Confession of a White Liberal

“Riot is the language of the unheard” Martin Luther King, in a speech titled “The Other America,” at Gross Pointe High School, Detroit, Michigan, March 14, 1968.
We all have “where we were when” memories that anchor us into momentous historical events: December 7, 1941 (“a day that shall live in infamy”); November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated; September 11, 2001. However, few of us who are White have markers that track our blindness to our own racism. The story of the 19th century hymn “Amazing Grace,” by John Newton, is perhaps illustrative. He was an adventurer who ran afoul of a slave trader, and wrote the song in gratitude for narrowly escaping shipwreck with his life. The song had little to do with his much later embrace of abolition. He did not repudiate the slave trade immediately, but continued to make money on it for some 20 years after the song became popular. Like most of us caught up in the matrix of White Privilege, he was indeed blind.

I am one who “came of age” in the 1960s. Folk songs accompanying the struggle for Black civil rights and protesting the Viet Nam War were layered into the air we breathed. Yet for some of us, the political debate that raged between the social democratic left and the reactionary right made little sense. I, like Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, campaigned for Barry Goldwater. I was naively impressed with the boys in the back of my Political Science class who were so certain that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!” I was unable to hear the dogwhistle in the second part of that slogan: “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!” Like Republican candidate Donald Trump, Goldwater had his own definition of justice. To paraphrase President Bill Clinton, who avoided responsibility with the definition of “is,” how Goldwater and the Right defined “justice” was bound up in the accompanying slogan, “impeach Earl Warren” – for the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. To the reactionary Right that decision along with the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unjustly propelled Black people out of “separate but equal” schools, fraternities, and neighborhoods. “Justice” as “fairness” to Whites meant and still means compensation for losing the White privilege built into the very fabric of the nation.

None of that was apparent to me. We had no television in our home until I was 15. I paid little attention to current events; Viet Nam was an alien planet. My Black room-mate at college was personally fire-hosed and set-upon by dogs in Louisville, Kentucky in the summer of 1963. I told her, “That never happened. This is America. We don’t do that here.” Yet the television set in our co-op dorm carried the evidence. When the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama was bombed and four little girls died, I took my first baby steps in arm-in-arm protest march through the streets of Albion, Michigan. Several Black women, including my room-mate Mary Helen Hogue, did not come back for the second semester of our Freshman year.

Guilt, it is said, is a useless emotion, which accomplishes nothing because we are allowed to feel terrible without changing. Guilt goes hand-in-hand with cheap grace:

Grace without price; grace without cost! The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing. Since the cost was infinite, the possibilities of using and spending it are infinite. What would grace be if it were not cheap?…

Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship.)

Guilt seems to be the fair enough price to pay. What is required is repentance: turning around and away from the mistaken idea that resulted in whatever behavior or attitude gave rise to the regret.

For me, and most White people, the attitude is our own privilege, and the behavior is to blame Black and Brown people for their own oppression: poverty, poor inner-city schools, no jobs. It’s easy to feel guilty, and to try to step in with money, feeding programs, homeless shelters, and the “forced” integration of schools by bussing White kids in and Black kids out. When these turn out to be band-aids, when inner-city schools still fail, when unelected White overseers take over the local government and the City still comes to a grinding halt, instead of realizing that the very systems we have set up constitute a matrix of inequality, we cut the money for Head Start, housing, food stamps, Medicaid – even water treatment – and charge the police with maintaining order.

What do we expect will happen? Blogger Rad Fag echoes Rev. Martin Luther King: “When Black people speak, and you do not listen, you are creating the conditions of a riot. And when you tell us we are exaggerating, playing the martyr, making it all up, then you cannot be surprised when we elect militancy to make you comprehend what you refused to understand when we were peaceful.”

