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Hope for Healing: Eucharistic Solidarity in the Domination System

I have been a bit surprised by where my routine of daily morning prayer has been leading me over the last two or three years. Reflecting on my own life, my friends and colleagues, the chaotic world around us, an unexpected phrase keeps surfacing: the need for healing.

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Image by Jennifer Luxton

I don’t often think much about healing, unless I’m knocked off my feet with the flu or a friend is facing a health crisis, and it hardly comes to mind at all when sorting through the jumble of American politics and social unrest—until recently. Now I can hardly think of anything else as my incredulity and consternation grow while reading the daily news.

The biblical texts many Christians heard in church yesterday inspired renewed attention to this theme that just won’t let me go, and for both personal and more widely social reasons. The more personal one: my Australian shepherd dog Judah has been suffering with a really nasty “hot spot,” a painful and terribly itchy skin infection on his butt. Dog people know what this means: Judah requires constant monitoring to get well.

I have been profoundly grateful to my two housemates, Todd and Miguel, who have been helping me and without whom I’m not sure how I would be managing to care for Judah. That alone, in a relatively small but still significant way, has reminded me that healing is far more social and communal than most of us likely appreciate.

And, conversely, the causes of dis-ease are more often rooted in complex social systems than most of us usually realize.

Back in the 1970s, the medical profession just assumed that corporate executives of major corporations were more likely than others to succumb to cardiovascular disease and heart attacks because of their high-stress positions. Later studies have shown that just the opposite is true: the lower one is on the social and economic hierarchy, the lower one’s life expectancy.

It turns out that social status is the most powerful determinant for health outcomes related to cardiovascular, pulmonary, psychiatric, and rheumatologic diseases and some types of cancer. People in countries with narrow wealth and income gaps, for example, enjoy a relatively high life expectancy compared to the United States, which has one of the lowest among industrialized nations.

More recent studies suggest that, all other factors being equal, race is even more detrimental to health outcomes than economic status; African Americans and Latinx people in the U.S. exhibit worse health outcomes than white people of the same class.

Race matters for many reasons, not least because of the constant hyper-vigilance people of color must sustain in order to survive in a society of white supremacy; such vigilance keeps blood pressure elevated (even while taking blood pressure medication) and metabolic systems depleted (even on a healthy diet with regular exercise).

Issues of personal and collective health kept running through my thoughts as I pondered those lectionary texts. Healing itself became the frame through which I read them as I prepared to preach on them.

Each one of those texts—from the prophet Jeremiah, the letter to the Ephesians, and the Gospel according to Mark—each comes from a distinctive time and place, addressing its own peculiar concerns, and yet each one evokes for me a profound social disease that we have been living with for a long time, a disease that has now become so painfully apparent as to be all but intolerable.

I mean the institutional mechanisms that relentlessly divide and fragment the human family—divisions wrought by fear and hatred, fragmentation expressed in hostility and violence, and then experienced as isolation and alienation.

“Woe to the shepherds,” Jeremiah writes (23:1-2), “who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture!” You shepherds of my people, God says, “it is you who have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and not attended to them.”

How remarkably fresh an ancient text can sound, and even more so with a bit of historical context thrown in! In the midst of regional instability with mighty kingdoms vying for power, Jeremiah is writing at a time when a powerful empire is threatening the very existence of the Kingdom of Judah from the outside while the kingdom’s own evil-doing leaders on the inside divide and fragment and scatter their people.

Still more consonant is the letter to the Ephesians (2:11-22), a letter obviously not written to the United States but to first-century Ephesians. And still, the diagnosis of the human predicament in that letter and its hope for healing again sound so remarkably fresh.

Think on today’s geo-political realities with these phrases from that ancient letter, phrases about those who were foreigners by birth, aliens to the commonwealth, strangers to the promise, separated by a dividing wall of hostility.

