Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community

Revelation: Carnage, Complicity and Community

Democracy in the United States of America came to the edge of survival on January 6th, 2021. We watched in horror as our nation moved perilously close to a chasm, a coup d’etat. In fact, there are concerns that widespread anarchy may be exhibited in coming days. I pray not. A mob of insurrectionists, egged on by a psychologically disturbed and morally bankrupt president, invaded and occupied the capitol building for several hours. Others will investigate the “whys” and “wherefores” of this totalitarian-near-miss. It is time to hold the invaders accountable. For all citizens this is the time to consider the “thenceforth.” What now? Where next? How might we gain our bearings? How shall we, as citizens of this remarkable republic, proceed?

With no small irony, January 6th is also the day we Christians annually celebrate the Feast of Epiphany. It is a season of light, of discovery, of realization, of seeing new things, in new ways. In 2021 Epiphany became a day of treachery and tragedy. Insurrectionists sought to destroy our democracy. While some may seek revolution, let us understand that Epiphany is better employed as a time of revelation.

Over the next few postings, let’s think together about what has been and might be revealed. We will do this under three categories: Carnage, Complicity and Community.

I. Carnage

Trump Inauguration 2017

“American Carnage” is the way Donald Trump chose to describe our nation and its institutions in his inaugural address on January 20, 2017. Former President George W. Bush was heard to comment afterward, “That was some strange sh*t.” Trump was elected as the champion of grievance and revenge. He has built a governing philosophy based on lies, division and self promotion. Even listening to him at the inauguration in 2017, I found myself thinking of the axiom from sociologists W. I. and Dorothy S. Thomas: “What we perceive to be real becomes real in its consequences.” What was perceived then as carnage has ricocheted in genuine death and tragedy from Charlottesville to Seattle to Minneapolis and finally landing at the Capitol building on Epiphany 2021.

Social philosopher and Catholic priest Ivan Illich was asked by journalist David Cayley “Given what you suggest about institutions, what is the best way to make change, violent revolution or gradual reform?” Illich responded, “Neither. The best way to bring change is to give an alternative story.“**

Ivan Illich, source Wikipedia

Illich, was an iconoclast, a Christian visionary, a prolific writer — widely read in the last decades of the Twentieth Century.  His brilliant critiques of our counterproductive institutional practices, still provide a clear-eyed challenge. He offered valuable wisdom, about our easy customs, traditions and ideologies.  Schools, hospitals, courts, governments and churches were all subjects of his sharp analysis. 

Illich was a truth-teller. He saw the failures of our schools, our broken economies, our media and strategies that continued to ignore and crush the underprivileged, our distortions of faith traditions, our inability to see. He understood the conditions of despair that became the source of Trump’s appeal… he understood the power of fear and misplaced anger.

Illich’s call was not to anarchy, nor was it an invitation to some set of “fixes,” or an elaborate new strategy whereby those in power can better serve their “clients.”  He was about something much more basic — as basic as the streets where we walk and the tables we share (or don’t share).  His call was to reinvest in the original “revelation,” the motivating principles behind our “helping” and “governing” institutions and the essential importance of neighborliness (see Tools for Conviviality).

Illich was silenced for years by the Catholic Church, prohibited from teaching through official church media. He writes of a church that has lost its highest calling in The Corruption of the Church.

Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” is was the chosen one to end the Carnage in our nation found a home in the narrative of the Religious Right. Donald and his religious enablers turned Christianity away from narratives of grace and mercy into a faith that was rooted in individual salvation alone, into a struggle for a “religious freedom” to discriminate and faith as a tool of retaliation and censure against those who differed. It became a way to promote, even baptize, exclusion, racism and greed. Religious leaders like Eric Metexas and Franklin Graham were so bold as to suggest that anyone, Christian or not, anyone who didn’t follow Donald Trump was demon possessed (The Atlantic, “To Trump’s Evangelical’s Everyone Else is a Sinner,” November 25, 2019).

Metexas, who like Senator Josh Hawley, is Ivy League educated and can be an attractive, engaging spokesperson for a narrow and corrupted narrative. It is a narrative that cocoons the message of Jesus of Nazareth inside a political ideology. In the process it transforms the Gospel message into something distorted and limited. Folks like Metexas, make the parable of the Good Samaritan into a tale about how fortunate it was that the Samaritan was wealthy so he could assist the one found beaten on the road! The parable becomes a story in praise of wealth and tax cuts for those in power.

Here is a good test question for us all about our core narratives and Epiphany. Does your ideology capture your faith, limiting and containing it? Or is your ideology continually challenged and transformed by your faith? Compare the way Eric Metexas and Ivan Illich understand the Good Samaritan story. For Illich, this is an ever opening revelation. It is about “an untrammeled freedom to act” turning all strangers into a neighbor where “no category, whether of law or custom, language or culture, can define in advance who the neighbor might be.” (Caley, David, “Rivers North of the Future: The Testament of Ivan Illich,” p.30).

