Faith Thinking Aloud

Naming the Unnamed and Personalizing the Dehumanized

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The photos linked below show actors in a play at the governor’s palace in Williamsburg, Virginia. I requested and received from one of the actors verbal permission to post them online. He seemed slightly surprised by my request because, as I assumed, people post pictures and comments regularly, but it’s still right to ask. I mention that conversation because the man remarked that the actors realize the photos will be put online but don’t appreciate some of the comments posted with them.

After the royal governor, John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, fled the palace as rebellion was surging among the colonists, something had to be done with his slaves. As the war effort required funding and as the slaves were considered valuable property, an auction was held to take care of the matter in a way that seemed most beneficial to the colonists. For the slaves, however, the auction was a grievous atrocity, tearing friend from friend and child from parent, likely not to be seen again. No doubt the children were terrified. One of the characters in the play is a mother who cannot and will not quiet her desperation despite the cautions of trouble her outbursts could bring upon her.

The play exposed the type of tensions that could arise among the enslaved in such a sudden turmoil. One of the men had run away with several others, but they were betrayed and caught because they kept waiting for the other man who had promised to go with them but never showed up. Confronted by his angry friend who had counted on him for courage and who had been whipped for running, he confesses that his fear overcame him. The distraught mother hurts the woman trying to calm and comfort her by reminding her friend that she has no children and so cannot understand the intensity of the distress at losing them. Seeing the hurt she has inflicted, the mother apologizes, but the tensions made the characters persons rather than mere types.

When I spoke after the presentation with one of the actors, he emphasized that each person had his or her own story of life in slavery. Being enslaved, to be sure, is depersonalizing and dehumanizing, and the presentation even showed how it dehumanized the white overseers who processed in almost opposite ways their responsibility for taking the enslaved women and men to auction. One struggled with compassion while the other rejected it as weakness of which the slaves would take advantage.

There was also tension between the comforting woman and the man who had been too afraid to meet his friend who had been running for freedom. He scorned all expressions of hope, such as the proffered assurance the mother would see her children again. The woman felt compelled to offer hope, no matter how slight or even baseless, on the grounds that people cannot live without it. In the end, the man seems also unable to face his future without hope but only shame at having abandoned his friend.

The production was powerful emotionally and intellectually. The audience was summoned to empathy, and the two white overseers displayed the option to feel it or protect against it. Some members of the audience were given cards bearing the known names of the slaves who were sold at auction that day, and we read them so the nameless would be named in Williamsburg. The paper given to me named Sukey Hamilton who was sold earlier when Lt. Governor Fauquier’s estate was settled after 1768. Her name had been found on an inventory (of property).

Photo album on Google Photos:  link

White Begonias and Grape Tomatoes

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That day as a sophomore, I was being quite sophomoric. The professor in our American literature class had made the statement that we see only from our own viewpoints. With a silent, smug, “Well, duh, yeah,” I wrote the words in my notebook: “We see only from our own viewpoints,” followed by the professor’s name. From whose viewpoint could I possibly see but mine?

I wonder how many times I have returned to that professor’s statement as I have grown less sophomoric and somewhat wiser sometimes. The trick, of course, is to become aware of the “just my own” in my viewpoint and so discern the limited, often myopic nature of that viewpoint which is just mine. In truth, I was already on my way even then as a college sophomore, in part thanks to a high school history teacher who had opened my eyes to the viewpoint-determined nature of historical facts. Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean (and named it Pacifico), right? Yup, that’s the answer for the elementary school history quiz. But really? What of the thousands of people who had been swimming, boating, and fishing in it for centuries uncounted?

Indeed, that’s the right word: uncounted. From the predominant European viewpoint, those people did not count. As Mark Twain put it, “The very ink with which history is written is fluid prejudice.” The American mythology of our beginnings as a nation, complete with a huge dose of divine will, purpose, guidance, and protection that yielded our “manifest destiny” and our lingering sense of exceptional greatness, was all our story from our own viewpoint. I must note here that one theologian whose work I am rereading observes that before the republic became an empire, much of the American dream lived in us as hope and aspiration for ourselves and sometimes for the other peoples of earth, not as established fact and belief not to be questioned. As we became more and more an empire, our sense of exceptional greatness hardened into proud certainty, then (especially after September 11, 2001) fearfully and angrily defended dogma.

As I walked around our yard this morning taking photos, I noticed pluses and minuses in the effects of our recent deluge. Our rain gauge had showed about 11.5 inches of rain in five days, with more rain to come (and more still coming). Our grape tomatoes have been splitting as they ripen. There’s a minus. The withering white begonias we had transplanted without apparent success in saving them had taken hold in the downpours and are now thriving. There’s a plus.

Minus and plus, I realized as I brought up the photographic images transferred to my computer are only from our viewpoint. Success means white flowers to contrast with the other colors in the front gardens and tomatoes to eat and share with the neighbors. The split tomatoes, however, can still drop their seeds. Some insects are enjoying the tomatoes’ vulnerability. This realization of different views may be a small matter, but it raises a larger question. Is earth our warehouse of resources to be used and even used up, or do we bear responsibility for earth’s other creatures and for the world itself, responsibility that is not gauged only by our needs, desires, and benefits? Does everything exist just for us? Do animals and plants have worth only according to their usefulness or profitability to us or for their beauty or cuteness in our eyes?

The famous and now notorious Genesis command to the human creatures to “fill the earth and subdue it” comes to us from within the context of human vulnerability to nature and Judah’s reduction to powerlessness by the Neo-Babylonians. No biblical writer ever dreamed of a time when humans would hold the power to destroy all life on earth and even the planet itself. None imagined human capability to pollute the air and the seas. For them, the world belonged to God and not to them. They were appointed by God to serve as caretakers of earth and care givers for each other. Since those ancient, pre-scientific times, we have gained exponentially in knowledge about our world and control over it, but how much have we gained in wisdom? Now that we are seeing the limits of our control and the dangers in our greed, we are growing anxious and defensive.

