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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

 

 

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Love. Now More than Ever.

Many Christians heard a rather odd collection of biblical texts this morning (Genesis 24, Song of Solomon 2:8-15, Romans 7:15-25a, Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30). As I reflected on each of these texts to prepare to preach on them, I kept coming back to this: the world-changing power of love.

Yes, it’s a cliché, and it still matters. The following are some observations about those texts and why Christians gathering at the Eucharistic Table still matters, and why churches trying to live a life-changing gospel still matters, and why love itself matters, now more than ever.

The passage in Genesis presents the story of Rebekah drawing water from a well, a providential sign from God (as the story goes) that this woman would be Isaac’s wife. There’s something like a Hollywood-worthy moment in this story when Rebekah sees Isaac for the first time and leaps from her camel, and when Isaac sees her, and – as the storyteller says – he loved her, and she comforted him as he mourned the death of his mother, Sarah.

Rebekah eventually gives birth to twins – Jacob and Esau – and Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel. So this is not just a tender story of young romance, but a life-changing, history-shaping encounter with erotic love.

Or maybe not…there are too many sexy bits in this story, as some early Christian theologians seemed to think. As was common in the early centuries of Christian traditions, stories like this one from Genesis were read allegorically, filled with symbols of Christ and the Church.

In the third century, Origen proposed that Rebekah at first represents patience, which is honored with jewels from those who are wise. The meeting with Isaac then stands for the union of the soul with Christ. “Are you not yet moved,” Origen writes, “to understand that these words are spoken spiritually? Or do you think that it always just happens by chance that the patriarchs go to wells and obtain their marriages at waters?”

A century later, Ambrose supposed Rebekah symbolizes the soul at the font of wisdom, or perhaps Rebekah at her well of water is the church by the font of baptism, or as Isaac takes his bride to the tent, so Christ lures the wayward toward Heaven (though I’m not sure that sounds any less sexy than the story itself…).

For modern critics of Christianity, these ancient commentaries show how reluctant Christians are to deal with romantic desire, just to let sex be sex.

If some theologians didn’t read enough sex into those ancient stories, I read too much of it into Paul’s letters when I was a teenager. In his letter to the Romans, Paul laments over not being able to do what he really wants to do and doing the thing he doesn’t want to do. I read that growing up as so obviously and self-evidently about sexual desire.

I mean, of course I read it that way! That’s how pious Evangelical teenagers think, can’t help but think that way, wish desperately at times they could think of just about anything else.

Paul captures that adolescent vexation precisely: “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.” That was basically the first-century script for my mid-twentieth century hormone-ravaged youth group.

But Paul doesn’t say what exactly vexed him so terribly much. While I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with sex, I find it much more useful these days to read Paul in relation to the socio-economic systems in which all of us are embedded, whether we like it or not: we cannot help but contribute to global climate change, for example, just by riding around in a car or purchasing nearly any item from nearly any store; we cannot help but participate in the institutional dynamics of white supremacy in this society, a system no one alive today helped to create but from white people benefit every day just by trying to live as “good citizens.”

Stop thinking about sex when reading Paul (if you can) and think instead about the suffocating systems of injustice in which we are steeped and through which we try our best to navigate: “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”

Even just a glimpse of those systemic issues can be paralyzing; analyzing them is discouraging; trying to dismantle them, exhausting.

“Come to me,” Jesus says in Matthew, “all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. … For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Many of the self-styled progressives in my seminary classroom are actually troubled by these words from Matthew’s Jesus, or at least suspicious of them. There’s too much work to do! No time for rest and we can’t possibly lay down our burdens in a world of injustice and violence with no time to spare! Or, as I actually heard an ordained minister say, “there will be plenty of time to rest when they lay me in a grave.”

So thank goodness for the Song of Solomon! Or as it is sometimes called, the Song of Songs. I am endlessly fascinated by that little book of erotic poetry tucked away in the latter half of the Hebrew Bible where most people can’t even find it. Even more, it carries with it a wonderfully peculiar history in Jewish and Christian traditions, especially among mystics (a history that shaped my book on sexual intimacy and the Eucharist).

The lectionary option to read that portion from the Song of Songs rather than a psalm kept pushing me back to erotic desire as I read the other texts, kept urging me to notice love and why it matters.

