News with Nuance: Sept. 16, 2022
Your Friday dose of News with Nuance: the week's biggest stories, unpacked + more ..
Welcome to the first-ever Friday News with Nuance series post. My plan for this post is, every Friday, I will break down some of the week’s top news stories and put them into context, with special attention to the impact of these stories where I live: Middle America; and also an analysis of these stories with historical, political, and spiritual context. This is the kind of work that breaking news journalists often simply don’t have time to do — and I’m hoping it supplies the needed nuance and context that’s often missing from our news cycle, humanizing the people and places behind the headlines.
The Headline: Amtrak Train Strike: Catastrophe Narrowly Averted?
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The Context: I’m guessing like many of you, despite my avid news consumption, I really hadn’t heard anything about a potential train strike until I read Jared Yates Sexton’s excellent Substack article about it on Wednesday, in which he points out the paucity of news coverage. This article is truly a must-read.
On Wednesday night, TV news did cover the strike, but mostly as Yates Sexton had predicted, focusing on the consequences for “American consumers” and “American business.”
My family and I know firsthand how disruptive strikes can be. My kids missed three weeks of school last year due to the Minneapolis Teachers Strike, (yes, after FINALLY returning to in-person classes after years of COVID disruptions). Admittedly, the disruption was really tough, as I know it was for working families across our city. It happened during March, just a few days after Ash Wednesday, during my busiest season as a pastor, while I was commuting an hour west to church. Suddenly, I was scrambling to somehow provide some sort of brain stimulation for my kids, while listening to my husband’s work calls all day, and trying to stay on top of my church and parishioners’ needs.
All that being said, ultimately for my family the strike was an inconvenience. The American inability to pay teachers a fair and respectful wage is an injustice. Coming from a family of public school teachers, I understood why they went on strike. I saw firsthand how dedicated the teachers were to their students and classrooms. Contrary to the headlines, this wasn’t even primarily about money. It was about respect, valuing their profession, and also giving support to teachers and students after they all managed to carry on somehow in the face of a global pandemic, pressured on all sides from parents and administrators and government officials alike.
There was another strike happening in Minnesota this past week. On Monday afternoon, driving to Target to pick up cold medicine for my lingering COVID symptoms, I passed a picket line of nurses outside Fairview Southdale Medical Center.
I’m not sure I can’t adequately explain why, but as I passed them, the same thing happened that happened to me whenever I passed picket lines of teachers. A lump rose in my throat and hot tears threatened to spill out of my eyes.
Sure, I can grant that union leadership can be and in some cases, is, corrupt. I can grant that some teachers or nurses or workers in general don’t feel the union has their best interest at heart. And yet - every single dang time I pass a picket line - I see another, more powerful truth. The faces of the strikers are open and earnest. They’ve decided that they matter. Their work, in and of itself, has dignity. And they’re holding onto hope that the public will feel the same way.
In our 2022 world, it’s not easy to assert openly that your work and you - yourself - have dignity. We’ve too often worshiped the wealthy and powerful among us, buying their juice cleanses and scouring photos of their interior design and fashion choices on social media. In an economy that values capital over people, work becomes an input and not a person.
Strikers: from rail-workers to nurses to teachers to coal miners to hospitality workers to pipe fitters to baristas - assert a more ancient truth. They aren’t asking for golden parachutes or Cadillac health plans or tax write-offs for their second homes. They’re just asking for a reason to believe that their humanity matters, and their work counts. Their witness flies in the face of an amoral system that has excused needless death and suffering for generations, from deadly fires in Bangladesh where fast American fashions are manufactured; to the deaths of thousands of American “essential workers” to COVID-19.
The show must go on. The trains must run. I want my orders to show up at my house and my coffee to be hot as much as the next person. But I’m also always going to pick the side of solidarity. As the granddaughter of working-class Catholic Midwestern Democrats on my dad’s side, I guess it’s in my blood.
The Quote: In the news coverage about the potential rail strike, there was ample comment from business leaders, politicians, and union heads - but rare comment from everyday workers. When these workers did get a chance to share, it illuminated the conversation in a rich way - moving beyond the partisan squabbling to get to the heart of the issue. This quote, from a rail conductor in Illinois, has been sticking with me:
“I know for sure with covid out there nobody is even testing themselves because they don’t want to lose points,” said Jordan Boone, 41, a BNSF conductor in Galesburg, Ill., and member of SMART-TED. “I have five kids, and I’ve always missed the kids’ soccer and baseball games and cheerleading, but the new attendance policies make it impossible to go to anything,” - Washington Post
The Headline: Thousands die in flooding in Pakistan; drought destroys desert oases
The context: You know it’s the end of the summer in 2022 when you’re reading both about devastating drought and deadly floods. Climate change’s toll seems to strike indiscriminately and unfairly, in sometimes seemingly nonsensical ways. Parts of the world are parched, while other parts of the world are losing homes and lives under torrents of rising water.
