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 – 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.

Practicing Resurrection

How can it be?  Notre Dame Cathedral engulfed in flames?  And, early on Holy Week no less.  There are not words to capture the sense of our world’s spiritual and cultural loss.  Serge Schmemann, comes close when he writes “beauty and human genius lies gravely wounded” (New York Times, 4/16/19).

In response we hear brave words about rebuilding.  Good.  Yet, we know some things are forever gone.  Amidst the rubble and ashes lies an awareness that all our desires for permanence are ephemeral. Constancy and immutability are never fully within human grasp.  Great Cathedrals serve as pointers to something more eternal yet even they come with no guarantee-of-forever.  Small rural African-American churches, like those destroyed by fire in Louisiana recently, served as miniature cathedrals, for their faithful. They too now grieve irreplaceable loss.  Our call is not to believe we hold a final word or permanent design as to what God is about.  At our best we point the way, catch a glimpse of something better, and share what we have seen with others.  We offer our best, our highest aspirations, mixed in with our frailties, our vulnerabilities.  How then shall we proceed?  In the places we live and work?  In Louisiana? In Paris?

This Easter, with Notre Dame in view, I am reminded of a favorite poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.”  Closing lines include these delicious words:

Ask the questions that have no answers.

Invest in the millennium.  Plant sequoias.

Say that your main crop is the forest

that you did not plant,

that you will not live to harvest…

Expect the end of the world.  Laugh.

Laughter is immeasurable.  Be joyful

though you have considered all the facts.

As soon as the generals and the politicos

can predict the motions of your mind,

lose it.  Leave it as a sign

to mark the false trail, the way

you didn’t go.  Be like the fox

who makes more tracks than necessary,

some in the wrong direction.

Practice Resurrection.

Practice Resurrection — My prayer is that you, that we, will practice our Easter prerogatives and that the practice of resurrection will become routine.  May it be our habit, our nod to that which is indeed eternal.

Philip Amerson

Turning Bad News to Good

First, Confess The Sin of Racism

xrayview
Racism in Plain Sight*

It is a clarifying moment… The x-rays are back from this laboratory.  These hypothetical x-rays come from Super Tuesday of the 2016 presidential primaries.  And what can be seen in these images?  There it is — the often hidden, not-so-attractive, practices and support of racism.  Surprisingly this racism comes from those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.  It is painfully clear.  Support for racial bigotry and discrimination is all too apparent in the way they vote and self-identify. 

The voters have spoken: Donald Trump won seven of the twelve primary elections in states.  He claimed the largest percentage of the so-called white Evangelical voters.  Just hours before these elections Trump dodged questions about support he was receiving from the Ku Klux Klan and David Duke, a well known white supremacist.  In what has become a typical media ploy, after he winked his appreciation for the racist support, Trump then changed his tune, saying that he had always opposed racism and, in typical form, he attacked the media saying that he was again being mistreated.

Can there be any doubt that behind the scenes and often breaking into the open racism has been employed to weaken the presidency of Barack Obama?  Like many things, few people are as articulate in identifying such realities as is poet, novelist, conservationist Wendell Berry.

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Wendell Berry**

Berry writes: “A good many people hoped and even believed that Barack Obama’s election to the presidency signified the end of racism in the United States.  It seems arguable to me that the result has been virtually the opposite:  Obama’s election has brought about a revival of racism.  Like nothing since the Southern Strategy, it has solidified the racist vote as a political quantity recognizable to politicians and apparently large enough in some places to decide an election…

Nobody can doubt that virtually all of the President’s political enemies would vehemently defend themselves against a charge of racism.  Virtually all of them observe the forms and taboos of political correctness.  If any very visible one of their own should insult the President by a recognized racial slur, they would all join in the predictable outrage.  But the paramount fact of this moment in the history of racism is that you don’t have to denominate the President by a recognized racial slur when his very name can be used as a synonym.” (Wendell Berry, Louisville Courier-Journal, September 15, 2015.  See more at: Berry, Revival of Racism.

I was stuck by a recent report from the Southern Poverty Law Center that provided the recent history of active hate groups in the United States.  During the first eight years of the twenty-first century there were roughly 150 groups such as the Ku Klux Klan, White Nationalist, Racist Skinhead, and Neo-Nazi.  Their numbers changed very little in the period between 2000 and 2008.  However, in 2009, following the election of our president, the number of hate groups rose to over 500 — and today there are nearly 1,000 such groups in the United States!

