The Power to Name: The Case of Messiah DeShawn Martin

Source: SalFalko on Flickr

Source: SalFalko on Flickr

Funny thing about the law: people break it. Even the arbiters.

Several days ago, Tennessee Child Support Magistrate Lu Ann Ballew ruled that a baby’s first name be changed from “Messiah” to “Martin.” Ballew supported her ruling by stating that “the word Messiah is a title and it’s a title that has only been earned by one person and that one person is Jesus Christ.” There are no state or federal laws to support her ruling. She would be the very definition of the “activist judge” conservatives love to hate if not for her values and the cultural power beneath her position. She is no activist. She is the norm.

The case began when Messiah’s parents could not agree on his last name. At birth, the baby’s given name was Messiah DeShawn Martin. The father objected and insisted that the baby should take his last name (McCullough). Messiah’s first name was not in dispute—an inconvenient but easily discounted fact in the name of rogue justice. The parents’ religious identities are unclear. It is entirely plausible that they are Christian, further reinforcing the reality that Christian hegemony even marginalizes minority Christian viewpoints as non-orthodox.

Ironically, Messiah is not alone—and not just in his actual name, since, as many critics have noted, “Messiah” is increasingly one of the most popular baby names in the United States. An astute observer will also recognize that these name/religion cases appear in the national media every couple of years or so. From cases about the name “Christ” to “Satan,” courts have assumed the power to re-name babies for both cultural and religious reasons since the nation’s inception. While to my knowledge no one has done a precise count of these kinds of cases, given their regular recurrence, it is reasonable to imagine that they number in the hundreds if not thousands.

There are many topics we might analyze when considering this case. We might examine the role race and white privilege played in Ballew’s decision; Jaleesa Martin, Messiah’s mother, is black, Ballew is white. We might consider the way cultural insensitivity influenced Ballew’s decision; while giving children particular “sacred” names is considered blasphemous in some—mostly white—sectors, for others, the practice is both common and considered to honor the namesake. We might analyze the gender dynamics in the case; lost in all of the discussion of the case is the fact that the magistrate also changed Messiah’s last name to his father’s surname. We might consider the particular child/parent/state power dynamics reinforced by the American legal system; Ballew reinforced the importance of this issue when she insisted the she had to change Messiah’s name in order to protect him from his parents—according to the magistrate, the name “could put him at odds with a lot of people.” All of these issues are important. However, here I want to talk about what this case reveals about the complicated relationship between religion and law in the United States.

Roughly a year and a half ago, I took a class on Religion and Law in the United States from the amazing Grace Yia-Hei Kao. Like all of my courses with her, thanks to her deep and thorough pedagogy, I ended the term with an encyclopedic knowledge of the class topic. And yet, at no fault of the instructor or my classmates, I often found myself quite uncomfortable in the class. I couldn’t quite articulate the reasons for my discomfort then, but over time I’ve come to realize that my expectations didn’t match up to the topic coverage and general approach of the course. In the class, we learned everything from different interpretations of the Establishment Clause to the tort liability of religious groups. In short, we learned the letter of the law.

In a way, beyond the letter of the law, what I also wanted to consider was the actual practice of the law. I wanted the culture of the law. I wanted to discuss why judges and arbiters in hundreds of cases like Messiah’s openly flout the letter of the law by effectively treating Christianity as the established religion of the land. Even more disturbingly, I wanted to discuss how even though these decisions are unconstitutional, most of these decisions stand and are not appealed. Due to pro bono legal support from several groups, Jaleesa Martin has been able to appeal her case; most similar cases (without the national discussion) are never appealed. How can these arbiters disregard the law and mostly get away with it?

They get away with it because most of the parents cannot afford the appeals costs or the risk of social ostracism if the case becomes public. I recently read Carol Barner-Barry’s shocking and brilliant Contemporary Paganism: Minority Religions in a Majoritarian America. Don’t let the title fool you: the book is not a general introduction to modern Paganism. Instead, it is a chronicle of legal cases involving Christian privilege and American Pagan communities. Providing jaw-dropping example after example of flagrant abuse and oppression of American Pagans by Christian magistrates both through and around the law, Barner-Barry dispels the popular illusion that state figures are neutral arbiters of the law. In one of the most upsetting cases, a principal suspended a Pagan student after she had been both physically and emotionally assaulted by several bullies because of her religious identity. The principal justified the suspension saying that the bullies had claimed that the Pagan student had “cast a spell on them.” The bullies were not punished. The family did not go to the courts out of fear of reprisal. I wish I could say that these kinds of events are rare, but as those that have experienced religious oppression will know intimately, they are quite common. Only the reporting rates are rare.

