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Materno Amore: Letting Go to Love

My mother died last year, during Holy Week. Today marks the first anniversary of her death, during Easter Week.

I like that liturgical progression. Last year, I united her death to the passion of Jesus. This year, I remember her in the blazing light of an empty tomb.

I did a lot of remembering for her those last few years as her own memory disintegrated, as one image after another from her long and full life slowly pixelated into confusion. I didn’t mind repeating myself, and I took some delight in reporting old stories like fresh news. Still, I did have two books published during those years, which she didn’t quite seem to grasp. I so wanted her to grasp it, like giving her a crayon drawing from kindergarten to put up on the fridge for all to see.mom_jay_banquet

I so wanted her to be proud of what I had done and accomplished, what I had become. But that soon mattered very little. What mattered so much more was how her face glowed with a widening smile whenever I walked into her room. She didn’t care what I had done or where I had been; nothing else mattered but being there, together.

That sounds like God to me, or the God I think Jesus wanted us to know. For all my preaching and teaching about grace and divine generosity, I still try to get God’s attention with my clever tricks, my long work days, by taking so few days off. In the end, none of that matters, not really. God just beams with delight whenever we walk in the room.

Mom lived with me for nearly five years, then in a lovely assisted-living residence for the last three. Hard moments punctuated those years and I wouldn’t trade them for anything. I learned so much about her and about me and about the two of us together.

Not least, I learned a bit more what it looks and feels like to love, and then let go. Mothers likely do this, I realized, not just once or even occasionally but constantly, perhaps even daily. They do it when we’re two; they do it when we’re twenty-two, and forty-two, and still – mine never stopped trying, finally, to let me go.

That’s part of what I learned from caring for my mother: we do let go but only to love differently, more deeply and fully.

Maybe that’s the peculiar rhythm of Christian faith in this season: we travel through betrayal, suffering, and death, and finally land in front of an empty tomb. How much of God did we let go this year? Enough to love ourselves differently, others better, the world more tenderly?

Rosemary – my mother’s name. This week my house is filled with the scent of roses, her favorite flower. Dozens of them fill shelves and table spaces. They make me so happy, just by being there when I walk into my house at the end of the day. And I will let them go when the petals fall, and love my mother still – but differently.

Materno Amore

You grabbed hold of me
as I drifted out
of the shallow end.
You gripped my forearm
and pulled me gently back
where I could safely swim and play,
home and happy.

You always did this
when I swerved toward the scary deep,
drove a car, landed a new job,
bought my first house.

I bristled at that grip,
strained against the restraint,
but felt it finally as love,
fierce, resolute, and tender,
as you let me go
when I was safe –

as I let you go,
finally, to be safe
in God’s shallow end of life,
where the breathing is easier
where rest takes no effort,
where you lounge now,
without any worries
about who might drift away.

I see you there,
happy and home.

rose_mom_march_2016

 

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Arise, My Love

In the end, we are raised in love, just as in the beginning we are made from love.

And love is strong, stronger than most of us can imagine. As the ancient poet once wrote:

for love is strong as death,
passion fierce as the grave.
Its flashes are flashes of fire,
a raging flame.
Many waters cannot quench love,
neither can floods drown it (Song of Solomon 8:6-7).

Today, apparently, we need even more to remember that love is stronger than hate. From one end to the other, the world seems awash in fear and terror as so many thrash about with a violence fueled by a relentless suspicion if not a deep loathing.

I cannot imagine how to solve any of this, yet on this Easter Day, the Feast of the Resurrection, I try to remember this: love is strong, stronger than fear and terror, stronger than violence and hatred.

I try to remember that, and then I wonder how the world might change if Christian churches everywhere preached and lived love, and only that.

Imagine Christian congregations organizing all of their worship, business practices, and pastoral care to ensure that you and everyone else feels unmistakably wanted, desired, and loved — that you know yourself as desirable and lovable, without any question or doubt.

Imagine returning week-by-week to a place where you catch an invaluable glimpse of what it looks like to live without any shame, being free of guilt, and having no fear – a glimpse of love’s amazing strength.

