The Condimental Divide gerrymeanders through America. On one side, a bottle of Cholula hot sauce stands proud on the restaurant counter. On the other, one can expect a blank look upon asking for it when one needs to spice up a bland plate of fried eggs with biscuits and gravy.
The Condimental Divide is nothing like the stark horizontal of the Mason-Dixon Line. Nor does it resemble the Continental Divide, that wiggly vertical that marks the fate of a random raindrop that might end up in the Pacific or in the Gulf of Mexico. By contrast, the Condimental Divide runs in loops and blips and bloops, in and across and through America.
Last night I returned to Los Angeles after four days in the South, wandering the front and back roads in a rented car. No Cholula on offer at the complimentary breakfast at the motel in Greenville, South Carolina: no hot sauce of any kind. I drove up into the Appalachians, past side roads posted as "hollers". It was a Cholula desert of glorious greenery covering misty hills. But at the very top, in the little burg of Hot Springs, North Carolina, I chanced upon a a Mexican food counter inside a general store. "O Beulah land, sweet Beulah land! As on thy highest mount I stand," runs the old camp meeting hymn. There I was, in Cholula Land again, surrounded by Beulah Land.
Which goes to show: pretty near everything and everybody is everywhere - if not in plain view, then not that far out of spittin' distance. Because there's a Condimental Divide running not far from you, if you squint your eyes and poke around a bit. It corresponds with the political and cultural ones that so animate our national discourse (rant?) today. It's not about red states or blue. Condiments are smearier and messier than that. Fact is, Trumpians are picketed and pocketed all over the land, as are Dystrumpians. To be sure, there are more "Jesus Saves" signs on the roads of South Carolina than on those of southern California. But on my sojourn in the South, I met atheistic hillbillies and holler Hillaryites. Everybody is everywhere, just in different concentrations.
At Hot Springs, I spoke on the subject of my book, MINDFUL CHRISTIANITY, at the annual Wild Goose Festival. It is a sort of Coachella for disaffected evangelical Christians. 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. "The Goose" is the convention for the other 19%. I was there to help forge an alliance between Wild Goose and ProgressiveChristianity.org, advancing a meeting of the minds and hearts of recovering evangelicals and theologically and socially liberal mainline Protestants.
After my talk, one of my listeners told me she was from a little town not far away in the mountains of Tennessee. She told me she felt like the only progressive Christian anywhere nearby. "You're not as lonesome as you feel," I reassured her. "You're in good and big company with others scattered in small towns all over the country."
The old Gaelic word for the Holy Spirit translates in English as Wild Goose. This spirited festival draws about a thousand folks, mostly from the Southeast but flavored liberally with others from a "fur piece" away. It was founded by people from the "emergent" or "convergent" or "open" branch of the evangelical world who wanted to spice up their mostly white, mildly orthodox scene with folks from on or beyond their fringes: black church folks, post-orthodox progressives like myself, religion-friendly atheists like my pal and USC colleague, Bart Campolo, and New Agers such as the Urantians. Call this crew Cholula Christians and friends: a heady, hearty, and very sweaty mix of the frocked and the dreadlocked.
It was a tent meeting revival for a youthful-tilting demographic, drenched in hot humidity, thundering with good news of justice and reconciliation preached by NAACP leader Rev. William Barber and Obama's Chicago pastor, Rev. Otis Moss. From the main stage, Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber gesticulated with her tattooed arms as she described her ministry of "beer and hymns". I could hardly see through my steamed-up eyeglasses, but always in my fuzzy vision was a big, muddy, happy cloud of witnesses to hope, faith, and action for a kinder, gentler America.
The Condimental Divide can't keep us apart. Together, we are the salsa of the earth (Burklo Non-Standard Version of Matthew 5:13.) We are the Cholula of America. May the spiciness evident at the Wild Goose Festival smear far and wide, across all divides, until we meet again... Amen!
I was ushered into a pitch-black room at the LA County Museum of Art. From there I opened a steel door and entered a cold steel room with steel benches. The floor was littered with dirty, battered shoes. I recognized them, because they came from a collection of artifacts that I maintain at USC - items left on desert trails by migrants entering from Sonora, Mexico, into Arizona. I sat down and removed my own shoes and put them into a steel cabinet, and waited, shivering. It was meant to replicate the short-term holding rooms of migrant detention centers. An alarm went off, a red light flashed, and I went through another door into a big space covered in rough sand and dirt. One wall was made of corrugated steel formerly lining the border wall at Naco, Arizona. The steel originally was used for landing pads for helicopters in the Vietnam War. A pair of museum staffers mounted me with a tethered "mochila", or backpack, reminiscent of the ones in our artifact collection. They put virtual reality goggles mounted with an IPhone on my head, and earphones over my ears. Suddenly I was in the desert, just before dawn, feeling the wind, walking with the sand underfoot, gazing at dimly glowing mountains in the distance, dodging clusters of cactus and brush. I looked all around me at the magnificent, forbidding landscape. Figures appeared: migrants heading north. Then the tremendous whoosh of a helicopter, sweeping the ground with a floodlight, throbbing my bones and blasting wind on our heads. Then the headlights of migra (Border Patrol) trucks, lighting up blinding swirls of dust. Officers in fatigues aiming big rifles topped with flashlights at us, yelling. Migrants crying out. A migra officer stormed at me and merged into my body in a pixellated mist. We were ordered to drop on our knees: I dropped, with my hands over my head. I turned and saw a woman who was moaning as another migrant tended to her painfully blistered feet. Her journey through the desert was already over before migra showed up.
