“We are legion”: The demonic nature of police militarization

A member of the St. Louis County Police Department points a weapon in the direction of a group of protesters in Ferguson MO.  Note the person with his hands in the air.

Looking for a biblical perspective on the militarization of the police in Ferguson, Missouri and the gross civil rights violations there?

Try Jesus on the Roman military presence in ancient Israel for a trenchant theological critique of how demonic this kind of occupation of a people with overwhelming military-style force can be.

As I say in #OccupytheBible, all the gospels record that one day, after Jesus had established his ministry in Galilee, he crossed the Sea of Galilee and encountered a wild man who was possessed by demons, by the devil. When Jesus speaks to the demons he asks, “What is your name?” They said, “Legion” for as the text says, “we are many.” (Mark 5:9; Luke 8:30).

But what is a legion? A legion can certainly mean “a lot of demons” but Legion is more commonly the proper name of the heavy infantry that was the basic military unit of the ancient Roman army during the empire. It was a division of a couple thousand Roman soldiers, though the number could vary. It also almost always had attached one or more units of conscripted troops, i.e. non-roman citizens. In Jesus’ time, these would have been Jews.

The demons, or more likely the oppressive legions of both the Romans and their Jewish auxiliary, are “called out” by Jesus and 2,000 of them rush into a herd of swine and are drowned. In ancient Israel, the eating of pork was forbidden, so being a swine was not a compliment, even as in most cultures today it is not a term of praise. These demons, as we used to say in the 60’s, are the pigs, and it is interesting that their number approximates a Roman Legion.

The gospels need to be read through movement eyes, through the lives of people, particularly African Americans, who are increasingly struggling with a militarized police presence that, coupled with rampant abuse of power through racism, is creating war zones in our communities.

Read the Gospels then as wartime literature; after all, they were composed after the end of the Roman destruction of the Temple. These texts have to be examined through the lens of an occupied people.

And people are occupied.  Tom Nolan, who worked in the Boston Police Department for 27 years, writes in a June, 2014 issue of Defense One, “Stop Arming the Police Like a Military.” He contends, “Have no doubt, police in the United States are militarizing, and in many communities, particular those of color, the message is being received, ‘You are the enemy.'”

There is an alternative. Nolan writes, “Good policing is all about trust.” That’s something we as people of faith can demand in our towns and cities. Police need to be “disarmed” from these assault-type weapons and equipment, given anti-racism training, and helped to regain the best of policing work which is all about building trust in community.  This is what ‘casting out the demons’ means in this context, getting rid of these assault weapons, aggressive militarized responses, and racism.

This is crucial and we cannot wait.  Too many lives are at stake, too many young African American men with their hands in their air, or carrying ice tea and skittles are being shot down.

So right now, we need to call out the legions for the demonic force they are.



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“It’s not your fault”: Jesus, forgiveness, and Robin Williams

“Good Will Hunting”

One of the hardest things for people to do is forgive themselves. Compassionate connection, one person to another, can be a way people can touch the pain of wrongs done to them, or by them, and begin to let that go.

Robin Williams, the comic genius and actor of great insight who died today, was able to show that deep, deep capacity for connection that can heal.

Williams played a grieving therapist in the film Good Will Hunting  and in this scene he tells Will Hunting, the gifted young man whom he is counseling who has been so grievously abused, “It’s not your fault.”

Watch Robin Williams’s eyes in this clip:

There is a ring of truth to this portrayal, perhaps from the depths of what Williams himself struggled with in his own life. Williams apparently committed suicide after struggling over many years with addiction and depression. As the therapist, Williams is offering the kind of compassionate connection is also at the heart of the healing ministry of Jesus, as in Matthew 9:

35 Then Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every illness among the people. 36 But when He saw the multitudes, He was moved with compassion for them, because they were weary and scattered.

So many people I know are “weary and scattered” and cannot find a healing connection to another person. Sometimes, this is because people internalize a sense that they are worthless and at fault, when it is in fact the harms done to them that have created this sense that ‘I am not worthy of love.’

I am sorry for the struggles of Robin Williams life, but I am grateful for this film and for the piercing portrayal of the healing capacity of compassionate connection. I believe this kind of art itself heals, and it is a gift, among so many others, that Robin Williams gave the world.

