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Hearing a Dog, Seeing a Human: Crossing a Border with Jesus

“Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped…”

I kept returning to those words from Isaiah (35:6) as I prepared to preach on a set of challenging biblical texts this week.

Reflecting on that prophetic promise, it occurred to me that there are some things we actually do not want to hear very clearly or that we wish he had never seen at all.

It has been troubling, to say the least, to hear overt forms of racism in this country the last eighteen months, both on our city streets and at the highest levels of government. Even more distressing in some respects is to see with greater clarity how those eruptions of ire tap into a long tradition of racial bias, a corrosive thread running throughout American history.

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White nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, 2017

A hair-raising account of this appeared just recently in the New York Times. There I learned about Charles Henry Pearson, an Australian academic of the late nineteenth century, who warned that white men would soon be thrust aside by black and yellow races. He urged a concerted effort to defend particular parts of the world against such encroachments so that the “higher races” can live and increase freely, for the sake of their “higher civilization.”

I was dismayed to learn that Theodore Roosevelt was rather fond of Pearson’s work, and was actually in communication with Pearson, assuring him of the “great effect” Pearson’s defense of the white race was having on “all our men here in Washington.”

Dismayed and then disgusted by the reminder of Woodrow Wilson’s commitment to preserve “white civilization and its domination of the planet,” a posture that led W. E. B. DuBois, in those early decades of the twentieth century, to describe the emergence of what he called “the new religion of whiteness.”

I read that piece from the Times while thinking about the passage many Christians heard this week from the letter of James (2:1-17). Quite frankly, I’ve been never been a fan of that biblical letter, and I often agree with Martin Luther, the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer who apparently wanted to rip James out of the Bible entirely. But I read James differently this past week, perhaps like I’ve never read him before.

As you may know, those who have trouble with the Letter of James usually complain about not finding any grace in it. That was Luther’s objection, or what’s called “works righteousness,” the idea that we can earn our salvation through good works. But I don’t think James had anything like that in mind.

To the contrary, James is not the one denying divine grace in this letter; it’s those he writes about, the ones who treat the rich and powerful as if they are better than the poor and weak—they are the ones who deny grace. Those who play favorites, make distinctions, show partiality—they are the ones who fail to live their faith. Your faith might as well be dead, James writes, if you don’t treat everyone as equally graced by God, equally loved.

James pushed me this week to ponder favoritism itself, its corrosive, even violent effects, and how it manifests in the notion of “higher races.”

Why do human beings do this? Not all of us make such gross distinctions, of course, at least not publicly, but many do and it would seem many more are increasingly willing to do so openly. But why? Why classify and categorize and make such harmful distinctions?

At least one among many possible reasons occurs to me: we don’t really believe in grace.

Deep down many are convinced—because most of us were taught—that love and affection, even dignity and self-worth must be earned, and earned, and earned yet again.

For some, the fear of not measuring up can make the idea of a superior race seem quite attractive indeed—especially if you yourself could belong to that superior race, just by being born.

I am not proposing a singular origin for racism, nor a simple cause-and-effect mechanism for the complexities of white supremacy. I am, however, urging Christians to consider these cultural dynamics in the context of our faith. Just as James, I believe, would urge us to do.

In a world that is constantly forming us in the fear of unworthiness, shaping us with the anxiety over inferiority, dividing us—often violently—between the chosen and the damned, we need continually to be re-formed by love, nourished by a feast of divine grace.

Perhaps Mark’s Jesus can help (Mk 7:24-37). I mean, the Jesus who called a foreign woman a “dog.”

Let me quickly note that I, personally, do not consider it an insult to be compared with a canine. Given the types of human behavior we see displayed daily in the news, I would be quite happy to be thought of as dog-like.

That said, the current occupant of the White House has made clear on Twitter that “dog” is definitely not a compliment, especially when applied to women of color. The same could and should be noted about this nameless Syrophoenician woman in Mark who begs Jesus to heal her likewise nameless daughter, a woman who is compared to a dog begging for scraps of food.

Note the details with which Mark describes this scene. It takes place in the region near Tyre, a city well north of Jerusalem, farther north than the Galilee, definitely not a purely Jewish city, but one with deep Hellenistic influences. “Phoenician” names that region more particularly, and the “Syro-” marks the even larger region of Syria.

Mark is evoking a long history of land being carved up by various empires and kings, a history marked with border disputes, conquest, animosity, and violence.

syrophoenician_womanAnd then—as if this were not obvious—Mark notes that this Syrophoenician woman was a “Gentile,” or a better translation might be simply “Greek.” Not Jewish, in other words.

