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Many Beautiful Names in an Idolatrous Nation

Do Christians and Muslims worship the same God?

Quite honestly, I often wonder if I worship the same God as some of my fellow Christians.

In some respects, the answer is quite obviously yes, Muslims and Christians do worship the same God. Allah is, after all, just the Arabic word for “God” (which many Arabic speaking Christians use), like Dios in Spanish or Theos in Greek. The one God is known by many exquisitely beautiful names – at least ninety-nine of them, as Muslims would say.

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The Ninety-Nine Beautiful Names of Allah

But there’s more at stake here than theological precision for its own sake. Theology always makes a difference beyond its own confines. Theological ideas wriggle their way into cultural customs, social policies, and lynch mobs. Those ideas can also shape, I constantly trust, communities of radical hospitality and social justice.

For more centuries than anyone can count, religion has provided the tempo for the drumbeat of war and the music of peacemaking alike. There are so very few “innocent” or “agenda-free” religious questions. And those questions can show up in unexpected places.

Consider the recent imbroglio over a “hazing” incident at Wheaton College, my alma mater, which included occasional references to what happened there to Prof. Larycia Hawkins. A tenured professor, a woman of color, and a Christian, she was dismissed from the college in 2016 after standing in solidarity with Muslims. The official reason for her dismissal was her supposed violation of Wheaton’s statement of faith, her insistence that Christians and Muslims “worship the same God.”

The “hazing” of a student by some of his football teammates happened just one month after Prof. Hawkins left the college. The details are fuzzy and contested, but some reports of the “hazing” indicated that “Islamic music” was played during the incident and Islamic slurs were used to taunt the student. Whether or not any of this is true, it has re-ignited a social media conversation about Christianity and Islam in America.

So, do Christians and Muslims worship the same God? It matters to think about that question carefully and to respond with more than a “yes” or “no,” especially in today’s American cultural climate and the wider global realities where so much depends on how we humans live with religious difference – or whether we can.

I’d like to offer some observations about that question in two steps. First, I would propose a distinction worth making between prayer and worship. They certainly overlap, but worship always remains vulnerable to idolatry, to which the United States has recently fallen prey in particularly virulent ways.

Second, there is nearly as much religious diversity among Christians today as there is between “other” religions. It behooves us to ponder how we manage (embrace?) our own diversity before trying to address a religious tradition not our own. In doing so, I’m convinced, we find fresh ways to learn from and admire religious “others.”

But first, a brief preface.

I offer these reflections as a Christian priest and theologian. As such, I live with some convictions about God, and why my love of Jesus matters in those convictions (a love, by the way, that many Muslims also share, but differently). The longer I study Christian traditions, however, my list of certainties about God grows shorter.

Whenever I crave just a tad more certainty, I try to remember fourth and fifth century cautions. Like this one from Augustine: “If you understand something, it’s not God.” Or this, from Gregory of Nyssa: “Concepts create idols; only wonder understands anything.”

I do love the many texts of theology, both ancient and contemporary. I love them, not because they sharpen my conceptual acuity but because they invite me and then lead me (if I let them) ever deeper into the fathomless mystery of deathless Love.

So, the question at hand, it seems to me, is not about God but about us and our varying conceptions of the one God (at least in the Abrahamic traditions of Jews, Christians, and Muslims). How might we think about this? Here are my initial two steps:

Prayer and Worship: A Venn Diagram
Grant for the moment that there is but one God. When we’re fervently praying for healing, rescue, discernment, courage, love, or countless other things, I don’t think she cares whether we get her name right – there are at least ninety-nine of them, after all.

Pray with all your might to the Source of All, Deathless Love, Wonder-Beyond-Words – just pray. In due time, *God* may well reveal a divine name just for you.

Worship, on the other hand, carries some risk. The word itself comes from Old English and means, simply, “acknowledging worth.” My own list of people and places and things deserving such acknowledgement is endless. I’m still moved (often to tears) when hearing the phrase from the marriage rite of an older version of the Book of Common Prayer. The vows taken by the couple include this: “With my body I thee worship.” What a glorious declaration of God’s wonderful creation!