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#YesAllWomen, and #YesAllWomenDifferently

#YesAllWomen rally, source thinkprogress.org

I wrote about #YesAllWomen for the Huffington Post and the fact that there is a war on women.  Their bodies are the battlefields, and there are injuries and casualties.

The point I make in that article, and one I want to re-emphasize here on #OccupytheBible, is that not only does violence affect all women, but also understanding the differences among women is an indispensable part of stopping it.  Different women’s contexts matter immensely when we make social policy to try to stop violence against them.

It is important to base policy on the fact that while we must say #YesAllWomen are, by virtue of being female, at risk in the war on women, we must also say “YesAllWomenDifferently.

One of the achievements of the modern women’s movement of the 1960’s was the assertion of gender as a political category. The parameters of this assertion were ultimately shown to have been flawed, however, as they followed the fault lines of social and economic hierarchies of race, class, sexual orientation, and national origin. Subsequent work in womanist, queer and post-colonial theologies and philosophies has reinvented these categories in indispensible ways, and this work provides crucial correctives for Christian theology that would be a partner in ending the war on women.

All Americans need to see, and act on the fact, that violent, misogynistic culture functions to threaten all women, but different women are subject to different social, cultural, political and legal mechanisms in relationship to misogyny, before, during and after violent assault.

So, #YesAllWomen and #YesAllWomenDifferently.


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“Happy” Easter: A fundamental truth

“Happy” in Kiev

I heard from so many people that they had added thoughts from my Huffington Post “Is Easter ‘Happy’?” column to their Easter sermons.  Getting this feedback from people is my favorite thing about writing in the public square.

“Happiness is the truth” is one line from Pharrell’s “Happy,” that stands out for people who are making these connections. The idea is that you can vividly see the truth of happiness when it is being claimed by people living under repressive regimes, or under threat, as in the version from Kiev.

Context matters so much in theology.  Being “happy” about getting the latest consumer item, or claiming your right to be “happy” in the face of the threat of domination and oppression, are polar opposites.

This spring semester, I have been teaching a course called “The New Social Gospel,” and I think for both the students and for me, the contextual nature of theology in the United States has never been clearer.  Either you are willing to see the real context of the deliberate infliction of economic suffering on the majority of people, or you are willing yourself not to see.

You can’t fight a war when you don’t know even know it’s going on.

Easter is a word about the macro-struggle of human history, the conflicts between life and death, happiness and repression.

And that word is the “yes” of God against the “no” of Empire.

And that’s not even the best news of Easter.  What’s really great is we know the end of the story.


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Can corporations get pregnant?

Demonstration at U.S. Supreme Court

The “personhood” of corporations is a legal fiction, but there is nothing remotely fictional about getting pregnant. I have born three children and know this indisputable fact quite well.

Yet, remarkably, this week lawyers will actually argue before the U.S. Supreme Court, on behalf of two corporations, Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties, that the contraceptive-care mandate included in the Affordable Care Act violates their clients (that is, these two corporations) religious liberty.

Since the Citizens United v Federal Election Commission decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, the fiction of “corporate personhood” is becoming an ever greater danger to actual personhood. It is important to read the dissent by Justice Stevens in that case, where the Justice argues, “corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires…they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”

Yes, that is certainly true. But Justice Stevens left out one crucial thing: corporations have no bodies.  You can’t be a person without a body.

Thus, corporations cannot get pregnant and have to wrestle, in an immediate and existential way, with the decision whether to get pregnant, or not get pregnant, including the real decisions about responsibility and accountability that must be made when considering bringing a child into this world.

These kinds of real, existential considerations involve the very operation of religious freedom in regard to conscience that is protected by our Constitution.

Women exercise the right of conscience in making decisions about whether or not to use birth control, and when a corporation or government entity tries to take that away from them, it violates their religious freedom.

So how did we get to a place where lawyers can even argue that disembodied entities, i.e. corporations, have religious freedom that should take precedence over the religious freedom of actual, embodied women?

This is a legacy of the strong influence of Greek philosophy on Western thought, and on Christian theology in particular: body and soul can be separated, and soul is superior to body, in these philosophies.

The “religious freedom” struggle, at the end of the day, is a struggle to make decisions based on conscience keeping body and soul together.

Corporations cannot do that because they have no bodies and no souls, and, at best, their minds are contractual agreements.

The fiction of “corporate personhood” making decisions that rightly belong to women about their own bodies, minds and spirits exposes how far we are from being able to value physicality as much as spirituality.

