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Beyond Bunnies: Unleashing the Wildness of God

Easter is no less commercialized than Christmas. I thought about this today and posted a pithy note on Facebook about it: “Global capitalism illustrated: moving effortlessly from the Harrowing of Hell to the Easter Bunny.” I’m not sure what I meant by that and I’m wrestling with it on this Holy Saturday evening.

I think was trying to say something about how markets rely on domestication for the sake of creating a commodity suitable for mass marketing and profit-making; an empty tomb becomes a Hallmark card. I’m not sure about the economics of all this, and I might be even less sure of the theology. Here’s what I’m wrestling with:

Among the many ways of journeying through this Holy Week, I try to pay attention to a story of resistance against the forces of religion-inflected empire, forces that brutalize whole populations; and a story of an instance of that resistance being met with heavy-handed law enforcement and mockeries of justice, agonizing physical torture, and a summary public execution; and a story of betrayal, abandonment, and risky tender care of the executed by terrorized friends.

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It’s a story not of tidy endings but of gut-wrenching perplexity, discounted testimony (from women), fear-drenched cohorts of erstwhile revolutionaries, and encounters with a stranger who upends the most basic boundaries on which we still rely for defining what life itself is, and what it means when it ends. At least one first-century gospel writer imagined burial cloths neatly folded in an empty tomb, as if Jesus had been napping and slapped gently awake by a watchful parent.

Perhaps. But if death is woven into the very fabric of biological evolution and the harmonies of ecosystems and the finalities of bereavement and grief, and if particular kinds of death stain its finality with outrage and despair—being shot eight times in the back by police officers in your family’s backyard while carrying a cellphone—then I imagine a rather different kind of God, wild and unleashed, the one dragging life out of the waters of untamable chaos at the dawn of time, a God tearing down the pillars of Death’s Dominion and yanking a lifeless body into a crack of all that rubble where light feebly shines.

A paltry analogy comes to mind. My Australian shepherd dog Judah loves to chase sea birds along a low-tide beach, where he inevitably gets mired in muck. I cannot merely call to him, shout out his name from the slightly more stable shore to release him from his muddy entombment. I must slosh through the muck, my feet and ankles and shin bones layered in stinky slime, and there lift his sixty-pound canine body out of the sea bed, one sloshy, painstaking step at a time. I heave. I pull. I yank. I do a big heavy-lift. I do this over vast distances.

So does God on Easter morning.

That story—its brutality and tenderness, its untamable effervescence—that story, I worry, is now offered by referring to the reliable turning of the seasons, with appreciable nods to a pear tree finally blossoming after a winter of bare twigs (which I myself have said in years past from an Easter-lily drenched pulpit), or the cuddly softness of bunnies newly born in a cozy nest as tulips begin to bud. Hallmark cards and multi-colored plastic grass and baskets of plastic eggs filled with chocolate rabbits—the familiars of my own childhood, which I have no desire to denigrate or dismiss (except for the plastic; we have to stop using plastic).

My fretting focuses not there but on mistaking the undeniable and spirit-soaring brilliance of winter morphing into spring for the tenacious God of life, the God who anoints a suffering servant to stand against the crush of imperial oppression armed only with compassion and loving intimacy, that same, wild God of irrepressible life who insists on interrupting our reasonable stories with a universe that is not only queerer than we imagine but queerer than we can imagine; the most familiar friend is the unrecognizable stranger. This is not just Spring; it is the Spring we recognize at once even though we have never before seen it, have never even dared to imagine it.

A wild God appears on our horizon, the One who will always find a domesticated shrine in the religious institutions that gravitate toward the comfortable rhythms of state power and all the benefits such power bestows on white men like me.

Perhaps I wrote that pithy Facebook post to myself—Easter as a hallowed space of comfort has yet to harrow my own collusion with the imperial forces of death.

Easter Day inaugurates a fifty-day season, every year. Thank God. This is by far more harrowing than Lent. Or it should be, or so I am supposing after a long week of wondering what the hell all these religious rites are really all about.

Hell. Back to that.

On this night, as tradition has it, Jesus harrowed Hell. I cannot imagine Hell was pleased.

