Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

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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.] 


Pilgrimage of Prayer

In between conversations and presentations I am going to the most sacred places in my faith, not as a scholar or priest, but as a pilgrim. My companions are my Anglican rosary gifted to me by a sister from my home church, the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas, and a silver medal with the Ten Commandments in Hebrew. They are holy totems, made more precious through the sanctification of the pilgrimage. I have followed the ancient practice of placing them on the most holy touchstones.

The stone in Gethsemane

Golgotha

The stone on which Jesus was laid after his death

The place from which he rose

It does not matter to me if some or any of the traditions around these places is unfounded or even quite wrong. Those places have been bathed in the prayers of the faithful the believed in them or even just hoped there was something to the stories. And God meets her people in those prayers in those places. So they have become sacred.

 


Holocausts and Memorials

The Angel who watches over the Field of Angels at the Whitney Plantation

The sheer scope of the evil manifested in the holocaust is nearly unimaginable. Today’s visit to Yad VaShem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem held the inhumanity of those who planned in meticulous detail to annihilate the Jews of Europe and began carrying out their unfathomable horror in the sharpest contrast with the fragile yet resilient humanity of the Jews who lived in an died in and escaped from and survived the work camps and death camps and marches. The incomprehensible rabidity of the hatred of Jews stupefies me.

The numbers are dizzying: A million and a half children murdered. Zero—because Estonia was declared “Jew free.” An entire population murdered. 500,000 people crammed into the Warsaw Ghetto that held 50,000 the day before. 90% of Poland’s Jews murdered. 

Images I will carry with me: Baby pictures. The pages of testimony—accounts of the live of those stolen. A catalogue of the number of Jews in Europe to facilitate their extinction. Four million names known of those taken from this life. Wall of binders ceiling to floor each with the profoundly spare details of 800 souls.

The pages of testimony of those lost/stolen/murdered had strong resonances for me with my visit to the children’s memorial  at the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana. All of those name plates. And in both cases, no bodies to bury because of the unimaginable cruelty of human beings.

Questions I will take with me: Why did the Poles and Russians turn on their own Jewish citizens with such frenzy? Why did so many of their citizens volunteer to help exterminate the Jews? Why were the North African Jews largely overlooked in the holocaust? Was it because as Africans they were not an affront to the pseudo-Aryan notion of whiteness?

Words I will take with me: “The Nazis were the first holocaust deniers.” The audacity—and not holy womanist audacity—the unmitigated gall to deny the evil work of their guilty hands.

An important conversation and presentation helped me ask who is telling the story, how and why? For example how is the Israeli holocaust museum different from the one in DC? What does the change in perspective mean? E.g. Americans as liberators telling the story versus Israelis as survivors or as those speaking for the dead.

An unexpected response to the anguished question-Why? One of our companions in this conversation drew out the ways some Jews blamed themselves as a people for the Holocaust. From the Satmar Rebbe saying it was punishment for the sins of the people, specifically for Zionism (!) to the early Zionists who said they were not Zionist enough…

How we tell the stories of our sorrows and how we remember our dead reveals who and where we are as much as it says anything about what and who we invoke. Listening to stories about the denigration of the Jews and refusal to recognize them as human, I could not help but think of the many contexts and conflicts in which basic human dignity is denied. We cannot just keep saying “Never again.” 

Lingering thoughts: There was a terrible irony for me in the video of the building of the wall around the Warsaw Ghetto. I cannot not but think of the wall around Bethlehem. With all of the differences in circumstances, there is still something very much similar about them.

Lastly, how to pray in the face of the witness to such great evil, such great suffering, so much sorrow? Walking through the children’s memorial, all I could do was pray each name I heard on a bead of my rosary, remembering the opening words of Exodus, “These are the names…”


Tangled Threads

I am on what I call a deep listening tour in Israel and Palestine with Interfaith Partners for Peace. They have selected threads to weave together in conversation, each of which is connected to other threads, tangled, torn, frayed, yet still revealing shadows and shapes larger and more complex than the frames we have.

Today the threads were:

Conversation with my seat mate on the flight over, a seventy something woman (I guess) who was terrified of flying because of a plane crash that left her widowed with a 10 month-old daughter. Later she explained what happened as “Arafat put a bomb in a suitcase on the plane and blew it up.” Her sorrow and fear are a tight wound still bleeding thread in the tapestry of this place and these peoples.

Riding from the airport in Lod/Tev Aviv-Yafo hearing the geography narrated when our guide points out the valley of Ajalon. I ask him to point out Upper and Lower Beth Horon. I don’t know that I have seen them on previous trips, even form a distance. I am thrilled to have touched such an ancient thread from such a powerful woman in my spiritual ancestry. Those cities are two the the three the scriptures say was built by a woman, Sheerah.

Pilgrimage to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher/Anastasis. It is a place of particularly holy prayer for me. I took my rosary, given by a saint at the African Episcopal Church of Saint Thomas and hallowed it on the touchstones of my faith.

Conversations and presentations wrestling with the future of Israel and Palestine, Jewish settler Zionist voices and one secular Palestinian voice all affirming two indigenous peoples in one land, wrestling with what a political—geographical—just future looks like.

Living with the threads in tension. 


A Seat At The Table

 Have a seat at the table. Whose table is it? Who is issuing the invitation? Can we have a meaningful conversation when one presumes they own the table and the other disputes that claim?

 It may be that no one can sit at that table. We may have to sit somewhere else to figure out what must be done about that table and the very limited number of chairs around it. 


Deep Listening

A Jerusalem rose, Wil Gafney, January 2010

I am returning to a place I love, a place that breaks my heart: Jerusalem.

