Thinking and Writing About Ferguson as a White Academic

Hands Up, Don't Shoot - HowardAs many have I have been following the news out of Ferguson, Missouri closely. I was and remain deeply saddened by the death of Michael Brown. I was shocked at the utterly inept and Constitution-defying response of the police toward citizens, protestors, and journalists. I also recognize the privilege I have as a white male to simply “follow” the news, the privilege I have as a white male of never having had a negative encounter with police, the privilege I have as a white male to not have to wonder how I would be portrayed by the media #IfTheyGunnedMeDown.

I can follow as closely as possible what residents of Ferguson and St. Louis are saying. I can hear their cries for justice. I can support their protests. I can be dismayed at how cops and some white citizens of St. Louis have talked about the protestors as “animals” and “beasts,” trying to strip them of their humanity. I can share the racial profiling statistics of the Ferguson police. I can talk about the alarming racial disparity in our country’s prison population. I can talk about white flight. I can struggle with the racism that lives inside me.

I can and have done all of this, and continue to. But I’ll never really know what it’s like to be embodied in a black or brown body. I can’t give up my privilege and pass it on to someone else. We have talked a lot about Ferguson in my home over the past week and a half. I have talked about it on Twitter and Facebook. But I’ve been less outspoken than I would like because there are simply so many other people who are smarter than me, more informed than me, and wiser than me doing the talking. I occasionally retweet them, but I also just sit back and try to learn from them. This is the privilege I have.

But I have noticed a trend of “calling out” people for not saying enough. I have seen this happen by numerous people and not just of politicians, but people in education calling out white educators for not speaking out, some calling out certain leaders in black communities and black music artists  and, more close to home, people who study religion calling out others of us who do the same to speak out. I recognize the importance of a multitude of voices on this and how important it is to incorporate things like this into our thinking, our scholarship, and our teaching. Brooke Lester has already written about how he’s trying to do just this. But I am troubled by the apparent need to defend myself – “Look, here are my bona fides as a fighter of racial injustice. I’ve been tweeting about it” – and the utter smallness of that defense. But I cannot help but also think about the normative nature that this “calling out” has taken on and the process of classification that goes on when some think that some others have not done X, Y, or Z enough. It is interesting to watch. But again, all I have to do is watch – and I don’t even have to do that.

Brooke Lester’s question was how non-Black biblical scholars write about Ferguson. This is my first attempt at writing about Ferguson not on Facebook or Twitter and I have a distinct feeling that it’s woefully deficient. I too am curious how other non-Black scholars of religion are writing about Ferguson, though I’ve seen a lot more than the question would suggest. But I am also curious about peoples’ ideas about why and how we should be writing about Ferguson. On Twitter Brooke Lester said, “Don’t Get It Right, Get it Written.” That may be the best advice.

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New Book on the Second Amendment

The Second Amendment Doesn’t Say What You Think It Does | MotherJones: But when you actually go back and look at the debate that went into drafting of the amendment, you can squint and look really hard, but there’s simply no evidence of it being about individual gun ownership for self-protection or for hunting.

This has long been clear to those who are willing to sit down and do the research or, heck, even just read the text of the 2nd Amendment.

I’ll admit that I’m getting closer to supporting a repeal of all gun rights. Many will claim that to be “un-American,” but if “American” is synonymous with the rights of some (to own a gun for protection or to hunt) being more important than the rights of others (to live) or if “American” is synonymous with simply accepting the tens of thousands of gun-related deaths per year in our country, then I don’t want to be “American.”

One’s desire to hunt (it is not a right guaranteed by the Constitution) should not trump the right of every other citizen to not be shot. As President Obama said recently of our now-regular shootings,

The United States does not have a monopoly on crazy people. It’s not the only country that has psychosis. And yet we kill each other in these mass shootings at rates that are exponentially higher than anyone else. Well, what’s the difference? The difference is that these guys can stack up a bunch of ammunition in their houses, and that’s sort of par for the course. . . . There’s no advanced developed country on earth that would put up with this.