Now that humanity has “come of age” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s expression), we have lived to see, those of us who will look, technology as a runaway train that might just careen toward our destruction. We have learned to use data and charts to assure ourselves of continued prosperity as more and more people suffer poverty and deprivation. Values-free research combined with our dominant profit motive have left us anxious and increasingly inclined to retreat into entertainments. or narcotics.

I am not suggesting a return to pre-scientific and pre-Enlightenment thinking. We cannot go back to “old-time religion” or a Medieval world of magic and superstition, but are we so fixed in our limited viewpoint that we cannot find in ourselves and our world a sense of wonder? Can we learn a humility that is not self-deprecating or pathetic but is strong enough to stop pretending to be more in control than the human creature can be? Can we stop calling ourselves the greatest long enough to find hope again and take responsibility for our actions in terms of our relatedness to each other, to the other creatures, and to earth itself?

We see only from our own viewpoints. Yes, but how liberating it can be to realize my view comes only from my viewpoint and so is quite limited and sometimes distorted. How much more liberating even it is to learn that I can, like my camera, change lenses and see differently. I cannot see through your eyes, but I can listen to you and defer preparing what I’ll say next to argue my position or one-up you with a funnier story.  Realizing the narrowness of vision from my viewpoint only can open my eyes to the wonders and responsibilities of life that is shared and hopes that can be shared as well.

“Read your Bible!” Authoritarian Bullying

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Printed in white paint, along with some Christian symbols, on the tailgate of a dark pickup truck:

I Corinthians 14:34
WOMEN shall be SILENT
and SUBMISSIVE
READ YOUR BIBLE

Beyond noting that painting this message on his truck suggests an emotionally and spiritually insecure man, I’ll leave it to psychotherapists to explain what might motivate him to so abuse the Bible in this pitiful attempt to bully women. Decades ago I heard some women’s reactions to a man who, Bible in hand, had delivered a similar message in a adult church school class, and as I listened to them, I realized he had done more to arouse feminism than anyone could have done with a feminist message. So maybe if the guy with pickup truck were trying to awaken in more women new opposition to being bullied by the abusive Bible quoting of authoritarian Christians, he might have achieved some success.

The downside (in addition to the sadness of the man’s so publicly airing his insecurities) is that his attempt at bullying reinforces the false notion that the Bible is an authoritarian book intended for use as a club for beating down people who don’t know their (supposed) place in a soul-crushing hierarchy. I notice the sign says, “your Bible” not “the Bible,” I suppose because the assumption is that everybody has one. But whose Bible is this that so readily serves as a club for bludgeoning people? Not mine.

I have been studying Christianity’s Bible since childhood and without it would not be who I am or have the life I have lived, but this fellow’s “your Bible” is not my Bible at all. The Bible is foundational and crucial to my hopes, thoughts, values, and indeed to my whole way of striving to live, but it is not a weapon for me to use against people to subjugate them to my will under false cover of divine authority. Neither is it legitimately an authoritative way to make my opinions and prejudices sound as though they were God’s very own. So, while I’ll continue to read and study the Bible as long as I have eyesight and my wits about me, I will not be instructed or reprimanded by this man’s Bible.

Does the Bible not challenge my thinking, actions, decisions, and ways of relating to other people and to the rest of creation? Yes, it sure does. I do not expect what I read in it to reassure and comfort me when what I need is to be confronted, challenged, and changed. True, there is much in the Bible that offers comfort and reassurance, but even in such green pastures beside calm waters, it is seldom telling me that everything is “well with my soul” and my life. Even its proffered consolations confront me with the truth of an understanding and compassion that burn away pretenses and self-deceptions. Even at their best, my ways are not God’s ways, and God’s thoughts are not my thoughts.

As a Christian, I need to be reminded frequently that Jesus, whom we call the Christ, is never just what the world wants, just what the churches want, or just what I want, either. There is some continuity between my desires and God’s grace, but there is also discontinuity, and if I am going to hear what the Bible’s various witnesses to God’s truth-with-us have to say to me here and now, meeting me as I am and where I am in life, then I must hold the continuity and the discontinuity in tension, realizing that sometimes I need to hear one more strongly than the other.

Picking Bible verses to prove myself right and my ways godlier than someone else’s is an exercise in self-deception. Using carefully selected verses to clobber other people is not only misguided but sinful. The Bible challenges me and my life, not by laying down authoritarian rules, but by confronting me with the truth of God as a self-giving, redemptive love far greater than anything within me.

I have written before about the disconnect between what I have called the two different bibles Christians read and also present to the world. Book for book and word for word, the two are the same, but in effect they differ drastically. I call one the vindictive bible, the other the salvific bible. I’ll not rehash here what I’ve already posted, but for anyone curious, here it is:

I do not know the man in the truck, his hopes and fears, disappointments and experiences of shame, or what has happened in his life to move him to broadcast from the back of his pickup such anger and need for control over women. I do know his painted message bears hurtfully false witness to the truth of the Bible he seems to prize as well as to the liberating and life-giving truth of the Christ he apparently claims to serve.

Our Need for Meaningful Questions

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Two middle school boys were enjoying a laugh and sharing a sense of superiority as they described how a woman had made a fool of herself by just standing in front of people and waving her arms around. Happily unaware of how much they didn’t know, they were describing the church’s choir director. Their judgment was of the type most absolute and self-assured because it was based upon undisturbed ignorance. It occurred to neither boy to ask what the choir director was doing and how it worked. They did not ask because they knew already all they cared to know. Nothing supports certitude so well as unquestioned ignorance.