It’s a complicated place with conflicting and contradictory stories. I am going to listen to some of those stories, as deeply as I can. I will bring my question, hopes, prayers, and beliefs with me. I will try to keep them in my pocket, like the beads of my rosary, to touch for strength and guidance.

Yet is there is any reason in the world to hope, to believe that which cannot be seen or does not adhere to the rules of logic it is Jerusalem where Holiness touched earth.

I am traveling with Interfaith Partners for Peace. Among their commitments these are the ones that carry with me:

We recognize with profound pain the suffering that continues on both sides in the land.  We have precious bonds with Israelis and Palestinians and we hear their voices.  Each and every human being is created in the divine image.  When one person suffers, we all suffer.  

 We recognize that there are multiple narratives in the Arab-Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  We commit to hear narratives that are not our own, and to engage in and encourage deep listening so that we may challenge our assumptions.


Seasons of Sorrow

Reconstruction of the Herodian Temple in Jerusalem at the Israel Museum (Jerusalem)

Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the month of Av, on the Jewish calendar marks a series of sorrows, most notably the multiple destructions of the temple in Jerusalem. It has always struck me as impoverishing that Christians neglect the story of the fall in the lectionary and in non-lectionary preaching as my students over the years have confirmed. 

The fall of the temple is so important in and for the Hebrew Scriptures that I begin my introductory courses there:

The destruction of the temple by Nebuchadnezzar was theologically incomprehensible. Nebuchadnezzar’s assault was as unimaginable as – not the events that we remember from September 11th, for the towers had been struck previously – but rather as unimaginable as the assault on Pearl Harbor, and, as incomprehensible as the bombs we dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and as unfathomable as was Japan’s ultimate surrender to her own citizens.

There was a time when no one could enter the most holy space in the temple except the high priest, and then only once a year. Tradition says that he wore bells so that people would know if he was able to survive in the presence of God and, that he had a rope around him so that if he dropped dead from proximity to the holiness of God, his mortal remains could be pulled out for burial.

And yet, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops not only entered the most holy place, they butchered it with battle axes, hatchets and hammers, chopping it to bits, burning everything that would burn, melting down the gold and silver and bronze for the Babylonian treasury. And they took a few choice vessels, used to worship the God of Israel back to Babylon for the king and his court to toy with.

And there was not even a puff of smoke. There was no strike of holy lightening; no burst of fire from heaven, no hailstones, plagues of Egypt, earthquake or sinkhole; the earth did not swallow them whole. Nothing happened. It was almost as if the temple was empty.

It must have seemed like the stories of Miriam and Moses and the promises God made to their descendents either never happened or were null and void. It may have seemed like the stories of Exodus were irrelevant fairy tales. Imagine, if you can, what it would have been like if the assault on and collapse of the Twin Towers was followed by an assault on and collapse of our government, defeat of our military and forced exile of our citizens: no homes, no jobs, no healthcare, parents separated from children, dead bodies heaped in the streets, everyone subject to robbery, rape – if not murder – on the way to incarceration in an over populated refugee camp with out any social services.

The scriptures of Israel were written in response to the occupation of its smallest surviving enclave by the Babylonians and recorded from oral traditions passed down from one generation to another. In the face of the overwhelming power of the Babylonian military which they touted as proof that their gods were more powerful than Israel’s lone god, in the face of their liturgy and pageantry and against the back-drop of Babylonian scripture, some Israelites were tempted and swayed to adopt Babylonian culture and religion. Others began collecting their own stories of who they were and who is their God.

The only response to such sorrow is lamentation. Indeed the book of Lamentations is the liturgical reading for Tisha B’Av. Christians in the African diaspora also know the power of lament. The most poignant laments I know come from African American spirituals. Sadly, in this world, the songs of lament will never be silenced.


Hidden Figures/Exposed Inequities

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I loved Hidden Figures and cheered throughout and cried at the end. It was powerful. Go and see it and take your children. One my favorite images in the movie was Octavia Spencer as Vaughan under her car in full mechanic mode laying on a tarp with her lovely pump clad legs sticking out from under the car and her skirt. The accomplishments of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan were due to their brilliance, tenacity, nurture of the black community, and opportunities grudgingly granted them but denied most other black people. 
But I was most particularly struck by the depiction of segregation and its impact on black wealth and upward mobility. There was no pretense of separate but equal segregated education when engineering courses were only offered at whites-only schools and books on computing were only in the whites-only section of the library, protected by police. (Virginia has a longer, uglier history of closing public schools rather than integrate and white churches opening whites-only schools leaving black folk to fend for themselves and their children with virtually no resources for their tax dollars.)
This intentional under-education, miseducation, and constant changing of job qualifications to exclude African Americans-along with excluding black veterans from the GI Bill-was designed to build the white middle class at the expense of and on the plundered wealth of black folk.
The legacy of segregation left generations of black folk perpetually behind white folk in every social and financial index by design on top of the inequities resulting from slavery, anti-Reconstruction policies, and Jim and Jane Crow.
At the same time the Johnson, Jackson and Vaughan were dealing with entrenched racism they were also dealing with entrenched sexism. (Note the adversarial and antagonistic posture of the white women under the same patriarchal hierarchy. Notice the colored-only bathroom was only addressed when Katherine Johnson’s commute to pee interfered with the larger project.) The idea that there needed to be protocols for women to attend Pentagon briefings or an engineering course wasn’t taught for women-meaning at their level-would be laughable it it weren’t also intentional structural discrimination.
Lastly, as much as these women are being celebrated now and their work was acknowledged to some degree then, don’t miss that Katherine Johnson could not put her own name on her own computations, not even in a subordinate position, and the man whose name was on the report could not do the math. (How did their salaries and benefits compare?) But it was her position in the group that was no longer needed–until they figured out they could not do the moonshot without her.
Hidden Figures was a wonderful, powerful movie that made me so appreciative for the love and nurture of the black community, especially teachers who see and saw what we and our children are capable of and help us succeed against the odds.


