Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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Did Mary Say “Me Too”?

You will conceive—in your womb—and you will give birth to a son… 

Annunciation Tryptich by the late Robert Moore of the African Episcopal Church of St Thomas where it hangs in Philadelphia PA.

 

Did the Blessed Virgin say, “me too”? There is a moment in the Annunciation story when an ordinary girl on the cusp of womanhood is approached by a powerful male figure who tells her what is going to happen to her body, in its most intimate spaces. (#MeToo is a collection of women’s stories acknowledging their experiences of sexual assault and harassment following very public claims against a number of media executives.)

Sit with me in this moment, this uncomfortable moment, before rushing to find proof of her consent, or argue that contemporary notions of consent do not apply to ancient texts, or God knew she’d say yes so it was prophetic, or contend that (human) gender does not apply to divine beings, Gabriel or God, and the Holy Spirit is feminine anyway. Hold those thoughts and just sit in the moment with this young woman.

Even in the Iron Age in an androcentric and patriarchal culture, she knows her body belongs to her. She doesn’t ask what her intended will say, what her father will say, what about the shame this would likely bring on her, her family, and their name. Instead she testifies to the integrity of her body under her control. In her question, “How can this be?” I hear, “Since I have not done and will not do what you are suggesting—just in case you are really here to defraud me and my intended—how will this thing work.” I see her withholding consent at this moment. She has questions and has not agreed to this, glorious messianic prophecy notwithstanding. Not yet. 

It is in this moment between “this is what you will do, what will happen to and in your body,” and submission to what she accepts as God’s will that I ask, Does Mary say, “me too”? Does she have a choice here? The narrative and world that produced it may well say no. That is what makes this a “me too” story to me.

Yet in a world which did not necessarily recognize her sole ownership of her body and did not understand our notions of consent and rape, this very young woman had the dignity, courage, and temerity to question a messenger of the Living God about what would happen to her body before giving her consent. That is important. That gets lost when we rush to her capitulation. Before Mary said, “yes,” she said, “wait a minute, explain this to me.”

After the holy messenger explains the mechanics of the conception that is to take place—he is still saying, “this will happen to you”—then and only then does she consent, using the problematic language of the text and her world, “Indeed, I am the woman-servant-slave of the Lord (a slaveholding title).” Mary’s submission is in the vernacular of slavery, as is much of the Gospel. The language of “servitude” is a misnomer in biblical translation; even though they were not necessarily enslaved in perpetuity, they were enslaved. And while enslaved had no right to protect the integrity of their bodies or control of their sexuality or reproduction. We often soften the language to “servant” particularly with reference to God but the language of slavery runs through the whole bible and is often found without critique on the lips of Jesus.

In this light, her consent is troubled and troubling: Let it be with me according to your word. Given what we know about power dynamics and hierarchy, (not to mention the needs of the narrative), how could she have said anything else? I think that there is not much difference between “overshadowed” and “overwhelmed.” I also remember Jeremiah saying God had *seduced and **overpowered him. (*Translated “enticed” in Jer 20:7, פתה means “seduced” in Ex 22:16; Deut 11:16; Judg 14:15. **The second verb חזק, is one of two primary terms for rape in the Hebrew Bible.)

Did the Ever-Blessed Virgin Mary say, “me too?” Perhaps not. A close reading shows her presumably powerless in every way but sufficiently empowered to talk back to the emissary of God, determine for herself, and grant what consent she could no matter the power of the One asking. And yet in that moment after being told by someone else what would happen to her body, she became not just the Mother of God, but the holy sister to those of us who do say, “Me too.”

 

 

Extraordinary and Everyday Saints

Robert Moore
The African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know God. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. And all who have this hope in God purify themselves, just as ze is pure. 1 John 3:1-3

In the Name of the God who loves us to life and through death back into life:

Beloved, we are God’s children now…as we are, at this very moment. We are God’s children as we are. And we are beloved. As we are. We are loved. I don’t think we can say it or hear it enough especially at the present moment. You are loved as you are, with all of the places you are broken, all the rules you break, you are loved as you are. You don’t have to change to earn or even merit God’s love. You are loved as you are. We are loved as we are. I am loved as I am. This snippet from a non-pastoral epistle is in fact pastoral, far more so for me than the hierarchies of the epistles called pastoral. (Whether First John is even an epistle is a question for another day.)

See what love our Creator has given us, that we should be called children of God. See what love the Womb of Life who birthed us has given us that we might be called her children. See what love the Fount of Creation has for us that we might love ourselves, each other, all that she has made, and collaborate with her in the care of this earth.

See! See that love for you and in you and all around you. Sometimes it is hard to see love in this world, in ourselves, in others whose words, ways, and whims are not lovely, loving or lovable. The imperative, “See!” bids us look, search, seek the love that is in us, that is in the world, and to seek in hope, to seek in faith. Perhaps most of all, to look for the imprint of love on and in the world when there is no evidence of it, when you’ve lost your faith and have nothing to believe in or hope for, even when you’ve stopped believing in love. See! Look for it. That is all you have to do, open your eyes, and perhaps your heart one more time. For God’s love is there, in you, in me, in the world, this world, this broken, crucified and crucifying world, as it is, as we are. See it. See God’s love at work in this too-often loveless world.

The world spends a lot of time telling many of us that we unloved and unworthy of love. But that is a lie. God calls us beloved. We are loved even when we do not or cannot love ourselves. We are loved when others do not or will not love us. And in this gospel—and it is gospel in an epistle that is not an epistle—in this gospel it is an article of faith that we are loved as we are. We don’t have to change who or what we are to be loved. We are enough as we are. Some of us may have had to work to accept that we are loved and worthy of love; some of us may be still doing this work, and others yet to begin it.

Others may wrestle with the beloved status of those who do not love those whom God loves. That God loves us as we are also means that God loves them as they are. Some of us are wrestling with loving folk who hate, loving them while hating what they do and say, teach, preach, and believe.

This breathtaking text is radically egalitarian if you understand its message is not limited to the members of the Jesus movement then or now. The title “children of God” is not limited to Christians in the later scriptures nor to the Israelites in the earlier scriptures; though there are texts in which each group is proclaimed (or proclaims itself) the particular beloved favorite child of God. The notion that we Christians are better beloved by God than our siblings has been the source of much of the pain and violence inflicted on the world and set a pattern for establishing and maintaining other hierarchies, including within Christianity.

The tiny church in the shadow of empire from which this text emerged was a vastly different church than we are. They needed the affirmation of their place in God’s heart in a world that saw them as a heretical Jewish sect at best and a treasonous cabal conspiring against the emperor at worst. Not surprisingly, for that ancient community and those who received and canonized this text along with many of its earliest and some contemporary interpreters, this text only applies to members of the Christian community.

On this day when we celebrate all the saints evoked by this text for the lectionary framers, it’s worth asking who are the saints. Whom do we commemorate today? A post by St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Ivy, VA frames it as “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.” The saints are all the holy people of God, made holy by the work and love of God. As we rightly venerate those holy ones whose life and legacy bear extraordinary witness to the love and power of God, we ought not neglect the everyday holiness of everyday folk. I invite you to think of the folk whose extraordinary holiness and everyday holiness has touched your life and nurtured your faith. Who are the prayer partners and conversation partners who heard your questions and supported you in your doubt. Who are the pastors and professors, Sunday school teachers and skeptics two nurtured your faith? Who are the heretics and hope-dealers whose questions you just couldn’t shake? Who are the writers and thinkers whose words echo across the years and centuries power undimmed? Who are your saints?

The church tends to identify the saints as holy people of God within its own midst, among the baptized faithful. At the same time we recognize the holiness is not the exclusive domain any one community. The saints are “the living and the dead, the revered and the forgotten.”