Imagine a lifetime of catching that glimpse and hearing that declaration of love and how it would shape and form you. Imagine coming to the end of your mortal existence when you are laid lovingly in Earth by the community who cherished you. Imagine at that moment realizing with considerable astonishment that the arc of your life has only just begun, a moment when you hear once again the voice of the One who made you:

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 (Song of Solomon, 2:13b, 14b).

That is the voice of Easter.

Listen for it; let it remake you; and then ensure that everyone else hears it, too, no exceptions.

chora_anastasis2

Christ harrowing hell, dragging Adam and Eve from their graves.

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The Best Easter Egg Ever

There’s a scar on my left index finger. A visible reminder of that moment when I was twelve and accidentally closed my father’s jack knife over that finger’s middle knuckle. Not just a visible reminder. If I bump that finger just right and hard enough the nerve endings quiver, triggering a vivid memory of pain, a bodily flashback to the twelve year old I used to be, and in some ways still am, yet changed.

Mary Magdalene stood weeping near an empty tomb. She spoke to someone she thought was a gardener. Only when he spoke her name did she recognize him as the risen Jesus (John 20:16). Stranger by far than an empty tomb are those gospel moments of resurrection when the closest friends of Jesus fail to recognize him. John quite oddly insists that the disciples finally rejoiced in their recognition only when they saw the scars on his risen body (John 20:20).

Resurrection does not erase the crucifixion as if it never happened. Trauma denied or repressed is trauma that will haunt us forever. Easter startles and transforms not by covering over pain and suffering but by bringing new life up from its depths.

I venerated the “old rugged cross” on Friday with a congregation still rebuilding from a devastating, traumatic fire. The bell tower survived the fire, including the wooden cross that had stood at its peak for nearly 137 years. That cross survived the fire but apparently not the many decades of weather erosion.gs_cross_full

The wood of that cross had rotted and decayed, despite the many layers of paint, and the whole thing will need to be replaced. Removing it from the tower, the contractor discovered something else: the very center of that cross had deteriorated so severely that a swallow had built a nest inside. Egg shell fragments still remained there with the nest, a quiet witness to the nurturing of life in a symbol of death. Surely the best Easter egg ever.

And that was the cross we venerated on Good Friday.

gs_cross_nest_exposedI knelt there to touch and kiss that crumbling cross to remember my own bodily fragility, my fears and anxieties, the betrayals I have endured and the ones I have perpetrated, the love for which I yearn and the loves I have spurned. Into those depths God has plunged to build a quiet nest of new life.

Easter invites us to follow Mary to the tomb, weeping. We go there with the grief of mistakes and loss, with the regrets over what could have been but never was, with all the scars we still carry and that still jangle our nerves with what might still be. We go there, not in spite of all these memories and hopes that make us who we are but because of them.

Just there and just then, we hear our name.

 

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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.

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Living on the Edge

This peculiar day reminds me of the 1990 film, “Postcards from the Edge,” mostly because of its wonderful title. I imagine Jesus sending one of those postcards especially today, called “Holy Saturday” on the Christian calendar. It would read, “Don’t be afraid.”

Edges can certainly trouble and terrify when living on the edge of foreclosure, or the edge of terminal illness, or the edges of a crumbling relationship. Edges can also intrigue and entice as gateways, portals, and thresholds.

In ancient mythologies “liminal deities” preside over doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman pantheons, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of gateways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.janus

“Holy Saturday” sits on the potent edge between Good Friday and Easter, and it certainly qualifies as a peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves preparing for tomorrow’s liturgical festivities. Christian tradition has Jesus busy with something else.

On this day in the Christian imagination Jesus descends into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

chora_anastasis3One of my favorite depictions of this sacred edge resides in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. More accurately, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

I love Advent and Christmas for the reassurance that flesh matters. I love Epiphany for its expansive horizons of who celebrates God in flesh. I pay attention to Ash Wednesday (for the sake of my mortality) and Lent moves me to live for what matters. But Good Friday proves painful and Easter somehow premature. I love this day in between, this day that sits on the edge. It feels both honest and fantastical all at the same time.

