Officer Krupke and Our Social Disease

I watched the film version of West Side Story for the first time on television in my early teens. I loved everything about it and I also encountered something new that puzzled me.

In a scene roughly half way through, members of the Jets street gang sing a parody of their experience in the juvenile justice system. Action sings about being arrested, going to court, being sent to a psychiatrist, and then to a social worker.westsidestory_krupke2

“Hey,” he declares, in response to the social worker’s diagnosis, “I got a social disease!”

I had no idea what that meant and it scared me. Was it contagious? What are the symptoms? Would I be arrested by officer Krupke? I thought the police were my friends!

I now know more: All of us in the U.S. live, and move, and have our being in a society of hostility and violence. From militarized police to “total destruction” presidential rhetoric, from hate-speech rallies to brutalized transgender people just trying to pee and a circulated memo at a major technology company about the inferiority of women, we – all of us – have a debilitating social disease.

As I noted in a recent sermon on white supremacy (published here), most of us want to isolate troublesome individuals, the “radicalized” foreigner, the disgruntled teenager, the psychotic co-worker. Few of us want to examine or even acknowledge our shared psychosis. The problem is not a few bad apples in the barrel; the problem is the barrel.

Or perhaps the television commercial for Palmolive dish washing liquid from my youth says it best: “You’re soaking in it.”

I’ve been struck recently by a number of studies and articles on chemical addiction, especially the low success rate of twelve-step programs. I have some good friends for whom Alcoholics Anonymous has been life-saving and life-changing; they are the exception. Twelve-step programs have a “success” rate of between 5 and 10 percent.

Meanwhile, I know more and more family members, friends, and colleagues who are “self-medicating,” whether by over-drinking or with anonymous sex hook-ups or binge eating or just increased isolation. I, too, drink too much and struggle with nicotine addiction.

I am convinced: treating addiction as an individual’s problem to overcome misses entirely the root of the problem. We, all of us, have a social disease. And only a social response will offer and lasting hope and healing.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the exploding homeless population – and our many failed attempts to address this problem – renders our social distress in visible bodies. Armando Sandoval coordinates “homeless outreach” programs for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. He named our social disease rather pointedly:

“The issue is societal. It’s not BART, it’s not SFPD [the police], it’s not the justice system, it’s not the public health or mental health departments. It’s everything.”

Deeply embedded in all this – “infected” – most of us have trouble seeing the precise character of our plight. The following is my attempt, in outline, to “see” it, not for my own healing, but our healing. As ancient Christians insisted about salvation, my healing is inextricably bound up with yours. We have to work this out together, the diagnosis and the treatment.

My brief outline is in three parts: a personal encounter with our shared dis-ease; some theological theory; a bit of spiritual practice from Jesus.

Apocalyptic Hazing
Like many others, I was shocked recently by the revelations of violent “hazing” at Wheaton College in Illinois, my alma mater. Five Wheaton football players stand accused of doing felony-worthy things to a fellow student. The details are contested and fuzzy and still being adjudicated. Still, I responded with fury and outrage on social media; I ranted; I remain dismayed by the school’s response (a slap on the wrist or just a “pat on the head” for the accused).

Why did I have such visceral responses and why did I rant so much? At least two reasons.

The first feels like “Matthew Shepard PTSD.” The original reporting of what happened last year at Wheaton included a description of the student being stripped, tied to a fence with duct tape, and left there overnight. Nausea washed over me as I read this, ripples of dread and deep sorrow. The image evoked with uncanny resonance what had happened to Matthew back in 1998, even under very different circumstances.

The fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

The second reason reaches back to my childhood, echoes of being bullied by the jocks in grade school and Jr. High for being a sissy and acting girly. I read the story about Wheaton, plastered with a photo of hyper-masculine football players in their uniforms. It shuttled me back to those agonizing moments when I was pinned to the ground by a group of jocks, hardly able to breathe. I can hear their taunts: “Did you bring your dolls to school, faggot?”