Are You My Sister?

rs-trump-crowd

Update: The image (below) I first used for the post was apparently altered by someone else without my knowledge. The original is above. I have decided to keep both. The truth is I and meany others understand “great” in the Trumpian context to mean “white.”

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My bones ache with the memories of white women’s betrayal encoded in their marrow.

Plantation mistresses equally responsible for the rape and ravagement of black girls and women, spinning their savagery into black gold, ever lighter. Brutalizing, burning, maiming, cutting, blinding, disfiguring enslaved black women for having been raped by their husbands, fathers, brothers, sons. Choosing white privilege and white supremacy over humanity and solidarity. And calling it Christian. Their betrayal is in my bones. Passed down through the wombs of my mothers. It greets me in the mirror in my less-than-black black skin.

Suffragettes whose commitment to women’s right to vote included black women as long as it was understood they were there on suffrage and they and their men would be sent to the hungry arms of lynch mobs if their forgot their place, behind white women.

Too many colleagues and coworkers from too many jobs, white before feminist, white before woman, white before colleague, white before scholar, white before administrator. White before all. 

And let us not forget the Church and its good Christian white women. My sisters in Christ. White bread and white Jesus surround you reminding you that you and your lily white skin are created in the image of the white god fantasized and fetishized by your fathers.

Are you my sister?

Or does your whiteness preclude you from seeing me in my blackness as human?

Do not tell me that you are my sister.

You have already shown me who you are.


America, Amerika, Amerikkka

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America has revealed its true colors. Its core values are racism, sexism, misogyny, Islamophobia, transphobia, and xenophobia. White folk, look to your uncles and aunties, sons and sisters. You have heard their jokes around your tables and left them unchallenged. They are you. These are your values. Misanthropy is a pitiful rallying cry.

The fall of the Amerikan empire is inevitable. All empires fall. Often from within. Will we be decimated in its wake?


Matrix of Privilege

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We gather on a day when the ugliness of humanity is on full display in our world. You may feel as I do at times that there is nothing we can do to fix, to heal our world. We cannot prevent people halfway around the world, across the nation or here at home from committing terrible acts of violence. But what we can do is mend the parts of the world that are in our hands, that work is difficult enough. We cannot dismantle the systems that wound and kill, oppress and imprison if we will not see them, admit they exist or that and how we have benefitted from them. Today I invite you to see yourselves, the scriptures and the world differently than you have seen them before.

Who are we when we read the scriptures? Whose eyes do we read through? When we hear Jeremiah lamenting for his people where do we place ourselves in the story? Christians like to read as though we were the Israelites to whom these texts were written because they are spiritual ancestors. But the truth is Christianity is much more like the Assyrian Empire than the Judean monarchy that survived it. Christianity became an imperial religion and like the Assyrian Empire invaded and enslaved and plundered. We also read as Americans but it has not been the experience of America to be invaded and occupied, to have our land stolen, our people enslaved and stolen to serve in bondage in a foreign land. It is easier for some Americans to read as Judah, Native Americans still living with foreign occupation can read as Judah. African Americans can read with Judah. But other Christians need to ask themselves difficult questions about power and privilege.

Our national and church conversations about race are also conversations about privilege and power. We must all learn to ask where the privilege and power lies in the text and where it lies in and with us. We are all of us, American and Christian empowered as the dominant group, society reflects our values and holidays whatever our numbers. Some of us have heterosexual privilege; the world assumes we are normal. Some have white privilege and male privilege. Some have able bodies and the ease of mobilities. Many of us have both privilege and peril at the same time and some have multiple markers of vulnerability.

These are hard conversations. Once we open our eyes to the issues at stake we will see them everywhere, even in the scriptures. It is a bit like taking the red pill in the Matrix, we will never be able to unsee the world as it is. We long for the blue pill and tell ourselves that ignorance is bliss. We were happier before people started talking about race all the time, even in church. Maybe not happy, more like oblivious, oblivious to the deaths that you did not see because no one stopped traffic and screamed “Black Lives Matter!”

Who can read as Jeremiah today? Let us listen again: [Gafney translation]

My joy is gone. Grief weighs heavy on me. My heart is sick.
Listen! The cry of my people far and wide—across the land:
Where is God? Is She not in her place?…
Do we not have the best medicine? Doctors?
Why then have my people not been restored to health?
If only my throat were a waterfall and my eyes rivers of water.
Then I might weep day and night for the murdered souls among my people.

Jeremiah’s people had barely survived the Assyrian onslaught. At one point things were so bad King Hezekiah gave the Assyrians all of the silver and gold in the temple and when that wasn’t enough, he had his servants peel the silver off the doors of the temple. The rest of Israel did not survive the Assyrians. The other eleven tribes were invaded, conquered, disassembled, deported, dispersed, disappeared. The people to whom Jeremiah was prophesying were vulnerable. Judah was no longer a truly independent nation. They had a king but were in bondage to the Babylonians who defeated the Assyrians and seized their holdings including Judah. This is not the American experience. This is not the experience of most Christians in the United States or in the West. But it is the experience of Native peoples here in the American west, throughout North, Central and South America, and of peoples throughout Africa and Asia.

How are we to read the scriptures as our scriptures when the stories are not always our stories? Let me tell you, as a woman and as a woman who is the descendant of slaves, there are many stories in the bible that are not my stories, yet the scriptures are still my scriptures. When Jeremiah says he weeps for his murdered people, I see the bodies of my murdered people, in the streets, in their homes, like little Aiynna Stanley Jones—seven years old, shot by a police officer while she slept on the couch. He said it was an accident. He said it was her grandmother’s fault. He was indicted and all charges were dropped. And a seven year-old little girl didn’t get to hug her grandmother on her eight birthday because a policeman shot her. The Babylonian soldiers were the agents of the legal government. There was no one to hold them accountable either. The only tool Jeremiah had available to him was lament. So he wept.