So-called social media have become our society’s means for sharing thoughts and opinions. Leaving aside the ease with which these media enable the spread of misinformation and deliberate lies and leaving aside also the nastiness and absurdity in many of the comments made in the constant crossfire between left and right, I see a subtler problem in such easy and rapid communication. For inspiration and even insight, we use memes, a word apparently coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 to refer to that which is imitated. The meme became an element of culture or behavior passed by non-genetic means, especially imitation, and now refers to supposedly humorous or insightful tidbits passed around the Internet.

I admit that I see memes I appreciate. Some I even “like” on Facebook. But after having scrolled down Facebook’s endlessly replenished succession of postings, I find myself feeling a mental sogginess. Many of the memes I see posted have not even been checked for spelling and grammar let alone for coherence of thought or fidelity to the complexities and struggles of human life. Many pretend to be wise without even being thoughtful. Worse, some pass judgment upon people without any evidence of understanding them. What presents itself as decisive and authoritative is, rather, carelessly dismissive. Suddenly, I am back in the room with two preteen boys pontificating without knowledge about the foolishness of directing a choir.

Because theology continues to be my life’s struggle and quest, I notice especially the pronouncements for and against what people think they know of religious faith. For example:

It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.
God is not real because God cannot be proved.
If it weren’t for religions, we wouldn’t have wars.
Religious people are hypocrites.
All religions are the same.
“Etc., etc., and so forth,” as the king says in the musical.

Consider just the first one: “It’s possible to be a good person without being religious.” I recognize the self-defense here against condemnations from other people or from the speaker’s own conscience, and I sympathize. People who break free from the belief moorings of family or society or just slip loose and drift away get criticized, sometimes condemned, maybe even shunned. But freedom requires good questions asked and pursued if soggy minds and shallow lives are to be avoided.

What is religion, and what is it to be religious? Consider that biblical Hebrew lacks a word for religion. I would take that lack as a hint that we are dealing here with a concept somewhat foreign to the biblical faiths. Most theologians I read use the word religion more often in the negative, in contrast with the life of trust and discipleship lived and shared within communities of faith. The concern of the many and varied books of the Bible is life, not religion, and biblically understood life is created to be relational. The goal is the restoration of our denied relation to God and relatedness with each other and all creation. In contrast, religion has often served in practice as people’s attempts at gaining security from God (or the gods) and as rulers’ means for controlling societies by making the systems in place seem sacred. The God to whom the Bible bears witness cannot be controlled but can be trusted and obeyed in trust. This God disrupts the systems of power, frees captives, cares for the vulnerable, restores the lost, and reconciles the estranged. This God loves the world and will neither give it up nor enslave it.

What is good? This question is not simple, and while simple answers may be helpful (or harmful) as starting points, they will not take us very far without more effort at thinking. Is the good whatever feels good to me? Is it whatever might make me superior to someone else? Is it virtue? Kindness? When he was addressed as “good teacher,” Jesus of Nazareth replied: “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God only.” What is goodness, and what would it mean for me or anyone to be a good person?

What is a person? Am I a person all by myself, such that being a good or bad person could be a self-contained matter of me and me alone? Is it possible for me to diminish or even lose my personhood? Can it be regained or restored? Can the way I am a person be changed, healed, forgiven? Can the person I am be known? Understood? Loved? Can I myself know the person I am? Understand the person I am? Forgive that person? Love that person?

Maybe because I am rereading Douglas John Hall’s book, Thinking the Faith,” I am taking extra notice of the superficiality of our social media conversation-by-meme. Hall writes: “Undoubtedly the existence of God, which is presupposed by biblical religion, is a vital concern for many of our contemporaries; but a much more immediate concern is whether our own existence has any purpose in it!” (326)

Learning comes through asking good questions and pursuing them, not by memorizing answers, let alone by picking the correct answer from a short list of choices. Yes, theology is thinking the faith but as such must not become merely explaining or defending doctrines but thinking life. And thinking life is not at all the same as the modern technological drive to make life artificially legible, manageable, and exploitable but is a matter of wonder that engages us with life and all the living with humility, empathy, and gratitude.

We have lived through a time called modern when we took for granted that we could prove or disprove what were presented as facts and that truth would be the sum of all the proven facts. We let ourselves imagine that the existence of God was the religious question we needed to prove, disprove, dismiss, or just ignore. But what (if anything) does it matter that I exist? What does it matter to me that you exist as you, a person distinct from me? What does it mean that you are distinct from me (a person in your own right) but not unrelated to me (not a person of no concern)? What is it to you and to me that God knows and loves each of us and both of us together, and not only us but all people, all creatures, and the whole of creation? The question is not, “How can I be a good person?” but how are we to keep becoming human in relation to God, each other, ourselves, the non-human creatures, and all of God’s creation? Within that overarching question, I may find and keep finding answers for what it means for me to be a person.

“They brought it upon themselves.”

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A recent letter to the editor complained that our local newspaper had printed six letters decrying the Trump policy of taking children from their parents at our southern border. The writer, doubly annoyed because an editorial in that same edition had also criticized the “zero tolerance” policy, hedged somewhat by offering up a self-absolving contradiction: I’m not in favor of taking children from their parents, but they brought it on themselves!  What I see is the moral equivalent of football’s double reverse: start toward one side of the defensive line, hand off the ball to feign changing direction (we’re not really running that way), then hand off the ball again to, yes, really run that way.