I will leave the rest to your imagination, and to your turn to experience this profound installation yourselves. (Read more about it in this LA Times article.) It is sold out through September: sometime that month it will open up again for ticket sales, so check the LACMA site regularly. Only one person can experience this installation at a time, so access is very limited. Inarritu introduced Carne y Arena at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, and it was received as a revolution in the film industry, leaving its old boundaries and conventions behind.
I left the virtual desert in tears. I have walked those migrant trails many times on the spring break trips I lead for USC students to southern Arizona to learn about interfaith border justice activism. These walks are emotionally fraught, as we sense for ourselves what it is like for migrants to pass through one of the harshest environments on earth. The landscape of Carne y Arena was very familiar (except that it included Joshua trees, which are not to be found in the Sonoran Desert along the border. Only a desert rat like myself would care about such a trivial detail!) But Carne y Arena took the empathy I already felt to another level. My Arizona artist friends Valarie James and Antonia Gallegos also went through the installation yesterday afternoon. All of us were left speechless, shaking our heads as if trying to wake up from an intense dream. Val and Antonia had gathered the artifacts from the desert trails which were used as models by the animators of Carne y Arena, Flesh and Sand, under the direction of Alejandro Inarritu, the Oscar-winning filmmaker. He came to my office about six months ago to look at the collection, which Val and Antonia had entrusted to me for keeping here at the University of Southern California. I have arranged many exhibitions of these artifacts. (Let me know if you would like to host such an event.) In our conversation, as we looked at the shoes, "carpet slippers" placed over shoes to cover tracks in the sand, backpacks including little ones for kids with Winnie the Pooh logos, and personal items, his commitment to changing hearts and minds about undocumented immigrants was palpable. Carne y Arena is the product of his passion. He has not only created an experience that powerfully induces empathy and compassion, he has demonstrated the literally awesome potential that virtual reality holds as a vehicle for social and political change. Carne y Arena includes a dream-like sequence that is suggestive of the way this technology can be employed to evoke mystical experiences. How can spiritual and religious teachers join with entertainment professionals to put VR to work as a medium for communion with the divine?
Alejandro Inarritu drops a depth-charge into the souls of all who experience Carne y Arena. And he cuts a new trail in the desert of Hollywood toward a promised land of kindness and justice. Let us walk it through political action for protecting the undocumented in our midst, and let us follow him in employing this entertainment technology for social and spiritual progress.
Lighting a candle is about as benign an activity as one can imagine. Yet it can have enormous consequence. It is an incarnational manifestation of a spiritual reality. Physically performing it has the effect of amplifying and deepening one's inner conviction. Many people doing it together in a church further intensifies that experience. Many churches doing it together across the country translates individual spiritual energy into mass political people-power. We who keep the Christian faith understand that there is great transformative potential in ritual.
Two weeks ago, I put out a call to ritually resist the planned destruction of Obamacare by the President and Congress. It resulted in churches around the country lighting candles in worship to prayerfully remember the many millions of Americans whose health will be put at risk by Trumpcare.
The overwhelming public outcry against the bill has put its proponents on the defensive, but the struggle is far from over. Trumpcare will be reconsidered soon. So in the next few weeks, your congregation can shine light on the moral principle that all Americans have access to decent, comprehensive health care. Please take pictures of your candle ceremonies and send them to me and to your Senators and members of the House of Representatives and your local press. Let me know if you plan to participate. I'm coordinating this effort for Progressive Christians Uniting. Once we get a "critical mass" of participants in this ritual, we'll put out a national-level press release about it.
This is what Progressive Christians Uniting is all about: amplifying the light that shines from progressive Christians and their churches. We have no paid staff except for a part-time bookkeeper. We are volunteer activists creating a national public platform from which the light of our fellow progressive Christian volunteers can radiate far and wide. So lift away that bushel basket obscuring your light, and join us in the work of turning our faith into tangible social and political progress - for Christ's sake.