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Learning to Love on the Flight to Egypt

The Gospel changes the world by creating communities of reconciling love.

I have devoted my life to that proposition even though I constantly struggle to define and parse nearly every word of it.

Christmas Day makes love seem rather easy in much the same way nostalgia does; it’s not a memory but a wish and wisp. But each year on the fourth day of Christmas, on December 28th, the Church insists on remembering the “Holy Innocents” of Bethlehem and why love matters.

That language sounds rather sweet and cozy, but of course the event was horrific beyond my ability to imagine. The holy innocents were all those infant male children slaughtered by order of King Herod to protect his own throne (Matthew 2:16). After being warned about this impending disaster by an angel, Joseph packed up Mary and the baby Jesus and fled to Egypt (Matthew 2:13).holy_innocents1

There’s a wonderful irony in the Holy Family’s flight from Herod’s egomaniacal wrath. The one announced by angels as the “savior” flees to the very land in which his own people had been slaves many centuries before. The place of exodus becomes the place of safe return.

Were Mary and Joseph just a bit chagrined by fleeing for their lives to the nation that had once tormented their people? Did they find that galling? Scary? Did they have to present government-issued I.D. to cross a secure border? Where did they stay when they arrived? Were they welcomed? Shunned?

flight_egyptI wonder what Mary and Joseph talked about during their flight. Did they strategize about how they might blend in, not attract attention? Did they muse over ancient history and how much they really ought to despise Egyptians? Did they worry about meeting as much violence as the kind they were fleeing?

Or did they, perhaps, learn something about love on their flight and during their sojourn? They were, after all, transporting divine love incarnate. How might that have inflected their posture toward their ancient enemy?

Did the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt set the tone for the whole Gospel? Could it be that the key to the whole thing is to learn how to love people who are different from us? Or even more, to love people whom we really ought to despise and who may have done us significant harm?

Could the Gospel change the world by creating communities of reconciling love?

I really do think so, but it will mean enduring flights of profound discomfort into territory that does not feel like home and where we are really scared and can’t imagine how we’ll survive let alone love anything at all.

I have no recipe to follow here, just a trail through a desert traced in the lines of an ancient text. There I sense or intuit something about love that I still need desperately to learn.

There are so many whom I could so easily and naturally and understandably and even justifiably despise: brutal police officers killing unarmed black people, corporate CEOs destroying the planet, the Islamic State beheading people at every turn, the Christian fundamentalists who destroy LGBT lives every year…the list goes on and on and on in a spiral of rage, hate, and still more violence.

I could so easily despise them all, and it would change nothing. Despising all those people will just keep the world exactly as it is.

Instead, I’m going to hop on that donkey over there and join the Holy Family on their flight. I really want to eavesdrop on the conversation. I might, and indeed, I’m sure I will learn something about world-changing love. It has always been fragile, but bright; flickering, but tenacious; seemingly innocuous, but oddly piercing and brilliant.

Just like the child fleeing for safety to the land of his former captors.

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Christmas in Torture Nation

Can violence and torture ever save us?

That’s a rather rude question for this Advent and Christmas season. Perhaps ruder still: Is violence just an inevitable consequence of living in the U.S.A.?WaterBoarding

Actually, these are exactly the questions to ask in relation to Christmas, a season to celebrate the birth of one born into a context of imperial violence and who would die from state-sponsored torture.

This seems a particularly timely topic today given how many (mostly white people) were surprised by the grand jury decisions in Missouri and New York and who were nearly as surprised by the recent Senate committee report on CIA-run torture programs.

I admit: I found all of this shocking and I was among those who were, at least at first, surprised by all of it. But it didn’t take long for me to remember why I shouldn’t be.

And yet there’s more: As I began editing this blog post, two NYPD officers were shot and killed as they sat in their patrol car; how quickly some linked their deaths to the protests over the deaths of unarmed black men (notice the headline from this NY Daily Post story). And still more: a human rights group in Germany has now initiated a process to file war crime charges against Bush administration officials for their role in torturing terrorism detainees after 9/11.

Are all of these just random, poorly timed (it’s the holidays!) moments of tragic violence? Or are we, in the U.S., at last ready to consider the diabolical thread that connects them?

Merriamlynching-Webster defines “torture” as “anguish of body or mind; the infliction of intense pain (as from burning, crushing, or wounding) to punish, coerce, or afford sadistic pleasure.”