We are very close, however, to corporations taking over the definition of “We the People.”



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New Social Gospel Reading List

Child labor in 2nd Industrial Revolution; one goal of Social Gospel was social policy on a minimum age for work.

For all those who have wanted to know what sources I am using in my online class, The New Social Gospel, this spring, here you are:

The class method is taken from Freire. Read definitions.

Susan Thistlethwaite, #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.

This OccupytheBible blog.

The Roosevelt Institute on “The Next American Economy.” 

Walter Rauschenbusch, Christianity and the Social Crisis in the 21 st Century: the Classic That Woke up the Church, ed by Paul Raushenbush.

Washington Gladden and an excellent article on Gladden’s early work and its influence in Social Gospel.

W.E.B. DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk

Gender and the Social Gospel, Wendy Deichmann Edwards and Carolyn De Swarte Gifford

Article on Fr. John Ryan.  This article requires library access. 

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society; also see this important article to set Niebuhr in context of New Deal.

Theology in the Americas, Sergio Torres and John Eagleson, Orbis 1975; check used books.

Bill Moyers interview with James Cone and Taylor Branch on Dr. King’s dream of economic equality and why so little has changed.

Martin Luther King, Jr.,  Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?  See also Atlantic article on King and economics.

Thistlethwaite and Engel, Lift Every Voice: Constructing Christian Theology from the Underside, especially the Introduction on Liberation Method. 

Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

Joerg Rieger, Religion, Theology, and Class: Fresh Engagements after Long Silence (New Approaches to Religion and Power)

Economic Justice for All:  Pastoral Letter on Catholic Social Teaching and the U.S. Economy.

Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Modern Economic Life, Rebecca Blank, UCC Economics Document.

Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, pp. 52-75.



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“Trickle Up”: The Theology of Pete Seeger

Pete Seeger

Did Pete Seeger have a theology?

I think so, and it is best captured in a song he wrote toward the end of his life, “God’s Counting on You, God’s counting on me.”

There’s theological anthropology, a doctrine of creation, eschatology and a theology of history.  Listen to it here and you’ll see the themes: we are one humanity, we have one planet, what we do affects eternity, and if we work together we can solve these problems.

This perspective gave Seeger a theology of economics:

It’s time to turn things around

Trickle up, not trickle down

God’s counting on me

God’s counting on you

“Trickle down” is what is broken about our economy, and our theologies, because we do not respect that humanity is one.

Pete Seeger’s music is a deeply spiritual influence in my life.  This week, when Seeger died, I wrote about that influence for the Huffington Post.  “One of the reasons I believe a better world is possible is because I can hear the voice of Pete Seeger in my head, singing We Shall Overcome. “We are not afraid,” sang Seeger, and credited the young leaders of the Civil Rights movement for teaching that. “Perfect love casts out fear,” scripture teaches (1 John 4:18).”

I was chastised in comments that “Pete Seeger was a humanist.”

But in his interview with Beliefnet, Seeger himself had moved toward a more universal spirituality. “[I used to say] I was an atheist. Now I say, it’s all according to your definition of God. According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist. Because I think God is everything. Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God. Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”

Seeger is “hoping we’ll all pull through.”  That doesn’t happen, in theology or in economics, unless it’s “me and you.”

Think that sounds simple? I had a professor of mysticism who used to say, “Simplicity is compacted complexity.”

That’s “God’s Counting on You, God’s Counting on Me.” Compacted complexity.

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Jesus, torture and homophobia in Nigeria

Anti-torture vigil 2010.

Melissa Block of NPR interviewed Michelle Faul of the Associated Press from Lagos about reports from human rights advocates in Nigeria that dozens of gay men have been arrested under a new law that makes homosexual clubs or associations illegal.  Some of those arrested have been tortured to give up names of others.  

Listen here:

 NPR: Reports of Arrests and Torture Under Nigeria’s Anti-Gay Law

Torture is a crucial biblical and theological issue because it is all about the abuse of power.  That’s what the Romans knew, and why they would routinely torture those about to be crucified. 

The purpose of torture, according to Elaine Scarry in her book, The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, is to produce an excess of pain in order to control, to destroy one world and create another. 