If only my throat were a waterfall and my eyes rivers of water.
Then I might weep day and night for the murdered souls among my people.
Lament is a powerful tool. It is a prophetic response to grief. It heals, transforms and empowers.

Psalm 79 tells the story of what happened next to Jeremiah’s people: The Babylonian invaded. Psalm 79 tells the story of the assault on the temple. The Babylonians tore it apart with hammers and axes. They stole everything that they wanted and burned the rest. The toppled the government and the military and enslaved or deported the people. We have never experienced anything like that in the United States. No terrorist attack has destroyed our government and military. But we have toppled governments and left other nations in ruins. How de we read the psalm, we who have soldiers in a hundred different nations, some of whom don’t want us there? Perhaps we are not the Judeans, but the Babylonians. Who can pray this psalm with Judeans? What happens when Native Americans, whose holy places were just bulldozed by the Army Corps of Engineers to build a now-stopped pipeline, pray this psalm?

And what of the gospel? There the lines of privilege and peril are social and economic. Wealth is privilege. Neither privilege or wealth are evil—notice the rich man for whom the dishonest manager works is not condemned for his wealth. But wealth and privilege do come with responsibility. Privilege is access. My systematic theology professor Kelly Brown Douglas, a priest in our church, taught us to think of privilege as seats in an arena: Some have courtside seats passed down to them that they did not earn. Other folk who might like those seats and have saved enough to buy them will never get the chance because circumstances of birth mean they will never get the chance.

This is the way the legacy of slavery works. As a whole, black people in the United States are financially behind white people in the United States no matter how many individual rich black performers and athletes we can name. At the end of the Civil War many freed persons had no source of income and were forced into wage theft sharecropping in which they had to pay to live in their former slave cabins, and pay for food, tools and clothing, and found themselves in debt they could never pay off. At the same time laws were passed that enabled the seizure and imprisonment of black folk who were not working who could then be sold for labor as a prison gang—but slavery was over. The GI Bill more than any other tool in modern history helped poor and working class white men and their families move into the middle class but black veterans were initially excluded. Unions often excluded blacks in the early days. Each of these practices and many in between meant that no matter how hard they worked black folk could not keep, invest or pass down the overwhelming bulk of what they produced. The disparities in wealth, wellbeing and social standing between ethnic groups in this country isn’t about meanness or individual acts of bigotry. It is the result of centuries of discrimination, profiteering and the plundering of black wealth and labor.

The question our gospel asks through the character of the dishonest manager is what are you doing with your privilege? The manager is bit of a buffoon. He was a terrible employee. He was dishonest. He also used the privilege he had to oppress the people who were in debt to his boss. Debt collectors collected as much as they could and got to keep the difference. That’s just the way things worked back then. Everyone did it. Just like slavery. And just like slavery, there were people who knew it wasn’t right. People who benefitted from it could not imagine their lives without it. When his job is called into question, the manager cut the interest on his master’s loans and just collects the principle in hopes someone will remember his “kindness” and take him in if he gets thrown out on the street. And someone may. Someone may be a better person than he has been. One point of his story is not that you should cook the books, but that it is never too late to do the right thing. Jesus also makes an unpleasant point: no matter how badly money has been made, you can still use it for good things.

I’d like to end with the rich man who Jesus doesn’t critique. He doesn’t get off the hook in my book because wealth and privilege come with responsibility and I am going to hold him accountable even if Jesus doesn’t do so in the parable. The uncritiqued rich man in the gospel did what everyone did. He hired someone to run his business enterprise. He didn’t get his hands dirty with the day-to-day management of his holdings. But he is responsible for what was being done in his name and on his behalf. He was profiting off of the exploitation of the families his manager was cheating.

As I close I invite you to think about the ways in which you are profiting and have profited off of the labor and exploitation of other people whether you knew it or not: If someone in your family got a first generation GI Bill or admitted to a union that didn’t admit black or Hispanic people, you reaped some benefit that accrues interest and passes down to the next generation. I want to invite you to consider your stewardship of your privilege as you consider the stewardship of your fiscal and temporal resources.

Luke 16:10 “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. 11 If then you have not been faithful with the dishonest wealth [and privilege], who will entrust to you the true riches? 12 And if you have not been faithful with what belongs to another, who will give you what is your own? 13 No slave can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God, wealth [and privilege.”]

Amen.


#What2Preach When Blood Is Running in the Street?

black-lives-matter-african-americans-killed-by-police-2016On 14 December 2012 (my father’s birthday) I posted an angry tweet about pastors who didn’t know what to say in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shooting sit down rather than preach something stupid like God needed more angels. Someone asked me what to preach instead, a serious question as they were struggling with the horror and the assigned texts in the preaching lectionary used by many Christian denominations. I held my first-ever tweetchat using the hashtag #what2preach.

I have brought that hashtag back after shooting after shooting and atrocity after atrocity. I realized today that it has become a macabre protocol for me as a priest, seminary professor and biblical scholar to help other priests and pastors who are struggling to proclaim a meaningful word in God’s name.

And Goddammit– yes, may God damn and curse the murderous violence in our society to the pits of hell – God damn it we are here again.

#what2preach…

Preach the truth: There are hard, ugly truths to confront in our preaching: an enduring history of American violence and its legacy, the history of race, racism and racialized violence in America, access to guns and military weapons in particular. This will be hard to do if you have never addressed these truths before.

Preach the context: Cooption of one #BlackLivesMatter protest among many simultaneous BLM protests around the country because of two more killings of black men by police on video that depicts the killings as little more than assassinations. If you have never preached about BLM before you will need to introduce it to your congregation in its own words, not the words or opinions of others. You will need to do some homework and I won’t do that for you.

