Engage - Claremont Lincoln University

Unraveling Privilege (with Gregory Stevens) [Podcast]

In this episode, Pastor Gregory Stevens explores issue of privilege, systematic oppressions, capitalism and the global economy, how to listen in solidarity, and the really radical teachings of Jesus.

Episode Transcription

Stephanie:               You’re listening to In Time Like These, a production of CLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. In Time Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion in dialogue and doubt.

Stephanie:               He’s the pastor of a First Baptist church in Palo Alto, California. He runs a reading radical group exploring concepts of anarchy and social change. His twitter header pic reads, “Queers against capitalism.” And in this episode of In Times Like These Gregory Stevens insights about the teachings and divinity of Jesus Christ made this former Southern Baptist choir girl nearly weep with inspiration.

Stephanie:       How are you?

Gregory:           Doing good. I have been working at this church for almost two years now, and I must admit, the first year got a little boring. And so, I started the PHD program, and it has been a phenomenal balance between learning about social change and social movements, and then trying to bring that into like church world.

Stephanie:       Yes.

Gregory:           But we’ve got some new things coming at church, so I’m excited. We’re going to try to do a church plant or something.

Stephanie:       Wow!

Gregory:           So it would be weird to see like a cool radical church plant.

Stephanie:       It would, it would. Okay, so lets … I’m just going to jump right in. I’m going to have you … I’m going to try, I’m a very noisy listener. I emote and I touch and I squeal, and I’m going to try and not to do that to make it easier for my colleagues who will be editing this, so if I get quite, I’m working on it. Let’s take you in. If you could introduce yourself and your professional context, and describe what you’ve been doing as a pastor, as an activist. Talk about that for those of us who don’t know you or see you publicly.

Gregory:           So yeah, I’ve been working at this Baptist church, which is always fun to say. I grew up a Southern Baptist, and then when I went to school, I started to kind of unravel a lot of my theology, which brought me eventually to Claremont. And so, that interfaced sort of angle on everything was just blowingly incredible and awesome. And then, I met some great connections, and so there was this American Baptist church that was hiring, and a friend was like, “Oh my god, I have this young guy coming straight out of seminary. He would be perfect.” And so, I dug back into my Baptist roots, which I love, and started working at this progressive Baptist church from Palo Alto.

Gregory:           Now, the thing that you get out of seminaries, you don’t pick the church necessarily that it’s got the greatest everything going for it. You kind of go with what you can get as the new guys, and so there are problems with the church, and there’s certain things that relationally have to be wrestled through and this type of this. But being so young, I must admit, I’m obsessed with learning, and so I wanted to even learn more about social justice and what it means to be a Christian in the world because what I learned at Claremont was that all of these religions and all of their different ways are, now not to minimize them or put them all the same, but are trying to get you into action and participate in the world and create change.And so, for me, it was like I didn’t feel like the change I was creating at the church was necessarily doing the work that needed to be done. And the theological answers I was getting for social change also weren’t that rich. They kind of seemed to stop at a certain space or they were very hyperbolic talking about loving the poor and saving the earth.

Gregory:           And so, this degree that I’m now starting at CIIS in the city, California Institute of Integral Studies, is not a religious degree, so I wanted to kind of break away from that, but it is anthropology. And so, it’s studying culture, which theology I always found plays with all different parts of culture and life and this type of this, so the anthropology degree is kind of fun in that way. It’s like the secular theology.

Gregory:           But no yeah, so now I’ve been studying social movement, and now I have just beginning seeing incredible connections between my own faith tradition and the radical faith tradition of Christianity with as a social movement. And so, I’m learning all the social movement language that people use today to talk about ecological movement or some sort of radical politics. I’m like, “Whoa, wait. My tradition has been doing this for 2,000 years and saying almost the same stuff that you think is new and revolutionary. And yeah, it needs a little tweaking and maybe a little interpreting, but that’s what a theology degree got me, so let me do the tweaking and interpreting.” And so now, I’m kind of carving out a little space there in the academy once again with social justice and it kind of like radical politics, which is usually not connected to the church unless it’s like liberation theology. And trying to blend those worlds, but I’m also doing it just like Claremont taught me to like get into the world. If you’re in your degree, you need to be practicing.