Sounds to me like a postmodern hybridized identity forged in the crucible of an occupying imperial force residing on contested borders with all sorts of socio-political intrigue and religious anxiety. This ancient text could have been ripped from the pages of the New York Times!

Even more so if we add a bit of economic class to this mix. Typical portrayals of this woman resemble a peasant, or someone at least lower in socio-economic status than Jesus. One biblical commentator, however, has argued against that usual grain of interpretation, suggesting instead that this unnamed woman could have been of significant means.

The combination of the proximity to Tyre and her Syrophoenician ancestry recalls the story of Ahab, Jezebel, and Elijah in the first book of Kings. There we read about Jezebel, a Phoenician princess condemned to be eaten by dogs—which puts a rather unsavory spin on those scraps falling from the master’s table.

In short, Jesus and this woman occupied vastly different spheres, worlds apart, and this difference was laden with value. Mark makes this clear by tossing in that reference to dogs—the difference between Jesus and this woman is as vast as that between species.

We can recognize these dynamics quite easily by looking to the U.S. border with Mexico, where children of asylum seekers are housed in cages.

Perhaps the point is made best by noting that this woman doesn’t even have a name; she’s a geopolitical marker, an ethnic designation, a gendered manifestation of religious rivalry.

Borders convert human beings into categories—silenced and invisible.

Even Jesus needed some time to hear this woman clearly, to hear and see the human behind the border.

But he did hear her, eventually, and her daughter was healed.

It’s not just accidental, a bit of random chronology that leads Mark to place another story of healing right after this story of a nameless, foreign woman. Whatever divides us, fragments us, keeps us from hearing the grace of God—all of this wounds us, individually and collectively. And we, just like the man Jesus encountered, need healing.

Blinded by ancient prejudice, unable to hear beyond the walls of hatred, the voices of oppression muted by socio-political forces hell-bent on dividing us—we need to hear again, and then again, and still more the good news of the Gospel: God’s grace extends to all, no birth certificate or passport or green card or bank account or pedigree required.

Christian worship matters in a world carved up with borders, a world of nameless humans seeking to be heard and seen, a world where dogs become ciphers for human disdain and derogatory rhetoric.

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Eucharist at the California border with Mexico.

Christian worship matters in such a world when we gather around the Eucharistic table, and for a deceptively simple reason:

When we eat well, we see and hear better.

When we gather at the Table of divine grace, we see ourselves and each other better.

When we feast on grace and love, we see ourselves and each other better, though this can be difficult, especially when we hear the voices of our own racial bias and see our own complicity with forms of discrimination.

And that’s exactly the point of grace and love—to notice all those hateful borders that divide us, and then work together to tear them down.

And that’s the work, James would say, that makes our faith lively.

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“That Nothing May be Lost”: The Hope of Anglican Queerness in a Fragmented World

Anglican Christianity qualifies as an inherently queer religious tradition. I find this hopeful for a deeply fragmented world in a great deal of pain.

By “queer,” I mean more than welcoming spaces for LGBT people. I’m thinking especially of queer theory’s critique of binary oppositions and a persistent (often contested) rejection of purity in Anglican DNA. And I’m pondering these things under a ludicrously big ecclesial “tent” made from rainbow canvas.

Can Anglican queerness offer any hope for a world that seems to be unraveling? I think so, especially as polarized oppositions and purity codes confront us throughout all the world’s broken pieces.grace_cathedral_2

“Queer theory” has accrued nearly as many definitions as “Anglican” over the last thirty years. In that jumbled mix, I find two interrelated features of queer theorizing particularly helpful: 1) a posture of resistance to regulated regimes of the normal; and 2) a critique of binary oppositions. The interrelation of these features matters as much as each of the features. Regulated regimes of the normal, in other words, are perpetuated and policed by means of binary oppositions.

Consider, for example, the constant refrain (spoken as if self-evident) that men and women naturally occupy categorically distinct spheres. Men are public, dominant, and insertive; women are private, submissive, and penetrated.

If that sounds terribly old fashioned, we might review any number of today’s policy initiatives, legislative agendas, or just town hall meetings and PTA gatherings—or the flood of #MeToo moments and the still (annoyingly) ubiquitous question about which of the two men in a gay relationship plays the “woman’s part” (i.e., the passive and dominated one). These regulated regimes of the normal, queer theorists say, are policed by means of the binary gender system.

Queer theory’s exposure and critique of these dynamics frames the messy history of Anglican Christianity. Very little seems “normal” about a church that refuses to land in a clearly defined ecclesial space. The sixteenth century English Reformation apparently wanted to have its scones and eat them too, embracing a Catholic heritage with Protestant verve.