Further, in theory and in practice, religious minorities in the United States are often forced to decide between the lesser of two evils. On one hand, they can embrace the accommodation of religion that de facto translates into the accommodation and privileging of Christianity—and only Christianity— in the public sphere. On the other hand, they can support the separation of religion and government. Not only does this lead to the silencing of their public religious identities, but it also creates the illusion that the state (and its arbiters) have no religious preferences. Religious minorities are forced to choose between public Christianity or public secularism. While religious minorities often strategically seek recourse to one camp or the other out of necessity (as Jaleesa Martin did with the ACLU), neither option is a long-term solution in the cause of justice. We must change American law and culture so that other religious perspectives can be heard.

In retrospect, my expectations for my religion and law class were misplaced; there was nothing wrong with the class itself. As every class must be, it was rightly circumscribed. Even within interdisciplinary projects, topical boundaries make learning possible within the academy. Through abstraction and artificial limits, the academy can give us tools to better understand, critique and change society. Day-to-day life, however, is different. In this world, the formal letter and actual practice of the law are never completely separable.

When we aspire to address the wrongs in our society related to religion and law, it is not enough to create religiously neutral laws (even if that is possible). Certainly, we can and should add additional legal protections for religious minorities in the United States, including, for example, including making the appeals process in these sorts of cases less dangerous and costly. But this is not enough. If judges successfully disregard the law and invoke other cultural sources for their decisions, then we must also critique those norms. Law is not an endlessly repeatable mechanistic process; it is shaped and implemented by people. As such, no cultural stone of Christian privilege can be left unturned. We must strive to change both law and surrounding culture together. Religious minorities should not be the ones on trial. We must pick up our pens to change the law, but we must simultaneously change hearts and minds.

Even this is not enough. As religious minorities, we must take back the ability to name ourselves and name the full breadth of the structures that oppress us. As Messiah DeShawn Martin teaches us, names hold power. Most importantly, we must change who are the arbiters of justice. The judged must become the judges.

Millennials and the Church from the Outside

Source: silent shot on Flickr

Source: silent shot on Flickr

There is nothing new under the sun.

Sparked by Rachel Held Evans’ very popular and quite excellent “Why millennials are leaving the church” post on CNN’s “belief blog,” the Christian blogosphere has lit up with discussions of millennials and Christianity. Evans’ thesis is quite powerful: evangelicals (and I’d extend it to Christians more broadly) are leaving the church behind because they are weary of the over-marketing, over-politicization, anti-LGBT rhetoric, and general apathy about social justice that ground many of their religious communities.

Christian critics and supporters from the left and right have responded to Evans’ post by 1) modifying or adding further reasons for the millennial flight; 2) disagreeing with her assessment and providing alternate reasons; 3) building upon her argument by suggesting how churches must change to rectify the situation.

Wherever they fall in the debate, every post I have read on the topic assumes that the millennial flight from churches is not only lamentable, it is bad—Christianity, millennials, and even American society as a whole will suffer from this result. Behind this common assumption is an even more troubling idea : millennials should be Christian regardless of who is to blame for the truth that less and less are.

At first glance, it might appear odd for me to criticize Christians for wanting people to be Christian. After all, isn’t evangelism the heart of Christianity? Aren’t even the most liberal, tolerant, and pluralistic Christians  passionate enough about their religious narratives that they hope others become attracted to those stories as well? Isn’t there something about “making disciples of all nations” in the Great Commission?

My point is not to challenge this spirit of evangelism. I firmly believe that good stories should be shared. However, American Christians of all stripes have generally been blind to the sense of total entitlement that is wedded to this evangelical spirit. Even if many Christians aren’t brazen enough to say it out loud, they assume that Americans should be Christian—Americans are naturally Christian.