Gregory:           Well, I met with [Medgiva 00:05:04] about a year ago, and she was like, “I never thought you would want to see me because in class you were always so disgruntled and angry.” And I was like, “Oh no, that’s my love language. I got to learn by throwing it all out there.” And I said, “But Medgiva, I must admit.” Every class i came in asking, “I need a theory. I need Christian theology. I need a way of understanding this.” And she was like, “Greg, hang out in the classroom and see what happens.” And after a semester of that or three years of school, it was like, “Whoa! I don’t need a theology. I need to be friends with these people. I need to stop telling Jewish people what they think and how they act and just be friends.”, and how that just totally disingrated a lot of the barriers and exclusive theologies that I had and kind of formed something totally new [inaudible 00:05:45]. And so, that’s what I’m trying to do now as well is say if I’m in the academy reading and learning and writing, I also want to be applying that in the church or in the community somehow.

Stephanie:       Okay. Great.

Gregory:           Woo!

Stephanie:       Yes. So, give me some help with some definitions. What do you mean be exclusive theology?

Gregory:           So, I grew up a Southern Baptist, and all of the theology that we could know, or all of the theology you could know, like A plus B equals C and one plus one equals two, and everything was clear cut and defined. And so, if things are really clear cut and defined, you can build walls pretty quickly because the moment someone doesn’t agree with that clear cut defined definition, they’re wrong, and they’re demonized, and they’re … You know, The Divine is on your side, so they’re not only wrong, but they’re wrong to God and to The Ultimate and this type of thing. But as my theology began to progress, I started finding little exclusive walls, and I thought I was this raging liberal who was coming to Claremont, and I was just going to woo everyone. It turns out I had a little Florida Southern flap trap boy in me that needed some working to do.

Gregory:           But I kept finding all of these walls, and even in my what I thought was progressive theology, I kept finding things that I was being exclusive on, so one of them being like well, God just loves all religions and it’s just one big elephant, and we’re all just kind of roping at a different way. Or, I don’t know, I just- I wanted one of these kind of frameworks to understand it, and the more I tried to frame it, I kept building walls, so that frame is a word for wall as the more I tried to kind conceal it and bring it together, I kept framing it in that way. And the more I was in relationship with people, and the more I like lived into the reality of theology has to be processed and lived out and engaging with human life and non-animal life, non-human animal life, that yeah, those walls begin to break down.

Stephanie:       Okay, thank you. So, give us a working definition of social justice, and you said that you, “Oh, we’ve been doing- my community has been doing this for 2,000 years.” Help us see that thread, and help us, give me some examples of things that you’re doing right now as you’re trying to actualize that and lead that in your community.

Gregory:           Okay, so here’s where I make a difference now in my thinking between liberal and radical, and my kind of liberal and conservative streaming or like, “Oh, there’s a left and a right. Republican, democrat.” It was all kind of centered around the current economic system which we have, which capitalism or free market or uni liberalism, whatever it is, and that if you just look at kind of like American problems or social justice, you see homeless people and you see that there are some ghettoized neighborhoods and some people don’t have access to health care, but you don’t necessarily see the global picture. And when I begin to look at the global picture of what our economy does and the way in which it works, we started to push a lot of the problems; pollution, ecological problems, financial issues, slavery issues, literally just paying people too little of money that they can’t survive. Just pushing that to other countries so that we good Americans don’t see it, so what social justice is for me and the church was homeless feed, soup kitchens, and just kind of like bandaid problems to maybe help people.

Gregory:           But social justice to me, that means something different, and because I see this economic system just not working and fundamentally flawed that wealth is going to be centralized at the top and never kind of spill down to the bottom, that I bean to, through this anthropology degree, “Okay well, let’s listen to the people in the bottom.” Why are we only listening to the social change from the top? Or from, you know, Bernie Sanders or from political imaginarys or from TV, but why didn’t we listen to the black mother who chained herself to the bridge and said, “My son was shot. He was unarmed, and the mother to my left, her daughter was shot. And like [inaudible 00:09:58] to my right, her son was shot, and we are lock chaining ourselves to this bridge for a much larger vision than just look at us, imprison the police officer or something.”

Gregory:           And when I started going to those actions and those protests, I also began to realize that the way much of the media and the larger dominant there kind of framed those where, “Oh, those are just crazy people, and those wild experience, and blah blah blah.” But when I was going, it was church. I was meeting with people, praying with people, engaging people, being with people that were totally different than me; different classes, different colors, this type of thing. And so now, social justice to me means a larger critique of kind of the global economy and our global situation. Thinking through like world systems and what not, and so our problems can’t just, or I mean our solutions can’t just be bandaid solutions, but really need to call out this larger thing.