Capitol Building, Summer 2018

In the summer of 2018 I walked along the Capitol Mall on a number of occasions. I had joined a group of colleagues to work on a revision of The Social Principles of the United Methodist Church. In random conversations with strangers on the Mall and in the hotel lounge, it was apparent something troubling was already taking place — an attempt to reshape the nation’s story into one of Donald Trump’s (and his enablers) making. The American Carnage motif had taken root. Persons were out to remake the nation. As one proudly told me, “There is a new sheriff in town.” When I spoke about the offices of the Board of Church and Society, where we were meeting, being the only denominational presence on The Hill, I was told that, “Sorry, that is no longer true, we are on the inside.” Inside and outside language was strange to me as I still carried some notion of the separation of church and state. The “We” had to do with a certain brand of Evangelicalism busy making Faustian bargains with Donald Trump.

At the time I didn’t foresee the tragedy coming on Epiphany Day 2021. However, I sensed then there was a dangerous change underway. Some were seeking to challenge our national self understandings into ones shaped by a small, restrictive vision for our nation and for the faith.

Father Richard Rohr speaks of the import of story, of revelation, on January 10, 2021. He writes of an alternative journey defined by a “Christ map” that can shape who we can be as a people when he writes: We might not really believe it or surrender to it, yet if we could, we would be much happier people because the Christ map holds deep and unconscious integrating power for us as individuals and for society as a whole. A Great Story connects our little lives to the One Great Life, and even better, it forgives and uses the wounded and seemingly “unworthy” parts of our lives and others’ lives (1 Corinthians 12:22). What a message! Nothing else can do that. Like good art, a cosmic myth—like the Gospel—gives us a sense of belonging, meaning, and most especially, a personal participation in it. (Rohr, Richard, “Stories are Essential,” Center for Action and Contemplation, 1/10/21)

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**A fuller expression of the idea by Illich is “Neither revolution nor reformation can ultimately change a society, rather you must tell a new powerful tale, one so persuasive that it sweeps away the old myths and becomes the preferred story, one so inclusive that it gathers all the bits of our past and our present into a coherent whole, one that even shines some light into the future so that we can take the next step… If you want to change a society, then you have to tell an alternative story.

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

The Temper Tantrum Alliance

It is generally understood, among adults at least, that temper tantrums are not a healthy or enduring way of approaching life. I can recall, with some embarrassment, times when anger got the better of me in preadolescent years… Okay, okay, I can anticipate what you might be thinking, good reader… yes, there were times in my adolescent, and even post-adolescent years as well, when my emotions drug my reasoning abilities into places I didn’t want to go. Older now, and sometime wiser, I know that anger, wrongly focused, is ultimately counterproductive.

Most of us who have lived more than a couple of decades, and survived our bouts of adolescent egocentrism, have learned this lesson. However, in the United States in recent days we are witnessing adults who are forming what might be called “The Temper Tantrum Alliance.” Grievance is substituted for governance; and self-centered passion overrules reason.

It is precisely in such moments that virtuous leadership matters most. However, when U.S. Senators decide to set aside their duties as those who represent all the citizens, and walk away from basic civility and logic in order to please “dear leader,” they fail the basic test of acting as reasonable adults. President Trump in his five-year-old whining behaviors, calls on them to join in a tornado of denial and destruction. What is being trashed and discarded for our democracy in this process? As the old adage goes, “It is an ill bird that fouls its own nest.” Gentlemen (yes, all these senators are white, sadly not surprisingly, eleven of them white men), what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” These men, elected to lead, have become followers in the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

When persons I know and love speak proudly of disregarding basic neighborly acts like wearing masks and staying socially distant as COVID now rages in our land, what are you doing? What are you thinking? Brain to gut… “danger ahead, please engage.” You dear ones, I fear you too are joining the Temper Tantrum Alliance.

Let’s call it what it is — we are watching childish journeys into preadolescence. Instead of calling our people to the best we have been and aspire to be, one hyper-narcissistic angry president has unleashed something even more destructive as a pandemic than COVID. There are attempts to baptize these behaviors with “Christian” talking points about religious liberty or personal freedom. No, sorry, doesn’t pass the smell test. Can’t forget the Sermon on the Mount or the part about loving God and neighbor as oneself this easily. This isn’t related to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, I fear many in the Temper Tantrum Alliance act out of the gospel of selfishness as virtue preached by Ayn Rand. No careful follower of Jesus, Moses or Mohammad will find an enduring and sustainable home in the alliance. As the two pandemics of COVID and narcissism lay waste to many parts of our commonweal, there is good news. We know a better way… Our nation’s constitution and lessons from history offer evidence of this. The teachings of our faith traditions offer a better way.