May the morning’s dawn unsettle all of us with the wild, undomesticated life of God.

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The Harrowing of Hell as Adam and Eve are Raised by Christ

 

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A Holy Week of Canine Quotidian Care

judah_profile_032818I have been spending this Holy Week attending carefully to my Australian Shepherd dog Judah. After a “hot spot” appeared on his right cheek last week, the vet shaved a small portion of that cheek, put him on a course of antibiotics, and told me to “make sure he doesn’t scratch it.”

How in the world would I do that? Explaining this to Judah was out of the question. So I have been keeping watch, with a constant vigilance.

Thankfully, he is healing nicely, but I wondered whether this meticulous care would distract me from my Holy Week observance. I tend to think in grand arcs with epic stories and indulge in some thick theological reflection, often with a healthy dose of metaphysics tossed into the mix. Caring for a single creature, no matter how beloved, seemed rather beside the point of this most holy week of truly epic tales. But I now see my canine care as woven into the very point.

Caring for just this one creature in the midst of so many other concerns brought the death of Jesus to mind in a particular way. After all, his death on a cross was just one among many thousands of such executions carried out by the Roman Empire. Why should this particular one matter? There are, clearly, all those thick theological reasons I could offer in response. But the question occurred to me quite differently as I gazed on Judah: why care so terribly much about one among so many others?

Joseph of Arimathea came to mind, who cared tenderly for the dead body of Jesus, ensuring a proper burial—a tenderness not without social and political risk. I’m thinking, too, of Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome (as Mark’s gospel account named them), the ones who cared about proper burial spices for this one among so many.

Judah has, in other words, brought to mind the singularity of care. I mean the intensity of focused attention, but also the care devoted singularly, to just one. Why does this matter? Should it?

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As he often does, Judah also reminded me this week of our ecological crisis currently wreaking havoc among so many species—so many individuals. Just as we now face an unprecedented moment of human migration, with more of us on the move than ever before, many of the other animals with whom we share this planet are also on the move, joining a growing number of climate refugees; indeed, half of all species on the planet are moving and shifting because of climate change, and with consequences far beyond what we can now predict or even imagine. Theologian Christopher Southgate has urged us to think of this present era as the “new days of Noah” and how God might be calling us to assist some of those creatures in their migration to safety—perhaps we can save enough for a species to survive.

In the midst of all this, can it possibly matter to care so singularly about just one?

Yes, it can. Caring for Judah over the last five days, I have noticed a remarkable focus in my attention and energy, which is usually and otherwise scattered throughout the flotsam of multitasking responsibilities. Such singular focus is itself notable in a world of constant distractions.

More than this, the kind of focus matters, too. I have been concentrating my attention on a body, on flesh, and quite particularly a patch of flesh about the size of a nickel. As John insisted in his account of the Gospel, the Divine Word became flesh. As noted eco-theologian Andrew Linzey has argued, the suffering of Christ is a divine solidarity with the suffering of all animals, of all flesh.

Caring so narrowly for just a slice of an ecosystem, or so particularly for just a single individual can indeed seem pointless in the face of global urgencies. And still, such focused, quotidian care matters for a whole wide world of peril. It matters first, perhaps, for our own character. We will not save that which we do not love, as the old aphorism has it. Practicing the love for an individual creature instills and nurtures a habit of loving much more widely. If we can become creatures who love, we will become creatures who can save, protect, and nurture.

More than all this, a species is not just a conglomerate of generic flesh. We know this (or perhaps try to remember this) about ourselves, about Homo sapiens, but rarely about other animals: a species consists of distinct individuals, each and every one miraculously and remarkably individual. I have learned this from the beloved dogs who have shared their lives with me over the years. Not one of them has been exactly like the others. It matters to care for just this one because there is no other just like this singular one.

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The implications cascading from this Holy Week spent with Judah are far too many to enumerate here. Not surprisingly, they tempt me to travel once again along those familiar grand arcs into thick theological reflection. That still matters, too, if we can start thinking and acting differently, for example, about the horrors of factory farming (in which, as Matthew Scully notes, we treat living beings like crops), as well as the distressing analog to this in the mass incarceration of African American men in our prison system. Each one — on the farm, in prison, migrating — each one is a unique, irreplaceable creature of God.