At this holy season I like to think of as the fall “triduum” we celebrate God’s children on both sides of the grave. On All Hallows Eve we celebrated the powerlessness of the realm of death and all it terrors, celebrating the sweetness of life, teaching our children that ghosts and goblins are as empty of power over us as are the costumes in their image. Or maybe we just dressed up, got drunk and gave out candy and ate too much of it. Today on the Feast of All Saints we celebrate the living and the dead and tomorrow we will celebrate and remember the holy dead who yet live on All Souls Day.

These three days are built on the tradition of the Communion of the saints, the interconnectedness of the family of God between the living and those beyond death. We are not only the beloved children of God, we are her children and part of a family that transcends space and time and death. That holy communion, the communion of the saints, is for many of us a lively space in which we commune with our ancestors and those we love who have gone before us whether at a Dia de los Muertos shrine, family grave or in the sanctuary of our prayer. The communion of the saints is one of the often neglected spaces in which testimonies of God’s love abound and extend to us in the love of those who have gone before. Praying to and through the saints is a venerable and often misunderstood practice. Prayer is conversation. Invoking the aid of those who can see clearly from beyond the veil of death is no different than asking those on this side of death for their aid and prayers. Who are your saints?

Beloved we are loved. We are God’s children. We are the saints of God whom others will call holy and on whom others yet unborn will call in prayer. Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when God is revealed, we will be like God, for we will see God as ze is. Amen.

The Forehead of a Whore


#MeToo. I am one of the many, many women who have been targeted, touched, sexually harassed or assaulted and lived to tell the tale. But all of us did not survive our attackers. We were exposed to that which we did not want to see or touch, forced to experience that to which we did not consent. We were at home in our beds, at school in the bathroom, in the doctor’s office under sedation, walking home, at a trusted friend’s apartment, in the arms of a lover, on our grandfather’s lap, at work and at church.

And when we mustered up the strength to tell, they asked: What were you wearing? What were you doing there/with him/that late? Didn’t you have sex with him or someone else earlier that day/week/year?

As a biblical scholar, what I hear them saying, those folks who ask why you didn’t tell then don’t believe you when you do, what I hear them saying is: You have the forehead of a whore.

Have you ever noticed that Israel and Judah become female when the prophets want to use sexualized rhetoric to shame and verbally batter them? On the one hand it’s: out of Egypt have I called my son (Hosea 11:1), and on the other: You have polluted the land with your whoring (here in Jeremiah 3). It is: I will surely gather all of you, O Jacob, (Mic 2:12), and: a spirit of whoredom has led my people astray, (Hos 4:12). There is: How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? (Hos 11:18) And then there is: you have the forehead of a whore and you refuse to be ashamed.

When we talk about the rape culture that permeates every facet of our society—and we need to talk about it—we also need to talk about the rape culture that permeates the text we hold sacred and acknowledge that every sexist and misogynistic reading of scripture is not merely a matter of poor biblical interpretation. Sometimes the trouble is in the text itself. But I believe in a God, who though she can be found in, and is revealed by the text, is not limited to or by the text and its limitations. I believe in a God who transcends the text and is not revealed in literal or literary rape rhetoric.

I also believe Jeremiah’s preaching would benefit if he had a womanist conversation partner. A womanist is a black woman whose feminism is so rich, deep, thick, broad, and wide, it moves beyond the mere self-interest of paler feminisms to embrace the wellbeing of the whole community. Womanism is brash, bold, and brazen—like the forehead of a whore. Womanism is womanish and talks back—with a hand upon her hip. And if you don’t mind, I’m going to be so womanist, so womanish, that I’m going to talk back to Jeremiah this morning. And I just believe that the God who answered Rebekah’s prayer when she thought her pregnancy was going to kill her can bear the weight of critical reflection. It’s a mighty poor excuse for a god that cannot bear scrutiny.

So let us take a womanist walk through the text together. In our lesson today, Jeremiah is speaking out of his culture and identity. He is saying: In my day, men don’t take a woman back whom they have divorced, and even those who would, will not if she has moved on to someone else. But I am here to tell you this morning that God will take us back no matter where we have gone, what we have done, or what has been done to us.

Jeremiah is saying a woman who has moved on is polluted. But I am here to tell you what our ancestors passed down because womanist wisdom is motherwit and ancestral wisdom: the love of God reaches from the uttermost to the gutter-most. Ain’t no mountain high enough, ain’t no valley low enough, to keep God’s from loving you.

In Jeremiah’s sermonic analogy, the woman like—some in his congregation and perhaps in this one—was put out. We know that because women in ancient Israel didn’t have the ability to divorce. They were divorced. And now that she has moved on and picked up the pieces of her life the best way she knows how, he wants to call her out of her name. You know black women don’t stand for that.

Abandoned black women have been making a way out of no way while being called out of our names for more than four hundred years on this continent. And even if some daughter of God chooses a strategy for survival that does not represent the best God has in store for her, she is still never separate from the love or faithfulness of God.

Jeremiah’s analogy doesn’t hold water with me because doesn’t break God’s promises, commitments or covenants. God has never divorced or abandoned God’s people. But God’s people have been hurt, on God’s watch. Israel and Judah fell. Their people were enslaved by one regime after another, defeated, deported, disbanded, diasporized. Their daughters subject to all the violence Jeremiah uses in his sermon. We too have been harmed. Our people were subject to the same depredations.

Jeremiah here is like a lot of folk who want to know what you did that made it possible for this catastrophe to happen to you. He sounds almost like a prosperity preacher. He asks with no pastoral presence whatsoever, where have you not been violated? Jeremiah is confusing sex and rape and blaming the cast off woman for what has happened to her in his own metaphor. For Jeremiah, like some folk in our time, being raped makes you a whore. In verse 2, the word shugalt’ is passive. (The root שגל means abducted and ravaged.) It means to have been violated. You didn’t do it; it was done to you. There is no preposition indicating participation, no “with,”  no consent. When Isaiah uses the same word the text says, “ravished,” (Isa 13:16); in Zechariah (14:2) it is “raped.” The reason some women and men can’t stand up and say #MeToo is some folk will blame them for their own rape thinking and saying: You have the forehead of a whore.

Bishop Yvette Flunder taught us that as preachers and theologians the prophets and epistle-writing apostles are our colleagues and we can respectfully disagree with them. I say to Jeremiah what I would say to any preacher, male or female, ancient or contemporary, you don’t have to sexualize, brutalize, or slut-shame women to call the people back to the God who loves them more parent or partner. Your prophetic vocabulary is too rich to be limited to that misanthropic trope. You can do better. You need to do better. God’s people deserve better. And God requires better of you. Stop being petty Jeremiah. Jealous ex doesn’t look good on God. God is bigger than that.

Some might say that’s just the way it was or everybody spoke like that back then. After all we’re talking about the Iron Age, not the most progressive of times. Well I’m here to tell you that the prophets Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, Nathan, Gad, Iddo, Elijah, Elisha, Obadiah, Jonah, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi never once fixed their lips to pass off their pornotropic fantasies as the word of God. Jesus never used that language, perhaps because that’s how some folk talked about his mama.

Not all prophets use the specter of rape as God’s punishment for sin. Not all prophets call God’s people whores. But Jeremiah did and he wasn’t alone; Isaiah and Ezekiel, Hosea and Nahum fall into what I call homiletical heresy. Out of one side of their mouths they proclaim Israel and Judah are God’s beloved daughters. On the other side of their mouths, or perhaps talking out of their necks, when Israel and Judah fall and fail as do all finite and frail human beings and institutions, they suddenly become these brazen whores who deserve to be beaten and raped because that’s what you do when you catch your woman cheating on you, in their world view which is not mine, nor is it God’s, in spite of what texts like these say. The very idea is rooted in the sanctification of physical and sexual domestic violence.