That definition renders American history in quite disturbing textures:

  • Institutional slavery was nothing if not organized, state-sponsored torture, which lasted for nearly two-and-a-half centuries on this continent.
  • Jim Crow segregation, routine lynchings, and countless instances of bodily degradation of African Americans surely qualify as terrorism if not socially sanctioned torture.
  • “Homosexuals” (mostly gay men) were routinely hospitalized in the first half of the 20th century, many of them subjected to electro-shock therapy (yes, it’s as bad as it sounds) and sometimes forcibly separated from families and exiled from their communities; I would call that torture.
  • LGBT people still today, every year, take their own lives because of the constant religious haranguing about being “abominations” and “Satan-spawn” and “defective”; it’s the religious version of water-boarding, but stretching over years rather than minutes, and it’s torturous.
  • Nearly every U.S. governmental engagement with Native American tribes on this continent has involved forced relocations, genocidal military attacks, destruction of sacred sites, disruption of tribal life, decimation of cultural customs and languages, and the near-constant ideological humiliation of whole peoples who are apparently “uncivilized”; I couldn’t come up with a better centuries-long plan of torture if I tried.trail_tears

That’s just a short list of the torture we know about, and it’s knit into the very fabric of American history and culture.

The most recent instances of American violence are not just anomalies, or brief blips on our national radar screen that shall soon disappear. They are symptoms of a much more insidious disease. American society turns instinctively to violence and even torture to solve our problems.

Contemporary theologian Kelly Brown Douglas in her book, What’s Faith Got to Do with It?, argues for noticing just one of the root causes of this social pathology: Christianity itself. She notes, for example, the close alignment between a particular view of atonement and the justification of violence against all those deemed “other.”

She means, in brief, that if the torture and suffering of Christ is the means of salvation, then it’s a very short leap indeed to find nearly any other kind of torture salvific, or the (tragic) means to a greater good. “While the cross in and of itself may not precipitate deadly terror,” she writes, “the cross invested with power does” (p. 69). And indeed, it at least contributed to how Christians could gather – as Christians – to lynch African Americans in 20th century America. Pioneering theologian of liberation James Cone has argued the same thing in his book The Cross and the Lynching Tree.

Sound absurd? Or maybe just a quaint, if tragic, token of America’s past? Consider the recent polling data indicating that more than half of U.S. Christians believe U.S.-sponsored torture is justifiable. And get this: more than half of self-identified atheists insist that torture is never justifiable.

Note that data well: religious theists are on board with torture and atheists aren’t. How is this possible?

Kelly Brown Douglas would likely ask, but why are you surprised?

No, violence and torture can never save us; they are the very things from which we need to be saved. First-century residents of Israel/Palestine could have and likely did say the same thing in the midst of imperial occupation, violence, and frequent torture. (The cross on which Jesus was crucified was not, after all, unique. Crucifixion was one of the favored means of torture in the Roman Empire to keep occupied peoples docile and passive.)

nativity_star_donkeyLuke begins his account of the nativity by making that context plain, which we dare not forget today: “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus…” (2:1). Nothing about Jesus, not even the place of his birth, is free from the touch of imperial power and everything implied by that power.

If Christian preachers this week in the U.S. don’t address American imperialism in some fashion, as well as the violence and torture on which it has always relied, it will be more than a missed opportunity.

It won’t be the Gospel.

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Salvation is an Inside Job

I love Da Vinci’s portrayal of John the Baptist, for multiple reasons. He’s vaguely androgynous, strangely alluring, and his smirk hints at a secret he’s dying to tell – that he did tell: repentance is the path toward life.finger_pointing_john

The vast majority of Christians hear about John on the second Sunday of Advent, a day when Episcopalians begin worship with a prayer about the message of prophets, the importance of repentance, and the need to forsake our sins. Exactly pitch perfect for life in the U.S. today.

I think it’s worth remembering that prophets quite often make people mad, but not necessarily because of what they say about the future. Prophets make people mad because they tell the truth about the present, the kind of truth-telling more than a few don’t want to hear, especially if it means changing the way we live.

John is usually framed by the gospel writers with the words many Christians also hear in Advent, words from Isaiah the prophet about a voice crying in the wilderness, mountains being brought low, and crooked paths made straight.

