The Myth of Innocence

CharlottesvilleToday is an eerie day. Yesterday was a day of horror: marchers with torches, KKK members with robes and flags and foolish-looking shields; clergy in robes facing miliamen in body armor, carrying huge guns; the sudden hurtling of a gray car into human flesh and bone.

Today, all is calm, as if waiting. Is that it? Are thousands of racists going to march through one of our cities, threaten those worshiping in a church, engage in domestic terrorism, and then…nothing? No forceful denunciation of hatred from the White House, no mass marches around the country….nothing?

A few days ago, I read these words from James Baldwin. They were hard to hear, but I also immediately recognized them as true:

White people were, and are, astounded by the holocaust in Germany. They did not know that they could act that way. But I very much doubt whether black people were astounded — at least, in the same way. For my part, the fate of the Jews, and the world’s indifference to it, frightened me very much. I could not but feel, in those sorrowful years, that this human indifference, concerning which I knew so much already, would be my portion on the day that the United States decided to murder its Negroes systematically instead of little by little and catch-as-catch-can….I have seen and heard and endured the secrets of desperate white men and women, which they knew were safe with me, because even if I should speak, no one would believe me. And they would not believe me precisely because they would know that what I said was true.  (The Fire Next Time, 1963)

The truth that Baldwin articulates is more readily apparent today, after we have seen the confederate flag flying next to the Nazi one, than it was the day before: the truth of the willed indifference of many white people to the suffering to which we collectively subject our black neighbors, both those of us who will that suffering and those who are appalled by it.

I was born in 1968, when the Civil Rights act had already been signed into law. I have never known a world in which the different peoples of America were not equal in the eyes of the law. And I have spent my adult years unlearning the optimism which that fact once gave me. I have spent them learning to see that, under certain pernicious circumstances, equality before the law counts surprisingly little in this world.

At this point, my fellow white Americans fall into roughly three groups: there are those who have embraced a racist ideology, whose numbers, I continue to hope, must inevitably shrink; there are those who act for the creation of a better and more equal world, whose numbers, while growing, remain too few; and there are those who persist in believing that the problem of systemic racism has been solved, or that it never existed, or no longer exists. They cling to the myth of their innocence.

It is to that third group that I am addressing these words:

After these last years, you have to be willfully blind and deaf to pretend that there is no problem, and that you are not complicit in it.

You have seen a man choked to death for selling cigarettes on the sidewalk.

You have seen the police officer who killed him fail to be indicted.

You have seen a man shot to death for complying with the instructions of a police officer at a routine traffic stop.

You have seen the police officer who did that exonerated.

You have seen poisoned water flowing from the taps of a majority-black city, while no one rectifies the situation. For three years and counting.

You have seen the police descend in force on protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, bludgeoning them and beating them and using tear gas and rubber bullets.

You have seen Nazis and white supremacists and white nationalists descend on Charlottesville with torches and heavily armed militia, and you have seen one of them drive a car into a crowd of unarmed civilians, and you have seen the police fail to suppress them with beatings or tear gas or rubber bullets. In fact, you have seen the police fail to suppress them at all.

You no longer have the excuse of ignorance.

Much as it pains me to admit this, the members of the so-called Alt-Right, which is simply a fancy word for racists, did one thing right at Charlottesville: They did not pretend they were powerless to effect change.

Every day, all over this nation, people of genuinely good will carry out our lives, comment on the racism we see around us, and feel powerless to make a difference on less than a very small scale, particularly under this President. But those bigots did not take refuge in a sense of powerlessness. They knew that they had power: power to march and power to make their beliefs known and power to organize and power, even, to elect a president. And their commitment calls our bluff, my friends. If the forces of evil and division believe that they have power and act on it, it is no longer acceptable for the forces of love to sit around wringing our hands. We, too have power: power we can create, power we can leverage, power we can use to make this country a less brutal place.

Too long, white Americans have clung to the myth of innocence. But Christianity isn’t about innocence: it’s about knowing the face of evil, and choosing what is good.

Inaction is also a choice, my friends, and it is a choice not to reach for what is of God.

I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your children may live. (Deuteronomy 30:19)

JCY2Aru

(For clarification, those are militia-members, not representatives of a national or state government.)