I am not saying that white Evangelicals are all racists.  Still it is more than a little suspicious that there is not more resistance among these folks to Mr. Trump’s dog whistle to the racist fringe.  I still remember visiting a family farm, shortly after the election of Mr. Obama.  These were good people, church going folks, active in state politics.  I have known them for years.  As we talked my friends began to share email “jokes” about our president.  The language was crude, ugly, bigoted and demeaning projections.  It was raw, blatant racism in the depiction of our president. I was stunned — didn’t join in the laughter and spoke only a halting word of disagreement.  In hindsight, I wish I had said more.  In hindsight, I understand there are such “God fearing” folks and how they could vote for Mr. Trump.

In his insightful study One Nation Under God Kevin Kruse of Princeton University outlines the way the Christianity shifted in the twentieth century to become a public spiritual spectacle, useful to politicians and corporate leaders to pursue their goals of power and wealth.  Kruse cites William Lee Miller of Yale Divinity School who spoke of the American people who followed their president, Eisenhower, and “had become fervent believers in a very vague religion.”  (Kruse, p. 68)  Or, as Robert Bellah put it, “Is this not just another indication that in America, religion is considered a good thing but people care so little about it that it has lost any content whatsoever?” (Kruse, p. 68) This vague religiosity has been filled with many things — and as Evangelicalism has gained ascendancy too much of the “vague” content has been long on self concern and short on self criticism.

The vague content of American Christianity — Evangelicalism in this case, has been filled with patterns of thought and behavior that have almost no connection with the message or life of Jesus the Christ.  In fact, the vague content has been filled with shabby self indulgent understandings that are amazingly at odds with the Sermon on the Mount or the Lord’s Prayer

xraybrain

What would a beliefs x-ray show about a person’s real commitments?***

I do not seek to salvage this word “Evangelical.”  The damage, the identity theft, has been done.   Such a project belongs to others.  Thankfully, they are already at work and know it will take generations to correct what has gone amiss.  As suggested in an earlier post, these elections provide an x-ray into the flawed theological and faith perspectives of such Evangelicals. Sadly, the x-ray comes back saying the illness is at a critical stage.  This religiosity is shaped more by culture, history and prejudice than it is by the scriptures or sound theology.  Honestly, it is more a folk religion than a coherent faith practice.

What are we to do?  What is the church to do? In his column, “The Governing Cancer of Our Time, ” David Brooks speaks of the rise of authoritarianism (Brooks, Governing Cancer).  Over forty years ago, I served as part of a national research project on the church and racism.  In this work we discovered the connections between authoritarianism, status concern and racism in its various forms.  The question became how should the church, the People of God, respond?

We learned three important things:

  1. The church — especially the leaders in the church — must say NO to racism.  That which is obvious and that which is more subtle.  I wonder what difference it might have made if religious leaders and political leaders had stood up against Mr. Trump’s “birther” comments in 2008, or every year since?  One can’t help but think that the current dilemma of the Republican Party was brought about by their own silence and disrespect all along the way.
  2. Sermons and study groups alone have little effect on changing racist attitudes or behaviors.  (Sorry about this preachers and teachers.)  However, when sermons and education are combined with activities that engage parishoners with persons of a different race, especially activities that seek cooperatively to address racism, real change is possible.  We saw it in Chicago, South Bend, Fresno, Dallas and Los Angeles.
  3. Finally, a denomination’s commitment or congregation’s commitment to battle racism can be measured by the way budgets are made and expended.  In 1974 we found that almost all congregations reported they spent more on toilet paper or light bulbs in a year than they did on efforts to address racism.  Nothing much has changed over these four decades in this regard!

Silence.  Vague content to our faith.  Low commitment to change as evidenced in our practices and budgets.  These things, good reader, may be among the reasons for our current embarrassment.

Phil A

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Attributions:
  1. *Women viewing x-ray. Copyright: http://www.123rf.co/profile_rmarmion’>rmarmion / 123RF Stock Photo</a>.
  2. **Photo of Wendell Berry from newsinfo.iu.edu, (Indiana University media)
  3. ***Simulated x-ray of brain. Copyright: <a href=’http://www.123rf.com/profile_scottff72′>scottff72 / 123RF Stock Photo</a>