Gregory:           And so, to me, then that’s where the perfetic tradition comes in is Jesus was doing that day one. He didn’t just go to homeless people and say, “Here’s some of loafs of bread.” He said, “Caesar’s doing it wrong, and the religious tradition’s doing it wrong, and we need to somehow do it better.” And he offers a set vision, but his critique was not, again, of subtle things. It was a systemic critique, and so social justice must be systemic in my mind.

Gregory:           Okay, so then the other thing is that Jesus being a brown poor homeless dude who grew up, or I mean, itinerate person who broke the working day laborer, probably 14 hours of work a day plus some up to some down that, “Oh my gosh, this is the half the world today. That half the world today is a brown day laboring that their back of their neck is roasted by the sun because they’re bent over picking tomatoes or whatnot.” And so, Jesus again was locating divinity amongst poverty or impoverished people, not just poor people, but people who are intentionally impoverished. Then I want to go find those people today and listen. And not listen in a barrading way, not listen in a how can I help you because I’m better, but wait, you’ve experienced the struggle. I mean,

Gregory:           I’m gay and my family doesn’t necessarily love it, and that’s my struggle and that’s my story and I can make a whole room of church folk cry about it, but when a black mother tells me that her son was shot and killed, or a peasant village in Chiapas, Mexico tells me their entire land was robbed from them, and they are the ones who drew into action. The mothers locked themselves to the bridge, not a bunch of white people. The Chiapas peasants rose up and created their own autonomous community, and those are the peasants who are robbed of no education and resources.

Gregory:           And so, I keep my inspiration exactly where Jesus said I would. Where people who are marginalized, kicked out, abused, pushed to the side, and Jesus located divinity amongst them, locates sacredness amongst them. And now, I’m being able to locate my entire framework of like social theory and social change through these like bottom of grassroots like it was opposed to kind of like that top down omnipotent god, all controlling god, it’s this out of persuasive power that kind of lures justice into being as opposed to kind of makes it happen and you know.

Gregory:           So, there’s a lot of theological connections that can be made with our vision of who god is, and how god works in the world, and Claremont did that for me as processed theology is all this is that if everything’s a process, then our theories of social change don’t necessarily need to be me, the smart academic white guy sitting in a room reading tons of books, writing a long essay about how to change the world. It’s in process, it’s going to that occupying encampment, practicing consensus decision, and holy cow, I’ve never done that before, but now all of a sudden I’m doing it and this is the world where I want to live in where people aren’t telling me how to answer, but we’re all collectively doing it, but it’s hard and it might take two hours and we got to practice it in process. And when we do that, these things being to come alive, they flourish, and this type of thing.

Gregory:           Woo!

Stephanie:       I wish I had my handkerchief. I would be waving it. This is incredible. You are such … You have these huge concepts, and you are able to explain them in a way that is so ineligible and so like doable. I feel a lot … I’m experiencing and people around me are experiencing a lot of hopelessness right now because despair is seductive, but what you’re saying is such a huge flash of light on that seduction of despair, so thank you for that.

Gregory:           Well that, that comes from … Okay, so right after the election of Donald Trump, I … I mean, I live in San Francisco, or I live in Palo Alto, but I was in San Francisco, and the whole city, you could feel this like, maybe I was projecting, but a lot of the city you could feel this remorse or pain or sadness and there was candle vigils and this type of thing. And then, I turned on a radio program from Uhuru, which is like this black radicals in Saint Petersburg, and this lady was saying all of these white liberals are saying that how scared they are that Donald Trump is now president. And what she was saying is this isn’t something new. This didn’t just happen.

Gregory:           This is my experience from the time my family was robbed off Africa and the natives were wiped out in genocide. That this is the narrative I only know is struggle, is fighting back, is liberation, so don’t come to my march, don’t do I think and say, “Look at me, I’m doing this social justice thing.”, but say, “Whoa, for 250 years your entire people group has suffered slavery, genocide, and cultural destruction, and you’re still fitting? You’re still persisting? You’re still resisting? Whoa, I’m going to find my hope in you, not in four more years. I’m going to find my hope in people who’ve been literally under the neck or under the boot of oppression for 250 years and still find dignity. Still find the next breath, the next day, and move on and this sort of thing.” I don’t know, finding hope in those spaces sounds interesting.