 

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Junk

sugar“Is that sugar?” The little boy’s eyes were bright with curiosity. “Why is there sugar in a museum?” The adults with him, who appeared to be his mother and grandmother, remained silent, but the boy asked again, “Why is there sugar here?” The two women looked at each other darkly. I felt for them. The four of us were standing on the first level of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture, and that sugar was part of the exhibit on slavery. How do you tell a small child that a whole world lost its moral compass so badly that for hundreds of years, they would have been willing to buy and sell and beat and kill him in order to get that sugar, so that their cakes might be light and fluffy, and their coffee not too bitter (at least, to those who were privileged to drink it)?

It wasn’t only the sugar, of course. There were also glass beads, and iron bracelets used as a form of currency, and rum. Junk, in other words. Items whose value was purely symbolic, and luxuries we could easily have done without. In all that dark place, telling the history of a dark institution, it was impossible to avoid noticing that pretty much the only thing of value was the people: the beautiful, dark faces of the visitors, the ones who were living images of God.

In many ways, it was the reverse of an ordinary museum. We are used to going to museums and seeing items of wondrous beauty and incomparable value: Monets and Raphaels and golden crucifixes and manuscripts whose artistry is beyond compare. In
those museums, it is easy to believe that the items on the walls are what is invaluable, irreplaceable, worth our sacrifice of one another. But the truth is wholly different. boy

Compared with you, compared with even the junkie on the street, those items are dross. It is you Christ came to save, not them. You who are the treasure of God’s heart. You, and all the others who breathe this air and walk this earth for so brief a span of time.

How will you honor God’s presence in them today, in them and in yourself?

What junk will you sacrifice so that they might flourish?

Liberty

George Washington Birthday Header_f49e7c49-3eff-4e44-9f65-0bb44c63c1e8Growing up in Alexandria, Virginia, as I did, the Revolutionary War becomes an intimate friend. After all, we were minutes from the homes of George Washington, George Mason, and Lighthorse Harry Lee, and an easy day-trip from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello. The old part of our town had been an important Revolutionary-era port, and it was not unusual to see bellringers in colonial garb walking down the sidewalks, or parades of minutemen with canon and fife.

At school, too, our curriculum was dominated by early American history; we studied the Revolution, read books like Johnny Tremain, and even learned how to churn butter and to spin and card wool, just like our Founding Mothers.  We learned all the great stories: Betsy Ross, Paul Revere, Ben Franklin with his kite and key, and, best of all, Patrick Henry at the Second Virginia Convention, crying out, “Give me security or give me death!”

Actually, that’s not what he cried out. The Founding Fathers and Mothers of our nation understood that certain things mattered more than the paltry security of body. Freedom to think, to grow, to learn, to set one’s own course — these were the inalienable rights of a human being (however they defined a human being), and those who fought for our freedom placed their lives, their livelihoods, and the well-being of their families into the balance in order to achieve that liberty.

The Constitution, too, reflects those priorities, beginning with these famous words: We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Security, here, is one good among many, and does not even take precedence: liberty, justice, and the general welfare of those in the Commonwealth all take their place alongside it.

Today, we hear talk of security far more often than we do of liberty. (Indeed, the word itself has gone out of fashion.) In the name of security, we are increasingly asked to abide the curtailment of those very liberties for which our nation’s founders spilled their blood.

But liberty, by its very nature, entails risk. Freedom of speech risks the possibility that someone will say something mean. Freedom of association risks the possibility that people may congregate for nefarious purposes. Freedom of religion means giving other people the right to worship in ways that offend you, or not to worship at all. Freedom of the press involves the possibility that a paper might publish an article that is not true — and the only check on such behavior (other than a libel suit) was and remains the determination of citizens to obtain their news from sources that have proved worthy of trust.

Liberty, by its nature, entails risk — and so does life. There are no guarantees. There is only the question: what kind of world is big enough for your heart? And the related question: what will you do to obtain that world for yourself and for others?

And so, this Independence Day, let us consider for a while what it means to be free: what you’d be willing to surrender and what you must never surrender if you wish to live as a free person upon this earth. Because whatever liberty is, we do know this: it is easily lost, and most difficult to regain. Treasure it, today and always.

Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death!                                                             — Patrick Henry, 1775

For freedom Christ has set you free.                                        — Galatians 5:1

 

 

Beyond Babylon

image_1705_2e-mojendo-daroEarly each morning, I light a candle and immerse myself in the words of the morning office, which is a form of prayer. Today’s lesson from Acts ended with an evocative phrase: “beyond Babylon.”

The context is a divine curse, as retold by St. Stephen: The Hebrew people, whom God has liberated from slavery in Egypt, have turned aside to worship the gods of their pagan neighbors, and God promises, “I will remove you beyond Babylon.” Babylon, of course, was the imperial neighbor to the east of Israel, which eventually engulfed the tiny kingdoms of Israel and Judah and removed their population from the land. And so the promise is one of exile, and it recalls the curse first spoken at the beginning of the human story, when God casts Adam and Eve and sets them to wander east of Eden.

But Babylon is much more than an ancient city; it became the mythological symbol of all that was evil in human life: power, corruption, idolatry, displacement, the worship of tower-of-babel-top-pieter-bruegel-hd-wallpapermoney, the pillaging of goods from the end of the earth, the enslavement of human bodies and souls to the pleasure of the rich and the voracious, all-consuming demands of commerce.

And so, today, I found myself wondering: what would it mean to be “east” of all that? Would it mean that we would be utterly surrendered to those forces, compelled to serve them with no hope of a return to life lived on a human scale, of life lived on our own land, among those we love, in relationship with our own community? Or would it, just possibly, mean seeking out a place that was genuinely beyond those forces — beyond where they could touch us, beyond where they could corrupt us, beyond where they could blight our lives?

The truth is, we need no divine intervention to make that choice; we make it every day, by what we choose, and by whom. We can choose to allow ourselves to be consumed by the things of this world, by work, by politics, by acrimony, by division. Or, we can choose to hold a part of ourselves aside, to open in our souls a secret place where only God can come, God and those we most love. We can choose to nurture bonds that matter, relationships of trust. We can choose to give our time to what we treasure, even if we have only shards of time to give. We can choose to opt out of a culture that defines us as consumers, and into a society that allows us to have aspirations beyond a sofa or a flat-screen television, into a society that allows us to be human beings.

James Rebanks writes, “Modern life is rubbish for so many people. How few choices it gives them. How it lays out in front of them a future that bores most of them so much they can’t wait to get smashed out of their heads each weekend. How little most people are believed in, and how much it asks of so many people for so little in return.” The signs of that disenchantment are everywhere today: in the anger of those who cannot get ahead, no matter how hard they work; in the savage ferocity of a police officer who assaulted an African-American man for jaywalking; in our unwelcoming attitudes toward those who are not “like us,” which assumes that life is a zero-sum game and closes its eyes to the possibility that those very people may bring the gifts we most need; in the increasing reliance of so many in our culture on alcohol, marijuana, and other substances, suggesting that their deepest desire is not to engage this life, but to dull themselves to its pain.

If the Bible tells us anything, though, it’s that a clear sign is a gift, even if what it points to is the fact that our way of life is untenable. And so, today, I invite you to wonder:

What would it look like to nurture lives that brought joy, that were rooted in community, Picnickers-in-the-parkthat engaged beauty and hope and tenderness? How can you be a part of making that happen, not only for yourself, but for others?

Beyond Babylon, there is a whole new world. I’ll meet you there.

 

______

James Rebanks quote is from his book, The Shepherd’s Life.  It is surprisingly wonderful.

For Philando

You shall not pollute the land in which you live; for blood pollutes the land. (Num 35:33)

My freshman year in college, I was living in a large city. One evening, I was taking the subway home from some kind of event. We pulled into a station and a lot of people got off; when the doors closed, I realized that I was alone in the subway car with a large man. I returned to reading my book, but after a minute or so, I became aware that something was not right. I looked up and found the man staring at me, intently. His eyes were glittering; he had unzipped his shorts and was pleasuring himself, staring at me with those glittering eyes.