Reflecting on edges I nearly always think of a beach, that liminal space where land and sea meet. Most human beings seem ineluctably drawn to those sandy liminal locations – dry yet also wet; solid but shifting; navigable while also treacherous. Humans stroll along them, launch ships from them, enjoy bonfires and picnics on them—and occasionally fall prey to their unpredictable dangers. A “day at the beach” can entail hours of frolicking in the surf yet they always lead back to the familiar comforts of a place to stand, or more likely to sit and enjoy food and drink.

I imagine the Eucharistic Table sitting on that kind of liminal edge, where Christians share bread and wine on the edge between memory and hope. There we remember suffering and death even as we proclaim resurrection. The former is barely past; the latter hasn’t quite yet arrived.table_beach

To me, Easter is above all a liminal, edgy season, which “Holy Saturday” captures so well. This season invites us to live on the edge, refusing to remain mired in a broken past yet not quite sure what stepping over the horizon will look like. Edgy living is both hopeful and humble, marked by a confidence about the future but without any swagger.

It also takes courage to live on the edge, which is why I’m grateful for this peculiar day and the postcard I imagine Jesus sending from his sojourn among the dead: “Don’t be afraid.”

As a spiritual practice I enjoy returning to some of my favorite hymn tunes and writing new lyrics to accompany them. I did that this Lenten season with the wonderful American folk melody, “Land of Rest” (you might recognize it from the soundtrack to Ken Burns’ PBS documentary on US National Parks). I offer it here for a bit sustenance for our lives on the edge.

Harbor Home

From mountain high and ocean deep
along a distant shore,
a starry host with vigil keep
a bright and open door.

Unfurl the sails to conquer fear
‘midst gale and storm-tossed wave,
the Spirit guides all creatures dear,
these mortal ships to save.

The Table set in trackless seas
where Christ before us trod,
will chart the course with mysteries
to harbor home in God.

(Words: ©2013, Jay Emerson Johnson
Music: Land of Rest, American folk melody)

shore_water_distant

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The Squeaky Gate: Holy Week and Social Transformation

“Cosmo, you’re gonna die.”

That’s one of my favorite lines from the film “Moonstruck.” The line comes from Olympia Dukakis’ character, Rose. She says it to her husband, who has been seeing another woman. Cosmo quite sensibly replies, “Thank you, Rose.”

Left unaddressed in that great exchange is whether there might be anything worth dying for, or whether it matters if there is, and how it might make a difference, to anyone.

Those are some of the profound themes of this “holy week” that Christians in the West are living through just now. The Internet machine is abuzz with images for this week, ranging from the traditional to the kitschy, while clergy scramble to find ever better ways to tell that familiar story (in more worship services than they usually care to count).lamb_slain

In a high-tech, globalized world of smart phones and Google glasses, the story of this week can seem not only familiar but a bit quaint if not worn-out and tired. Returning to this story year after year feels a bit like the cattle gate I encounter in the regional park every day with my Australian shepherd dog, Tyler. When I unlatch it and swing it open, the hinges squeak…loudly.

Tyler looks up at that latch every time as if the sound annoys him. The story we Christians tell in this holy week can seem just as old and squeaky.

palm_sunday_queerBut there’s more than one way to tell that story, and the wonderful sermon I heard two days ago on Palm Sunday reminded me of just one of those ways. The preacher, Christine Haider-Winnett, is also the co-president of the Women’s Ordination Conference, an organization founded in 1975 to advocate for the full inclusion of women in the Roman Catholic Church (watch Christine talk about her work on HuffingtonPost Live).

Christine invited us to see the so-called “triumphal entry” of Jesus into Jerusalem as a protest march, an uprising against the imperial power of Rome. In contrast to the parades of soldiers on horses with spears and swords, Jesus rides in on  a donkey with palm fronds. She reminded me, in other words, of where to look for God this week – in movements of resistance to institutional and state power.

As the Supreme Court of the United States hears two cases this week on marriage equality, Christine helped me find traces of that first century uprising in the rallies for justice taking plmarriage_march_carsonace throughout the country. (My friend and colleague Susan Russell wrote about this very thing.)

But Christine reminded me of something else as well: my own privilege as a man who can be ordained in my church and who also enjoys the comforts of an upper-middle class lifestyle. The institutional power of the Church and the imperial power of the U.S. have treated me pretty well indeed.

