Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Archive for March, 2016

Shall We Kill Him? A Reflection on the Death Penalty

Leviticus 24:13 The Holy One of Sinai said to Moses, saying: 14 Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him. 15 And speak to the people of Israel, saying: Anyone who curses God shall bear the sin. 16 One who blasphemes the Name of the Holy One shall be put to death; the whole congregation shall stone the blasphemer. Aliens as well as citizens, when they blaspheme the Name, shall be put to death. 17 Anyone who kills a human being shall be put to death. 18 Anyone who kills an animal shall make restitution for it, life for life. 19 Anyone who maims another shall suffer the same injury in return: 20 fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered. 21 One who kills an animal shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death. 22 You shall have one law for the alien and for the citizen: for I am the Eternal One your God. 23 Moses spoke so to the people of Israel; and they took the blasphemer outside the camp, and stoned him to death. The people of Israel did as the Living God had commanded Moses.

There is a part of me that doesn’t wrestle with the death penalty. I know our justice system is not just. I know that we have executed innocent women and men and that is abominable. I know that black and brown and poor defendants are overrepresented on the system because they are targeted, over arrested, over convicted and over executed. And at the same time, some crimes are so heinous that I fully understand the Iron Age theology that says such must not be named among you, take them outside of the camp and stone them. I also know that the death penalty is not a deterrent and the appeals system is broken, flawed and skewed. And yet the case of John David Battaglia gives me pause. He shot his 6 and 9 year old daughters to death, Faith, 9, three times and Liberty, 6, 5 times – while on the phone with their mother saying Merry Fucking Christmas after making Faith ask her mother, “Why do you want Daddy to go to jail?” Their mother also had to listen to her daughter beg “No Daddy, please don’t.” If the death penalty is immoral it is alway immoral, even in this case. But if human beings have sufficient moral agency to adjudicate life and death and can do so justly – a standard which has rarely if ever been met – then there are times when the death penalty is merited. This may be one of them. Whatever his fate, may God have mercy on his soul.

 

 

 

 


A Lament for Violence

Holy Wednesday Sermon

Cross on calvary, Jerusalem

In the Name of God who hears our cries, bear our tears on her wings and empowers us to dry each other’s tears. Amen.

Today is a day for lament, even though we will celebrate the Eucharist. The lessons call for lament. The state of the world calls for lament. The state of our nation calls for lament. The state of the Church calls for lament. And some of us have deep personal laments.

I am lamenting the reassertion of white supremacy in our public and political discourse and in the church. I am lamenting the murders of black and brown trans and cis women and men by police and anyone else who thinks they can get away with it. I am lamenting the language of hate and fear that targets Muslims and Arabs and immigrants. I am lamenting the occupation and oppression of the Palestinians. I am lamenting violence in the streets of Jerusalem. I am lamenting terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Cote D’Ivoire and Brussels. I am lamenting rampant sexism, heterosexism and patriarchy especially in the church. And I am lamenting violence in the world particularly violence enacted against women and girls by Boko Haram, the violence perpetrated by all sides in Syria and the ravening violence of Daesh that looks a lot like the violence remembered in our lessons today.

Today’s texts commemorate the great sorrow of Israel, the fall of Judah, Jerusalem and the temple. My students will know, should know, that the trauma of the fall gave birth to the scriptures in written form, in order to piece together a theology that accounted for the trauma of Jerusalem’s destruction and to pass something of their heritage to the next generation.

Psalm 74 reads like a first hand account of the sack of the temple, an event often neglected in the Christian rush to get to Jesus and the New Testament. The assault and its success were unfathomable. The last time barbarians appeared at the gates of Jerusalem, they were miraculously turned back. Not even the historical record can explain why the mighty Assyrian Empire could not capture Jerusalem in 704 BCE. The Judeans had a theological answer; Jerusalem was the home of the living God and inviolable. That’s why Ps 46 proclaims and promises:

God is in the midst of the city; she shall not be moved;
God will help her when the morning dawns.