No one is born dreaming of torturing a young man like Matthew Shepard. No one just “naturally” throws sissy boys to the ground as they walk home from school. These things are learned – not just from “bad” parents, or “failed” schools, but in the crucible of a violent society laced with toxic forms of masculinity and seasoned with white privilege.

My African American colleagues have taught me this over the years: in a society drenched in white supremacy, everyone is racist, no exceptions. We all live with a social disease expressed with multiple symptoms.

My visceral response to the (latest) Wheaton scandal qualifies as apocalyptic for that very reason, as the word “apocalypse” suggests: it reveals what has always been there.

Theological Theorizing: The Domination System
None of this is new. It’s actually quite old. The texts of the Christian Testament in the Bible are shaped by living under the imperial thumb of the Roman Empire. This isn’t just dusty history, but a frame for noticing that thumbprint on our lives right now.

The late biblical theologian Walter Wink offered a compelling way to read first century gospel accounts through the lens of what he called the “Domination System,” a system employed by every imperial power, whether ancient or modern.

[The system] is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all … from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism.

Diarmuid O’Murchu brilliantly (in my view) applied Wink’s diagnosis to the stories of demon possession in the gospels. The loneliness and isolation of the “possessed,” O’Murchu notes, mimics precisely the effects of living under the Domination System.

The gospel accounts hint at this, O’Murchu writes, as “evil spirits represent unmet needs. The spirits inhabit the inner empty shell caused by feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, disempowerment, torture, pain, and alienation.” Don’t most of us feel one or more of these things just looking in a mirror first thing in the morning?

But we can’t treat these symptoms as if only individuals suffer from them; the symptoms point instead to a social disease shared by all.

O’Murchu proposes a path toward healing marked by the “companionship of empowerment.” Exorcism is only the first step; healing means, finally, restoring relationship. Think of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8), restored to his community, or the young child foaming at the mouth and lifted up by Jesus to be given back to his parents (Luke 9). Or think Lazarus, raised from a tomb of death but still bound. Jesus turns to his beloved community: “Unbind him,” he says to them (John 11).

Most of all, this: Jesus lived the healing he preached and practiced around tables of shared food.

Jesus at Table
I begin every one of my theology classes with this: “Christian faith did not begin with a text, or a doctrine, or an institution, but with radical social practice: table fellowship.”

The gospel accounts portray how often Jesus got in trouble for eating with the wrong people. In that first century context, those with whom you shared food mattered as much as those with whom you had sex. Both food and sex were the primary ways to mark social dominance in a system of hierarchical value.

Jesus cast those systems aside and ate with the wrong people.

He did this because his people, and the wider society, the whole human race suffered from a debilitating social disease: oppression, fragmentation, isolation. And only a social response would suffice: all are welcome at the Table.

This is ridiculously pedestrian and wildly profound: We must eat with the wrong people. It’s our only hope.

Ditch your self-improvement book. Stop berating yourself for that second, or third, or fourth glass of wine. Reject all those messages about your flaws and shortcomings. Do this: Set a table with food and invite everyone you know – all of them, including officer Krupke.

Accompany others. Be accompanied.

Love someone. Be loved.

This is totally ridiculous. It’s also the peculiar faith of Christians, who hope because of love.

We, all of us, suffer from a debilitating social disease. Only a social treatment can heal us.

It’s called Love.


We are all Sodomites

Anyone who has ever refused hospitality to a stranger – to someone who is different, odd, peculiar, “not us” – is guilty of sodomy (Genesis 19). Anyone who has ever refused to care for widows and orphans or practiced economic injustice is also guilty of sodomy (Ezekiel 16:49).

Everyone is guilty of sodomy just by virtue of belonging to a nation that oppresses immigrants or won’t provide food and health care to single mothers or is just by being human (treating “outsiders” with suspicion seems wired into our collective DNA).

