Justice

When God-with-Us is no Comfort: Feast of Holy Innocents

Scriptures Readings: Holy Innocents:

The sound track for this post:

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What are we to make of the feast of the Holy Innocents? What is happening as we remember and celebrate these innocents, the unknown number of infants and toddlers who are martyrs? To what do these innocents witness? In what way do they give witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ?

Rachel weeps for her Children. Rachel a collective ancestral name, one of the mothers of Israel. Another name for Israel, just as Israel is also known as Jacob.

This is a strange feast combining lamentation and celebration of these martyrs, the Holy Innocents: infants and toddlers slain by king Herod.  The lamentation of Rachel refusing to be comforted.

Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus escape being warned to flee to Egypt. The hymn “Audit tyrannus anxius, in the Benedictine Daily breviary, for Holy Innocents speaks of these infants murdered by Herod as martyrs, and rejoices that these innocents are in the presence of God. It’s an unsettling sentiment. We, I suppose, are more likely to escape with Mary and Joseph than to sit with Rachel.

We, of whatever persuasion of Christian, we fail to let the reality of this day sink in. There’s the rushing to contemplate these infants in the presence of God singing the hymn of praise “Holy, Holy, Holy” without contemplating the horror of this moment.  The opposite response is to merely focus on the tragedy, which is making use of the tragedy to insist on the relevance of the Gospel and proof text the social gospel as a means to chastise those who seem indifferent to suffering injustice and oppression. We are avoiding what is most troubling: After God’s coming to be with us, God in human flesh, Jesus, escapes the massacre of the innocents, but God does not prevent the massacre.

We need the space of faithful Lament. We need the space to sit with tragedy when we see no action of God in which we are confronted with overwhelming evil and the power of death unleashed, and life squashed. We need a space to lament when Life has no answer. “Rachel refuses to be consoled.” Matthew recalls the words of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was also speaking of his time and the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah. In this story, there is the permission to not be consoled, when there is no comfort to be given.

In the Benedictine Daily Breviary, there’s a contradiction in celebrating this day: on the one hand the hymn appointed doesn’t let us grieve or lament (this is a feast day after all celebrating martyrs), but in the Day Time prayers we are invited to lament; the scriptures appointed for the day are from lamentations.

I wonder if there’s something to this contradiction. An invitation to in celebration not let ourselves be consoled. We are invited to lament the continued power of death even as God is with us in the word made flesh. The contradiction invites us to remember that this lament and lack of consolation is as much part of the Christmas story as “Peace on Earth, and Good will toward all.”

In a mash-up of Luke and Matthew and John, what we find is that not long after God in human flesh is born, and the angels announce tidings of great joy, and proclaim “Peace on earth and Good will towards all”, this proclamation is contradicted by Herod.  At the moment God moves into our neighborhood in the Word made flesh, Death rears its head and strikes and God is powerless. God with us doesn’t stop Herod from his destructive and death filled evil ways. More troubling is that God with us draws out Herod’s furry and God with us becomes an occasion for Herod’s tyranny as he seeks to stamp out the Word made flesh.

What then does Rachel and her “holy innocents”, her saints, these martyred infants, give witness to? Acknowledging God with us and God at work in the world, is not consolation for suffering oppression and tyranny. God’s solidarity with us isn’t necessarily a comfort. These innocents as martyrs and saints must be among those numbered who in addition to “Holy, Holy, Holy”, sing out “How long…

On this day during the joy of Christmas we join our voice with those dressed in white before the throne singing not only “Holy, Holy, Holy”, but also in lamentation sing “How long, O Lord!”

*Edited for clarity and corrected typos, 12/29/2016

Torn Heavens and Shattered Earth: Advent Vexation

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O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil– to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!  (Isaiah 64:1, 2)

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This is a longing for God to act as God acted in the Israelite exodus from Egypt. “God why don’t you come down and kick some ass as you did with Pharaoh?” Isaiah asks in lament and frustration. This is an Advent frustration and longing. Desperate that the reign of God would manifest and the nations, the powers, that oppress would be brought to their knees, ending oppression. So that injustice would end and justice would flourish.

Isaiah cries out in anger and exasperation, God, come down, tear the skies, act against oppressors; like you did with pharaoh in Egypt, make yourself known like you did at Mount Sinai. God make those things that seem immovable and unshakable tremble and crumble, come like fire that sets dry brush wood aflame, be like fire to a pot of water causing it to boil over. Like brushwood catching fire from a spark to start of a conf20161219_220829lagration. Isaiah wants God to bring it all down.

If we slow down and let Isaiah’s simile take hold for a moment we find in the middle of the grand gesture there’s something small and imperceptible. Brushwood is also used for kindling to start a fire in a hearth that will then boil the pot of water put over the fire in the hearth. The image is domestic – boiling water and the fire in the hearth.
20161219_221041A rolling boil is certainly violent and the flames of a fire will rapidly lick up dry kindling, but it is all contained, and part of our everyday life, easily overlooked.

