Cancel Culture, Wokeness, and the Ugly American

They used to call it “holier than thou.” Then they called it “political correctness.” You know, the PC culture. Then they called it “virtue signaling.” Now they call it “cancel culture” and “wokeness.”

In 1958 Burdick and Lederer wrote a book titled “The Ugly American.” The book essentially was an indictment of American diplomatic insensitivity to indigenous cultures of Southeast Asia during the Cold War period. The phrase, “ugly American,” soon took on a more popular meaning as many people outside the US quickly recognized the crudity and arrogance of American citizens traveling abroad, expecting peoples in the country they were visiting to cater to the peculiar whims of their insatiable American appetites, as American tourists projected no awareness of the local customs or sensibilities of the people they were visiting.

The ugly American is a species of the doctrine of American exceptionalism. To be critical of the greatest citizens of the greatest nation in the history of the world is an egregious sin. Never criticize a patriot. You will be accused of not loving your country. Even when patriotism is defined today as might makes right, toxic masculinity, white supremacy, and Christian particularity, don’t you dare whisper a word of criticism. Don’t you dare even ask a question. You will be met with swift correction.

They used to call it “holier than thou.” Then they called it “political correctness.” You know, the PC culture. Then they called it “virtue signaling.” Now they call it “cancel culture” and “wokeness.” This is how we have learned to self-justify when faced with the hard truth that we might, heaven forbid, be wrong about something.

We’re always looking for the next best turn of phrase to poke the finger in the eye of “liberalism” or anyone we disagree with. To “own the libs.” That’s what American conservatism has become. It isn’t about traditional values anymore. It’s about crude and greedy self-interest. If you’re not against every government proposed program, you’re not one of us.

Poke ‘em in the eye? How about, we know where you live and you’ll never be able to go out in public again without us knowing it? That was an actual threat by one of the loud-mouthed ugly Americans who disagreed with their school board member over a mask mandate to protect children and teachers in a public school. The threat of physical violence on someone’s person over a disagreement about wearing masks as a preventative against dying from a pandemic disease. A mask.

And it’s not really about disagreement anymore. Because if you hold them accountable for their crude and violent language and behavior, they accuse you of being a hypocrite toward anyone you disagree with. Another smokescreen, because it’s not about whether we can disagree. It’s about how we disagree. And the ugly American will stop at nothing to project their own failure to be decent human beings onto those who “disagree” with them.

Jesus engaged the bullies of his day. And I know it’s not historically correct to mash on the Pharisees, but the temple authorities and the scribes (among whom the Pharisees also walked), directly challenged Jesus and openly misrepresented his teachings and his actions. At least, this is what the gospels tell us. There were times when they tested him to trap him, and he so deftly turned the test back on them. The render to Caesar saying comes to mind, in which Jesus slyly confronted his accusers of having Caesar as their god. But it wasn’t just the obvious religious bullies who were the target of Jesus’ correction. Jesus’ disciples openly bullied little children and their parents who were bringing their children to Jesus to have him touch them. The disciples scolded the parents as if Jesus were too busy or too important to bother himself with such insignificance. But Jesus became indignant with his disciples and he lashed out at them for bullying these families for doing what they knew was right. So, there can certainly be a time when challenging the bully is the right thing to do, if not to change the heart of the bully, then certainly to strengthen the hearts of those who are the objects of the bully’s crude and wrathful behavior. We. don’t. have. to. take. it.

Do we not all put our pants on one leg at a time? Or to speak the language of the everyman, do we not all piss in the same pot? (Unless of course yours is made of gold.) Those who piss in golden pots think so much more of themselves than the rest of us. And they are only a small handful. Nothing more. They abuse the rest of us with narratives of division and hatred. That stranger over there is going to take away what little you have left (without actually giving an honest account of why the narrative spinner is actually responsible for taking what you have in the first place and not the stranger they want you to despise). That stranger over there is going to hurt you. That stranger over there looks different. Be afraid. Consequently what we are conditioned to fear becomes the object of our anger and our hatred, because those who have golden pots weave narratives that tell us they are a threat to our lives, our families, our daily livelihoods.