Here’s the risk: assigning worth to something that is dangerous, harmful, or violent. Biblical writers were, to put it mildly, preoccupied with this risk. They called it “idolatry.”

Rather than pondering whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God, more than a few Americans might want to ponder whether they are assigning worth to the modern nation-state – the kind of worth that belongs only to *God*.

This has been a constant danger in American history (“In God We Trust” stamped on our money), but it now appears unashamedly around every corner – fetishizing the flag, covering one’s heart to swear allegiance to that flag, making “America first.”

Whom (or what), one must ask, do Americans worship?

Diversity Starts at Home
The canon of Scripture used by most Christians includes many more names and images and symbols for God than appear regularly in Sunday morning worship. More of us might engage in respectful encounter with religious difference if we engaged with our own religious diversity more honestly, as Christians.

Drawing on ancient Hebrew texts for a Christian insight about this, consider Leviticus and Isaiah.

The writer of Leviticus portrays a warrior God who demands absolute covenantal purity and strict distinctions between Israel and all other nations. The writer(s) of Isaiah, on the other hand, portray an amorous God of social justice and peace-making who invites all the nations to the holy mountain for a banquet.

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The Holy Mountain of Feasting in Isaiah (Abigail Sarah Bagraim)

I believe these various biblical writers are writing about the same God, but their perceptions and understandings could not be more different; and the implications of the difference are actually quite profound. (If a space alien landed and was given only those two biblical texts, that alien would likely conclude that they refer to two different “gods.”)

The gospel writers portray Jesus as deeply rooted in the faith of his Israelite ancestors. But in which ancestral understanding of God was he rooted? Luke gives an unambiguous answer: In the fourth chapter of his gospel account, he has Jesus quote from Isaiah to launch his ministry.

If at least Luke rooted his perceptions of Jesus drawn from Isaiah’s perceptions of God, then it seems to me that Christian mission ought to focus on inviting all the nations, all the religions, all the races, and creeds, and ethnicities to the holy Mountain of God to feast at a banquet. And this, I am convinced, would actually change the world.

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Jesus reading from Isaiah to inaugurate his ministry (Luke 4)

The change will come by focusing less on whether African-American football players obey their white owners and stand for the national anthem, and more on where anyone’s true allegiance ought rightly to belong.

The change will come when American Christians think differently about refugees from Islamic countries, about Muslims building mosques in “our” cities, and how to stand in solidarity with our Jewish siblings when their synagogues are defaced. The change would come from seeing all of them and us trying to pray to and worship the same God.

The change will come when we extend our vision beyond Abrahamic traditions and realize a common quest shared by all humans (and likely other animals, too): to find our place in a universe utterly beyond anyone’s understanding and to make meaning from our lives together, in a world where only wonder understands anything.

Are we worshiping the same God? It doesn’t matter to whom the word “we” refers. The only way anyone will know the answer is when everyone lives a world of justice, bathed with peace, and where all creatures thrive and flourish.

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Officer Krupke and Our Social Disease

I watched the film version of West Side Story for the first time on television in my early teens. I loved everything about it and I also encountered something new that puzzled me.

In a scene roughly half way through, members of the Jets street gang sing a parody of their experience in the juvenile justice system. Action sings about being arrested, going to court, being sent to a psychiatrist, and then to a social worker.westsidestory_krupke2

“Hey,” he declares, in response to the social worker’s diagnosis, “I got a social disease!”

I had no idea what that meant and it scared me. Was it contagious? What are the symptoms? Would I be arrested by officer Krupke? I thought the police were my friends!

I now know more: All of us in the U.S. live, and move, and have our being in a society of hostility and violence. From militarized police to “total destruction” presidential rhetoric, from hate-speech rallies to brutalized transgender people just trying to pee and a circulated memo at a major technology company about the inferiority of women, we – all of us – have a debilitating social disease.