The Dean of womanist biblical interpretation, the Rev. Dr. Renita Weems taught us why the prophets use such language, (in Battered Love). They did the best they knew if not the best they could. They used what they saw in their world and in themselves, and recounted a God who looked more like an Iron Age warrior king bigger and badder than the one next door than a God whose grace and mercy are sufficient and unmerited. They used human relational paradigms to describe their relationship with God but humans and our institutions are fatally flawed. Humans can turn any relationship, system or institution designed for love and nurture, caring, companionship, and mutual support, liberation and justice, into violent abusive parodies of their intended purpose. All of the models Israel has given us are flawed because they are human as we are human.

We say God is the righteous judge of all flesh. But we know that justice is not blind. She sees skin color and bank balances and perverts justice accordingly. We know that judges are partial and though we may say that God is not, we like Israel expect God to judge in our favor whether we are right or wrong.

We say God is our parent, some say father; some say mother. Our ancestors said God is a mother to the motherless and a father to the fatherless. But sadly we know mother and father are not always pillars of safety and security. They can be violent, abusive, and emotionally crippling. The scriptures portray God as loving father but also one who rages against his children. And like any other Iron Age male in the bible God is invested in controlling the sexual purity of women whose value is tied up in their virginity, ability to make babies, and the degree to which they were under male control. Interestingly, when the scriptures portray God as mother she is not as violent.

We have been taught to say God is king but kings in the ancient world were warlords who secured their thrones with the broken and battered bodies of their enemies, often killing their wives and children.

We have been taught to say God is lord and master but those are slaveholding terms. And slaves in the ancient world as in our own ancestry were used like beasts of burden, maimed, raped, sold, and killed with neither thought nor consequence. Even when lord becomes a title of nobility it still rests on the notion of some human beings lorded over others.

We have been taught to say God is husband but it is in the role of husband that the prophets who proclaim liberation also proclaim words of violence rooted in violence against women and call it the word of God.

You have the forehead of a whore…

Jeremiah heard and spoke for God in and through the vernacular of his culture. From our perch in this century we see and hear differently through our own vernacular. I know it seem like I’ve been rough on Jeremiah. But I’m not giving up on him anymore than I’m giving up on any other passage in the bible that fails to live up to or into God’s liberating love. I’m just going to follow the example of Jesus who said, you have seen it written, but I say unto you…

You have seen it written, “You have the forehead of a whore.” But I say unto you:

You have the forehead of the kind of woman some men, especially religious men like Jeremiah, will call a whore. You have the forehead of a woman who will make her own decisions about her body and sexuality. You have the forehead of a woman who will decide for herself whether or when to have children. You have the forehead of a woman who will not submit to male domination in or out of the sacred texts. You have the forehead of a woman who will resist theology and biblical interpretation that does not affirm who you are, who and how you love, or who God created you to be. You have the forehead of a woman whom men will call a whore to put you in your place. You have the forehead of a woman who is unbought and unbosssed. You have the forehead of a woman who has survived rape and sexual assault and domestic violence. You have the forehead of a woman who has been blamed for the violence others visited upon her person and you brazenly rejected it.

You are brazen in your womanishness. You brazenly talk back to the text and its God. You brazenly talk back to Jeremiah and say you can miss me with that whore talk. And you can tell him: But I’m with you on the God who calls backsliders (משבה) and backstabbers (בגודה) to faithfulness. I’m down with the God who says, I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful. And yes, you can have it both ways. You don’t have to subject yourself to Iron Age brutality or theology to turn to the God Jeremiah burdens with the biases of his culture.

At the end of our lesson God promises to give her people shepherds after her own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding. In Jeremiah’s context, that meant restoring the monarchy, but those days are long gone. In our time shepherds are priests, preachers, and pastors, not presidents or potentates.

Through Jeremiah who has survived this womanist critique, God promises to send us shepherds who will feed us with knowledge and understanding. I know there are some shepherds out there preaching like it’s still the Iron Age, talking about women and our bodies like we’re everything but daughters of God. But when God sends the shepherd, her heart will be patterned after God’s heart and she will leave you with knowledge not shame, understanding, not name-calling.

Then we can create a world where all men teach other men and boys not to rape, where there are no women or men, girls or boys who are violated or violate another’s body or consent. Then we will stop equating rape with sex. Then we will stop punishing women for being raped or having sex. Then we will hear women and men who say #MeToo. Then we will be empowered to use the richness of our theological imaginations to name God in ways that don’t hurt or harm.

Jewish poet Ruth Brin, (A Woman’s Meditation), put it this way:
When men were children, they thought of God as a father; When men were slaves, they thought of God as a master; 
When men were subjects, they thought of God as a king. 
But I am a woman come not a slave, not a subject, not a child who longs for God as father or mother. I might imagine God as a teacher or friend, but those images, like king, master, father or mother, are too small for me now. God is the force of motion and light in the universe; 
God is the strength of life on our planet; God is the power moving us to do good; God is the source of love springing up in us. 
God is far beyond what we can comprehend.

No one has the right to call you a whore to put you in the place they think you belong. But if they do, tell them: I have the forehead of a whore and I am not ashamed.

Jeremiah 3:1 Look here! If a man divorces his wife and she goes from him
and becomes another man’s wife, will he return to her?
Would not such a land be greatly polluted?
You have played the whore with many lovers; would you return to me, says the Holy One.
2 Lift your eyes upon the bare heights, and see! Where have you not been violated?
By the waysides you have sat waiting for lovers, like a nomad in the wilderness.
You have polluted the land with your whoring and wickedness.
3 So, rain showers have been withheld, and the late rain has not come;
yet you have the forehead of a whore, you refuse to be ashamed.
4 Have you not just now called to me, “My Father, you are the companion of my youth!
5 Will God be angry forever, will God rage for eternity?”
This is how you have spoken, but you have done all the evil you could.
6 The Holy One said to me in the days of King Josiah, “Have you seen what backsliding Israel did, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and whored there? 7 I said, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me’; but she did not return, and her backstabbing sister Judah saw it. 8 Surely I saw it; for because of all the adulteries backsliding Israel committed, I put her out and gave her a divorce decree; yet her backstabbing sister Judah did not fear, so she also went and whored. 9 Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and wood. 10 Yet for all this her backstabbing sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but only in deceit,” says the Holy One.
11   Then the Holy One said to me, “Backsliding Israel has shown herself less guilty than backstabbing Judah. 12 Go, and proclaim these words toward the north, and say:
Turn back, backsliding Israel, says the Holy One.
I will not fall on you in anger, for I am faithful, says the Holy One; I will not be angry forever.
13 Only acknowledge your guilt, that you have rebelled against the Holy One your God,
and there are paths to you for strangers scattered under every green tree, 
and my voice you all have not obeyed, says the Holy One.
14 Return, O backsliding children, says the Holy One,
for I am your master; I will take you all, 
one from a city and two from a family, and I will bring you all to Zion.
15 And I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will feed you with knowledge and understanding.

 
Translation by the Rev. Wil Gafney, Ph.D.+

The Bull in the Church Isn’t Idolatry

 

 

 

Exodus 32:1-14

Moses came down from the mountain where he experienced the glory of God face to face to discover that there was some bull in the Israelite community. They were worshipping bull at the foot of God’s holy mountain. They had their bull all up in God’s face when they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!”

            We have our own bull in the church. Who are the idol-makers in the church? There’s a lot of bull in the church. And we know better. We have three thousand years of faith stories to tell us who God is. And we have more than these sacred stories our ancestors passed down. We have our experiences of and with God. We have what our eyes have seen. We know who God is and we know there is no substitute for God. We have no excuse for bowing down before that which we know is not God.