Think as well on these phrases of the hopeful promise in this same letter: the proclamation of peace to those who were far off and to those who were near, those who are no longer strangers and aliens but citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.

This bears repeating: that letter was not originally written for us. And yet, and still, can we not hear in the otherwise arcane religious parsing of that text a lament over divided, fragmented communities and the passionate yearning for wholeness?

I would invite listening for those same themes in the passage from Mark’s account of the gospel that so many heard yesterday (6:30-34, 53-56), and especially what Mark describes right toward the end of that text.

It’s one of many stories about Jesus the healer. But I noticed something that I never thought about before: wherever Jesus went, Mark says, the people laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged Jesus for a healing touch.

I find that an odd but compelling image—they laid sick people in the marketplace.

I usually think of these healing stories as encounters between Jesus and an individual, often in private. But this one is between Jesus and a whole mass of sick people, so many that they are laid out in a public place, likely in the center of town, and not just any place, but a marketplace—a place of commerce and economic exchange.

I always try to remember that there are no random details in these stories; it mattered to Mark that these people were laid out in a “marketplace.”

I also try to remember the context of these stories and why it matters: they come from a people under siege by an imperial power, occupied by the might of Rome.

Reflecting on that context, I turn often to biblical scholar Walter Wink and his riveting description of what “empire” actually entails. He refers to this as “The Domination System”:

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 (from Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium).

Wink, among others, would urge us to read gospel stories of healing more directly in that context of imperial domination. Surely it is no mere coincidence that the symptoms Jesus often encounters among the sick and demon possessed mirror the effects of being colonized and taken over by an imperial power with economic and military force: irrational fears, dissociation, mania, psychosis, alienation from family and friends, isolation from the wider community, and all of this as a debilitating and disempowering trauma manifested in all manner of physical, psychological, and spiritual disease.

It mattered to Mark that the sick were laid out in a marketplace, a primary location for disenfranchising the poor, the outcast, and powerless. Let us also notice the means by which these people were healed—by reaching out merely to touch the garment Jesus was wearing.

healing_woman_touchI find this so moving, unraveling, bracing: Whatever else they hoped Jesus would heal, they were reaching out for connection, for belonging, for the restoration of relationship in the midst of alienation and fragmentation—in the midst of a marketplace.

Such a modest gesture, just reaching out for touch—but how vital in systems that oppress and isolate to hope once again for belonging.

Reading these biblical texts through that frame of a profound social disease quickly brought to mind the Eucharistic Table at the heart of Christian worship. What I have not often pondered about that Table suddenly appeared in bold relief: to approach it as a source of divine healing.

The Domination System wounds everyone, though clearly in varying degrees and with diverse effects. Empire will always train us to map our sense of self and self-worth to the color of our skin, how much money we make, the kind of work we do, whom we love, the genders we manifest, the number of degrees we’ve earned, if any.

Few of us have any idea who we even are apart from these classifying marks, all this “imperial branding.”

These wounds fester, often unnoticed, then suddenly appear whenever we treat those who are different from us with suspicion, or fear, or outright hostility.

Left untended, these wounds shape the institutions and organizations we create and populate, where the wounding continues from one generation to the next. Wounded people make broken and harmful systems.

We scarcely notice those cycles of transmitted wounds until God interrupts them, gently but surprisingly, by offering God’s own self to us. At that Table of self-offering, social status makes no difference whatsoever for the health outcomes of God’s grace and generosity—no birth certificate, passport, green card, driver’s license, paycheck stub, or insurance card required.friendship_park_communion2

This healing gift of God’s own life matters, more than we might imagine. In a deeply divided and fragmented world, the Table invites what theologian M. Shawn Copeland calls “Eucharistic solidarity.”

We stand at that Table, Copeland writes, oriented toward “the lynched body of Jesus, whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal.”

In his raised body—of which we are the members—God interrupts the structures of oppression and violence, offering us a new way of being in the world, “a new way of being in relation to God, to others, to self.”