Isaiah moves form macro, “tear open the heavens” to micro, a boiling pot on a stove. A pot being brought to boil is such a small and everyday thing. Isaiah sees God’s advent in this way as both upending and earth shattering, like brush wood readily catching flame starting a conflagration, and like a pot of water in a hearth about to boil.

In this season of the Holy Nativity we are remembering and celebrating that God did tear the heavens and come down. 20161219_221038God rending the heavens took place in the womb of Mary, and the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. God comes vulnerable like the beginning flame, just after the first strike of the match to kindling. God tears open the heavens and comes down and it was nearly imperceptible like a pot of water about to boil.

The nations, the powers (Rome), did eventually sit up and take notice, though in the long run not always for the good.  Followers of Christ instead of spreading the fire and letting things shake and boil have shored up the structures of the powers and doused the flames leaving many vulnerable and becoming agents of death and oppression.

After all this, what a20161219_220947re we to say? Did God fail? Was God wrong to abandon the shock and awe of the Exodus and Mount Sinai? Was God wrong to abandon the direct confrontation with the powers as God did with Pharaoh? Was the incarnation, the crucifixion all a mistake? Have we lost God in God rending the heavens and coming down and joining with us? Or have we yet to see the fire spread? Have we yet to see the pot boil? Or is the transformation, the liberation we seek and the shaking of the powers we long for accomplished not through the language and practice of the nations and empire and grasping for power and violence, but some other means?. Does God rend the heavens and come down and show another way, one we have betrayed?

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Hope as Virtue and Discipline: “The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

What follows is an essay written from my notes for recent Theology on tap for the Oratory of Jesus Christ Reconciler, written after the discussion. another version  was posted on the Oratory’s website.

“The arc of the moral universe is long but bends towards Justice.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used this aphorism in a sermon delivered at Temple Israel in Hollywood.  This is a hopeful image.  The aphorism is a snapshot of hope as virtue and discipline, before we unpack and interpret this aphorism, we need to ask some questions.

What is Hope? Hope can be a slippery thing to lay hold. We may buy a lottery ticket hoping to win the lottery.  A child might hope that she will get a gift that she asked to receive, from her parents. Such hope doesn’t seem to be either virtuous nor does it require any discipline.  The second case approaches more what we mean when we speak of hope as virtue and discipline. In the case of the hope of a child for a gift from their parents, is hoping in someone for something There is a difference between hoping to win the lottery and hoping to receive something one has asked for at Christmas. The hope of the child is rooted in the loving relationship between the child and their parent. The hoped-for outcome isn’t guaranteed, but it is more likely and is bound up with a relationship.  In this second type of hope what one is hoping in is distinguished from what is hoped for, yet they are bound up together. Even so, the hope of a child for a Christmas gift hasn’t yet brought us to hope that is virtue and discipline

All instances of hope aren’t virtuous. So, we need to ask what is common across various instances of hopefulness. So, that we then can lay hold of a hope that is something we can call a virtue and about which we can be disciplined. What covers all connotations of hope is that hope looks to a fulfillment; it also lives now in anticipation of that fulfillment.

What is hope as virtue and discipline?

Given this sense of hope, what then does it mean for hope to be both a discipline and a virtue? Hope is a virtue and discipline, if what is hoped in is a good that is more than a fleeting desire and more than wishful thinking. Hope that is a virtue is a hope bound up with a movement toward the good, something that in hoping for it we are moved towards our betterment. For hope to be a virtue and discipline requires something to be hoped in and for that can lead us to something greater than we are now.  Hope, which is a virtue and a discipline, is hope that moves us toward what is hoped for.  Hope as virtue and discipline is anticipation that actively waits for what is hoped for. This sort of hope isn’t passive; it is moving towards a goal or an end.

Hope can be a virtue through hoping in something that moves us towards that which we hope.  Such a hope requires an expansiveness, to borrow Obama’s phrase, it requires an audacity. Simultaneously it also requires humility to admit that what is hoped for isn’t yet realized. Hope as virtue and discipline is magnanimous and humble.

The enemy of hope as virtue is presumption. This may find itself in too great a confidence, too much assurance that at any moment what is hoped for is coming to fruition or fulfillment and completion in that very moment. Thus, it is destructive of hope to use hope as part of a political campaign as Obama’s campaign did.  This is so, largely because, what we hoped for in Barack Obama wasn’t going to be completely fulfilled by Obama’s administration. Rather a virtuous hopefulness in a political party, or a factional politics, or a politician is in there being able to bring us closer to that which we hope, not for their ability to deliver that for which we hope.  What was hopeful about Obama and his campaign and subsequent presidency was only hopeful to the degree that that hope was what propelled Obama, not in his or his administration’s ability to fulfill and deliver that for which we hope.  Thus, to the degree that Obama was hopeful with us and not the object of our hope then we have a truly hopeful politics, but the moment we hoped in Obama or his administration, we ceased to have hope in a way that is virtue and discipline and which can lead us toward a goal greater than ourselves.