            And at the same time, I have a lot of sympathy for the Israelites here. Really. I know the bull is problematic, but there is more to the story. They had stories of God. And they had their ancestors’ experiences of God. And they had their own hard experiences. They were enslaved for centuries. Elders watched their children and grandchildren be born into the same brutal estate in which they would die, dreaming of but never seeing freedom. We don’t always get our prayers answered, for us, in our generation. Sometimes the beneficiaries of our prayers are the next generation, people we may not even get to meet. For every Israelite who marched out with Moses there were entire families dead and buried who did not live to see that day. God did not save them. God did not free them. Some of them surely gave up on God who seemed to have given up on them.

            And then this man Moses came along. He was one of them but he didn’t share their fate. He didn’t live under the lash. He wasn’t kept hungry enough to work but not full enough to rise up. But living like a prince wasn’t good enough for him; he threw away the good life and ran off to have one adventure after another. And now, here he is saying the God of your ancestors, our ancestors, spoke to me. Oh, he had signs and wonders, but so did Pharaoh’s magicians.

            Somehow he convinced Pharaoh to let the people go. Maybe it was the power of God. Surely God opened the waters like that. But why didn’t the pillar of cloud and fire take them straight to freedom, blazing a path across the desert? Was God lost? Because Moses sure was. They should have been able to cross the Sinai desert in eleven days. Even going to Mt. Sinai first should have not even taken a month. Yet it would take them forty years, walking over their own footsteps, passing under Canaan then crossing the river from the other side. Two months into the journey they ran out of food, (Ex 16). They ate up their few provisions, went hungry and thirsty, and the solution was hitting a rock (Ex 17:1-7), scraping up something that was probably an insect by-product, and happening across the occasional flock of quails. They are hungry and frightened. They had just escaped slavery and no one knew how long that would last. The world’s greatest army is on their track.

            Along the way they were attacked by the Amalekites who were supposed to be their kinfolk, (Ex 17:8). Moses didn’t lead them to freedom. He led them in circles, to hunger, thirst, and war. Then there was the gossip about Moses. He sent his wife packing and her father publically brought her back to him, (Ex 18:2). Maybe he got lost because he was preoccupied. All of that in the first three months, (Ex 19:1).

            But then again, there was that moment at Sinai when they saw a mountain that was not a volcano on fire, and they heard thunder and trumpets from heaven playing a duet while lightning danced a solo. They heard God declaim the Ten Commandments for themselves. They stayed in that place, in sight of the mountain that quaked and smoked for a long time. While Moses and God discussed the fine points of nation and community building and worship and liturgy they were on their own. In the inhospitable desert. No closer to freedom.

            No one had seen Moses in days, weeks, or even longer. According to Exodus 24:18 Moses was with God for forty days and forty nights which is the Hebrew equivalent of a month of Sundays. God and Moses promised the people a land flowing with milk and honey but they are still here in the desert and as our lesson says, no one knew what happened to Moses, if he was alive or dead on that mountain. They gave up on him, and God.

            We can say what they woulda, shoulda, oughta do. But we have our own bull. Our idols are not statues or icons—though sometimes the liturgy can be an idol in the Episcopal Church. The bull we worship is whiteness and patriarchy and sexism and guns and money and fame and power and sex and our imaginations about how it used to never be and never will be again… We worship other people’s opinions and their possessions and our own. We worship people who don’t love us or even respect us. We devote our time, our money, our resources, our passion to everyone and everything but God, sometimes. Sometimes. American bull has become the church’s bull. We worship anthems and flags idolizing patriotism, sometimes even in church. And yet none of these things, like Israel’s bull is inherently evil. It is our worship of them. Prioritizing them over God and God’s priorities, the flourishing and wellbeing of God’s children, starting with the least, the last and the lost.

            Now Aaron and the guys built this bull trying to connect to the One who had brought them this far. They weren’t really looking for another God. They just didn’t know how to be in relationship with the God who seemed so distant even though they were at the foot of God’s mountain. They had become so dependent on Moses they didn’t think they could speak to or hear from God without him. Aaron had already been ordained a priest, (Ex 28:41). It’s safe to say he failed his first parish assignment. And where was the prophet Miriam? The text says Aaron sent the men to rip out, פרק, not just take off, the earrings of their wives, daughters, and sons. (The rabbis read this to mean that Miriam and the other women fought them but lost.)

            Then God, God starting snorting just like a bull. There’s a reason the Israelites so often identified God as a bull. In the old written language before the more familiar Hebrew letters, the first sign in the word God was an image of a bull. And when the text talks about God’s wrath burning hot, the literal expression is God’s nose or nostrils, just like a bull. God is so angry, smoke is pouring out of God’s nostrils. Add to that, in the text, God is rather bull headed. Moses has to talk God out of killing the Israelites by shaming God. The Egyptians are already talking bad about you, what with the killing of the first-born and all. If you kill your own people, you’ll never live it down!

            Then God changes God’s mind. Moses reminds God of God’s promises, at the same time reminding the people. I love that Moses prayed for people who were flat out wrong. He fully expected God to redeem and liberate people who were flawed and had already failed to live up to God’s expectation, because a God that expects perfection is an idol. God and Moses show the people that God hears and responds and that good prayer is sometimes giving God a piece of your mind. A God who can’t take it is an idol, not worth our worship.

            False constructions of god are sculpted out of more than color and shape. For some, god is the only one who hates the folk they love to hate more than they do. God is more than our symbols, images, and language.

            I don’t claim to know what God looks like. But I know who God is. God is a pillar of smoke by day and tower of fire by night. God is a rock in a weary land. God is mother to the motherless and a father the fatherless. God is the restorer of broken hearts, minds and bodies. God is an outstretched wing and a strong right arm. God is shepherd and sacrificial lamb. God is a still, small voice and the sound of roaring thunder.

            In the Psalm, (106:1-6, 19-23), God is the one who is worthy of all or praise, whose witness is passed down from generation to generation. In the Epistle, (Philippians 4:1-9), God is the one who builds bridges between broken hearts, mending the relationship between Euodia and Syntyche. And God is the one who called those women to peach and pastor. And in the Gospel, (Matthew 22:1-14), God is the one who welcomes all to the table, both good and bad.

            God is Sovereign, Savior and Shelter. God is the Author, the Word and the Translator. God is Earth-Maker, Pain-Bearer and Life-Giver. God is Majesty, Mercy and Mystery. God is Divine Love, the Eternal Beloved, and the Faithful Lover. God is. God is beyond all language and imagination.

            A God who is anything less than Life, Liberation and, Love is an idol and that is some bull. The Israelites would continue to build bulls, some as God and some as thrones for God. We are not much different. Who are the idol-makers in the church? Who is bringing bull into the church? And perhaps more importantly, how do we clean it up?

In the Name of God, Potter, Vessel, and Holy Fire. Amen.

 

 

 

When Scripture is Violent

 

Pixaby

I love the Hebrew Scriptures and their stories but I understand why some folk have a hard time with them, particularly as scripture. Many of these epic stories include epic episodes of violence, sometimes at the bequest of God, sometimes enacted by God. It is easy to treat these stories like novels, movies, or video games, something we enjoy then put down to return to real lives where we do not behave like those characters. Speaking for myself, I love action movies: crime capers, shoot ‘em ups, superheroes, intergalactic battles, the occasional vampire or werewolf rampaging…

There is a difference, I believe, between turning to a movie or book you know is fiction for entertainment and reading your scriptures for inspiration, guidance, to discern God’s voice, or for a pattern on which to model your life. We are in a time when we are reassessing our ancestral legacies as a nation and as Church, and grappling with the horrific violence that is often our unwelcome inheritance. We are having serious conversations—when we’re not shouting at each other—about what to do with the physical reminders of our painful past, not just statues, but also churches in which all of the images of the holy people of God are white people. In these conversations I understand my role as a biblical scholar and priest to be to help us think about the ways in which we, nation and Church, have used the stories of scripture to harm rather than heal.