So we fight and we curse and we destroy each other’s lives. While those who egg it on are happy to continue to do what they do. These proxy wars we fight, these dissimulations of ourselves that we don’t even know are dissimulations. The rugged individual, the ugly American, they conceal the holy image we were born with. Our racism, our violence, our misogyny, our bigotry, our pandering poverty. These are nothing but false attempts to define ourselves apart from the agency of relationship we were born to fulfill.

These crude and disgusting behaviors as acts of dissimulation of our original self, the human being as agents of love that God created us to be, they relentlessly call upon us to engage the mythic folly of Adam, to be our own gods and from the place of God to judge others with our proxy wars of hatred and division.

With my own Augustinian-Lutheran embedded theology, which I am constantly analyzing through my own idiosyncratic hermeneutical awareness, I struggle to know whether to engage the bully or keep myself aloof from the fray. I sometimes engage with the bully but not always. I pick and choose when to engage the fight. When it feels right. Maybe it depends on the kind of day I’m having. Or maybe it depends on the extent to which I’ve become fed up with the bullying and the violence. I have no delusions about changing the bully’s mind. But I am convinced that when I hold a bully accountable, I am sending a very clear signal to the rest of us that we don’t have to take it.

And then there’s the painful truth that the bully, the “ugly American,” lives in all of us, and that this confrontation is a constant inner struggle to tamp down my own inner bully and bring forth the image, what is real and beautiful and true.

Be strong. Be loved. And love.

A Statement of Solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) from the Faculty of Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit

A Statement of Solidarity with BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) 

from the Faculty of Ecumenical Theological Seminary in Detroit

For more than five hundred years Western Euro-colonial society has engaged in violent acts toward the black community, indigenous communities, and people of color (BIPOC). White Eurocentric-controlled philosophies, religiosities, language forms, and systems of governance, economic marginalization, housing and gentrification, defense, policing, education, and health care have shaped vast numbers of people to think and act in supremacist terms.

This has resulted in centuries of unimaginable pain. Pain that must be acknowledged. Pain that must be spoken of. Pain that must be acted on to stop the reign of violence. The recent death of George Floyd in Minneapolis was the tipping point.

The Faculty of Ecumenical Theological Seminary stands with BIPOC, anti-racism protesters, and people of good will everywhere to fight a corrupt criminal injustice system, patriarchal injustice, and economic oppression until we usher in the Beloved Community.

Together, under BIPOC leadership, we listen, we stand, we speak out, we teach, we write, we march, to engage the fight for justice.

Dr. Elaine Belz

Rev. Dr. Urias Beverly

Rev. Dr. Floyd Davis

Dr. Brandon Grafius

Dr. Kenneth E. Harris

Rev. Dr. Tony Henderson

Rev. Dr. Olaf R. Lidums

Rev. Dr. Kathleen Mackie

Monique Marks, MSW

Rev. Dr. Charles Packer

Dr. James Perkinson

Rev. Dr. Constance Simon

Rev. Dr. James Waddell

Rev. Dr. Samuel White III

Redefining the Bible thumper

Let me be perfectly clear from the start of this post. I am not addressing my criticisms here to anyone from the black community. This is a critical self-reflection for the white community, of which I am a part. This is a self-criticism. Especially those of us who go by the name of Christian. To the white community that goes by the name of Christian, do you read your Bible? And if you do, how do you read it? As a biblical scholar and a pastor, my observation is that most of us do not. And for those of us who do read it, we read it without much interest in challenging ourselves to read it outside the box of what we’ve always thought it to mean. This blog post is not written for the black community. It is written with my white Christian friends and neighbors in mind, and I pose it as a challenge to read your Bibles and to think critically about those who would use the Bible as a weaponized political tool.

On Monday evening, 1 June 2020, Donald J. Trump and five of his all-white, hand-chosen cabinet members marched out of the White House, across Lafayette Square, and lined themselves up in front of the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church.

