The Mustard Seeds and the Empire

Queer like a freedom too strange to be conquered. – Brandon Wint (found on tumblr)

From youth, people have constantly attacked me—
let Israel now repeat!—
from youth people have constantly attacked me—
but they haven’t beaten me!
They plowed my back like farmers;
they made their furrows deep.
But the Lord is righteous—
God cut me free from the ropes of the wicked!
— Psalms 129:1-4 CEB

Anti-oppression work is really important to me. And it’s important to me to keep doing it, whether or not I get any results or get any good at it. It’s the hoping and doing that’s important. It keeps me alive by actively respecting the ways that we are all connected as human beings.

And anti-oppression work right now is centered around seeing certain structures in place in our world. These structures involve systemic racism, sexism, cissexism, classism, ableism, heterosexism, and all the other ways that human lives are compared to one another in order to find someone lacking and less valuable and someone else as more valuable or “whole”. I will call this deeply embedded system Empire. It’s vital to me to keep trying to understand Empire.

Specifically being able to locate Empire has led to having more freedom in my life. It’s led to more connection as I understand how Empire affects each of us uniquely, and as I yearn for all of us together to be free of it.

When Christ saw suffering, he felt it deep in his guts. It overwhelmed him. I’m nowhere near that skilled at compassion, but I still got overwhelmed by others’ suffering at an early age. I was never taught how to manage that – as no one around me really valued those feelings in the first place – and a fair portion of decisions in my life have probably been decided from a place of trying to manage that empathy. And I think this level of empathy is common in a lot of us who do anti-oppression work. Sometimes we do whatever we do to fight Empire for ourselves or our friends and neighbors. Sometimes we do what we do because seeing others’ pain reminds us of moments of pain in our lives, or reminds us of our own luck, or frailty. Sometimes we do it because suffering isn’t ever that far away from us in our own heads, and being of some use to another or easing someone else’s pain can help us all stay alive.

As I said before, it’s vital to me to keep trying to understand Empire. But it can be easy to forget that there’s no life force in Empire. Plants grow toward the sun that feeds them, but there’s nothing in Empire that feeds. I need to make sure and get fed elsewhere. I need to remember to find structures that *nourish*, that don’t destroy. I need to remember to stay very near those things that make life worth living.

To borrow phrasing from Kate Bornstein: the key is to find where Empire *is*, and then go *someplace else.* (She uses this idea to leave gender, not Empire. But I think there’s truth in my sentence too.) I need to keep in mind that I’m learning about Empire not to get closer to it, but specifically to know exactly where it is, so that I can go exist someplace else.

Now, when I say “someplace else”, I’m not talking geographically. There’s no nation somewhere devoid of Empire… at least not for long. But there’s mental spaces and emotional spaces and spiritual spaces and fleshy spaces where Empire *can’t* go. And I must remember this, and not forget. Empire loves to condense the universe down to only the places it can reach. But there are planes of existence that Empire cannot comprehend and cannot enter. Some are broad expanses in the opposite direction from Empire. And some are whole universes hidden just adjacent to Empire, in the cracks Empire leaves.

That time you have felt the freest you’ve ever felt? That’s still somewhere in you… in some bones or some squishy parts somewhere. You will always carry that knowledge in your body, and Empire will never understand how to be inside that freedom. It’s a freedom too strange to be conquered. The times we’ve connected with others in ways that made us feel bigger and truer… those realities are inside us and a part of us too. Empire has no idea how to be in those places. The times when you and I have loved and been loved… every single ounce of love and care and nourishment poured into or out of us, whether we realized it or not… all of that is still in us. Whether the person stayed in our lives a long time or a short time. Whether the person was us or someone else. Every moment of true care given to us or by us shines in us. It multiplies the substance of our self and feeds us and holds us up. It makes us real and strong. Empire is left lost and impotent at the thinnest presence of love.

This is what the kingdom of God is like, to me. It’s paradoxical. It’s not subject to the laws of physics. It’s the realm of the Creator of the entire universe, and it’s tiny, like a mustard seed. It cannot sweep in like a military general and force itself into this world; it’s hidden. And yet, it is as prevalent as water, as yeast and bread, and as the earth we travel upon. It is poetic and truthful, and defies description. It is the force of new life bringing itself forth. It is craving and passion and creativity within us. It is our own desire for freedom, for self-expression and self-determination.

I think my faith asks me to be two different bodies at once, in the same flesh — my compassionate body and my kingdom body. Christ suffered and felt the suffering of others. And I believe as a Christian I’m called to be present to my own suffering and others’ as much as I am able to — and honestly, sometimes I can’t do one, or the other, or both. That’s okay. I’m never going to hold it all. I’ve tried. Sometimes I still try. And Empire is built to make me feel like a failure, and make itself feel inevitable. Inevitable because I’m human and limited, and we’re all human and limited. And we won’t ever make Empire go away.