Such is the nightmare we were warned about. And while America and wealthy nations have faced climate disasters this year, with floods in Kentucky and fires in the West, the deadliest toll of climate change strikes those least responsible.
Pakistan, responsible for less than 1 percent of global emissions, has seen its countryside demolished by floods this late summer. The waters came slowly at first, and then dominant waves of dirty water swept over land, fields, roads, and homes. Now, the death toll is well over 1,000, and children are dying from being forced to drink contaminated water. This article from Pakistani writer Hamid Mir will break your heart, as he travels by boat into the regions affected by the floods. Here’s a short excerpt:
“When women and children besieged by floodwater saw me, they started crying for help from the rooftops of their homes. They were desperate to be evacuated. I did my best to help, but sometimes I was unable to because my boat was too small. Many people told me that they had gone for days without eating or drinking. I never thought I would find myself reporting on the death of children in Pakistan from hunger, but this flood has changed all that by stirring up a storm of destruction and disease. In Baluchistan I saw children dying at the sides of the road because, lacking any alternatives, they’d been forced to drink contaminated water from the floods. …
Millions of flood-affected people are living under open skies, without tents or other shelter. They don’t even have graveyards to bury family members who died while fighting the floodwaters. Many have died from snake bites. On several occasions, the appalling conditions forced me into the role of relief worker — but then I had to remind myself that I am a journalist. My job, as I see it, is to give voice to millions of my voiceless countrymen.”
Mir says in this article that he believes climate change is now a greater threat to Pakistan than terrorism, in the country that once hosted Osama bin Laden.
This story is told best in pictures, with photography documenting the drying up date palms in places that once served as solace in the midst of unremitting North African heat.
Maybe, like me, you learned about desert oases in school, or encountered them in video games. They’re so essential to life in the desert that the word “oasis” itself has come to mean rest and respite. Much of early Christian theology, like that of St. Augustine, was written by Desert Fathers and Mothers in the North African desert. They relied on these oases for water and food and restoration. Now, all that remains is dry and dead.
I think a person could spend the rest of his life traveling the world, attempting to say goodbye to all the places we are losing due to climate change - and I think he would run out of time to cover them all. Close to home, I was grateful to take my kids to Northern Minnesota, where I heard about the receding glaciers and what they’d left behind; and I am grateful anytime I visit Minneapolis’ Minnehaha Falls and see a healthy burst of water cascading over the rocks, rather than the tiny trickle that signals drought.
Last year, a farmer in my congregation told me he’d just been to an agriculture conference in North Dakota, and some farmers there hadn’t seen rain for over a year.
Photo by M’hammed Kilito, Washington Post
So many of us say we find God in nature: that when we get outside and out of our heads and off our screens for just a moment, we are reconnected to the spiritual and the divine. Our lives are put into context. We are part of a creation, not merely an individual on an individual mission for food, shelter, wealth, and status. We are created and part of the larger world of miraculous life.
But nature, in 2022, is tenuous. And we are, unfortunately, part of the problem.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed and discouraged, here’s a helpful page from the EPA about small steps you can take to lessen the impact of climate change.
The Quote: “(Aomar) Boum grew up in the southeastern province of Tata, in the Lamhamid Oasis.
His father used to wake up at 3 a.m. to tend to the carefully crafted canals that used centuries-old irrigation techniques to bring water from the ground to the greenery. They could harvest dates from the dense palm forest by jumping from one tree to another, never touching the ground.
“Now, you have holes all over the place,” Boum said.
This Week in Christian Nationalism and Religious Extremism
My first book, Red State Christians, published in August 2019, was one of the first major studies of the impact of Christian Nationalism and religious extremism on American politics and American culture. Since then, Christian Nationalism has become a vital part of the American political conversation, thanks in part to the work of historians and scholars like Kristin Du Mez (author of Jesus and John Wayne), and Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry (authors of Taking Back America for God and the Flag and the Cross, by Perry and sociologist Philip Gorski). This past week, following a trend in which right-wing politicians have claimed the mantle of “Christian Nationalist” for themselves, a how-to book on Christian Nationalism climbed to #15 overall on Amazon (possibly a result of manipulated sales, but nonetheless).
While this newsletter won’t focus overall on Christian Nationalism, each Friday I will include a brief update from that week, as it’s both a continuing focus of my work and also, I think, a critical threat to both American democracy and the faithful witness of Jesus’ Gospel, which exists independently of the United States!
