Death and Privilege

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Newtown, Connecticut?

That’s right, 20. That number is seared on our brains. How sad, how frightening.

“If it happened here it could happen anywhere,” said Danielle Collins, who attended a candlelight vigil in Newtown last night.

No, Ms. Collins, it could not happen anywhere. That’s the voice of privilege. You’re right, though, in this sense: We don’t expect kids to get shot in Newtown or places like it. That only happens in places like…

Quick! How many kids have been shot to death this year in Detroit, Michigan?

The answer is 21, but you didn’t know that, dear reader. Honestly, the only reason I know is because I spent a couple of hours researching it just now. And about that many kids were shot to death in Detroit in 2011, and 2010, and 2009, etc. How many child homicides were there in Newtown in those years? You know the answer without having to look it up.

Newtown is a bastion of privilege: 95% white and less than 2% black, median household income $111,000/year, 9 out of 10 people live in single family homes that they own. Unemployment is 6.1% and the poverty rate is 1.2%.

The comparable numbers for Detroit are: 11% white, 83% black, income $31,000, owner-occupied housing 49%, unemployment 15%, and poverty rate 35%.

Twenty dead kids in Newtown are national banner headline news; the same number of dead kids in Detroit… well, you can find the information if you look hard enough.

This is so unfair. Our white privilege is supposed to protect us from bad things. Our affluent enclaves are supposed to be safe for kids. As Ms. Collins said, if we can’t protect our privilege behind the barricades of Newtown, where can we?

And by the way, this is not about gun control. Oh sure, now we’re all screaming for gun control, but when the twentieth kid was killed in Detroit, the silence was deafening. And really, give me a break – nothing short of a national ban on handguns would have made a difference in Newtown. Remember, the guns belonged to the killer’s mom. Realistically, a retired white kindergarten teacher in an affluent white suburb will never be denied a gun.

No, the gun control reaction is just part of the overall emotional reaction of sadness and fear. We affluent and middle-class white people are afraid, because we never expected that violence would find us. Sure, we expect violence in Detroit; that’s just the way it is, right? We are sad because children are dead, but we are especially sad because the dead children in Newtown look like our own children. The poor, black little faces in Detroit don’t touch our hearts in quite the same way, and so they don’t make the national headlines.

It chills me and it sickens me to say it: our extreme emotional reaction, and the resultant screaming headlines, are about nothing but privilege.

References and credits:

http://factfinder2.census.gov/faces/tableservices/jsf/pages/productview.xhtml?pid=DEC_10_DP_DPDP1

http://www.newtown.org/pdf/NewtownFactSheet.pdf

http://chamspage.blogspot.com/2012/05/2012-detroit-homicidesmurders-partial.html

http://chamspage.blogspot.com/2011/12/detroit-homicide-statistics-age-ranges.html

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Detroit

http://www.movin1077fm.com/cc-common/news/sections/newsarticle.html?feed=104668&article=10643188

http://www.areavibes.com/newtown-ct/employment/

http://zipatlas.com/us/mi/city-comparison/percentage-housing-units-occupied-by-owner.7.htm

http://www.mlive.com/news/detroit/index.ssf/2012/09/detroit_has_half_the_median_in.html

Mythic mystic Christianity: a theology

I was recently asked to write a brief overview of my personal theology. If you’ve read any theology, you probably know that “brief” is among the least frequently used words to describe theological writing. Nevertheless, I took a crack at it. I don’t know if the result – two and a half single-spaced pages – counts as “brief”, but at least I kept it shorter than book length.

Oh, and as you might have guessed from the title, my personal theology is rooted in the Christian tradition. If that’s not your thing, you might find something you like here.

  • I believe in God, the creator of all that is.
  • I believe in Jesus Christ, both God and human, who, by grace, is the source of our redemption.
  • I believe in the Holy Spirit, equally God, present and active within us.

But these statements are not my theology.

My theology is my contemplation, analysis, and understanding of these statements, my “unpacking” of them.

God

God is the creative force that powered – and still powers – bringing the universe into existence. God is a Being, a be-ing, as in the Hebrew name for God, I Am. This being underlies all else; God is the Ground of all being. We creatures – we created ones – are connected with that creative force, making us one with it, and thus with all of creation. And we humans, blessed with consciousness, are able to be aware of that connection. We can know that we are connected not only to all else that is, we can know the connection itself, and through that, we can know that Ground, that Creator, to which we are connected.

We have two crucial sources of knowledge of God: what we experience, and what we learn from others.

I believe the experience is essential. Without experiencing that connection with the creative force that grounds all being – without physically/mentally/emotionally/spiritually experiencing a connection with God in some way – we would not have the frame of reference to make sense out of what we would learn from others about God. This direct, personal experience we call mystic. I believe that everyone is capable of experiencing this connection, though some have not (yet) had the experience, and others have chosen to interpret the experience for themselves as something other than connection with God. One person cannot cause another to have the mystic experience, nor can one person prevent another from having the experience, nor can one person prove to another that she or he has had the experience. The mystic, experiential element of knowing a connection with God is completely individual.

