The Sound of Silence

Earlier this week, blogger K.T. Bradford made waves online by posting her challenge to “stop reading white, straight, cis, male authors for a year.” Her point was to question what we might gain when we temporarily silence the voices that have the loudest platforms and are most easily accessible in our culture? The answer, it seems, is that we find a richness of expression, diverse experiences, and, ultimately, a stronger pool of literature. Her experiment and subsequent challenge to her audience went … about as well as you expect it would. White men of the internet predictably rose up in a collective cry of “Discrimination!” and “Reverse Sexism/Racism!”

There's a lot of dead white dudes on my bookshelf.

There’s a lot of dead white dudes on my bookshelf.

There is a lot to unpack in this online controversy. The fact that notions such as reverse racism or reverse sexism do not actually exist, because the forces that feed into systemic oppression simply don’t work in the opposite direction. Or we might discuss how those of us who enjoy positions of privilege often enjoy a blissful ignorance when it comes to how those less privileged around us experience oppression in ways we will never comprehend. But these are complicated issues to discuss another day.

Instead, lets talk about Lent. It is effectively taken for granted these days that one observes the holy season of Lent by “giving up” something for the six weeks between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Why do we give something up–whether that’s chocolate, or alcohol, or sugar, or screen time? As I discussed last week, part of this practice of fasting is not because these items are “bad” in and of themselves. But a period of abstaining from something that has perhaps become excessive in our lives is a powerful way of cultivating mindfulness of how present that excessive consumption has become. Cutting out even 30 minutes or an hour with mobile can make us realize how much time we actually do spent staring at our screens–a reality of which we may have been previously unaware. Giving up meat for this brief period can be a pretty striking way of thinking “oh, wow…I didn’t realize I was so dependent on meat in my diet. I guess I need to go out of the way to eat more veggies on a regular basis.”  To put this conversation in a more fittingly spiritual perspective — a period of fasting and abstinence makes us aware of spaces where we have been crowding out God’s presence. Food and drink and casual entertainments are again not bad things in themselves. But they can become potential vices when they make us so comfortable in ourselves that we do not even realize how much space they are taking up and how little room we have made for God.

In that sense, I feel there is something very “Lenten” about the challenge K.T. Bradford proposes. Contrary to befuddled MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) online, no one is saying we should no longer read straight, cis-gendered, white men anymore. I am not giving up my Neil Gaiman or my Terry Pratchett any time soon. I think what she IS getting at is challenging us to consider how disproportionately predominant those voices are in what gets published most often. To become aware of how often we gravitate towards voices that sound most like our own. It may sound like a drastic thing to cut out the most privileged voices, even if only temporarily. Sometimes, however, it is necessary to silence the loudest voices so that others may be heard. Sometimes, we have to say #BlackLivesMatter, because #AllLivesMatter ignores the particular trials endured by the Black community.

In comparing Bradford’s “challenge” to a Lenten discipline, it might seem that I am falling into the trap of secularizing the season of Lent as so many are prone to do — treating it as a season of “self-improvements” or opportunities for diets. That is not my intention. I dare say there is a deep spiritual imperative in what Bradford’s post suggests. We are, as people of faith, called to seek out and lift up the marginalized and affirm those less powerful in our society. When we see the degree to which certain voices still enjoy a broad platform we have a sacred responsibility to seek out those who do not. We have a calling to listen humbly to those whose experience might differ from our own.

There is a power in silence. It is the power to give others a chance to speak, and an opportunity for us to listen and to learn from them. It can be hard for those of us who enjoy certain forms of privilege (even just the privilege to have access to the internet to read this post) to realize that we may have to be silent in order to hear others speak. No doubt it is hard for the straight white dudes of the internet to cope with no longer being the default empowered voices. But it is the way to true equality and for a world that more fully reflects the values of God’s Kingdom.

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Ashes to Ashes

For the past few weeks, Leeman and I have been engaging in the on and off project of decluttering our house. By on and off, I mean one day I get really excited and toss out or give away a bunch of stuff and then forget about clearing things out for another month or so until the organizational inspiration strikes again. Neither Leeman or I have the time or inclination to be particularly organized people. But it has to be said there is a noticeable difference in the quality of our lives when we do at least get around to clearing out some of the unused junk taking up space around the house — whether it’s old, worn out clothes or books we have no interest in reading again. It is liberating simply to make space for everyday life, unhindered by the clutter of the last 5-10 years.