2021 has arrived, time to put away childish things (I Corinthians 13). Per our freedoms, Oliver Wendell Holmes had it right, “My liberty ends where another person’s nose begins.” Let’s find a way to live together without throwing temper tantrums — perhaps an Alliance for the Beloved Community. There are leaders in the U.S., Democrats and some Republicans, who know that the adult project of building toward a beloved community is the best way forward. Brain to gut….. please engage.

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

Fortnight – Day13: All Saints

All Saints Day 2020 arrives two days ahead of the Presidential Election. We remember lives well lived — and others lived not so well. We consider the fraying of our national identity and the evident threats to our commonweal. Mortality lurks as a backdrop on the nation’s theatrical stage this year. I think of the friends who have died. Many wonderful folks. There are 230,000 others in the United States and 1.2 million around the world who have died in the COVID-19 pandemic since February. We know only a handful of their names or life stories. Still, this is ALL SAINTS DAY.

The New York Times today (11/1/2020) carried an opinion piece entitled “Obituaries for the The American Dream 1931-2020.” It was inspired by Lizania Cruz, a Dominican artist and museum curator, who asked other artists When and How The American Dream Died For You? The Times opened the question to a wider audience and invited readers to respond.

One of the original responses was from, Marsha McDonald who wrote: “The American Dream died for me when I realized how many of my fellow Americans valued selfishness over community, power over justice, prejudice over generosity, demagoguery over science. For me, the 2020 pandemic is very real, but also a metaphor. How sick our national soul is! The old dream should pass away. Isn’t it time for us to dream new dreams, better dreams, that include us all?

Since All Saints Sunday 2019, I have spent countless hours looking into the history of Methodism and the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana.** This research led to libraries, books and articles, old newspapers along with dozens of conversations and email exchanges. There are mysteries yet to be solved. Even so, I have sadly learned more of the broad swath of racism and religious bigotry that infected (and still infects) the church. At the same time my research uncovered the lives and witness of dozens of remarkable persons of faith in the early 20th Century who opposed the Klan and worked against this corruption of the Gospel and human dignity. In their day, these women and men dreamed “new dreams, better dreams, that included us all.”

If I were I to write my letter as a part of an Obituary for the American Dream today it would be a rolling set of dates — times of death, trauma and despair — and times of hoped for rebirth. Scores of times, a refrain, recurring rhythms of loss and return. Times when the dream died – along with Dr. King or the Kennedy brothers in the 1960s, or the twenty children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, or the treacheries of hunger, violence, betrayal and death witnessed while working in impoverished settings filled with saintly people in the U.S. and Latin America, and on and on and on. THEN – times when hope was rekindled.

Shortly after the death of Pope John XXIII in 1963 author Morris West wrote an appreciation titled “Good Pope John” for Life Magazine in which he wondered: “Will they canonize him and make him, officially, a saint in the calendar?  In a way, I hope not… I want to remember him for what he was — a loving man, a simple priest, a good pastor and a builder of bridges across which we poor devils may one day hope to scramble across to salvation.” In 2014, Pope John XXIII was canonized — so much for the wishes of Mr. West.

I don’t know that any one American Dream should be canonized. In truth all of our best dreams will end up in some graveyard of good intentions. In fundamental ways, our society and culture are flawed and destined to continuing corruptions — as are all human political and institutional designs. Our hope is not in finding the perfect president, or political ideology or government program. In truth, there is no “draining of the swamp”; instead we require an honest assessment of the human dilemma and self-critical response — where better oversight and care of all of our swampy places is required — social and personal. The future is not yet clear, even so I join in cautious hope.

I pray that Jon Meachem is correct in offering that: “In our finest hours…the soul of the country manifests itself in an inclination to open our arms rather than to clench our fists; to look out rather than to turn inward; to accept rather than to reject. In so doing, America has grown ever stronger, confident that the choice of light over dark is the means by which we pursue progress.” (The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels)

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Thomas Merton wrote: “What makes the saints saints is a clarity of compassion that can find good in the most terrible criminals. It delivers them from the burden of judging others, condemning others. It teaches them to bring the good out of others by compassion, mercy and pardon. We become saints not by conviction that we are better than sinners but by the realization that we are one of them, and that all together we need the mercy of God.” (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p 57)

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Ordinary Saints, Malcolm Guite

The ordinary saints, the ones we know, 
Our too-familiar family and friends, 
When shall we see them? 
Who can truly show 
Whilst still rough-hewn, 
the God who shapes our ends? 
Who will unveil the presence, glimpse the gold 
That is and always was our common ground, 
Stretch out a finger, feel, along the fold 
To find the flaw, to touch and search that wound 
From which the light we never noticed fell 
Into our lives? 
Remember how we turned 
To look at them, and they looked back? 
That full- -eyed love unselved us, and we turned around, 
Unready for the wrench and reach of grace. 
But one day we will see them face to face.