Preach to your context: Sermons in white, multiracial, lightly integrated and black congregations will be and should be different because we do not have the same experiences of being American and encountering police. Some will have the luxury generated by white privilege to construct a service of lament for the murdered officers without any regard to the larger context. That may be what your congregation wants and expects. Preaching to your context doesn’t mean doing what they want; what they want is not always what they need.

Avoid religious tropes: Folk waiting for Jesus to make this right are dying and being killed. God’s love extends to all but so what. We may believe that God will exact perfect justice in the world to come but we live in this one. Prayer is powerful but it is too often used as an excuse to avoid doing the difficult work of holding our society accountable for its ills and working to dismantle and rebuild it. Jesus’ execution and triumph over death are the powerful heart of the Christian faith and need to be more than a sermonic flourish or rhetorical performance to be relevant.

Exorcise the demonic: Name the evils in our midst – white supremacy, systemic racism, interpersonal racism, callous disregard for human life, corrupt authorities and legal systems, murder, hate.

Heal the hurt: Begin the process – you are not responsible for all of it or even finishing it. The healing process begins with creating the space for healing and naming the hurts. Acknowledge the deep pain and fear. Address the grief and anger of the police officers and their families in Dallas any the larger police community. Address the fear, anger and rage of the black community in the face of continuing recorded police killings for where there are few indictments and even fewer convictions. Give voice to the pain. Lament and let the lament be unresolved. This lament will endure.

Wrestle with the text: If a text doesn’t fit, don’t use it. Don’t contort the text. Change texts if need be. Don’t be so enslaved to a preaching cycle that you abdicate your responsibility to proclaim a living word. Don’t choose a fallback text that is irrelevant because you’ve worked out some sermonic theatre.

Theologize well: Where is God in all of this? In the killings of black folk? In the lack of justice for their deaths? In the rage of the black community? In the decision to spawn murder from that rage? In the killing and wounding of police officers and civilians? In the response of congregations and civil society to all of these acts of violence and the society that produces them? What enduring truths will give meaningful comfort without scapegoating or being cliché?

Offer hope: Stand on the promises and convictions of your faith in spite of all of the evidence to the contrary. If you have preached well – or at least honestly and thoughtfully – this will not be heard as meaningful platitudes.

Call to action: What will you and your congregation do to help heal the world that is meaningful and concrete inside and outside of your walls? This will vary depending on the ethnicity of your congregation.

In all of these approaches, it’s all right to say you don’t know. It’s all right to be silent, even and especially when it becomes uncomfortable.

Originally written for RevGalBlogPals  https://revgalblogpals.org/2016/07/08/11th-hour-preacher-party-what2preach-when-blood-is-running-in-the-streets/


Prayer for Police Officers

Heavily armed police continue to patrol the neighborhoods of Watertown, Mass. Friday, April 19, 2013, as they continue a massive search for one of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. A second suspect died in the early morning hours after an encounter with law enforcement. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

Heavily armed police continue to patrol the neighborhoods of Watertown, Mass. Friday, April 19, 2013, as they continue a massive search for one of two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing. A second suspect died in the early morning hours after an encounter with law enforcement. (AP Photo/Craig Ruttle)

I am praying for police officers of all races and ethnicities today.

I am praying that they who are so brave in the face violence, anticipated and unanticipated, criminality, terrorism and the unknown would be so brave when they see their sister and brother officers of every race and ethnicity violate the civil and human rights of their sister and brother human beings.

I pray that police officers who stand in the face of certain danger would stand up to their colleagues and culture and protect and serve all of us, equally, under the law.

I pray for the protection of those officers who do speak up at great personal and professional cost. I pray for the protection of their lives and families.

I am praying for police officers today.


Returning to our ROOTS

Both actors played Kunta Kinte

LeVar Burton and Malachi Kirby

I admit that I was disturbed at the news of a ROOTS remake, particularly at the hands of the History Channel that did such violence to the Bible in its whitewashed fan-fiction offering. I was somewhat mollified when I heard LeVar Burton was one of the folk behind it. Then I read Awesomely Luvvie’s (Luvvie Ajayi’s) endorsement. So I decided to watch it for myself with some hopeful anticipation.

ROOTS re-imagined was in a word: searing.

It was beautifully shot and powerfully effective. It was not as impactful on me as the original, nor could or should it have been. The original Roots mini-series was like nothing I or the world had ever seen. Its impact was devastatingly powerful on me as a child, even as a child raised by parents who taught me the unflinching truth about slavery.

Fortunately the new production did not try to recreate the old one but told the story in a new way for a new audience. I did not set out to track differences between the two productions however one stood out to me; Kunta Kinte’s Muslim faith was much more visible. ROOTS is a necessary lesson in American history. I hope families watched with their children as they did before. I hope teachers will incorporate it. I hope clerics will preach about it. I hope America will learn from it.

The musical cultural of the free and enslaved Africans was powerfully portrayed – the use of a trope to sing a subversive conversation about overtaking the slave ship and escaping was breathtakingly beautiful. In it I hear resonances with chanted Torah and Jewish and Christian liturgies and recitation of the Quran. I also loved the way that Kunta and Kizzy were able to connect to their parents across time and space.

I live-tweeted each episode and have storified my tweets. I am not surprised but am disappointed by the number of white apologists for slavery and those white and black folk who want to advocate for a Christianity that doesn’t include slavery, genocide, patriarchy or any other systemic failing so they can hold only individual persons accountable for their sins. We will not have learned the lessons of ROOTS then or now, of our ancestors – enslaved or free – or the history of this nation, the Church or the world if we do not understand that white supremacy and its get are systemic and endemic.