I’m never going to be able to hold all of humanity or all of suffering or all of Empire in this body, not entirely. I’m not meant to. There’s something else far more important to hold in this flesh too: the kingdom. The reality of all the times I’ve been loved, or been free, or been truthful about who I am. All the times I’ve been happy or joyous or ecstatic. All the times people I love have been near me. All the times I feel God. Those are all, always present in me. With each one of these experiences the kingdom grows, in this body and in this world. The more time I spend in this space, the more I exist and the fuller I grow. The more time I spend exploring and creating this mental, spiritual and/or physical space, the more it is available to all of us, regardless of common physical constrictions.

The point of understanding Empire is to know right where it is, so that we can go someplace else — above or underneath or around back of Empire. Between or through or behind Empire.

There’s plenty of things that the kingdom is like. The kingdom of God is like a zine. The kingdom of God is like a tumblr account. The kingdom of God is like the kitchen dance of people cooking something together. The kingdom of God is like the way you identify your gender today.

Do these two bodies, these two fleshy existences coexist? Absolutely. Are they opposites? Not at all. For where there is suffering, there is God also.

But I have to remind myself that my human mind cannot simultaneously focus on Empire and on the kingdom. I must lead myself to one or the other. I study the former not as an end unto itself, but only to better understand the latter. And that perhaps for each hour I spend studying Empire, I need to spend some amount of time seeking the kingdom. For it is there where we are all truly valued, and replenished, and loved.

Published in: on July 10, 2013 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Racist and Anti-Racist

I’m white/European-American and recently added “racist and anti-racist” to my Twitter bio. I’m writing about that not because it’s a great feat of any sort. But it’s a reflection of something important to me and something I want to write down here… just in case anyone asks what the hell I’m getting at. It’s a reflection of an identity I’m trying to own.

I’m not even sure how to talk about this. My language, knowledge and training are profoundly inadequate.

I’ve been expanding my Twitter timeline more actively lately, and I’ve found several people saying really important things on vital, life-giving subjects. Some directly engage race issues, like Bruce Reyes-Chow, who just came out with the book But I Don’t See You as Asian: Curating Conversations about Race, and Cristina Cleveland, who does work around understanding privilege, and rooting out white supremacy in the body of Christ, making space for Christians to truly value diversity. I follow Janet Mock, an advocate for trans folk and for trans people of color especially, educating our culture regarding some of the challenges faced at the intersection of gender and race. They are authors and activists putting themselves out there as touchpoints for conversations that need to happen. So, I know I’m actively invited to follow them even as I’m often challenged and intimidated by what they say and the good work they do.

I follow other strangers that simply come from a different racial background than me, and others who are white but get caught up in certain race-related issues. I’ve recently followed several Muslim women of different racial backgrounds, and I learn from them about their lives, and about Islam and the intersections of race, ethnicity and religion. I have no personal connection to Islam, though, and a little secondhand knowledge of it. Gaining knowledge is part of the reason I’m following their Twitter accounts, and my understanding is that I’m invited (in general, not individually) to follow their thoughts. I’m not unwelcome, I don’t think, or I’d leave. Mostly, I shut up and listen/read. I do worry sometimes though, especially when they say something I want to retweet, if a RT functions as a respectful notation/passing along of ideas… or if it takes certain information, filtered through my interests/desires, out of context in disrespectful ways.

And I wonder in interacting with all of them, their Twitter lives and insights and work and persons, how I can best do that without being a douchebag.

I’ve spent most of my life exploring justice issues, but it’s been years since I’ve directly studied race issues, their effect on me and my impact on issues of race. This reality is directly tied to the enormous amount of white privilege I have. I have benefitted every day of my life from racist structures. I have had the luxury of going weeks, months or years without thinking much about my race if I don’t want to. I know I was trained to be racist, and that I still am, and that I will continue to be even as I hate being racist and try not to be.

I’m looking for ways to understand my privilege, and learn more about what I don’t know. I’m looking to understand my own culture better, and how it differs from other cultures, so I don’t project it or its standards onto other people (or, if that’s impossible, do it less). I’m looking for that balance of speaking up when I can accomplish something that lessens oppression in the world, and shutting up when my input would increase oppressive control over others. I hope to keep learning about other folks’ lives and lived cultural connections without simplifying, colonizing or appropriating (if that’s possible).

So, in case you were wondering, that’s what I mean when I say I’m racist and antiracist.

Published in: on July 6, 2013 at 7:25 pm  Leave a Comment