Hope as virtue and discipline needs the humility to admit that in time there is always a remainder of what is hoped for in any movement towards what we hope. For hope as virtue and discipline there needs to be the simultaneous magnanimity of claiming to be able to achieve what is hoped for with a sense that the fullness of what is hoped for can’t be found in any one moment.

What sort of things might we say we hope for in this manner? What is it that we can both be audacious about and about which we can be humble?

Hoping in God and of the God revealed in Jesus Christ.

The God revealed to us in the Hebrew Prophets and the divine human Jew Jesus of Nazareth, is a god who is about justice and who defines for us justice as the concern for and right treatment of those who are marginalized, most vulnerable and who are outcasts. Captives, prisoners, widows, orphans, those who can’t easily and financially hold on to property and means of production to provide for their daily lives, food, shelter and clothing.  In the letter from the Apostle James, we are told that true religion is one that has solidarity with the poor and the vulnerable.

Thus, hope for this sort of justice can reside not simply in some future wished for utopia, that may or may not be achieved, nor something that may or may not be realistic and realizable rather this hope is bound up in the very fabric of the universe and in the source of all that is.

When Martin Luther King Jr. affirms the aphorism “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”, this isn’t some generic hope, but a faith statement about the one has aimed the bow and the arrow is on target.  This is faith in the God who is revealed to us in the Hebrew prophets and in Jesus of Nazareth. That is Martin Luther King Jr. isn’t in that moment talking as a politician of a political party nor as a patriot of a certain nation state, but as a member of the people of God, Israel, the Church. He is speaking as a preacher and a prophet.

The above aphorism. isn’t a hope in humanity’s ability to progress based in humanity alone, but in God’s work in history

Hope then in its activist form is seeking to act in accordance with this goal. This is what makes hope a discipline.  The virtue of living in conformity with the long arc of bent towards justice, is to live in a certain way. Hoping in this manner is especially a disciple when a present moment seems at odds with what is hoped for. As a Rabbi friend says it is to act as if.

The difficulty and the virtue of hope is that some aspects of the current moment will appear to be an argument against having hope.  If hope is merely wishful thinking, if we can’t say truthfully that in some sense justice, wholeness, true life isn’t the goal isn’t the direction of things, then no living as if will counter what immediately appears.

Hope that is a virtue and can be a discipline is to have hope in something that is true beyond a certain instance. It is to hope in something that is true about our deepest selves and the entire universe and of human being.  Different philosophies and Spiritualties may give different reasons for it being there or exactly how to describe it but it must be an affirmation that our goal forms us into our truest selves.  Simultaneously it must also affirm that this goal is beyond any one of us or any moment. The fulfillment of this hope is beyond us but partly realized in us in moments even if not yet landing its mark in time.

Works consulted in writing this essay:

King, Martin Luther, Jr.  Sermon at Temple Israel of Hollywood , February 25,1965 http://www.americanrhetoric.com/speeches/mlktempleisraelhollywood.htm . Last accessed 11/25/

Pieper, Josef, Faith Hope Love, Ignatius Press, San Francisco, 1997, pp 87-138

Review of Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!

Tom Sine’s Live Like You Give a Damn!:  Join the Change Making Celebration is an introduction to social entrepreneurship and community empowerment for the moribund congregation unaware of these things.  The book is not for anyone already aware and involved.  Sine believes these movements are in differing ways expressions of God’s reign. Yet for a book that wishes to awaken within these congregations the alternative vision of reality of the kingdom of God, there is little critical analysis of what he presents in relation to a concrete theological vision of the reign of God., While I agree with the author a great deal both in the social entrepreneurial field and especially the community empowerment field are signs of the movement of the Spirit and movement towards the reign of God, but at times the author seems to believe that capitalism as such is the engine of God’s work in the world.

I can see that it would have been difficult for the author to balance his desire to encourage congregational engagement with social entrepreneurship and at the same time sustain a certain critique of the underlying system. Again, I’m aware this book wasn’t addressed to me, nor my own concerns.  However, even recognizing this the author seems to equate most any change with the reign of God, thus discerning what may or may not be of God and the spirit and sign of God’s reign in our midst is absent from his vision.

I was particularly encouraged by the authors various accounts of community empowerment.  And what he chose to recount in the realm of social entrepreneurship certainly bodes well for our future, and gives reason for optimism.  Yet, although he spoke of having an alternative vision of the reign of God, Sine is fairly vague about what the reign of God might look like and where it might lead us. Such that in the end the reign of God looks remarkably like reformist neo-liberal capitalism, in which for profit enterprise (now oriented towards making a profit while also working for the common good) and the need for investors who will get a return on their investment, remains the prominent engine for change.  As I see it the Gospel and the reign of God remain a challenge to both social entrepreneurship and community empowerment.  While Sine encourages a great deal of dreaming and expressing our vision for there is little talk about discernment, or any sense that that not all change is necessarily for the better or even that all change even if for the better isn’t necessarily the in breaking of the Beloved Community.  As I read I was seeking some clear articulation of vision of the Gospel and the reign of God, that Sine saw as what should form us as the people of God. The sense I get from the book is more the mind set of a reformist capitalism and that social entrepreneurship should form us as the people of God, because of Sine’s conviction that God was at work in these things (which I think he’s correct, but we only can know that if we have a clear sense of end goal of the reign of God, and some sense of who we are to be as the body of Christ.  I would assert that if we engaged in this sort of discernment the Body of Christ would be in a better position to recognize moments when the Spirit is at work in the world and when the reign of God pops up in the midst of the world.  From the perspective of the Gospel the people of God are called to not seek the benefit of others and change the world for the sake of our own monetary and material benefit rather the Gospel and the reign of God, challenges us to give up these motives, for the benefit of others at times at the cost of our own wealth and benefit.  This requires more than a desire to make a profit and make money in an ethical way, but the abandonment for profit and wealth accumulation.

