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.



Moonstruck on Good Friday

This year’s “Paschal moon” just happened to coincide with a lunar eclipse. Not just any kind of eclipse but the kind that creates a “blood moon,” an appropriate image and color for Holy Week.blood_moon

This week’s stories and symbols carry more than most of us can take in all at once – bodily intimacy, vulnerability, loving tenderness, betrayal, imperial violence, suffering, and death. All of these populate human experience at various times to some degree and always have. Yet discerning or inserting God in these experiences lends further intensity to their already mysterious character.

Mysteries inevitably invite the urge to unravel and solve them (think Sherlock Holmes) and perhaps even more so for the religious variety. Encountering the uncanny mysteries of both love and death, human beings seek quite naturally to “make sense” from them; the results can range from the incredulous to the oppressive.

Making sense from the death of Jesus has animated Christian ideas of atonement for centuries. Some of those ideas convert the mystery into a mechanism of exchange (Jesus died in my place); others rely on blame and scapegoating (to which the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism bears painful witness). Love and death, especially as they intertwine, will always elude our sensible grasp.

This week’s lunar eclipse brought Rose to mind, the Olympia Dukakis character in the film Moonstruck. Rose sought eagerly to solve an irritating mystery: why do old married men chase younger women? Her brother finally ventures an answer: “They fear death.” Armed with this insight, Rose confronts her husband, who has been having an affair with another woman. “Cosmo,” Rose says, “you’re gonna die, just like everyone else.” To which Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Science solved the mystery of “blood moons” and Rose solved the mystery of adulterous husbands. The mystery of Good Friday remains, not to be solved but pondered and embraced: God’s own unfathomable journey through creaturely life, suffering, and death. And this, Christians have tried to say with our peculiar faith, is the journey toward new life.

cross_window_flowerSome strands of Christian history resist explanatory mechanisms and let the mystery stand, inviting and piercing. These are the strands I will take with me to Church this afternoon where I will venerate that old rugged cross – the strands that place that cross on a green hill; the strands that portray that cross as a flowering tree; the strands that see clearly an instrument of imperial torture and, just as clearly, the strength of divine love, a love stronger than death.

I will take with me the mysterious fourth century vision of Ephrem of Edessa, who imagined the “carpenter’s son” fashioning the cross into a bridge over which souls can flee from the region of death to the land of the living. That bridge, in turn, buds as a tree in spring, blossoming with desire:

Since a tree had brought about the downfall of humankind, it was upon a tree that humankind crossed over to the realm of life. Bitter was the branch that had once been grafted upon that ancient tree, but sweet the young shoot that has now been grafted in, the shoot in which we are meant to recognize the Lord whom no creature can resist.

I will go to the cross today with the words of an ancient hymn, written some two centuries after Ephrem. I will sing these words, not with understanding, but as one struck by divine vulnerability and intimacy – yes, as one moonstruck with love:

Faithfcross_treeul cross above all other,
one and only noble tree!
None in foliage, none in blossom,
none in fruit thy peer may be:
sweetest wood and sweetest iron!
Sweetest weight is hung on thee.


Behold, the Lamb of God

Troy Davis may have been innocent, but that’s not what makes his execution this past Wednesday night morally outrageous. Capital punishment itself is a disgrace in any society that thinks of itself as “civilized,” and even more so for a society that claims Christianity as a dominant influence.

I won’t rehearse here the well-worn arguments as to why capital punishment qualifies as: a) morally suspect if not ethically abhorrent; and b) an ineffectual deterrent to crime. (If you’re unconvinced about either point, I recommend spending some time here.)

Rather than only moral and practical problems, capital punishment should raise profound theological questions for Christians. Those questions begin by remembering that Jesus was unjustly accused of capital crimes and executed by the Roman Empire.

Many Christians, however, tend to skip over that socio-political reality and reflect instead on the doctrine of atonement, or why Jesus “had” to die as the “Lamb of God” for the sins of the world.

Many self-identified liberal or progressive Christians reject entirely that kind of doctrinal overlay on the crucifixion of Jesus. But we might still find some peculiar bits in that doctrinal history worth considering today (and that history is quite diverse) and how it might still speak effectively to our situation today – including the appalling practice of capital punishment in the United States.

Here I’ll mention just two among the many points to ponder for a peculiar faith today:

The first point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?

One response to that question, and a profound one, has emerged from the work of Rene Girard, a 20th century French historian and philosopher. And that work has prompted a great deal of insightful theological reflection on the role of violent scapegoating in the formation of any human community. James Alison’s theological work is the best example of this (and it’s rather complex, so go pour yourself some coffee, sit in a comfy chair, and read more about that here).

The shorthand (and thus inadequate) version of Girard/Alison is just this: human societies pour out their inherent violence on representative figures – the “scapegoat” – who bear the brunt of what would otherwise be uncontainable social chaos. Without scapegoats, there would be no “society” at all.

The Paschal Mystery of the death and resurrection of Jesus (the divine scapegoat) thus offers the possibility of finding a way out of this endless cycle of violence. How that is so requires much more space than a blog to describe. But even naming that possibility, it seems to me, can shed some much needed light on the mechanism of scapegoating in the practice of capital punishment.

And the second point to ponder is this: why are human beings so blood thirsty?

Yes, that’s the same point as the first one. But it admits more than one response. Another response comes from an intriguing theologian, Robert Neville, who teaches at Boston University; I am also privileged to count him among my friends.

Bob’s theological work is amazingly broad and deep at the same time, yet I keep rereading one of his many books, Symbols of Jesus: A Christology of Symbolic Engagement. In that book, Bob devotes a chapter to the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God,” and more particularly as the lamb who was slain.

I can’t possibly describe fairly Bob’s profound insights here (any more than I could Girard’s or Alison’s above), but I will offer this: We will never appreciate the symbol of Jesus as the “lamb of God” until we acknowledge our collective “blood guilt.”

As Bob acknowledges, modern western people recoil at the idea of “collective” anything let alone something that sounds as barbaric as “blood guilt.” Yet Bob persuaded me. Consider just two among a host of examples.

First, if you have ever taken a train across the U.S., you did so thanks to the indentured servitude and some deaths of Chinese immigrant laborers, who built the railroad.

Second, if you are in any way benefiting from contemporary American industry, technology, and agriculture, you are indebted to the institution of African slavery on the American continent.

No further examples are necessary – if you’re reading this blog, you are drenched in blood-guilt. How can you bear it? What will erase it, if anything? Can you even stand to think about it? Most of us can’t, so we don’t. But the guilt persists.

Bob then suggests ways that the symbol of Jesus as the slain Lamb of God might address our collective blood-guilt, which I can’t summarize adequately here (I’m working on a way to do that!).

All of this matters as for the peculiar faith Christians claim to adopt and especially when we consider and (I hope) mourn the execution of Troy Davis. He is just one among far too many scapegoats in contemporary US society. Troy Davis is just one among far too many instances of our collective blood-guilt as human beings. Questions of innocence, guilt, evidence, and due process are actually irrelevant. What matters is why any society would collectively kill someone.

Christian people should not do so. Period.

So, why are human beings so blood thirsty? The sad answer is this: We are human. The good news in response is this: the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God who was slain might yet transform violent human culture into a culture of life. If so, then Christians might actually find a compelling if not a peculiar way to talk about salvation and redemption.

For the sake of all those still on death row in this country, may it be so.