Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Posts tagged “social justice

Holy Leviticus! Justice is True Holiness

Riggio-Lynch Interfaith Chapel at CDF Alex Haley Farm
built as an ark of safety for children

There are some verses from Leviticus 19 that we don’t often hear, in part because the verses we do often hear have been decontextually weaponized and which, even when contextually comprehended, speak more to ancient biases than to actual biology. Yet just as Jesus the Son of Woman is fully human and fully divine, so too are the scriptures in which we prepare for and encounter him, the scriptures he interpreted and reinterpreted when necessary with an, “It is written… but I say unto you…”

In that spirit and with that permission we turn to the beloved, and also oft-cited, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the equally familiar–if you came up in a black church–“You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy.” Can I get a “holiness is yet right”? Between “you shall be holy” and “love your neighbor” hang all the law and the prophets, to borrow a phrase. Pray with me if you will, on the subject, “No Justice Without Love, No Love Without Justice.” 

Let us pray: May God who is Majesty, Mercy, and Mystery speak words of life, love, and liberation through these words. Amen.

You shall love your neighbor as yourself is the end of the teaching in this passage of Torah. And while Jesus gave us a vivid exegesis of the passage, the truth is it was always self-explanatory as his debate partners knew full well. Their question was not what does it look like to love your neighbor, but who can I exclude from the God-given charge to love my neighbor, and still be holy. (Yes, I am an Episcopal priest preaching holiness from Leviticus. God is a wonder to my soul.) See, I believe that Leviticus, the heart of Torah, has gotten a bad rap and is in need of rebranding. Leviticus is a holiness text and:

  • Leviticus is a community organizing text.
  • Leviticus is a public health text.
  • Leviticus is a get right and get your people right text.

You shall be holy for I the Holy One your God am holy. What follows that autobiographical declaration is a twelve-step plan to holiness in the idiom, vernacular, and culture of the Iron Age. (Don’t count my steps; it’s a metaphorical number and as a black preacher I really only need three anyway.) I thought I just might, for the time that is mine, translate this way to holiness into the idiom, vernacular, culture, and dialect of this anti-Christic neo-fascist white supremacist violently lethal misogynistic transphobic homophobic anti-Muslim, anti-brown immigrant and refugee – Norwegians and Swedes welcome – punitive poverty police state. Because none of that is holy. 

What is holy: When you all reap the harvest of your land, it shall not be completed to the very edges of your field for harvesting, and thegleanings of your harvest shall not be gathered. Your vineyard you shall not scrape bare, and the fallen grapes of your vineyard you shall not gather; you shall leave them for those oppressed through poverty and for the alien who resides [in your land]: I am the Holy One your God. [All translations of the biblical texts are mine.] Translation: You shall use your economic resources to relieve poverty and hunger. You shall not extract every drop of profit from your enterprises, rather you shall make it possible for others to benefit from your wealth and success. You are not entitled to all of the fruits of your labors when other folk are going hungry. Companies that don’t pay taxes to contribute to the wellbeing of their neighbors and community while paying poverty producing wages is not love of neighbor, and since corporations are now people, they are subject to the same call to holiness. Our tolerance and maintenance of poverty is not love and it is not holy.

What is holy: None of you shall steal… I am God Whose Name Is Holy. Translation: You shall not steal anything or anyone. You shall not steal people’s land­–and I know full well the biblical framers gleefully endorsed the theft of Canaanite land and their subjugation while bemoaning their own enslavement and serial occupation. You can’t have it both ways beloved. You shall not steal. No exceptions. And none are needed because the previous verses guaranteed that the poor would eat as long as the rich were eating so there would be no need to steal to feed yourself or your family. 

Let me translate further: You shall not steal land or lives or livelihoods. You shall not steal nations or their resources. You shall not steal drinkable water or breathable air. You shall not rob the earth of life or livability or species. You shall not steal wages or rob workers of their health, healthcare, or dignity. You shall not steal children or their childhoods, or their innocence. You shall not steal hope or dreams. You shall not steal! The theft, despoliation, and plunder of God’s children particularly on this land, from attempted genocide to enslavement to chain gangs to Chinese labor to Japanese internment, to convict leasing, to child-napping and caging is not love and is not holy.