Stephanie:       Wow. Wow, yeah. How privileged of me to say the day after inauguration, “Oh, this is over.” How privileged of me to just then notice that things had changed. Okay. Tell me about some of the projects you’ve been doing with the radical reading group, and the ways that you’re trying to help others in your community learn and engage.

Gregory:           Uh-huh (affirmative). Well, I must say, this all new for me thinking more systemically about how we participate in social justice. One of the ways that I’ve been trying to, I don’t know, wrestle with this and figure it out is in community with other people, and so, I started this radicel reading group and it’s a lot of what we were reading in class that I realized, “My goodness, why wouldn’t I know any of this was here.”, because it’s all there. These marginalized communities have a wealth of knowledge and literature, and be able to read that is just incredible, and sort of bring it to Palo Alto, which is one of the wealthiest neighborhoods in California, in the United States. It was very exciting ’cause it’s a critique of the very economic system that this place benefits from.

Gregory:           But it’s a group of just random from meetup. I use meetup.com, threw it out there, and had no idea what would happen, and, again, I picked the readings at first. So, one of the things that happen when you’re trying to be a radical is you want everything to be horizontal and everyone’s voice matters, but eventually I decided to put the pen on the paper and do something. And so, I did it. I started the meetup. I picked the readings. I showed up to the group, and they were all like, “Oh, we’re so happy that you put the initiative in yourself, and now, we’re willing to participate in a more horizontal leadership thing.”

Gregory:           But we needed to like kind of get it going. And so, then we’d meet every two weeks, and we kind of discussed what we wanted to talk about. We talked about things like armed revolution rather pacifism, which is, to me, like when you think about the Black Panther party, they arm themselves, and what most people think of that is they arm themselves because they’re violent and vicious and mean, but if your, again, for 250 years, if your people’s story is colonization and oppression, to arm yourself suddenly says, “No, I have the same dignity that you officer has with his gun and coming at me.” And there’s these famous stories of Hughie Newton knowing the law legally really well, and an officer was like, “You can’t have that weapon.” And he would be like, “At code 42, dat da da says I can.” And it was just like that I might be an oppressed person, but that doesn’t mean I’m not smart, that doesn’t mean can’t know your laws, that doesn’t mean I can’t follow them.

Gregory:           Let me start again. I forgot where I was going with that. Oh, the radical reading group. And so, the idea there for me and my Christianity is Jesus was a pacifist. He died, he died at the hands of the state because he didn’t resist violently. When he’s getting in the garden, Peter whips out a sword, cuts off a guard’s ear, and Jesus was like, “Whoa, whoa, wait. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.” Putting his ear back on, they take him, they beat him to a pulp, then they lock him in a cage, then they nail him to a cross, and he’s the whole time, “Love your enemies.” So, it’s this like very dogmatic nonviolence. And so, then my privileged white perspective loves it. It works for me. I don’t ever face police violence. I’ve never gotten in a fight really, and if I do, I probably felt bad about it because I was in the wrong.

Gregory:           And so, but when I started to look at these communities who they live in perpetual violence; state violence, police violence, whatever it is, but their framing is going to be different. It’s not just going to be this like liberal pacifist framing. And I don’t know if they’re right or wrong, but I’m just saying that the context in which it comes out of is, “Whoa, okay.” I shouldn’t be so quick to just tell the Black Panthers that you’re a bunch of violent revolutionaries who should be pacifist. I now realize that oh my gosh, I should listen to where that’s coming from. Why? How does that work, and what were my barriers or kind of projections onto them that said, “Oh, you’re work’s just invaluable because you have guns and you aren’t pacifist like Jesus said.”

Gregory:           And so, we bring up things like this in the reading group to wrestle with that ’cause say we aren’t reading Armed Revolution because I’m asking everyone in the group to go buy a gun, I mean, I’m still the pacifist, but we’re reading it to stretch ourselves and to go, “Whoa, we’ve usually just kind of pushed those ideas to the side, but now we’re beginning to find new ideas and new nuggets of truth in them that I find to be more true than the answers I’m getting from like the state or from government in social change perspective, something like that.”

