A House Divided

 

Jesus said, “If a kingdom be divided against itself,
that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself,
that house cannot stand.” (Mark 3:24-25)

You’d have to be willfully blind not to notice that these are anxious times in our nation. Whoever you are, wherever you fall on the political spectrum, it’s hard to a-house-dividedescape the sense that we are a house bitterly divided: by political affiliation, by race, by degrees of wealth and of education, by gender, by national origin, by ideals of the good life and of who should be included in it. Each day, the rhetoric gets more heated, with Republicans and Democrats accusing one another of crimes, sending out clickbait, comparing one another to Nazis. Every day and every night, our pundits go at it, on Fox, on CNN, on Breitbart, on CNBC and NPR, tossing around names and strategies as if they were calling a boxing event: Pelosi, Schumer, Trump, Obama, Ryan, Bannon, Republican, Democrat, Centrist, Extremist, asking, Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna win? Who’s gonna win?

With due respect to everyone in the room, I’d like to suggest that if that’s the question we are asking, we are all going to lose. As the pledge of allegiance reminds us, we are called to be one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all, and we stand or fall together. We have never lived fully into that aspiration — for the first seventy years of our nation’s history, women, African-Americans, and poor white men were not allowed to vote — but we have been guided by that sense of liberty and justice in such a way that we have, gradually and at a high cost, pushed against our own limitations in an attempt to extend liberty and justice to all. That’s why it is so frightening now to hear ourselves demonize one another, speak of fellow citizens as if they were enemies of all that is good and honorable and true. It is contrary to the better angels of our nature, and it is damaging to our republic. A house divided cannot stand.
The causes of our division are manifold, rooted in history and economics and regional ideology and the different ways in which we think of identity, but I think that underneath it all is a deep-rooted spiritual malaise, one which is illuminated by our reading from Samuel — our fundamental ambivalence about our freedom.
The scene opens when Samuel is in his old age. Samuel had been called by God as a child and had led the people of Israel faithfully and well, but now they come to him and demand a king, saying, “We will have a king over us, that we may be like the other nations.” (I Sam 8:20) It seems like a reasonable enough request, to be governed like other nations. What could go wrong??

The answer lies in what came before the kingship, when Israel was not like other nations precisely because the other nations were led by men, but Israel was led directly by God. When the Hebrews came out of Egypt, God dwelt among them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. God signaled when they should march and when they should remain in camp. And while Moses governed the people day to day, when there was a particularly vexing issue, he could enter into the direct presence of God and ask for wisdom. Following Moses’ death, Joshua appeared, then a series of men and women who are known as judges. Judges arose on an ad hoc basis, mostly when Israel was facing some kind of threat. Each was called directly by God; each led Israel for a time; but none passed on the leadership to their offspring. They were more like presidents than kings: chosen for a season, with the understanding that they would not be in leadership forever.

In a system with temporary leaders, true authority remains vested elsewhere: with the people, and, in the case of the Hebrews, with God. That’s why, when the Hebrews demand a king, God comforts Samuel, saying, “They have not rejected you. They have rejected me.” (I Sam 8:7) The one thing that the system of judges required was faith: faith that God would raise up leaders when they were needed, and faith that the people would come to one another’s defense when those leaders called. It was a system that endowed the Hebrew people with powerful freedom — freedom to make choices, freedom to respond to the Spirit of God.

