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.



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.


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.






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.



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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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.


What is good

Last week, I spent a few days in the home of a long-time friend, who is dying. She was fragile and gaunt, could barely move her body in its bed, had not eaten in weeks. Together, her husband and I tended her: took her to the bathroom, smoothed her bed, brought her cups of water. When she dozed, we talked.

He is a philosopher, one of the better-known ones of the late-twentieth and early twenty-Jeffersonfirst centuries. And so, when he read about the new healthcare proposal, he leapt right over the details of what was and was not in it, and summed up the situation: We need a more robust debate about public versus private goods.

I was amazed. I tried to think of the last time I had heard an issue summed so succinctly, and could not. But, of course, he was right. When the founders of our nation crafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, they sought to create a republic, a respublica, which means, “a commonweal,” or “a public interest.” Both words imply a sense of shared good: that there are good things, desirable and necessary things, that we cannot have alone; things that we can only have if we give them to one another.

In the United States, of course, that ideal has always been in tension with another ideal: cowboythat of the independent individual, the loner who needs no one and nothing to survive. The first Europeans to come here needed that mentality: they were leaving behind everything that made life “civilized” — their homes, communities, extended families, books, land, commerce, furniture — in order to seek something else that they had not found: wealth, freedom of conscience, adventure, a different kind of liberty. (I omit mention of the slaves who first came here in 1619; I’m not sure what they were seeking, but coming here wasn’t a choice they got to make. Once they arrived, I’m guessing they were seeking to make the best of a bitter lot, or to break away and try again.)

The thing is that both of these ideals are good ones (minus the slaves): We flourish best under circumstances that allow some self-determination, and we also need the good things that come with community: education, friendship, infrastructure, the fruits of trade, support when things in our lives go badly wrong.

During my lifetime, however, the discussion of public goods has developed an odd character. Often, those goods are spoken of in derogatory ways, as if they were good enough for those who need them (but only those who are damaged would really admit the need). We privilege the car over the train or bus; the homeschooler over the families who use public schools; the desires of the sports enthusiast over the need of communities to keep their children safe from gunfire; the right of the industrialist to pollute over the common-weal of clean water and breathable air (without asking how necessary the product of that industry really is). In all these things, our public conversation allows the so-called “rights” of the individual to predominate over the “goods” of the community.  And if anyone dares to speak up for the common goods, we have a rejoinder for him or her: “that’s redistribution.”

And if it is, is that a problem? Generosity used to be seen as a virtue. It was considered good to help others, righteous to meet the needs of the poor, virtuous to contribute to the upbuilding of the community. No less a figure than St. Paul, upon leaving the city where he had expended more missionary effort than in any other place, reminded them, “You yourselves know that these hands of mine have supplied my own needs and the needs of my companions. In everything I did, I showed you that by this kind of hard work we must help the weak, remembering the words the Lord Jesus himself said: ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” (Acts 20:34-35)

The rub is in that one word: weak. No one wants to be among the weak, but the truth is, none of us can avoid it forever. Illness, unemployment, dislocation, war, pain, the demands of caring for others, even the urgencies of love, will, inevitably, mean that, at some point, we need something from one another. I cannot drive my car out of the driveway without someone to build a road; cannot give birth without someone to attend me; cannot see my friend to a peaceful and holy death without the ability to purchase medicine to ease her pain. Does this make me a “taker”? Of course it does, but in other ways, I give.

That, of course, is what a respublica was intended to be: a common space in which our gifts and ideas can be shared with one another for our mutual flourishing. It was intended to be mutual, and it was intended for more than mere survival. In caring for one another, we live into our fullest vocation as human beings.

Of course, there is a secondary debate here: whether it is ennobling to give when that giving is compulsory (as in a national system of taxation). In a world of small towns and villages, that might be a relevant question. In such a world, we would most likely know who was in need; we’d know them by name and be able to reach out, one on one. But the truth is that many of us (most of us?) no longer live on that scale. Our cities are too large for the intimacy of that kind of giving, our countryside too spread out. The Europeans settled their land in villages, clusters of homes surrounded by fields, but we settled ours in ranches and plantations, in which one family often lives hours from their nearest neighbors, even by car. We no longer know who is in need or how to help them; that’s why we build networks of care in order to do the work that keeps us human.

It may sound corny, but when I pay my taxes, I am glad to think of children going to school, of policemen patrolling streets, of clean water running from taps all over this nation because of the check that I am writing. More: I am proud to think of people in South Sudan being fed, of scientists working to cure ebola or limit the spread of the Zika virus, of refugees building new lives, just as my grandparents and great-grandparents had to do.

Martin Luther King, Jr., used to speak of the Beloved Community, which is another name for a Republic. It takes the idea of a republic and emphasizes its moral and spiritual foundations. “In the Beloved Community, poverty, hunger and homelessness will not be tolerated because international standards of human decency will not allow it. Racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.” (from the King Center website)

The African word, ubuntu, has a similar sense. It means, “the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity.” Or, put another way, “In your welfare lies my welfare.”  Try looking that up in Google, and you’ll find a lot of individualist memes, things like: “Don’t Worry, I’m working my ass off every day so you can drink, smoke and tattoo your welfare & unemployment checks away; it’s OK, really!” (That’s one of the more polite ones.)