(Malcolm Guite, From Plough, March 22, 2018)

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**[My interest was in part linked to my appreciation for the research by retired Indiana University Professor James Madison, whose book The Ku Klux Klan in the Heartland arrived in September 2020. Madison rightly argues that the Klan was made up by more than the “hillbillies and Great Unteachables” as some claimed. Klan membership extended into the ranks of community and church leaders. My interest, of course, was given more urgency by the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the past year.]

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Fortnight — Day12: Hope and Freedom

Hope and Freedom are inextricably linked — twin sisters of the great experiment in democracy known as the United States of America. Both are best defined and lived out in the future tense. Mark Twain put it this way, “Lord save us all from old age and broken health and a hope-tree that has lost the faculty of putting out blossoms.” In three days, I pray a tidal wave of voters in the United States will choose Hope and Freedom. It is a critical moment for the nation to move forward and step away from the politics of division, despair and fear.

I miss the easy sense of hope and freedom I knew before the COVID-19 pandemic savaged our nation. Still I am most fortunate; I know this. I have benefited fully from HOPE and FREEDOM. So my struggles in this time of pandemic are minimal, modest. My challenges center in a missing touch with family and friends, mask wearing, safe grocery shopping or the absence of gatherings like Sunday worship.

In a strange way, pandemic offered opportunity to join others in online worship. On a typical Sunday, I check in on my home congregation and then roam across the internet. Sometimes checking out three or four other congregations. Okay, I know this is atypical — make that downright strange! Call it an occupational hazard of a retired preacher. Better, know it is the joy of discovering gifts other women and men offer as they lead worship. From New York to Colorado to California I watch. There is the exceptional pipe organ offerings of Jaebon Hwang in San Diego or the profound words of my friend Michael Mather in Boulder.

Most Sundays since the pandemic began, I drop in on music and preaching at St. Andrew in Highlands Ranch, Colorado. This past Sunday, October 27, I sat straight up in my chair as Mark Feldmeir quoted from Toni Morrison: The function of freedom is to make someone else free.” Yes,” I thought. That is what makes this election so important! Freedom should never be quarantined to self absorbed, individualistic, personal freedom — or, even to the idea that freedom should be restricted to the boundaries of one nation. Freedom is to be shared. Hope is to be shared. So, borrowing from Morrison, let’s say that the function of hope is to offer others hope!

Barbara Brown Taylor reflects on the two disciples walking along the Emmaus road having just left Jerusalem. They are heart-broken by the crucifixion of Jesus. A stranger joins them who asks why they are so downcast and defeated. According to Taylor they reply:  “We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel.” She then notes: “We had hoped Hope in the past tense, one of the saddest sounds a human being can make.  We had hoped he was the one.  We believed things might really change, but we were wrong.  He died.  It is over now.  NO more fairy tales.  No more illusions.  Back to business as usual.” (Gospel Medicine, p. 21)

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Hope is a thing with feathers,  
That perches in the soul, 
And sings the tune without the words 
And never stops at all.   - Emily Dickinson 

Prayer:  Remind us, O God, that the warp and woof of creation are hope and freedom. It is in these we discover joy. In these we are called to delight and praise. May we know the tremors of bliss, the winks of heaven, the whispers of hope, the pathways of freedom that signal the grand consummation of all things. Amen. (adapted by P. Amerson from Thomas a’Becket) +++++

Fortnight – Day11: Doubt and Hope

Fortnight – Day11: Doubt and Hope

Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. This well known aphorism from Frederick Buechner comes to mind as the presidential election approaches. Four days now, four days until the presidential election. Few things puzzle me more than the rigid certitude I hear from so many voters. They trust their candidate, without doubts, even when there is evidence to the contrary. Many seem to live in a world “beyond the shadow of doubt.” Has grievance erased the ability to doubt?

A fuller quote from Buechner’s volume Wishful Thinking reads: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep.  Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith.  They keep it awake and moving.”  (Wishful Thinking, p. 20). So, today I pray for an awakening in our body politic. No matter who is elected (and it is clear I have my preference) we need a good dose of skepticism at play in the future of our democracy. We have gone for too many years with a president who asks, “Who you gonna believe? Me or your lying eyes?”

Doubt is a gift when paired with hope — for religious faith and for a vibrant democracy. The opposite of faith is not certainty. Rather it is lively and discernment that rests in hope. I would argue a healthy democracy isn’t secured by uncritical allegiance to one leader or one ideology, rather healthy democracy requires healthy doubt. Such doubt rests in hope. Doubting is a gift that other institutions (the press, the faith community, the educational, judicial and the heath care institutions, the corporate and research worlds) must also provide. Doubt builds heft into democratic behaviors… especially if it can move us to be more trusting. Hope and doubt are the oppositional muscles needed for a healthy democracy.

