speaking like a man in the first session of his court-ordered domestic abuser treatment program, Erickson goes on:

If the left really does believe the Republican Party is a criminal enterprise in league with the Russians, they’re either moral cowards without conviction in their beliefs or about to take up arms to defend their country. If the right really does believe the left is engaged in an unconstitutional coup against the lawfully elected President, they’re either moral cowards without convictions in their beliefs or about to take up arms to defend their country.

That’s right: If we really mean what we say when we say about our political opponents, in Erickson’s view, the only courageous option is civil war. Erickson, protected by his own privileges, doesn’t seem to understand what that would actually mean for the world. and doesn’t have the moral imagination to create solutions to these problems outside of violence. And Erickson is typical of many other conservatives in this regard.

So I’m not believing the crocodile tears of Republicans or their feigned horror over Kathy Griffin’s stunt.

And I’m not arguing that since they are propagators of violent rhetoric  we should be too. “When they go low, we go high” is a pretty good motto. And I don’t think we’re near to a civil war, despite Dennis Prager’s might tempt you and me to worry about.

But I am arguing, ever more forcefully, that we shouldn’t cater to the anger of Trump voters. So much post-election analysis expressed surprise at how angry these folks were, calling on good liberals to try to understand things from the perspectives of white voters in the exurbs and in rustbelt towns and places ripped apart by heroin and opioid epidemics. But underneath all that analysis was the idea that we should be afraid of these people. They are desperate… they are angry… they have guns…

And they tell us this themselves in threats veiled and explicit.


Above, protestors at a rally in defense of the display of the Confederate flag on public property display a giant flag from the back of a Cadillac SUV. Superimposed over the stars and bars is an image of an assault rifle and the words “Come and Take It.” I’m clearly supposed to be afraid of these people, who are just itching for a fight. 

But I’m angry too–and not just at Trump but at every fool who embraced his bigotry or willfully ignored it in order to get scammed by the biggest heel in reality TV.  That anger isn’t going away, and I’m not adding fear to it.






Masculinity so Fragile: The Wonder Woman Edition

Dear Joel,

Oh, the hours I spent playing Wonder Woman as a child! She was the ideal superhero–yes, because she was a woman (and a dark haired one at that, which made her the un-Barbie to me–and my joy in discovering her only highlights the pain that children of color often feel when they face another summer with no heroes of color on the screen). But she was also accessible to me: you could step into the role with nearly no gear. Unlike billionaire Bruce Wayne, who relied on a manor full of gadgets to get the job done, Wonder Woman required only three things: Bracelets of Submission (which could be crafted from the blue extra-wide rubber bands that held together broccoli bought at the grocery store), the Lasso of Truth (which we made from any old rope we could find), and an Invisible Plane (which was the easiest of all to craft!). Clearly, DC wasn’t thinking about merchandizing to children when Wonder Woman came to be.

But that she was a woman meant a lot, too. I’d like to say that we simply didn’t see too many women as heroes “back when I was a kid,” but that’s still pretty much the case (though I think there are significant exceptions, including Mulan, Brave, and Moana). We tend to classify movies by and about men as movies (unless they are about war or whatever The Revenant was about) and movies by and about women as women’s movies, as if men’s gendered experiences don’t shape how they view films but movies for women are only accessible to those who have been through the gendered experiences of women.

And writers know this. It’s why Harry Potter is about a boy and his friends Hermione and Ron–a group that is two-thirds boys. When girls take the lead role or outnumber boys, boys start to see the book (or the film) as for girls. And when a book about a boy is written by a woman, her publisher will ask her to use her initials or a pen name to hide her gender. Ramona Quimby and Pippi Longstocking are the literary exceptions in that they are read by boys (or are read to boys), too, but Ramona and Pippi are also girls who are quite explicit about embracing danger, fun, and silliness–and rejecting dresses, obedience, and good manners.  Until Dora the Explorer, we didn’t have a girl character with the kind of multi-media power (a TV show, video games, books, a stage show) that was cultivated for boy characters. Even Dora, though, wasn’t bringing in the boy viewers and so she got a male counterpart: her cousin Diego.


Above, left to right: Pippi Longstocking challenges Adolf, the strongman, at the circus, Ramona Quimby tears around on her tricycle, and Harry Potter and his pals Hermione and Ron pose for a picture

So, while it’s so important for women to see women as heroes on the screen, the major obstacle to them getting there is the idea that men won’t watch them. Yet the fact that audiences for things like monster truck rallies and pro wrestling events and Mel Gibson films are mostly men doesn’t prevent them from being produced–nor does the fact that some films (50 Shades of Grey, all those lovely Jane Austen adaptations) were watched primarily by women mean that such films shouldn’t be produced. Twilight made a boatload of money but was marketed mostly to women and girls.

If we already produce movies with a gendered market in mind, why the hesitation to produce more movies with women in the heroic roles? As the success of Wonder Woman among women viewers shows, women are available and ready to watch.

I’m not sure, then, that the problem is so much with films with strong women characters as much as it is with men who can’t imagine a woman saving them. Films like 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight might be movies for women, but they don’t threaten men. Wonder Woman is going to save men. She might even physically save them. (As happens in real life, too–women work as fire fighters and on avalanche rescue teams and as hostage negotiators and they often actually physically save the lives of men, sometimes even by picking them up and carrying them to safety.)

So, yes, as you point out, if you are a white man mocking women crying at Wonder Woman, don’t; it’s easy but ugly to “sneer at people taking seriously something you don’t have to take seriously because it will never be a problem getting a superhero movie made about people who look like you.”

But I’m also betting that part of white men’s discomfort with Wonder Woman is that she’s saving people who do look like them.


Above, a drawing from a Wonder Woman comic. Wonder Woman rescues a man from a fire by carrying him on her shoulder. How much you wanna bet he tried to insist that he could handle it on his own?



PS. I have a lot more to say about Wonder Woman, including Gal Gadot’s support for assaults on Palestinian civilians, a real-life message that seems at odds with the film’s apparent criticisms of nationalism. I’m also not a huge Chris fan (Pine, Pratt, Hemsworth, Evans) as they seem to me to be the living embodiment(s) of the idea that in order for people of color and women to get ahead, undeserving white men are going to need to step aside. So let me think about it more. In the meantime, I’ll spend my free time this weekend re-reading Herland

126590The cover of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland, serialized in 1915 and not published in book form until 1979.