Integrity Fail: Reflection on Me and Joss Whedon

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I’m not a huge Joss Whedon fan. I’ve never seen Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Firefly, or Dollhouse. I just lost a lot of geek cred, didn’t I? I have seen both Avengers movies and really liked them! It’s pretty obvious to me that Whedon’s writing and directing chops were on full display in both films, so I give him credit that. As for his shows? I’ve been told forever that I would like them. I’ve never doubted that, I just haven’t sat down to invest the time. The things I have taken away from the little I know about Whedon are these: he’s a smart writer, a competent director… and he’s largely considered one of the more outwardly feminist male directors in Hollywood. I vaguely remember him taking some pot shots at Jurassic World for not being a feminist enough. I didn’t think much of it. I generally find it distasteful when director’s criticize other directors work, but whatever. Maybe he had a point. I mean, Jurassic World definitely centered the perspective of a man as opposed to The Avengers which centers the experience of four men, but whatever… Joss was our resident Hollywood, good guy feminist, and that was the end of that…

…until last week. One of my favorite podcasts read in its entirety an essay that Whedon’s now ex-wife Kai Cole wrote about Joss and their marriage. You can read it here. It’s pretty damning stuff! It outlines how, beginning in his Buffy years, Whedon had a string of affairs all while being praised for his feminist work. His ex explains how he suddenly found himself surrounded by “young, aggressive” women, as if to say it was their fault. He told her of the compartmentalizing he had to do as he received awards for the ways that he valued women all while hurting his partner and closest friend. Cole’s article speaks of Whedon’s hypocrisy. “he never conceded the hypocrisy of being out in the world preaching feminist ideals, while at the same time, taking away my right to make choices for my life and my body based on the truth,” she wrote. Damn! It was hard listening to those words being read. I could imagine my ex-wife saying similar things about me, maybe the exact same things. My heart broke for Ms. Cole and once again for my ex. Damn.

I confess that I get triggered whenever I hear stories about cheating men. It starts off a shame spiral chain reaction that I don’t particularly enjoy. I’ve gotten better about managing those spirals, but they still come pretty much without my control. This story, though hit me a little differently, maybe more profoundly. For a long time I cultivated an image as a good guy. The majority of my friends have always been female going back to high school. I prefer women’s company and conversation. I’m a good guy friend and I prided myself on that. The affair and the public nature of it put the lie to the image I had helped to create. It’s not that I was worse than other men, it’s just that I was/am no different… and generally speaking, men are trash.

There’s a lot of different ways to slice this story. We can ask if an artist’s work should be judged independently from the artist’s character. The same could be asked of theologians and pastors. We can ask if it was ever legitimate to call Whedon a feminist simply because he wrote stronger female characters than most men do. I don’t really feel qualified to answer that. We can talk about the internal contradictions that all humans come with. As none other than the Apostle Paul wrote “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do, I do not do, but what I hate I do” (Romans 7:15). I think breaking down the inherent contradictions of human nature is slightly above my pay grade.

I’ll simply say this: there is a caution here in the ways we do allyship. I don’t know Joss Whedon and I don’t know what was going on in his marriage. I am going to go out on a limb and say that there was and still is likely genuine concern in making his industry better for women both behind and in front of the camera. If nothing else, I believe he’s given intellectual assent to the idea. It’s likely deeper than that though. Still, the ways we live out our lives can often hamper our attempts at working for a better world. Your “black lives matter” bumper sticker doesn’t make up for tolerating your grandfather’s “casual” racism. Your pride flag doesn’t excuse the gay slur you “let slip” when you were drinking. And no, you can’t stand up for women’s rights and cheat on the woman who is supposed to mean the most to you without being seen as suspect. That goes for Mr. Whedon and me.

One of the best definitions I’ve ever heard for “integrity” is being in front of an audience who you are when no one is looking. In the last couple of years, I have been striving to shorten the gap between the face that I present to the world and the person I am in my intimate moments. Granted, some things will always be reserved to the select few and some only for the select one, yet I strive to not let my public persona, small as it is, be too distinct from what I share in my close circles. Sometimes that means being really honest in public about my rough edges. Sometimes it means being more vocal about the kind of man I want to be. Oftentimes, it means apologizing.