Yet more than a century later the Babylonians razed Jerusalem and raged into the temple unopposed. Asaph describes the Babylonians hacking with hammers and axes, smashing and burning the temple and everything in it to the ground. The God of cloud and pillar, fire and smoke, quaking ground and swallowing earth didn’t so much as rumble. No fire fell from heaven, no stones thrown from above. No miracles. No magic. No resistance. No deliverance. No salvation.

The book of Lamentations describes the assault and its aftermath: people desperate for food, elders succumbing to starvation, screaming babies and crying children begging for food, women eating their young, unburied bodies of young and old piled up because no one has the strength to bury them, the bodies of executed rulers impaled and hung on display and the systematic rape of women and girls and a hint of a similar fate for boys. The psalmist Asaph appealed to the Sovereign God who works salvation in the earth and asked why. Why God? Why?

Lamentations and the major theological voice in the scriptures, the Deuteronomistic school, provides a answer. We religious folk seek to make God-sense out of the world’s brokenness and our own. But the theology of Lamentations is painfully inadequate: It says God, not the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem. The text will go on to blame Judah and Jerusalem for their own destruction. It is a theology of sin and retribution. The kind of Iron Age theology we still hear, blaming people for hurricanes, floods, outbreaks of disease and personal tragedies.

The Gospel buys in to this theology to some degree: The wicked tenants are the people of Israel who reject the messengers of God and even God’s beloved child. This is the kind of text that lends itself to anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism and at times perverted what should be a holy week of reflection into a macabre reenactment of the Babylonian violence against Jerusalem.

What then can we learn from these texts in spite of their Iron Age theology?

What is eternal about Lamentations is the lament itself, raising your voice to God about God. No matter how limited our understanding or theology, we have the right and responsibility to cry out to God. In the psalm Asaph models this for us: Why, God? Why? And the Gospel promises that no matter how depraved, how murderous, how violent humanity becomes, God will not abandon us to our own devices. God has entered into our world, into our very flesh, despite our history, theology and rhetoric. The Church has failed in the past to stand up to white supremacist and fascist rhetoric. Lamentably we have another opportunity to confront this evil that is entrenched in the church as well as in the wider world.

In the gospel God sent wave after wave of messengers and servants to do the work that must be done to reform and transform the world. In one reading we are those servants. The work is dangerous and sometimes deadly. The world would rather kill us than hear our Gospel. In a world in which we have to insist that #BlackLivesMatter this is not an exaggeration.

If we do not purify the Church of its white supremacy, anti-Judaism, hetero-patriarchy and transphobia we may find that we are stone that the builder rejects and God will do her work in the world without us.

On this Wednesday in Holy Week, we lament the faults and failings of the church as we lament the brokenness of the world. We bring our laments and those of the people for we care to this holy place, and every place where God meets her people that together we may rise and build in their memory a world that will be worthy of those for whom Jesus lived and died. Amen.

Prayers of the People, for the Nation and for Elections (BCP)

Almighty God, to whom we must account for all our powers and privileges: Guide the people of the United States in the election of officials and representatives; that, by faithful administration and wise laws, the rights of all may be protected and our nation be enabled to fulfill your purposes; through Jesus Christ our Redeemer.

Holy and Righteous God our Governor, bless the leaders of our land, that we may be a people at peace among ourselves and a blessing to other nations of the earth.

Lord, keep this nation under your care.

To the President and members of the Cabinet, to Governors of States, Mayors of Cities, and to all in administrative authority, grant wisdom and grace in the exercise of their duties.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

To Senators and Representatives, and those who make our laws in States, Cities, and Towns, give courage, wisdom, and foresight to provide for the needs of all our people, and to fulfill our obligations in the community of nations.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

To the Judges and officers of our Courts give understanding and integrity, that human rights may be safeguarded and justice served.