I was terrified. I did not know whether his invasion of my personhood would stop there, or whether his actions were a prelude to a deliberate assault. I did know that he and I were alone and that I had no way off that train until we pulled into the next station, which was several minutes away. I remember going cold with fear. I remember praying.  I was as frightened of that man as I had been of anyone in my young life, but my fear gave me no right to pull out a gun and shoot that man. Nor should it have. The man’s actions were grossly inappropriate, but he did not proceed to assault me. He remained in his chair; the train pulled into a station; I jumped out of the car; the incident was over.

That was then; this is now.

This week, a jury acquitted a police officer of the murder of a school cafeteria-worker named Philando Castile. Mr. Castile was driving with his wife and small child when an officer pulled him over. Mr. Castile complied with the officer’s requests. He was polite. He was deferential. And about a minute after the officer approached the car, Mr. Castile was dead.

The jury’s verdict hinged on the question of whether the officer had been correct to feel threatened by Mr. Castile.  As with the other cases in which black men have been killed by police officers in the last few years, the jury concluded that the officer’s sense of threat was appropriate. But with all due respect, that is not the right question. Being perceived as threatening does not give someone a right to kill you.

I am a small woman, and I have lived my adult life in large cities. Most weeks, I encounter men who are threatening to me: men who are mentally ill and raving, or who seem to be strung out on drugs, or who are angry and aggressive, or who look at me in ways that are not benign. But I do not have the right to kill those men. I have the right to be prudent about how close I get to them; I have the right to refuse to interact with them; I have the right to remain in places where the presence of other people mitigates my sense of danger. I do all those things, and you know what? Not one of those men has ever tried to harm me. Not one. I manage those perceived threats without relying upon a gun, and all of us have gone our separate ways in peace.

And so I have to ask, Why are certain police officers so much less able to handle their fear than I am? And if they are so threatened by black men, why do they insist on interacting with them?

I’m being serious here. If they come upon a person who is engaged in an armed assault, of course they have to intervene. But if the person they’re afraid of is selling cigarettes on the sidewalk or driving a car with a tail-light that’s not working, why not give it a pass, or ask for help from an officer who is less afraid? After all, the vast majority of our police officers are not killing people at traffic stops or choking them on the streets of our cities. Most of them are honorable men and women who try to build relationships with the communities they serve, to maintain the public peace, and to go home each night without blood on their hands. I am deeply grateful for their work, and I trust that they could handle these incidents without resort to violence, or, at least, not to violence that has a fatal outcome.

I know that the police officers who keep us safe need to engage in prudent self-protection. But there is a difference between that and murder. There are Tazers. There are clubs. There is the simple tactic of avoiding confrontation. Because, in the end, fear is just a feeling, and a lot of what we fear never happens. If my continued existence or your continued existence is contingent on someone else’s feelings, rather than on our actions, none of us is safe. None of us is secure.

And the videotape is utterly clear: Mr. Castile did not engage in threatening actions. Trevor Noah asked, “How does a black person not get shot in America? Because if you think about it, the bar is always moving. The goalposts are always shifting. There’s always a different thing that explains why a person got shot. Oh, the person was wearing a hoodie. Or the person was running away from a police. Or, no, the person was going towards the police. Or the person was running around at night. Or, no, the person had an illegal firearm. Or the person didn’t have a firearm. But, at some point you realize, there’s no real answer.” Because the real answer isn’t in the actions of the person whose been killed. It’s in the fear of the person who did the killing.

So let me repeat: being perceived as threatening does not give someone a right to kill you.

Unknown

Conservators

fra-angelico-the-entombment-of-christ-ca-1450This afternoon, I had the opportunity to go behind-the-scenes at the National Gallery of Art, to tour the labs where skilled conservators work to preserve priceless works of art. At one table, a conservator examined a painting slowly under a microscope. Near a window, a woman in a black silk gown smiled enigmatically from a canvas by Van Dyke. By another window, a man wearing magnifying lenses worked painstakingly on a canvas by Fra Angelico, a painting of the entombment of Christ.