As I noted in a recent sermon on white supremacy (published here), most of us want to isolate troublesome individuals, the “radicalized” foreigner, the disgruntled teenager, the psychotic co-worker. Few of us want to examine or even acknowledge our shared psychosis. The problem is not a few bad apples in the barrel; the problem is the barrel.

Or perhaps the television commercial for Palmolive dish washing liquid from my youth says it best: “You’re soaking in it.”

I’ve been struck recently by a number of studies and articles on chemical addiction, especially the low success rate of twelve-step programs. I have some good friends for whom Alcoholics Anonymous has been life-saving and life-changing; they are the exception. Twelve-step programs have a “success” rate of between 5 and 10 percent.

Meanwhile, I know more and more family members, friends, and colleagues who are “self-medicating,” whether by over-drinking or with anonymous sex hook-ups or binge eating or just increased isolation. I, too, drink too much and struggle with nicotine addiction.

I am convinced: treating addiction as an individual’s problem to overcome misses entirely the root of the problem. We, all of us, have a social disease. And only a social response will offer and lasting hope and healing.

Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, the exploding homeless population – and our many failed attempts to address this problem – renders our social distress in visible bodies. Armando Sandoval coordinates “homeless outreach” programs for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit district. He named our social disease rather pointedly:

“The issue is societal. It’s not BART, it’s not SFPD [the police], it’s not the justice system, it’s not the public health or mental health departments. It’s everything.”

Deeply embedded in all this – “infected” – most of us have trouble seeing the precise character of our plight. The following is my attempt, in outline, to “see” it, not for my own healing, but our healing. As ancient Christians insisted about salvation, my healing is inextricably bound up with yours. We have to work this out together, the diagnosis and the treatment.

My brief outline is in three parts: a personal encounter with our shared dis-ease; some theological theory; a bit of spiritual practice from Jesus.

Apocalyptic Hazing
Like many others, I was shocked recently by the revelations of violent “hazing” at Wheaton College in Illinois, my alma mater. Five Wheaton football players stand accused of doing felony-worthy things to a fellow student. The details are contested and fuzzy and still being adjudicated. Still, I responded with fury and outrage on social media; I ranted; I remain dismayed by the school’s response (a slap on the wrist or just a “pat on the head” for the accused).

Why did I have such visceral responses and why did I rant so much? At least two reasons.

The first feels like “Matthew Shepard PTSD.” The original reporting of what happened last year at Wheaton included a description of the student being stripped, tied to a fence with duct tape, and left there overnight. Nausea washed over me as I read this, ripples of dread and deep sorrow. The image evoked with uncanny resonance what had happened to Matthew back in 1998, even under very different circumstances.

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The fence where Matthew Shepard was left to die.

The second reason reaches back to my childhood, echoes of being bullied by the jocks in grade school and Jr. High for being a sissy and acting girly. I read the story about Wheaton, plastered with a photo of hyper-masculine football players in their uniforms. It shuttled me back to those agonizing moments when I was pinned to the ground by a group of jocks, hardly able to breathe. I can hear their taunts: “Did you bring your dolls to school, faggot?”

No one is born dreaming of torturing a young man like Matthew Shepard. No one just “naturally” throws sissy boys to the ground as they walk home from school. These things are learned – not just from “bad” parents, or “failed” schools, but in the crucible of a violent society laced with toxic forms of masculinity and seasoned with white privilege.

My African American colleagues have taught me this over the years: in a society drenched in white supremacy, everyone is racist, no exceptions. We all live with a social disease expressed with multiple symptoms.

My visceral response to the (latest) Wheaton scandal qualifies as apocalyptic for that very reason, as the word “apocalypse” suggests: it reveals what has always been there.

Theological Theorizing: The Domination System
None of this is new. It’s actually quite old. The texts of the Christian Testament in the Bible are shaped by living under the imperial thumb of the Roman Empire. This isn’t just dusty history, but a frame for noticing that thumbprint on our lives right now.

The late biblical theologian Walter Wink offered a compelling way to read first century gospel accounts through the lens of what he called the “Domination System,” a system employed by every imperial power, whether ancient or modern.