Gregory:           And so, the reading group is again, trying to cultivate consciousness. It’s not people going out and doing the work, it’s literally people cultivating consciousness. I’ve read about that in my History of Social Movements since, you know, in Paris in cafes they’re having these reading groups and this type of thing. It’s not doing the work, it’s reading the work. But that’s fine. I think there’s space for that, 100%. That’s what’s radically changed me as an academic is the more I’m reading and learning, the more I’m changing. It’s funny though because all of the reading is very practical, and so the more we read it, the more everyone around the table is like, “Okay, we got to do something. We got to start a collective. We got to start food, not bombs. We’ve got to do something.” And what do we do? Do we start a political organization? Do we call our senators, or do we go occupy a park. How do we [inaudible 00:21:12]?

Gregory:           And so, we actually are kind of rest like through this is it does seem to make sense to call your senators. It does seem to make sense to occupy their rooms, but it doesn’t seem to make sense to say that’s the end of it because the economic system that our senators work in ain’t working for half the world or the environment. And so, if we can call our senators and go, “Okay, that’s good work. That’s obvious work. That’s easy work.”, but in reality, we need to be stretching our political imaginations to really address the systemic issues. So, call your senators, write those post cards, but come to the radical reading group so that you can realize that people have been writing postcards to their senators since day one, and it kind of works, sometimes works. It works for people with privilege and power, but lots of times it hasn’t worked for people on the bottom, and if that’s the case, then I think that our social, our furious social change, it shifts. It just doesn’t end at women’s marches or black lives matter marches or it keeps going and it keeps being cultivated and it keeps changing to be this more systemic, more inclusive of the global world, and more mindful to the fact that most ecologists I know think that a growth based economy on a finite planet just is not going to work.

Gregory:           And so, I think we have to critique that economic system while also doing those kind of traditional political moves, and so we’re trying to figure that out together, here, now. And so, some of the things that I’ve been doing are marches and speaking at marches. Okay, so I spoke at the Palo Alto Tax March.

Gregory:           And now, let me give you a side comment. This is so embarrassing to say, but I got an email from the organizer, an old white liberal guy, who said. “We want you to come speak. I can’t find a person of color, so i figured you could do it, right?” And being the privileged white, “Oh yeah, I’ll do it!” Right after I sent that email I was like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I did this. I can’t believe I did this. I shouldn’t … Ah!” Ah, it’s eating it’s eating away at me this day, but it’s also just so reflective of this area, and so reflective of how easy it is to kind of go with the flow rather than say no, that’s wrong and obnoxious and a silly absurd question. How can we claim to be activist radicals or inclusive of anything if you can’t a person of color. Now mind you, the person who asked me has lived in this area 30 plus years. Alright, but that’s just absurd. A person of color shouldn’t be speaking, they should be helping plan it. Actually, they should be planning it, and we should be showing up and putting the tables up, paying for it, and giving them the microphone, this type of thing, but that’s not what happened. I failed that email, so maybe next time I’ll get it.

Gregory:           But one of the things that people kept saying in a note, “This is just a tax march, right? You’re a radical. You’re a systemic change. What’s taxes all about? That’s such a simple little thing.” And to me, it was like, “Well yeah, but of course he should show his taxes, so that’s an obvious thing.” And the other thing that was that now I’m going to go speak at this rally, and I’m going to tell a story from some marginalized community. So, rather than tell of a story of Diane Finestein or something like this, I want to get a story from the jungles of Mexico and say, “Look, these people resist [inaudible 00:24:11] are cultivating their own autonomous community, [inaudible 00:24:16] learn what it means to be a political figures, political subjects. Let’s listen to these badass people.”

Gregory:           So, that’s what I did. I just told a story that they tell, and before I did this, I told a story with the water protectors health, so that’s another idea is trying to … If I am the white guy and I am given the position and I didn’t send an email that I should’ve sent that says we should do this differently, I’m going to at least try to uplift the stories of people that I’m finding my hope within, so the moderate protectors in North Dakota or the Rap Rebels in Chiapas, Mexico or the [inaudible 00:24:47] revolution right now in Seria. Yeah, I don’t have a bow to tie that in, I don’t know where I was going with that.

Stephanie:       Yeah, that’s really hard, and I struggle with this having been a school teacher and teaching in the city of Saint Louis and the Bronx. And I don’t have an answer. I feel like it’s inappropriate in a way for me to be the teacher, teaching children of color, and I also know that there should be teachers, really well educated teachers. And so, when I think about, because I often think about educational policy, like what do schools need and how do we get more qualified and great teachers in classrooms, and how do we get teachers who look like the students in classrooms. And I guess I’m thinking about the word ally. I’m thinking about power and access to education, but in terms of policy, like ally isn’t the right word.