I also know that not all of the harm resulting from our interaction with the scriptures is just a matter of poor interpretation or even my personal nemesis, bad translation. Sometimes the stories themselves are the problem, and sometimes a well-worn and beloved story suddenly starts to look and sound different—like when you first started to understand how violent and downright gruesome some fairytales and nursery rhymes really are.

Sometimes the violence in scripture is illustrative and reflective, it tells some hard truths about who human beings have been and continue to be. Sometimes the violence in scripture encourages us to choose sides, good guys/bad guys, and we may find ourselves cheering for what happens to them, because they deserve it for what they did to us.

Exodus 14 tells the saga of the Red Sea crossing, one of the great stories in our heritage. Our lesson begins in verse 19 where the Israelites are safely ensconced in the wings of divine protection on their perilous journey. There is an angel in font of them and God herself, the divine hijabi, veiled in the pillar of cloud and fire behind them, protecting them from the army that wants to drag them back in chains to slavery. It is no small irony that the founders of this nation, who identified themselves with Israel and as God’s chosen, felt no compunction about enslaving others even as they celebrated Israel’s own deliverance from slavery. But then again, to tell the truth—especially in church—neither did Israel. They went on to be a slaveholding nation as well.

But at this point in the story assigned to us today, Israel is walking into their liberation, guided and guarded by God. Then God enables Moses to open the sea. We can imagine the spectacle much more easily than our ancestors because we have movies with special effects like CGI. Some of the disaster movies are better than the many versions of the Ten Commandments and other bible epics at portraying waters that reach up and out as far as the eye can see.

Understandably, the Egyptians flee. But that isn’t good enough. In the text God tells Moses to put the waters back in place which will drown the Egyptian soldiers. The text doesn’t care about the Egyptian soldiers as people, who have lives, families and loved ones, whose lives have value. In the text and in their world the Egyptian soldiers were simply an extension of the Pharaoh and they become casualties in his losing contest with God, one that he could not back down from even when he wanted to because God hardened his heart and made him stay in a losing fight. These are difficult portrayals of God mixed in with the shepherding sheltering images that are much more inviting and trustworthy.

This is not the one-dimensional God of our childhood’s faith. This is a complex and complicated character who is often inscrutable. The scriptures teach we are made in the image of God while offering a God who sometimes seems to be made in the image of humanity, showcasing all the worst parts. I ask my students if these portrayals tell us more about who God is or more about who ancient folk were and how they understood God. Sometimes I find it’s one, sometimes the other, sometimes a bit of both.

Can we, as thoughtful readers still treasure this story of divine deliverance without celebrating the deaths of men whose families would ache for their loss as much as you would for your brother, father, husband, or son? I believe we can because what makes these texts scripture, the living word of a living God, is their ability to transcend their context and its limitations even when it is reflected in their content. Indeed the psalm models that for us. Psalm 114 remembers the exodus by celebrating God’s power over the elements. It doesn’t glorify or gloat over the loss of life—though other psalmists will. Savoring the richness of scripture means savoring its complexity the way we savor bitter and sweet mingled on our tongues.

I find the gospels are increasingly bittersweet. There we encounter in Jesus an image of God that is radical and revolutionary, and rooted in the culture and context into which Jesus was born. Jesus models and teaches a beloved community and sovereign realm that is and will be nothing like the petty vicious kingdoms of this world yet does so using the same language that describes them, the language of kings and slaves, both of which are inherently violent concepts. And when Jesus teaches us how to live and love in this world that is being transformed by his redemption of it and us, his language and teaching examples often include the irredeemable practice of slavery without critique.

This too is violent. There is real danger in normalizing or even minimizing the brutality that underlies slaveholding in the ancient world, in the scriptures, in our own past, and at the present moment when black lives are taken without consequence. Yet, I am convinced that neither the casual violence of slavery as an inescapable element of the biblical world nor the romanticizing of God as a king in a world when kings were little more than warlords, nor even the graphic violence in some of scripture’s great stories are grounds for leaving it behind. Rather they call us to listen, read, and hear deeply, what the Spirit is saying to her people.

In Matthew 18 Jesus tells a story to answer Peter’s question how often he has to forgive his sister or bother, meaning another Christian. Rather than focus on this text as a how-to-resolve-conflict-in-the-Church resource, which is a fine reading, I want to point out that Peter is talking about a world in which there is still an us and a them. He feels no moral responsibility to anyone outside their circle. He doesn’t consider that he has an ethical obligation to them the same as he does to those who are part of his community. Forgiveness is what God demands; it is justice in this text. And Peter like too many folk in our justice system and wider society have different ideas about justice when it comes to us and them.

In response to Peter’s question Jesus tells the story of a king and his slaves, their debt, and its consequences presenting an opportunity for us to examine the way we read scripture then to read more deeply. For example, we hear Jesus tell a story about a king and may get ahead of ourselves and say, “I know how this works. God is king. Done. Got it. Next.” But is the king in this parable God? I sure hope not. Just because Jesus is telling the story and using this character to teach us doesn’t make the king God or even a good example to follow.

Look at this guy. The king’s first impulse when his slave fails is to sell him, his wife, and their children. That is the opposite of the God who saves, delivers, redeems, and liberates though we hear this kind of theology all the time, in and out of the bible. I don’t believe in a God who sells people into slavery to punish them. Then, when the king hears that the first slave failed to show the mercy he was shown, the king had him tortured. That is not my God. But there are many who believe in a God who punishes with tornado and hurricane and every bad thing that befalls a person or community. You can hear them on TV blaming the storms or earthquakes or devastating diseases on other people and their supposed or imagined sins. The king in this parable makes an insufficient, inadequate and, unworthy God. We can look to him no more for justice than we can look to a society that has not exorcised the demon of white supremacy for justice.

The gospel in the text is not that God is a king who can do whatever he wants to a person so you’d better watch out, that is a deeply impoverished theology. Rather, the gospel in the text is that even a person of immense privilege whose wealth results from the exploitation of other human beings is made in the image of God and has the capacity to do the right thing which the king demonstrates in forgiving his slave. Yes, the gospel is that we ought to forgive one another, especially in the church but a deep reading reveals so much more. The gospel is also that the king relinquishes his claim on some of the benefits conferred on him by the privilege he held in an unjust society. And the gospel is that however much privilege you have in society when you’re not at the top, you still have the agency and holy responsibility to act justly, particularly to those who are vulnerable.

This gospel also tells us what we already know, that people who are ground down by oppression oppress others in turn. That helps me understand the passage in Exodus. Israel who had been enslaved and oppressed, defeated, conquered, occupied, deported and occupied again and again by the Egyptians, Assyrians and Babylonians and later the Persians, Greeks and Romans, tells its sacred stories in such a way that they could envision a god who would not forgive what they could not.

Yet God is present in that troubling text, in the waters and on the dry land, with the drowning Egyptians and with the liberated Israelites. God is present in all of creation and with all of her children. She reminds us we are not limited by our history and need not be hindered by our heritage. More importantly, God is not limited by or to our limitations, imagination or theology. The God who loves invites us into relationship with her and each other and in that space there is no enemy, friend, sister, brother, king or slave, only Love, the Beloved, and those who love. Amen.