[The system] is characterized by unjust economic relations, oppressive political relations, biased race relations, patriarchal gender relations, hierarchical power relations, and the use of violence to maintain them all … from the ancient Near Eastern states to the Pax Romana, to feudal Europe, to communist state capitalism, to modern market capitalism.

Diarmuid O’Murchu brilliantly (in my view) applied Wink’s diagnosis to the stories of demon possession in the gospels. The loneliness and isolation of the “possessed,” O’Murchu notes, mimics precisely the effects of living under the Domination System.

The gospel accounts hint at this, O’Murchu writes, as “evil spirits represent unmet needs. The spirits inhabit the inner empty shell caused by feelings of inferiority, unworthiness, disempowerment, torture, pain, and alienation.” Don’t most of us feel one or more of these things just looking in a mirror first thing in the morning?

But we can’t treat these symptoms as if only individuals suffer from them; the symptoms point instead to a social disease shared by all.

O’Murchu proposes a path toward healing marked by the “companionship of empowerment.” Exorcism is only the first step; healing means, finally, restoring relationship. Think of the Gerasene demoniac (Luke 8), restored to his community, or the young child foaming at the mouth and lifted up by Jesus to be given back to his parents (Luke 9). Or think Lazarus, raised from a tomb of death but still bound. Jesus turns to his beloved community: “Unbind him,” he says to them (John 11).

Most of all, this: Jesus lived the healing he preached and practiced around tables of shared food.

Jesus at Table
I begin every one of my theology classes with this: “Christian faith did not begin with a text, or a doctrine, or an institution, but with radical social practice: table fellowship.”

The gospel accounts portray how often Jesus got in trouble for eating with the wrong people. In that first century context, those with whom you shared food mattered as much as those with whom you had sex. Both food and sex were the primary ways to mark social dominance in a system of hierarchical value.

Jesus cast those systems aside and ate with the wrong people.

He did this because his people, and the wider society, the whole human race suffered from a debilitating social disease: oppression, fragmentation, isolation. And only a social response would suffice: all are welcome at the Table.

This is ridiculously pedestrian and wildly profound: We must eat with the wrong people. It’s our only hope.

Ditch your self-improvement book. Stop berating yourself for that second, or third, or fourth glass of wine. Reject all those messages about your flaws and shortcomings. Do this: Set a table with food and invite everyone you know – all of them, including officer Krupke.

Accompany others. Be accompanied.

Love someone. Be loved.

This is totally ridiculous. It’s also the peculiar faith of Christians, who hope because of love.

We, all of us, suffer from a debilitating social disease. Only a social treatment can heal us.

It’s called Love.

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Our Migratory Species at the Table of Belonging

Everyone migrates, whether a few short blocks every day or across continents over many weeks, and the land we cross doesn’t actually belong to anyone but God.

That claim scrambles how most people organize the world we currently inhabit. But I’m not sure if I’m willing to live its implications – a borderless world with no political boundaries, let alone gated communities, designated wetlands, national parks, secured parking garages, and countless other spaces marked with painted or fenced lines.

But I am sure of this: modern Western society perfected a system of belonging that has very little if anything to do with actual land and terrain and nearly everything to do with political allegiance and religious affiliation. And this, too: navigating that system – migrating – carries enormous economic and cultural consequences, often life-and-death choices. And one more thing: belonging is never clear and absolute, despite both legal and political rhetoric to the contrary; it’s always ambiguous, intentionally.

I grew up watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on television. I was fascinated by the behavioral patterns of different species of animals, including the mind-numbing treks whales take across oceans and the ones managed by butterflies over vast fields and mountain ranges. Canada geese caught my attention every fall and each spring, their honking migration punctuating my walk to school.

I grew up in a settled suburb in one house for my entire childhood. Migration is what other species do, I thought, not humans. But of course, our species migrates constantly and always has. We began somewhere on the continent of Africa and then walked, for a long time, and filled the planet.

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Global migration patterns, 2010-2015; for an animated map and analysis: http://metrocosm.com/global-immigration-map/

We migrate for many reasons – wanderlust, better resources, fleeing violence, escaping tyranny, following a lover who got a great job offer. But these movements are rarely unfettered.