Stephanie:       So, how do we make space, but even that phrase make space, I don’t want to set the table because I shouldn’t be setting the table. I should be speaking last, like what you said about setting up and paying for it, and I think a lot of people who are like me are comfortable being in charge, be facilitating, setting the table. We think we know what’s best, and I think that’s a huge sin because it has to do with self-righteousness and it has to do with a lack of humility. And I wonder if you could say more to help me think about when it’s appropriate to use our expertise and talents and gifts and energies, and how we do better about not being self-righteous and perpetuating abusiveness.

Gregory:           Uh-huh (affirmative). Uh-huh (affirmative). I have really … I’m really bad at this, or like this is something that I have been learning and slowly getting better at, which is nice about life, but … So, when I came to thinking about more liberal ideas, I was a hardcore conservative, and so the moment I … I changed my major in undergrad from architecture to religion and women’s studies, and the women’s studies thing was like I went from hardcore conservative, took one class, and was just like in love, but being in love, I had it all figured out, and I got to tell a bunch of women how they weren’t feminists and how I was, and I would go there. That was a bad idea. And this is the same thing I did over and over with, “Okay, well now I like gay people, and I can include you in my theology.” So now, I would go and be the Christian man who might even write a book about gay people without even knowing I was gay yet, so that might be a bad example because I did eventually come out.

Gregory:           But I know that happens a lot in the Eve Angelical Church right now is that there’s a big wave of queer acceptance, and there’s a big wave of white straight cis male pastors writing books about how they accepted gay people. To give a kind of tangential story, the history book says that Abe Lincoln reed the slaves, and when I first picked up a book that said slave rebellions, and it was a whole list of just like hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of actions where slaves were saying, “We don’t want to be slaves. This is obnoxious. This is absurd. We’re going to go leave.” And they would rebel, take over the land, or just escape, or get on these underground railroads, but it wasn’t this rich white man who signed a document that got a bunch of people of color free, but it was people of color resisting and fighting and escaping and causing so much economic turmoil that they had to do something.

Gregory:           And so, that’s to say that the story I’m telling myself is I was the elitist academic or the smart guy or the liberal or whatever, and therefor everyone had to be like that, and everyone needed to kind of arrive at that space, and it was this dominating kind of narrative. And what I’ve been trying to do and what I’ve been kind of saying here is to listen to those voices, not tell them what they’re thinking, and to search for them. When I was saying I was listening to the Uhuru radio, that took me. I was looking black, autonomous, radical radio trying to find … When I was listening to the sermon about trans lives, I sat in front of my computer and just cried for a day listening to trans stories over and over, but that’s the beauty of the internet is now I can learn from Latin women and trans women and people of color and people in Mexico all by kind of exposing myself to them on the internet.

Gregory:           Now, that’s not a bodily connection, but it’s a first step of trying to say, “Okay, how can we break out of these I’ve got it figured out modes, and go to those other places.” And every single time I go to one of those other places, it shifts my thinking. It shifts it so much so that I- it just rocks my world. I mean, I went to Claremont thinking I need a Christian theology, and I left going, “I just need to get to know people of different faiths, and my theology will come from that.” And it won’t be angry, disgruntled, and it probably won’t be a systematic long text. It’s actually really easier in my mind when I was in relationship with people.

Gregory:           We have a, at our church, our church is predominately older people, and I find it very important to have like a gender neutral bathroom. And so, I turned our men’s bathroom into a gender neutral bathroom, and we don’t have trans people that attend on a Sunday morning that I’m aware of, but we do have throughout the week multiple people who are gender fluid and very much so. And so, it’s a nice thing for them, and being like this queer radical, it’s also nice for me even though I dress like a dorky white guy.

Gregory:           But anyways, so the idea there that people started to complain about it, “Why do we have this Gregory?” And I had to kind of explain, “Well, as Christians, we don’t just stand up for the right thing, we put our neck out on the line.”, and if a bathrooms are a neck on the line, I don’t know. This is probably hyperbolic. But we put our neck on the line in attempts to say we don’t normally like that marginal community, they’re it. That’s where Jesus located divinity, so I’m going to listen to what they have to say, not tell them what they have to say with my feminism, with the slave narrative, these sorts of things. Not tell other people what to think, but really stress try to soak in that knowledge and that wisdom, and do it from spaces where the people have really been in the struggle and really been- and come through that struggle.