I confess: in writing in this way about the Bible, about church and Eucharist, I frequently think I’m woefully naïve, a hopeful but mostly not terribly useful romantic.

And still, and yet, there must be a different way of being the world, there simply must be. And I’m not ready, not yet, to give up on the queer way Jesus modeled a wholly/holy way of living for the healing and flourishing of all.

Jesus modeled this most queerly, perhaps, at the Table. There the Domination System is not overthrown with retribution or violence (in ways some of his own disciples hoped he would lead). Instead, he offers hope that the System itself will be healed with the solidarity of love.

As Copeland concisely and so beautifully suggests, “the Eucharistic banquet re-orders us, re-members us, restores us, and makes us one.”

May it be so—for all its naïve hopefulness—may it be so.

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The Laughable Holy Trinity

The Holy Trinity is no laughing matter. Well, actually it is, just don’t tell jokes about it.

The trinitymodern Christian calendar confronts us every year with a Sunday devoted to an inscrutable doctrine one week after the exuberance of Pentecost, the gift of the flaming Spirit. This is always a challenge for parish pastors and preachers: Can I really say something that is “correct” yet still palatable? Spoiler alert: No, you can’t.

I’m not a fan of jokes about the Trinity told by preachers on Trinity Sunday. I’ve done this myself, many times, but I won’t do it again, not until I become a better (more divine) comedian.

Comedy takes many forms. I laugh the most when a joke shows me something ridiculous about myself that the jokester clearly shares. Solidarity is comforting, and it’s often very funny.

Religion presents far too much material for derision, the kind of comedy that evinces winces more than laughter. There’s plenty of material left for a different kind of humor, the life-giving kind, the kind that casts a bright light on the broken human condition we all share and that then appears in the spotlight of divine solidarity.

That’s not what I usually experience when preachers make jokes about the Trinity in a sermon about how they just “don’t get it.” Note to self and other Christian preachers: The Trinity is actually what countless Christians have proclaimed over many centuries to be what we mean by “God.” Let’s at least take it seriously; even more, let’s take it laughably.

The doctrine of God as Trinity carries profound consequences that really do bear on matters of life and death. Precisely because of this, preaching on it ought to be genuinely laughable. I’ll return to that laughter in a moment.

Why so deadly serious? Christian history presents a host of reasons, but I’m thinking today of contemporary Western society, especially in the United States, where virtually any genuine or effective notion of the “common good” has vanished from our public discourse. I consider this cultural climate a direct legacy of the severe individualism of the “European Enlightenment,” which extolled the virtues of individual reason. Important, necessary, glorious things sprang from this, but so did many dolorous wounds. Among them: every man (and especially every woman and child) is on her own, resolutely autonomous and adrift on a sea of impossible choices and hideous dead-ends. And the implications of this in a society of misogynistic white supremacy are legion.

The ancient societies who crafted Trinitarian doctrine lived with a decidedly different view of what it means to be human. I don’t mean to valorize their views (problems abound), but they did seek to make their understanding of God at least consonant with their understanding of human life, which is not a life of autonomous isolation but one that is entangled with countless other creatures utterly dependent on each other.

Right there the essence of God as Trinity appears—we do not worship an isolated entity, gloriously enthroned on a distant seat of self-sufficiency. Whatever “God” means, the word ought to inspire deep, essential, resilient sociality: communion.

Many other religious traditions harbor similar insights about the relational character of the Divine and I resist supposing Christians have any religious monopoly on this. And still, in contemporary American culture, where “Christianity” ostensibly holds sway, it’s high time to retrieve and recover and reconstruct the profound insight underlying that ancient doctrine: “God” is love, from all eternity, and therefore social and communal; God is communion itself.

