Thinking about theodicy…

Being a spiritual humanist in a Christian seminary can be challenging. Thankfully Seattle University’s School of Theology and Ministry is committed to an interreligious experience of dialogue, deep listening, and free thought. And I was raised in a healthy Christian family who provided a framework of faith. These help me engage Christianity from the perspectives of believer and apostate. One topic that has always fascinated me from both views is theodicy: otherwise known as the problem of evil.

Evil is especially prevalent in my mind right now. It feels like darkness is winning; I see a world on fire. No matter how many marches I attend, letters I write, and representatives I call, evil outpaces the good. Legislation that will help the wealthy and hurt the poor is allowed to pass. Walls across borders are being built. Dreamers are deported. Police get away with murder. Rapists are held unaccountable. Fires. Hurricanes. Climate change.

If god existed, how can god sit idle? Especially if god is all knowing, powerful and loving?

There are numerous attempts at an answer. Some involve free-will. Others focus on god in the moment on the margins. There is always the answer in Job where god just says, “You don’t know me. I do what I want!” Perhaps suffering is god’s version of tough love? Jesus had to suffer, right? Evangelical capitalists always talk about boot straps and exceptionalism; of course their god would kill his own son via capital punishment. It’s so we can succeed. And if people don’t… well, that’s their own fault.

None of this is sufficient; and I will not accept it. The universe seems largely apathetic to the human cause. I hold ourselves, myself, to blame for the evil. Justice, much like good and evil, is a human invention. If I were to pull the universe apart, I wouldn’t find an atom of “good” or a particle of “evil.” So why would they matter? Because I want them to matter. if I am going to exist in this world, hell, if my son is going to exist in this world, I want qualities like “justice” and “good” and “mercy” to matter. Otherwise I am helping build a hell on earth and sacrificing my own son to its machinations.

Am I up for the challenge? Not alone. I have surrounded myself with my tribe; people who crave justice, mercy and goodness. People who hold powerful love as the ultimate human ideal. And they keep me going; and they keep me honest; and they keep me safe. Because if I have learned nothing in seminary, it is that the role of the prophet isn’t to predict the future. It is to learn from the past and let it serve as a warning to those in power.

Because while I would rather bend the arc of the universe peacefully, there are other options. To those in the halls of power; in the life or privilege; while you sleep may you imagine the gleam of the pitchfork and of the guillotine, and remember the history of the world. There is still time to change course. But perhaps not much time. May you have a reckoning with your god. An eschaton is nigh.

My prayer for the world…

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“Tobias” by Christopher Matthias

My child is almost three years old. They are typical in their development. They are 38 inches tall and close to 40 lbs. They love trains and cars and really big machines that are “too loud.” (Their words, not mine) They love books and will ask for my partner and I to read the same stories over and over until they can finish sentences with us. They love TV and electronics. They love running in circles and jumping in puddles and giving hugs. They love the color purple. If I were asked to describe them in a phrase, I would say that “they love.”

They are concerned about children who are crying. They (sometimes) share their candy, even without being asked. They say “I’m sorry” when they accidentally do something wrong. They are getting better at saying “please” when they want something. They call people “friends.” They are beginning to describe their emotions; and they like to play with words, wrestle, and make silly games of hide and go seek. If I were to describe how they exist in the world, I would say, “They are compassionate.”

Which is why I am so afraid that I, and this world, will break them. Being human, I can be moody, frustrated and selfish. I have inherited systems of racism, misogyny and toxic masculinity. If therapy has taught me anything it is that the unexamined life is filled with a happy ignorance, but the price paid is usually in the pain and suffering of others. I have a choice, be aware of my brokenness so I can mitigate its transmission to my child, or leave him at the mercy of society and media.

When I see my news feed filled with people who hate; who are greedy; who assault; who are the worst parts of humanity, and then see them elected into positions of authority, my instincts tell me to shelter my child to the best of my ability. And my heart breaks knowing that there is nothing I can do to stop their being broken, little by little, as they get older. Which is why my partner and I have made the decision not hide things from our child; but to try and hold everything in their life in context. There is an art to being “age appropriate” and we want to err on the side of transparency. Topics like “sex” and “god” are not off limits (regardless of our own hangups on the subjects). Feelings are encouraged, not stuffed away. There are no off limits toys, colors, or clothing as long as they are enjoyed in playful and loving ways. The only things in our house that are not tolerated without being challenged are “hate” and “supremacy” and “ignorance.”