Entitlement always comes from a place of power. Lost in all of the conversation about millennials leaving Christianity behind is the fact that roughly 70-75% of Americans continue to identify as Christian. This is somewhat lower than at any other point in United States history, but it is not dramatically so. Christians continue to be the undisputed and unchallenged majority in the United States—all other religions combined amount to less than 10%, and the “unaffiliated” (by definition difficult to categorize) amount to roughly 20%. The cultural power of Christianity in the United States remains immense. Would American Christians only be satisfied if all Americans were Christian?

One aspect of this entitlement is the understanding that clearly non-Christians just have Christianity wrong. Perhaps they encountered the wrong kind of Christianity (you know, the “intolerant” kind) or perhaps they left Christianity because it wasn’t “hip” enough. If Christians could just fix the message—make sure that non-Christians heard the right, “true” kind of Christianity—they might return. Of course, many millennials were never Christian in the first place. Even putting this aside, insisting your church is not like Westboro will not lead to a sudden influx of newcomers.

The truth is, Christianity holds so much cultural power in American society that non-Christians (including non-Christian millennials) must become familiar with Christianity whether they like it or not. As a child, I had to know about Bible stories that had nothing to do with my Buddhist religious life, because otherwise I would be teased and ostracized. I had to be able to “pass” as Christian even though I wasn’t. Luckily, given the ways religion is racialized, since I was white I had the ability to “pass.” Often people of color are treated as religious others whether or not they are Christian.

The problem is not that those that practice non-Christian religions like me are ignorant of “true” Christianity. The problem is that we have to be familiar with Christianity, when Christians have the choice to learn about other religions. Further, our every religious difference is a mark that we are somehow deficient, somehow less American. Christians, when you have the instinct to instruct non-Christians about what “true” Christianity really means, know this: they probably already know every word you will say.

Christian privilege and religious oppression within the United States are generally not topics American Christians even notice, let alone  discuss. Like all other privileged groups within the interlocking forms of marginalization, Christians are often made uncomfortable by this issue. Instead, they wish to hold onto the dream-world construction of the United States as a land of complete and absolute religious freedom, a land where everyone can choose their religion (albeit with the implicit understanding that everyone should choose the “right” one). Of course, only Christians can think this way—this is a crucial aspect of privilege. All other groups are intimately aware of the effects and pressures of Christian privilege in our society. They experience it every day.

When you are tempted to lament the millennial flight from churches, remember this: these people are not going nowhere—there is no such thing. These millennials are converting to other religions as well as becoming agnostics, atheists and humanists. Even those that become self-identified “nones” are not blank slates for you to draw your elaborate power-tinged fantasies upon. They have their own (often collective) spiritualities, stories, and meaningful lives. The so-called “nones” often have religious connections that we do not recognize because they do not conform to societal norms of what it means to be “religious.” None of us are a vacuum—an “ex nihilo”—for you to put a world in our place.

This sentiment is decidedly anti-pluralistic. By holding such a view, you are going beyond the possibility of discovering that some non-Christians might benefit from the Christian mythos; you are assuming that this is true of everyone. You are assuming that millennials that become (or have always been) Buddhist, Muslim or agnostic would be better off as Christians. With this assumption, Evans’ call to listen to millennials isn’t even possible. The terms of religious engagement have already been unilaterally decided.

And that is what being a religion in power means—Christians have the ability to not only articulate but also implement an approach to societal trends without listening. Perhaps many of the millennials that have left the church (you know, even the “good” kind) are better off. Perhaps they left the church not for the “wrong” reasons (that a church could fix with some effort), but rather for the “right” reasons (regardless of what the church did). Stop insinuating that if millennials have left Christianity behind (or did not identify as Christian in the first place) they have done so for selfish or misguided reasons. Given the discussions so far, unless you talk and listen to these non-Christians you will never know why they left. I can assure you, however, that they did not leave Christianity, evangelicalism, or even “religion” behind because of the decay of the moral fabric of society or because they worship at the “cult of individualism.” In short, we don’t like being used for your Christian agenda.