For the moribund Christian congregation who desires something more but is stuck and unsure how to move forward and let go of past forms of congregational life that no longer makes sense, this book could be a good catalyst for getting out of a moribund rut.  Even for such a congregation the book is only a beginning point.  Yet, the book lacks one needed component, and that is the articulation of the mind of Christ, and vision of the reign of God, that even challenges the good of social entrepreneurship.  If you or your congregation are already aware of various movements of change in the fields social entrepreneurship and community empowerment this book is not for you.  If you or your congregation wish to become aware of these fields and desire some aid in thinking through orienting your congregational life towards such movements this book may serve that purpose and could put a fire into some in the congregation, but it would need to be supplemented with a good resource on the radical nature of the Gospel and some extensive theological reflection on the nature of the kingdom of God. Without these supplements I find Sine and this book caught up to much in a theology of Change that isn’t necessarily an articulation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

New Changemakers
Mustard Seed Associates
Tom Sine interview on the Future of the Church
Tom Sine on Facebook
Tom Sine on Twitter


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR,Part 255.

Signs and wonders of Pentecost as material effects of God’s work on the earth.

If we focus on what is seen, heard, touched and is located on the earth in Luke’s account of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-21), we can gain a sense of what are the material effects of the incarnation and the descent of the Spirit. If we’ve encountered the reality of God come in Jesus of Nazareth, the Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, we will have seen it, it will have a material effect.  This material manifestation is oriented towards a goal, that is only understood if we know how to interpret what we are seeing hearing and handling.  These manifestations show God’s work on the earth. God’s work is to restore the relationship between God and God’s creation, to reconcile humanity and God. The purpose of God’s work in the world is relational, and is born out of God’s desire for us and for all creation: the work of God in the earth is aimed towards relationship and love.

Using the above framework, we can look at the manifestations of Pentecost and their interpretations given to us by Luke in his recounting of the Descent of the Spirit on the Church.  First the manifestation and its effect are things that are evident and noticeable. Sound of wind, tongues of fire that are seen, languages spoken.  Those who wanted to discount what was happening couldn’t deny the event they simply gave it another explanation, the drunkenness of the individuals around whom the commotion started. But the manifestations aren’t random either.  Sound of wind, tongues of fire: These are consistent forms of epiphany and theophany that the people of Israel have known and experienced. They aren’t new, remixed yes, entirely new, no.  God manifesting God’s presence through meteorological phenomenon especially wind, and in fire is consistent with the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, which the celebration of Pentecost marks. The effect of the coming of the Spirit as a continuation of the work of Jesus Christ, does so in continuity with the work of God in human history in people Israel. The manifestation and effect is relational and reconciling, it bridges gaps and breaks down barriers that simply are the case in the world.  Languages and location and identity divide us as human beings, on the Day of Pentecost God uses what divides to bring together, and shows that the intended effect of the incarnation and the passion is to bring together, to reconcile in relationship. Furthermore, Peter in referencing Joel tells us the effect is intended for all no mater one’s social location or identity and the speaking of all languages from all parts o the earth shows that your geographical location doesn’t matter. Yet the descent of the Spirit also doesn’t erase those differences or identities, rather the work of God makes possible relationship and connection where such seems impossible or difficult. Lastly, it shakes up what is considered inevitable, simply set in the nature of the cosmos, or dictated by the powerful.  Peter tells us that what we have seen in the descent of the Holy Spirit is the same as the cosmic powers of Sun and Moon being changed, shaken and upended.

On this Pentecost, what might we take from all of this?  First, Pentecostal and Charismatic manifestations and signs and wonders aren’t meant to be ends in themselves, without interpretation they are dead ends. Yet, to ridicule or otherwise diminish them is to deny the incarnation. To so ridicule or diminish is to deny that salvation is earthly and material.  The story of God’s activity in the world to reconcile God and God’s creation that begins with Abraham and is brought to fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.  If we attend to that story we will see that this reconciliation this transformation isn’t an escape from materiality and the earth, but is a deep and profound affirmation of all that God created.   Yet, many of the material conditions of our current worldly existence are at odds with God’s transforming and reconciling work on the earth and in the entire cosmos. The miraculous, or signs and wonders, are manifestations, epiphanies, that are meant to point out how and where God is at work.  We members of Christ’s body, the Church, should be both where these manifestations appear and those who are looking for these theophany. Yet, these epiphanies and theophany aren’t only the miraculous. We should find, in various ways, a transformed and reconciled and transfigured world replacing the world as we know it and find it.