To brutalize a group of people and feel justified in brutalizing them, one must first discredit empathy which is most easily done by telling lies about them. What makes people flee their homes and set off on a hard trek into dangers known and unknown, especially people with young children who will, beyond doubt, be frightened and unsettled? The plain answer is desperation akin to that which forces a family to flee their house which has caught fire, but that realistic answer could evoke empathy and so must be contradicted with slander. Paint these desperate people as opportunists or even invaders scheming to take away from us what is rightfully ours. Portray them as a horde of barbarians or savages so cruel that they will endanger their own children to attack us. The absurdity of such a depiction, while obvious to many, eludes detection by those who despise brown-skinned people who don’t speak English, who become enraged by the very sight of them in their communities or, perhaps, in more controlled reactions just bristle inside.

First dehumanize and other-ize, then blame the others who are not like us, who don’t fit into our mental pictures of our own communities and our nation, whose very presence makes us uncomfortable. “One of these things is not like the others” on the prejudiced mind’s picture page. How can desperate people be blamed for fleeing their homes to find refuge? Draw them as calculating, as people so bereft of moral decency that they would use their own children as shields to protect themselves from justice. It is, after all, about the law and only the law, is it not? No, it is not. Seeking asylum from violence, rape, and murder is not illegal, but when the desperate people fleeing such violence are not wanted, their action can be made illegal or made to appear illegal. Stop them before they reach the middle of the bridge. Jam up the process so they are tempted in their desperation to seek some way around. Do they understand the ramification of what they are doing in their desperation? I doubt they do, but prejudice just knows they have planned it all out.

The parents fleeing three frighteningly violent, destabilized Central American nations (El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) are mostly indigenous people whose native language is not Spanish but some other, older on this continent, that most of us have never even heard named. These are peoples the Europeans displaced, slaughtered, or subjugated. They have been here far longer than we have. Without even going into the question of how these nations have been so destabilized (hint: back in the Reagan years, we played a significant role in the process), people who allow themselves to feel empathy can easily see how confusion and naive expectations of asylum add to desperation and the vague hope of somehow finding refuge and being safe. There is a land of safety. The way there may be hard, but reaching it offers some glimmer of hope. If only. So parents come with their children and try to present themselves to the border guards for acceptance as refugees seeking asylum.

But hope is cheated, and the children they are trying to protect are taken from them, shipped like cargo to unknown places, by night in secret. Put into detention camps. Caged. Not touched, not comforted. Damaged for life.  Mr. Kelly tells us this way of treating children should serve as a strong deterrent.

But, “they brought it upon themselves.” How can such callousness justify itself? The law! They are illegals (not a word in English)! They are invaders! They are lesser human beings. Always the abused must be painted as lesser people, if human at all. Call them animals, then cage them. Blame them. Always blame them so we ourselves need accept no blame for what we are doing to them.

It works. It has always worked, and Donald Trump knows how to work it.

Lack of empathy is evil. Without empathy, a person has no compassion and feels no need for any. Without compassion, we become inhuman and as far away from God as people can get. God’s compassion is the driving force of the entire biblical story and, for Christians, the only hope we have in life or in death.

First, it is a lie that the asylum seekers have brought it upon themselves, that they deserve to have their children taken from them and sent off into a nightmarish limbo. All asylum seekers are doing is running out from the burning building their homeland has become for them, from the danger that drives them from their homes into an uncertain future. From a Christian perspective, however, even if the lie were the truth, it would not excuse us from empathy and compassion. Claiming we are so excused from empathy and compassion denies and renounces the gospel we declare we believe. As Christians, we confess that our hope for salvation is based upon God’s grace – that is, God’s unearned and undeserved compassion and mercy – not upon any assessment of what we deserve or have brought upon ourselves. We affirm that God takes no pleasure in the grief or death of anyone. Such commitment to empathy and compassion does not mandate so-called open borders, as Mr. Trump falsely asserts the critics of his policy want, but it does require the recognition of people as human beings loved by God, the administration of justice without cruelty, and humane treatment of the desperate and vulnerable. Surely special care should be taken with children. The tactical cruelty of the Trump administration, which brutalizes children and their parents to fire up the prejudice and hatred of his base and to extort Congress into wasting money on a wall, has no justification in a Christian view of life or in Christian treatment of people. What is more offensive to God than blatant cruelty? Perhaps the answer is pious cruelty that claims not to favor tearing children from their parents’ arms even as it mutters, “They brought it upon themselves,” thereby approving the policy and the damage it does. Double reverse.

What Part of Illegal?

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Regularly these days I read the words on social media: “What part of illegal do you not understand?” Sometimes the words come in all capital letters, the online equivalent of shouting; always they refer to undocumented immigration.

So, today I try to answer, to say what are the parts of illegal I do not understand. There are several.

I do not understand the word illegal when applied to a person, a human being. In the English language, there is no such word as “illegals.” My word processor just flagged it correctly as misspelled. A person cannot be illegal because that word applies to actions that violate a law. Driving more than five miles per hour above the posted speed limit is illegal (I suppose driving above it at all is technically so). Deliberately failing to report income on Form 1040 is illegal. Cutting through our backyard uninvited is illegal. So are grand larceny, murder, and human trafficking illegal. Clearly there are degrees of illegality, which is the reason we have the distinction between misdemeanors and felonies as well as grades of violation (involuntary manslaughter, capital murder, etc.). BUT (pardon my shout), a person cannot be illegal. Use of the term “illegals” is designed to dehumanize human beings, to label people as not-us, not our kind, not our equals, not in the same category of creature as we are. It is bigotry. That part of illegal I suppose I comprehend but do not understand.