I think this is important because we are entering a new age of activism and it is important that our private lives and our public ideals match as much as possible. It’s hard work to be “on” all of the time and no one can sustain that energy, but it is something that we must strive towards for the sake of those whose allies we hope to be.

What I wrote to my church this week

The following is what will appear in my church’s newsletter tomorrow. I struggled with it quite a bit, but I think it was what I needed to say. 
“In a racist society, it is not enough to be non-racist. We must be anti-racist” – Angela Davis
I confess to having some awkwardness being in church last Sunday. It’s an awkwardness I’ve felt before. It comes from being one of the only (or the only) black person in the room during a worship service after an incident that brings racism to the foreground. It’s an oversensitivity that I’ve developed over the years. I find my self feeling self conscious… more so than usual. I carried a lot of anger into worship; anger at the situation, anger at our president, anger that we seem to not be learning much as a society when it comes to this issue. While I’m confessing things, let me also say that I was envious of Nancy. I desperately wanted to preach and so I was also angry about the situations that lead to my not being able to preach. I’ll bet none of you realized that you were worshipping alongside a seething ball of rage!
 In hindsight, I’m glad that I didn’t preach. Nancy’s sermon was perfect! If you haven’t read the text, it is in its entirety on the FB page, and if you aren’t on Facebook, I’m sure that Nancy will be happy to share it with you. I think her conviction was far more of what was needed than anything I could have offered. I especially appreciated these words:
      We must be vigilant in our daily lives. We must be listening in the silence for the still small voice pointing us to examine the ways that our laws are crafted, the ways that they are enforced, how the norms within our institutions are shaped.
     We must examine bias that is normalized in our churches, in our schools, in our communities, in our consumption of the news. 
     And we must stand up and speak out in the face of structural racism and sexism and classism and heterosexism. 
     It may feel like we are creating storms, that we are rocking the boat. 
     But the truth is that we as white people are just stepping into the storms that already exist 
     for our sisters and brother of color, 
     for our queer friends and family members, 
     for people who are pushed to the margins. 
These are not passive activities that she was calling the church to perform. This is a call for an active stand against the forces of systemic oppression in our country. I was grateful for the challenge that Nancy put to us. Yet I recognize that the call wasn’t totally for me. As a man, it is my work to fight sexism. As a straight person, it is my work to fight homophobia. As a black person, racism is not my responsibility. In a predominantly white church in a predominantly white denomination, the burden of being anti-racist falls on the shoulders of the members of this church. The work is yours.
I have struggled mightily writing this. I don’t know how much to say. I am angry and I don’t want my anger to scare you off. I am tired but I don’t want you to think that I’m not in this fight with you. As one of your pastors, even if not in title, it is my job to equip you for the work in front of us. I’m a film guy and I’d love to suggest some recent films for us to dive into, discuss, and see how they might inform our work. I’ll give you three, one Hollywood and two documentary: “Get Out”, Ava DuVernay’s “The 13th” about the lasting effects of the 13th amendment on this country’s race relations, and “I Am Not Your Negro”, the powerful documentary featuring the words of James Baldwin. The last two are on Netflix.
One last thing: I love you! Please don’t let my anger about the world stop you from giving me hugs during the passing of the peace or from going out for lunch or for engaging in hard conversations. This is your work, but to paraphrase Dr. King, your liberation is bound up with mine. I am in this with you!

Don’t Let White Supremacists Distract You From White Supremacy

 

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I visited Charlottesville back in 2009. Back at the time, I was recruiting summer staff for the Pittsburgh Project and one of our staff alum was a student there. I drove down, he introduced me to several of his friends and we had a great conversation about doing justice in our nation’s urban centers. As I drove down, I was struck by the beauty of the campus of the University of Virginia. It has the feel of an old, historic institution. The buildings were big, beautiful, old but well maintained. It was clear that a lot of resources were put into this campus! It was the kind of idyllic campus that envied as the University of Pittsburgh where I attended has such an urban feel that you often lose sight of where the school ends and the neighborhood of Oakland begins. I didn’t spend a lot of time there. Didn’t talk to much of the student body, and the ones with whom I did speak were handpicked because they were Christian and might want to spend the summer serving the poor. I don’t know how representative they were of the student body, I’m guessing not very. It was, in some ways, just a very normal college campus.