In one sentence: Christian Nationalism is a version of the idolatrous Theology of Glory, which replaces the genuine worship of God with worship of a particular vision of America, often rooted in a revisionist history of white people in the 1950s, before the Civil Rights movement or the women’s movement. Christian Nationalism supports a violent takeover of government and the imposition of fundamentalist Christian beliefs on all people. Christian nationalism relies on a theological argument that equates American military sacrifice with Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross. It suggests that Christians are entitled to wealth and power, in contrast to Jesus’ theology of the cross, which reminds Christians that they too have to carry their cross, just as our crucified savior did.
This Week: I want to spend some time breaking down this Twitter thread from Christian rapper Lecrae, who has more than 1 million Twitter followers. I’ll copy and paste it below:
“A lot of Christians are afraid of “Deconstruction.” I’ve personally gone thru it and let me give you food for thought. 1. There are 2 types of deconstruction happening in the church. One is healthy the other is dangerous.
One type of deconstruction actually involves using scriptures to deconstruct unhealthy ideas and practices. Christ himself did this by deconstructing the Pharisees interpretation of scripture. “You have heard it said but I say…” using Scripture to challenge things. Healthy. (thread)
Many millennials are using culture to challenge scripture. This often leads to culture taking precedence over scripture & sadly people begin to deconstruct themselves out of the faith. We begin to question the Bible because it doesn’t line up w/ culture. Unhealthy. (thread)”
This thread was retweeted by New York Times religion columnist Esau McCaulley, to which I say (not for the first time), New York Times, please get some religion writers who will actually engage with theology and religion outside the Evangelical/Wheaton College bubble! McCaulley, like his fellow NYT religion writer Tish Harrison Warren, is ordained in a conservative denomination that left the Episcopal Church over opposition to gay marriage and other “liberal social beliefs.”
But I digress. My critique here is going to get complicated because Lecrae and McCaulley are both Black men, yet the argument they’re both making here really comes out of White Evangelicalism with a Christian Nationalist bent.
Lecrae sounds a bit like James Dobson when he suggests that “millennials” are “using culture to challenge scripture.” Fundamentalists love to use trigger words like “culture” as a dog whistle to reference social movements, like rights for LGBTQ people or women. Evangelical Christians see themselves as opposed to cultural changes that have brought about more rights for more Americans since the 1960s, including the Civil Rights movement. They often like to hearken back to a “purer” American culture, one rooted in a 1950s America that was a harsh place for anyone who didn’t fit into a white male patriarchal-led family.
Evangelicals and fundamentalists love to make arguments with “Scripture” on one side and “culture” on the other. But this ignores the fact that the Bible itself is steeped in various cultures, from Hebrew and Jewish culture, to the Ancient Near Eastern culture, to the culture of the Roman Empire and the culture of Greek philosophy. The Bible is written by human beings who were steeped in their own cultural moment, including Jesus, who himself was a product of Jewish culture in Palestine at the time of the Roman Empire.
“Culture” in itself is a morally neutral word. You cannot critique Scripture with culture anymore than you can critique Scripture with humanity. That’s why we don’t worship the Bible; we worship Jesus! But often American Evangelicals have instead held the Bible as their object of worship, especially when it conveniently condemns the same people they condemn (but they easily ignore Biblical commands to forgive debt, sell all your possessions, and outlaw divorce).
Much as American Evangelical leaders love to draw lines between right and wrong (and make sure their way is the right way, as Lecrae does here), there is no right or wrong way to deconstruct your faith. It’s especially treacherous to suggest this to people who are deconstructing their faith because they’ve suffered abuse and harm in the church.
Instead, deconstruction is not dangerous at all! Because, guess what? We are saved by grace. Jesus’ death and resurrection is powerful enough. God does not rely on us; we rely on God.
What’s dangerous to Evangelical leaders who Lecrae seems to be borrowing from here is not the deconstruction of peoples’ faith. What’s dangerous instead for them is that what I think people are actually doing is deconstructing dominant Christian culture, especially that of white Evangelicalism that has long held power in the Republican Party.
When people deconstruct damaging and abusive Christian culture, people who’ve gotten rich off of dominant Christian culture have lost their means of making money. They’ve lost their grip on power and influence of millions of Americans and one major political party. Men, white straight/cis men in particular, have lost their claim to hierarchical power in their families, communities, and workplaces. This is the real threat they’re worried about. It has all to do with their own power and wealth, and nothing to do with witness to the Gospel.
For more on this topic, one of my favorite resources on Christian Nationalism is the website and Substack from Word&Way. Here’s a link to their new guide on Christian Nationalism, including some work from me!
Theologian and writer Diana Butler Bass also put out this new discussion guide on Christian Nationalism, through her Substack: The Cottage.
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