frontal-lentIndeed, I would have to say this image of “decluttering” is the best image I can image as we enter into the Holy Season of Lent (which began earlier this week on Ash Wednesday). Though quite widely known, thanks to the popularity of pancake suppers and ash-marked forehends, Lent is also perhaps the most misunderstood of the seasons in the Christian year. We often think of Lent as time to “give something up” — like Chocolate, Alcohol, or Facebook, as if the 40 days of Lent provide us with the perfect opportunity to go on that long-delayed post-Christmas diet. Or as if this is a season to exert our spiritual fortitude though six weeks of self-denial and austerity. But while Lent is a season of fasting and a time for reflection, we do not engage in those practices as an end in themselves. Even the image of “spring cleaning for the soul,” which I myself have  at times used to explain Lent, is not without its problems. Such language suggests that the purpose of our Lenten journey is to use the disciplines of prayer and fasting and almsgiving as the means to polish off the imperfections of our spirit, ensuring that we arrive at the Easter celebration in a properly purified state. And while that is a nice idea, it perpetuates the idea that Lent is somehow about US and what we can achieve for ourselves, rather than becoming more aware of God’s activity in our lives.

This is why I appreciate the image of “decluttering” so much more than cleaning. (Indeed, if you want to take the image literally, you can check out 40 bags in 40 days for some helpful life-simplifying tips). Whatever practices or disciplines we take on in Lent cannot simply be about our attempts to better ourselves. They are about pausing and taking stock of where we have not allowed God to be present in our hurried, busy lives. If I give up chocolate for Lent, I do that not just to test myself out of some sense of spiritual rigor, but in order that maybe I become just a little bit more mindful of where I can so thoughtlessly grab for a cookie or a piece of candy. I do so to achieve a better sense of mindfulness in our all too often un-mindful lives. If I give up time on social media, or watching TV (my great weakness), I do that so I can give more disciplined time for prayer, or spiritual reading. This year, my Lenten project is finally to conquer the Divine Comedy all the way through.

So the question for all of us as we enter into this holy season is … where do our lives need “decluttering.” Where are we crowding out room for God, and how can we make our lives more mindful, more attentive to his presence in the world around us. Perhaps more than any other season, Lent is a gift the church offers us to offset the business and the clutter that can so easily overwhelm us.

Thank you, Jon Stewart

There have been a lot of changes in my life over the past decade and a half. Degrees acquired. Vocation discerned. Husband married. Child birthed. Even my spiritual life went through its phases from the evangelical background of my youth to the Anglican identity I now embrace.

Amanda is ready to begin her education!

Amanda is ready to begin her education!

But, through it all, Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have been there for me. Honestly, it’s a little disturbing now as I reflect on it that Mr. Stewart has been the one consistent cultural touchstone for pretty much my entire adult life. Never having had cable, I used to download torrents of the show. I think I still have some old CDs with TDS coverage of the 2004 US Presidential election stashed away somewhere. Once online streaming became available, Jon Stewart became my daily lunch companion as I caught up on his show from the night before. It would not be a stretch to say that I have seen almost every Daily Show episode broadcast over the last 10 years. It kind of boggles my mind.

In the last 24 hours since Stewart announced he would be stepping down as host of The Daily Show, the internet has issued forth a collective angst-ridden cry of outrage. And I get it. The fact is…I have come to realize something since word leaked out last night. We need Jon Stewart. We really, really need him.

Sure, he might not be perfect. There were times watching his show when I felt like the default audience member he was talking to was a straight white dude, much like himself. And, as a (professional) person of faith, it has sometimes bugged me that the one thing he sometimes didn’t quite get is how religious people think. (This was certainly an area where Stephen Colbert had the advantage). That said, though, I have to applaud Jon Stewart and The Daily Show writers for at least trying to engage with a range of viewpoints and voices. Stewart himself doesn’t speak to issues that specifically concern women. He brings in Kristen Schaal to do that. Or Larry Wilmore to take on racial issues–Wilmore now has his own show as a result of his recurring segment. Most importantly, Stewart created space for people like Asif Mandvi and Hasan Minhaj to provide Muslim perspective, without ever marginalizing them. That shouldn’t be understated.

But what is most important–and most necessary–about Jon Stewart’s role in the media is his insistence on pushing the media to be better. His assertion day after day that we can be better and smarter than the 24-hour news media cycle thinks we are. He challenges journalists to be better and he challenges us to demand they give us more depth and substance. For those unfamiliar with The Daily Show it is very easy to write Jon Stewart off as just a liberal comedian, lampooning Sarah Pailin and delighting in a running gag comparing new senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to a turtle (which is, admittedly, hilarious). If Jon Stewart has an enemy, however, it is not the political right. It is the irresponsible, ratings and fear-driven media that propels sound bites over substance and conflict over compromise. Yes, that means Jon Stewart fires a lot of shots at Fox News. But if one is a seasoned fan of his show, you realize he holds the greatest distain for CNN’s tech-heavy, content-light style of reporting. And he has a special level of disgust for MSNBC–which learned all the bad habits of Fox’s highly partisan approach to news without Fox’s quality production values.