I’m taking all of this with me into Holy Saturday, when a singular creature of God is laid to rest in a tomb. When the stone is rolled away, that singular moment of God’s unimaginable Yes to life extends beyond that singular one to all of us, and indeed to every creature, as the apocalyptic writer John would have us believe. There, in that text, John sees a vision all creatures of Earth (all animals, insects, and fish, as Denis Edwards urges us to imagine) united in a single song of praise to the Lamb, the symbol of the crucified and risen Christ:

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might for ever and ever!” (Rev. 5:13-14)

I’m musing on just that as I sit here just now with Judah to make sure he doesn’t scratch his cheek. This focused attention matters for him. It matters for me, too. And I pray it will matter in new ways for the whole glorious breadth and astonishing depth of God’s beloved creation.

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The Ten Commandments and Moral Injury in a Society of Wounded Souls

My grandmother, my mother’s mother, lived with us the last few years of her life when I was in grade school. I have many fond memories of those years, including how grandma helped me memorize the Ten Commandments, the Lord’s Prayer, and the twenty-third psalm (each one, of course, in the stately cadences of the King James’ version of the Bible).

That’s a classic collection of texts, which later in life I found perplexing and even abrasive. I mean, a set of commandments (carved into stone, according to the ancient story) on the one hand, and on the other, poetic verses about God as a gentle shepherd leading me through both verdant pastures and scary valleys alike and eventually bringing me safely to God’s own home.ten_commandments

As a young adult, that collection of memorized texts came to symbolize the dissonance I associated with the religion of my youth, constantly extolling the glories of divine grace while at the same time monitoring our adherence to rules and regulations.

That contrast is at least part of the reason why an increasing number of people today identify as “spiritual but not religious.” For some good reasons, many people today associate religion with institutional bureaucracy and rule-making. Or more pointedly, keeping institutional rules for the sake of the institution itself.

I sympathize with that critique of religion, which I myself have made many times. So I’ve surprised myself in more recent years by adopting a slightly different posture toward religion and its rules, or what I would prefer to call “disciplines and practices.”

That’s a linguistic difference worth making on this third Sunday in Lent when many Christians heard once again the recitation of the “Ten Commandments” and when most Episcopalians heard an intriguing prayer to begin their worship this morning, a prayer that reads in part like this:

Keep us, Almighty God, both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul…

Notice how the desire to be kept bodily and defended from adversities in that prayer is paired, nearly intertwined with the desire to be kept inwardly, in our souls. Whatever that vital, animating essence of human life is that we call “soul,” apparently it can be damaged, as that prayer notes, by “evil thoughts.”

Any rule worthy of being kept, in other words, ought to help protect our souls from becoming wounded.

That sounds terribly abstract and old fashioned; but it’s actually quite concrete and contemporary. Witness the epidemic of post-traumatic stress among soldiers returning from combat, most recently from Iraq and Afghanistan. The stress may have nothing to do with being physically wounded; as some scholars and counselors are noting, these military personnel suffer from “moral injury,” or that which might assault and hurt the soul (see also the Moral Injury Project at Syracuse University).

Or consider the psalm appointed for this Sunday in Lent, which begins by noting how the heavens declare the glory of God and how the skies show forth the Creator’s handiwork. In that very same psalm, the psalmist also glories in God’s law, which, declares the psalmist, revives the soul, just as God’s statutes rejoice the heart and should thus be more desired than even the finest gold!

I like to think this is why my grandmother helped me memorize the Ten Commandments—to treasure them more than material wealth and to protect my soul when it falls into danger.

I dare say, such danger lurks around nearly every corner these days, disguised as the ordinary routine of the modern world. Ana Levy-Lyons urges us to notice this with her recent book, No Other Gods: The Politics of the Ten Commandments.  A society perpetually enamored with freedom and liberty, she writes, cannot begin to fathom why commitments, communal support, and shared rules are so crucial for resisting the temptations of modern life.