 

The Woman Who Changed Jesus

 

There are certain ways that the church tends to focus on the humanity of Jesus, especially at certain times of the year. I’ve just spent a week and Bethlehem and have Advent and Christmas on my mind. At Advent we marvel that the fullness of God could be contained in a tiny baby with clutching fingers and curling toes. For some of the ancients, it was a scandal that God was nourished in and passed through intimate womanflesh. In Passion Week we contemplate the horror of a crucified God, tortured and executed by an unjust state, placed back in the arms of the mother who nursed him, and who watched him die. In between we make note of the signs of his humanity and mortality: his hunger, thirst, and naps, his friendships with their attendant joys and sorrows, weddings and funerals, and even sneaking off as a child and exasperating his mother.

I have not heard a lot of reflection or speculation on Jesus’s humanity beyond what is indicated by the holy texts. It seems we don’t like to think of his humanity in terms that make us uncomfortable, particularly those aspects of ourselves with which we still wrestle, like sexuality and sexual orientation. We don’t talk in the church about what it means that Jesus was an adult sexually mature human male who survived puberty with all of its impulses and urges. Did he suffer the indignity of his voice cracking when he told his mother he was about his Father’s business? Did he have that one pimple that just wouldn’t go away? To be human is to be at turns itchy and scratchy and dirty and smelly. The incarnation is a much more down to earth gospel than we may be comfortable imagining.

First, Jesus went to the beach, as you do. Because Galilee is hot—not as hot as Texas, I literally went to the Middle East to get a break from the Texas heat. But the Galil is hot, two changes of clothes a day hot—in August, but we really don’t know when this was. Even in the winter chill the beach is still a destination for some. If you look a map of Israel in the first century, you’ll notice not only that Tyre and Sidon are sea towns, but perhaps more importantly, they are outside of Herod’s territory. Jesus just wanted to get away and stay off of the police radar.

Here he is on vacation, low key famous, perhaps infamous, and here comes a woman calling, yelling, after him. Not just any woman, a Canaanite woman. Jesus was fully but not generically human. He was a first century Palestinian Jewish man who was religiously observant and a product of his culture, including its biases. Israel claimed God had given them Canaanite land, a notion the Canaanites did not share, and Israel occupied the land of Canaan every bit as much as Rome occupied Israel. Add to that the Israelite notions about Canaanites were no more generous than Roman ideas about the Jews. Perhaps more germane to us, as a Canaanite, specifically a Phoenician, she was a Gentile—like us—and Jesus is not shy about his opinions of Gentiles in Matthew’s gospel.

Initially, Jesus did not seem to understand his ministry to be to the Gentiles, to us. He says to his disciples earlier in this same gospel (Matthew 10:5-6): Do not go any way leading to Gentiles, and do not enter any Samaritan town, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. All of the ministry that follows is to be to his people. Not us. Jesus has decided who will receive the gospel and we are not on the list.

He also says (Matthew 5:47): If you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” That is not a compliment. (Matthew 6:7-8): When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them… That’s not very nice either. (Matthew 6:31-32): Do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. Whatever you do, don’t pray like a Gentile. And notice that in Jesus’s language, God is their heavenly Father, [not ours. At least not yet.]

Some of you may need to release the death grip you have on your pearls right about now. You might be thinking, “I believe in the Incarnation, but this Jesus is a little too human.” To be human is not actually such a bad thing—I say from experience. For to be human is to be made in the image of God with something of her capacity to love, and to be human is to learn and grow and change, to open up our hearts and minds, expand our beliefs and relinquish our biases. I believe Jesus shares some of this with us else he wouldn’t be fully human.

We are at our best as human beings when we listen to and learn from someone who is so different from us that everything in our culture and raising tells us she is other. This woman whose name isn’t important to the gospel—just her otherness—is in the land of her ancestors to which the Israelites and their Jewish descendants were more recent arrivals. But they see her as foreign—like Mexicans in Texas. She cries out that she needs help for her daughter. She is a desperate mother. Her child is afflicted by something that prevents her from living fully in the image of God. Something in her is broken in some way, physically, spiritually, emotionally, psychologically. And Jesus doesn’t say a mumbling word. He ignores her.

Right about now I want to pull Jesus to the side and have a few words with him. In my prayers, I say all those things. It helps me and doesn’t hurt him. Since he doesn’t acknowledge her, his disciples take a cue from him and urge him to get rid of her because she keeps yelling, after them. Not one of them asked if he would or could help or why he wouldn’t. Then Jesus says what he has said before, I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. The gospel doesn’t say that he says those words to her. He just says it loud enough for her to hear. She is undeterred. You could say that she persisted.

She kneels at his smelly, dusty, human, man feet to beg the man from another culture who hasn’t said one word to her to help her daughter. She begs him again, Lord help me. The gospels use “lord” (capital L) as a religious title for God and therefore Jesus, but it is also the title of slave masters, which is why I don’t use it in my prayers. At the same time she is the image of the faithful Christian petitioning her Lord—though from the Israelite and Jewish perspective she would have been considered an idolater—she is also a free woman abasing herself at the feet of a man from the historic enemies of her people like a slave. Her people worshipped Baal and the Phoenician god Melkart. Yet here she is at the feet of Jesus, calling him Lord.

Finally Jesus speaks. I would help you but… He doesn’t say that part aloud but I can hear it behind the gospel text. He says, It isn’t fair to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs. She and her daughter are dogs in his proverb and in his mouth. Ancient Israelites and Jews in the first century and rabbinic period despised dogs. They were unclean scavengers that ate dead flesh. An orthodox rabbi once told me he’d even never heard of an orthodox rabbi who owned a dog. Jesus has for all intents and purposes called this woman a bitch and she leans in to his proverb to turn it back on him. She said, Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their lord’s table. She uses the same word, lord, throughout I believe challenging him to show what kind of “lord” he will be. Loving God or slavemaster?

In that moment, something happened to and in Jesus. He starts looking and sounding like the Jesus we know and love. He praises her faith—faith in him as Lord? Faith that as a man who had his own mother he would do the right thing? Faith that whatever it was she had heard about the man called the Son of David was true? Faith that there was more to him than the first impression suggested?—He healed her daughter in that very moment.

She left that place with her daughter (whom we never see and don’t know was even present) restored to wholeness, and Jesus left that place walking towards a whole new understanding of his ministry. The closing words of this gospel, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations…” teach us that Jesus has made room at the table for everyone, Jew and Gentile alike, because, I believe, of this woman.

In spite of the open welcoming arms of Jesus, everyone hasn’t always been welcome at the table, not in the United States, not in the Church. We have a history of genocide here, particularly in the West, including right here in Texas; the attempted eradication of Native Americans was largely successful for many tribal communities. And we have our own holocaust, the Maafa, the Middle Passage during which two million Africans died before they reached these shores in chains and another 10-15 million died on forced marches between the dock and auction block. Twelve to seventeen million who didn’t survive long enough to be enslaved. (The Digital History Project from the School of Education at the University of Houston)

And we have our own history of white supremacy in the Church, nor all of which is history. The creation and deployment of white jesus remain an enduring witness to a theology and world view that not only misrepresents Jesus and his Afro-Asiatic people but conflates whiteness and divinity.

Our history is an open wound bleeding all over our hopes and dreams, so long untended that its infection is poisoning the whole body. We have not learned from Israel who survived a holocaust, Germany who perpetrated a holocaust or Rwanda who survived and perpetrated a holocaust that you have to confront it. Tell the stories, learn from them, lament them. In the language of the church, confess, and repent. Silence about our sins breeds the corruption that lies about or denies who we are and what we have done.

One of the truths we have to tell is that the bible is a slaveholding document from a slaveholding era. We have to tell the truth that the bible justifies the Israelite’s terrible ethnic biases and even ethnic cleansings, against other peoples in the name of God, and that we used that language to justify slavery an these shores and wiping out our own Canaanites. And, we have to tell the truth that Jesus never condemned slavery, used the language of slavery as though it was normal, and in some cases, healed or raised folk who then went back to being slaves. [That’s really hard for me because I sing with my ancestors: Before I’d be a slave I’ll be buried in my grave and go home to my Lord and be free.].