The squeaky old story we Christians tell this week invites me to walk beyond the gates of my privilege. They invite me to walk not just with Jesus but with all those with whom Jesus would walk today – and that’s a long list.

If the palms from this past Sunday can serve as signs of resistance to empire, the cross this Friday reminds us of the cost of that resistance. Telling the story that way requires courage, something I can rarely muster on my own. That’s why I’ll be gathering with others this week. I need to hear the old story told in multiple ways and I need help in figuring how to live because of it.

Like Cosmo, we’re all going to die. So this week urges me to live a life that matters, and that could well come with a hefty price tag. That’s why this coming Sunday matters, too. Love-making and justice-work are never wasted efforts. As Christians will declare on Easter, love will always have the last word, which will also become the first word for new life.

gate_regional_oarkI actually like that squeaky gate in the regional park, even if Tyler finds it annoying. Beyond it I see green pastures and clustered trees full of birds and creek-lined gullies. This week I hear the voice of God in that squeak: walk this ancient path; cross through the gate; I’ll go with you.

When I say something like that to Tyler, he’s always glad he listened.

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“Enchanté, Madame”: Why Good Policy Alone Won’t Save Us

Christ is risen and we’re killing the planet. I know – you’ve heard something similar countless times. Another species extinct. Another ecosystem threatened. Global climate change. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Maybe you haven’t heard this one quite so often: If it’s okay to rape women, it’s okay to rape the planet.

That grisly connection is, alas, being performed right now on legislative stages in Washington, D.C. and in far too many states. The link between the current war on women and the war on the planet (the former talked about incessantly these days and the latter, not so much), is subtle but vitally important.

I firmly believe that the many complex “issues” we face today are woven together in complex, lovely, troubling, spiritual ways. I want to try to evoke that here, if only as a preface to the great work our species must now confront. So let’s consider just a few of the dots that need connecting at the moment:

  • First, access to birth control and abortion (which is still technically legal in this country) is under attack. If only this were old news. I appreciate the moral quandaries faced by people of good faith about abortion, but now we’re seeing restrictions appearing even when the health of the mother is at stake, and even in cases of rape and incest. So, is it really okay to rape women? (For more on access issues, read here, which is wonky and policy-heavy, but important; or Rachel Maddow’s take on it here.)
  • Second, access to clean water, clean air, and a safe food supply is equally under attack. This doesn’t appear often enough in the headlines. According to some, the current Congress is the most anti-environment Congress in U.S. history. (Read more about that here; though this is a partisan source, it nonetheless provides helpful links to actual legislation, and it’s disturbing.)
  • Third, access to the truth requires tedious knowledge of legislative riders, appropriations bills, and countless other political arcana that make most people reach for a cocktail instead. The U.S. House, for example, recently passed a much needed piece of legislation for student loans, but paid for it by reducing health care funding that might affect women the most. (The word “might” is important there and I recommend Ezra Klein’s take on this here.)

These are not sexy dots to connect. But connect them we must. Consider this recent pithy observation about environmental responsibility from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams: the world is “not just a huge warehouse of stuff to be used for our convenience.” (Read a great essay on this here.)

I can’t help but wonder if far too many men think the same way about women – women’s bodies as warehouses, incubators, resources, objects. We’ve had a few decades now of insightful analysis about the link between male privilege and ecological degradation – men can control “mother” nature just like they (try to) control women. But I’m not at all convinced that such a link has sunk into our collective consciousness. (Even less likely to have sunk in are the connections between misogyny, homophobia, and global climate change…but I digress.)

So I wonder: How might all of us think differently about our own bodies, the bodies of others, the bodies of non-human animals, and the body of this planet? Would thinking differently make a difference in how we live, the social policies we support, the politicians we elect? I hope so. But what does “thinking differently” mean?

What about “enchantment”?

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a book that proposed precisely that and I’m still trying to tease out its implications. The book is by James William Gibson, called A Re-enchanted World: The Quest for a New Kinship with Nature. It’s an insightful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and lovely book. I also believe Gibson captured something critical and essential: arguing about environmental policy won’t solve any of our problems unless we rekindle our nearly forgotten enchantment with nature.