The Church isn’t supposed to be seeking merely the reform of worldly structures and certainly isn’t supposed to be a means of escape from this earthly existence, rather it is to up end the worldly powers whatever name they go by: socialist, communist, capitalist, neoliberal, progressive, conservative, democracy, monarchy, ad infinitum.  God came to earth to transform and redeem and reconcile God’s creation the physical and material created universe, seen and unseen. The signs of the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost and the signs and wonders that manifested around the early Church and show up again throughout history, show us that God means to transform our material existence.  God’s reconciling work is for the earth, for all creation, for the entire universe. Our very existence is to be transformed, and it happens in time, in history and on earth. Yet, the work of God is also not from history, nor is it historical nor merely material. This is the incarnation, this is the coming of the Spirit, this is the meaning and reality of the Church in germ. Look, listen, be sent into the world so that we may truly see where God is at work and be ourselves individual and corporately sites of God’s reconciling and transfiguring work on earth, upending all world systems.

A Sonic Meditation for Good Friday

The Bridegroom

That this day should be called “good” isn’t obvious or clear.  If this day is good it is not in the events commemorated, but in what God is doing, and the pulling aside the veil of te systems of power and domination.  But also,  it is that the events commemorated on this day don’t stand alone.  The goodness of this day is that liturgically we aren’t simply caught in death and oppression.  In fact later today I will proclaim with many others in song and in reverencing a representation of the cross, that what the powerful and what the system of domination intended as death dealing is turned into, by God’s act and grace, something life giving.  Liturgically we live between horror and hope on this day.  What is good isn’t the violence dealt out, but God’s identification with humanity in defiance of that violence, exposing that empire and law are bound up in death.

The playlist opens with what the Maundy Thursday playlist ended. This reflects that the Three Days or Triduum is a continuous three day liturgy of Christ’s passion. The nervous energy becomes more subdued and focused.  A melancholy rejection of oppression, violence and the madness of the world. Of course at the center of this day is an  execution, and fittingly Nick Caves Mercy Seat sits at the center of the playlist.  Here, I chose a song that has the most direct and literal associations to the theme of this day.  The title of the song is a name for the cover of the Ark of the Covenant which sat in the Holy of Holies in the ancient Israelite temple. Since the Holy of Holies was only entered on the day of Atonement and only by the High Priest, the mercy seat is associated with the theology and ideas of atonement.  Cave has the voice of the person to be executed make not only specific allusions to Jesus’ crucifixion but even identifies his execution with that of Jesus.  In listening to it today I heard also, a reference to those “thieves” or “bandits” who were crucified with Jesus and the “thief” to whom Jesus’ says “This day you will be with me in paradise.”  The question of guilt or innocence has been abandoned by the one being executed and faces his death not unlike the “thief” who chides his compatriot saying that they, unlike Jesus, aren’t innocent.  Scholars are largely in agreement that those two theirs or bandits were most likely Zealots or members of Jewish resistance who used violence and brigandage in their opposition and defiance of the Roman occupation.

From the point of execution and the defiance and acceptance of fate, we enter death.  Death is the reality we face on this day not in despondency (though for Jesus disciples, this moment was a deep confusion and darkness) but in anticipation. even so, Jesus actually dies. Here is the death of God, this we can’t avoid.  We human beings, human systems of power and domination, killed God.  Thus, Today is also a day of repentance, of reflecting on the small and large ways take the side of Death, Empire, distorted religious power, and violence.  We repent because we know the love of Maundy Thursday and we know the end of the story. Yet, we also sit with the pain, the violence and our complicity with oppression and the degradation of others, whom God created and loves.  That is our sinfulness and our mad mad world. We face too that we will all face death.  What that death will be for us and what we will find in it, in part has to do with what we do with the tensions of Good Friday. Are we willing to sit within this space, or if we do we rush to triumph without pain.

There’s a heaviness as I finish listening. We are in a wilderness, from here (even though I know to expect the  dawn) the darkness overwhelms. The grief and pain of this mad world of ours washes over me and engulfs me.

What is difficulty of this day?

What did you hear in this playlist?  What are the resonances?

Are you lead to turn aside from certain things, to allow yourself to be transformed by the reality of this day and liturgical observance?

This is the second meditation in triptych.  The first is found here, a Sonic Meditation on Maundy Thursday. The third will be here tomorrow, a Sonic Meditation on Holy Saturday.

Mass on the Altar of the World

“Racial Tensions” or an affront to the Gospel?: White Christians against Martin Luther King Jr.

Rachel Held Evans has a post on white forgetfulness (She says Christian but she means white Christian) when it comes to our honoring of Martin Luther King Jr.