It is apparent to me from the questions and comments I received online that too few white people know the history of slavery in the Atlantic basin, not the fact of it – though there are those who still deny it – the history of daily degradation, malnourishment, torture, rape and incest, maiming, forced breeding, selling of family members and murder. Unlike when ROOTS first aired, the testimonies of former slaves are readily available and scholarship on American chattel slavery is widely accessible. We can’t rely on the educational system to teach meaningfully about slavery. Most of the African American people I know included myself were educated by our parents, other black folk and ourselves. I’m still waiting for white folk especially those who present themselves as allies to do the same in comparable numbers.

Finally let me say something about the truth of ROOTS. ROOTS is not factual in some ways such as the life details, genealogy and identities of some characters. Alex Haley was widely assailed for historical inaccuracies and embellishing. But ROOTS is true. It is true like the bible is true in spite of the places in which is not historically or factually true. Truth is broader, deeper and wider than fact. ROOTS tells the truth about America.


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.

 

 

 

 


Slaughter of the Innocents: A Lament for Tamir

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We are a nation that kills children. We are a nation whose protectors do not protect children. We are a nation whose justice system does not render justice for children.

We failed Tamir. We failed Ayanna. We failed the children of Newtown. We failed every child shot since Newtown. We failed the multitudes of children whose names we will never know in spite of the proliferation of body cameras.

We do not have the excuse of being held in thrall by a tyrant like Herod with an army at his disposal. We have the power of our votes and our voices. What we do not have is collective will. We face a different kind of tyranny with a different kind of army.

Today the church remembers the Holy Innocents slaughtered by Herod as he sought to kill a king whose fame in infancy threatened him: When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Matt 2:16

Herod didn’t invent state-sponsored genocide. Nor did it end with him.

My people are being slaughtered in the street, in our doorways, in our homes, in our beds, in our churches, in jail cells.

We can be murdered in public, on film and then be blamed for our own murder, with none held accountable.

Rachel, the heart-mother of Israel was said to have wept for the slaughter of the Holy Innocents as her spirit did in Jeremiah’s time, (Jer 31:15; Matt 2:18). She refused to be comforted because her children were gone.

These precious children are gone. Whatever you believe about the next life does not change that their lives and gifts here among us have been snatched away in horrific violence, that they died terrified and uncomforted.

I sit with my hand over my mouth because if I take it away I might start screaming and never stop.


What If Jesus Doesn’t Return

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What if Jesus doesn’t come back?
We are waiting. And we have been waiting. We have ritualized our waiting, renewing it every Advent.
But what if Jesus doesn’t come back? I think perhaps it shouldn’t matter.
Our wait is not idle. We work while we wait. Our world is broken and we are mending it. Or are we waiting idly? For what are we waiting? Judgement. Grace. Mercy. To see what the end shall be?
But what if Jesus doesn’t come back? And we knew he weren’t coming back? What would that change? Would we stop working for the betterment of the world?
Why do we feed the hungry? Because Jesus said so? Or even because Jesus did so?
Perhaps we should take a page from our atheist and agnostic friends and feed the hungry because they’re hungry.
If Jesus doesn’t come back, in our lives or at all, it shouldn’t affect us in or out of the church. The world needs folk to care and work.
I think the promise that God will renew all things is a dangerous promise. It can lull us into thinking that God will fix everything by-and-by; the world is too big and too broken for us to fix.
What if we worked to repair the world as though it depended solely on us?
Something is coming, the future.
But if Jesus is coming back wouldn’t it be something for him to find us so busy healing the world we don’t have time to argue about or decode biblical prophecy.

Note: The black ribbon on the Advent wreath proclaims that Black Lives Matter and the Incarnation bears witness to this holy truth.


Terror and Despair

The earth is utterly broken. I have been praying for a long time. I have been praying for a just and peaceful end to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and for safety and security for Israeli and Palestinian people for longer than I can say. I have been praying for peace in the Middle East on a regular basis since the first Gulf War. I have been praying for the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan regularly since the Second Gulf War. I have been praying about and against violent, extremist interpretations of Islam since I first knew what the Taliban was. I have been praying about and against the manipulation of Islam since the bombing of the US embassy in Kenya when I began to learn about Al Qaida. I have been praying about and against the perversion of Islam by Daesh since they started proclaiming themselves as a caliphate and Islamic state founded on rape, decapitation and crucifixion. I have been praying for the people of Syria since I learned about the bombardment of civilians by their own government before the mass exodus.

I have been praying and praying because I know not what else to do. (I’ve written my congress critters and the White House.)

I look at the sheer evil loosed upon the peoples of the world and I despair…the earth is torn asunder… The litany of destruction continues: travelers shot down from the skies over Sinai, Beirut, Bagdad, Paris…the earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken…

I read my sacred text and turn away from those that promise things will get better, eventually, on the cosmic scale. That’s not good enough for me right now.

I need texts that shriek rage with howls I can add to my own.

Right now I don’t want to hear good news. I don’t want to be comforted.

I am grieving.

And screaming.

Isaiah 24:17 Terror, and the pit, and the snare are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
18 Whoever flees at the sound of the terror shall fall into the pit;
and whoever climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble.
19 The earth is utterly broken, the earth is torn asunder, the earth is violently shaken.
20 The earth staggers like a drunkard, it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it, and it falls, and will not rise again.


Weeping With Jerusalem

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Just stop it! This rash of stabbings and vehicle assaults must end. So too must the occupation and explosion of settlements which fuels some of this rage. There must be a just peace in Jerusalem, Israel and Palestine in whatever configuration. That means the cessation of all violence in all of its forms: terroristic actions by persons, policies, governments and their agents, legal fictions and economic violence. Violence on all sides must cease. There is no other way. Just peace.