Yet, this same Jesus also shows us what it is to be human, to wrestle with ancestral legacies of bias. The Syro-Phoenician woman and her daughter are not the only ones who emerge from that encounter changed. Jesus goes forward to proclaim a gospel in which all are welcome to the table because as one social media commentator put it: She taught him that Syro-Phoenician lives matter. Amen.

Post script: For a recent humorous take on Jesus’s humanity, see this Darin Bell comic.

 

Walled In

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today my friend and colleague took me on a tour of the wall around Bethlehem. The Israelis I spoke with on the interfaith listening trip said often only five percent of the wall—they prefer security fence or barrier—is a wall; the rest is a fence. In Bethlehem they say one hundred percent of the barrier around the city is a wall.

I had a much more emotional response to what I saw and the narrative I heard here in Bethlehem. I am not a disinterested reporter. The plight of the Palestinian people living under occupation touches me deeply. Here I resist saying what in the Israeli narrative touches me. There is no competition. There is no binary. There is no parity. And I believe the impulse, and often demand, to treat each side the same in discourse disregards the hierarchical nature of the relationship and engagement between the two peoples. 

There is a kinship between black people and Palestinian peoples that stems from our origins on the same continent and similar experiences of occupation and justice struggles from apartheid to the Black Lives Matter movement. It is a common understanding that (former) Prime Minister Sharon went to South Africa to study apartheid and imported the bantustan system to Palestine.

The wall represents a craven land grab to the Palestinian people. One that is continuing. The wall is being rebuilt, moved, to take more of Palestinian land. By some accounts, eighty six percent of Bethehemite (mostly Christian land) has been walled off on the Israeli side. The wall is often right against people’s houses, cutting them off completely from their land, or immediately adjacent to the road with not even a sidewalk. Even though they are still the owners of some of that land on paper, they are not allowed access to it and when their olive trees fail and the land lies fallow it is often seized. The Bethlehemite lands become available for the Israeli settlements that are growing right up to their newly imposed borders. 

 

The pastor I spoke with lamented that this generation of children don’t know the green Bethlehem of his youth. Every square (remaining) inch is built on and build up into multi-story buildings because they can’t expand sideways. There is real concern about the impact of walling so many people in with increasing population, static or reducing space, and increasingly limited employment opportunities. These mechanisms of the occupation are systemically violent and often neglected when physical mechanical violence by individual Palestinians is condemned. Violence takes many forms here. Even so, my colleague calls for creative and non-violent resistance, not violent resistance. He sees no victory in using the sword of the empire and enriching arms dealers.

We talked about what the future might bring. There is little belief in a two or even one state system anymore. He raised the possibility of a three or four state eventuality. Israel, Gaza, the West Bank and, perhaps a settler state in the middle of the West Bank. According to Human Rights Watch [map], there are some 500,000 settlers in 237 settlements in the West Bank. They are connected by private bypass roads that bypass Palestinian towns and villages, living them a singular footprint.

Our talk and tour did not leave me with a lot of hope for the future. Survival and endurance are the order of the day. And in the midst, finding beauty and joy, living as fully as possible, and resisting the occupation and proclaiming its evil to everyone who will listen.

That doesn’t feel like enough to me.

I have my loved my time here in Bethlehem’s Old City where I can’t see the wall and there is an underground water tank so we don’t suffer water shortages from the rationing. 

Today at the Church of the Nativity, some young Palestinians asked me if would record a statement supporting freedom of movement for Palestinian people. I did. Freedom of movement. The ability to leave one’s home town to marry, work, go to school, shop, or travel the world. That people should have to ask for this basic human dignity angers me. I bear witness to these stories and think of the passes my enslaved and free ancestors needed to move about, the ghettos into which Jews were walled in during World War II (with a special irony), native peoples herded on to reservations in the US, and apartheid. 

In the US now many of us are saying don’t normalize that which is not normal, that which is not decent, that which is not humane. Palestinian occupation has become normalized and that degrades the humanity of everyone involved. 

And now, we are talking about building our own wall…

 

White Supremacy in the White House, in the Church, and in the Streets

Take note of the women and children.

Before folk start issuing calls for racial reconciliation… Again. No.

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.

We haven’t been through that process, as a nation or as the Church in the US or in the West. 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.

 

It is well past time to talk about whiteness in the church–which is white people’s work–but because white people are not doing it adequately or sufficiently it falls to people of color. It is not easy. It is not nice. It is work. It is difficult work. Which perhaps is why it is often left to people of color who can then be blamed and dismissed for the feelings it generates.

Whiteness is the unspoken norm against which everyone else is defined. The categories of race and ethnicity were invented to articulate how other people differ from the persons constructed as the standard, normative, default or base model of humanity. 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. Christ is the light of the world. The light that overcomes darkness. Light and dark are antithetical, one vanquishes the other. It does not matter that light is not white and dark is not black. There are light and dark shades of human flesh so the struggle of light against darkness has been mapped onto human bodies and provided the rhetoric for civilizing the dark heart of Africa with slavery and the light of Christianity, conveniently ignoring the most ancient Christian tradition, Egyptian Coptic Christianity. We can’t escape that language in our scriptures but we can take care how we use it, how we preach it. The mechanism that enforces whiteness as the norm in and out of the church is white supremacy.

The doctrine of white supremacy is for me best articulated by philosopher David Hume in his Essays: Moral, Political and Literary:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all the other species of men (for there are four or five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences. On the other hand, the most rude and barbarous of the whites, such as the ancient Germans, the present Tartars, have still something eminent about them, in their valour, form of government, or some other particular. Such a uniform and constant difference could not happen, in so many countries and ages, if nature had not made an original distinction betwixt these breeds of men. Not to mention our colonies, there are Negroe slaves dispersed all over Europe, of which none ever discovered any symptoms of ingenuity; tho’ low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish themselves in every profession. In Jamaica indeed they talk of one negroe as a man of parts and learning; but ‘tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.

This is the ideology that is in the White House in there person of the president who welcomed and cultivated the support of white supremacist groups from the Klu Klux Klan to neo-Nazis and appointed some of them as his advisors. This is the ideology that worships at the altar of the Confederate treason and will kill to protect its icons. This is the ideology that has murdered—crucified, lynched—castrated and raped black children, women, and men, and Jews and Latinos, and the occasional white folk labeled race traitors. This is the ideology held by the folk who beat protestors and clergy and murdered a man and injured others in a domestic terror attack in Charlottesville. White supremacy are the words the president refuses to say while he governs because of its voting power.

The role of white supremacy in the church is neither accidental nor incidental. The role of the Church in the carving up and colonization of Africa, Asia and the Americas is history many white folk and churches don’t bother teaching or learning. That is white privilege. I won’t spoon feed it here. The Church is also implicated in the settling of this continent articulated in the language of the settlement of Canaan providing divine sanction for the genocide of its inhabitants just like Joshua alleges happened to the peoples of Canaan. And then there is the way the church and every other American institution has profited materially from slave labor and the exploitation and plundering of black wealth. (Google 15 major corporations you never knew benefitted from slave labor; look up medical experimentation on black people.) 

White 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. Jesus is Jesus. But Black Jesus is extra.