The painting was in dreadful condition. The faces of the figures were beautiful, but the background and robes had been ruined by a previous attempt at conservation, performed when harsh chemicals were all that had been available. The paint was marred and scarred, the colors of the robes muddied. Amid it all, the body of Christ shone out. The legs and torso were bright white — too white — while the face and shoulders were darkened by a deeply discolored layer of varnish. The conservator was working with a swab to clean the varnish off the corpus.

I asked him whether it could be made whole again. He replied that the damage to the landscape actually wasn’t bad, but that the real problem was the figure of Christ. “It should be pale, because he’s dead, but not that pale.” He said it was nerve-wracking, to have to reconstruct the central figure without much to go on, other than his studies of how Fra Angelico had depicted Christ in other paintings.

It would be nerve-wracking; I could barely have brought myself to do what the man was doing, touching a swab to something so ancient and so beautiful. But it is also what each of us must do: reconstruct the face of Christ anew in our lives, working by hints and guesses and old stories, tracing the lineaments we have been handed down, giving them living color as best as we can imagine it.

It is up to us whether to paint Christ living or dead, whether to honor his presence in every single person and creature, or to efface it by any means we have. Honoring it means giving them freedom and the wherewithal to succeed (food, shelter, education, moral teaching, faith, love, joy, cause for hope). To efface it, all we need do is withhold those things, without which our souls stumble. Some are more important than others. People can flourish without education, but not without love or hope.  However, each of these things is necessary in some measure if we are to realize the potential that God placed within us and show forth God’s full glory to the world.

Irenaeus wrote, “The glory of God is the human being fully alive.”

Fully alive.

20160301_limon_dance_winged_3x2
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Photo depicts Jose Limon Dance Company.

The painting I’ve included is of the Fra Angelico, before restoration. In the version I saw, the image is a lot less complete, but the colors are true. For example, cleaned of the discolored varnish, the brown hill on the left is now revealed to be green, and the robes of the seated figure with her back to us are lovely shades of lavender.

 

Ragnarok (A Pentecost Meditation)

götterdämmerung-apocalypseWhen I was a child, I loved to read mythology. There was D’Aulaire’s Greek Myths, with the Chariot of the Sun driving across its cover, and the beautiful, petty, unexpectedly noble gods vying for power and love within. There were the Egyptian myths, more frightening to a young girl, with their half-human deities rending one another’s flesh and the cackle of jackal-headed Anubis. The ancient Hawaiians, riding ti-leaves down mud slides and savoring their poi. Among them all, the only ones I could not embrace were the myths of the ancient Norse, with their dark pessimism and their certainty that at the end of time, the gods and heroes would enter into battle with the forces of evil, and the gods and heroes would lose. The great divine city of Valhalla would burn to the ground, the earth would subside back into the raging waters, and all living things would be destroyed. They called it Ragnarok, the Doom of the Gods, and it ushered in a return to primeval darkness and silence, before, by some unspoken word, the world would be born anew.

This has been a Ragnarok kind of week. It began with the killing of two courageous witnesses who spoke out against anti-Muslim hate speech in Portland. It continued with acts of terror in London and in Kabul. In between, the President of the United States announced that he was withdrawing our country from the Paris Climate Accord, which prompted an avalanche of writing about the actual end of the world.

How fitting, then, that today should be the Feast of Pentecost, when the world is not ended, but reborn. Oh, it had looked like the end. Christ had died, horribly. The disciples had huddled in fear behind locked doors. And even after the Resurrection, they remained there — heartsick, shaken to their core, and terrified. But on the Day of Pentecost, they went to the Temple, and there rained down fire from heaven — not the fire that would consume the world, but the fire of divine love.

If it seems to you like the world is ending, it might be. Both these stories, the true myth of Pentecost and the ancient tale of Ragnarok, struggle to communicate a deep reality. People die. Civilizations die and change and emerge unrecognizable for what they were. Within any one life, there are countless small deaths, and, if we live with hope and with courage, enough new births to equal countless-plus-one. We cannot grow without letting go of who were were. We cannot mature without setting aside childish things. And sometimes, we are made to watch the destruction of things we love, of people we love, and continue breathing in naked faith, trusting that the God who came to us in fire will come to us still.