Those people are taking our jobs.
We don’t have enough resources for them.
Our cultural heritage is being destroyed.
They bring chaos and violence.

These are not new concerns. The ancient Israelites worried about “exotic” cultural practices staining their religious life (we find this in texts supposedly condemning gay men like me). Early Christians worried about “pagans” and gentiles corrupting their newly gestating faith (which would include, well, gentile men like me).

And yet, sacred texts likewise declare the primacy of caring for the stranger and sojourner in our midst (Leviticus 19:34 – the same book, ironically, that worries about exotic influences); insist on pilgrimage as a vital characteristic of faith (Hebrews 13:14); and portray Jesus himself fleeing to Egypt as a refugee with his parents, presumably without a passport (Matthew 2:13).

I keep wondering why migration so quickly provokes anxiety and panic, and I keep returning to money and power.

William T. Cavanaugh offers some helpful framing for this. I’m thinking especially of his analysis in Migrations of the Holy: God, State, and the Political Meaning of the Church. He notes, for example, that national borders are actually not meant to keep all “others” out but only to regulate their crossings.

Even in an age of multi-national corporations, Cavanaugh insists that corporate entities require national boundaries to regulate the flow of human capital – think Mexican farm workers in the Central Valley of California picking the fruit I buy at Trader Joe’s. Think as well on the fear they live with every day, which keeps them willing to work for wages I wouldn’t take and under conditions I would not accept.immigration_california_strawberries2

That’s the money part. The power part is drenched in white supremacy. “Whiteness” is no less an invention of Euro-Americans than the borders defining nation-states; both will be defended to the death. Post-Civil War Reconstruction and the regime of Jim Crow made this perfectly clear: “Whiteness” depends on the proximity of a subservient “other,” a vast underclass of colored people against which “Whiteness” itself is defined. Equality is the presenting heresy in this worldview, not the mere presence of people of color.

“White nationalist” rhetoric would seem at odds with this view, but only at first blush. White nationalists do want to be separated from people of color, but not so far away as to lose reasons for their superiority. I recoil at the crudeness of this, its vulgarity.

Perhaps I recoil too much, sitting on my heap of white, male, economic privileges. I’m not talking about guilt – though it does linger unhelpfully around the edges. I mean: how many borders and boundaries am I willing to let dissolve and fade away in the light of the Gospel? How much do I rely on all those demarcations for my own sense of self and safety?

I struggle with these questions and can’t imagine trying to respond by myself. That’s why I keep going to church, to the Eucharistic Table, to that borderless access to divine life. There I can be reminded, or try to be, that we’re all in this together; that there is no safety in isolation; that our shared distress is rooted in powerful forces that would keep us separated. I don’t know what to do, and I can’t risk what I must, without others.

Protesting at rallies, lobbying Congress, advocating for policy changes, resisting the totalizing effects of global capitalism – all of that matters. These matter, too: dinner parties with our neighbors whose names we don’t know and who speak with an “accent”; noticing the people we work with whose skin color is different and whether everyone makes the same wage; stopping the car and talking with the fruit sellers on the corner, the day-laborers at Home Depot, the imam down the street.

We get to know people, care for them, find ourselves happily in solidarity with them, and we might suddenly decide to chain ourselves to a DACA deportee; if they go, we go. Because we, all of us, are a migratory species.

I like to imagine St. Paul nodding his head vigorously as he sits in prison, in chains, writing from his detention cell. That saint who insisted that in Christ there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free, no male and female (Galatians 3:28) – no green-carder, no passport-holder, no citizen, no refugee, no ESL graduate. There are only creatures of God, all of us longing for home, to belong.

I see this – not always, but often enough – as I migrate to the Table.

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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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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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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.)

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Solidarity in Shame, Hope for Healing

As a white person, I cannot really know how a person of color feels in a white supremacist country like the U.S. As a man, I cannot really know how a woman feels in a patriarchal society.