How does commission of a misdemeanor offense render a person unworthy of protections under our law, unworthy of humane treatment, unfit for even normal human consideration as a person? First-time illegal entry into the United States is a misdemeanor. How is it that people so desperate to flee violence that they will risk the suffering which may be inflicted upon them here, when they cross our border illegally in hope of safety, come to be regarded as animals (by our president), as subhuman scum, as invading enemies? Do we think that way of people who cheat on their income taxes? Who litter our roadways? Who fish without a license or commit any other misdemeanor? One person breaks a law casually, for his or her own convenience or just through disregard for public safety or public goods. Another breaks a law fearfully but does so out of desperation. Why do we so furiously despise the desperate one? That part of illegal I do not understand.

The next part is harder: unjust laws. The reality of unjust laws is nothing new. From the prophet Isaiah come these words:

Ah, you who make iniquitous decrees, who write oppressive statutes, to turn aside the needy from justice and to rob the poor of my people of their right, that widows may be your spoil, and that you may make the orphans your prey! What will you do on the day of punishment, in the calamity that will come from far away? To whom will you flee for help, and where will you leave your wealth, so as not to crouch among the prisoners or fall among the slain?
(Isaiah 10:1-4 NRSV)

Laws get written for various purposes. Some protect the public, others insulate the privileged, while still others enable the greedy and even the ruthless. The rich and influential can get laws passed that benefit them unfairly. People who differ in unpopular ways from the society’s current norms are oppressed by cruel laws designed to hurt and exclude them. It has, in its time, been illegal to free a slave, to marry a person of another race, or to vote without being male. It has also been quite legal to beat a wife or to sucker students, poor people, or the elderly into hugely oppressive borrowing of money. It was legal to redline cities and towns, preventing non-white buyers from purchasing homes in “white” areas. Also there have been offenses that were illegal but winked at by the public and by law enforcement, perhaps depending upon the perceived identity of the person breaking such a law. A back-alley crap game might lead to arrests but not a 50-50 at the local swim club, even when both violated the same gambling statute. Loitering has long been selective, as Starbucks has learned recently.

Police officers, prosecutors, and judges must use their heads, and they do. The basketball situational rule of, “No harm, no foul,” must sometimes prevail if an injustice is to be avoided. The police can’t pull over every driver who cuts a corner a little or strays slightly over the center line; neither can the IRS try to go after every taxpayer who fails to report a $10 tip. BUT the true problem comes from the iniquitous decrees and oppressive statutes of the kind against which Isaiah cries foul. Laws passed to protect the supposedly right people from the presence of the supposedly wrong people they despise just for being who they are, those are iniquitous laws. Statutes written and imposed to enable the greed of the already rich by exploiting the vulnerable are oppressive. Laws can be evil. They can be written to support and safeguard injustices. Many Americans have paid to see productions of Les Miserables, the story of a poor man imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread. What part of hunger and wretchedness do we not understand? What part of desperation eludes us and blocks our empathy? What part of “yearning to breathe free” do we not get?

Plundering America

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The privatization of public goods seems to me a system for plundering our nation under the ruse of improving services and lowering costs. What are public goods? They are institutions and systems we develop to benefit the whole body of the people of the state or nation, rather than certain people but not others. They are the goods and benefits we maintain together, as a people, for the welfare of all, not merely as a collections of individuals and families, but as a whole. The premier example is public education for all, which was designed to benefit the society as a whole, advancing shared knowledge and undergirding our democracy. Public education is not established to benefit only its current students and their families but to strengthen the democracy of the United States and in so strengthening us as a whole, to make our nation an increasingly better citizen of the world.

What we see these days is plundering on such a large scale that it seems the powerful in our land envision no future for our nation and could not care less. What is being plundered? The answer includes public education, our correctional (!) system by which I mean the penal system (prisons), public lands, our entire infrastructure, and our public insurance programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, unemployment insurance, and welfare). Systems already private, including the whole complex of food industries and businesses are being deregulated so constraints imposed to keep our eating safe as well as to see that animals and humans are treated humanely can be removed so they too can be plundered. It seems our supposed leaders and their financial masters do not think America has a future, nor earth either.

From my shared faith perspective, we are created and charged to be stewards (care-takers) of the earth and for each other. “Me and mine” (and to hell with everybody else) is the essence of sin. Human life is relational, which keeps it personal so the individual matters, but utterly individualized life is dehumanized existence no matter how wealthy.

For years, the pirates have been taking over. Now we have reached the point where the piracy is out in the open and lauded. People are appointed to run agencies by deliberately running them into the ground. Public goods are pillaged, then judged insufficient and ineffective, so they can be destroyed, but the pubic money will not be saved. Rather it will go into private coffers.

It was William Henry Vanderbilt who uttered the famous response, “The public be damned!” Apparently he was annoyed because he was forced by competition to run express lines that didn’t turn a profit or, at least, not a profit sufficient to satisfy him. Today, we have a “public be damned” system of government in place. Wherever there is money for some public good, that public good must be raided and plundered, and the plundering goes more smoothly if the public can first be turned against that public good. Hence the denigration of public schools and teachers (and, of course, the cutting of funds to ensure ineffectiveness and failure).

How long will we allow our nation to be plundered? I think we will allow it as long as we are divided angrily against each other and fooled into thinking government causes our problems. The plunderers can laugh, as we say, “all the way to the bank.”

Were We There? Was I?

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It is the day, the Saturday, between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  Dead Saturday.  No, the church does not call it by that name.  It is part of Triduum, the three days of Jesus’ passion.  For him, it would have been Shabbat, but he was not there to observe it. He was dead.  In our society, it is mostly just a Saturday, notable perhaps because the kids are home from college and the supermarkets more jammed than usual because of Easter’s festivities.  There may be dyed eggs to hide and baskets to fill with candy.  For some it is another holiday emptied of inspiration but filled again with the duty of gathering with the family to endure the smiling criticisms and stinging comparisons with more successful offspring of the clan. For others, it is another weekend day alone because others are busy with family things.

