[This review was published on March 22, 2023, at Give Me Some Light.]

As I drive into Seattle sunshine on my way to work, I am listening to prayers sung with passion and longing, and I am haunted by the darkness I explored last night watching Laura Poitras’s documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed.

As the photographer, activist, and opioid crisis survivor Nan Goldin guides me, like Virgil guiding Dante, through this labyrinth of souls suffering and dying in the trouble and torments of the ‘70s and ‘80s — the opioid crisis, AIDS, the wealth-hoarding of billionaires, the abandonment of the poor — it is a little like descending into L’Inferno.

But there’s one fundamental difference: Goldin’s slideshows that spotlight neighborhoods of artists, addicts, and sex workers are not a voyeuristic horror show of souls suffering the judgment of God. These are the faces and voices of the abandoned children of God: populations suffering the judgment of “a Christian nation” that fears and hates them and is doing all it can to punish them here and now for being different, for being imaginative, for being uncategorized. And many are children who were resented, judged, and abandoned by irresponsible parents. And thus, they’ve been denied the simplest shows of decency — like health care.

This is a tour of decades I lived through as a child, but one that reveals the people that I was carefully and methodically prevented from seeing, asking questions about, or knowing as my neighbors.

When I was growing up in the ’70s and ’80s, my church community taught me to “have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness.” And then they explained that “the unfruitful deeds of darkness” were pretty much anything related to sexuality (outside of heterosexual marriage), smoking, alcohol, other drugs, rock and roll (and, by association, blackness), and anything that suggested a blurring of their starkly defined “standards” of masculinity, femininity, marriage, a Divinely Mandated Patriarchy. Anywhere I might glimpse a strip club, or broken beer bottles, or a junkie in an alley, or a man wearing a dress, or a woman wearing a man’s suit — this, my church culture taught me, was where the devil lived, where “the lost” ended up. My community joined the conservative program to legislate, legislate, legislate until anyone who made them uncomfortable or strayed from their strict codes of behavior were erased from our cultural context; exiled into hunger, disease, addiction, and — yes — slaughter. The consequences we inflicted upon them were understood as God’s judgment. “God’s wrath,” they said, quoting Ephesians 5, “comes on those who are disobedient.” And they pointed to AIDS as the proof.

But the very Jesus we preached, and whose name we lifted up in such searing diatribes, teaches and acts in quite the opposite way. He teaches love, embrace, inclusion, and even recognizing that God is busily at work in such communities. When Jesus’ followers ask him about sickness as a judgment for sin, Jesus brushes that idea off. No, sickness is not a sign of divine punishment on an individual’s behavior. In fact, sickness is a call for us to love mercy and be ready to discover what God is ready to do in an occasion of sickness. Where is God nowhere to be found? According to Jesus, God is nowhere to be found in the moralistic condemnations dealt out by the self-righteous religious elite.

I eventually learned that there was more to that scripture: “Have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness — but instead, even expose them..” This was not a call to erase, ignore, and deny the things that made us uncomfortable. This was a call to bring everything into the light and observe it with the eyes of love, an act that would redeem and transform.

And what are the unfruitful deeds of darkness?

Well, we know what they are not: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”

When I look at the people in Nan Goldin’s photographs, I see many of the behaviors that the Scriptures highlight as evidence of sin: drunkenness, sexual recklessness, and more. But I see those things as the extremes to which these people go in despair for having been denied the love they need. Oh, you’ll find plenty of the same drunkenness, sexual recklessness, and drugs behind the closed doors of the very people who vote for policies that punish the poor. And you’ll also find the resources and power to change things there, the good things that they deny to their neighbors in need.

Nan Goldin choreographs another revelatory exhibit. Image from the Neon trailer.

Greed. Condemnation. Arrogance. Lies. All of the strategies and motivations being used to push all of these imaginative orphans, all of these abandoned children of God, all of these “Others,” into misery and torment. These are the things that Nan Goldin is trying to bring into the light so that we have no choice but to witness — and bear witness to — the Truth.

“Exposing” evil is a messy business. But it is a calling upon artists and followers of Jesus. And Goldin is an exemplar of such work.

Have nothing to do with selfishness and arrogance. Instead, expose it. Bring it into the light so we can see it. For in such exposure, any conscience that has any life left in it will be provoked, kindled, and awakened for the purpose of action.

Hatred is a cancer. And cancer is not to be ignored or denied. It is to be studied and brought into the light — lovingly, the way surgeons do as they strive to save their patients. Nan Goldin is an artist. She is a surgeon who has experience with various cancers, including the cancer of the opioid crisis that was cultivated within communities of poverty by the self-righteous rich and the arrogant religious elite. Her photography and her protests are her art. This is her act of bringing everything into the light. This is her Book of Lamentations.

As I drive south on Highway 99 this morning, the sex workers lined up on the sidewalks on both sides of this central Seattle corridor, I know that this is exactly where I would find Jesus — not busily judging and preaching piously at the population, but enjoying their company, embracing them, assuring them that they are worthy of love. I am on my way to work, at an institution of “Christian education.” This institution recently published a new list of priorities for its leadership, and on that list the exclusion of all queer children of God from teaching there was ranked as a higher priority than prayer.

I invest my time and energy there in acts of resistance, determined to give the diverse population of students a different representation of the Gospel: a sign of welcome and embrace and affirmation, and a curiosity about what God is doing and can do among them, rather than a posture of finger-pointing damnation and arms-folded rejection. It wasn’t that long ago that I was still brainwashed by the Culture of Condemnation, and I am trying, in my embarrassment and shame and repentance of that life, to make some small difference.

I am thinking of Nan Goldin, taking inspiration from her, and hoping that I will be found, in the eyes of God, to have a heart more like hers than like those that legislate hatred, fear, and rejection.

On my car stereo, Bono is singing Psalm 40 — giving voice to persecuted, the downcast, reminding us of that boy of many colors who was thrown by his brothers into the pit:

I waited patiently for the Lord
He inclined and heard my cry
He lifted me out of the pit, out of the miry clay
And I will sing, sing a new song….

And then the chorus: “How long… to sing this song?

How long must we sing Nan Goldin’s lament, indeed?