Perhaps the apparent reduction in “doubters” is a sign of confirmation bias. Receiving information (news, sermons, radio talk shows, social media, etc.) from sources that almost exclusively support a person’s preconceived beliefs. It is astonishing that as the band-width of information available has dramatically increased in our digital worlds, our circles of received information tend to become more and more narrow. Much of this is due to the algorithm that pres-sorts what shows up on our screens. As Google has learned, why expand the options for a person when you can own their choices through their data?

It is reported that Albert Einstein regarded scientists who were unimaginative as “stamp collectors” of science. He then quickly apologized to stamp collectors.  Einstein regarded science as brittle and dreary without doubts, imagination, vision and creativity.

Vance Morgan writes of Confronting the Sin of Certainty, Patheos, June 16, 2020: “Certainty without doubt has been the argumentative gold standard for centuries in logical arguments, and such arguments have their place—but not in the life of faith. A lived example is far more convincing.”

J Ruth Gendler, in The Book of Qualities, “Doubt camped out in the living room last week. I told him that we had too many house guests. Doubt doesn’t listen. He keeps saying the same thing again and again and again until I completely forget what I am trying to tell him. Doubt is demanding and not very generous, but I appreciate his honesty.” (p21)

Tennyson wrote “There lives more faith in honest doubt than in half the creeds put together.”

Whatever ever happens in the coming election, I will look for a doubting that rests in hope as an indicator of vitality. We need more doubters, more agnostics.  Along with hope, we will need people who will suspend judgment and then see the signs more clearly.

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Natalie Sleeth offered language for people of faith in Hymn of Promise (#707 in the United Methodist Hymnal):

In the end is our beginning; 
in our time, infinity; 
in our doubt there is believing; 
in our life, eternity. 
In our death, a resurrection; 
at the last, a victory, 
unrevealed until its season, 
something God alone can see.

  (From Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth, #707 in U.M. Hymnal)

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My God my bright abyss
Into which all my longing will not go
Once more I come to the edge of all I know
And believing nothing believe in this.
                               -- Christian Wiman

Fortnight – Day10: Forgiveness

Fortnight – Day 10: Forgiveness

Forgiveness is the last thing I want to be reminded of with five days until the 2020 presidential election in the United States. When considering the racism, the lying, the demeaning of women, the denial of climate change, the damage to our national and international reputation done by Donald Trump and his minions, I find little room for the idea of forgiveness. It is a word I don’t want to hear, a concept I want to deny, a theological category I don’t want to consider. Still, I must. I must consider and pray toward forgiveness BUT I cannot forget.

Tragic as it is, the human dilemma remains — we can be shaped as much, or more, by what we hate as by what we love.

One of the liberators of a Nazi death camp found a note near the body of a child — written on a piece of wrapping paper, ” O Lord, remember not only the men and women of goodwill but also those of ill will. But do not remember the suffering they have inflicted on us. Remember the fruits we brought to this suffering, our comradeship, our loyalty, our humility, the courage, the generosity, the greatness of heart which has grown out of all this. And when they come to judgment, let all the fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness.  Amen. (Passion for Pilgrimage, Alan Jones, p. 134)

I am haunted by such prayers and the one I pray often: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” It seems so complex and then I recall J. Ruth Gendler’s opening sentence in a reflection on Forgiveness: “Forgiveness” she writes, “is a strong woman, tender and earthy, direct.” (Gendler, The Book of Qualities, p. 54).

DIRECT — right in front of me — Forgive? Can I ever? Will I ever, forgive? I have preached so many sermons on forgiveness and counseled so many people toward that act that I should know the way. However, I don’t. Perhaps it is the shrill voices all around and the wounds to our body politic that I see that have been inflicted. I can’t muster the desire or energy to forgive the damage that has been done to our nation, to democratic institutions but mostly to people. Of course, forgiveness doesn’t mean acceptance. Forgiveness doesn’t mean I won’t continue to confront those who seek to destroy or wound. It doesn’t mean I won’t oppose evil and injustice. Forgiveness is not the same as reconciliation.

So, it is paradoxical — I wish to forgive and I will remember not to forgive. David Augsburger spoke to this dilemma in book, published nearly forty years ago. If you have seen it, you will know it is two books in one binding. Reading in one direction there is attention to the idea of “Caring Enough to Forgive” and turning the book around is another set of ideas entitled “Caring Enough to NOT Forgive.” [Later, Augsburger wrote a companion piece entitled “Caring Enough to Confront.”]