My example to my child will not be “how to be a strong man” but “how to be a better human.” That to have power and privilege means being a servant leader. That to live simply and with happiness means giving a damn about others and not just themselves. That what matters isn’t the color of skin but the content of character. That listening is better than talking. That the greatest rule is to treat others as they would like to be treated. That if they are not part of the solution they are part of the problem.

I refuse to let the systems that have come before me break my child. They will know the definitions of evil by example: prejudice and bigotry, selfishness and narcissism. And they will know the definitions of good; love and compassion, vulnerability and empathy. If parents cannot help but put our hopes and dreams into our children, at least I can hope for peace and dream of a better future. In this way, my child is my prayer for the world made incarnate. I hope it is a joy for them and not a burden.

Today, love won.

Rally-for-Marriage-Equality-Brisbane-2012_25_Photo-Charlyn-CameronToday I woke up to the arc of history bending just a little more toward justice. As I left the gym at 7am my Facebook feed started blowing up with hashtags: #SCOTUS #equality #pride2015. I sat in my car for a moment to let the information sink in. I had a feeling it would happen; that this was on the right side of history. But hoping and praying and advocating doesn’t make equality real… this, right now, today. This was real.

I didn’t always believe in marriage equality. When I was a Christian I toted the line on “one man and one woman.” I bought into the “hate the sin but love the sinner” mentality that churches use to describe their gay and lesbian congregants. I thought that because Church teaching rejected homosexuality, I had to reject homosexuality.

4ecf8071d6f9d389bb_kym6bxvfxUntil my friends came out as gay. Until family members came out as gay. Until I started knowing and loving people who were gay. Slowly, what I had been taught in church began to feel wrong. On one hand, I was taught love and tolerance and community and forgiveness. On the other hand I was taught to reject, condemn, and exclude. Spiritually I felt the dissonance of what I knew was right, love, and what I knew was wrong, condemnation. Eventually, I had to make up my mind.

I chose to stand on the side of love. This meant that, for me, church teaching about homosexuality was wrong. I struggled with this for a long time, but it formed a crack in my spiritual life. And like a chip in the windshield, the crack just kept getting bigger. I began to question women’s role in the Church; beliefs about other religions; contraception and life issues… eventually my windshield had to be replaced. Choosing love had a snowball effect that eventually led me to the Unitarian Universalist church; a faith that doesn’t teach that homosexuality is inherently evil; a church that affirms the dignity and worth of EVERY person.

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(Stephen Masker/Creative Commons)

The recent Supreme Court decision on gay marriage has huge civil repercussions. However, as many rainbows as I see in my newsfeed, I also see the mostly religious dissent of “NO!” “SINFUL!” “DAMNNATION!” Which frustrates me. The ruling doesn’t force churches to marry gay couples. It doesn’t change church doctrine. It doesn’t rewrite the Ten Commandments. It doesn’t force people to become homosexual or even like homosexuality. All it does is guarantee rights to a group of people who deserves them; not because they are special but because they are human.

We live in a country of diversity. Almost every ethnic and religious tradition on earth today resides in the United States. This means that we are bound to find people who are unlike us in tradition, faith, physical appearance and language. We will most definitely disagree on a whole bunch of issues. But one thing we should all want is the acknowledgement of our own humanity; which comes with certain rights that go beyond pen and paper legalities. One of the most important being the right to life and dignity.

Supporters of gay marriage fill the rotunda as they gathered to rally at the Utah State Capitol Friday Jan. 10. 2014, and  deliver a petition with over 58,000 signatures in support of gay marriage to Utah Governor Gary Herbert.  (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson)
 (AP Photo/Steve C. Wilson)

To live freely, openly, with kindness and compassion and community and without fear. Today the Supreme Court helped remove just a little bit of fear and replaced it with love. And for that, I am thankful. Because today is a day about which I can tell my son, “I remember when I came home, looked you in the eye, and said, ‘Toby, today your world just got a lot bigger. Today, love won.’”