Stephanie:       And … Ah. Ah. Being human, it’s so good. It’s so hard, it’s so hard.

Gregory:           Uh-huh (affirmative).

Stephanie:       This is great. I that you’ve given me so, so, so much. I can’t wait to finish this out and to share it. I just- I wonder if you could help me think about, for one last question, staying in relationship and staying engaged with really difficult conversation, so people online, in person, in our families who just I really think they’re wrong. I really think I’m the right one, and how do we do that work of not de-friending, of not blocking, of not refusing, or not getting [inaudible 00:32:41]. Like how do we stay in relationship? Do you have any insight or tips or pastoring pieces, like how do we stay in relationship?

Gregory:           Right, right. I don’t think that this is necessarily the answer, but it’s worked really well for me, and in my mind, when I was growing up, people framed left and right, and I always imagined like a linear line. And that line could extend as long as my life or, I don’t know, however we want to imagine this, but that wherever I am on that left to right spectrum, or conservative to radical perspective even, I’ve got like a couple people to my left, and a couple people to my right in this linear metaphor. And so, those couple of people are the people that I want to affect, influence and affect, and let them affect me, and so that means that right now I’m reading radical literature. Who’s consecrative? It’s my liberal friends who say, “Gregory, I’m not going to go the black lives matter march, but I support it. And Gregory, of course I support social justice, but I’ve never been to a meeting led by a person of color.” Okay, well I want to influence that person.

Gregory:           Now, my mother doesn’t like gay people, doesn’t believe in climate change, is a Fox News every single day-er. When I talk to her, it’s not always that easy, but it’s also she’s not in my mission scope right now. My scope is these couple people to my left, couple people to my right, and so when I’m at school and there’s people who haven’t shaved their legs and arms and that are have gauges all over their face and have painted their hair, I want to go, “Whoa. Okay, so you’ve been able to express yourself in a way that I’m still scared to do. I want to be around you so that you can loosen me up a little. I still think patchouli is what hippies wear, so I want to be around you, a patchouli wearing hippies so that you stretch my imagination. Help my recognize that’s not actually what’s going on.”

Gregory:           And then, the person to my right, that’s the bubble I’m trying to escape. I’m not trying to engage foxes. I’m not trying to gauge [inaudible 00:34:35]. I’m trying to engage some people at my church who don’t know that we should have a trans restroom, and if I can engage them, and I can kind of learn that there’s still conservative thinking in me, and so I can see it in other people when they’re wrestling with this trans bathroom thing or whatnot. But again, yeah, so to me it’s trying to keep it in there. Now that I’ve, so then to take this full circle, after seminary, I first year of seminary; angry, disgruntled, desperate for theory. Third year of seminary; happy, more content, but definitely more mindful of how to gain knowledge and how to learn about religion and religious experiences.

Gregory:           So now, if someone comes up to me and says, “Gregory, the bible says gay people are going to hell and blah blah blah.” I can sit back, relax, and go, “Well, let me tell you about this angle, what the scripture says, what the history says, what the context …” I have no fear. Now, when I first, two semesters ago when I first started my radical studying, it was like, “Anarchism, socialism, we have to talk about this all the time. Everyone must to think about it.” And if I were to go talk to my mother, my god, she’d really think I’d lost it.

Gregory:           But again, after two semesters, I suddenly have a little more confidence in the way I’m thinking about it, and so at the radical reading, if someone’s like, “Well, that’s just never possible. That’s too utopian.” I can go, “Well, here’s seven examples of how it’s possible. Here’s the long history of how it’s happened.” And I’m more mindful of it, and so when I have to engage that hyper-conservative person, I’m like, “Ah, okay. Well, I’m a little more content on those certain things. I’ve engaged them, I’ve read them, I’ve participated in those communities.” So now, my responses can be more wholistic, more caring, more loving.

Gregory:           So again, like when it comes to white Trump supporters taking a lot of blame for electing him, as a radical I can go, “Wait, these are working class people. They haven’t been given a good education. They probably sit in front of the television, so that’s not their fault. That’s kind of like corporate media at fault, so what is corporate media telling them?” And so, now I begin to realize that these people are victims in many ways, and at the same time, victimizing in people, but they are victims in some ways.