By “enchantment,” Gibson means many things at once: nature isn’t anyone’s private property; it isn’t just a “resource”; it has its own life and value and beauty quite apart from humanity; and it’s uncanny, uncontrollable, lovely, grotesque, compelling, beyond categories of human meaning making. It is, in a word, enchanting.

I really want to think more and write more about this, and I will. But for now, in the midst of these Great Fifty Days of Easter (Easter is a season, longer than Lent), I frequently find my spiritual attention gravitating toward the image of the “new creation.” The resurrection of Jesus wasn’t just for him, and it wasn’t just for every other human. In some way, Easter proclaims God’s stubborn commitment to life for everything, without exception. Now that is surely peculiar, thankfully.

So, could that great Gospel proclamation lead us to a re-enchantment with the world and all its many wondrously uncanny and glorious bodies? Could it, at long last, dismantle the utilitarian and objectifying posture toward women’s bodies that so many politicians, not to mention religious leaders, seem to adopt? Could Easter move us to find each other and the world around us enchanting?

I believe it could. And not a moment too soon.

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Harrowing Hell & Holy Liminality

Betwixt and between. Neither here nor there. Departed but not arrived.

Justice proclaimed but not yet fully practiced. Equality enacted but repeatedly denied. New life promised in the midst of death.

These are profound but often difficult moments. Some decades ago now, anthropologist Victor Turner analyzed moments of transition when someone has started to leave one phase of life but hasn’t yet moved fully into the next. Think adolescence, that awkward slice of life when one is no longer a child but not yet an adult. Turner referred to these as “liminal” moments, taken from the Latin word “limen,” for threshold.

The fecundity of these in-between states dates much further back than Turner, to ancient mythology. “Liminal deities” preside over thresholds, gates, and doorways, lending spiritual significance to border crossings. In Greco-Roman mythology, Hermes/Mercury was the messenger of the gods and guide of the dead, just as Janus became the god of doorways, of beginnings and endings. Janus, the god with one face looking forward and another looking back, is often associated with New Year’s Day, January 1.

Liminal moments can be challenging and disconcerting; just ask any teenager. My own constitutional impatience makes it difficult to rest after finishing a project; I’m eager to start the next one. Communities and institutions in transition frequently want to skip over all the unsettling liminal bits, those untidy passages where the past still haunts and the future remains unclear. Sloughing of the past too quickly risks losing what we might need to make a leap forward.

But there are other kinds of liminality, too. Moments of getting stuck between a past that we won’t relinquish and a future we’re unwilling to embrace.

The Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965) heralded a long overdue transition toward racial equality in the U.S. Not only is a racially just society still woefully elusive, current legislative initiatives would drag us back to the “Mad Men” era if not a virtual Jim Crow. A woman’s right to make decisions about her own body should have been settled decades ago even as contraception is once again on the legislative table. The Supreme Court overturned state sodomy laws in 2003; lesbian and gay couples can now have sex without fear of prosecution but they can’t get married.

There is much work to do, and neither nostalgia nor utopia will help us. Navigating the liminal “betwixt and between” thus proves both rich and challenging. The past is familiar but sometimes painful; the future is hopeful but unknown. Today, on the Christian calendar, I’m reminded that Jesus hallows the liminal by harrowing hell.

The day between Good Friday and Easter, “Holy Saturday,” is a truly peculiar day. Suspended between the Cross and an empty tomb, Christian communities and clergy busy themselves with Sunday preparations.

Christian tradition has Jesus doing something on this day as well – descending into the underworld to rescue all those held captive by the Devil. This is the sacred version of “no child left behind.” In Janus-like fashion, the crucified Jesus refuses to forget the past even as he looks forward to a promised future.

One of my favorite depictions of this Holy Liminality is in the Byzantine Church of the Savior in Chora, Istanbul, where a gorgeous fresco covers the apse. It depicts Jesus, standing on the gates of hell that he has just smashed, raising Adam and Eve from their graves. Actually, he’s dragging them out from death. I can’t help but see both astonishment and a touch of reluctance in their postures: “Really? You remembered us? But where are we are going? What lies ahead?”