Except for us, of course, because some people have engaged in revisionist history and willful ignorance when it comes to the Second Amendment and because some people honestly believe that their right to own a gun should be more important than someone else’s dead kids, especially when these dead kids are black and brown.

As Michael Waldman’s new book, The Second Amendment: A Biography, points out Justice Scalia’s argument that he is an “originalist” – basing his decisions on the original intent of the framers of the Constitution – is fundamentally flawed. For it is impossible to know the original intent of an author. In my field, this question comes up time and again with reference to ancient texts, especially the Bible. Many argue for “authorial intent,” and base interpretations on what the author meant, but as has been made clear for centuries now, this is not something we can know, even when we are confident that we have gotten very close. In reality, it is our current circumstances, world-views, and various social and political leanings that most influence how we read old texts, the Constitution notwithstanding. This is why, for instance, Waldman is able to show how interpretations of the Second Amendment have changed so much over time.

This should be reason enough to abandon the fantasy that we can interpret the Constitution for today based on what it meant when it was first written. But I think that we should go beyond even this. We simply do not live in the same world as those who wrote this Amendment in 1791 lived in. We have no need of militia’s, we have no recent memory of a foreign power ruling over us. Since we are already interpreting the Constitution based on our place and circumstances, why not be honest about it and maybe try to do some good. It is not unheard of for us to realize that things needed to be changed. The Thirteenth Amendment did this, turning over the then-Constitutional Three-Fifths Compromise.

After George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin February 26, 2012 I heard a lot of people echoing the comment of NRA President Wayne LaPierre, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” (This is a myth, by the way) But I wonder why, if we have so many “good guys” in this country, they don’t care enough about those around them who are getting killed every day to do something about it. Maybe we could start by making it tougher to buy a gun than to vote or drive a car or purchase antihistamines.

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What I’ve Learned From Writing My Dissertation . . . So Far

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation

Leonid Pasternak, Throes of Creation

I’ve been actively writing my dissertation for just over 4 weeks now. I had done a significant amount of research and translation of primary sources (oh, the translations – I have a single-spaced document with my own translations of all of the relevant primary sources that currently stands at 57 pages) prior to beginning the writing phase. Also, this 4 weeks includes taking off almost a full week of writing when family came to visit.

As of writing this post, I have over 15,000 words written. The combination of text and footnotes puts me currently at 48 pages. I’m not sure how that compares to the pace of other writers. I know that it’s quite a bit slower than my normal pace of writing, but it’s going well. I’ve read a lot about how one should write – enough to know that there is no single answer (aside, of course, from sitting down and actually writing). Should I write 20 minutes every day or 2 hours? Should I write every day or only during the week? There is no shortage of those who are willing to offer their answers as gospel, but what I have learned over a decade of post-high school education is that the best way for me to write is my way.

That looks different than some and I often break many conventional rules. For instance, I edit, look up sources, and input footnotes during my writing [GASP!]. The nature of the chapter I’m currently writing means that every day or so is a new mini-research project that requires the acquisition of new sources. Some will say that I should simply put in [CITATION] where one is needed or come back during a distinct editing time to drop in that quote. For me, though, that just seems to create more work for later when it will take me much less time to do it now than later when I have to go back to where I was, remember the quote I wanted, determine if I worded the surrounding text appropriately, etc.

My writing strategy is nothing special.  Contrary to the rumors a friend of mine is apparently spreading, I am not “basically done” with my dissertation. I came into the summer with a healthy amount of research and a well-thought-out outline. I made a goal to write X number of pages over the summer and promised myself – and, by extension, my wife – to only write on weekdays (I have a life outside of academia that I love and I want to keep it that way). As a result of my progress so far, I have been able to increase my summer page goal. I have one day where I wrote almost 3,000 words. I have another day with only 39. And that’s okay for me. An arbitrary daily word count only ensures that I will keep writing just to write when a day’s task has already been appropriately completed.