As a gay white man, I do share at least this much in common with many women and people of color: a deeply embedded sense of bodily shame. Perhaps together we can deepen our collective hope for healing.

I’m tempted to insist that everyone lives with some degree of alienating shame (I think that’s a useful way to read the biblical story of the “fall” in Genesis 3), but the more modest scope suffices to make this point: far too many of us internalize hateful messages and quickly find ourselves awash in self-loathing. Left unaddressed, shame can lead to isolation and depression, or it can spiral outward in gestures of aggression, hostility, and even violence.shame

Witness Omar Mateen, the man who shot and killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, this past Sunday morning. In addition to being a Muslim, he was perhaps secretly gay. If so, what he did still qualifies as a “hate crime” – a crime rooted in his own hatred of himself. Shame, in other words.

LGBT people confront toxic comments at nearly every turn; many of these are hard simply to shrug off and forget. Some of them linger, tempting us to believe their poisonous lies and be ashamed of who we are. We’ve heard some choice ones over the last few days, which are just particularly virulent illustrations of a daily reality. Consider these:

  • The Lt. Governor of Texas apparently believes people like me actually deserve to be shot and killed with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle. He tweeted a Bible verse shortly after the massacre in Orlando: “Do not be deceived; God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7).
  • A supposedly Christian pastor in Arizona rejoiced that there were “50 less pedophiles in the world” but then added this: “The bad news is a lot of the homos in the bar are still alive, so they’re going to continue to molest children and recruit children into their filthy homosexual lifestyle.”
  • Another supposedly Christian pastor in Sacramento, California, preached the very morning of the massacre that he was sorry more of us didn’t die. He later added this: “I wish the government would round them all up, put them up against a firing wall, put a firing squad in front of them, and blow their brains out.”
  • And here’s just one international example: a popular meme on Russian social media this week declared that “50 faggots were killed in a bar in the United States. Fortunately no human beings were hurt.”

It’s not that each of these absurdist, nearly melodramatic outbursts or even all of them together are too much for any of us to take; we’ve learned how to be strong and we’ve cultivated a good deal of resilience over the years. No, it is rather how each of these can trigger a lifetime of painful memories that start to build up like plaque in the arteries of our souls – all those times of being called a sissy in grade school, or “devil’s spawn” by a pastor, or a cocksucker in high school, or a fucking faggot on vacation in a gay resort, of all places.

I’m describing here what people of color keep trying to get white people to understand about racist microaggressions, and what women keep trying to get men to understand about sexist objectification, patriarchal dominance, and the cumulative effect of being leered at for years and decades. Jessica Valenti wrote about those leers just recently in the New York Times. She describes their lasting imprint rather poignantly:

For me, it’s not one particular message or adolescent incident that bothers me; it’s the weight of years of multiple messages and multiple incidents. It’s the knowledge that this will never be just one day, just one message, just one hateful person. It’s a chipping away of my sense of safety and my sense of self.

All of these moments and incidents and stray comments burrow deeply into our psyches and sit there, festering in a toxic soup of internalized revulsion and bodily shame. Most of us scarcely realize how many of our daily interactions and even dearest relationships wind up coated with layers of that acrid brew.

No one can heal from all this shame alone since isolation is itself a symptom of shame’s corrosive effects. Only by sustaining deep relationships of mutual love and respect can any of us hope to retrieve for ourselves and among others the joy and dignity for which God makes us all. This is what makes churches and gay nightclubs alike so terribly important. No, these have never been perfect social spaces, not by far, but they have been vital venues where we can start to forge relational foundations for healing.

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In this age of increasing religious and cultural pluralism, we need to work across old boundaries and in new communities far more diverse than we have yet seen or perhaps even imagined. The diversity itself will contribute to the healing we seek. Indeed, we must create spaces where women, people of color, the sexually queer and the queerly gendered, and white, straight, men can all do the hard work together of building a different kind of world — a world in which no one need turn to violence, not as a first nor even a last resort to find some relief from the debilitating weight of bodily shame.