This morning with coffee I went back to Maundy Thursday 2009 to read what follows, what I had written and preached for that evening.  Sometimes it helps me to look back and listen.

Were We There?  Was I?

Was I there when Jesus was crucified? The most obvious, unreflective answer is, of course, “No.” Jesus of Nazareth was crucified almost two thousand years ago. But the literal is not always the truest.

Sacramentally, I have been there many times and will be there again with you this evening. In my hands I will hold the symbolic elements of his humiliation, suffering, and death, and by taking those symbols of his broken body into my own living body, I will confess both that Jesus did it for me and, also, that he “had to” do it because of me. He did not “have to” do it, of course, except that he was compelled by his faithfulness to the unyielding love of God for this world and its people. By eating the bread and drinking from the cup, I will admit that I am the reason for his crucifixion in both senses: he did it for me, because God loves me, and he did it because of me, because of my alienation from God and from other people. I am both the beneficiary and the cause of his pain.

This evening, I am there, there in the flesh, as one loved by God and, at the same time, one alienated from God, still divided from other people, and still a long way from being the person God created me to become. So, here I am again, hoping and trusting that this simple ritual somehow brings me into closer contact with Jesus in his passion, somehow takes hold of me and brings home to me that terrible event on which my life, my hope, and my salvation depend.

But the sacramental is not enough. To be there with him, I need to find him crucified in my real world and not just in the peace and calm of the sanctuary, in the familiar words and actions of the sacrament. A crucifixion was very much an event of the flesh. It was torture and humiliation, very bodily. If God’s love and presence were incarnated (made flesh) for us in the birth of the baby Jesus, how much more so in the breaking of the man’s body? His crucifixion is the supreme incarnation of God’s love and presence. Humanity did not just get to see, hear, and touch him; we got to mock, torture, and kill him. We made the incarnation of God’s love suffer and die.

How can we go beyond the sacramental in being there when and where Jesus is crucified? I think we can start by realizing that Jesus suffered not only for this world but also with it. On the cross he represented God fully to us, in is own dying human body, and he also represented us to God, as the human put to shame and suffering in an unjust, often seemingly Godless world. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus of Nazareth dies with – in unity with – all the countless God-forsaken people in our world.

The sacramental is good, helpful, and sustaining, but it is not enough. We need to find him crucified in the real, everyday world around us. Once we understand, once our eyes have been opened and our ears unplugged, he is not hard to find. He’s there, every day, all around us in what theologians call the cruciform. What is the cruciform? Literally, it is anything in the shape or form of a cross, but in theology it refers to the many experiences of life people find themselves forced to share with the crucified Jesus, whether or not they realize they are sharing in his experience and he in theirs. Life is harsh and often most unfair by any reasonable standard of judgment, and people can be cruel. Sometimes people are quite actively and brutally cruel; at other times, they are more casual, even offhand, about their cruelties – dismissive of those made to suffer, of those cheated, of those left out.

The cruelties, brutal or polite, have this in common: they proceed by dehumanizing their victims. Did you notice as I read from the Gospel of Mark how much emphasis the passion narrative puts on the shaming of Jesus? Despite Mel Gibson’s bloody depiction, the gospels have far more to say about Jesus’ humiliation than about his physical pain. Crucifixion was designed as public shaming, to make an example of the rebel and so attach shame to anyone who would consider rebellion against the empire that people would turn away from following him. The would-be leader of the rebellion was to die screaming, cursing, and begging while being mocked and taunted the whole while, sometimes for hours, sometimes for days. Notice that Pilate is surprised Jesus has died so soon. For the person crucified, death is the savior that never comes soon enough.

“Were you there when they crucified my Lord?” That song comes from a human experience that is, indeed, cruciform because it was so dehumanizing and humiliating. To be a slave is to be, twenty-four hours every day, less than a person. We even debated the fraction of a person by which a slave should be counted so the slave states could get more voting power without having to admit the unthinkable, that slaves were people.

We are people and for the most part acknowledged as such, though not always. Go and stand with the unpopular, and you may find your status suddenly reduced to the level of theirs. There it is, the link that takes us beyond the sacramental. Empathy that comes from standing with and among as one of them the people regarded as shameful, as less than valid human beings, unites us with Jesus crucified. Empathy speaks of suffering shared not just pitied. We can indulge in pity from a safe distance, but true empathy requires interaction, dialogue, and identification. Jesus branded himself a sinner by hanging around with sinners, treating them with respect, and sharing the scorn they received from the commendable people.

At the Lord’s Table, I know anew that I am not one of the commendable people, those who live exemplary lives. Jesus made a practice of pointing out to the virtuous that they were not so commendable as they pretended to be. They were playing the role of exemplary people, and so they were actors, role-players, for which the gospels’ term is hypocrite. Here in the sacrament, I know again as I receive the symbols of his humiliation, that Jesus endured it willingly both for me and because of me. There is nothing commendable in my receiving the bread and wine, but there is grace, and there is hope. I believe there is also a challenge and a calling. As the followers of Jesus who put our trust in him, we need to be there, where he is being crucified. We can be there with him when we stop playing the role of exemplary and commendable persons and, instead, enter into the shame and grief of people whose experience of life is cruciform. For where they are, there he is also. Amen.

Appealing to What in Us?

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Yesterday, for reasons of my own, I reread several of my own Palm Sunday sermons. In the course of remembering what I had written and said years ago and where I was in life back then in hope for better understanding of where I am in life now, I came upon the following two paragraphs that opened my Palm Sunday sermon in 2010.