You shall not steal and you shall not lie. None of you shall deceive, and none of you shall lie to a compatriot. And none of you shall swear by my Name to a lie and so profane the Name of your GodI am God Whose Name Is Holy. Lies are incompatible with love and incompatible with holiness. I just don’t believe that lying liars and their lies will ever be the oracle or instrument of God. I know some of us were raised that the worse thing you could do was to call someone a lie, not even a liar, but a lie, even when it was true. But I’m grown now and I’m going to call a lie a lie and a liar a liar.

The lies that come between us and the true holiness that is love of neighbor are legion. The lie of whiteness, white supremacy and its idol, white Jesus, have made it impossible for some folk to love their neighbors and for some folk to love themselves. The lie that human beings only come in two diametrically opposed forms has kept parents from loving their children, and precious queer and trans children from loving themselves or even loving their very lives. It ceases to be a limited understanding or misunderstanding of human biology and sexuality when you refuse and ignore the science because that’s not how an Iron Age writer with his own biases thought God thought about human flesh. 

The lie that patriarchy protects women has robbed women of their autonomy, agency, health, and lives. The lie that war leads to peace has scorched the earth and left legions of dead and dying, wounded and refugee. The lie that is American justice has incarcerated and enslaved, raped and pillaged and pimped out and rented out black and brown women and men and children and their labor. These lies are killing us and our children. And then they dare to lie on God and lie in her name. They choose the least loving and most harmful interpretation of scripture, willfully ignorant about and uncaring of its context. They sculpt idols out of their lies who bear unsurprising resemblances to themselves. There is no God and no Christ in these lies. There is no love or holiness in these lies. 

What is holy: You shall not defraud your neighbor, you shall not steal, and you shall not keep overnight for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. Translation: You shall not cultivate and maintain a permanent underclass. You shall not further oppress those already ground down by an unjust immigration and migrant labor system. You shall not use the undocumented status of your workers to pay them poverty cycle wages under the table while stealing a kickback out of that. You shall not enrich yourself and your corporate shareholders at the expense of the health and wealth of your employees. This point is so important that the passage circles back to it again and again. There is no holiness or love of neighbor without economic justice. 

What is holy: Translation:You shall not mock the deaf and, you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind… You shall love every human person and every human body. You shall marvel at the diversity of God’s creation. And you shall not just not hinder or injure your sistren, bindren, and brethren, but you shall actively work together against their harm and exclusion.

What is holy: You shall not render justiceunjust…you shall judge your compatriot rightly. You shall not go around as a slanderer among your people, and you shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. Translation: You shall not call what is just unjust and you shall not call injustice justice. You shall not railroad the immigrant and the indigent. You shall not call desperate migrants rapists and gang members. You shall not throw babies in cages and make a profit off of their suffering. You shall not deny a rape victim justice with a “boys will be boys” and “let’s not ruin this nice young man’s future.” You shall not treat black folk like targets in a shooting gallery. You shall not kill our children, our sisters, our brothers, our mothers, or our lovers. You shall not lock up black and brown folk for selling the weed that you and your kids smoke while investing in the marijuana conglomerates of your friends and allies. You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor. You shall not just stand by when black blood is flowing in the street. Holiness demands justice. Love demands justice.You shall not standby. Love won’t let you stand by. Holiness won’t let you stand by. 

What is holy: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. We know these words but most of us know them out of context. In context it is: You shall not hate in your heart your compatriot. Rebuke –yes rebuke!– your compatriot, and do not incur guilt on their account. You shall not take vengeance or nurture anger against any of your people; you shall love your neighbor as yourself. Translation: You shall not hate the haters. You shall love those who don’t love, those who by every reasonable standard would seem to be undeserving of love. You shall love and rebuke. Love them and rebuke them. Love them and not call them names. Love them and not start a twitter fight with them­–though it may turn into that–I’m talking to myself here. Love them and rebuke them. Rebuke Donald Trump. Rebuke Franklin Graham. Rebuke black preachers who hate black women while using their bodies and their money. Rebuke preachers who hate gay folk. Rebuke white supremacist Christianity. Rebuke bad preaching and worse exegesis. Tell the truth about the love of God and her call for us to love our neighbor as a demonstration of our holiness, her holiness, because we understand that she who is our God is holy.

Lastly, what is holy: The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy One your God. This should require no translation: 

Love treasures children and is incapable of considering them as instruments of deterrence.
Love would wash the feet of detainees not deny them showers and toothbrushes.
Love would provide a refuge for those terrorized fleeing violence at home.
Love would welcome the stranger.
Love would feed the hungry.
Love would comfort the frightened child.
Love would provide water in the desert instead of pouring it out and prosecuting those who leave it for the thirsty.