In the Epilogue of the volume Augsburger offers these insights:

Although in "forgiving", release unfortunately may be easier to achieve than reconciliation--       
Although one in error may choose to move over, away from, against the other --                 
Although one in weakness may attempt to live off of, without, in spite of the other --                 
Yet we dare not hesitate to take any step toward forgiving, no matter how faltering or fallible.                 
Yet we must not refuse to move toward another in seeking mutual repentance and renewed trust.                 
Yet we cannot despair of forgiveness and lose hope that reconciliation is possible.                 
So let us forgive as gently and genuinely as is possible in any situation of conflict between us.                 
So let us forgive as fully and as completely as we are able in the circumstances of our misunderstandings.                 
So let us reach out for reconciliation as openly and authentically as possible for the levels of maturity we have each achieved.               
So let us forgive freely, fully, at times even foolishly, but with all the integrity that is within us.    
[David Augsburger, Caring Enough to (Not) Forgive, 1981.] 

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Enemies  
If you are not to become a monster, 
you must care what they think. 
If you care what they think, 
how will you not hate them, 
and so become a monster 
of the opposite kind? From where then 
is love to come — love for your enemy 
that is the way of liberty? 
From forgiveness. Forgiven, they go 
free of you, and you of them; 
they are to you as sunlight on a green branch. 
You must not think of them again, except 
as monsters like yourself, 
pitiable because unforgiving.
-- Wendell Berry

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I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can be redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always toward wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God.” (Berry, Wendell, The Art of the Commonplace: the Agrarian Essays)

Fortnight – Day8: Social Self

Fortnight – Day8: Social Self

Today, consider please, the presumed dichotomy between the personal and the social, the individual and community. For too long our politics, religion, economics and charity have been misshapen by this fraudulent binary. At a fundamental level, there is a web of mutuality between one’s self and others. Americans tend to live with a heavy focus on individualism and “individual rights.” This is a good thing — however, if this is the sum total of what is valued or the singular basis for action– it will lead to trouble.

Social Psychologists George Herbert Meade and George Cooley posited decades ago the understanding that every human being is a Social Self. From the beginning, we learn who we are by interacting with others, as if in a looking glass. The language we learn, the games we play, our habits and our pains are fundamentally shaped in social contexts. It was from these insights that H. Richard Niebuhr wrote the ethics classic, “The Responsible Self.” Niebuhr suggested that the reflexive self could act as the responsible self.

In 1947, Mahatma Gandhi gave his grandson a slip of paper listing “the seven blunders that human society commits, and that cause all the violence.” These were:

  • Politics without principles.
  • Wealth without work.
  • Pleasure without conscience.
  • Knowledge without character.
  • Commerce without morality.
  • Science without humanity.
  • Worship without sacrifice.

(see Donella Meadows, Gandhi’s Seven Blunders — And Then Some, Sustainability Institute, August, 18, 1994)

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In the United States this week (10/25/20), a young man, the president’s son-in-law and advisor, stood on the White House lawn in an interview on “Fox and Friends.” He dismissively suggested that in response to the George Floyd “situation,” individuals “in the Black community” were unwilling “to break out of the problems they were complaining about.” He expressed doubt that African Americans “want to be successful.” Upon hearing the interview with Jared Kushner, I thought of Gandhi’s Seven Social Sins.

As abhorrent as Mr. Kushner’s words are, I recognize their ideological fountainhead. It is the reductive belief that only “personal responsibility” is required for the thriving of a community or nation. Individual liberty is the supreme goal and good and personal responsibility is the tool. Fix individuals and everything else will fall in line.

At this juncture, I have sat beside too many persons who worked hard, risked much, withstood adversity and still were crushed by immoral constructs in the social order. A wise front-porch, neighborhood philosopher, named Doris Danner once taught me, “You can build a crocked wall with perfectly straight blocks.” In a pandemic, is “personal responsibility” sufficient? Shouldn’t there be a societal expectation, even a mandate, that everyone wear a mask? Sadly, we are seeing, living with, and many dying from, the results of a mistaken notion of individual freedom as the ultimate and exclusive good.

I recognize Mr. Kushner’s perspective. You see, as an adolescent, my religious understandings were focused on personal salvation. I had to want to have a personal relationship with Jesus and that would fix everything else. Personal salvation was separate from justice. Yes, I was taught that if I was saved, I should be compassionate toward others. It was however, always with the motive that I could see that they were a saved individual, just like me. Whether I would admit it or not, racial segregation, economic or educational discrimination, or poor health care were best overcome if persons were saved and then “wanted to be successful.”

In my individualistic understandings, my paternalistic role was to see that others were “fixed” like me. There was little awareness that others, who saw things differently, might have something to teach me; nor was there the sense that God was at work for the the common good, for the realm of God.

While I prayed the “Lord’s Prayer” in those years; I failed to hear that it was a communal prayer. It was a prayer filed with the corporate words, “our,” “us” and “we;” a prayer about our neighbor and our world.