Part of what makes the history of this little biblical text so peculiar is how important the Song of Songs was to Medieval Christians and how it nearly vanished entirely among modern Christians. For centuries, the Song of Songs was the one text most often copied, the one text most often chosen for commentaries, and the one text most often selected by preachers. More Latin manuscripts of this erotic poetry exist than any other biblical book. More medieval sermons were preached on it than any other and it took its place along with the four gospels as among the most important; at times the Song of Songs was read more often than any of the gospels except John – and that’s because many thought John was early Christian commentary on the Song of Songs!

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He Qi: “The Song of Solomon”

What in the world is all that about? Simply put: for our medieval ancestors, only the language of erotic desire can capture our own deep longing for God. The yearning for encounter, for intimacy, and for communion among dear friends and spouses and loved ones – what the ancient Greeks called Eros – this is the very same desire that draws us closer to God.

I certainly never heard that growing up. I would have read Paul’s letters quite differently if I had. Modern Western Christians generally have been quite skeptical about mixing the language of faith with the messy entanglements of erotic longing. Some critique this rather pointedly: Oh, don’t be ridiculous. God isn’t even mentioned once in the Song of Songs!

Yes, that’s true, respond the mystics. And that’s because God is the one speaking:

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away. …
Let me see your face,
let me hear your voice;
for your voice is sweet,
and your face is lovely (2:13-14).

I can scarcely imagine how the world would change if that were the divine voice people heard – not the scolder-in-chief, the wrathful judge, the distant father from whom the best we can hope is tolerance. No, but the voice of the beloved, as the song writer says, the one “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills” eagerly coming in search of the lover – for us.

To be clear, I’m not referring to the mushy Hallmark-card version of sentimental romance. To see and know ourselves as the cause of God’s ceaseless delight will forever change the way we see others and the world around us; we become even less tolerant of injustice, even more scandalized by hateful speech, even more committed to act boldly and courageously and beyond what we thought possible for the sake of a better world.

As Matthew makes clear, the kind of “rest” promised by Jesus is not without burdens, but they are ever so much lighter when taken up with love.

The mystics actually warned us about this: If you hear that divine voice, truly hear the Beloved speak, be careful! The love of God will change you, unravel you, and remake you.

And that’s exactly what the world needs: people who are changed by love.

Come to Rebekah’s well.
Enter Isaac’s tent.
Gather at the Eucharistic Table, a foretaste (lest we forget) of the heavenly wedding banquet.

And then lay down the burdens that are not yours to carry.
Pick up the lighter one instead,
the one that matters,
the one that makes a difference,
the one borne because of love.

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A Holy Harrowing and an Empty Hell

Whom would Jesus leave behind? Spoiler alert: no one.

I grew up in a brand of Evangelical Christianity percolating throughout with an ambient anxiety. Despite swimming through a constant stream of rhetorical grace and bathed in the assurances of divine love, the tradition bred considerable consternation: would I, finally, be included among the saved? Do I have enough belief, believe the right things? Have I filed all my spiritual insurance forms?

The popularity of the Left Behind series of novels (including the movie version) puts a slightly different spin on this apocalyptic disquietude: finding assurance for one’s inclusion by excluding others. Or as a friend of mine from seminary more pointedly asked of such a strategy, “How many people have to burn in Hell for you to feel comfortable?”

Today is Holy Saturday – a celestial silence and an earthly pause between the desolation of Good Friday and the rousing announcement of Easter. A lingering grief weights our steps, tugging us back from the rise of anticipatory joy.  This is a peculiar slice of liturgically liminal time when nothing much seems stirring.

Not quite so for some strands of the traditions that would have us see Jesus quite busily at work on this day. One of my favorite icons captures the drama of his labor: Jesus harrows Hell, smashes its gates, and yanks a startled Adam and Eve from their graves and into the blazing light of a new day.chora_anastasis

I see little reason to suppose that Jesus administered orthodoxy tests after tearing down Hell’s fortress, or that he sorted and divided between the worthy and the unworthy prisoners of death, or that anything other than a heart hungry for love and for life – for that Love that is Life – made any difference in his liberating reach. And why should we suppose any of this given the scandalous grace of Jesus’ life and ministry?