Brandishing a Bible like a sword (or holding it like a huckster selling steaks), Trump glared into the cameras (not an exaggeration) and announced the greatness of Trump’s America. He did not offer a prayer for the family of George Floyd. He did not offer words to inspire unity or hope. He did not speak to the American people. He spoke to his own fragile ego, which had been cowering in the White House bunker for days.

The irony of Trump accusing Joe Biden of hiding in his basement from the Corona virus outbreak should not be lost on anyone. Biden would be found in the streets of Maryland talking directly with protesters, listening to their concerns, offering words of encouragement and hope.

What can only be described as a media stunt, a photo-op, Trump and his weapon wielding entourage marched themselves back to the White House, having accomplished nothing but what we’ve all become accustomed (desensitized) to expect from Trump. More hate. More division. More posturing on the part of his partisan apologists.

The Bible is not a political prop. The Bible is not a reified thing (an object) to be weaponized for political ends. It is not a tool to be used as an ideological weapon to beat back an entire community standing against centuries of injustice, an entire community that has suffered the most heinous acts of violence in the name of law and order. Centuries. Not weeks, or months, or years. Centuries (500 years) of the most heinous acts of violence in the name of law and order. Not because of demonstrable guilt, but because of the color of their skin. Not because of violations of the law, but because the laws of our nation are crafted and enforced to systemically oppress an entire community of American citizens.

That Bible on your shelf? Take it down and open its cover. There are no excuses for not having the time to read it. Essential workers may have an excuse as far as having the time nowadays, but most of us have plenty. Instead of spending so much time on your favorite conspiracy theory sites, pull that Bible down from the shelf and start reading. As a professor of Biblical Studies, a New Testament specialist to be precise, let me suggest a passage to start with. And just so you know, I am not speaking to everyone in general. I am speaking to those who call themselves Christians, but find themselves in the precarious position of having to defend Trump’s relentless dumpster fire of a presidency, and in the process are putting yourselves in a position of a compromised faith.

Let’s start with Luke 10.25-37. The parable of the Good Samaritan. That’s how it’s traditionally known. Most people think it’s about helping your neighbor. That guy with a flat tire on the side of the road? You help him? That makes you the Good Samaritan. The older lady who lives across the street and isn’t able to go to the store to buy food because she has difficulty walking? You help her? That makes you the Good Samaritan. Or does it?

Always look at the context. Who is Jesus speaking to? What are the questions being asked. A “lawyer,” or what should better be translated a “scholar of the Torah” stood up to test Jesus. “What do I need to do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus pointed him to the law, of which this man was a scholar. Jesus asked him, what does the law say. How do you read it. The man answered, “Love God. Love your neighbor.” Jesus praised him for this answer. Luke tells us that the Torah scholar sought to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” This is the point at which Jesus tells the parable. I’m not going to go through the details of the parable here. Pull that Bible down off the shelf and read it for yourself. Don’t assume that you already know what it means. Read. It. What I will do is share with you a little of the historical context.

The origin of the Samaritans begins with the displacement of conquered peoples by the Assyrian King Shalmanezer in the eighth century BCE. When Shalmanezer conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, he displaced the Israelites into other Assyrian territories and moved people from those other territories into the region of the northern kingdom of Israel which came to be known as the region of Samaria. Hence the name Samaritans. This is according to 2 Kings 17. The foreign peoples displaced by Shalmanezer into the region of Samaria were accused by the Jewish people of not being faithful to YHWH. They were accused of mixing their worship of YHWH with the worship of other deities. And so the beginning of the prejudice against Samaritans begins in the eighth century BCE and lasts for centuries, for about seven hundred years until the time of Jesus. Seven hundred years.

Flavius Josephus describes how the racial prejudice between Jews and Samaritans manifested itself in the years before and during the time of Jesus. He describes the hatred they had for each other, and how the Jewish High Priest John Hyrcanus burned the Samaritan temple and the city of Shechem in Samaria near Mt. Gerizim in 128 BCE, and how they committed acts of violence against each other, burning each other’s synagogues and defiling each other’s sacred spaces, and literally killing each other. The hatred and the prejudice between Jews and Samaritans was so very, very real in the Second Temple period.