On this day, this Holy Saturday, in the midst of busy preparations for the Feast of Resurrection, let us pause, even for a moment, to remember what we marked yesterday: the lengths to which imperial forces will go to maintain the status quo. Let us remember as well all those who came before us, the pioneers and visionaries who carved an arduous path toward a better world. Let us remember all those who did not live to see that promise fulfilled. And let us remember all this to fuel the hope we need for the work still to do — a profound hope indeed, which, as tomorrow’s feast reminds us, was first announced by women.

The promise of tomorrow cannot be won by forgetting yesterday. That makes this particular Saturday not only peculiar but also, and therefore, holy.

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Holy Solidarity: Lent & Liberation, Part 5

Trayvon Martin. Adrienne Rich. Shaima al Awadi.

I’m taking these names with me into the Christian Holy Week that begins this Sunday. I suspect that the first two names are far more familiar than the third. So here I offer some observations about all three and then why they help me to engage with Holy Week for the sake of profound social change.

Trayvon Martin

The blogosphere is bloated with important, scandalous, insightful, stirring, and stupid posts about this tragic event (and if you don’t what this about, read about it). I won’t try to add to the bloat here except to say this: I can’t remember the last time I was this disgusted by the so-called “criminal justice” system in this country. As many others have already noted, just imagine if Trayvon had been white and George Zimmerman black. In that scenario, and less than a century ago, Zimmerman would already be dead – lynched. (Just go back and watch the wonderful film Places in the Heart.)

White supremacy is a deep poison in U.S. history and culture. It won’t be extracted but by sustained force of will, honesty, and deep conversion.

Adrienne Rich

If I see one more obituary headline about this amazing woman describing her as a “feminist poet,” I’m going to run from my house screaming into the streets (much to the annoyance of my neighbors). So when’s the last time you saw a description of T. S. Eliot as that “white poet”? Ever see Ralph Waldo Emerson described as that “male writer”? I bet you’ve seen Langston Hughes described as an “African-American playwright.”

A standard-issue human being is white and male. Everyone else needs a label. Until that stops, justice will be elusive and human flourishing will languish.

Shaima al Awadi

Just last week an Iraqi immigrant and mother of five died from injuries inflected by a severe beating in her El Cajon home (in San Diego). At the scene there was a note warning the family to “go back to your own country.” El Cajon police said they are investigating the possibility of a hate crime. (The “possibility”? Really? Give me a break.)

So, you haven’t heard about this case? I hadn’t either until it leeched into my FaceBook feed nearly unnoticed (read some more here). Then I did some digging. Shaima al Awadi actually worked for the U.S. Army, translating, helping, consulting about Islamic culture. Where is the news media on this story? Where is our collective FaceBook outrage? Do we hear or see virtually nothing about this because she was a woman and also not an “American”? Probably. Sit at the intersection of white supremacy and male privilege and all this makes horribly twisted sense.

Shaima was beaten, apparently, with something like a tire iron. And she died from those injuries. How can any of us stand this? How can we go on living in such a xenophobic society, such a white supremacist, such a patriarchal society?

Of course, those are just three names, three human beings, among countless others few if any of us will ever know who endure the ravages of white male privilege every day. I can’t possibly try to “solve” all this. Who could? But here I’ll offer some brief reflections about why I find all of this important as I enter into Holy Week. I pray that this will inspire fresh ideas for action.

Christians will remember in this holiest of Christian weeks that Jesus faced a critical choice, quite literally a choice of life and death. He belonged to a rich and vibrant religious tradition that offered a number of options for his mission. He could have, for example, chosen the path of a Levitical warrior to liberate his people by force from Roman occupation. I say “Levitical” warrior because the culture of tribal warfare from which that biblical book arose was constructed on an economics of masculinity in which topping one’s enemies – with violence, if necessary – demonstrated covenantal faithfulness.

But Jesus chose instead to follow the path articulated by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah. In that book, the Levitical warrior becomes the “suffering servant,” and rather than topping one’s enemies, that servant leads all the nations instead to God’s holy mountain where they learn war no more and beat their swords into ploughshares (Isaiah 2:4).

In the gospel according to John, that choice is described as nothing less than the glory of God. Resisting the violence of imperial (read “white”) male privilege and choosing instead a deep solidarity with all those who are oppressed by such violence is, for John, the quintessential revelation of divine splendor.