Anglican polity swerves toward centralized decrees (where exactly is our English Vatican?) only to find congregational objections yanking us back toward compromises and local “exceptions.” Anglican prayer books are rooted in Catholic rites but always modulated with Protestant rebuttals. Episcopalians recently celebrated the Feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary on August 15th without ever mentioning, directly, the Assumption.

These peculiar Anglican spaces emerge from a persistent (and usually vexing) rejection of binary options: we are neither Catholic nor Protestant and still live somehow as both.

An invigorating and challenging posture sits at the heart of these religiously messy traditions: resisting puritanism. The emergent Church of England, we might recall, was rocked at its founding by Puritans (the ones who boarded the Mayflower and landed in “Massachusetts”), who insisted on “purifying” the church of all its papal remnants. These pious colonists longed to “drain the swamp.”

Right there, queer theory’s unrelenting interrogation of regulated normality meets deep Anglican commitments. The result is a catalyzing and healing vision for today’s seemingly intractable contestations and severely wounded communities. I mean this: the queerly Anglican refusal to be pure. We ourselves live in the “swamp.”

This queerness matters in more ways than even most Anglicans usually surmise. I’m thinking of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who fueled a world-changing socio-political movement with an image of the Beloved Community. The community he envisioned as beloved does not consist of people who agree with each other about everything, nor of people who look or act the same, nor of people who want to socialize with each other at cocktails parties—no, a truly beloved community brings a shockingly diverse collection of people together because of their shared destiny.

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The destiny we share as humans on a planet with many other creatures of God cannot be a “regulated normalcy,” nor a neatly classified society divided into distinct camps and parties, nor a singular community defined by the purity of its ideology or its membership. King’s insistence on a shared destiny runs far deeper—and therefore more challenging and upsetting and lifegiving—than conformity to rubrics or legislative agendas or parsed with skin color or economic class or the gender of a spouse.

That’s why, in part, I persist in casting my lot with Anglican Christianity. Not because it defines me in opposition to other Christians, much less to other humans or other animals, but because its queer sensibilities break me open to find love and purpose among all those many “others,” no purity required.

Indeed, no purity actually possible—we are all untidy, messy, conflicted, and multiple. Queer theorists insist on this and I encountered it first by plunging into Anglican traditions, which seem perpetually on the brink of falling apart for their whacky and wonderful multiplicity.

The “big tent” of Anglican Christianity is not a perfect space; it is deeply flawed in many respects. That’s another reason why I pitch my own little tent under its rainbow canvas. I can’t manage to be pure; no one can. Even when some of my fellow Anglicans insist we should be, the attempts always fizzle, thankfully. (If purity is your standard, you might want to avoid the Gospels and stay away from church conventions.)

Many years ago, when I worried and fretted over my own religious and sexual purity (one because of the other) a seminary professor said, “we’re not saved by being right; we’re saved by grace.” That’s not an excuse for either doctrinal sloppiness or moral laxity; but it is a reason for generosity and hospitality. That just might be a path toward healing, toward a shared destiny, toward—dare I say—salvation.

American society today faces a severe threat to one of its founding suppositions: e pluribus unum (out of many, one). Christians face this quandary constantly, not least by wondering what in the world to do with John’s Jesus when he prays that we all “might be one” (was even his prayer ineffectual?) or how to mark the week of “Prayer for Christian Unity” every January without blushing and mumbling platitudes.

Queer theorists urge us to suppose that “oneness” has nothing to do with uniformity; even more, that uniformity is the great enemy of a flourishing community. As I struggle with all of this, I’m grateful for the Anglican witness to multiple answers to key questions, even when we’re troubled by our own responses.

Oddly, queerly, I return to the Apostle Paul in those moments of consternation. I have grown to love that vexing pioneer of Christian faith and his convoluted self, the one who insisted that the “body of Christ” consists of many diverse members. That conflicted champion of incorporating Gentiles into a Jewish movement, that “least among the apostles” who, like all of us, made claims he himself had trouble putting into practice.

A world fragmented by zero-sum games of planetary proportions is eager and desperate for some reassurance that there is indeed a destiny of thriving life that all of us—quite improbably, quite queerly—share.

Many Christians heard a version of this hope for a month of Sundays this summer as the lectionary led us through the sixth chapter of John’s account of the Gospel. After feeding a multitude of people, Jesus says this: “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (6:12).

John’s Jesus queerly spoke what Dr. King queerly tried to live, and this is still our queer hope today: a shared destiny.

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