We who are people of faith,
we who, like the first apostles, struggle to believe,
we who walk (sometimes) in darkness, and
(sometimes) do not walk at all —

We who will not surrender hope
Who turn and
Turn again
The face the light,

Or to find it,

We who weep and we who mourn and we who dance
because at any rate, it will not do harm, and might,
if the balances are exact,
evoke a blessing

Still we walk in the fire of love
We breathe it even when our hearts are breaking
(Perhaps, especially, when our hearts are breaking)
And it is not the fire of the end

But the fire that leaps from the plain white page
At the beginning of the chapter
At the beginning of the book

The one we have yearned for all our lives
The one whose letters
burn with love.

 

Pentecost_mosaic

 

 

 

How do we know?

In this week’s Gospel story, Thomas confronts the claims of the other disciples that Jesus has risen from the dead, saying, “Unless I see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:25) It is a bold statement, one that raises the obvious question of the reliability of these witnesses to the Resurrection, and the less obvious question of how we know anything at all (what philosophers call “epistemology”). Do we trust, as Thomas claims to, the evidence of our senses? The evidence of eyewitnesses? The results of carefully-constructed experiments? What do we do if these means of knowledge tell us something we do not want to believe, something that would make a claim on our lives, something that would compel us to change?

That is the question that our culture is wrestling with now, as we push back and forth against one another about the reliability of science. To me, this debate derives from a fundamental unclarity in our thought.

In her book The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers distinguishes the law of nature from the law of opinion. She writes, “The word Blake.jpeg‘law’ is currently used in two quite distinct meanings. It may describe an arbitrary regulation made by human consent in particular circumstances for a particular purpose, and capable of being promulgated, enforced, suspended, altered, or rescinded without interference from the general scheme of the universe.” Such laws might include a speed limit for drivers, the age at which a citizen is allowed to vote in an election, the rules of a game. However, she notes that “law” is also used to describe a pattern of invariable observed facts, such as the Law of Gravity or the Law of Entropy. “Such ‘laws’ as these cannot be promulgated, altered, suspended, or broken at will; they are not ‘laws’ at all , in the sense that the laws of cricket or the laws of the realm are ‘laws’; they are statements of observed facts inherent in the nature of the universe.” In the first meaning, “law” really refers to a humanly-determined reality. For instance, if you kick a soccer ball into the goal across the end zone, you will score, unless Those in Authority change the rules. In the second case, however, causation is built into the fabric of the universe. if you knock a cup off a table, it will fall; and if Congress legislates that from now on, all cups will rise instead, the cups will not comply.

There seems to widespread confusion about these two sets of ideas in our culture right now, with people acting as if the laws of nature can be ignored or repealed at will, forestwhile the fact is that they are inexorable. The real trouble, I think, comes from a confused epistemology. Science relies upon the idea that the evidence of our senses (or, at least, of our sensors) gives us real knowledge about this world in which we live.  (I’m leaving out the complexities of quantum science and uncertainty here.) But pulling against this, there is another strand of thought, one which teaches that the world as we can perceive it is not the world as it is, and, perhaps, that the world we can perceive is not the world that matters. This kind of dualist thinking, which comes from the Classical world, pervades a certain kind of theology: theology which teaches that we should focus our attention on ultimate things (God, the afterlife, the state of our soul), not on the things that pass away. To some extent every faith tradition must embody this idea, if these traditions are to free us from the tyranny of the urgent and the distorted imperatives of our nature, and find us a space from freedom and self-determination.

But with all due respect, we live in penultimate world. Everything in this world is passing away, and is no less worthy of our attention for that. The lily that blooms but a day, the child who will not live to turn forty, the dogs who press their wet noses into our palms — these are some of the most beautiful gifts that God can give us, even though they will not last forever. To ignore them is base ingratitude; to injure them, a spiritual failing.

Too often, we speak as if “faith” and “science” are opposed, but I do not believe that dichotomy exists. For a believer, it is God who created this world, with all the mechanisms and laws by which it works. God, in other words, is the author of the reality which science enables us to understand. Jesus even teaches that nature can show us the mind of its maker, urging us to consider the birds, the lilies, the growth of a vine.