As a child of a counter-cultural Buddhist who left the church behind, I am intimately aware of the fact that Americans have been walking away from Christianity just as long as commentators have been worrying about it. American Christians have agonized about the possibility of their children leaving the faith since the nation’s inception. What millennials are doing is nothing new. Neither are the alarm bells. I understand the fear, I understand the instinct. In a way, the anxiety over whether future generations will continue to carry the torches of the past is both cross-cultural and not unique to American Christianity in the slightest. There is nothing wrong with valuing the passage of tradition, and I am actively involved in uncovering the transforming mechanisms of these faith lineages in my own Buddhism.

What is wrong about this situation is not the desire to evangelize or the hope for the passing of Christian traditions into the future. What is wrong is the sense of entitlement among Christians that they are somehow more deserving of a guarantee for that future and the status quo. What is wrong is the assumption that the United States should be 75% Christian or more.  What is wrong is the common reaction among Christians against any threat to that significant majority. How is it reasonable to panic over the fact that some are leaving Christianity when nearly three quarters of Americans remain Christian?  It reminds me of the common hair-pulling and hand-wringing over the eventual loss of the white majority. Given the way privilege and societal structures work, even if someday less than 50% of Americans identify as Christian, Christianity will maintain its highly unbalanced social power for the foreseeable future.

To put it in Christian terms, the difficult truth is that American Christianity is the religion of the new Rome. Any perceived threat to this religious empire will be greeted with every tactic necessary to maintain the status quo, including mass mournings for every real or illusionary exodus. The funeral for Caesar is a pretense to marshal the imperial forces and bring others back into the fold.

I know these will be difficult words to read; I am a Buddhist, but I am also Christian (I am religiously hybrid), and the Christian in me pauses after every word. Even the most liberal among us will willingly call the United States an empire, capitalism Satan, and fundamentalism fanatical, but we do not want to acknowledge that Christianity—even in its most liberal forms—might rest upon the assumptions of empire. I know many Christians will read this post and say I’ve missed the point about the discussions of millennials and the church. They will insist that these conversations have nothing to do with other religions; they are about empty churches. As a former youth pastor, I empathize; I know what it is like to run young adult groups where only a handful attend. I know that sadness and worry. But pain and fear does not excuse us from reflecting on the full ramifications of our privilege. Before we continue these conversations about millennials and Christianity, we must ask: why do we feel entitled to think that all or most millennials should be Christian?

The Christian part of me holds onto hope: perhaps we can begin first with humility (a part of our past, our tradition), by listening and see the millennial exodus for what it is, rather than as simply a lamentable harbinger of an apocalypse to come. To reference Evans’ post once more, perhaps the millennial Christians will recognize a lack of authenticity, the wrong kind of political Christianity, and see what justice—what God—calls for.

The Buddhist in me proceeds with more caution. We religious minorities have experienced too much, been ignored too much, been marginalized too much—we know better. I want to believe otherwise. But, even to get this point across, I know: I must quote the Bible. Those are the restraints of Christian hegemony…

There is nothing new under the sun.

Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part II: Night-Light Buddhists

night-light[Several months ago, I wrote a two-part post on second generation Buddhist Americans for Dharma Dialogue. I have included the beginning to the second part here with a link to the rest of the post]

In my last post, I argued that scholars have addressed the topic of children and Buddhism in America through three different but mutually reinforcing narratives. I also argued that not only are these narratives all problematic, but they support a dangerous and oppressive hegemonic understanding of Buddhism in America that marginalizes all but convert Buddhists. Once the politics of these notions has been revealed, positive steps forward become necessary. How might we make the invisible visible? Or to put it a more straightforward way, what is it like to grow up Buddhist in America? Read more…

Forever Young, Forever Invisible, Part I: The Forces of Conversion

cunarimbau[Several months ago, I wrote a two-part post on second generation Buddhist Americans for Dharma Dialogue. I have included the beginning to the first part here with a link to the rest of the post]

Hundreds of thousands of children have gone missing. They never made it out of the cradle.

Or so one might come to think if one browsed the corpus of literature on Buddhism in the United States. With a few exceptions, if one looks for discussions of Buddhist children (or families) in these texts, one will generally search in vain. In fact, even more striking are the three exceptions to this rule. Examining these exceptions helps us to uncover three narratives that together serve as an important part of the foundation of contemporary understandings of Buddhism in America. Read more…


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