As we come to the close of this Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, I won’t focus on the above mentioned forgetfulness but seek to do what Rachel Held Evans suggests but didn’t do, read and examine both King and his opponents, in the letter of the 7 white and one Jewish clergymen and Kings response the  Letter from Birmingham jail.

First I think we should name who these clergy were and their affiliations and not just say 8 clergy.

C. C. J. Carpenter, D.D., LL.D. Bishop of Alabama. Joseph A. Durick, D.D. Auxiliary Bishop, Diocese of Mobile, Birmingham, Rabbi Hilton L. Grafman , Temple Emanu-El, Birmingham, Alabama, Bishop Paul Hardin Bishop of the Alabama-West Florida Conference, Bishop Nolan B. Harmon Bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the Methodist Church,George M. Murray, D.D., LL.DBishop Coadjutor, Episcopal Diocese of Alabama, Edward V. Ramage Moderator, Synod of the Alabama Presbyterian Church in the United States, Earl Stallings Pastor, First Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama

They represent the mainline denominations Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist. They aren’t local clergy but members of the hierarchies. These are men of authority and power within their denominations not simply rank and file clergy. Seven of these are White Christian clergy and one is a rabbi.  The presence of a rabbi is erased in claiming this letter is simply from eight clergy.  The rabbi’s presence perhaps, makes this letter not only more complex but more troubling.

The letter is brief and holds itself forth as representing reason and good order.   The situation is a “problem” that can be solved through the law, the courts, and reasoned discussion. A faith most whites still hold to strenuously to this day. They speak of racial tensions, and don’t speak directly to the injustices that are the underlying cause of those “racial tensions”. They also speak about outside agitators.  What is striking is how unobjectionable (if one forgets the real conditions of blacks at this time) and contemporary this letter sounds.  The letter makes no attempt at specificity, makes no mention of the actual reality of segregation.  The letter remains on the level of abstraction and generality and never mentioning by name the matter at hand, segregation.  Rather it is just “racial tension” and the need to solve the “racial problem.”  They object to tactics, that don’t fit with their expectations of peace, and law and order.  Even today white folks would rather talk about problems and how to resolve them and are concerned mainly about peace and tension and not real suffering or injustice.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s  reply Letter from Birmingham Jail is lengthy because, in contrast, he deals in specifics and concrete details and the reality of the oppression suffered.  When accused of being an outsider, he not only shows his connections to Birmingham, but shows those who claim to be insiders are really the outsiders, (willfully) ignorant of the actual conditions of those they call to patience.  While the eight clergy speak of law and order and the courts, urging slow incremental change that doesn’t disturb Whites and the status quo,  King speaks as a minister of the Gospel and out of the larger Christian tradition. King aligns himself with Paul. He quotes Aquinas, and shows his identification with Christ.  King doesn’t lash out and lambaste these prominent clergymen who are representatives of their Mainline White denominations, but he demonstrates, by their lack of care and concern for the conditions under which Blacks  suffer, their hypocrisy and abandonment of the Gospel.  He shows them to be moderate defenders of the status quo and not members of Christ. In the end as a preacher of the Gospel Martin Luther King, Jr. calls to repentance.

On this Martin Luther King Jr. Day I’m struck by the contemporaneity of the exchange. White Christian denominations and Christians have accepted the success of the civil Rights movement and King’s tactics because they succeeded and are facts, as much as because of any deep belief in their rectitude and Gospel truth.  This is mere acceptance of what has happened and little more, we have yet to embrace the transformation King was after.   We show our acquiescence by doing, as I’m doing here, nodding to this day and the honor we now believe is due to Martin Luther King Jr, as a personage of the past. What we haven’t done, what the denominations haven’t done, is repent.  We elided over the various ways in which in the very least White Christians have stood by as injustices were perpetrated and are perpetrated on Black people and at worst were perpetrated by we White Christians.  We want to embrace King as though we were right all along; as if it was some foreign power that kept us from siding with the suffering of our Black siblings in Christ, and seeing Black people as our fellow human beings.  When there was always only us White folk and no one else.  We weren’t forced or coerced but chose purely and simply a path contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ in blatant contradiction to the reality of the Body of Christ.

For Whites, Christian and non-Christian, our celebration of this day will be empty and hypocritical until we admit that King doesn’t belong among our pantheon of heroes.  King isn’t  honored because he is like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, and all our other White heroes, but because he is a minister of the Gospel and the truest and greatest American theologian (I must thank James Cone for this insight into King) and not a builder of America.

If Martin Luther King, Jr. calls us to our truest and most just selves as Americans, it is because he was a minister of the Gospel and a prophet of God, Father Son, and Holy Spirit. If we honor him in our pantheon of heroes it can only be because he exceeds them and isn’t really one of them.  He is the only one of our heroes to call us prophetically to repentance.  A call to which White Americans and Christians have yet to fully and truly respond.