Monty Python once did a wonderful skit imagining a dialogue between a pope and Leonardo over a painting of the Last Supper. Rather than the usual, somewhat stark portrayal, the painter has populated his picture with dogs running at the disciples’ feet, servant-girls waiting the table, a jester, an exotic animal or two. The Pope is not pleased. He raises objection after objection in a tone of utter outrage, until finally Leonardo exclaims in exasperation, “Then call it the Ante-Penultimate Supper!”

I do not believe we are living in the End Times, but we are clearly in the Ante-
Penultimate ones. The damage we are doing to this world is piling up and will soon be burtynky-mined-1200both unmanageable and irreversible, a whole series of wounds into which we can thrust our fingers and which we can touch with our hands. There are the copper mines which have become lakes of hydrochloric acid. The mountains whose tops have been removed for coal. The lands devastated by over-grazing. The aquifers emptied to provide for human need and human waste. The tides which are routinely flooding streets in Florida and in Virginia. The drought-induced famines that are displacing millions of people around the world. These are not the stuff edwardburtynsky-2of fiction; they are our life, and if we can look at these wounds and fail to weep, we are hardened indeed.

At the end of the Thomas story, Jesus appears to the disciples again, this time when Thomas is there. He greets Thomas and invites him to see the marks of the nails, to touch the wound in His side. And Thomas cries out, “My Lord and my God!”

Usually, we hear those words as a profession of faith: Thomas becomes the first of the disciples to acknowledge the divinity of Christ. But what if that’s not it, at all? What if
Thomas cried out, not in faith, but in horror; what if he was the only one of the Twelve who could look upon the maimed and degraded body of Christ, that body which retained its scars even in the Resurrection, and acknowledge the full pity and cruelty of what weedward-burtynsky-water-08-690x514 had done? Perhaps the path to salvation involves more than faith in a God who transcends what is physically possible in this world. Perhaps it lies in accepting full moral responsibility for this earth, not as we desire it to be, but as we have made it. Only then, perhaps, will be be able to cry out to God and be heard.

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Notes:

Öèôðîâàÿ ðåïðîäóêöèÿ íàõîäèòñÿ â èíòåðíåò-ìóçåå Gallerix.ruInterestingly, the painting from the Monty Python skit actually exists.  It’s a Veronese image that the painter had to defend before the Inquisition, and which was eventually re-titled “The Wedding at Cana.”

The photographs of environmental devastation are by Edward Burtynsky, a powerful photographer whose work rewards study.

2e083569e4b4ca1817a2d346091eb314In the middle of yesterday afternoon, a friend texted to let me know that our government had dropped a bomb on Afghanistan. And so all evening, as we gathered around tables and broke bread and shared wine, I had that image in the back of my mind: the image of our own capacity to kill, and of our fearsome eagerness to use it.

At the start of our worship, a monk rose and read a lesson from Exodus, the instructions for sacrificing the Passover lamb: Tell the whole congregation of Israel that on the tenth of this month they are to take a lamb for each family, a lamb for each household….  For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both human beings and animals; on all the gods of Egypt I will execute tumblr_nncaeqQmGf1utmbrco1_1280judgements: I am the Lord. Behind those words, I seemed to hear the drone of a plane, the slow opening of a cargo hold, the silent fall of death. The passage is striking in its ambivalence: God as dealer of death and of life, God as the one who judges, by what tenets we cannot know.

How different are the actions that Jesus gives us his last night: Washing the feet of those he loves. Kneeling before our humanity, even knowing that we will give him up to death. Offering his body. Offering his blood. For a Christian, these reveal the true nature of God: the God who serves, the God who loves, the God who offers himself to spare us.

Earlier this week, Sean Spicer scandalized our nation when he casually said, “he [Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people.” It was a bizarre thing to say about a leader who had, in fact, killed eleven million people in the gas chamber. But, I have to say, Spicer was right. Hitler did not gas “his own” people; he gassed God’s people. Hitler did not own the people whom he gassed, nor was their ultimate loyalty given to him. People should not be in that kind of relationship with one another. If we even begin to think it, we begin to divide our world: “our” people/ not “our” people.

Scripture says otherwise. The only people we can gas are God’s people. The only people we can bomb are God’s people. The only people we can starve, torture, rape, imprison, or kill on the streets are God’s people. There are no people who do not belong to God.