Yes, easy access to guns was the proximate cause of the Orlando massacre. But I suspect and I am quite convinced that its deeper source was Omar Mateen’s unbearable alienation from his own bodily goodness, a spiritual malady from which far too many of the rest of us still suffer.

Thankfully, we don’t have to wait for Congress to do something about that.

[I have written more extensively on the difference between guilt and shame, and how this matters for Christian faith and social transformation, in my book Divine Communion: A Eucharistic Theology of Sexual Intimacy. Portions of the commentary above are adapted from that book.]

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Keep on Dancing

I know some churches where lots of dancing happens on Sunday mornings.

I know some gay dance clubs where lots of praying happens on Saturday nights.

Turntables

For many years, I failed to notice the deep intertwining of these spaces, the blurring of the categorical lines and boxes that supposedly mark the difference between “sacred” and “secular.”

I grew up in a religious tradition that treated dancing with a great deal of suspicion and attended a college where social dancing of any kind was forbidden. Even after setting aside that religious perspective, I mostly overlooked the glittering sparks of divinity flying off the sweaty bodies of gay dancers and the spiritual glow of otherwise dingy warehouse clubs where we all felt safe, safe enough to be ourselves.

No, more than that: I learned how to be myself in those clubs. I learned friendship and devotion, comradery and betrayal, ecstasy and grief. I kept my sanity on those dance floors in times of anguish and with friends and lovers who likely saved my life more than once. I understood far better what Christian liturgy meant on Sunday morning – and why I should bother going – by dancing with all those other queers on Saturday night.

For years I enjoyed dancing in gay clubs for more reasons than I appreciated at the time. The light of that appreciation dawned brighter one night some years ago on a dance floor in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I wrote about that night in my book, Peculiar Faith, and how odd and transformative it was on that particular night and in that particular place to feel completely at home in my body with all those other bodies. With few exceptions, we weren’t dancing as couples that night but all together, each of us dancing with all the others. It was one of the few times in my whole life when I felt, without any doubt, that I truly belonged somewhere.

I felt the Gospel, in other words. I felt the Gospel residing securely and cozily in my very own body.

I don’t mean that gay dance clubs are perfect slices of Eden. They aren’t, and neither are churches. But I did at least touch and taste that night what I have come to believe is the very hope of Christian faith: to be completely at home in our own bodies without any shame, completely at home among other bodies without any guilt, and completely at home with God without any fear – all at the same time.

Experiencing “home” with that kind of depth is sadly quite rare and perhaps becoming rarer still in a world of so much fragmentation and isolation and violence. Oddly enough, I am convinced that the peculiar faith of Christians can rise to meet these yearnings for home; more oddly still, most churches could use some help in that work from gay dance clubs.

From eighteenth-century English “molly houses” to twentieth-century nightclubs, LGBTQ people have persistently carved out spaces of safe haven, gathering with others often at the risk of physical harm. Far more than venues for drinking alcohol and finding sexual liaisons—though that happened too—these spaces of homeward longing catalyzed shared reflection, strategizing, and deep bonds of affection. All of this redrew the cultural and political map of Europe and the United States.

Someone else just recently noted these things about queer spaces as well – the President of the United States. Responding to the massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Barack Obama noted that gay bars stand for more than dancing; they provide places of “solidarity and empowerment.”

That sounds like Church, or what church could and ought to be. Consider what a friend of mine reported hearing from a speaker at the vigil held in Oakland, California, the night of the shooting. “When they kill black people, they kill them in church; when they kill gay people, they kill them in the clubs.” A voice in the crowd then responded, “sanctuary is sanctuary.”

The purpose of terrorism, whether foreign or domestic, is to terrify us and divide us. Queer people have known this for a long time – and still we gather. The earliest Christians knew this too; and still they gathered to celebrate the mysteries of faith, often under threat of imperial persecution.

This is scary stuff – the very stuff of terrorism. Yet as a wise colleague of mine once said years ago, “You cannot do Christian theology from a place of fear,” he said. “The only way to do Christian theology is by being open to the possibility of joy.”