Love your neighbor as yourself and love yourself. Love yourself. Love your flesh. Love your fat. Love your freckles. Love your edges. Love your bald spot. Love your sag and your swag. Love your melanin. Love your kinks and your kink. Love yourself through your failures. Love yourself too much to let anyone love you less. 

The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Holy Oneyour God.

The way of holiness is hard because it is the way of love. And the way of love is hard. Justice is elusive when it is not grounded in love. But we are not left to figure out how and who to love on our own. We bore witness to the love of God incarnate in the womb and at the breast of a mother whose love would stand at the cross and at the tomb. We saw the Beloved love out loud and in public in touch and word. Jesus the love of God incarnate is the way of love and our teacher and guide on the way. Jesus is love incarnate and love in action. It was love that nailed him to the cross and love that held him on the cross. A love that would not die even when the lover’s flesh was dead and buried. A love that transcended heaven and earth and life and death and every other binary burst forth into life from the womb of the tomb, still loving, still teaching, still touching, and because we love to eat, still grubbing, still greasing, still frying fish. That’s love. 

The power to love poured out on Pentecost. The Holy Spirit who moves between us with love, calling us to love empowers us to love those we don’t think we can love, those we don’t want to love, and those we don’t even like. We are the children of the God of love, who loves us to and through death to life. We were bathed in the love of God in our baptisms and we are nourished by the bread of life and love at the table. The tongue-twerking power of the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost gave us the strength to love. But the will is ours. Will we? Will we love? Will we love this world into justice for all God’s children? Amen.

May you love and be loved and do justice from a heart of love. In the Name of God who is Love, Jesus the Love that is stronger than death and the Holy Spirit who is the Love that covers us and fills us with her Love.


The Gospel and the Cross Are Political

In the name of the crucified God who bids us take up our cross in this crucifying world, Amen.

by He Qi

In the scriptures the Wisdom of God is presented as a capital-P-person. She is a companion and co-creator and, in some texts enables God’s creation of the world. It seems to me that the sorting out the relationship between God and Wisdom is much like what Christians do trying to explain the Trinity. We love us some fuzzy math. It could be said that she, Wisdom, precedes from God in the same way Jesus and the Holy Spirit are said to precede from God while at the same time being God. So is the Trinity a Quaternity? This is what I mean by fuzzy math. But, no, God and Wisdom are no more separable than you are from your shadow. Eventually some Greek-speaking Christians would identify Wisdom with Jesus linking wisdom and the word. But Jesus did not identify her with himself. Rather he identifies himself as her son. In the Eucharistic gospel for this Wednesday, Jesus responds to his critics by saying, “Wisdom is vindicated by all her children,” meaning himself. That gospel fits much better with our lesson and canticle. But I’m not going to count today’s gospel out. It too offers the wisdom of God, and as we shall see, it is a hard lesson.

“Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am?” Peter gets to go to the head of the class by saying, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ, the son of the Living God.” Most folk hear those words, “Anointed One, Messiah, and Christ,” and think of Jesus and only Jesus. But in the scriptures of the Jewish Jesus and his Jewish first disciples the term anointed, or meshiachin Hebrew from which we get the word messiah, is used first for priests, and then for kings, and not just Israelite kings. When the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek because after the rise of Alexander the Great everybody spoke Greek, the word that was used for God’s anointed whether priest or king waschristos, christ, long before Jesus was born.

Peter’s confession then, was that he understood Jesus to have been anointed by God like King Cyrus of Persia who ended the Babylonian exile, the last person called christ or messiah in the Greek and Hebrew versions of the scriptures at that time. Peter also understood that Jesus was more than someone anointed by God to perform a specific task, even one as great as delivering the Jews from the Romans which what the disciples seemed to think and want and for good reason. Peter knew that Jesus was more: “You are…the son of the Living God.”

            This is the core confession of our faith. Jesus is more than a good man or even a great man. He is more than a good or great teacher. He is more than a worthy role model in faith, piety, and righteous rabble-rousing. Jesus is more than a gospel preacher and social justice activist. He is all of those things, and more. He is more. Jesus is the son of the God who lives without beginning or end. Jesus is God’s son in a way that differs from the way we are all God’s children. And Peter got that.