In the realm of God that Jesus preached and lived, no prodigal fails to return, no sheep remains missing, no coin ever goes unfound (Luke 15). “Gather up all the fragments, so that nothing may be lost” (John 6). Jesus said this after feeding five thousand people with a few loaves of bread and some fish and with twelve baskets of leftovers, an auspicious number: twelve tribes of Israel, twelve disciples. Apparently even Judas is scooped up among the rescued bits so that nothing and no one will ever be lost.

The Gospel astonishes – or should – in an American society where Syrian refugees are left behind (even after they are gassed by others and bombed by us); where children living in poverty are left behind in the decimation of public education; where low-income elders are left behind in a health care system designed for the comfortably employed and independently wealthy; where all of the planet’s other animals and its very ecosystems are left behind to boil, choke, starve, shrink, and whither for the greater good of corporate profits.

Christian faith offers ample reason to resist these political postures and policies with a Gospel that so many Christians – myself included – find difficult to embrace. Preaching and living this Gospel ought to send shock waves through our social fabric, ruffling the preened feathers of productivity, even foment revolutionary unrest.

Perhaps it’s just unsustainable, this profound message of unrelenting and unqualified grace. The rawness of this grace, its refusal to consider merit of any kind, grates against ambition and taints the laurels of achievement. Perhaps too many of us Christians – myself included – worry that grace itself is a finite commodity, precious but scarce, or maybe we too often live as the prodigal son’s older brother: resentful of Daddy’s generosity.

Whatever the reasons, I find this Holy Saturday both bracing and harrowing. That icon I love? It’s no throwback to a literal reading of Genesis, nor mere nod to a sentimental reunion with Adam and Eve. As an iconic representation of humanity’s origins, those figures are us, all of us, no exceptions. And we, all of us, are yanked from our tombs.

May the joy of Easter season about to dawn inspire us to live with and among all other creatures as if no one is left behind – because no one is.

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Lent 1: Be Undone, Be Remade

The Spirit leads into a wilderness.pinecrest_lake_jan_2017

 

Surely goodness and mercy shall attend us at every step.steps_beach

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Human One was in the wilderness with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.

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God of the desert, may we recognize the tempter when he comes; let it be your bread we eat…you alone we worship.beach_wave_feb_2017_2

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

***Images: Jay Emerson Johnson, 2016-17

***Text: the Gospel according to Matthew (4:1), according to Mark (11:13), the Psalmist (23:6), the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer.

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Beloved Dust, Take Heart

Almighty God, you created us out of the dust of the earth…

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you hate nothing you have made
and forgive the sins of all who are penitent…

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create and make in us new and contrite hearts…

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…that we, too, may thoroughly love all that you have made.

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***Image 2 was created by Ludovic Florent for his 2014 exhibit, Pousièrres d’étoiles (“stardust“).

***Image 3 is part of Oliver Valsecchi‘s 2009 series “Dust,” that explores the figure of the phoenix rising from the ashes — and in this case, actual ashes from his fireplace.

***Image 4, Reiko Murakami, 2014.

Text taken from or inspired by the Book of Common Prayer, 1979

 

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The Nation State of Idolatry

“You are a city set upon a hill.”

Many American Christians heard that from Matthew’s Jesus two weeks ago, as they sat in church (Mt. 5:14). That image of a shining city on a hill has populated the speeches of American politicians for a long time and it stretches all the way back to John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay colony.

I freely confess to loving that bright, sparkling image of America – I love it, that is, when I agree with the policies of the political party in power.shining_city

And that’s the dolorous blow to Gospel witness that Christians must resist on this Presidents’ Day and every day. Christians have always faced a grave risk, ever since the fourth century when the Emperor Constantine apparently embraced Christian faith. American Christians seem especially vulnerable to the danger – I mean the risk of conflating triumphant nationalism with the Kingdom of God and mistaking patriotism for faithfulness to the Gospel.

America first?

No, that’s called idolatry.

I do believe Christians should be involved in the political process because we are Christians; I do believe faith communities have a stake in public policies because of our faith; and I do believe that this country’s guiding principles of liberty, equality, and justice for all express something vital about the Gospel; America might even come close to being “great” if we actually put those principles into effective practice.

And yet, I remain haunted – as every Jew, Christian, and Muslim ought to be – by the specter of idolatry lurking around every patriotic corner. William T. Cavanaugh, in his book Migrations of the Holy, presents a compelling case for why the modern nation-state generally (and not just the American version in particular) functions as a religion and is treated by many as a savior. It’s totalizing effects and demands for unqualified loyalty more than fit the bill for an idol.

