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Beloved Community and the Irrevocable Deed

“How good and pleasant it is,” declared the psalmist, “when kindred live together in unity.”

Many Christians recited that verse from Psalm 133 during Sunday worship yesterday. What a striking contrast between reciting what is “good and pleasant” and recalling Charlottesville, Virginia descending into chaos and violence, hearing with dismay the hate-filled speech, lamenting a country deeply fragmented.

Like many others, I long for just the right words, the most effective rhetorical posture, the finely-tuned strategy – anything at all to fix this broken society.

I pondered this as I sat and prayed with the other biblical texts for yesterday’s liturgy – the story of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt, Paul writing about Jews in a letter to Christians in the heart of the Roman Empire, the encounter between Jesus and the Canaanite woman. These texts reminded me how deeply embedded we are in systems far larger than ourselves, systems that divide and fragment us with cycles of injury and vengeance, systems that remain invulnerable to reason, and logic, or just a “better argument.”

We are not dealing with mere partisanship here or ideological differences, as if all we need are persuasive facts to correct wrong-headed ideas.

Cornel West was among a line of clergy in Charlottesville who stood arm-in-arm to face a phalanx of white nationalist demonstrators. West is no newcomer to this work and witness; he’s been around the racism block many, many times. West described staring into the eyes of those demonstrators and noted: “I’ve never seen that kind of hatred in my life.”west_charlottesville

What has recently become more directly visible, and its expressions more emboldened, has deep and stubborn roots. Festering in this country’s past is not only the institution of slavery but the construction of race itself as the means to justify and perpetuate the superiority of white people over all others. This creates a social system that cannot be uprooted or dismantled by fiat, much less by street brawls.

The Emancipation Proclamation may have ended slavery as an institution, but it did not dispel the social system or its enduring legacy. Michelle Alexander reminds us how that system perpetuates itself in ever new guises – at first as “Reconstruction,” then “Jim Crow,” and today, in the “mass incarceration” of young men of color.

It’s tempting, in other words, to isolate problematic individuals – whether as neo-Nazis or white nationalists – and to suppose that rebuking them or arresting them or punishing them will solve the problem. But we are not dealing with a few bad apples in the barrel; the barrel itself is the problem. Or as a poet-activist recently proposed, white supremacy “is not a shark; it’s the water.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. King understood the deeply spiritual character of this system of injustice and its hateful expressions, for which only a deeply spiritual response will suffice. This insight shaped the six principles of nonviolence that guided his life and work.

Principle #3, for example, urges us to remember that we are seeking to defeat injustice, not people. “Evildoers are also victims and are not evil people. The nonviolent resister seeks to defeat evil not people.”

How easy it is to forget this in the heat of confrontation and conflict, yet so vital to remember: the hate Cornel West encountered is just as soul crushing and corrosive for the hater as it is for the targets of their hate.

King believed that the only meaningful and lasting solution is for all of us, together, to create and sustain what he called the “Beloved Community.”

It’s worth pausing to reflect on what King meant by this, which is certainly much more than a social club. That galvanizing image first appeared in the work of Josiah Royce, a late nineteenth-century philosopher of religion.

For Royce, the communal bonds we share with each other, the ones that make us human together, are torn apart by treachery. Royce called that moment of betrayal “the irrevocable deed.” He chose that language carefully, to underscore the severity of treachery and its debilitating legacy, how it refuses to dissipate just by ignoring it or pretending it never happened. Apologies alone will not suffice to heal the rupture of betrayal; the deed still stands as irrevocable.

Treachery, Royce argued, demands atonement – for both the betrayed and the betrayer. This will mean creating something new, not in spite of that irrevocable deed but because of it. This new thing Royce described as the Beloved Community.

Royce turned often to the story of Joseph in Genesis, the climax of which was appointed for yesterday’s worship (Gen. 45:1-15). Recall how the story began: out of envy, Joseph’s brothers sought to kill him and he was sold as a slave into the house of Pharaoh.  Over time, Joseph becomes a trusted servant and even a “lord of Egypt.” And this: his ability to interpret dreams saves the whole land from a terrible famine.

Among those he saves, of course, are members of his own family, including his treacherous brothers. The storyteller does not give us a “forgive and forget” moment but an extended family reunion in which Joseph insisted that his brothers remember what they did to him. He insists on this, not for vengeance or retribution but to build something new and hopeful from their shared memory – the essence, Royce proposed, of “atonement.”

hands_multiracialGenuine community, Royce argued, the Beloved Community, emerges from a shared memory of betrayal and a shared hope for new life.