What can I teach my son about violence?

3811620119_american_flag_gun_xlargeWith another mass shooting by an armed white male, I am once again reminded (as if I could ever forget) that I live in a society with the potential for murderous violence. And no matter what the NRA and Fox News or any other pundit tells me, I agree with President Obama’s assessment: “Now is the time for mourning and healing, but let’s be clear: at some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”  It doesn’t. Not with the frequency as it has been happening. Not with the body count. There is something wrong with us as Americans.

I’m at a loss, because I don’t know what else I can do. I already work for a peace and justice non-profit. I am studying in ministry so I can work and preach out against violence and promote systemic change. I try to be an active part of my neighborhood and community. But it is not enough. None of it seems to stop the killing; not in a park or a school or even a church. I confess, I am afraid not for my life, but for the life of my partner and son.

flat,1000x1000,075,f.u2No amount of armed escalation on my part is going to keep them safe. I cannot be with them 24/7. I am also not arrogant enough to believe, should I ever own a gun, that my preemptive killing of an assailant will make things better. One thing I’ve learned through studying ancient texts; violence only begets more violence. So what else is left other than being a man of peace? I can raise my son to be a man of peace, too.

I will teach my son that Black Lives Matter.

Tobias will also be taught that all lives matter. But in particular, he will know from an early age that specifically, black lives matter. Because it is black lives that have been put through our cultural meat grinder. I will make sure he understands, at least as much as he is able, what the black community has gone through in our country. I will not sugar coat the history or the reality of the killing and the incarceration and the lack of educational and economic opportunities his black brothers and sisters have had to endure. I will raise him to acknowledge his own prejudices when he finds them, and to challenge the prejudice around him.

I will teach my son to respect Women.

I want Tobias to learn the history of patriarchy and the importance of equality. He will learn about women who have shaped the world through religion, science, literature and politics. I will work to make sure he sees women as partners who are just as capable as he is in everything from sports to education to work to family. I will make sure that he understands that a woman’s body belongs only to her and that he has no right over it at all. I want to show him that taking away the rights of women and girls only hurts our world. I will raise him to be a feminist ally.

I will teach my son to respect Sex.

I can teach my Tobias to respect his own sexuality and the sexualities of others. He will be shown a healthy respect for his body and that the bodies of other people are just as sacred as his. I want him to see himself as beautiful, and acknowledge that the beauty in others comes not from their appearance but from their humanity. I will teach him that sex is good and fun and healthy and so very special that he should never be ashamed of sharing intimacy with another person.

I will teach my son about his Privilege.

Not the kind of privilege that makes him better than other people. I will teach him about the responsibility that comes with his access to education, a safe home, new clothing, clean water, healthy food, electricity, and access to computers and information. I can impress on him that, because he was born to my partner and I, he has already won the lottery and lives better than most of the world. I hope he can understand and accept the guilt that comes with receiving what he has not earned. I pray that he uses that guilt to change the world; to understand that with great power comes greater responsibility. I will raise him to know that his privilege requires him to be a servant leader.

11406657_709812235797484_1988572270914461636_oThis seems like an impossible task. He has everything working against him, from history to mass media, education to religion. And as much as we want for our children, I know that I can only do so much; he is his own person. But if I can make the world a better place through my son, I will. Along with my partner, through gentleness, love, guidance and prayer, I will try to shape his young mind toward justice. I will teach my son how to be a better man than I could ever be, for him and for his future.

Life isn’t (un)fair…

universe-hd-photo95-JPGA long time ago I stopped believing in a fair universe. From everything I’ve observed, life is a mix of intentionality, chance and inevitability. I have a small amount of agency; I work hard and pay my taxes and volunteer all of which come with their own rewards. But for the most part, life is just as likely to kick me in the balls as it is to let me win the lottery. Nature has no sense of justice outside of its laws of cause and effect. It is up to me to create fairness from an otherwise apathetic life.