The other source of knowledge of God is what we learn from others. Since we cannot directly share one another’s experience of God, we need an indirect way of communicating. Sacred story, song, sermon, and poem serve this purpose. They may tell of something as corporeal as eating and drinking, or as intangible as dreams and visions. They may be emotionally raw or intellectually rigorous. They may recount past events or prophesy the future. Together, they comprise myth, in its original sense – sacred tellings about God. For Christians, much of our sacred myth is embodied in the Bible. Other ancient and even modern writings, as well as traditions that have defined Christians (and Jews before us) over the millennia, are also part of the body of our sacred myth. It must be stressed that “myth” does not mean something that’s not true – quite the opposite. Myth is how we express truths that we cannot express more directly. Thus, what is important about myth, including our sacred Christian myth, is not its historical accuracy, or its direct commands, or even the precise words used to speak or write it. What’s important is what we can learn about God from these stories, songs, sermons, and poems.

Jesus Christ

What, then, do we do with that knowledge, whether learned or experiential, mythic or mystic? What does it mean for our lives? It is through Jesus Christ that we can approach the answers to those questions. The phrase “Jesus Christ” itself demands unpacking. The one we call Jesus Christ is rooted in ancient tales of a man who had a special relationship with God, but Jesus Christ is more than this man. We need not even know whether such a man “really” lived in the first century, near the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, nor whether he “really” said and did all that has been attributed to him. To focus on his historicity is to focus on the narrative instead of the story; it is to miss the meaning inside the myth. The purpose of myth is to learn about God.

“Jesus Christ is Lord” is perhaps the earliest statement of Christian theology. From it, we learn three things. First, Jesus, the central character in the uniquely Christian part of our myth, was a man in a primarily agrarian society, a society that also included cities, a semi-autonomous society under occupation by a foreign army. From this we learn the context for his teachings. Second, he is the Christ – he has a unique relationship with God – he was created to be the appointed one to speak for God to people, and to speak for people to God. From this we learn the authority of his teachings. Third, he is Lord – he is himself God. He contains God within him, just as God, the Ground of being, contains him. The wall of separation between that which is God, and that which is not God, is shattered by Jesus Christ’s very existence. Our connection with God is not a bond connecting two separate things; our connection is that we are not separate at all. The bond is simply this: that God and we – and by extension, everything that is – are a unity.

In this brief overview, I won’t go into the ethical theology implicit in this understanding of Jesus Christ, except to observe that Jesus’ ethical teachings are grounded in, “Love God. Love others. And those two are a single imperative.” Suffice it to say that all Christian ethics are derived from that.

From our sacred myth, there is a further lesson to learn for our theology of Jesus Christ. We have answered, “Who am I to God? Who am I to others? How am I to relate to God, and to others?” but we haven’t addressed, “Who am I to me? How am I to relate to myself?” This is the question about redemption.

To redeem, at its root, means to take back, to regain possession of something, usually by paying a price. What we regain through Jesus Christ is our lives and ourselves, the essence of who we are; traditionally we call this our soul. The price was graciously paid by God – as Jesus Christ – in living on earth as a human being, with the work, pain, and death that are part of that life. God chose to pay this price, not for God’s benefit, but for ours – hence we call it an act of grace.

In our redemption, in our reclaiming of our souls, we receive the knowledge that we are not weak, isolated, helpless, and alone. Jesus’ lessons of love and unity teach us to know ourselves: as part of a universal whole, even when we feel lonely; as strong in the face of fear, even the fear of death; as loving, even in the face of all the selfish acts we know we’ve committed; and as beloved, connected with all humankind, and with God. We need to hear those lessons from a fellow human sufferer in order for them to touch our deepest selves, and so it was necessary for God to be among us as a human being. For how else could we see with our own eyes that there is no separation between us and God?

Holy Spirit

As God the creator fills the universe, and as Jesus Christ is God with us, it is the Holy Spirit that is God within each of us. We sense God as the creative force. We encounter Jesus Christ. But we feel the Spirit, in some ineffably non-physical way, and this feeling changes us. It makes us more open to God. The Reformed way of expressing it is helpful. Reformed theology asserts that the Spirit is the first to come to us; that the Spirit enters our hearts, and prepares us to receive God. The Spirit readies us for the mystic and the mythic knowledge of God that follow.

Moreover, the Spirit stays with us, a presence within that keeps us aware of our connection with God, even when our minds are too busy and our emotions are too roiled. That awareness can serve many purposes: it can comfort us, it can motivate us, it can inspire us. God the creator is always creating anew; God, through Jesus Christ, is always teaching us about love and unity; but these are so big that we have trouble staying focused on them. It is the Spirit who is with us in day-to-day life, walking every mundane step of our path with us.

Closing observation

The structure of this theological overview parallels the classic Trinity: Father, Son, Holy Ghost; Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. However, orthodox Trinitarian doctrine does not, and cannot, truly describe God. It is not literally true that God is three and God is one simultaneously. Our words are inadequate to qualify God, let alone quantify God. Theology is part of our sacred myth, our indirect, linguistic way of telling truth. This overview is nothing more than how I tell you about my own understanding of the truth of God.