Back to the Good Samaritan. Notice that at the end of the parable, when Jesus asked, who proved to be a neighbor to the injured man, the Torah scholar so hated Samaritans that he couldn’t even bring himself to say the words “the Samaritan.” And the original question posed by the Torah scholar, what must I do to inherit eternal life, Jesus answers with this parable, putting his finger precisely on the very issue in this Torah scholar’s life that was preventing him from realizing his goal.

Knowing what you now know about the historical context of this New Testament passage and this teaching of Jesus, which has traditionally been taught as a lesson about helping one’s neighbor in need, what is it that keeps you from moving past this superficial, unhistorical interpretation? And what is it that keeps you from arriving at your ultimate goal of achieving eternal life? Could it be that racial hatred and prejudice in THIS life are holding you back? How we treat each other in THIS life is intimately connected to attaining our goal of achieving eternal life. You can’t have a gospel of the assuaged conscience (that relies on cheap forgiveness) and excuse yourself from loving your neighbor.

And who is my neighbor, the person you have the most disgust for. For the politically progressive, your neighbor is Donald J. Trump, brandishing the Bible like a weapon and using it as a political prop to stir up his base. Your neighbor is the Trump supporter who sucker punches you when you protest in their midst. Your neighbor is the white supremacist who breaks windows and sets cars on fire to create a narrative of delegitimization of your peaceful protest.

For the political conservative your neighbor is the progressive and the liberal who think you are a fool, who despise you for what they perceive to be your inability to engage in critical, independent thinking, who refer to you as deplorables.

We can be critical of each other. That’s a simple reality. But our criticisms of each other need to begin with self-reflection and self-criticism, and using the Bible for what it was actually meant to be used. To engage in critical self-reflection, to embrace a changed heart and a changed mind, to love God, AND to love our neighbor. No excuses. No rationalizations.

The narrative about the cross of Christ is the proof of the lengths God would go to love all of us, not just some of us. If that amazing display of suffering for us and the promise of continued suffering with us does not transform the way we think about and act toward our fellow human beings, with love instead of hate, then nothing will.

Let every man be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger, for the anger of a man does not accomplish the justice of God. James 1.19-20

The privileges of our color

Now is not the time for those of us who enjoy the privileges of our color to recede into the background. Now is the time to acknowledge the struggle of our black neighbor, and to engage in our own struggle for self-awareness regarding all the ways our privilege allows us to participate in systemic evil without even having to consider that we are participating in that evil. Now we confront our numbed consciences to learn what it means to be racist. To turn our hearts and minds to learn what it means to be anti-racist. And to learn what it means to participate in the suffering of a fellow human being.

Is it not for you to know justice?

Is it not for you to know justice?—
2 you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people,
and their flesh from off their bones;
3 who eat the flesh of my people,
and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces,
and chop them up like meat in a kettle,
like flesh in a caldron. (Micah 3.1c-3)

The value of studying languages for historical and theological research

Permit me to share a little bit of my personal story with you. When I was an undergraduate student many years ago I studied Classics at a major public university in the Midwest—Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and Coptic. I loved the experience, especially reading Classical Greek poetry, in addition to history and philosophy by writers like Sappho, Homer, Plato, Xenophon, Sophocles, Herodotus, Thucydides, Cicero, Virgil, Tacitus, and so many more. I had the opportunity to learn other languages, like German, Sanskrit, and Lakota Sioux. One semester I was studying five languages at the same time and German bit the dust. I picked it up again later when I had more time. We all have our limits.

Sanskrit is an ancient language on which so many other Indo-European languages have their basis, and in which there are countless extant writings of the Hindu and Buddhist traditions. Lakota Sioux is a language indigenous to the Great Plains region where I grew up. I had the opportunity, but I chose not to study Sanskrit and Lakota. I have very few regrets, but this is one of them. I did, however, pick up two more languages in grad school related to my academic interests, Aramaic and Syriac. I still have the desire to study languages. I am currently developing my use of French. Arabic, Ethiopic, Modern Hebrew, and Russian are on my list.