When I believed God was in charge of everything, I had mantras like “it’s all part of God’s plan” or “God doesn’t give us more than we can handle” to fall back on whenever undeservedly bad things happened to good people. (let’s be honest, bad people deserve it, right?) Eventually they all became platitudes. Because as more curses and blessings stacked up, most of which without any catalyst, God’s plan began to look like trying to read tea leaves and God had a funny sense of what people could handle vs. what they should have to handle. In the end I was forced to reject the notion of a just God because a just God wouldn’t stand idly by in the face of so much injustice.

free-willNot just the kind of injustice that people intentionally cause; not crime or war or corporate greed or any of the millions of ways we dehumanize each other. I’m talking about the stupid everyday injustice, like car accidents and slipping on a patch of ice and breaking your leg. Accidents with horrible consequences. The butterfly effect of causality that reaps human life. I can’t even buy into the “free will” answer: God doesn’t intervene because he loves our free will more than he loves starving children. It’s bullshit, because that’s not love or justice, that’s an excuse. Therefore, I was left with either rejecting my preconceptions about God or believing in a lie.

Recently, my father-in-law passed away. While he was not perfect, he lived a good and clean life. He didn’t smoke. He drank less than occasionally. He was a runner. He attended church, was married more than 30 years and was an overall good man. He was diagnosed with throat cancer, which spread to his brain and eventually to the rest of his body. The doctors originally gave him 6 months to live. He fought for over 4 years until May 11th, 2015. There it is; blessings and curses all wrapped up in a whole ball of intentionality, chance and inevitability. If a just God did exist, this wouldn’t have happened.

BristleconeThe ironic part is I wish I still believed in a just God because right now I could really use something to blame. I want to look God in the eye and say “You are wrong! You did this! This is your fault and how dare you proclaim love and justice and mercy and compassion when you let good men suffer and die!” I am angry because Andy didn’t deserve to die. Not this way; not like this. He deserved better from his God than he received. There are millions of other people in the world who are more deserving than he was to die of cancer. This is a horrible statement but right now I feel horrible and selfish and hurt and confused and broken. And tired.

Right now I am just. So. Tired. Because what is the point? Why should I work so hard for ideals that go against the very fabric of the universe? Why should I care? In a just universe I’d be able to look at my son and tell him that life will be kind. But right now all I can tell him is that he will never know his grandfather; that he was robbed of having a good man in his life because life isn’t fair.

Life just is.

It is a hard lesson and I’m left with one lonely realization; if there is going to be justice in this world then I’m going to have to be the one making it happen. It’s up to me to create justice where it doesn’t exist. Because that is what I want to do. The responsibility has been passed from God to me and it’s a heavy load. 11238228_10153338843751934_1951030714927036305_nFortunately I know a whole lot of other people who are working to lighten that load. I know miracle workers on the margins of society who squeeze justice from life like blood from stone and I want to be just as strong and powerful and tireless as them. And maybe if I can just keep trying, keep believing in love and justice, I can make my father-in-law’s death mean something.

Because I think that’s what he would have wanted. And it’s what I want. Rest in love Andy. I’ll keep working on the justice.

Why I go to church…

collapse-michael-ceraWorking at a peace and justice non-profit is an emotional double-edged sword plowshare. It is emotionally fulfilling to have a small part in making the world a better place. It is emotionally crippling because every day I am confronted with the injustice and inhumanity of human trafficking, war, ecological destruction, greed and corrupt power. Compassion fatigue is real; I can only watch/read/research so much before the pictures/videos/stories become numbers/statistics/calculations instead of real people.

My symptoms include bypassing petitions instead of filling them out; deleting email action-alerts instead of reading them; turning the radio station from KUOW to KEXP when a challenging story comes on; binging on Netflix instead of keeping up with current events. If I let the fatigue persist it would be easy to just give up. Heck, sometimes giving up looks pretty damn attractive. It would be much easier to just give in and become just another consumer who doesn’t give a f*#k about anybody but myself. But I don’t want to be this person. I choose to fight the good fight. Therefore, I go to church.

giphyWhen I announced I was becoming a Unitarian Universalist, some of my atheist friends questioned why I just didn’t give up on religion all together. They all have very good reasons; as an institution religion has been as much a problem of the world as a solution to the world’s problems. Why would an atheist or agnostic attend a church service? Those are places for believers. My answer is simple: To stay a sane, healthy man of peace, I need religion.