This day, Good Friday, makes that clear. When Christ was crucified, hanging between two criminals, he chose to die with the lost. He chose to die with the broken, with the outcast, bc5aea349baed2bea35f49eee298920bwith the shameful, with those who were filled with shame. And he died, not only with them, but for them. We cannot claim that he died for us, but not for others whose sins are as red as ours. We cannot claim that he has saved us, without acknowledging that he has offered that salvation even to those we despise. We cannot claim that his mercy does not extend to the godless, to the pagan, to those who practice other religions or none — not when he cried out, with his dying breath, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

How quickly we arrogate to ourselves the prerogatives of God,  weighing and judging and dealing out death– forgetting that, in the Passover story, the greatness of God was shown, not in the slaughter, but in the fact that some were spared. The Talmud, the ancient commentary that forms the core of the Jewish faith, writes that as the Egyptians were drowning in the Red Sea, the angels in heaven began to sing and to praise God, but God waved them to silence. And staring into their shocked faces, he asked, “My children are perishing, and do you rejoice?”

The God we worship does not rejoice in the death of the wicked, but rather that they may turn from their sin and be saved. What does it mean to love the wicked? Look on his face, and see.

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Antichrist

picture-of-antichristI began my ordained ministry at a parish in Alabama, where the Antichrist was a Thing. People worried about the Rapture, or hoped for it; they read the Left Behind books; they saw themselves as spiritual warriors.

One man, who haunted our parking lot, seemed to have been driven mad while reading Left Behind. He wasn’t there often, but I came to know that if my day was going wrong in a certain kind of way, if the pastoral or ministry needs were cascading out of control, then the last thing that would happen as I was leaving the church was that he would accost me in the parking lot and demand to speak with me about End Times. I did not find it a redeeming conversation.

At the time, I thought much of this activity was fatuous; it was a way for people to feel that they were being religious while focusing their energy on something that was completely out of their own control and which would have no positive impact on the world. At its worst, as in the Left Behind series, this fixation was probably even unspiritual: it allowed people to feel superior to others, whom they felt free to torment and degrade in their imaginations, believing that it was all part of God’s plan. This is not the behavior that I believe was modeled by Christ.

Today, however,  I would point to a different danger: that in directing our attention toward the Antichrist, we miss the point that there are many antichrists, that, at times, each of us is opposed to the will of God in our lives and in the world.

A brief Google search on images of the Antichrist will pull up images of Obama, Trump, Putin, George W. Bush, and Pope Francis, together with Adolf Hitler, Desmond Tutu, and assorted mullahs. This is, at least, remarkably ecumenical, but it points toward the ease of using this term as a label for whatever we dislike or find objectionable in the world around us and in our leadership.

Its real purpose, I think, by which I mean its only fruitful purpose, is to ask us to think deeply about what is of Christ and what is not, which is a rather different question than asking who is of Christ and who is not. Jesus commands us to care for the poor, to feed the hungry, to visit the prisoner, to heal the sick, to gaze in reverence and wonder at the lily, the bird, all the beauty of this earth. Whatever in our life and in our culture supports these commandments is pro-Christ; whatever undermines our individual or collective capacity to live into them is antiChrist, at least in the small-A sense.

The issue is not who does things that oppose the will of God, because we all do them, most of us frequently. As Solzhenitsyn reminds us, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”  Our work, and particularly in this Lenten season, is to foster the good and to turn from what is evil, not because it will never recur in our heart, but because it will recur, over and over again, and the only thing we can do as people striving to be holy is to turn away each time.

There is a need, in this work, for mutual accountability. When we see one person tending in a strongly unChristlike direction, we do need to point it out, to protest, to remind them of the best that we are called to be, that being human involves caring for the least of us, each day. But we won’t get there by demonizing people as Antichrist. We will only get there by speaking to the Christ in them, no matter how deeply buried it seems to be.

And if they are utterly resistant, then it is the work of the rest of us to protect the vulnerable and aid the victims, for in truth, there will be casualties if cruelty becomes the new normal. What is antiChrist is, ultimately, not a matter of doctrine, but of our humanity. We can be human, or we can be antiChrist. Let us choose humanity.