Samuel brought that lesson home when he tried to warn them of the dangers of monarchy. He shows them what it will look like when the resources that are meant to sustain everyone — food, drink, livestock, human labor — are diverted instead to serve the whims of one man and his family and their overweening need for power and for display. He gives them a choice between an egalitarian society and one in which the many serve the needs of the few — and the Hebrews choose the latter. They opt to David_BeheadingGoliath_4206-1080x575surrender their freedom for what they believe to be security. When they ask for a king, they ask for a strong man, a leader who will “fight their battles for them”— as if any king could fight a battle without an army! The truth was that the Hebrews were going to be fighting their own battles, either under the leadership of God or of a mortal man. And yet, they feared the demands imposed by freedom. They renounced responsibility for their own lives, and displaced it onto a leader.
Looking at America in the 21st century, it is hard not to suspect that we may have engaged in a similar displacement. A strong sense of personal and civic responsibility lay at the roots of our national project. In the 1830s, when Alexis de Toqueville visited the United States, he was astonished at the culture of civic volunteerism. He wrote, “Americans use associations to give fêtes, to found seminaries, to build inns, to raise churches, to distribute books, to send missionaries to the antipodes; in this manner they create hospitals, prisons, schools. Finally, if it is a question of bringing to light a truth or developing a sentiment with the support of a great example, they associate…As soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.” He described, in other words, a vibrant civic culture, one in which Americans worked together for the common good, even though most of them did not yet have the right to cast a ballot.
If you look at the United States today, that spirit of engagement has drained away, replaced by the more-or-less complete privatization of our lives. The unrelenting pressures of the job market have eroded the time we have available to give to one another. When we do get home, the temptation is to grab whatever time we have to be with our families, or just turn on the television and zone out, or ingest a substance and zone out, or go shopping and drown our anxieties in a flood of unnecessary consumer activity. If we do notice what is going on around us, we flood the internet and social media with commentary — none of which actually engages the tools we have been given, as citizens of a democracy, to effect real change. And if all that seems isolated and hollow, mental health professionals will give you pills to dull your pain, rather than engaging in costly talk therapy that might motivate us to change our lives. In contrast to the promise of our democracy, many of us feel sharply disempowered, too small to make a difference even for the things we care about, and too focused on our own survival to care that our neighbor is drowning. And then we become frustrated and bitter that our government is not managing to do what we, ourselves, were meant to be doing for one another.
The Bible reminds us, however, that human nature is not weak, but strong, infused with the image and vitality of God. Adam and Eve did not understand this: when the serpent whispered to Eve, “You shall be like a god,” she forgot in whose image she had been made. To lure her to transgress, the serpent offered what she already had in full measure, and in agreeing to be seduced, Adam and Eve became in fact the debased and weak creatures they thought they had been all along.
But in Christ, God has restored our agency. He has healed our human nature and returned to us our power and our strength and our courage and our hope. When God raised Jesus from the dead and left the disciples and Mary Magdalene to peer into an empty tomb, he showed us that all our anxieties are paper tigers. The bad things of this world may leave scars in our flesh, but they cannot contain the life of God that surges within us and lifts us from the ashes and frees us to claim our freedom.
Witness St. Paul: born in Judaism, he persecuted the early disciples of Jesus, encountered God and underwent a radical conversion, and spend the rest of his life traveling all over the Roman Empire — on foot, by boat, in danger, in peace — proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ, until he was captured and brought to his martyrdom.
Paul was propelled by a strong faith: faith in God, yes, but, more specifically, faith that God would use him, Paul, to make a difference in this world. For Paul, conviction and action were inseparable: “I believed, therefore have I spoken.” (II Cor 4: 13) He knows that belief is a verb, not simply a disposition of the heart, a verb which propels us outward in the service of others. “All things are for your sakes,” he writes, and then he explains the source of his strength: “though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing us for a weight of glory eternal in the heavens.” (II Cor 4:16-17) Paul has his security, a security that is found not in the size of an army or the strength of a warrior, but in the unbreakable promise of God: that even if Paul’s body, his earthly tent, is dissolved, “we have a home prepared for us, eternal in the heavens.” (II Cor 5:1) He knows that no power on earth can destroy him, that no loss on earth will be final, that even death will not have the final word. And knowing these things, he takes courage — courage to speak what is true and to do what is right.
Paul shows us the true nature of Christian faith: it propels us out of our private sanctuaries (which too easily fetter us in isolation) and turns us back to the world. Always, we are tempted to surrender our power: to God, to man, to the state, to a leader. But what if we are not meant to surrender it, but to use it? It is, after all, the power to do good, to use our creativity in the service of the welfare of everyone in our society. And that is not a matter of forcing everyone to become Christian, but of being a Christian to everyone — of honoring them with Christ’s own love. There is only one place in which
Jesus speaks of the criteria by which we will ultimately be judged, and his criterion is si
mple: “as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have done it to me.”(Matt 25:40)

The healing of our divided house does not rest in the hands of any leader, but in ours. We are the ones who know the needs of our communities; we are the ones who have the capacity to respond — to give, to care, to act. There is no king or strongman or president who can save us from that responsibility, and no savior will do so. After all, it is our very God and savior who has given us that freedom, who has commanded us to love our neighbor and our enemy and the stranger at our gates, to name them our brothers 2015-Monterrey-Day-2-4787-1600x720and sisters and mothers. This world is in our hands, and that is a daunting challenge. But we are in God’s hands, and with God, all things are possible.

** De Tocqueville quotes are from Democracy in America, 1835, 1840. The analysis of our contemporary culture is indebted to Bruce E. Levine, “Are Americans a Broken People?”, rawstory.com, June 5, 2018.

 

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How, then, shall we go on?

rubens_apostel_mattiasThat is the central question which confronted the disciples in the dark days following the crucifixion of Christ, and it is their answer we honor today as we commemorate the Feast of St. Matthias. The election of Matthias as a kind of substitute apostle to take the place forfeited by Judas is remarkable, not for its occurrence, but for its context. The world of the of disciples had been shattered. For three years, they had lived in community and in hope, they had learned and grown and prayed; all that had been ripped away in the brutal slaughter of the man they had hoped would save them. They had come to the time of need; they had failed to protect the one they loved; they had learned that were not the men they had hoped to be.

The task that was before them forms the central work of Lent: to find a way to emerge from our self-made tombs and live. Over the last few days, I have heard a number of preachers talk about the three pillars of Lent: prayer, fasting, and the giving of alms. Each of these is a form of what the church calls mortification — not a word that sounds like we should seek it out! We hear an echo of it when we say to a friend, in great embarrassment, “I just about died,” but in the context of our life of faith, it means putting to death the things that are killing us.