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“The church must be wary of nostalgia for Constantinianism,” Cavanaugh writes. “A Christian should feel politically homeless in the current context, and should not regard the dreary choice between Democrats and Republicans, left and right, as the sum total of our political witness.” He further encourages a range of church practices to help resist the “colonization of the Christian imagination by a nation-state that wants to subordinate all other attachments to itself” (p. 5).

Practices, that is, to help us avoid falling so easily, carelessly, and deeply into idolatry.

My friend and colleague Tripp Hudgins recently posted on Facebook what he called a “lament” for this Presidents’ Day and offered a searing reminder of what our peculiar faith as Christians demands from us in relation to empires, regimes, realms, and yes, nation-states.

Tripp affirms the need and necessity for Christians to stand against “Empire” in all its guises, including the democratic vestments this country currently wears. He cautions us, though, against supposing that resistance means a peaceful transfer of power or a bloodless revolution. More pointedly, “the truth about resistance and where it has historically…led Christians is to martyrdom.”

That path swerves decidedly away, as Tripp notes, from what many American Christians would consider laudable “revolution.” Too many understand heroic duty as the overthrow of tyranny with violence and far too few in the vulnerable witness of an Oscar Romero.

Tripp concludes with a reality check, the kind that can dispel my own romanticism about living as a Christian martyr and what such a witness actually entails. “Though Empires all share the same ending,” he writes, “they do not give up their power and position without taking the innocent down with them. And the Christian standing in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the downtrodden, and the innocent will find their end in the martyrdom of solidarity.”

I cannot love this country as I once did in my enthusiastically patriotic childhood. But I can love the land, and its people, and even some of its presidents when they inspire us to welcome the stranger, the refugee, the tired, the poor, the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I can love even the enemy, as Tripp says, “who cannot help but break your heart. Such love is the most profound Christian expression of solidarity with all creation.”

Wherever such love and solidarity are found, it seems to me, the shining city has once again been set upon a hill.

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The Jewishness of Jesus for a New Year of Courage

January 1, New Year’s Day, repeatedly blinks and flashes on the secular calendar like a giant reset button. It’s the opportunity and the invitation to start over and start fresh.

On the Christian calendar, this day sits roughly in the middle of the twelve-day Christmas season – roughly for more than one reason. In some traditions, this day is celebrated as the Feast of the Circumcision. This is, after all, the eighth day of Christmas, and Jewish male children are circumcised and receive their names eight days after birth.circumcision_jesus_rothenberg

Most contemporary liturgical calendars, however, call this day something else; they obscure that genital wounding by calling it instead the “Feast of the Holy Name.”

Well, that got tidied up pretty quickly…

I have to wonder: Does renaming this day reflect an ongoing discomfort with the genitals of Jesus or even acknowledging he had genitals at all or about human sexuality more generally or perhaps how easily bodies can be wounded? Probably a bit of each.

This somewhat peculiar moment in Jesus’ life seems particularly appropriate as we enter a new year in a deeply divided and anxious country. It matters to suppose that the divine Word of God is manifest not only in all the peculiar things specific to a particular human body but also in all the complex and fleshy entanglements of a human society.

Circumcision, as early Christians argued, confirmed the genuine humanity of Jesus, but it did more than this; it marked – quite literally carved – a boundary of identity, specifically a Jewish male identity in a province of the Roman Empire.

As theologian Graham Ward puts it, theology always entails a “cultural politics.”*

But we need to say far more than that and much more directly: it’s a cultural politics that comes with a wounding of the flesh.

As we’ve been seeing for some time now, a renewed wave of identity politics is sweeping across this country, fueling a severe fragmentation of our society, revealing painful wounds and old scars that many carry on their own bodies.

Two of the more recent examples: plans are underway for a neo-Nazi march in a small town in Montana later this month, quite specifically targeting the town’s Jewish residents. And this past week, in Chandler, Arizona, a Jewish family erected a menorah on their front lawn – this being the season of Chanukah – and someone refashioned it into a swastika.

These hostile if not hateful sentiments are not new, but their expressions are newly visible in a cultural climate that now seems so much more tolerant of these things than it ever should be.

We must not let this become normal.

Given the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism, there has never been a good time to brush aside the Jewishness of Jesus – erasing circumcision from the name of a Christian feast day risks doing precisely that. But we need to say much more than that given the cultural climate right now in the United States.