Given how far Western society has traveled from this foundational insight, I do think sermons on Trinity Sunday ought to be “laughable.” Let us laugh, good-heartedly, at how desperately we Christians have tried to define and label and categorize divine life while resisting its implications for our own lives; let’s laugh at the stilted language of our creedajuda_rodeo_010617l formulas, not from derision but from profound humility; let’s laugh at the very idea that we are alive—stumbling, joyous, pained, glad, wounded, and ecstatic—and in our laughter, touch the life of God.

I frequently touch the amazing grace and absurdity of life itself as I watch my Australian shepherd dog Judah play on a beach and dance in the crashing surf. I laugh. From the belly. I shout and sing as I watch that dog embrace life in its fullness. It’s thoroughly, entirely, completely laughable. And my laughter revives my soul.

So let us not tell jokes about the Trinity. The best belly laughs don’t come from “jokes.” They come from seeing ourselves for who we are in the midst of pretending to be something else; from seeing our foibles not as tragedy but simply the sinews of our relational selves; from seeing all our stilted gravitas as just bad acting, the kind we can howl over and then tumble into each other’s arms with a sigh of relief that we don’t have to pretend anymore. We can just be riotously grateful for life. And laugh.

We don’t have to pretend to know everything, know how to do all the things, know how to be good or proper. We don’t have to pretend to be self-sufficient, or having all our shit together, or living as perfect grown-ups. We can just be the idiosyncratic creatures of a wildly loving God who made us for each other, for love. I laugh at this, when I can see it and feel it, the kind of laughter that soothes my belly.

The Holy Trinity is deadly serious—not because we have to get it right, but because in trying to do so, we might just laugh at ourselves and find ourselves alive, together.

Let’s say that from our pulpits this Sunday, the feast of the Holy Trinity, and then laugh—good-heartedly, from the belly, as we fall giddy into the embrace of all those others who make us who we are. The humans, the dogs, the cats, the trees, the oceans and their beaches. All of it.

It’s so laughable, I want to cry.

And I often do, the tears laced with traces of a divine joy.

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The Word in (Accented) Flesh

Found in Translation

The guys who run the corner store speak Arabic,
smiling as I dash in for milk and coffeepot filters
on a frosty Saturday morning, still wearing my slippers,
or grabbing a tamale, a fish taco for a late lunch
at the back counter, where the women speak Spanish.

The man five blocks closer to the highway,
who launders my shirts, always asking about my dog,
speaks Chinese, though never directly to me,
nor to the women in the storefront next door,
where Mom used to get a pedicure in Vietnamese.

The paperboy is a middle-aged man from Indonesia,
his old car belching fumes just as dawn breaks
along a quiet street, waking me every morning
with news of a world divided, like my neighborhood
divvied up by race and class and ethnicity-as-trade.

Learning to speak gratitude or an occasional please
with sounds I never heard or voiced as a child
crinkles my cheeks and wrinkles my chin,
adding fresh lines to the ones earned with laughing,
tears from losses running through canyons of joy.

These make a map from our faces.

The Beloved travels these shaded furrows,
undaunted by the cacophony of accents
carving creases of consternation into every brow,
simply relentless, tireless in the desire for home,
with us – all of us.

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Advent 1: Just Come Already

Just Come Alreadyrend_heavens

Come, God,
Just come, already.
Rend the heavens,
Like Isaiah said,
And come on down.

(Please do some mending after
the rending, too; we’ve shredded
so much of what you’ve made.
Sorry about that.)

Or come up,
Or come over,
Wherever you are,
Just come.

(We’ll gladly set aside our
postmodern convictions and
deconstruction strategies, and
all those hermeneutical suspicions)

Because we’ve been weeping
Too long, and lip-biting yearning
Too long, and running around the den
tearing up the sofa,
ripping up the carpet,
breaking windows
Too long, waiting for you to come home,
blaming each other
and killing each other
Too long, and pining away
Far too long for your sweet face,
And your lovely voice,
And your tender touch,
For so long

We’ve forgotten
The love that makes us
Write these things,
Crying softly,
Making a bath of hope
from our tears.

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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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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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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