A second-century Christian said mostly the same thing by declaring that “those who do not dance do not know what is coming to pass.”

In the wake of the Orlando tragedy, there are many steps we must take to heal and to guard against still more violence. Whatever else we do, though, let us make sure to dance – and hold hands, and share hugs, and kiss each other.

Dancing is not a luxury and it is not frivolous. Dancing is the bodily necessity of joy and the rhythm of courage. And still more: While LGBT people dance for a host of reasons, a thread of commonality weaves all of it together. In a world of oppressive social structures, unwelcoming religious institutions, and constant threats of violence, we dance for hope.

This – in addition to having lots of fun – is why I find dancing with other LGBT people so compelling. We do live in a world of rampant bigotry, physical insecurity, and risks to personal safety; and still we dance, and at times with joy shaking loose from our bodies and gratitude lighting up our faces.

I dance and I see the luminous presence of God.

No shame.
No guilt.
No fear.

Keep on dancing.

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The Ground Cries Out

There’s a lot of blood in the Bible, just as there is the world today. Whether in ancient texts or the daily newspaper, we seem awash in blood.blood_dripping

You don’t have to read very far in the Bible to stumble into blood. In the fourth chapter of Genesis, the first book of the Bible, Cain kills his brother Abel. God confronts Cain by saying, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground” (Gen. 4:10).

Couldn’t we say the same thing about the fratricidal madness in Israel/Palestine? What about the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS)? They garner headlines by beheading two Americans but most of their victims are actually fellow Muslims.

There’s plenty of blood closer to home, too. It’s everywhere: the horrifying image of Michael Brown lying on a Ferguson, Missouri, street in a pool of his own blood; the revelation that the Ferguson police department in 2009 actually sued a man they had beaten for staining their uniforms with his blood; every “drive-by shooting” that happens nearly every day in the U.S. spilling still more blood.

I was astonished to realize recently that the FDA still prohibits gay men from donating blood, a policy established in 1983 at the advent of the AIDS crisis. And I do confess: I like vampire fiction, from Brom Stoker’s Dracula to Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and, of course, television’s “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ( a great source for theological reflection, I have to say).

In Francis Ford Coppola’s film version of Dracula, several characters repeat in mantra-like fashion a key line: “The blood is the life!” That summarizes pretty well an ancient Israelite conviction as well — one we might do well to consider in today’s blood-soaked world.

Blood signaled not merely violence in that ancient society; it was the visible, tangible, taste-able, smear-able, odiferous presence of life. Or rather, precisely because blood is the coursing, flowing presence of life itself, the careless, wanton, violent shedding of it is truly horrific.

This weekend, many Christians will hear from the biblical book of Exodus and about blood, the blood of a lamb smeared on doorposts. It is of course the foundational story for Passover. Most Christians likely also hear in that story intonations of the last supper Jesus shared with his friends and will think about the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God.”

Blood becomes visible with violation or violence, and life is seen, manifested and displayed, even as it is being degraded, demeaned, destroyed. I wonder if we Christians might take that insight with us to the Eucharistic Table on Sunday.

In a world awash in blood, I wonder if we Christians might consider anew what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of the Lamb of God. Is this conceivable anymore? I think it should be.

As we ingest the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, we take into ourselves the very life of God:

  • We take in God’s own deep solidarity with all victims of violence, made visible in the blood of Jesus spilled by Roman soldiers.
  • We take in God’s unswerving affirmation of life, made visible in the wounded hands of the risen Jesus from which his blood flowed.
  • We take in God’s own participation in the risk of bodily intimacy – the risk for everyone and not just gay men, the risk made visible in Jesus sharing the cup of his life with the one who betrayed him.

As the very life of God courses through our veins and arteries, eventually, perhaps regularly, maybe even daily, this life will be made visible in acts of compassion, generosity, and love. It will declare itself in the refusal to allow, ever again, the body of a teenager to lie in a city street for hours as blood drains from his body. It will manifest itself in a new kind of world devoted to abundant life for all and not just for some.passover_blood_door

It will be as obvious as blood slathered on a doorpost.