Christians need to be proactive and vocal about our indebtedness to Judaism, about our ancient though certainly contested kinship with Jews, about the people of Israel living under the first-century imperial occupation of Rome as the very location for God to dive headlong into the beautiful and messy poignancy and bloody cultural politics of human life.

This is, I believe, just the beginning of the kind of courageous witness Christian communities will need to offer in the weeks and months ahead – about ethnicity, about race, about religion, about sexuality and gender – all the intertwined complexities of what it means to be human together and in which the Word of God was and is pleased to dwell, in the flesh.

The familiarity of these seasonal stories at this time of year might still inspire us for the challenging work ahead, especially if we hear these stories in all their scandalous peculiarity. Later this week we’ll celebrate the Epiphany – Persian astrologers presenting extravagant gifts to a Jewish baby born in poverty. It’s hard to imagine a more counter-cultural story for this American moment.

It has always mattered and it’s soon going to matter quite directly for Christians to insist that bodies matter. And I believe the present moment demands as much specificity as possible in our insistence – no mere embrace of bodies in general or some abstract theory of the goodness of embodiment will do. As a short list, we must insist on this:

  • Black flesh and bodies matter.
  • The flesh and bodies of migrants and refugees matter.
  • The flesh and body matter of the eight-year old transgender boy who was just kicked out of the cub scouts.
  • The flesh and bodies of the Native Americans at Standing Rock matter as they seek to protect the flesh and body of Earth.
  • The flesh and bodies of other-than-human animals with whom we share this planet, they matter, too, as equally the cause of God’s ceaseless delight – they, after all, were among the very first witnesses of Jesus’ birth in a barn.

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I return to the Eucharistic Table week after week in my little Episcopal Church for many reasons. One of them is to find the courage to love in a world of hate, and to remember (again and again and again) that my own flesh and body matter.

In many ways, the Eucharist is my weekly “reset button” for my own life, starting over and starting fresh by encountering divine love once again in the flesh.

Perhaps on this Feast of the Holy Name we can reset the calendar by remembering the holy names God uses for us, for all of us – names like Delightful, Cherished, Beloved.

 

* Graham Ward, “On the Politics of Embodiment and the Mystery of All Flesh,” in The Sexual Theologian, edited by Marcella Althaus-Reid and Lisa Isherwood

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Cradle It — Tenderly, Fiercely, Queerly

This holy-day season offers plenty of queerness, enough to inspire some gritty hope and ignite a fleshy faith in a world that has run completely off the rails.

Do you hear what I hear? Racist taunts and misogynistic jokes and the derisive mocking of the disabled; stock market bells clanging with stratospheric heights while people huddle under highway overpasses without any home or hearth; the panicked whimpering of cattle herded toward their slaughter in filthy factory farms.

Do you see what I see? Syrian cities in rubble; sinking rafts on the Mediterranean Sea; a deadlocked American jury unable to convict; polar icecaps vanishing like morning mist; the Hijab torn from a tearful head of a Muslim, her face wracked with fear and foreboding.

Do you wonder, as I often do, what possible difference any of us can make in world such as this? I know and affirm the standard response: we need to strategize, and organize, and pull as many legislative levers as possible to yank us toward a society of peace and justice.

And still I wonder: can we avoid playing a tit-for-tat game of political power? Do we measure success by how many votes are cast? How many “losers” can we tolerate when we finally “win”?

Perhaps we need to return or begin and then stay rooted elsewhere, which this peculiar season with a cradle in it urges me to remember. The God who shows up as an infant marks a way forward, the way of the flesh – touching it tenderly, caressing it carefully, embracing it fiercely.nativity_guatemalan

How romantically naïve that sounds, if not thoroughly ludicrous. Except for this: the powerful retain their power by keeping us divided and fragmented; by telling us that some people cannot be touched much less loved; that whole populations belong behind walls, out of reach; that entire species are merely disposable for the sake of economic growth and profitability.

As a white man entangled in all the horrific machinations of white supremacy and misogyny, I’m grateful for Toni Morrison’s reminder of why a fleshy faith matters in systems of oppressive institutional power. In her novel Beloved, the character of Baby Suggs preaches to her fellow ex-slaves, urging them to love their flesh, to “love it hard”:

Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it… No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Love them! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ‘cause they don’t love that either. … This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And oh my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it, and hold it up.