            Peter correctly identified Jesus as the one God in her wisdom anointed with her spirit as the incarnate gospel, the love of God poured into human flesh through woman-flesh to birth the commonwealth of God and its commonweal into our broken, crucified and crucifying world. Then Jesus teaches his disciples a lesson they were not expecting on what that really means. The first thing Jesus taught them after Peter’s confession was that the mortal yet immortal son of the Living God would have his mortality tested and proved.

I imagine Jesus asking, “Do you know what all of that really means? It means I’m going to be hurt, I’m going to be broken. The same authorities and powers that chew you up and spit you out are going to grind me into the dust. They are going to leave me battered and bruised and bloody. They are going to kill me. And the next day when you wake up I will still be gone, dead and gone. And the next. And the next. Who will you say I am then? What will your wisdom say then?”

            And Peter confident in his wisdom said, “Stop talking like that.” Peter rebuked Jesus the way Jesus often rebuked his own disciples and the occasional demon including just previously. Jesus’s language was pretty strong, “Get behind me, Satan!” But he wasn’t calling Peter the devil. The original meaning for satan is an adversary, human or divine. It didn’t always mean the devil or even an evil figure. When the angel only his donkey could see blocked Balaam’s path it was described as a satan. Here Jesus isn’t calling Peter the devil, there’s an entirely different word in Greek for that. He is telling him that he is positioning himself in the way of, in opposition to, God’s work through Jesus by trying to shush any talk of Jesus getting hurt or killed. Peter is so consumed by the thought of Jesus dead at the hands of violent men that he seems to have missed “and after three days rise again.”

            In Mark’s gospel, “Who do you say that I am?” functions like an invitation to say a slightly different creed. The key points are in the gospel. Jesus is the woman-born, child of earth and God’s child–in more than one way. The translation “Son of Man” is inadequate and misleading. Jesus is the son of the Living God. Jesus like every preacher or prophet worth her salt is going to be rejected some point by those at the top of the hierarchy. Woe to the people whose prophets are always praised by those in power and in positions of privilege. Jesus will not just die. He will be killed, violently. And he will rise from death–not be raised by somebody else like he and other prophets did for other people, but he will rise; he will raise himself. That is what he was anointed to do. That is what it means for Jesus to be Christ. And that was part one of the answer to, “Who do you say that I am.”

            Jesus made clear that the full answer wasn’t in just knowing his identity, titles, or the history of those titles. It was in taking up the cross and following him. That is what Jesus calls us to as disciples. There are real costs to following Jesus, living and loving as he did, welcoming as he did, speaking out as he did. So what is your cross? It’s not just some hardship like a cranky boss. The cross is the price you pay for living the gospel you confess. It’s rooted in the place God calls you to to live out your confession. It’s the place where your faith meets the harsh realities of this world. Jesus’s cross was a Roman one; it was the empire’s death sentence for revolutionaries. Is your faith revolutionary enough for anyone to notice? Is your faith visible outside of the walls of this sanctuary? Jesus call us to take up our cross and follow him, follow him into the world’s broken places and make a difference.

            What does it look like to bear a cross on which you might be tortured and killed today? It means standing against policies that consign people, and primarily people of color, to death, incarceration, exile, and poverty absent access to healthcare. Our government is cutting funds to refugee service organizations in the Palestinian Territories. That means they are cutting funds that provide food, healthcare, and education through the Anglican Province there and through the Lutheran Church. They are cutting funds to the only hospital in the Palestinian Territories that can treat cancer with radiation and chemotherapy. Taking up the cross on which Palestinians are being crucified will see you crucified along side of them as anti-Israel by some folk.

Jesus walked among the poor, hungry, and downtrodden. He didn’t stay in the safety of the sanctuary, or use scholarship and scholarly debates as a surrogate for doing the work. He spent time in the temple and he studied in the synagogue and then he took it to the streets. He also took some time to himself and then did it all over again. Jesus fed the people, food for their bodies and food for their souls. There are hungry people in this land of abundance, not because there isn’t enough, not because they’re just poor, not because they can’t manage what they have. We have poverty because of inequities that are built into all of our systems. Some of those same systems existed in Jesus’ day so he didn’t just hand out food. He publically came against the systems that kept some people poor and other folk rich, naming names of those at the top of the system. That’s what gets you a cross to bear, although opening a food pantry and feeding the homeless in some neighborhoods and business districts will get you the same treatment.