Gregory:           So, when my dad calls me and just is so hateful of Barrack Obama or some liberal politician, I can go, “Well dad, I know that you’ve hard your whole life, and I know that you still don’t have a lot of money. And I know that you’re really struggling with the fact that your son lives on the left coast and is gay.” But now, I can relate to him and his struggle as opposed to just the intellectual side of things. Like you’re mad dad because you’re poor, and you’re not going to be able to get out of this class and you don’t have any sort of framing of that. But rather than kind of tell that to him, I can go, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. Actually in your angry, what I’m hearing is you’re poor and you can’t ever get out of this class, and you were told in the ’50s and then in the baby boomer that that exactly what should’ve happened a while ago.”

Gregory:           But yeah, so it’s now that I’ve kind of, I guess, more comfortable in that space, I can now engage the fox answer with more confidence because now I know who owns Fox News and what’s going on there, a little more meaty to my conversation as opposed to just passion or anger or something like that.

Stephanie:              Thanks for listening to In Times Like These, where we explore issues of politics and faith, and learn from one another how to navigate difference from maximum flourishing. In Times Like These is a product of SLU Live at Claremont Lincoln University. For more, subscribe, share, and visit us at claremontlincoln.edu.

Ways to listen to this episode:

In this episode, we discuss:

  • What it means to have privilege
  • Why Christianity can’t come from the top down
  • How those in power can step aside and become allies
  • How all justice issues—the environment, workers’ rights, gender, poverty, race, and religion—are intertwined

Top 3 takeaways from this week’s episode:

1. “A lot of people who are like me are comfortable being in charge. We think we know what’s best and I think that’s a huge sin.”

People in power like to keep their power. Even if we think we’re being welcoming and kind, as long as we are in charge of events and the forms of dialogue and protest, we are continuing patterns of oppression. How do we balance using our expertise with working in solidarity?

'A lot of people who are like me are comfortable being in charge. We think we know what’s best and I think that’s a huge sin.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

2. “When everything is clear cut and defined, you pretty quickly build walls.”

Scholars, religious and ethical leaders, and heads of organizations work to create rules, expectations, and clear patterns of behavior and practice. This can make living together easier, but as soon as we say, “This is the right way to do this,” we start building pockets of exclusion and closing our minds to other ways of being.

'When everything is clear cut and defined, you pretty quickly build walls.' Listen now: Click To Tweet

3. “Why are we only listening to social change from the top?”

Sometimes calling your senator is one great tool. But the economic systems in which our leaders participate doesn’t work for most of the world. So why do we keep going to those with power (professors, religious leaders, political leaders, celebrities) to seek change? Instead, we should be building relationships and listening to those at “the bottom”—those who are living and working in marginalized spaces.

'Why are we only listening to social change from the top?' Listen now: Click To Tweet

Mentioned on the episode:

Racial Justice

Uhuru Solidarity Movement

Queer Theory

Modern Introductions to Leftist Politics

Pastor Gregory Stevens’s Current Project

How to connect with Gregory and with us:

You can find Gregory on Twitter @HelloGregory and on Facebook here.

You can connect with me on Twitter here: @SVarnonHughes. And you can always connect with us at CLU on our Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn accounts linked here.

Like the show? Help us spread the word by giving us a rating and review on iTunes!

About the Podcast

In Times Like These explores the difficult spaces we humans navigate in culture and religion, in dialogue and doubt. We talk to voices from the field, in law, activism, civil rights, and from places of struggle and places of deep learning. In Times Like These, we unpack the most troubling issues of politics and faith we face, together.

In Times Like These is hosted by Dr. Stephanie Varnon-Hughes and is a CLU Live production by Claremont Lincoln University.

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Stephanie Varnon-Hughes

Stephanie Varnon-Hughes, Ph.D., is the Director of the Claremont Core at Claremont Lincoln University, and an award winning teacher and interfaith leader. She is the host of the religion & culture podcast In Times Like These and author of Interfaith Grit: How Uncertainty Will Save Us. Varnon-Hughes was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Journal of Inter-Religious Studies, a peer reviewed journal, and its sister publication, State of Formation, an online forum for emerging religious and ethical leaders. She holds a Ph.D. from Claremont Lincoln University, an M.A. and S.T.M. from Union Theological Seminary and her undergraduate degrees are in English and Education, from Webster University.

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