The Heartbeat of Union: An Introduction

I had a personal pre-orientation initiation into Union. On Saturday August 23rd, I went to a protest in support of Eric Garner and his family. Eric Garner was killed in Staten Island after being apprehended by an officer for allegedly selling loose cigarettes. The officer used an illegal chokehold move that killed Eric Garner, and the death was ruled a homicide. His death was a reminder that extrajudicial killings are still happening in this country.

In this spirit, thousands gathered on Staten Island on this particular Saturday to show support for Eric Garner and to resound a chorus of voices against the incredibly bloody summer. Garner’s story was just one drop of water in a bucket of chilling ice water over the heads of Black people. I was drowning.

Michael Brown. John Crawford. Eric Garner. Aiyana Jones. Rekia Boyd. Renisha McBride. The list unfortunately goes on. James Baldwin reminds us that to be “Black and conscious in America is to be in a constant state of rage.” And this summer seemed like a continuous flow of reminders that I was not worth defending as a Black American, as a woman, as a person. I was angry. And unapologetically so.

When I remember that people are continually abused by a system that pretends to protect, I am enraged. I find this rage liberating and compelling to action. But I also acknowledge that it can be paralyzing. What moves me to action is the community of friends that promise to hold me accountable to a larger goal– making sure this never happens again. While I really wanted to curl into a ball and never leave my bed, I felt a tug to be near other people who were also hurting. I needed a community.

I think of formal protest activities as analogous to church membership. Sitting in church does not make me a Christian, and going to a rally does not make me an activist. But tethering in these communities connects me to people who are like-minded. When done right, participation in these communities keeps me accountable to my values. I am among people who are on the same journey. I can do the work because I have people who hold my hand.

So on this particular Saturday, I was with a beloved community of friends from my home church. By some divine order, our group ran into another group of activists and faith leaders. I saw a woman with a “#myUnion” orientation t-shirt. Part of me had not yet transitioned into my new identity as a Union student. My pastor nudged me, “Go talk to her! This is a classmate of yours!”

Shy and nervous, I introduced myself.

“Hi, I’m Candace. You go to Union? Me too, this is my first year!”

“I’m Rebecca, I’m a first year, too!”

I don’t remember anything after that conversation. I was so struck by the “coincidence” that everything after our initial greeting dissipated into the deep recesses of my mind. Of all the people I could have met that day, I ran into a soon-to-be-classmate. What was the Universe trying to teach me in that moment?

Most times, when I imagine God’s voice, I imagine Morgan Freeman from Bruce Almighty. I’m still reminding myself that God speaks through coincidences. What if running into this eventual classmate was a reminder that my faith was indeed an integral part of my identity as an activist? What if this encounter was a message that I was not alone? What if this experience was a nudging from the Heavens to stay true to my politics, my faith, my identity as I embark on this new journey? I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m growing in wrestling with them. That’s what seminary is for, right?

That’s why we’re starting a blog called “The Heartbeat” here at Union. In our bodies, the heart’s beating is nothing short of magic and miracle. The heartbeat is a sign of life, originating in our chests and pumping blood throughout a complicated system. But the heartbeat isn’t isolated. We get a sense of the heart’s beating from the pulse in the wrist and neck. As our heart beats to reminds us that we live, social justice is the reminder why we live. It is our charge and our responsibility. It is the “rent we pay” for living on this Earth, as Shirley Chisholm challenges us.

The Heartbeat will cover stories of social justice beyond the walls of 3041 Broadway. Each of us has taken a special journey to this place, and we honor this journey by proving the work we do at Union is meaningful. We can use theology to speak to people, rather than speaking beyond them. The Heartbeat of our institution is social justice. Let’s check our vitals.

If you have a story you’d like us to cover here at The Heartbeat, email Candace Simpson at . We’d love to have you.

Badiou and Buddha

Alain Badiou has been described, maybe a bit extravagantly, as “perhaps the most influential of all contemporary French Philosophers.”

Well, listen to this eloquent description of Badiou’s understanding  “EVENT” by Terry Eagleton:

…the Event is that miraculous occurrence which surges up from an historical situation to which it simultaneously does not belong. Events for Badiou are … utterly original happenings founded purely in themselves, pure breaks and beginnings which are out of joint with their historical ‘site’, in excess of their contexts, sprung randomly and (as it were) ex nihilo from an established orthodoxy which could not have foreseen them. They are purely haphazard acts, as incalculable as grace…

Being in Badiou’s view is an inexhaustible multiple, which comes to us in recognizable chunks or distinct situations only through the operation of being ‘one-ed’ or provisionally unified by a human subject. Otherwise, it is as infinitely inaccessible to us as Kant’s noumenal sphere.  In the presence of an Event, however, it is as though the ‘inconsistent multiplicity’ which this counting-as-one conceals bursts momentarily out again, granting us a privileged glimpse of the disorderly infinity of pure Being. Events are explosive, ineffable exceptions to the rule, epiphanies of truth entirely without foundation.  (Trouble with Strangers:  A Study of Ethics, 260-61)

It seems to me that what the Buddha meant by Enlightenment, and what it is to live our Buddha-nature, or to live  a truly mindful life, is to realize that every single moment of our life is an Event –  that life is a constant succession of Events.  Every moment is a “privileged glimpse,” ” an ineffable epiphany of truth.”  — Or, to switch to my Christ-nature, as Thomas Merton put it: “It’s all grace.”