In the Letter From Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King Jr. is prophetic, in all meanings of the word and set forth a warning and prediction that came true and continues to be true :

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust

We wonder why we are reduced to a shadow of what we once thought ourselves to be. We find ourselves in such a situation as described by King, because we have yet come face to face with what we did, and that we were never who we thought ourselves to be.  If there was true repentance we would cling less to the greatness of White America and its past, and would look to a future in which we as Whites no longer dominate or set the standards by which others must use to gain access to the goods of the world.  Here is the beginning of repentance and our transformation when we accept that those who have most consistently and truly been bearers of the Gospel and who show us Christ are truly those who have been oppressed by us since the founding of this Nation. All else is mere co-option of King and the Civil Rights movement in order to maintain the status quo and continue business as usual, expanded to include those who once served its ends without benefit or reward.

I hesitate to even post this, for I can claim no exemption.  Yet, I speak knowing I’m just beginning, that this is only a beginning.  We must somehow begin without attempting to justify our Whiteness, and make it clean by our own works.

Things have come a long way and there is yet a long way to go.

We can’t get there by seeking preserve Whiteness and the current order.

Love as insight : The Epiphany

Yesterday was the Epiphany. In the western liturgical calendar we focus on the adoration of the magi. Historically though, two other Gospel events are also celebrated, the Baptism of Jesus of Nazareth in the Jordan by John the Forerunner and the Wedding at Cana, where Jesus turned water into wine.  Among the Eastern Orthodox the feast is more commonly known as the Theophany and the focus is on the Baptism of Jesus in the Jordan. All three events are about enlightenment and God manifesting in human flesh.

Attend to the icons of these events.

adorationEpiphanyBaptism

These events and icons deepen our understanding of the birth of Christ, the Holy Nativity.  Each is a showing forth of God in our midst, and offers enlightenment as we contemplate them.

A hymn for the feast of the Epiphany, “Hastis Herodes impie”, in the Benedictine daily breviary, sets these three events together:

O cruel Herod, why the fear
That Christ has come to take your place;
His Kingdom  is not here below,
Who promises Heaven’s reward.

The Magi saw the star above
They followed it upon the way;
They found the true Light by its light,
And with gifts confessed him as God.

When the Heavenly Lamb descended
Into the rivers crystal waves,
He cleansed in us the dross of sins
Which he himself had never done.

A new revealing of his power:
the water reddened into wine;
Its nature changing in response,
When at his word it was dispensed.

Jesus, all glory be to you
Who has appeared to us this day;
To Father and to Paraclete
Likewise be praise forevermore. Amen

The coming of the magi does show that Jesus wasn’t to replace Herod.  Jesus’ threat to Herod wasn’t that of a rival claimant to being king of this client kingdom of Rome.  The magi aren’t Jewish, yet they come and adore the toddler Jesus as their king, bringing valuable and symbolic gifts.

Epiphany in the western tradition is the day God in human flesh is manifest to the gentiles through the the magi as representatives.  These magi are sometimes called kings because they come to represent the nations of the earth, the rulers of the nation’s paying homage to the one they are created to serve.

The baptism of Christ is also a manifestation. The magi come and recognize in the toddler Jesus an authority and honor and power, in the baptism of Christ we have manifestation of God in Human flesh and God as Trinity, the Father’s voice, the presence of the Spirit and the son as the bodily human person Jesus.

The Wedding at Cana is more obscure, the manifestation in its immediacy is hidden, the light shines forth from this event only in retelling and meditation.  But it is the first sign that Jesus Christ performed according the Gospel of John.  Such an ordinary and small thing to provide wine at a celebration of the wedding of someone who is unknown to us.  Just an ordinary inconsequential human being like all of us. And yet that is where by the urging of Mary, Jesus’ mother, we find a beginning of our enlightenment.

All these events are enlightenment, manifestation.  They are the meeting of heaven and earth.  These all are physical, political, fleshly enlightenment.

They can also easily be misunderstood.

All this is rooted in that God the Son (Word and Wisdom) became flesh and set up tent in our midst.  God in the incarnation has made home in matter  and in our flesh.  Our enlightenment begins in seeing God in human flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, a Jew.  We can easily miss that this insight comes from attending to the powerless, the inconsequential and the obscure, and not the powerful and prominent.

God in human flesh reorients our loyalties and priorities.  It always already challenges every political order as partial, relative, and incomplete. It reveals that all powers are to serve Christ but also shows that they always end up serving their own ends, their own attempts at survival and perpetuation.

The transformation, the justice and righteousness, we seek can’t be found in the powers and governments. Rather these powers and governments are in these  manifestations shown to merely be unwilling and often unwitting servants of God. They are in need of continual unsettling and continual call to move towards what they aren’t and can only be as limited historical entities.

God comes as a human being not as a representative of a state, or power, or government.  The path of justice isn’t found in the ordering of power, but in the solidarity of a humanity and physicality joined to God through the person and flesh of Jesus of Nazareth.  Justice is found and shone forth in God’s love for what is deemed by the powerful as lowly, inconsequential, and weak. Justice is found in those that the powerful believe need their help, patronage, and leadership.  It is in this one despised, like the masses of humanity throughout history, that God transforms the world and brings justice; through an announcement and act of love.