We are living in a season of anger that is already exceeding danger levels. Decades ago, we spoke of anger as though it were a liquid that could be “bottled up” inside us. We thought we needed to express our anger to “get it out” of our systems so it would not blow up, boil over inside us, or poison our temperaments. Since those days, we have learned that the more people practice anger, the angrier they become. We can actually train ourselves to become easily enraged, which, of course, can have quite detrimental effects upon our blood pressure, our work, our sleep, and our personal relationships as well.

Angry people do not think straight, as one man recently confessed to, he says, his shame and fear. He is the younger man in the now infamous video of two men in Columbus, Ohio bullying an older man with Parkinson’s disease, and he now admits he was completely out of control and says he will never go to a political rally again. For him, that decision might be wise, but neither politics nor religion necessarily fuels rage. Playing to anger, stirring it up in crowds, is a choice by politicians or religious leaders that deliberately targets enemies and keeps demonizing them so that the enraged followers no longer feel the need to treat those others so demonized as fellow human beings.

What I saw and heard in our national life back in 2010 has intensified into the out-of-control rage of Americans in 2016. Fear and anger feed each other, and together they are consuming us.

A little further into my old sermon, the observation continued:

Yes, we are living in a time of anger when the method of operation is to distort the opponent and then attack the distortion with as much fury as possible. Our air waves are polluted with hyped up rage, with racism and other forms of bigotry, and with contagious fear of “them” — the demonized groups who supposedly threaten our way of life. In such a climate, neighbors, friends, and family members can become enemies, and some people become angry in general because anger has become their dominant emotion and most ready response to life’s situations. And it starts young. Our schools are explosive with it. So, if we find ourselves always or very often angry, that condition may be our point of greatest need for spiritual healing.

In this post, I am describing, not prescribing. We have become angry people, and I say “we” because I feel the anger in myself and experience its effects upon my mood and demeanor. So I raise two questions:

What do we practice in our daily living (on Facebook and elsewhere) and feed in ourselves?

And, to what feelings do our chosen political and religious leaders (meaning the ones we listen to) appeal in us?

For anyone wondering how I included our chosen religious leaders and groups as well as our chosen political leaders, I’ll include this from the sermon:

Whenever the churches wish to demonize their enemies, drive out those who differ, or demand power and privilege in the society, they must hide the real Jesus from sight, because he will not serve such purposes. They must fabricate a different Christ, then call him Jesus.

The Servant of the LORD is able to be a teacher because he is “one who is taught” by God. As Christ’s church together, we are called to be people taught by God. Are we afraid in these times? Certainly, there are substantial reasons for fear these days, but in the way of Jesus, we learn to meet our own fears with trust in God and concern for each other, and we do not exploit the fears of others to turn them into an angry mob. Let us remember, that God loves also the people we fear, which does not mean God is necessarily pleased with their behavior (or ours, for that matter), but it does mean we have no authorization from Jesus Christ to dehumanize them so we can attack them or hate them with a self-satisfied conscience.

Are we feeding our own fears and anger? Facebook and other so-called social media provide ready feeding troughs for just such unhealthful food, and both television and radio provide plenty of takeout junk food for the soul. What feelings do we practice? And how do we practice looking upon other people, what names do we call them, what generalizations do we make about them?  Do we speak of them as though they were less than we ourselves are or even less than human?

Anything I Want to Be?

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You Can Be Anything You Want to Be
The Help and Harm in this Common Saying

The Nonsensical

Taken literally, this popular word of encouragement would be ridiculous. If I had wanted to become an opera singer, could I have done so through persistence? I can’t carry a tune, and worse, I don’t usually even hear myself singing off key. I wonder whether I even hear all the music other people hear. Could there be a musical equivalent of partial color blindness? To believe I could have become an opera singer or any kind of singer would have required severe delusion. Maybe I should have wanted to play football in the NFL or basketball in the NBA. Why should I let factors such as size and insufficient athleticism stop me, if after all, I could be anything I wanted to be?

The Helpful

In reasonable usage, the saying is meant to lift imposed restrictions and break through unnecessary barriers. “A girl can’t be an engineer.” “A woman can’t become president of the United States.” “A black girl can’t become a ballet dancer (this bias featured in one episode of the television series, “Fame”). Many barriers have been breached already, but a breached wall does not let through everyone who wishes to pass and could pass through it but for artificially imposed restrictions. Because some have pioneered does not guarantee that many others are not impeded still. The true import of the saying is to tell the person she or he has the right to pursue any (legal) goal she or he is able to pursue when freed from the unreasonable restrictions of societal prejudice, parental authoritarianism, religious regulation, or unjust laws.

Girls don’t climb trees (even though many do). Men don’t wash dishes (even though many do). I recall reading somewhere that during the apartheid years in South Africa, white students had a difficult time earning money to help pay for a university education because the jobs available to students in other countries were closed to them because they were white and those jobs were considered beneath their status. For them, prejudice backfired, but the real issue was the limiting of non-white South Africans to those menial, poorly paid jobs. If a white student couldn’t clean floors or tables, neither could a black or “colored” person qualify for jobs restricted to white South Africans.

So, the helpful word in the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is its call to freedom and dignity. You are not born to be a slave to repressive forces; neither are you restricted to whatever other people decide you must be. With commitment and diligence, you may become who and what you can be, according to your capabilities and your own preferences, or at least you have the right to try.

The Blaming

If it is taken to be true that I can be anything I want to be if only I apply myself thoroughly and persistently, am I not thereby condemned for my failures, no matter their causes? More broadly, if groups of people within a prosperous society fail to prosper, are they not thereby proved to be lazy, shiftless, and of no account? More broadly still, can we not suppose that all earth’s poor are self-made failures? If it is true that anyone can be anything she or he wants to be, then nothing external can stop us – no oppression, discrimination, cruelty, deprivation, or violence – but only our own lack of ambition.