When Your Womb Hurts You

FEM082Womanists love their wombs. It seems whenever I’m in womanist space women are talking about, talking to, laying hands on their wombs, our wombs, my womb. But you don’t know my womb or its story. And it’s not just my womb or my story. Today I’m going to speak to and for wombs that hurt, wombs that hurt us.

In this room and every room in which womanists celebrate their wombs and their fruit – children and the spiritual, emotional, creative and ancestral conversations and processes that they locate not just in their bodies or bellies but in their wombs, some of us flinch. Some of us hurt. Some of us fold in on ourselves. Some of us hold our heads down in pain and shame even if we don’t move a muscle. Some of us hold our carefully composed masks as your words encircle us, negating our experiences and our truths. Our wombs hurt and they hurt us.

Some of us were born with broken wombs. Some of us were born with dead wombs. Some of us were born without our wombs. Some of us have been attacked by our wombs for as long as we can remember. Some of our wombs were broken into, raped and scraped into inhospitality and infertility when were too young for our wombs to recover. Some of us have wombs that cannot or will not hold onto life – and we have tried, cried, paid and prayed for womb-life. Our wombs trickle, leak and squeeze – in heart and flesh rending pulses – the life out our wombs. Our wombs bleed when they should not, not a cleansing, healing flow but a chunky, membranous, crimson tide running down our legs, staining our clothes, soiling our sheets, embarrassing and humiliating us in public and in private with our partners. Our wombs do not bleed when they should. They do not bleed because we have nothing to nurture with its rich blood. Our wombs don’t bother to bleed because they know we have no eggs, no ovaries or we have ovaries and eggs that are not worth its blood. Some of our wombs hurt so much that they must be taken from us and no matter how much they hurt us we don’t want to let them go.

Some of our wombs hurt because they have been taken away from us and ache for the children they will never bear. Some of our wombs hurt because the life we have given has been snatched away. Some of our wombs hurt because death came for our child and we had to carry that dead body in our body to term and push it into the world in a grotesque parody of the birth we had planned. Some of our wombs hurt because the child we birthed didn’t survive the birthing. She didn’t last the day, the night. He didn’t live a week, a month, a year. Some of our wombs hurt because we can never accept our child’s death at any age. Some of our wombs hurt because they were perfectly healthy and desperately empty having never found anyone to love or be loved by.

Sometimes, hearing our sister and mothers revel in their wombs and accomplishments, our wombs hurt all the more.

For my sisters and mothers whose wombs hurt and hurt them.


Love. Sex. Money. Power. Death.

Adam and EveLove. Sex. Money. Power. Death. All of these things are present in and behind our lessons, particularly the first two, especially if you know where to look. Let us look with eyes wide open at the treasure house of the scriptures and see what they have to say to us across the expanse of time, that we might find a living word from the Living God in these words we share today. Let us pray:

Holy One of Old, open our eyes that we may see and our ears that we may hear. Amen.

[Adam and Eve by James Lewis; Song of Solomon by He Qi]

SongOfSolomon(A) HeQiToday’s lesson from the Song (2:8-13) is part of a larger work celebrates human sexuality as part of God’s good creation. In the Song, the woman and man are in harmony with one another and with the natural world; the brokenness of relationships between humans and, between humans and the earth is healed, (Phyllis Trible in God and the Rhetoric of Sexuality). The garden in the Song is a sustaining oasis nourishing its human, plant and animal occupants. The woman and man are in what some have described as an egalitarian, non-hierarchical relationship. That may be too generous but it is clear the relationship between the woman in the Song and her man is unlike any other in the scriptures. Yet the world of the Song is not paradise; there are threats: There is some degree of societal and familial disapproval of their love demonstrated by the attempts of some men to regulate the woman’s sexual expression, (5:7; 8:8-9). The bible is, after all, an Iron Age text.

In our lesson this Sunday the lovers articulate their love for each other’s flesh. This text is a lovely reminder that our physical bodies are beautiful and beloved, and that loving relationships occur within and not in spite of human bodies. [tweet that] The lectionary portion begins with the woman extolling the way the man moves in v 8. Then she exclaims over the way he stands still and looks out the window in v 9; she is besotted with every little thing he does. She repeats some of his words to her – it is unclear when he first spoke them. (There is little underlying narrative or chronological order in the Song.) The man asks his love to run away with him; they aren’t running away from anything or towards anything. They just want to be together in a world as beautiful as their love. The natural beauty of the world around them reflects their love, blossoming flowers, fruit-laden trees, singing birds. Maybe it is paradise, or the Garden Isle of Kauai.

The natural world evokes all of the senses as does the love between the couple. The very physicality of this text as scripture is its gift. The woman, man, their love and their world are all God’s good, very good, creation. There is no division between body and soul. The Greek philosophical tradition that will become so important to the Church Fathers as many of them reject and restrict sensuality, sexual love and bodiliness is unknown here. This text does not share the later dualism separating flesh and spirit inspired by Greek philosophy in which the body and its desires are regarded as being lower or lesser than spiritual things. Body and soul are one here, united in love.

[tweet this] The Song of Songs is a celebration of erotic love, by which I mean explicitly sex. Not surprisingly its literal reading was quickly abandoned in favor of allegorical readings in much of Judaism and Christianity where it has been read as symbolizing the love of God or Christ for Israel or the Church. No small feat given that neither Christ nor Israel, nor even God are mentioned in the Song. It’s about sex and love and death to some small degree. [tweet this] We dare to love though we die. We risk death because we love. Love and sex, sex and death have been intertwined since the first stories in that other garden where love went wrong and started looking like the heteropatriarchy because of a curse. [tweet that]

But here in this garden there is love and some degree of equanimity in spite of the old curse. Here a woman dares to tell the world about her love, her desire, her sexual desire, her intent to fulfill it without shame. She does so in the only biblical book in which a woman is the dominant character and speaks the majority of the lines. The Song of Songs is unique in the scriptures for its passionate lyrics extolling the physical love between a woman and a man, and for the dominance of the woman – in voice and agency – in the composition. It is a marvel – perhaps a miracle, an intentional act of God defying the previous order of things – that the Song was received as scripture. It was resisted and rejected by men before it was grudgingly accepted.