Is that the world you want to live in? Or is it time to remember that the root of “commonwealth” is “commonweal”? What things should be shared goods? What dignity can we bring one another through what we offer and through what we receive? In what ways are we impoverished when we care only for “our own”?


“How Can We Sing in a Strange Land,” by Bobbi Baugh, at



What we need

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.
— William Carlos Williams

I apologize for my long silence. I was praying at Eucharist one day, a few months ago, and heard the words, “hidden with Christ in God,” and so I have been living into that for a while. What drags me back into the light today (at least, into the light of electronic communication) is — improbably — the President’s budget proposal, which begs a question of anyone who truly seeks what is sacred: What does it mean to be a human being?

Put simply, the proposal suggests a brutalist answer, one which focuses attention on our most basic needs, and which uses a limited definition of both “basic” and “need.” The brutalistBrutalists were architects in the mid-twentieth-century who sought inexpensive solutions to the problems of low-income housing, shopping centers, and government office buildings. The result was a series of cheap concrete buildings, often made up of repeating modular units: heavy, blocky, utilitarian, uninspiring. The ones that still litter our landscapes. The ones no one wants to live in.

We have one at my college, a dorm built in the 1960’s. We used to have animated debates about it: was it better to live in it, or to live across from it and have to look at it? Opinion was strongly divided, but it all focused on one question: how could one best avoid it?

To be fair, brutalism had its points: it was cheap. It allowed necessary structures to be built. It did allow the poor to be housed, although often in conditions they found degrading. No one loved it. I think, at some unspoken level, we recognized it as inhumane.

famineBut what is humane? The proposed budget removes all funding for arts and humanities. This implies that they are “extras,” the icing on the cake, less necessary than food or heat. From one perspective, that is undeniably true. Without food, any of us will die in a few weeks. Without water, only about three days, and that’s in a cool climate. Many of us — even those who are artistically engaged — go longer than that without visiting a museum or taking a paintbrush in our hands. We can survive without art.

But art is a force that creates us. It always has. Go back to the dawn of humanity, go back cave art 1
all the way to our Neanderthal cousins, and you will find us making things. Something about the act of creating is inherent in our humanity; it points to the more — to the thing that separates us from other animals, however much we may have in common.

Food, drink, a modicum of safety: we all need these, but to make them the sum of what we need is debasing. It misses something fundamental about human beings. We are more than the needs of our bodies. We are more than the sum of our labor. Give us meaningless work; give us repetitive tasks; take away our creativity, and you have taken away something of who we are.

Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man’s smudge and shares man’s smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod. 

The miser does not miss out by obsessively counting his gold. He misses out by failing to notice what is not his gold. Not everything can be bought and sold. What is most worth having is truly beyond price.





The edge of the knife

dsc_0873Go into the best kitchen store you know and pick up the finest knife they’ve got. Feel the smooth grain of the wooden handle in your palm. Trace the ways the light falls off the blade. Then turn it until the edge is facing upward, and see the thin, thin line of steel. So thin is the line between rage and fear. Then ask yourself: How would I balance compassion on the edge of that knife?


The answer, of course, is that you can’t. Compassion comes from heart, and if you put a living heart upon the edge of that knife, it will bleed (at best) and most likely be broken. That’s why Jesus commands us, over and over again, “Be not afraid”: because Christ’s commandment was that we live compassionate lives, and fear drives out mercy.

We live in a time of great fear; I actually cannot remember when sane, peaceable, law-abiding Americans have been so frightened of one another. What will the Republicans do next? What will the Democrats perpetrate? The questions are in the very air we breathe. It’s as if the names of our legitimate political parties have become something foul, insults rather than a recognition of the diversity of views in our republic. I am on retreat at a monastery, and every time we are not in silence, the fear emerges in questions, comments, bitter humor. The fear becomes its own self-reinforcing circle: we speak from our heart with people who (mostly) agree with us; they reply with what is in their hearts (which reinforces much of what we fear), and, instead of feeling better, we all end up more angry and frightened than before. My friends, This is not productive.

Martin Luther King, Jr., reminds us,”Hate begets hate; violence begets violence; toughness begets a greater toughness. We must meet the forces of hate with the power of love… Our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate [anyone], but to win his friendship and understanding.” Elsewhere he adds, “Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. Returning 3-lighted-lanternviolence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

If we who strive to represent the Prince of Peace, if we who seek to live compassionate lives, resort to name-calling, denigration, or verbal violence of any kind (not to mention physical violence), we merely perpetuate the degraded and degrading discourse we seek to interrupt. No, my friends: the only way to “fight back” (and I put those words in quotes because even our language of resistance partakes of the violence we seek to overcome) is to replace false language with true, violent language with love, fearful language with the courage of those who put their trust in Christ.

And the only way to do that is to look at him, my friends. Look at Christ. Look at him, and look the beauty and grace that are manifest around us: in the faces of children, in the cherryswiftly-falling light that brightens the sky, in the grace of the deer, in the generous laughter of friends, in the amazing kindness that we receive each day from so many unexpected faces and hands.

If we cannot see the grace we yearn for, we cannot bring it into the world. If we cannot name the beauty and honor of a compassionate soul, we will have great difficulty in modeling it for others. We would do well the follow the teaching of St. Paul, who wrote,  “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”

The first soul we must save from the chaos is our own.diwali-image-6