Jane Addams Helping Hands Memorial, Chicago

Years after receiving the note with the Seven Blunders listed, Arun added an eighth: Rights without responsibilities.

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Dr. Donella Meadows was an environmental scientist and early writer on sustainability who added to the list of social sins. A professor at MIT and McArthur award winner, sadly, she died too young, in 2001. Still her words fall in line with the call of H. Richard Neibuhr that we are to act as a Social Self — a Responsible Self!

Somehow our public discussion has become dominated by either-or simplicities... This simplistic thinking seems incapable of embracing the idea of BALANCE, which was Gandhi’s central point. He wasn’t calling for work without wealth or humanity without science, he was calling for work AND wealth. Science AND humanity. Commerce AND morality. Pleasure AND conscience.

Life is full of unsolvable problems. Pretending to have solved them by choosing just one or another of profound opposites can generate even more blunders than the ones Gandhi listed. Justice without mercy. Order without freedom. Talking without listening. Individuality without community. Stability without change. Private interest without public interest. Liberty without equality. Or, in every case, vice versa. Listen to our public debates about health care, crime, taxation, regulation. You will hear the Gandhian blunders, the frantic search for a permanent simplicity, the passive violence that leads to active violence. There’s no point in taking sides in these debates. There’s only an opportunity to point out that balance, discovered through love, is what we should be seeking — and what we will always have to be seeking. (Donella Meadows, Sustainability Institute, 1994)

Fortnight – Day6: Sabbath

Fortnight Day6: Sabbath

And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
(Wendell Berry)

If the presidential election, nine days hence, is to address the anxieties and despairing so many carry, it will require more than replacing one person with another. It will require more than changing the nameplates on office doors. It will require a transformation in us. It will require Sabbath. While many swamps may need to be drained, the primary swamp needing attention may be within the human heart.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, whether known in a few hours or several weeks, the temptation then will be to continue in the patterns and habits established out of anxiety, grievance and distrust. Sabbath will be required. Walter Brueggemann reminds: “Sabbath is the occasion to reimagine all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.  Sabbath is not simply the pause that refreshes.  It is the pause that transforms.” (Brueggemann, Sabbath as Resistance, p. 44)

Lily Pond, The Huntington Gardens, 2015

I fear many things. I am anxious about much. Mostly, however, I desire to move from patterns of constant anxiety to another way of life. A way where I know the gifts of sabbath. The joy of rest, restoration, re-imagination and resistance. Joan Chittister wrote: “Sabbath is that period for holy leisure when I take time to look at life in fresh, new ways.” She encourages “contemplative leisure.”

Sabbath can serve as the great equalizer — it is a time when we are freed to set competition aside. As a great equalizer we are freed to recall that all share in creation; each other person is neighbor. Again Walter Brueggemann writes: The task is to SEVEN our lives. — On the Sabbath Day these vulnerable neighbors shall be like you.  Sabbath is not simply a pause, but the occasion to re-imagine all of society away from coercion and competition. (Sabbath as Resistance, p. 43)

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A Jewish Sabbath Prayer:  
Days pass, 
Years vanish,  
And we walk sightless among miracles.

Fortnight – Day5: Joy #2

Fortnight – Day5: Joy #2

When I read that comedy clubs were not allowed to be open in certain cities due to the corona virus, I confess to being sad. This was a time when the good medicine of humor was needed. We had already lost the joy of choral groups singing together and now, now comedy clubs!

As we face the presidential elections what evidence is there that Donald Trump or Joe Biden might encourage joy? Too often, when a little lightness of heart might be a gift for our nation, we instead are offered a tour of potential fear and places of distrust. I am eager to have comedy clubs open again — even more — I am ready for congregations that help us know the joy of faith. For now, this may be limited to online worship.

There should be more laughter in our congregations; not necessarily the comedy club type but not excluding that either. This is a sign of liberation, of healing, of joy. (I am not speaking of what was called “Holy Laughter,” associated with the phenomenon known as the “Toronto Blessing,” popular a few years back. That always seemed to me to be contrived.) I am speaking of joy related to the everyday lives and troubles of a people… things that can be best spoken of in worship, with other believers. Some of the best laughter I remember occurred at a funeral.

I was reminded of an exercise on discovering more joyful living prepared for persons at a spiritual retreat. A copy is attached below.

The scriptures are filled with joy and rejoicing. There are parables of Luke 15, where there is rejoicing over the return of the lost sheep, the coin, the son. As Psalm 30:5 observes God’s intentions are that we should discover that, “Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.”