            Jesus called us to provide water for the thirsty. Flint Michigan still does not have clean water. An entire generation of children have been poisoned with lead and other pollutants and had their IQ lowered. Those children may have health and behavioral problems, and later difficulty getting into college and finding jobs. Their income potential and quality of life has already been drastically changed for the worse. Calling for affirmative action to even the playing ground for them will sho nuff get you a cross to bear. Wading into the race-based politics that saw the state strip a black city of its mayor, city council, and ability to self-govern, then put them and only them on a poisoned water supply and give the army permission to blow up abandoned buildings in town without out notifying residents who thought they were under a terrorist attack–calling out the institutional and individual racism at play in Flint Michigan and here at home will get you a cross to bear.

            It’s not just Flint. Desperate people seeking refuge from violence and crippling poverty also seek legal access to petition if they meet the qualifications for refugee status. Asking the question isn’t a crime. Putting in the application isn’t a crime. We’ve got a legal process. But this government has set it up so that there are no legal routes to that legal process so if you make it in they will detain you and your children in cages like animals for the illegal entry that they forced you into. And that’s if you don’t die of thirst in the crossing. And woe to you if you help somebody survive in that desert by leaving water along the way. You will find yourself in the crosshairs of your cross.

            A final example, Jesus called out the police brutality of his day. He stood with the people and spoke up for the people as one of the people. He didn’t just stand with good men like Botham Shem Jean, but he stood with and died with the criminally corrupt bearing his cross along with them, receiving a final beating at the hands of the police before his execution.

            Taking up your cross is political. It is as political as the Gospel. It is as political as Christianity has always been. As political as our Church has always been, sometimes on the right side, and sometimes on the wrong. Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him though it mean our death. He meant that as literally as he meant his own death in the preceding verses. “Who do you say that I am? If you say that I am the Messiah, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, then take up your cross though you may die on it and follow me.”

            We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without following him into the broken places of the world. We can no longer pretend that we can follow Christ without paying an exorbitant price at some point. We can no longer claim we follow Christ if we never leave our places of safety and never raise the ire of those who construct and benefit from the systems that impoverish and imprison. Take up your cross because Christ bids you to, and you will find him in that place of need and service with the power to raise you when you fall, even from the grasp of death. Amen.

Lessons

Wisdom 7:26 For she is a reflection of eternal light,
a spotless mirror of the working of God,
and an image of his goodness.
27 Although she is but one, she can do all things,
and while remaining in herself, she renews all things;
in every generation she passes into holy souls
and makes them friends of God, and prophets;
28 for God loves nothing so much as the person who lives with wisdom.
29 She is more beautiful than the sun,
and excels every constellation of the stars.
Compared with the light she is found to be superior,
30 for it is succeeded by the night,
but against wisdom evil does not prevail.
8:1 She reaches mightily from one end of the earth to the other,
and she orders all things well.
 
Proverbs 1:20 Wisdom cries out in the street;
in the squares she raises her voice.
21 At the busiest corner she cries out;
at the entrance of the city gates she speaks:
22 “How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple?
How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing
and fools hate knowledge?
23 Give heed to my reproof;
I will pour out my thoughts to you;
I will make my words known to you.
24 Because I have called and you refused,
have stretched out my hand and no one heeded,
25 and because you have ignored all my counsel
and would have none of my reproof,
26 I also will laugh at your calamity;
I will mock when panic strikes you,
27 when panic strikes you like a storm,
and your calamity comes like a whirlwind,
when distress and anguish come upon you.
28 Then they will call upon me, but I will not answer;
they will seek me diligently, but will not find me.
29 Because they hated knowledge
and did not choose the fear of the Holy One,
30 would have none of my counsel,
and despised all my reproof,
31 therefore they shall eat the fruit of their way
and be sated with their own devices.
32 For waywardness kills the simple,
and the complacency of fools destroys them;
33 but those who listen to me will be secure
and will live at ease, without dread of disaster.”

 Mark 8:27 Jesus went on with his disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” 28 And they answered him, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” 29 He asked them, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter answered him, “You are the Anointed One, the Messiah, the Christ.” 30 Then Jesus rebuked them, ordering them not to tell anyone about him.

31 And then Jesus began to teach them that the Son of Mary must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. 32 He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. 33 But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.”

34 Jesus called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Mary will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”