[tweet this] A literal reading of the Song requires coming to terms with the raw sexual desire and gratification called for by this woman to her man in the scriptures which many readers found – and find – incompatible with their notion of scripture in spite of the fact that these verses are enshrined and canonized. In many readings that do celebrate the sexual love between the couple, their marriage is asserted in spite of the fact that the text does not state that they are married. The man does refer to the woman as his bride (Song 4:8–12; 5:1) and sometimes as his sister (Song 4:9–10, 12; 5:1–2; 8:8) though no one seems to want to take that literally – it is not clear whether they are betrothed or married, and if they are married why she spends so much time looking for him or they feel the need to sneak around. All that sex talk, conveniently excised from today’s lesson which ends as they run away together, inconveniently ending before the most luscious descriptions of their love-making.

And then for some reason the lectionary shapers gave us an equally truncated piece of Ps 45. Perhaps they reached into their grab bag of bible verses and it was on top. It too is about love. But not the kind of love in the Song. I’m a Black Church Episcopalian so I need you talk back to me. To whom is the Psalm written? I love the NRSV translation of v 1 – not something I say often:

My heart overflows with a goodly theme;
I address my verses to the king…

So, to whom is the Psalm written? If we just read that verse, we might say, “Well, God is often described as a king (in spite of not actually being male).” But look at v 2:

You are the most handsome of men…
therefore God has blessed you forever…

This is a psalm about a human king. Is there any love here? Does the psalmist love the king? Or does he love his wealth and power? It sure seems like the psalmist has some kind of love for him. [tweet this] When was the last time you read a psalm praising someone other than God? You can find the whole psalm on p 647 in the prayerbook – I have little love for that translation. Take a quick look at the love of the psalmist for the king: v 3 his thighs and his might, v 4 truth, justice and the Israelite way, v 5 his hands and his strength. In v 7 I think editor of the psalter said we have to have something about God in here so we get a one liner about God’s throne then back to the man of the hour. He’s better than all the other dude-bro-kings, his clothes and cologne are better, his women and their bling are better and look! a wedding at the end of the psalm. But there is no love there; this is a political wedding. This is the wedding of Jezebel to Ahab; her titles, “daughter of Tyre” and “king’s daughter,” are present in the text, rendered “people of Tyre” – a deliberate mistranslation – and “princess.” Jezebel is the only Tyrian princess to marry an Israelite king; the psalmist addresses her directly. In v 10 the psalmist tells her to forget the people and the place she loves. He does not believe that she can love her new people and her own people. The psalmist’s notion of love is very different from the lovers’ understanding. It is much smaller.

In the Song there is more than enough love to go around. It is practically sprouting out of the earth like flowers. In the psalm, all love and loyalty go to the king. Even God gets short-changed in the psalmist’s praise. We ought not be surprised. [tweet this] When love and sex intersect with money and power, love often seems constrained and reduced to shadow of itself.

James (1:17-27) offers another vision of love, love beyond that of lovers for each other. One of the songs of my people asks, “Have you got good religion?” The response: “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord.” What is the evidence? The second verse asks, “Do you love everybody?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly Lord.” Perhaps today’s lesson from James was the inspiration. He teaches that what we say and what we do matters. We cannot say we love God, have good religion – or any religion at all – and say anything to anybody. This is an election season Gospel: one measure of your religion is what you say, including about candidates. And, [tweet thiswe cannot say we love God and have good religion and not care for God’s children, widows and orphans yes, and the homeless, hungry, uninsured and under-insured, imprisoned – rightly or wrongly – diseased and afflicted, trafficked, migrants with and without papers, the hurting and even the hateful. I love that James doesn’t limit “religion” to Christianity. We are not alone in doing the work of God’s love in the world.

The Song teaches us to love with abandon. The Psalm shows us how wealth and power can warp love. The Epistle reminds us that love extends far beyond us, that it is not something we feel but something we do.

And Jesus, Jesus who is love seems to be talking about anything but. It seems the lesson of the Song has been forgotten. Folk are worried about controlling the body; all that flesh and its potential for pleasure makes a lot of religious folk uncomfortable – and not just in the Iron Age. And [tweet thisJesus makes what I think is an overlooked point (in Mark 7:15): The body is not evil nor the source of evil. He says: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.

Yes, Jesus just made a poop joke. But more than that, by focusing on what folk say and do with their bodies and not their bodies themselves, Jesus aligns himself with our lovers. That ought not surprise us because Jesus overcame his culture’s aversion to Gentile flesh and never seemed to share their aversion to woman flesh. [tweet that] Jesus also offered his flesh to touch and be touched by folk whose flesh was said to be polluted and polluting.

After all Jesus is the one who emerged into the world in scandalous flesh, clothed in the flesh and bathed in the blood of an unmarried woman with a damaged sexual reputation. Jesus entered the world between a woman’s thighs uncomfortably close to urine and feces – not just in the stable but also in that most intimate female space. And perhaps most scandalous of all, Jesus did this as God, taking on human flesh, joyful, loving, touching, sexually maturing and capable flesh. In Jesus, God is all kinds love and, all of our love, which comes from God, is worthy of God and therefore an extension of God’s love. [tweet this] We are the beloved of God, with and in these bodies and their loves, not in spite of them.

In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who covers us and fills us with her Love. Amen.