Religion provides me with a community, sanctuary and covenant that is focused on peacemaking. It reminds me that I am not alone in working to build a more just world. It cures my compassion fatigue because it restores my faith in people. When peace and justice work becomes too heavy, it is my church that lightens the load. In a space filled with atheists, believers, agnostics, questioners and religious refugees, our attendance shouts to the universe: “We will continue the work! We will not give up! We crave peace!”

rocky-training-oIn order to do the work I do, to continue to read the stories, watch the videos, and look at the pictures; to keep on filling out the petitions, contacting the representatives, and raising awareness; I have to feel like I’m not alone. And every Sunday, along with other justice-seekers, it is in singing our doxology that I am spiritually renewed to keep on fighting the good fight:

“From all that dwell below the skies,
let songs of hope and faith arise!
Let peace, goodwill on earth be sung
through every land, by every tongue.”

May it be so. Amen.

Walking the pro-(choice/life) line…

It just makes for a bigger headache...
It just makes for a bigger headache…

I can tell it’s around the anniversary of Roe v Wade by the amount of pro-whatever debates I hear on the radio. Which is a good thing. We need to continue to struggle with issues of life and death in the U.S. I just wish it were a bit more intelligent. Usually it’s one person pulling the Jesus card and the other person pulling the “I do what I want” card. It’s another example of the polarization of our politics and how unwilling we are to just listen to another point of view. Then there are people like myself who are both pro-life and pro-choice.

It's all about the dignity of life... right?
It’s all about the dignity of life… right?

I’m pro-life because I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every human person and I believe as a society we should respect the miracle and preciousness of ALL life. Which is why I have a problem with 99% of the pro-life camp. They’re really not about life; they’re about birth. My impression is that the pro-life camp just wants babies to be born but could care less about how they end up. Once the kid pops out, pro-lifers wash their hands of the issue and call it another day at the office. There is little mention about the quality of life for the child. What if it’s born into an abusive household? Or horribly handicapped and deformed because of drugs and/or alcoholism? What about issues of poverty, nutrition and education?

Yeah... about that...
Yeah… about that…

These are all LIFE issues. If people want to call themselves pro-life, then it’s all or nothing. You’re going to have to care about and share in the responsibility for every man, woman and child. If you’re pro-life, you better be working to address issues like economic disparity, education, workplace inequality, racism, food deserts and access to medical care that make life hard for the 50 million Americans in poverty. If you’re one of those assholes who scream about babies being slaughtered but tell your representative to cut welfare, you are doing it wrong.

One, of many, reasons...
One, of many, reasons…

I’m pro-choice because I believe if we’re going to live in a free, democratic country than we have the responsibility to provide access to safe and quality health care to ALL our citizens. It’s an issue of justice which includes women who need to have an abortion. Because let’s be honest, nobody WANTS to have an abortion. It’s not something a woman looks forward to with her morning coffee. It’s a damned hard decision that will have repercussions and ramifications for the rest of a person’s life. This is why it’s up to the individual woman, and not the state, to choose. It’s the kind of life decision where judgment and necessity exist ONLY within the person making it.

How is that iPod I helped make working for ya?
How’re you enjoying that iPod I helped make?

“But if you’re pro-life, how can you support murdering babies?” You know what, I don’t support murdering babies. Just like I don’t support children dying of starvation; yet I still have a full three-square meals a day. You can’t make abortion illegal because it kills babies and not outlaw obesity at the same time. We are ALL complicit in abortion, just like we are with child slaves mining the minerals to go in our electronics and the impoverished hands that make our clothing. We’re ALL part of the problem.

stckr-Better-futureI am NOT pro-abortion. I don’t think anybody is. However, I believe its legality is necessary for freedom, health and quality of life. But just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean I can’t work to make it an uncommon practice. Abortion will always be a part of human society and it’s not a single action removed from all the other issues of our time. To address it, I have to continue to work hard to build a better society that furthers the arc of history as it bends towards justice. Abortion isn’t about pro-life/choice. It’s about pro-justice.