John was a bit more pointed about that message. A counter-cultural, granola-crunching, hippie from the Haight-Ashbury, John despised the socio-religious pretentions of decent folk who kept up appearances but did so at the expense of the under-class and day-laborers. Luke’s account has John refer to the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers” and insists that the fruits of repentance will be marked by social and economic justice (Luke 3:7-14).

John’s rudeness is something like an occupational hazard for prophets, born, I think, from the urgency of their message. The truth they speak is most often one of judgment and the need for change.

There’s a good deal of prophetic truth-telling happening today and it’s making a lot of people irritable if not really mad.

More than a few otherwise calm and measured scientists are starting to sound a bit unhinged in their truth-telling about our global climate. It’s not just an “inconvenient truth”; to take this truth seriously would mean making a profound course correction in the way all of us live.smokestacks2

We are also living through a nationwide moment of truth-telling about race and racism. To take seriously this truth of systemic white supremacy would mean, just as it does for our global climate, a profound change in our socio-economic institutions.

At this time of year, I’m frequently reminded what often links our climate crisis with our racism: the economy. In this season when the retail shopping engine lurches into high gear, the link is startling.

Some of today’s prophetic voices, for example, are trying to tell us a truly unsettling truth about our shopping malls. They would urge us to notice that nearly every product we can buy in our department stores is made in one of the roughly 300 factories in Juarez, Mexico, just over the border with El Paso, Texas.

jaurez_factgryName nearly any mainstream corporate brand you can think of, and there’s a factory in Juarez making their stuff with poorly paid labor, unregulated working conditions, horrible ecological effects, and in the wake of an epidemic of kidnappings, violence against women, and murder. Just a few years ago, Juarez was actually named the “murder capital of the world.” That’s where a lot of our stuff comes from.

Consider this short list of companies who rely on the suffering of the women of Juarez to fuel the global economic engine: Philips, Epson, Honeywell, Toshiba, Johnson & Johnson, Seiko, Lexmark, General Electric, Maytag, Alcoa, Goodyear, Bosch, Pepsi, DuPont, and Coca-Cola.

Again, that’s a short list.

I find this nearly intolerable. None of us chose to set up this system yet all of us are deeply ensconced in it and benefit from it every day – much like the system that has caused our climate crisis and the systems that privilege white people.

I say “nearly” intolerable because I do think this kind of prophetic truth-telling would crush us without the rest of the liturgical year and what it offers for Christian faith. These first two weeks of Advent, after all, are not for our despair but for our hope. Advent rather boldly declares that another kind of world is possible and, indeed, that God is even now bringing about that new world.

The question, of course, is how. How is God doing this?

Personally, I would love to see God just part the heavens, rend them open, step down here and fix this mess. It’s beyond my ability to analyze adequately, let alone sort it out. Some superhero salvation, perhaps from some realm beyond, would be really welcome right now. And indeed, my Christian faith includes the conviction that God has sometimes acted in such dramatic fashion and sometimes still does and will still do.

But mostly not.

Mostly, salvation is an inside job. Social transformation happens mostly from the inside out – and that can be just as dramatic as the heavens being torn asunder.

John the Baptist certainly cared about the inequities, distortions, and corruptions of his own society. Yet notice the twin focus of his message: the urgency of repentance to prepare for the one who will baptize not just with water but with the Holy Spirit.

Ah! The Holy Spirit – now that might be the game changer we need. That’s the who can bring down the mountains of resentment and hate each of us has built up to protect our fragile hearts; the one who can take the twisted paths we follow to justify our destructive lives and make them straight; the only one who can cry out in the wilderness of modern loneliness and despair and make the wild flowers bloom in the deserts of consumerist impulses.

The world’s transformation most often happens and takes root there, in the human heart.

So let’s read Isaiah like that:

In the wilderness (of our collective suffering) prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert (of our sorrow and perplexity) a highway for our God.
Every valley (of despair) shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill (of violence) be made low;
the uneven ground (of economic oppression) shall become level,
and the rough places (of racial hostility) a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken (Isaiah 40:3-5).

Read Isaiah like that and Christmas becomes a celebration of salvation as an inside job: God chooses to save with and among us, to guide and lead us toward our thriving as one of us, from the inside out.

How does God transform the world?

With repentance. The kind of repentance sparked by seeing the world as it really is, from realizing how the world actually works, from hearing words of prophetic truth-telling that can pierce our collective denial sufficiently to make space for the Holy Spirit.

In that space, the Word of God becomes incarnate — again.advent_candles3