We, all of us, are sodomites and stand in need of repentance and forgiveness.

The Bible seems pretty clear on all this, but you’d never know it from listening to most religious talk radio or watching televangelists. “Sodomy,” in both popular religious culture and in our courts of law, means something quite different from what Biblical writers understood it to mean (here’s a hint: today it usually means that nasty thing gay men supposedly do all the time).

I was prompted to write about this by some Facebook exchanges over the publication of the book Out of a Far Country, by Christopher Yuan. This autobiographical book recounts Yuan’s journey through drug addiction, lots of sex, an HIV/AIDS diagnosis, and his return to Christian faith – a return that helped him to heal and become an ambassador for leaving the “gay lifestyle.” That lifestyle, presumably, is marked by, well, drug addiction, lots of sex, and HIV/AIDS.

But this is not a review, nor a critique of Yuan’s book (which I have not read). I am much more concerned about those who seem eager to use – the better word is exploit – Yuan’s story and his book for a socio-religious agenda to “cure” or “heal” gay and lesbian people.

I applaud Yuan for taking steps to recover from drug addiction, finding reconciliation with his family, and living into a healthier way of life. I am, however, offended by those who are using that story to paint (yet again) a deeply distorted picture of what it means to be lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.

Yuan’s story is emblematic of LGBT people in just about the same way that Las Vegas brothels and wedding chapels are emblematic of heterosexual people. In both cases, the reductionism and stereotyping are not only disingenuous; they are dangerous, harmful, and deadly.

Consider Jamey Rodemeyer, yet another gay teenage suicide to add to the appallingly long list of how “strangers” are treated in our society. Jamey even made an “It Gets Better” video! (You can read about that tragedy here, but I don’t recommend it if your heart is easily broken.) The religious and cultural exploitation of Yuan’s story is just as responsible for Rodemeyer’s suicide as the citizens of Sodom were responsible for the kind of inhospitality worthy of divine retribution. We are all sodomites.

I was on a panel with Yuan back in 2006 during the SoulForce Equality Ride event held at my alma mater, Wheaton College (read my reflections about that event here). The college put Yuan on center stage as evidence of both the destructiveness of “homosexuality” and the possibility for “healing” it. That Wheaton would do so indicates a severe lapse in that school’s critical thinking faculties from which, at one time, I learned a great deal.

But Wheaton’s posture indicates much more as well – the school is guilty of sodomy.

Imagine declaring this: drug dealing and violent crime in urban neighborhoods clearly indicates the inherent evils of the African-American lifestyle. Wheaton (and I should hope many other religious institutions) would reject that claim as racist. Yet Yuan’s story is fair game for exploitation, to deploy it like a religious product for discrimination, exclusion, bigotry, and inhospitality.

With more than fifty years of biblical scholarship overwhelmingly rejecting the idea that Scripture condemns LGBT people, Christian communities are the ones who stand judged and in need of repentance and forgiveness for their sin of sodomy toward LGBT people.

(When I started this blog, I vowed not to deal at all with biblical apologetics concerning LGBT people. That is so twentieth century and the argument should be long since over. Of course, it’s not. To summarize some of the reasons why that argument should be over, I’ve written a short essay on contemporary biblical scholarship on this issue, “Biblical Sexuality and Gender,” which you can find here or on this site here.)

The Destruction of Sodom & Gomorrah

Christian communities should take the sin of sodomy quite seriously indeed, just as Jesus did. As far as we know, Jesus said absolutely nothing about LGBT people. But he did say something about sodomy. As he sent out his disciples to proclaim the gospel and do the work of ministry, Jesus issued a warning. Any town that does not extend a hospitable welcome to those disciples will suffer a worse fate than Sodom and Gomorrah (Matthew 10:15).

Christian followers of Jesus ought to renew our commitment to the spiritual practice of hospitality, especially since all of us are sodomites. Christ, have mercy.