Scarry says that torture is employed by political regimes to illustrate a “spectacle of power.”  What actually happens, however, is that the regime is revealed as “so unstable, that torture is being used.”  In other words, torture, as systematic brutality, is supposed to look like power, but that is a fiction.  

What is exposed is that when a political power resorts to torture in order to exercise its power, it is actually doing so because it is weak and unstable.  This is evident in regard to this new law and its function for Nigeria. Faul says, “Nigeria has many, many problems and the president, by signing this bill, can distract attention away from that and make many people happy.”

Making some people “happy” by torturing others will always be a cancer at the heart of a society, as it was in Jesus’ time, as it has been since the U.S. tortured after 9/11, and as it is in other places around the world today.  Think of Vladimir Putin and his manipulative use of homophobia and ‘getting religion’ in shoring up his own power. 

It is crucial, however, to analyze the relatively “recent roots” of homophobia in Africa, in particular, from a post-colonial perspective. It is equally crucial to note the “influx of evangelical and pentecostal preachers” often from the U.S. who are exporting homophobia as “Christian.”

Torture is always wrong because it unmakes the world for those who are tortured.  What is a world that allows that to happen, over and over again? 




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“God’s Economics”: A Pastoral Letter for 2014

I have been inspired by a Facebook thread to repost this UCC Pastoral Letter I wrote on the church and economics in 2008, at the height of the financial crisis.  The letter is reproduced below.

The economic crisis has actually worsened since 2008.  In 2014 the “crisis” has become chronic. We now have vast income disparities that grow worse with each passing day. It is crucial that Americans begin to actually “see” the disparity. As this famous video shows, most people know it’s bad, they just have no idea how bad it really is:

It is ever more important for people of faith to focus our biblical, theological and justice-praxis on this crisis of economic injustice in 2014.

Here is the letter:

“In hard economic times, church must proclaim justice, good stewardship”

Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite
September 26, 2008
God has not abandoned the people or the church in this time of national economic crisis.  We, as members of the United Church of Christ, its pastors, its teachers and its laypeople, must be clear as we address this crisis not only from our pulpits, but also when we speak to the nation at large, that our faith is that God is with us.Dear Fellow UCC Members:

The presence of God calls us not only to comfort, however, but also to confront the forces that have driven our country into this economic ditch.  A good place to start is with the study and discussion of the careful work our church has already done on relating our faith and economics. A group of pastors, teachers and economists labored for nine years to produce the UCC Pronouncement on the economy, A Pronouncement on Christian Faith: Economic Life and Justice, passed at the United Church of Christ’s General Synod 17, in July 1989.

In addition, there is the thoughtful study book by economist and UCC layperson, Rebecca Blank, Do Justice: Linking Christian Faith and Economic Life based on the nine years of work that produced the pronouncement.  In addition, this group of electronic resources includes a more recent piece I wrote called “God’s Economics”.

“The church has always responded to the human pain brought about by economic suffering,” Rebecca Blank argues. Yet, the church has often been silent, even silenced when it comes to confronting how our economy does or does not work for all the people. We must make a stronger connection between our faith, our biblical and theological resources, and our responsibility to care for one another. Blank continues, “Linking Christian faith and economic life requires that we look at the process by which economic decisions are made through the perspective of our faith, which means confronting the operation of the economy with the vision of human purpose and human society to which we are called as God’s faithful people.”

Does this mean that all the pastors, laypeople and teachers of the UCC are now to become experts on the economy?  Certainly not.  But we have a responsibility to proclaim, even demand, good stewardship of God’s creation and to call to account those who are responsible for making this system work productively so that individuals and families who work hard can have the means to live.

A story may help us understand the separate but related roles of proclamation and politics. When Ronald Reagan was elected President, as many of you doubtless remember, his first budget included many cuts in social programs.  A group of clergy went to Washington D.C., myself among them, to argue with Congressional representatives that these social programs helped people get out of poverty and that it was wrong to engage in these wholesale cuts.

A few prominent clergypersons were invited to the Oval Office to meet with the President.  Rev. William Sloan Coffin, then Senior Pastor of Riverside Church in New York City, was one of those invited. President Reagan patiently explained to the visiting pastors why these cuts were necessary, in his view, to balance the budget.  Rev. Coffin replied, “Mr. President, it is up to us to proclaim that ‘Justice shall roll down like waters and righteousness like an everflowing stream.  Your job is the plumbing.”