St. Paul writes, “‘All things are lawful for me,’ but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me,’ but I will not be dominated by anything.” (1 Cor 6:12) He is speaking of the distinction between the freedom we have been given in Christ— which is absolute, and the uses to which we direct it. In Christ, we possess absolute freedom of self-determination, but paradoxically, exercising that freedom requires us to choose a self-imposed restraint, deliberately fostering in ourselves those qualities which will build up our souls in love, and denying the clamoring impulses of our false self —- the one which cries an incessant chorus of “Me! Me! Me!” The one which might lead us to put our own desires before the needs of others, denying them what they need to thrive — or even what they need to live. And we have seen, as did the disciples, that sin is not a joke, that it’s not sneaking the last brownie from the fridge. It’s a cancer that will metastasize and destroy what we want to love as long as we tolerate its presence in our midst.

And so the disciples gather. They huddle in an upstairs room and try to chart a course forward. And they choose to act in hope. They reclaim the original vision as their own; they assess the damage that has been done (the loss of one of the Twelve); and they decide to pick up the work with their own hands. Then they establish some criteria (it must be someone who is deeply steeped in Christ) and place the ultimate decision into the hands of God.

It is significant that, in Luke-Acts, the disciples undertook all this before the coming of the Holy Spirit. They committed themselves and their lives to God in sheer faith, and only afterwards received the power to change their world — and ours. They did not know whether it would work. They did not know whether God would still be there for them. But from the bitter self-knowledge revealed in their failure and their shame, they claimed and chose the kind of people they were determined to become.

That is the path of repentance, the royal way of Christ, and it is the only road that leads into new and holy life. And if the first few steps seem forbidding, and if your strength seems weaker than your will, do not fear: Christ “will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory,” if only we press ever on into his infinite and unbreakable love. (Phil 3:21)

 

The Crucified People

Todi-Umbria-Italy-Stock-image-1024x669In her haunting story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas,” Ursula LeGuin describes a city that is a kind of utopia. Omelas is beautiful; set by the seashore and lush with trees, graced with harmonious architecture that delights the eye while it fosters community among its inhabitants. Life there is good: food is plentiful; the streets are peaceful; the pace of life is moderate; and days of work are punctuated with festivals which gather all in the city, young and old, for dancing and music and athletic competition and mutual joy.

In all this beauty, there is but one blemish. When they are in the last years of their childhood, each resident of Omelas is told of a room in the heart of the city. There, in darkness and in filth, a single child dwells in utter squalor and isolation, in a closet among mops and brooms, sitting in its own ordure. Each resident of Omelas knows that the child’s suffering is the price of the flourishing of the city, and of their own joy. Some come to see the child; most prefer not to. But among those who go to see, a few — barely a handful — do something astonishing: they choose to leave Omelas. LeGuin writes, “They leave Omelas, they walk ahead into the darkness, and they do not look back. The place they go towards is a place even less imaginable to most of us than the city of happiness. I cannot describe it at all. It is possible that it does not exist. But they seem to know where they are going, the ones who walk away from Omelas.”

LeGuin’s story captures a fundamental truth, or, rather, two: That the price of our societies is too often the suffering of others, and that this condition is, or should be, intolerable to us. Underneath those two statements is a third: Societies based upon suffering repel those who are good. Outside the pages of fiction, of course, it would be difficult to imagine a society in which only one person suffers. (In this is revealed the poverty of our collective imagination.) But when poverty and violence become endemic; when the rich profit from the desperation of the poor; when people lack access to clean water (in the 21st century!) or work that affords them dignity; when agents of the state gun down innocent men, women, and children on the streets and go unpunished; and when it becomes clear that those with “mass and majesty”* in a society accept these things as the price of their own comfort; and when the struggle to change these conditions has proven utterly futile; _76385then people with courage and intelligence and grit and gumption pick themselves up and head toward other societies, places which hold out hope of a better life, or seem to.

For Christ, too, the suffering of even one person was intolerable, but he did not walk away. He went towards it, embraced it, took it upon himself and wore it like a cherished garment. He bore it all to the place of utter desolation, and then he went into the dark room and he sat in the place of abandonment and he bowed his head and submitted to it all. He went to the room of suffering we had created for one another, and he took our place there. St. Augustine writes, “Coming from another realm, what did he find here other than that which abounds here: struggles, sorrows, and death, for this is what you have here, what abounds here. He ate with you of what abounded in the poor dwelling of your misery. And he invited you to his own splendid table, the table of heaven, the table of the angels, where he himself is the bread.” (Sermon 231,5)

Christ’s action has consequences for us beyond even our salvation. The old language of Book of Common Prayer states that he “made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” One oblation, once offered, full, perfect, and sufficient. Those words were written to address a theological controversy, but they carry moral weight. He allowed us to inflict all our suffering on him so that we would not inflict it on one another. Not again. Not ever. Not in Haiti. Not in El Salvador. Not in Fergusson. Not in Flint. Because those suffering children, those crucified peoples? Christ lives in them, closer than their breath.

Just as he does in us, when we go to the place of pain and lift one another down from the cross.

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* Auden, “The Shield of Achilles.”

The image at the end is by Ruth Councell.

The title is taken from Jon Sobrino.

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)

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

 

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.

 

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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.

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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