Born to Bow in Reverence to Each Other

By Tommy Airey, a seven-minute sermon on Genesis 1:26-27

Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.—Genesis 1:26-27

My spirituality is saturated in the biblical claim that I bear the image of God, that we all bear the royal image of God. Hebrew scribes wrote and edited the book of Genesis after they were captured and exiled to Babylon, an empire that placed “images”—or  statues—of their king in public places to remind people who is supreme. Citizens were supposed to bow whenever they passed by. The Hebrew scribes subverted this human hierarchy of value by crafting their own creation story. The scribes stamped every human Being with the royal image of a God of love and compassion who designed a world without a human hierarchy of value. We are all royalty, born to bow in reverence to each other.

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John Brown Broke Rank

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from social media and his blog Easy Yolk

For centuries, white people from lower economic classes have been hired as police patrol by the white ruling class. White folks have been given guns and badges to exercise unlimited force on enslaved people, poor people of color and dark-skinned immigrant labor. This power is so intoxicating that white people consistently choose to police vulnerable people instead of finding solidarity with them in a common struggle against wealthy white exploiters. Sure, Kyle Rittenhouse shot white protestors. But his mother drove him to Kenosha to police people of color—and protect wealthier white people and their property. Policing people of color remains common practice in classrooms, curriculums, churches, stores and neighborhoods, where white people do not necessarily need guns and badges to demand “others” know their place.  

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Bound

By Tommy Airey

“The possessive investment in whiteness can’t be rectified by learning ‘how to be more antiracist.’ It requires a radical divestment in the project of whiteness and a redistribution of wealth and resources. It requires abolition, the abolition of the carceral world, the abolition of capitalism. What is required is a remaking of the social order, and nothing short of that is going to make a difference.”—Saidiya Hartmann

Fifty years before George Floyd moved to Minneapolis, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. got arrested in Birmingham. Dr. King, whose national holiday we now celebrate every January, was one of the greatest Americans who ever lived. However, like love itself, Dr. King has been sanitized. White folks and middle-class people have molded him into a meek and mild Black man devoted to a watered-down dream of politeness and patriotism. The real MLK took his cues from a bold biblical brand of love that beckoned him to break rank from a cozy and counterfeit middle-class life built on injustice and oppression.

During his short life, Dr. King was arrested 19 times—the same number of trips that Harriet Tubman made back to the South after she escaped to freedom. While King was in that Birmingham jail cell, he wrote a long letter to white pastors on the margins of a newspaper and smuggled it out to get it published. It is one of the greatest documents ever produced in American history. In it, Dr. King articulated a profound spiritual conviction that serves as the basis for a biblical conspiracy—a life built on belovedness and belongingness.

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Summer Reading Subverting Supremacy Stories

By Tommy Airey, exclusively for RadicalDiscipleship.Net

This summer, Lindsay and I maneuvered a ministry of migration. We pivoted between and beyond the Kirkridge Retreat Center in the Poconos of northeast Pennsylvania, a studio apartment two blocks from the Deschutes River in Central Oregon and a wide stretch of beach on the Pacific Ocean on Acjachemen land in Southern California. I spent some of this time working on a book that lays out a biblical spirituality for white folks and middle-class people breaking rank from the default narratives of dominant culture. Those of us navigating the wilderness that borders both fundamentalism and liberalism need a spiritual training program for the ultra-marathon race of recognizing and resisting the supremacy stories scripted by whiteness, hetero-patriarchy, the profit motive, the penal system and patriotism.

My friend Sarah Nahar says this kind of inner work is like shedding colonial codes of conduct. Rev. Lynice Pinkard compares it to learning another language: speaking treason fluently. I like breaking rank because it sounds so subversive—what spirituality should be. Break rank with supremacy stories and you’ll gain your soul—and lose your social respectability. Try calling out capitalism at your church potluck. It sounds like a conspiracy, which in Latin means “to breathe with.” To grow our souls, us middle-class folk need mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Because our hearts have stopped. But here’s the rub: we can only get CPR from those chronically oppressed by supremacy stories. So we start breathing with those who are Black and Brown, Indigenous and Immigrant, women and working poor.  

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The Logic of the Cross

By Tommy Airey, re-posted from Easy Yolk

On the cross, Jesus cried out in Aramaic, his native tongue, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabbachthani. Many who overheard it thought he was calling out for the prophet Elijah. He was actually quoting Psalm 22 from the Hebrew Bible: My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? I learned in seminary that in the Jewish tradition, when folks quote the first verse of a Psalm, they are not sound-biting, but referencing the entire chapter. The next line of Psalm 22 goes like this: Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Jesus’ higher Power was a Sabbath God who shows up in the text hearing and responding to the groans of those oppressed and impoverished by the policies of Solomon.

In Genesis, it was the blood of murdered Abel. In Exodus, it was the Israelites groaning under slavery to Pharoah. In the Psalms and Prophets, the sighs and cries consistently come before the One who hears. In James, it was the unpaid wages of the day laborers crying out. In Romans, all of creation is groaning with labor pains, longing to be released from bondage, and the text says that, in our weakness, we do not know what to say in our prayers—but the Breath of God intercedes for us with groans that go beyond our glossary.