By now I hope you get my point. Studying languages is a way of learning another culture. It is very much an education in itself. And it opens doors for expanding friendships and relationships beyond the small world I inhabit. I like it when my perception of the world grows beyond just where I live.

This is also true of being a preacher and teacher of the Bible. You can certainly be an effective preacher and an effective teacher for the church without knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. There are many excellent translations available. So why reinvent the wheel, right? But I’m not just talking about translation. I’m talking about developing your exegetical skills, deepening and broadening your ability to interpret biblical texts by engaging the linguistic culture of the Bible.

So much of the Bible, when it is translated, involves the translator making a choice that doesn’t really come through in the translation, a nuance here and a fine grammatical point there, that can send the interpretive imagination in a number of different directions and, more often than not, in directions you never expected. This is the kind of thing that can deeply enrich and give more authority to your preaching and teaching. Think about it.

As a student at Ecumenical Theological Seminary you can contact the registrar to enroll for full credit and learn Greek and Hebrew for a grade or, to lighten the pressure, take it pass/fail or as an audit. If you are not enrolled in a program at ETS, you too can learn the biblical languages. Contact the registrar for details.

James Waddell, S.T.M., Ph.D.

Associate Professor of Biblical Studies

Director of the Masters Programs

Ecumenical Theological Seminary

Taking a lesson from history … the not so obvious connection between unrestrained war and wealth disparity

As I do some preliminary preparation for a proposed (possible) travel seminar to Rome/Italy for summer 2020 (the topic of which is Roman economy of dominance and exploitation of enslaved peoples and its impact on the New Testament), I found a short segment of Rostovtzeff’s The Social and Economic History of the Roman Empire to have a poignant (if not downright chilling) prophetic relevance for our American context today. Describing Greek economic conditions during the Hellenistic period Rostovtzeff writes:

“The primary cause of the steady decline of economic life in Greece proper was the constant, almost uninterrupted, succession of wars in which the cities were involved in the fourth and third centuries B.C. These wars, in spite of many efforts to minimize their ruinous effects and to subject them to some inter-state regulation, became ever more bitter, more cruel, and more disastrous for all the participants, whether victors or vanquished. The practice of devastating the enemy’s land, of destroying his crops, his vineyards and olive-groves, of burning down farm-houses, of carrying off and selling men and cattle as war booty, of feeding the troops from the resources of the invaded lands, became increasingly common. Some states, for instance the Aetolian league and the Cretan cities, specialized in conducting wars of robbery on land and sea, and the other states, not excepting the great Hellenistic monarchies, followed them on this fatal path.

“Concurrently with the external wars there raged within the Greek cities, alike in Greece proper and in most of the islands, an unceasing class-warfare, which originated in the steady growth of a well-to-do bourgeois class and the corresponding impoverishment of the masses. This class-war made the growth and development of a sound capitalistic system very difficult. Indeed, it made a healthy economic life within the city-states almost impossible. The strife in the Greek cities assumed more and more the character of an almost purely social and economic struggle. The main aim of the struggle was, not the increase of production by the betterment of labour conditions and the improvement and regulation of the relations between labour and capital, but the redistribution of property, which was generally achieved by violent revolutionary means. The war cry was the immemorial one of gēs anadasmos kai chreōn apokopē, redistribution of land and abolition of debts. This cry was so freely used as early as the end of the Peloponnesian war that the Athenians introduced into the oath of the Heliasts in 401 a clause which forbade the putting of such an issue to the vote. In the fourth century the fear of a social revolution was constantly present to the minds of Aristotle and Isocrates, and in 338 the League of Corinth formed a sort of association for protection against it. It is significant of conditions in Greece during the third century and later that a clause forbidding the redistribution of land and the cancellation of debts was introduced into the oath of the citizens of Itanos in Crete.

“The revolutions which aimed and such a redistribution of property were utterly disastrous for Greece. Revolution and reaction followed each other with brief delays, and were marked by the wholesale slaughter or expulsion of the best citizens.”