The “temptations” she has in mind infuse a corporate-driven consumer culture in ways we scarcely recognize, streaming toward us endlessly in advertising, entertainment, and the digital monitors populating nearly every public and private space. We’re fooling ourselves, she notes, if we suppose we’re smarter than that vast cultural machine, able simply to say No to what is actually slowly killing us.

To reach “escape velocity,” as she puts it, we need some serious counterforce—exactly what the Ten Commandments in particular, and religion more generally, provide.

I can’t help but wonder whether John had something like this in mind with the temple in Jerusalem, an obvious and potent symbol of religion, its institutions and rules, its disciplines and practices. The story from John’s gospel for this Sunday is sometimes described as Jesus “cleansing” that temple, healing it, as it were, of its moral injury. The “soul” of that sacred place had been damaged, its worship and piety reduced  to a mere mechanism of exchange, as if bartering and trading one item of value for another could ever reveal how deeply the Creator God delights in the Beloved Creation.

jesus_cleansing_temple_contemporaryNo, Jesus dramatically insists, the crude mechanisms of a marketplace do not revive the soul, do not rejoice the heart, do not come anywhere near the precious value of those religious disciplines that can clear the clutter and create space for the healing of our wounded souls.

Notice in this familiar story what is not so familiar about John’s version: how early it appears in his account of the gospel—the second chapter! Most Christians, I wager, usually think of Jesus overturning the money changers’ tables as a story that comes rather late in the gospel narrative, something like a culmination of the escalating tension between Jesus and the religious authorities of his day. But John puts this moment right up front, one of the very first stories he recounts in his account of the Gospel.

That is a prime story-telling location that every story-teller wants to leverage for the greatest narrative effect. So, why this story in this prime spot? Obviously, we can’t know with any certainty but it’s not unreasonable to suppose that John understood this story as one of the key components for framing the kind of account of the gospel he wanted to offer. This seems even more likely given what John has Jesus say about the Temple, or rather, how Jesus confused the religious leaders by talking about the temple of his body. This is, after all, the Gospel writer who declares in his opening verses that the Word of God became flesh.

This surely matters in a culture where far too many black and brown bodies are treated as disposable objects; in a culture flooded with #metoo hashtags, each one of them marking a moment of turning a woman’s body into a commodity to own and control; in a culture where a constitutional right to own guns takes precedence over the safety of our schools and the lives of our children.

If the language of “harming our souls” still seems just a bit too clunky, then let us speak instead of how many people today keep spiraling farther into alienation and loneliness (witness the British prime minister recently created a new governmental “minister of loneliness” to address this). Or we might pause to realize just how many turn to consumerist excess to medicate an epidemic of bodily shame, and when this fails, anti-depressants and opioids, or (which is often easier) purchasing and stockpiling assault weapons.

In such a world as this, religion and its disciplines have perhaps never been needed quite so desperately.

Or perhaps the world has never been quite so desperate to remember what it has mostly forgotten about religion: its purpose is the thriving and flourishing of life; and perhaps too many religious leaders themselves have forgotten this about religion.

Or as Jesus declares a bit later in John’s gospel, the point of all this is that we might have life, and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

That declaration from John’s Jesus can remind us how the ancient biblical writer introduced the Ten Commandments and the frame through which to read them and live them:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery…(Exodus 20:1).

The rules worth keeping—the rules we simply must keep—are the ones that liberate and give life.

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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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Messy Bodies, Smelly Dogs, and the Christmas Gift of Repentance

Many Christians were launched into this third week of Advent with the fiery rhetoric of John the Baptist. He’s an odd figure, in more ways the one. His desert roaming and locust-eating offer a stark contrast to inflated Santas on glittering front yards and reindeer shimmering on rooftops.John_baptist

John stands as a forerunner, a figure preparing the way for Jesus. Not so terribly odd for this season, except for the grating substance of his message: repentance.

That word more than merely grates. Repentance is one of those words that makes a growing number insist on being spiritual but hell-no-not-religious.  It qualifies as one of those “trigger words,” especially for those who have heard it only in tirades of condemnation.