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An Alternative Version

By Tommy Airey

A year ago, police responded to a call from a convenience store employee who accused George Floyd of paying for cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 bill. Before every single one of us witnessed this Black man forty days younger than me face down on the street pavement calling for his mother while a white man in uniform with his left hand in his pocket took his life by kneeling on his neck, the Minneapolis Police Department issued a press release describing what happened:

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car. He was ordered to step from his car. After he got out, he physically resisted officers. Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress. Officers called for an ambulance. He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later. At no time were weapons of any type used by anyone involved in this incident.

This ordering of facts was the official account.  

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Flags, Guns and Briefcases

By Tommy Airey

For the duration of the Derek Chauvin trial, Lindsay and I posted up just north of Panhe, an Acjachemen burial and ceremonial site in modern-day Southern California at the coastal border of Orange and San Diego counties. The Acjachemen people are not recognized by the federal government—despite archaeological proof that they lived sustainably on that land for more than 9,000 years before European Christians, with their flags and guns, invaded it and stole it and forcibly converted them to the cult of Jesus, the white conquistador.

To add insult to injury, the white Christians raped their women and infected them with their diseases. Panhe was the epicenter of a genocidal cocktail of disease centuries before the novel coronavirus came for a country trying to make itself great again in every colonial way possible. The people of Panhe were victims of a COVID-19 on steroids. As more than 90% of the Indigenous population of Turtle Island were killed off, white Christians spurned social distancing for profit-making.

Panhe is the crucified wound of a people still surviving, but totally unrecognized. In fact, its sacred quality is soaked in the surreal statistic that .0001% of those who call California home drive by Panhe thousands of times and never even know it exists. Some of the ancient Oak and Sycamore trees of Panhe remember a time when white people were not around. They are still standing despite the encroachment of a military base, nuclear power plant, state campground and Trestles, one of the most legendary surf beaches in the world.

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March Madness and the Other America

By Tommy Airey

March Madness is back. The men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments caught the coronavirus last season right when my Kansas Jayhawks were ranked number one. That was before police murdered George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, before the NBA bubble almost burst after police shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. This year, I couldn’t bring myself to fill out a bracket, but I have watched a lot of basketball. This year, more than ever, I have embraced the tension between sports and social analysis—a glorious tension released by a sabbath-jubilee Spirit soaked in a trifecta of Hebrew words: hesed (steadfast love), mispat (justice) and sedekah (faithfulness to the most vulnerable). My wife-partner Lindsay, a licensed marriage and family therapist, says that my devotion to the game is not about escaping the real world, but integrating it.  

This year, my mind is penetrating past Magic Johnson and pivoting towards Lyndon Baines Johnson, the last Democratic Presidential candidate to get a majority of the white vote. In 1967, in the wake of anti-racist uprisings in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles and Newark, LBJ commissioned a congressional investigation. He wanted to know what happened, why it happened and what could be done to prevent it from happening again. The so-called Kerner Commission released its findings seven months later, on the last day of February 1968. The scary thing is that the results of the investigation are still ruthlessly relevant today: Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.

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Common Sense

By Tommy Airey

*Trigger warning: this post includes content, straight out of Rush Limbaugh’s mouth, that some readers may find offensive and/or traumatizing.  

“I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, says the Lord,
but rather in his conversion, that he may live.”—Ezekiel 33:11

Rush Limbaugh died last week. When I heard the news, it took me back thirty years. During the Fall of my senior year in high school, I went on a weekend road trip from Orange County to Berkeley to surprise one of my best friends at college. I drove up with his dad. We parked a block from the hippies and unhoused on Telegraph Avenue. When my friend came down from his dorm room, I was hiding in the trunk of the car. His dad handed him the keys to open the trunk. I scared the living tar out of him.

I will never forget the look on his face.

I will also never forget stopping at In-n-Out Burger three times during our drive up.

And I will never forget listening to Rush Limbaugh for three straight hours through the most boring stretch of the 5, plowing past towns like Buttonwillow, Lost Hills and Los Banos. Spanish for “the bathrooms.” Plural and Providential. What we needed for all that bullshit blaring through the speakers.

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A Cadence

By Tommy Airey

It is significant that the federal holiday that honors Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is celebrated in January. On his birthday. Not in April when he was murdered. It is also significant that this year, Easter Sunday is penciled in for April 4, the anniversary of King’s assassination. Spirit is seconding the motions, putting our resurrection theology to the test. So that we might bear witness to Dr. King’s ongoing life and breath in America. King, like Jesus, was killed by empire—and, like Jesus, King is still with us. Not as a symbol or token, but in spirit and truth. Like Jesus, he lives forever to intercede for us.

Last month, I was texting with Rev. Dr. Timothy Adkins-Jones about resurrection. He got me contemplating how the death of Jesus does an awful lot of theological digging for me, especially in the wake of so much senseless dying. However, resurrection has the power to break the seal of empire with subversive energy. The empty tomb opens up a kind of wonder. I’m not referring to a resurrection that just moves on by holding our loved ones in our hearts because they are in heaven. I am awakening to a brand of resurrection where the dead transition to a new realm in our midst, where we can renew our relationship, where we listen for an ancestral cadence calling us beyond the grave to re-connect with them in a redemptive dance on earth as it is in heaven.

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