Queerly, to work for a better world we must first and continually cradle the flesh and cherish it – I mean, really cherish it: hug it, feed it, sing to it, cuddle it, rescue it, stand up for it, brush out its matted fur, pour a river of cleansing tears over it as we massage it, adore it, and never, ever take it for granted.

Imagine your whole family doing this as a Christmas gift, setting aside petty disagreements and all the fretting over suitable presents and showering each other with hugs and kisses.

Imagine your neighborhood, your whole circle of friends and colleagues, pausing to hold hands and rub sore shoulders and linger in a protective embrace. And then more: inviting all those “others” to join you in that arc of fleshy touch – the stranger and alien, the differently colored and accented speakers, the hungry and lonely, the despised and abandoned.

Imagine people everywhere, starting in your own cozy nook and familiar cranny, and extending across this country and around the globe honoring and worshiping the flesh – assigning worth to it, as “worship” quite literally means.

Adore the flesh that God made, just as God does. Taking unimaginable delight in this flesh, God dives headlong into this whole beautiful, poignant mess with us, landing in a cradle. And for no other reason than endless, deathless love.

If we imagine these things and do them, we might hear a heavenly chorus of angels break into song once again, probably weeping as they do, overcome and undone by the glory of God…in cherished flesh.

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A Standing Rock Thanksgiving

A recent social media meme pointed out the terrible irony of celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday at a time when Native Americans are being tear-gassed, shot with rubber bullets, and sprayed with water cannons in sub-freezing temperatures.

I would add two more words to describe that confluence – fortuitous and Eucharistic.

I realize the risk in both of those words just now, especially a Christian liturgical word that has carried so much colonial and neo-colonial baggage, a religious rite that traveled with conquerors and pioneers who scattered, decimated, and killed the native tribes on the very land those same tribes now seek to protect. I take this risk hoping the ongoing standoff at Standing Rock will inspire more communities to engage in courageous and decisive action at the intersection of racial history and ecological fragility.standing_rock1

I fuel this hope, especially at this time of year, by remembering that Christian faith began not with a text or a doctrine or an institution, but with radical social practice – table fellowship. As the gospel writers portray it, Jesus was constantly getting in trouble for eating with the wrong people.

Who sat at your table – and whose table you joined – mattered a great deal in that first century society, nearly as much as the character of your sexual relations. Both food and sex perpetuated hierarchies of social value, relations of power that stratified ancient Mediterranean communities just as they do today. Jesus cast these hierarchies aside – much to the ire and even revulsion of many in his own community; this eventually cost Jesus his life.

The earliest Christians continued that practice of table fellowship, which they came to call “Eucharist,” the Greek word for thanksgiving. At those shared tables, both then and today, Christians do two interrelated things: we remember the violence of a state-sponsored execution and we proclaim a hopeful faith in the God who brings new life from such pain and suffering.

Josiah Royce, a late-nineteenth century American philosopher of religion, described a genuine community as a people who share both memory and hope in common. People who share only memory but no hope often fall into a paralyzing despair; people who dwell on hope with no shared memory can easily drift into utopian fantasy. A genuine and indeed beloved community, Royce argued, will always share the intertwining of memory and hope. He applied this description to Christians at the Eucharistic table.

We have some daunting and likely gut-wrenching work ahead of us as Americans living in a deeply divided, fragmented, and increasingly hostile society. The wounds and scars that divide us are not new, of course, but for many white liberals like me, too many of those wounds have gone unnoticed for too long; we have not held enough memory in common and we have lived with too much untethered hopefulness.

America cannot be “great” nor can we move “forward together” without remembering more honestly and bravely how firmly our national roots are planted in a violent past, without hoping for a future in which my thriving and flourishing are inextricably bound up with yours.

The family Thanksgiving table likely cannot bear the weight of that crucial work. Perhaps that’s why our faith communities still matter – our synagogues, our churches, our mosques. Perhaps the standoff at Standing Rock can become the occasion for forging new modes of multi-faith solidarity, a fresh vision of shared tables on sacred land, a way through painful memories toward a hopeful horizon.

Perhaps so – and if so, then white Europeans will once again owe the courageous indigenous peoples of this land a profound debt of gratitude.

(Click here to support the water protectors at Standing Rock.)