In the light of that glory, recommitting ourselves to ending white male privilege is a recommitment to saving this planet from the ravages of imperial patriarchy. How could that not mark a week that Christians insist is “holy”? I should surely hope that Christians the world over would find that kind of path as marking our way toward Easter.

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The Queer Promise of Easter in a Culture of Death

Any society that celebrates death is in cultural trouble, and I would say rather deep trouble.

This particular kind of trouble is not new to the United States, though it would take much more than a short blog post to catalogue the many examples. The recent eruption of jubilation across this country to celebrate just one man’s death halfway around the world only adds to the list.

Let me be clear: I am not sorry that Osama bin Laden is dead. He was a fomenter of violence and terrorism across the globe and a mass murderer (even of his own people). Whether rightly or wrongly (probably a combination of both), bin Laden catalyzed two major U.S. war efforts, drained the financial resources of more than one country, and caused untold heartache in dozens of countries. The statements from the families of 9/11 victims that have been broadcast in the wake of his death bear witness to the deep wounds, the scars, the grief that this one man, in some fashion, has caused.

So I’m not sorry he’s dead. But I don’t celebrate his death, either.

That distinction, though subtle, is an important one for Christians who claim to be an “Easter people.” Easter celebrates God’s decisive victory over death. We taint that celebration if we find anyone’s death a cause for celebration and jubilation, and perhaps especially when that death is violent.

Just over a week ago, Christian communities gathered for an Easter vigil celebration. On that night, many heard the story of how God rescued the ancient Israelites by leading them across the Red Sea on dry ground. This divine act of salvation, however, came at the price of drowning Pharaoh’s entire army, both horse and rider, in that same sea.

The Israelites celebrated their rescue in song (Exodus 15:1), and I would have done the same thing. But then, I have to wonder: did any of them grieve for the dead Egyptians and their families?

We don’t know. What we do know is that the Israelites spent the next forty years wandering in the desert. I’d like to think that they spent that time learning how to mourn the deaths of their oppressors. Perhaps their wilderness sojourn inspired a broader vision of divine liberation – a vision in which both oppressed and oppressor alike would come home to the Promised Land.

Isaiah seems to have been inspired by that kind of expansive vision when he writes about all the nations (not just a select few) streaming to the Holy Mountain, where swords are beaten into ploughshares and people learn war no more (Isaiah 2:2-4).

The trajectory from Exodus to Isaiah marks a remarkable evolution from tribal warfare to universal peace. I wonder what happened to that vision when I see college-aged students celebrating bin Laden’s death outside the White House by chanting “USA! USA!” as if we had just won the World Cup. I don’t know how else to describe such a scene except with words like “ghoulish” and “ghastly.”

The life-changing, world-altering insight that violence only breeds more violence is of course not new. In more than one gospel account, Jesus says, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). “Love your enemies and do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27).

The risen Jesus practiced what he preached as he came back from death, still bearing the scars of his torture. To the very ones who had abandoned him, he said, “Peace be with you” (John 20:19-22).

A second century theologian by the name of Origen took that peace still further, and rather dramatically, by declaring that not even Satan and all his fallen angels would be excluded from the eternal offer of love and grace.

How queer can Christianity get? No, really. How far are we willing to take this? I honestly don’t know. I do know that throwing a party because someone was shot in the head falls a bit short of the queer promise of Easter. I’m not trying to be facetious; I’m genuinely appalled by the specter of dancing on someone’s grave.

Let me suggest this, and not without a little trepidation: The queerly good news of the Christian Gospel invites us to imagine that someday, somehow, not only the ancient Egyptians and the ancient Israelites, and not only the Roman soldiers and the disciples of Jesus, but also all the victims of terrorism and al Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden himself, will find themselves gathering in the same banquet hall, preparing for the same feast, and deeply engaged in the kind of reconciliation none of us can presently conceive.

I’m not sure any of us – myself included – can really bear the queerness of that vision. But quite frankly, I’ll take the discomfort and offense of that queerly Christian posture over the jingoistic, even blood-thirsty ejaculations of so many of my fellow US citizens over these past twenty-four hours.

Surely, Easter queerly promises something different, something better than that. Surely it does.