Countless “irrevocable deeds” litter our past, some festering like an open wound, others leaving only traces of a scar. What transpired in Charlottesville is but the latest manifestation of what Jim Wallis calls “American’s original sin” – racism. Unless and until we tell that story truthfully, remember it together courageously and humbly, the irrevocable deeds of white supremacy remain un-atoned.

Royce would argue that Christians already know what that kind of truth-telling looks like, or have at least a hint of its rhythms whenever we gather at the Eucharistic Table. At that Table, through a shared memory and a shared hope, the same God who made something good from the evil done to Joseph makes something good from us – the Body of Christ.

In a world torn apart by hate and violence, what Christians do at the Eucharistic Table matters. The Table matters; I have to believe this. At the Table we cease to be fragments – divided by race and nationality, split apart by color and gender, betrayed by envy and sold into the slavery of countless cycles of injury and vengeance – at the Table we are knit together into a single body, bound together by love and grace. This, at the very least, is our hope.

Learning to tell the truth in and with love at the Table will not solve our resilient divisions; but I am convinced it’s the only path on which a graceful solution will appear.

Martin Luther King, Jr., urged us along that path with familiar words that never grow old:

Returning hate for hate multiplies hate,
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.

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Fresh Hope from the “Cold Storage”

A walk-in closet was tucked away in a basement corner of my childhood home. My parents called it the “cold storage.” It was always cool in there, even during sweltering, summer days in the suburbs of Chicago.

The Cold Storage was lined with shelves, most of them packed with canned goods – baked beans, peas, tuna fish, cranberry sauce. Boxes of dried milk and oatmeal and canisters of flour and sugar lined the lower shelves. The coolness of that space was soothing, a brief respite from a late-August heatwave, and the stocked shelves comforting, blunting our nuclear anxiety over the Cold War with the Soviet Union.food_storage1

Mom and Dad kept close tabs on those shelves, monitoring the inventory, checking use-by dates, replacing spent supplies. I grew up watching this routine, in the 1960s and 70s, occasionally afraid of falling bombs but reassured by the vigilance of my parents, our shared hope safely stashed away in the Cold Storage.

The Berlin wall fell in 1989 and the Soviets became Russians again in 1991. As a young adult, I looked back with chagrin on all that ambient anxiety in my childhood, not to mention the absurd confidence we placed in a basement supply bunker. I also learned that my parents hadn’t been saying “cold” all those years, but “coal.” That little closet had at one time stored coal for the furnace when the house was first built.

smokestacks2I chuckled, a bit ruefully, at the irony: we stored supplies for a war we would not survive in a room built for a fuel that burned us into a climate disaster few of us will survive if we don’t live differently, right now.

And right now I sit in my comfortable California home wondering how far away North Korea is and whether any of its missiles can reach the Pacific shoreline sitting just a few miles from my house.

Nuclear weapons and global warming tap a familiar anxiety and dusty memories. I recall that “cold storage” in the basement with a nostalgic comfort. No matter what might happen, I often thought as a child, at least we have those supplies, and Mom and Dad will make sure we have plenty of them, all of them up to date.

Where does my hope reside today?

More than one answer occurs to me, but I prefer just to say “church.” It sounds so old fashioned, past its shelf life, but I breathe more deeply on my way to worship, walk less hurriedly climbing the church steps, smile at familiar faces and receive hugs from longtime companions, some of them newer. We all gather in our collective Cold Storage, this one warming us in the light of day. We dip into some old, well-worn supplies, often delighted by how fresh they taste, grateful for a bit of comfort food.

We sing together, pray, listen carefully to ancient texts, gather around a shared table and open up the canned goods.

So ludicrous, really, to tend so carefully to these patterns and that building and those people. There must be better things to do with my time and energy.

I never thought like that as a child, as I watched my parents unlatch the door of a strange room and survey their stock of hope. The Cold Storage feels warm to me today, stocked with love and compassion and resilience — fresh bread from Heaven and the life of God.

I stand in it, week by week, certain that it wouldn’t protect any of us from a nuclear war or the effects of climate change; but I couldn’t live without it.

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Good Shepherd, Berkeley