Jesus of Nazareth the Beloved is of no consequence or significance. Until the voice from heaven speaks, no one gives any attention to this man from Nazareth and even after that some question what significance this person Jesus can really have.  God doesn’t bring about transformation through the halls of power but through an unknown oppressed human being, whose life goes unregarded by the powerful and educated of his day. This is enlightenment and justice, Jesus of Nazareth the Christ, the Beloved, in whom we, all of humanity and all the cosmos, are one with God.

Words of Comfort and Call to Repentance #StayWokeAdvent

There was no manuscript for my sermon at the Oratory on Sunday December 7th, what follows is my own continuing reflection on a sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Edited 12/15/2014 for clarity and grammar

Scriptures for the Second Sunday of Advent were Isaiah, 2 Peter and the Gospel of Mark.  These Scriptures include words of comfort (from Isaiah) a call to wait patiently for the end(2 Peter), and a call to repentance (Mark).

What I asked us to sit with and I am still sitting with is hearing words of comfort together with call repentance in light of the anguish that so many feel and have long felt.

We though can rush too quickly to take on or apply these Scriptures to our context.  There are resonances surely but not necessarily an easy fit.

The call to comfort “my people” may easily resonate with the continued suffering of the African-American community as it continues to suffer under a racist system.  Yet the words of comfort spoken in Isaiah are to an oppressed people in exile but whom according to the prophets went into exile for their failure to act justly and to remember they were once an oppressed people freed by the act of God.  The people addressed aren’t just human beings in general or the oppressed in general but a particular people, who have been oppressed and then who oppressed their own, and who are now again a subjugated and exiled and oppressed people.

It was to those who returned from exile yet still waiting complete deliverance, once again under subjection and oppression, this time of Rome, These are those addressed by John the Forerunner’s ministry and baptism to repentance.  John the Baptist called the  people of God to repentance.

If we are to hear these Scriptures, in concert with what is revealed in our streets and is coming more and more to light in our institutions particularly the police, we must first hear the Scriptures as addressed to others, the people of God, Israel, the Hebrews, Jews.  I would say this is especially true for White Christians in the United States.

We as White Christians need to regain a sense of being grafted into the people of God.  We are those who weren’t a people and now are a people.  Then we can perhaps begin to repent of our sense of privilege and responsibility.

I’ve recently been reading from a variety of sources how often well meaning Whites seeking to be in solidarity with Blacks, will join a protest and then take the initiative or stick with only other Whites at the protest.  Or how the chant #Blacklivesmatter is changed to #alllivesmatter.  Also,  how attempts at acknowledging privilege (such as the problematic  #crimingwhilewhite) turns attention from the lives of Blacks and people of color to whites and our guilt and shame over our privilege.  These aren’t examples of repentance, but as often as not re-inscribe White dominance and privilege.

When there are studies that show that even whites who don’t express or show any overt racism or even racist attitudes still in simulation will give the benefit of the doubt to armed White men and will shoot people of color who are suspected of holding a weapon, we have some fairly deep and unconscious shit to turn from.  We need a change of mind and being.

Such a transformation for Whites may require  stepping back: letting others take the lead, being less concerned about ones identity as White or even to give up one’s need to speak.  What I hear from Black voices and people of color is that we as Whites need to listen and amplify their voices, not to speak ourselves.  Repentance for White Christians in America may be to turn away from all ways of self-preservation, including attempting to assuage guilt by seeking fix the problems.

Then if there is deep repentance and transformation by White Christians in that we begin to be able to see Blacks and people of color as truly human (thus #blacklivesmater) and as truly members of the Body of Christ.

We want to to do something so this will be difficult.  Yet, here, if we can here Peter’s words, there is an openness to God’s refining fire in us and the world.  At this moment there is opportunity in the turmoil and the protests to let the fire burn and refine.  We can allow this apocalypse ( unveiling) to push us to live according to truth and justice, that will hasten the day when God’s righteousness and justice will be all that we know.

Then in this is also our comfort both for we who wracked by guilt and shame for our being caught up and blinded by our privilege and dominance, but especially for those who suffer and are oppressed by the racist structures and actions of the police.

Words of comfort and call to repentance go hand in hand for the people of God. Sometimes as in our case some of the people of God need to repent for participating in the cause of oppression, so that those who are oppressed may find comfort.

This all begins by hearing “my people” as a people to whom we are foreigners, and to whom have been welcomed into by God in Jesus Christ.

White European Christians the Scriptures and the faith aren’t yours.  In fact we may have betrayed the very faith we think we can defend and spread.  Repent, and be comforted.

“Comfort O Comfort my people, God has come and is coming.  If justice seems slow in coming, it is because of God’s patience with all of humanity.  The place where God’s justice and righteousness shows forth fully is what God desires for all.  Let that knowledge change you. Seek that vision of the world and each other.

Comfort and change of mind and being go hand in hand.  Let your story dissolve into the story of a people of God journeying towards and awaiting the coming of God’s justice and righteousness that we don’t and can’t have or control. Give into the consuming and refining fire. Be comforted and repent.