Give grace to your servants, O Holy God.

And finally, teach our people to rely on your strength and to accept their responsibilities to their fellow citizens, that they may elect trustworthy leaders and make wise decisions for the well-being of our society; that we may serve you faithfully in our generation and honor your holy Name.

For yours is all governance, Sovereign God, and you are exalted as head above all. Amen.

We continue to pray for the world saying Holy One: Save us, heal us.

For peace among nations we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

For an end to violence as a political tool we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That we not surrender to fear or terror we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That we might wage peace  as furiously as others wage war we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us.

That our prayers for reconciliation would be word and deed we pray, Holy One: Save us, heal us. Amen.


White Supremacy In the Church

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)

Some thoughts on white supremacy in the church (excerpted from my Lenten presentation at the Church of the Transfiguration on Dallas).
Whiteness has been equated with Christianity and civilization so that to be Christian was to be civilized when the only Christianity that was recognized was white Christianity. Our religious language in and out of the scriptures is used to reify whiteness. White Jesus is the god of white supremacy. The role of white supremacy in the Church just like the role of the Church in the carving up and colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas is neither accidental nor incidental. The Church and every other American institution has profited materially from slave labor and the exploitation and plundering of black wealth.
images-1White supremacy in the church doesn’t always wear a white sheet but can regularly be found in the sanctuary. Unexamined whiteness endures in the sanctuary, in the halls, on the walls, and yes even on the altar in the sacraments of the Church, in biblical interpretation, understandings of God, Jesus and ultimately effects Christian identity and its expressions: theology, liturgy and iconography. When the images of God, Christ, the angels, the saints and the faithful are white, and only white, white supremacy is at work. When those images are all that children see, even when their Sunday school and vacation bible school curricula include pictures of black and brown children – because Jesus loves us all – but maintains an unchallenged white norm for Jesus and biblical characters, white supremacy is successfully passed down to another generation. White supremacy blinds, distorts, cripples. It obscures the image of God in the scriptures, in the church, in the world and particularly in black and brown bodies.

KKK-Jesus-Saves-Christian-Prayer-Meeting
Historically, the whitening of the holy served to identify the holy with whiteness against all others explicitly and intentionally. Contemporarily white iconography continues that work, without the active reflection of those whom it shapes. It is of course, not a sin to see the holy in yourself and those like you. UnknownSeeing God in your image and only in your image makes it hard to see those who are not like you in the image of God; it is even harder when nothing in your experience has every portrayed God unlike you. In many churches the Blessed Sacrament is white and only white. Is it any wonder everyone else is other?
There is a direct line from whiteness to domination in and out of the church. It is not only historically inaccurate but the sovereignty and sanctification of whiteness in the church is one of the primary obstacles to reconciliation. It is often unacknowledged and unrepented.
Reconciliation is the culmination of a process that begins with conviction and leads to confession and contrition, public and private, followed by individual and communal repentance. Much like the stages of grief, these steps are not rigidly sequential, though some more easily presage others. Persons and institutions may move from one to another and back again. Some like repentance may occur repeatedly, for example repentance may (and should) both lead to and follow confession.
Reconciliation is not possible without repentance. True repentance is public and private, individual and communal and is not possible without genuine heart-felt contrition.
Contrition is not simply feeling bad about the way things are (or were) or wishing things were different or had been different in the past. Contrition is concrete. It is at one level interior but must be simultaneously voiced.
The articulation of contrition, confession, is the concretization of repentance. There is no repentance without contrition and confession.
Conviction, in the language of the church, conviction of the Holy Spirit, is the impetus that drives the process that can lead to reconciliation.

It is a process and none of the steps are optional. Services of reconciliation without confession, liturgical litanies of confession without conviction, the language of repentance without conviction, all of these are theater, none of these are healing and the multiplication of these kinds of programs squander whatever ethical capital and good will the white church and white Christians have.