Here the saying that can be inspirational becomes, instead, a judgment of the successful upon the unsuccessful, the rich upon the poor, the happy upon the miserable. It says to them, “Don’t complain! Whatever is holding you back from success is your own fault! No one can keep you down but you yourself. You are a loser of your own making.”

Like other maxims of the rich and powerful, this one is a convenient lie designed to make privilege appear to be self-propelled attainment and greed appear to be virtue. Many of the accepted beliefs in prosperous societies, including their religious beliefs, have been developed to favor those enjoying privilege, prestige, and power and to maintain the status quo by keeping the repressed in their assigned places.

For Me

Because of the faith commitment that has claimed me from childhood and been renewed repeatedly throughout my life, my question about my future could never be simply, “Who do I want to be, and what do I want to do with the life given to me?” but rather, “Who am I called to be and become, and what am I called to seek and to do?” It would be pretentious and self-deceiving to say my own desires have had nothing to with my life-answers to those questions, as it would be silly to suggest my capabilities and limitations played no part. There has been no blueprint for my personhood or road map for my seeking, learning, failing, succeeding, floundering, and advancing along the winding path.

Because biblically and for me truly, life is relational, the questions of who to be and what to do have never been allowed an isolated, individualized answer. I am or have been many people to various others: son, brother, classmate, husband, father, friend, pastor, student, stranger, opponent, colleague, neighbor, fellow, and so on. All by myself without even memory of relatedness to other people, I would no one and nothing I wanted to be, but that truth applies to all of us whether we know it or not. Biblical understanding of faith promotes relational concerns to the forefront of aspirations for self and life.

Have I always wanted to be who I was and what I am? No, and neither have I always held unqualified gratitude for what I have believed myself called to do. I wonder if anyone of us truly and without reservation likes himself or herself. I cannot even imagine being thoroughly satisfied with who I have become so far and what I have done with the time, life, friendship, abilities, experiences, and love I have been given. The notion of having no regrets is lost on me.

Vocation

In Christian church history, vocation came to mean a special religious calling away from the world, apart from the people (the laity). Biblically, however, to be chosen means to be called out by God from the people, the many, for the purpose of service to the people. Even a king is a shepherd, called to take care of the people and see to justice and compassion that faithfully represent God’s own justice and compassion. Being a prophet came to mean, for the great prophets, being called to live in sympathetic vibration of the soul with God’s pathos – God’s intense and vital love for the people and the creation – while, at the same time empathizing with the people and standing with them and for them before God.

Martin Luther protested the division between the vocations (priests and nuns) and the laity. He insisted that all Christians are called so that all can and should see and live their lives as vocations. Here the word vocation is not limited to a trade, art, or profession – to a job – but defines a whole life lived as a person called by Christ to follow him for the sake of the world and its people whatever the job, marital status, ability, disability, or path. Here life is a gift given with each breath but also a calling renewed each new day.

In practice, however, the idea of a calling or vacation can be degraded right back to prescribed duty, place, and station. The whole idea of the saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” is to break the restrictions imposed upon a person by society, parents, custom, or religion. So, for the one who believes herself (or himself) called to follow and to serve, becoming who I am to be is not just a struggle between ego and calling but a three-way struggle among ego, suppression of the self, and calling.

Because life is relational, maturing happens in continuous tension between the need for personal freedom and the need for acceptance by others and belonging with them. Vocation or calling adds a vertical dimension to this tension, but I think it is a serious mistake to imagine that the vertical (between God and the self) eliminates the tension between freedom and belonging, as though God dictated my choices and told me which way to go at every turn. I hear people declare, “God told me to do such and such,” and I fear that such passing upward of all human responsibility provides a dangerous opening for magical thinking and self-deception. The so-called prosperity gospel plays upon just such thinking and self-deception, does it not?

Conclusion

The saying, “You can be anything you want to be,” clearly should not be taken literally and simplistically. I could not have become an opera singer or a pro athlete. Plus, there are always trade-offs. Could I become a good, published writer? Maybe, but only with a lot of work in isolation from other people. Am I willing to give up much of life’s interaction to strive to show something of life with words (not just tell about it)? In the tensions and choices of living, almost every gain has a corresponding loss.

To me, the saying functions best as a hammer to break chains or a pry bar to open boxes of confinement into which people have been placed. It protests confinement and restriction, opening new possibilities. As such, it can do good.

Danger comes from self-delusion or just selfishness. Life is not given to me so I can be all about what I want. Having it all, as people say of supposed success, is a trap in which the self is snared by taking all to itself. The greater harm is done by blaming the repressed for their own repression. We’ve heard more lately of this vicious nonsense: only weak women get abused. Once again, insult is added to injury as the powerful dismiss the protests of the victimized.

For the Christian I must add that following Jesus Christ does not excuse me from making choices, struggling with responsibilities, and thinking for myself. There is a big difference between thinking for myself and thinking only of myself. Unthinking faith is a contradiction in terms. As Augustine declared and the Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall insists, belief seeks understanding. I must put my trust in Christ, but I may not pass off to him my responsibility for myself, my life, and my service.

The helpful force of the saying seems to me now especially important for girls who much too long and far too imperiously have been told what they must (and must not) do and who they may be. Not only girls but especially girls. Not only the young but especially the young. Not only people in minorities but they especially.

[References available for Heschel, Hall, and the Theological Dictionary of the Old Testament (biblical Hebrew word for “chosen”).  The footnotes didn’t move well from WordPerfect to WordPress.]