Can we really live a life in which Badiou’s notion of Events as “explosive” or “out of joint” or “haphazard”  are experienced as the normal, but wondrous, reality of our everyday lives?   Buddha and Jesus would seem to indicate that we can.

God Is Gay

I'd Rather Love A Jesus Who Loves Us All

It’s National Coming Out Day today. We’ve also heard a lot lately about LGBTQ teen suicides. If you haven’t yet, I implore you to read Rev. Dr. Patrick Cheng’s Huffington Post article on the suicides, Rev. Irene Monroe’s Huffington Post article on bullying and homophobia and spend some time in thoughtful reflection on what your church has or has not done for LGBTQ people whether they are teenage, pre-teen, adult or senior.

I am not gay, and cannot therefore offer a queer perspective on these issues. I defer to others that they might speak for themselves as regards their own pain and joy. But homophobia is my problem too. It is my problem because it hurts people I love. It is my problem because too many people cloak their prejudice in the language of faith and that hurts every person of faith. It is my problem because every day straight allies neglect to speak out against it is another day that homophobia remains a “socially acceptable” prejudice. It is not acceptable. If we profess that we are made in the image of God, then God is also a gay man, a lesbian, transgender, transsexual, gender non-conforming AND yes heterosexual too.

If God is a God of justice, mercy and righteousness, then God is queer. God is with the terrorized young people of our world–never in judgment but always in love.

On Being “Christian”. Or Not.

Thirteen percent of American citizens do not believe Barack Obama when he says he is a Christian. I’m hardly an apologist for the political status quo, but it seems like you might not have to look too hard to find thirteen percent of American citizens who wouldn’t believe Barack Obama if he said the Earth orbited the Sun instead of the other way around. While some of these folks are being rebutted, it still raises an issue worth thinking about: who gets to say who’s “Christian” and who’s not?

I’ve been surprised to be on the outside of that consideration before. My wife jokes that I’m a “heathen Protestant”, but that’s in good fun. I did have a professor remark that we were all Christians in a classroom, with the aside “or near enough to it” directed my way referencing my Quaker beliefs. Sure, I could have argued that George Fox was pretty thorough-going as a Christian and that the majority of Meetings worldwide are more likely to be mistaken for a Methodist Church than anything outside the umbrella of generally considered “Christian” belief, but frankly I’m tired of doing so. When I first started attending Meeting in the mid-1990s, I had to explain to my mother that yes: Quakers believe in Jesus Christ. Generally. We’re just not compelled to do so by authority. And that’s where it gets complicated.

To my reading of the Gospels, Jesus didn’t lay out too many dogmatic guidelines for a church to follow his teachings. Anything we have that we can turn to for such guidance comes from at least twenty to thirty years after the crucifixion: a very long time indeed in an oral culture. So without firm guidelines, we turn to a version of the “No True Scotsman” fallacy in defining the beliefs of others for them. For those unfamiliar, this circular argument runs as follows:

  • No Scotsman eats sugar in his porridge.
  • Angus from Glasgow eats sugar in his porridge.
  • OK, fine then. No TRUE Scotsman eats sugar in his porridge.

And we do this all the time in Christian communities. “No Christian would do or believe X” becomes “No TRUE Christian would do or believe X” when confronted with a Christian who has in fact done or believed X. So Billy Graham’s son has decided that no TRUE Christian can behave or believe as Barack Obama does. Thankfully, it’s not up to Franklin Graham to decide what does or does not constitute a true Christian. And quite frankly if being a TRUE Christian means following Franklin Graham, I’d rather be false.

Passion Allergy?

I came across a statement in Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith, and Revolution (highly recommended!) that rang true to my experience here at Union Theological Seminary: “Some postmodernists suspect that all certainty is authoritarian. They are nervous of people who sound passionately committed to  what they say.” (p. 136)

What Eagleton is saying applies, I think, to a lot of liberals.  And we have a lot of liberals here at Union. (I’m one of them.) We seem to have a bit of an allergy to people who speak passionately.  So often in class discussions, when someone waxes passionate about what they are proposing,  warning signs start to flash on  faces around the circle.  Is it because passion sounds like proselytizing? Like someone is imposing their views on us as the only really true view?  This is especially the case when passion is about religion.   It’s one thing to be passionate about the Yankees. Quite another to be passionate about Christianity.

But being passionate is not necessarily the same thing as being authoritarian or exclusive or narrow-minded.  When you’re passionate about something it’s because you think it is true and valuable. That doesn’t mean you necessarily think it’s the only thing that is true and valuable. (Okay, Yankee fans might.)   If I really believe that something is true and good, I’d better be passionate about it. I’d better want to tell others about it.  Otherwise, I don’t really believe it’s true and good.  We need more passion.

But it has to be passion that respects and is open to the passion of others.  And that means,  I think, that if we need to speak with passion, it should be passion-plus-humility.  We’re convinced about what we believe and we want to tell others why.  But if we’re humble as well as passionate, we will recognize that the truth that we hold, as sound and beautiful as it is, can never be the whole truth. There’s always more. And that leaves room for other truths and other people who are passionate about their truth.

If we can be passionate and at the same time humble, we won’t scare people with our passion.   On the contrary, our passion will be a dialogical passion — one that calls out the passion in others.