I guess that’s what is impressed upon me from this weekend’s events. Charlottesville is steeped in the history and “heritage” of the country. It is like many old, historic towns particularly on the east coast. It is, in someways, fairly unremarkable; just a college town. And that’s the thing: this could have happened on many college campuses just about anywhere in the states. Charlottesville is America. It is not an aberration. It is who we are, both the rally and the counter-protest. It is our yin and our yang, our light and our darkness, the angel and the devil on our shoulders.

There’s part of me that wants to say that what happened in Charlottesville is a game changer. I want to believe that after the societal downward spiral that has been happening since the election that this will be the wake up call that shakes us out of our complacency and makes us take the threat of white supremacy, in all of its forms, more seriously. I’d love to say that, but I do not believe it. I don’t believe it because over the last few years I have seen so many “game-changing” moments run the course of the 24 hour news cycle and then fizzle out back into our cultural complacency. I said during the election that whether or not Trump won, we all lost because he stirred up an element in our country that had been content with staking out small pieces of real estate. Emboldened by Mr. “There’s Violence On Many Sides”, the supremacists have found fertile ground to spew their hate with relative impunity. This is just the beginning. Charlottesville exists in every corner of this nation and until the real issue is named and real accountability is ad, this will continue to happen in some form or fashion, possibly with more casualties.

The real issue, of course is white supremacy. The problem is that we only label one group of people as “white supremacists” when in fact white supremacy is far more pervasive. White supremacy is a demonic forces that undervalues the lives and hopes of people of color. It has been the dominant force of empire at least since the times of European colonialism. It creates substandard living situations and schools for black and brown people. It translates “white” as “normal” and “brown” as “exotic” at best, “other” most often and “inferior” or “dangerous” when it chooses. It makes equivalencies between black people marching for freedom and white people marching for genocide. White supremacy uses white people (usually straight, white men) as a unit of measurement against which all other people are measured. It creates a white Jesus and makes gospel of the American dream. White supremacy is supported by well meaning white folks who tell people of color “you’re one of the good ones” and people of color who throw their own kind under the bus for acceptance. White supremacy exists when a fashion that designed to communicate on an urban street corner is co–opted by a corporation, rebranded and sold for a fortune without giving back to the culture from which it stole. White supremacy creates economic and cultural barriers from ordination in mainstream church denominations. White supremacy values the tears of a white “victim” over the life of a black person. White supremacy says that an athlete who kneels during the pledge of allegiance is less redeemable than a rapist or the organizer of a dog fighting ring. White supremacy doesn’t want Idris Elba to be James Bond.

The problem with events like this past weekend is that it allows “good” white people off the hook. If you’re not a Klansman then, hell, it could always be worse! “Not a Klansman” is not the standard to which I hope my white friends aspire. I hope instead that they are actively working to dismantle the many facets of white supremacy that exist in and around them. I say “in” because it begins in the hearts of those who are tempted to see people as less than. I say “around” because it is the water in which we all swim. This is not about fringe groups, disenfranchised people with “economic anxieties”, graffiti, or hate speech. This is about a prevalent system that is built to compensate for these occasional eruptions of anger. This is about a mindset that says that black and brown bodies were fine to build the infrastructure of this country but we’ll be damned if they share in its prosperity. I worry less about the agents of white supremacy who carry tiki torches (haha! Seriously?! Tiki torches) and more about the ones who carry gavels and nightsticks. I worry less about the ones who wear hoods or red MAGA hats than the ones who wear badges and judicial robes. I worry less about the ones who roam the streets of Charlottesville and more about those who roam the halls of congress.

We’re a country of quick fixes and short attention spans. That sometimes makes me feel hopeless. We’d rather make sure that the names of those who marched this weekend are splattered all over social media than to do the work that justice requires of us. It’s not enough to put Charlottesville under a microscope, even if there were elements there that made it uniquely primed for this sort of event. We have to recognize that Charlottesville is America and then we have to do the work of repentance, healing, and restoration. I’m sorry, but much of that work will fall to my white friends, but please know that my freedom is bound up with yours and I will not leave you to this work alone.