Rostovtzeff’s insights were critical of state run economies within Hellenistic monarchies. In other words, what in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries we would refer to as Fascist nationalist states, not social democracy or democratic socialism where the workers (rather than the state) have a much greater voice in the choices that are made regarding the distribution of wealth and the means of production (as labor is assigned a greater value in terms of means of production). Those who equate social democracy with state (Fascist) control of the means of production are lying to you. Rostovtzeff was critical of unregulated capitalism that trampled on the rights of the laboring classes. His interpretation of Hellenistic social and economic history is a poignant message for us today. Constant warfare in the Hellenistic period was transformed into a form of entrepreneurial capitalism by some Hellenistic cities. Privatization of warfare by the American politic reflects our ignorance in repeating this historic Hellenistic failure. Unfettered capitalism run amok, capitalism that doesn’t take into consideration the well-being of its working class, combined with an unrestrained engagement in self-interested and endless warfare, is a threat to a nation’s social and economic stability, and ultimately in the long run to the survival of the people themselves. May we please not be forced by the powers to have to learn this lesson again?

Wisdom Poured Out Like Water, a new publication co-edited by ETS faculty member James Waddell

Wisdom poured out like water

I have a new publication as co-editor that has just been released, Wisdom Poured Out Like Water: Studies on Jewish and Christian Antiquity in Honor of Gabriele Boccaccini, Deuterocanonical and Cognate Literature Studies 38 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018). The book is co-edited by the late J. Harold Ellens (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), Isaac de Oliveira (Bradley University), Jason von Ehrenkrook (U. Mass. Boston), James Waddell (Ecumenical Seminary, Detroit), and Jason Zurawski (U. of Groningen), all former Ph.D. students of Professor Gabriele Boccaccini of the Department of Middle East Studies at the University of Michigan. The volume is published by De Gruyter and is now available. Volumes like this are usually priced for library purchases. To soften the blow of the cost of the entire volume for individuals, specific contributions to the volume are also available for purchase on the De Gruyter web site. My article is titled, “‘I Have Been Born Among You’: Jesus, Jews, and Christians in the Second Century.” Click here to read my contribution to this volume.

The reception of Paul the Jew in Colossians

From the Introduction … “In June 2014, the Third Nangeroni Meeting of the Enoch Seminar, titled ‘Re-Reading Paul as a Second Temple Jewish Author,’ was held at the Waldensian Faculty of Theology in Rome. Scholars of Second Temple Judaism and Pauline studies gathered together to discuss Paul afresh as a Jewish thinker. A select number of the proceedings from that meeting were subsequently edited by Gabriele Boccaccini and Carlos A. Segovia and published in Paul the Jew: Rereading the Apostle as a Figure of Second Temple Judaism (Fortress 2016). During the final session of the Third Nangeroni Meeting, participants discussed how the topic of Paul might be pursued in future venues sponsored by the Enoch Seminar. A number of participants voiced support for Isaac W. Oliver’s proposal of a conference that would center on the reception of Paul. More specifically, the conference would focus on the reception of Paul during the first two centuries that related to Paul’s Jewishness as well as his views on Judaism with the hope that such an examination might enrich our understanding of the complex, diverse nature of early Christian-Jewish relations. The plan materialized two years later, when the Seventh Nangeroni Meeting, ‘The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew,’ transpired from June 26, 2016, to June 30, 2016, in the same welcoming halls of the Waldensian School of Theology in Rome.”

The proceedings of this seminar are about to be published as The Early Reception of Paul the Second Temple Jew: Text, Narrative and Reception History. Isaac W. Oliver and Gabriele Boccaccini, editors. The Library of Second Temple Studies 92. Lester Grabbe, editor. London: Bloomsbury T.&T. Clark, 2018. My own contribution to this volume is titled “The Shadow and the Substance: Early Reception of Paul the Jew in the Letter to the Colossians” (75–87). The intent of the seminar (and the soon-to-be published volume), according to Boccaccini, is to present the definitive go-to research on the reception of Paul. It was an honor for me to be invited to participate.