As a gay man, I heard that word as a young adult not only as judgment on my sexual desires but for my bodily self, who I am in the world. I came to internalize that judgment, thinking of my very own flesh as wrong, bad, even disgusting. This is what leads a shocking number of young people to suicide; one would be too many. Quite frankly, I am astonished with gratitude that I am still alive after those many years of suffocating religion.

My life changed dramatically in my mid-twenties, when a dear friend recounted the confession he made to a priest about being gay. In essence, this was the content of his confession: “I confess that I have been rejecting the goodness of my sexuality and the divine gift of my bodily desires; I repent.”

My friend told me this, transforming entirely my concept of sin and repentance, not to mention my image of God. Repentance, I realized, is not primarily about remorse; or rather, such regret is not its purpose. The word itself means turning, changing one’s mind, shifting the course of one’s whole life. To repent is to turn away from shadowy realms and toward the light, toward the light of thriving, flourishing and fleshy life, a life of joy, just as God intends.

This Advent season, now on the brink of the Christmas season, is drenched in bodily stuff, in flesh. Biblical writers don’t often dwell on abstract concepts but turn often to bodily images to convey spiritual insights – particular places, landscapes, banquets, other animals. Christmas celebrates newborn flesh in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle and sheep. Bodily, fleshy stuff matters, more than we can imagine; it’s precisely there, in bodies, where we encounter the mystery of God.

Here in the United States, we’ve been living through a period of rather intense moments of bodily stress. The killing of African Americans by law enforcement officials over the last few years has brought black bodies newly onto center stage. The seemingly unending wave of sexual misconduct cases has brought bodily vulnerability and bodily power into the spotlight of our entertainment industry and Congress alike. The entire planet is becoming increasingly aware of the many bodies living in the midst of a climate crisis; the body of Earth itself is groaning (as the Apostle Paul noted many centuries ago). Bodily, fleshy stuff matters – more than we can imagine.

These are indeed distressing moments but perhaps also fruitful ones of repentance, of turning around and changing our minds about flesh and bodies. This matters in Western culture where bodies of all types are objectified, categorized, made into commodities to buy and sell. Perhaps BlackLivesMatter and the flood of “metoo” hashtags and starving polar bears can prompt a profound moment of repentance, of turning toward the flesh once again, not as a consumer product but where the One who creates it is pleased to dwell, with abundant joy.

We need to be intentional about this. It won’t “just happen” on its own. And this is why, in part, I live with a dog. My Australian shepherd dog Judah will not permit me to sit in front of my computer forever; he insists on hikes, playing, wrestling, running down a beach, getting dirty, smelly, and covered in sand and mud and ocean foam. He stands panting after all that rolling about in the muck, panting happily as he stands there as a complete and utter mess; it’s glorious.

judah_rodeo_090916 (2)I actually love the smell of a wet, dirty dog. I sometimes bury my nose in Judah’s furry neck and relish that earthy, canine odor. It speaks flesh, a word made flesh, and there I remember: God really does love this glorious mess – God loves me.

On the endless list of things we all need to do in this “holiday” season, I would add one more and put it at the top. In your encounters with others, all of them, notice that we are bodies with flesh. With colleagues, reach out a hand to touch a shoulder; with strangers, shake a hand and feel your skin against skin; with friends and family, make sure you embrace them – a lot. And don’t ever miss an opportunity to fondle the silky ears of a dog, scratch the chin of a (willing) cat, or take delight in that tumbleweed of animal fur rolling through your living room.

All of this seems ridiculously inconsequential, hardly the revolution we now need. But it matters more than we can imagine, this regular, deliberate, intentional reminder of the flesh we are, the flesh God loves.

There are many reasons why physical touch has become risky these days. There are many more reasons why it is so urgently necessary, the reminder of our fleshy bodies, the stuff through which God chooses to speak and be known.

Repent, turn again toward the flesh, where God takes great delight to dwell, with an abundance of (messy, smelly, confounding, liberating, intoxicating) joy. That’s the gift I wish I could place under every single tree – wrapped in Judah’s beachy scent.

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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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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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