Doubt, Fear, and Insecurity

This week I realized that I had fallen into one of my old traps. I have this overwhelming desire to prove myself and I realized that I was pushing some things way too hard, way too fast because I am worried about proving my worth. I’ve done enough work with my therapist to know where this comes from. It’s simple, really: my dad ran out on me and I’ve spent my whole life trying to prove to the world that I am worthy of love and acceptance. Lately, I’ve been better about seeing the hollowness of that narrative. My worth doesn’t come from anyone’s opinion of me and certainly not from the man who wasn’t even smart enough to stick around to see how awesome I would become! No, my worth, like yours, comes from being a child of God (or child of the universe, if you prefer). Our worth is inherent, God-given, based in our very being. It is not about our work, appearance, talent, wealth, or utility. Our being gives us worth. Our unique being being gives us value. I understand all of this intellectually.

Still, this doesn’t stop me from occasionally falling into the belief that I have to perform. My return to church work has made this more pronounced. There is a big part of me trying to prove to myself and to the world that I deserve to do this work, that I am not the worst things that have been said about me in the last three years, and that I am more than the worst of myself that I displayed. There is a little voice following me everywhere whispering “don’t fuck up again!”. Most days, I can ignore it. But there are other days where the judgment that I put upon myself, coupled with the judgment that I imagine is being directed at me is almost too much to take. I imagine that there are eyes on me at all times waiting for me to fail.

The truth is, I have a lot of cheerleaders right now. So many people are proud of me for sticking it out through the denomination’s discipline process, so many are happy to see me back in the church world, and so many are eagerly awaiting for all of the restrictions to be lifted from my work once and for all. This is what I hear most often, not condemnation, but encouragement and love. The circle that surrounds me these days are people who are more than willing to tell me when I’m slipping up, but are rooting for me to do well.

So why do I still struggle so much? For one thing, I know that there are a lot of people out there who are still very disappointed in me. In my mind, I hear the voices of formerly close friends telling me how much I let them down. There are people who meant the world to me whose last words to me were of my failure. That still stings. Add to that the people that I have hurt. There is still a part of me that reels when I think about how selfish I allowed myself to be, how blinded I was to the consequences of my actions. I would love to scream “that’s not me!” but the truth is that that selfishness is just as much a part of me as any altruism I may display. I am my light and my shadow, my yin and my yang, the devil on the one shoulder and the angel on the other. For someone who invested so much of his life in being “good”, this is still a hard concept with which I must come to terms. I wish I could say final “I’m sorry” to those I’ve hurt and have it be done, but that’s not the way it works. I have to live with those mistakes and at times they hover around me like ghosts.

I guess the other reason that I struggle is that I don’t believe that I actually am all that good or talented or… whatever it is that makes people effective in my line of work. I think I got my ego stroked one time too many by people with agendas and I don’t know what’s true about my skillset. I question whether I am cut out for this and if I ever really was. I wonder if I’m just a pretty face that’s not all that pretty anymore (and a little chubby). I wonder if I’m just good to have around because having a token black guy is always a little cool. I question whether I really do have anything to offer this world.

This is what creeps into my head in the dark moments and fortunately, those are fewer and farther between than they used to be. When I feel these things beginning to overwhelm me, I am usually present enough to stop, breathe, and remind myself that the best thing I do on most days is to show up. It’s true. My best skill is making myself available, available to possibilities, available to opportunities, available to be a listening ear or an extra set of hands. There’s not a lot of stock placed in availability. It’s not something I can put on a resume. And I worry at times that my availability is actually me being in the way of people who are doing actual good work. Yet and still, it is the thing that I have to offer.

I’m tired today, feeling a little sick and worn down. This is always when the thoughts about my worth come creeping back in. I know it won’t last. I am in a good place right now. But it’s important for me to remember what got me into the bad place and to be proactive about correcting the voices in my head. If feels like the same old stuff, but I’m aware of the fact that I am not the same. I am stronger, healthier, and much more self aware. It doesn’t mean I won’t slip up on occasion and go into despair, but I won’t stay there long. I come back to my self, my true self, the self that is love and presence and I rest there. It’s funny that more than just about anything else God (and Jesus by extension) offers God’s people peace and rest. I suppose that speaks to the ever present reality of conflict both within and without. I lift these things up here so that my soul might find rest and perhaps, if you struggle as I do, yours might as well.