My experience in academia has not been as long or varied as many, but it has been long enough to see the ubiquitousness of particularly mindset: as an academic You should always be working/writing. There is a pervasive mentality that academics should not take time off. They should work every day, even weekends. Vacations should be done so that research can happen concurrently. Many (especially graduate students) offer humblebrags about how late they stayed up, how many all-nighters they have pulled, or how they never take a day off. I got in to academia and I research early Christianity because I love it, true, but it’s also a job (if you can call what I have now a “job” – and I hope it leads to a “real” job in the not-too-distant future). I have a wife with whom I enjoy spending time. We often eat 3 meals together in a day. We watch (probably way too much) HGTV. We’ve started playing tennis. I like to travel. I like to run. I like to ride my bike. I have friends. Work is important, but it’s also important to set boundaries, even more so when your work is also a passion.

You’ll notice that this mentality among academics differs with what most non-academics think of academics; namely, that they teach 2 or 3 classes and then hang out at a coffee shop for the rest of the day reading Karl Marx. This, even as new research is simply confirming what we have always know: “Professors work long days, on weekends, on and off campus, and largely alone.”

So, what have I learned?

1. My way of writing works for me; it may not work for others. It’s amazing how much you can get written when you sit down and write instead of reading other people tell you how to write.

2. Setting boundaries has meant that I’ve been productive and been able to take much needed breaks to go to the beach or a baseball game.

3. Good time management is essential. This has always been a strong suit of mine (I’m leading a roundtable/workshop on it at AAR in San Diego in November), but it’s even more important during the summer when I have all this “free time” and have to make my own schedule, be my own motivation, set my own deadlines, etc.

4. Writing a dissertation can actually be a fun process. To hear some academics speak, you’d think the dissertation process necessitates that one come through it with scars, a horror story, and talk of a life-changing experience. Maybe it’s because I’m only 15,000 words in, or maybe it’s because I like what I’m writing about (hint: I write a lot about sex), but I’ve quite enjoyed my writing so far. To be sure, some days are less enjoyable than others, but on the whole it’s been fun so far. This may change. Stay tuned.

What do I have left to learn about this process? What did you learn?

Bonus: You can get occasional insights into what I’m writing on on a given day or during a given week, if you follow me on Twitter.

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The Journey Continues

For Sam, that is. He’s heading back to finish his Master of Divinity.

Back to Seminary | Sam Harrelson: However, incessant gentle prodding from a hand unseen drives me towards an extended realization that to be fully actualized I must throw myself into the fiery and mysterious darkness of Sinai where God’s voice still hovers and beckons humanity to listen.

Sam has been (and continues to be) a great friend. I can’t wait to see what the next leg of his journey looks like and to be involved in any way possible. Head over and check out the rest of the post where he lays out why and why now.

Also, be sure to check out ministrieslab.

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On Mother’s Day

My mom is great. Really. She loves me and accepts me unconditionally, but she also challenges me and pushes me to be more caring, more open, and more loving. She celebrates even my smallest achievements as only a mother can. I won’t say that my mom is better than your mom (she is) or that my mom can beat up your mom (she can), but I do hope you have a mom that’s just as great. She’s taught me a lot and, I’m sure, tried to teach me much more.

So, on Mother’s Day and in honor of her, here are a few pictures from the trip that me, Trinity, and my parents took to Sweden this summer to visit friends. It was a great trip and I can’t wait until our next one.

DSC01922 DSC02216 DSC02103 DSC02034

Picture 1: Downtown Stockholm in the background
Picture 2: At Lyckans Slip on the west coast
Picture 3: At Håkan and Margareta’s house in Munkeby (also, in front of their sailboat)
Picture 4: At City Hall, Stockholm, overlooking the Baltic Sea just steps from where Trinity and I got engaged in 2006.

Thanks, mom, for who you are and who you’ve helped me become.



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