Historically, the whitening of the holy served to identify the holy with whiteness against all others explicitly and intentionally. Some of what is at stake in talking about the biblical world as “the Middle East” and not the confluence of Africa and Asia, is claiming ancient Israel and its theological significance and ancient Egypt and its cultural significance as white. Ancient Israel and its peoples, like its languages are Afro-Asiatic. The African and Syrian tectonic plates come together in the Great Rift Valley in which the Jordan River lies. The valley runs from the Nile River Valley in Egypt—which is in Africa—to the Zambezi River Valley in Zimbabwe. Ancient Israel straddled the Jordan with the bulk on the cis-Jordan, African side, i.e. Galilee and Jerusalem, and only the territorial holdings of Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh on the trans-Jordan, Syrian side. Contemporarily the Jordan is the boundary between Israel and Jordan and the West Bank and Jordan so that Israel and the Palestinian territories are all on the African side.

Contemporarily white iconography continues the work of whitening the scriptures (as did its classical forbears), 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. Seeing 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? Of course some churches use dark bread, and have multicultural art and icons whether their people are people of color or people of pallor. I’m talking about the dominant construction of God in the Church, in our nation and in the Western dominated world, those places where Christianity coincided happily, prosperously and intentionally with slavery and colonization and in which the cry of Black Lives Matter is all too often muted to All Lives Matter or combatted with Blue Lives Matter. 

There is a direct line from whiteness to domination in and out of the Church. Decentering whiteness requires centering black and brown iconography – not adding a piece or two or more, but dethroning white jesus and casting him out as the idol of white supremacy that he is.

We will never dismantle white supremacy in the White House, in the Church or in the streets if we dare not say its name.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[The text of this post was adapted from two of my prior public lectures at predominantly white churches.] 

Beginning in Bethlehem

I got the number of a cab company and crossed smoothly in to Bethlehem. In all honesty the IDF (Israeli Defense Force) is more concerned with who comes out of the Palestinian Territories into to Israel than who goes in. 

I arrived at the Diyar Consortium, a (Lutheran) church based organization that serves the people of the region without regard to religion, providing education in the arts, leadership and civic engagement, education and enrichment for children and youth, elder services, and a robust publishing arm focusing on Palestinian history. The Consortium is affiliated with Dar al-Kalima University which specializes in fine arts.

Unlike my trip to Israel, I have neither formal program nor fellow travelers. My informal plan is to immerse myself in this Palestinian community and shadow my friend and colleague, the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb, prolific author, speaker and pastor.

Tonight there was a concert with a second generation Palestinian American who retuned home. Her own songs mixed with Cold Play, Sam Smith, Amy Winehouse and Elvis. Then there was conversation and bible talk with a Catholic youth group comprised of visitors from Spain and Palestinian youth. It was a masterclass in accessible Palestinian hermeneutics. (Some quotes, some paraphrase and some expansions follow.)

– The bible is a Palestinian document and should be stamped “Made in Palestine.”
– The bible (as a collection) begins in and is written under occupation.
– The bible is anti-imperial literature.
– The interdiction of the sages by Herod was an act of empire flexing its will to interrogate travelers at the checkpoint because of who they were and who they were going to see, as happens now at the crossings between the Palestinian Authority and Israel.
– Joseph and Mary went to be registered because it was the requirement of the empire to manage and profit off of the subjugated population.
– Proof of registration in the text is like the magnetic card that Palestinians need to cross into Israel.
– There is hope that empires can be redeemed, see Jonah and the lion and the lamb in Isaiah.
– Jonah runs away from his call to preach repentance to the empire because he known it may well repent and he carries so much anger, hurt, and trauma that he is not ready to move forward into another paradigm.
– The lion who lies down with the lamb represents the empire. In order for the two to lie down in safety the lion will have to be completely transformed, its essential nature re-created.

I am so grateful to be here, to live—sleep and wake and sleep and wake again and again. I look forward to the next iteration my introduction to the Hebrew Bible course and perhaps a course on Palestinian hermeneutics.

Zionist, Settler, Israeli Stories

“Zionist” is regarded as a slur in many of the spaces in which I find myself. Settlers are regarded as (nearly) single-handedly destroying the peace process in those same spaces—inhabited by Jews as well as Muslins, Christians and non-religious folk. So it was a visceral shock to hear several of our speakers describe themselves as Zionist settlers, even though I knew the word has a variety of implications including normative Israeli patriotism.

I am here in Israel to hear stories from Israeli and Palestinian voices as a way to promote coexistence and peace-making. So I listened to hear and understand. But I am not a blank slate so I hear in concert with my own internal voices and try to hold the two streams in respectful conversation.

It was helpful for me to hear settlers talk about how they understood settling, as occupation=habitation, not colonialism as do the Palestinians and many in the West and some in Israel. They spoke of the importance of Hebron (in the West Bank) as the home of Abraham and the other locations of so much of the Hebrew Bible’s narratives drawing them home to fulfill a mission to inhabit the land. They also acknowledged that their religious narrative was not the only narrative and that they were—at different paces—listening to the narratives of Palestinians. 

I also got a feel for the/a Israeli pioneering narrative, occupying/settling the land to cultivate it border to contested border to fulfill a calling to (re)build a nation. What was missing was the early (1943-1945) understanding of how the people in the land could be expected to respond to mass immigration and nation-building in their midst. Someone mentioned the slogan, “A people with no land and a land with no people.” (I could not help but think of similarities between the Afrikaner mythos and that of Israel here as with the roads that bypass the Palestinians.) 

The settlers talked about how isolated the two communities are, particularly since the erection of the security barrier. I was surprised to learn how isolated they truly are. The settlers didn’t know that there were Palestinian villages one and six miles from them. There was no way to drive to or by those villages; the Israeli roads go from settlement to settlement to Jerusalem bypassing Arab villages. They have no casual interactions with the exception of labor. As the Israeli journalist who accompanied us to the West Bank today said, “Palestinians built Israel.” They are a significant portion of the workers in hotel and restaurants and construction. Yet there are virtually no places (but one market and one intentional program) to be in the same place on the same footing.

I also gained an understanding of the layers of trauma with which many Israelis live as a part of their national story: The enduring horror of the Holocaust, particularly poignant in the missing elders and all that was lost with them, the sense of the miraculous after the 6 Day war dashed by the losses in the 72 war, the pervasive terror unleashed by the bombings in the Second Intifada from 2000-2005, and the accompanying and continuing rocket, mortar and sniper attacks—all on civilian communities, sometimes deliberately targeting children. The man who designed and implemented the security border—wall and high tech fencing—oriented us to it and communicated the desperation, trauma and terror that led to its implementation. These things helped me to hear and understand the Israeli story from Israeli perspectives even as I critique some of what I heard and hold it in tension with what our Palestinian conversation partners shared. It helped me to hear them that they acknowledged the reality of the occupation with that word.

There is not surprisingly a lot of anger towards the Palestinians, particularly their leadership for not putting an end to the continuing attacks on communities near the Gaza border and for rejecting the Clinton-Olmert plan. They blame the Palestinians for walking away from a viable peace deal.

They spoke of 500,000 settlers and how difficult, nearly or completely impossible it will be to dislodge them. For one that meant the two-state solution was dead, and a one-state solution was on the table but with no easy answers about how to remain culturally and demographically Jewish while granting full rights to the occupied. The other held out hope for a two-state solution against the evidence. Conversations invoked the peaceful transition in South Africa and more difficult one in Ireland, and the evacuation of 100,000 Fresh colonists in Algeria.

They seem to want to write an end for their story that will result in peace and dignity for all but each question/chapter is still unresolved and there are some sacrifices they will not make. Nationalist zionism, a particular Jewish/Israeli hermeneutic, lingering trauma, anger, and fear are the lenses through which I hear the Israeli story. It is as are all stories, more complicated than any one presentation.

[I am on my way to Bethlehem to immerse myself in the Palestinian story since this trip was far more one-sided than I was led to believe and the Palestinian story was mediated more than once through Israeli voices, and when in a Palestinian voice sometimes rebutted. Stay tuned for that reflection.]