In the early 1980s I traveled with a group called Witness for Peace to the war zone between Honduras and Nicaragua. One evening we joined a group of villagers for worship. Even as there were distant rumblings from mortars exploding a few miles away, I was struck by the joyous character of the outdoor worship. There were songs accompanied by guitars and drums and tambourines. At one point in the liturgy a woman came to the center of circle. Barefoot, in a frayed, modest dress, she called us to prayer. She began, “And now we remember all the poor and suffering of our world.” It was a prayer of gratitude for the goodness of God. As the prayer ended, and the congregation shouted “AMEN,” a mortar shell echoed across the valley. It was as if in refrain. We all laughed. In that moment we saw the absurdity of war and violence so nearby as we gathered at the table of the Lord!

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Mary Oliver’s Mindful

Everyday
I see or hear
something
that more or less

kills me
with delight,
that leaves me
like a needle

in the haystack
of light.
It was what I was born for —
to look, to listen,

to lose myself
inside this soft world —
to instruct myself
over and over

in joy,
and acclamation.
Nor am I talking
about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
the very extravagant —
but of the ordinary,
the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
Oh, good scholar,
I say to myself,
how can you help

but grow wise
with such teachings
as these —
the untrimmable light

of the world,
the ocean’s shine,
the prayers that are made
out of grass?

“Mindful” by Mary Oliver from Why I Wake Early, Beacon Press, 2005.

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From the Epistle of James, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.” (Vs 1:2-4)

Fortnight – Day4: Joy #1

Fortnight – Day4: Joy #1

The final presidential debate of 2020 was held last evening. I didn’t watch. Couldn’t watch really. Not because I had already dropped my ballot in the box with the County Clerk. More than anything else, I suspected it would be a pretty joyless exchange. Wasn’t interested in more distraction, grievance, dreary argument, spin, grumbling or blaming others.

Joylessness — this is what I anticipated from the debate. I am fatigued by it all. If the follow-up analysis offered by pundits is accurate, I guessed right. Apparently Mr. Biden attempted to tease Mr. Trump about being Abraham Lincoln. The president missed the humor, as he does about many things, especially if his fragile ego is threatened. The reruns from the debate seemed to confirm that even though Mr. Trump seemed to use his “in door voice” more than in the past, he still seemed to offer more vinegar and acid than balm.

Thinking back over the years, to sermons I have preached or talks I have given, I often spoke of joy, laughter, or delight. Why? Well, I think joy, laughter and delight are recurring marks of faithful living. We all face suffering, pain, burdens and betrayals, but at the core of it all, God offers us JOY. Or, as C.S. Lewis puts it “Joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, p. 93).

Serving as an interim pastor in a couple of congregations that had passed through some challenging times, it was clear that in the face of difficulty, humor can help. Laughter can offer an antidote to despairing. After one wise layperson observed “we have forgotten how to laugh in our parish,” we offered an entire series of sermons entitled “Count it all joy: Faith Crowned with Laughter.” I invited other friends to come and join me in the sermon series and we each shared stories of times joy made a difference in our work. As Steve Allen once put it, “Humor is the social lubricant that helps us get over some of the bad spots.”

I was not attempting to follow the current trend suggesting that worship should be a time of entertainment or avoiding challenging topics. Heaven forbid! Just the opposite, in fact. Humor often is a good way to approach difficult topics. More than three decades ago, in the late 1980s, when a congregation I served made the decision to fully welcome LGBTQ persons, it was the laughter and joy that helped us move forward. It was joy and an ability to delight in the gifts others might share and the abundance already present that offered us hope. We didn’t do it perfectly, but we did act with respect for the variety of beliefs in that church. Someone recently asked, “how did the people in that parish act in such a courageous way?” I didn’t reply, but I know they didn’t act out of courage so much as JOY.

Meister Eckhart, the 14th Century mystic said, “God laughs out of an abundance of life, energy and love.  I believe in a pleasurable, joyful, laughing God.

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A favorite reflection comes from Wendell Berry’s collection of Sabbath Poems (A Timbered Choir, p. 18).

Whatever is foreseen in joy
Must be lived out from day to day.
Vision held open in the dark
By our ten thousand days of work.
Harvest will fill the barn; for that
The hand must ache, the face must sweat.
And yet no leaf or grain is filled
By work of ours; the field is tilled
And left to grace. That we may reap,
Great work is done while we’re asleep.

When we work well, a Sabbath mood
Rests on our day, and finds it good.

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Whatever happens on November 3rd, we have work to do. Our joy must “be lived out from day to day.” It is a relief that there are no more presidential debates to avoid. Now, could someone do something about all of the email, television spots and fliers that seem to appear daily in the mail?

This is my goal for the remainder of this Fortnight of our Nation’s Soul. I will remember the JOY of living as a child of God. I will sing (not in a public choir of course), I will dance a little, I will laugh, read poetry, call friends, encourage persons to vote and give generously to good causes. I will choose to be joyful.