It is true. Jon Stewart makes no effort to high his political leanings. But at least he is honest. And when Stewart had Mike Huckabee on his show recently to promote Huckabee’s “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy“, Stewart absolutely challenged the former governor’s arguments. But he also listened to him first and engaged in respectful dialogue, not shouting his own agenda. I know Jon Stewart has long denied that he is a journalist, but that sure seems like journalism to me.

I don’t know what the future is for The Daily Show. I do have hope, at least in the number of satirists Stewart has mentored who continue, for lack of a better image, fighting the good fight. Daily Show alum John Oliver is doing brilliant work with Last Week Tonight, highlighting real injustice or social issues that have been buried under our sensationalist media and bringing them to light with genuine fact and research based comical commentary. It’s brilliant. I am sure in the months to come Stewart and Comedy Central will put an appropriate succession plan in place that will live up to Stewart’s legacy. Because the fact is, we need that voice that is not fear-mongering that is not sensationalist. But that voice which challenges us and our media to have greater integrity. To show respect for one another. And to occasionally call Mitch McConnell a turtle.

So, thank you for all you have done Jon Stewart. And, I hope you will soon be able to take a nap.

Freedom is not a Christian Virtue

“Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom.” So speaks Libertarian-leaning Kentucky Senator Rand Paul when asked about the push to make vaccinations mandatory for childhood diseases, such as measles. New Jersey governor Chris Christie offered similar sentiments earlier this week, noting that parents need to have “some measure of choice” in whether or not to vaccinate their children.

Christie and Paul certain represent a certain pervasive political mindset which asserts individual autonomy over the public good, or in this case, public health. But it must be said that deeply self-serving and uniformed opinions with regard to vaccination is a bi-partisan issue. The measles outbreak that has sparked so much public debate on the subject is indeed likely the cause of affluent, liberal communities in California refusing to trust “big pharma” and vaccinate their children. While the represent widely different perspectives, both sides base their positions on the same basis premise: no one can tell me what to do with my own body, or the bodies of my children. I have FREEDOM. Personal freedom and autonomy is, after all, one of our highest western ideals, right?

And, lest one think that the vaccination debate is a purely American issue, we are on the brink of a measles outbreak here in Toronto as well. We do well to emphasize the benefits of vaccines.

There is so much to be said on the foolishness of anti-vaccine activists, whatever end of the political spectrum they fall on. Most of it has already been said, whether to assert the scientifically-proven safety and effectiveness of vaccines, or the need for the healthy to be vaccinated in order to protect those who (for a variety of reasons) simply cannot. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the wisdom of Dr. Sydnee McElroy from one of my favourite podcasts Sawbones.

But I write this blog from a faith-based perspective. And I want to tackle this idea of stressing personal freedom above and beyond seemingly any other virtue. Especially for those of us within the Christian tradition. When we think of the ideal Christian virtues identified as part of our faith–they are not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They are “faith, hope, and love … and the greatest of these is love.”

It is so, so easy to fall into the trap of saying–I should be able to make any decision I want about my body and my health. We life in a “free” country, after all. And, to a certain degree, yes, that is true. We do have a right to take risks with respect to our own lives and make the decisions that seem right for our own families, no matter how ill-advised they might be. I did, after all, decide to have a home birth. I took a not insignificant amount of criticism for that choice (not least from my family doctor). But I stand by it–it was the right choice for me, even if I did ultimately end up needing to transfer to a hospital.

The question we have to ask ourselves, though, is which is actually the virtue which most reflects the ideals of the Christian life–is it personal autonomy and freedom, or is a self-giving love that looks primarily not to our own good but the good of others. I try not to get polemical or overly “preachy” in my pastoral life. But this is one of those moments where I will unequivocally state that love, not freedom, is the Christian virtue that should shape our lives. Taking Amanda to get her shots every few months, is not just about protecting her. It is about protecting the 4-month old baby or the person undergoing cancer treatments we encounter literally every day in this city who do not have the capacity to protect themselves from diseases. Diseases whose deadly potential we are so privileged to have forgotten in the western world.

Currently, the government neither here in Canada or in the States has the power to force any individuals to vaccinate their children. But I would suggest that if there is a role of personal freedom in the Christian life, it is in the exercise of our free choice to love our neighbour as ourselves, or as our children. Lets share our world with one another. Lets not share formerly eradicated diseases.  Let love trump freedom.