It is not up to us as church people to dictate a certain economic plan, but it is up to us to say loud and clear when the plumbing isn’t working and the means of life is not flowing to most of the people.

I have thought many times in recent days of this statement by Rev. Coffin.  As the relationship of religion and political life has become more visible in the public square, it has also become confused, even risking becoming merged.  In this crisis, it is not up to us in the religious communities, across the wide range of religious affiliations in our divers nation, to dictate to the government exactly how to do what needs to be done.

But it is incumbent upon us as religious people to act as the voice of conscience. No one ever said this better than Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in The Strength to Love.  “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”

We as the church cannot be an effective voice of conscience, however, if we are ignorant of our biblical and theological foundations.  That is what we have to bring to this time; that is what we have to bring to any time in our life as a nation.

To pastors I say, read and study these documents and prayerfully work from the pulpit and in study groups so that your congregation will be well prepared to face these turbulent and disturbing times with the strength of faith and the light of God’s wisdom. But do more, tell your communities that you are having these study groups and invite others in.  Work together with other pastors, UCC as well as other denominations and faiths, to share resources and convene discussion groups.  Hurting people may be reactive; be sure you focus your groups on religious resources and honor all diversities without allowing any stump speeches!  Tell the local press you are doing this and invite them as well.  Speak out from your desk and your pulpit to tell the nation that the resources of faith are there and all are welcome to them.

Church members, you must study and pray.  Be informed on your own or gather with other members to read and discuss our historic materials and our biblical resources.  Reach out to others.  Be sure to include those who are especially isolated and at risk.  Be kind to neighbors and friends.  Tell them of your church’s resources and how to find them.

Teachers of the church, you need to teach.  In adult Sunday school, in colleges and in seminaries, we must come together for intense study and reflection.  These problems we are facing as a nation, because they are so profound and of such long-standing, will not be going away any time soon.

We need, therefore, to study, teach, preach and proclaim not only for this current time, but also for the future.

We dare not, from this day forward, allow the church to be silent when so much is at stake for so many not only in our country but around the world.  It is our Christian responsibility and we must take it with utmost seriousness.

We need to be the Church.

God bless each and every one of you.

Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite

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Duck, Duck…Goose! The difference between real and fake persecution

Now we have the “War on Christianity” according to right-wing sources. “Phil Robertson and his family believe that A&E [is] discriminating against them for their deeply held ‘Christian beliefs.'”

“Phil Robertson suspended by A&E”

Robertson was suspended from his “reality” TV show, Duck Dynasty, for homophobic and racist statements he made in a GQ Interview (appropriately enough called “What the Duck?”).  The right-wing is up in arms over this “persecution,” calling Robertson the “New Rosa Parks”. Seriously.

Here’s the thing: LGBTQ and racial ethnic minorities in the U.S. are actually persecuted, as seen by the huge gap in incarceration rates between whites and blacks, and in the huge gay/straight wage gap.  Gun-toting, wealthy entrepreneurs with their own reality TV series are not, in fact, in these groups of the actually persecuted.

This kind of “reversal” of reality is like saying Jesus was persecuting the Romans, not the other way around.

Yet, the “Christian” and cultural right-wing thrives on the perception that they are persecuted.

At year-end, we have yet another manufactured controversy to keep the homophobic, racist and anti-pluralist right-wing feeling persecuted, almost immediately on the heels of the ‘Santa Claus and Jesus are white’ provocation brought to us by Megyn Kelly. (And please read Kelly Brown Douglas’s excellent article on this.)

These reversals, in my view, are the result of a theological problem.  If you hold a highly dualistic view of good and evil, i.e. all good is on one side of every issue, then all other opinions are evil, and thus an attack on the beliefs of the “good.”  This leads to the false perception of persecution.

Real persecution, however, results in suffering and, with horrible frequency, death.

There is no doubt, from New Testament sources, that the Roman occupiers of ancient Israel, with the help of Temple elites, persecuted Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus teaches the disciples “in secret” to avoid spying, and advises the disciples how to flee persecution. (Matthew 10:23) They spied on him, paid an “informer” from among his inner circle, and finally arrested, tortured and killed him for sedition, as I argue in #OccupytheBible: What Jesus Really Said (and Did) About Money and Power.

See? That’s persecution.

Phil Robertson will return to the Duck Dynasty show in January.

That’s not persecution, that’s advertising.


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