Jewish and Christian theology proposes that humans are made in the image and likeness of God. For those uncomfortable with “God, ” think of the natural world where the sun shines and the rain falls on the just and the unjust without discrimination. If we are the image and likeness of God then our destiny, our purpose, our reason for being is to behave like God. “Let justice roll down like the waters,” preaches the prophet Amos. The waters – the rains – roll down as distributive, restorative justice, which demands a radical equality; not the retributive, law-and-order, shoot first and ask questions later “justice” masquerade – as the political right would define it. To withhold the profound fairness of the sun and the rain because of family, tribe, or nation constitutes a deep separation between God’s distributive justice and humanity; which leads to crimes against not only humanity, but divinity itself.

John Newton’s hymn says, “I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see.” The blindness and the restoration or discovery of sight are the missing link for White people between immobilizing guilt and active repentance. Leaders in the Movement for Black Lives remind us that “action” does not mean the take-over of the movement by Whites. Black folks have been there, done that for hundreds of years and they don’t need us to explain how to mount a protest (violent or non-violent). Even more surprising, White folks are not even expected to fully understand the nature of the oppression that Black people suffer on a daily, if not moment-by-moment basis. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “Solidarity is standing in unity with people even when you have not personally experienced their particular oppression” (From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chicago, Hay Market Books, 2016 p. 215).

Part of the course work for my Doctor of Ministry in Creation Spirituality from Rev. Dr. Matthew Fox’s University of Creation Spirituality included a two-week intensive on Black religious and political history. One of the presenters was a Black artist who got up in our faces and confronted us with our White privilege. It was not a comfortable encounter. Letting go of the assumptions I made (and still make) regarding the very matrix of my life is unnerving, disorienting. Just because I am a White woman, I live in a world of personal security. I know where my next meal is coming from. I have a safe place to sleep. I have access to information and access to power as those are defined and taken for granted in my dominant White world. I not only expect my vote to count, I expect to vote; I expect what I read in the newspapers or watch on television to be true. When I learn that much of what I read or see is a small part of what is really happening to Black and Brown and Native and original people world-wide, I am overwhelmed.

But not with guilt. I see that I cannot be other than a recovering racist. So, I do the only thing that I can do in the situation. I stand in solidarity with what I cannot possibly know from experience, and I challenge my White peers to see our own complicity in systemic racism, and dismantle the structures that keep racist White supremacy in place.

Amazing grace.

Trump the Oligarch

So far, none of the commentary on the 2016 election process has gone beyond the “conventional wisdom” about how political campaigns are supposed to be run. Trump has broken all those rules, and the Republican Party has gladly celebrated each breach. The much-misunderstood Karl Marx was right: the end justifies the means (or, it doesn’t). Marx was talking about socio-economic and political justice; Trump and the Republicans are talking corporate commerce.

A perfect illustration of the clash between commercial (corporate) interests and socio-economic (political) justice is the current confrontation at Standing Rock Sioux reservation between the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Dakota Access Company oil pipeline project. Apparently, Dakota Access used information filed with the court by the Standing Rock Tribe to locate and deliberately bulldoze sites sacred to the Sioux Nation:

JAN HASSELMAN (Attorney for Standing Rock Tribe on September 3, 2016): “We’re disappointed with what happened here today. We provided evidence on Friday of sacred sites that were directly in the pipeline’s route. By Saturday morning, those sites had been destroyed. And we saw things happening out at Standing Rock—dogs being put on protesters—that haven’t been seen in America in 40, 50 years.”

To date, Dakota Access has not responded to the protests, nor to questions about the deliberate bull-dozing of sites identified by the plaintiffs in the case, nor the use by the corporation of dogs to attack peaceful protesters. Of course, in the conventional world, parties to a lawsuit generally do not comment on current litigation. Further, in the conventional world, parties to a law suit do not use information provided by the opposition to destroy evidence that might have a negative impact on the outcome.

Like it or not, “conventional wisdom” no longer applies – not to the Standing Rock litigation, nor to the 2016 U.S. Presidential race. The commercial-corporate and political nexus is Donald Trump:

Trump’s Connection to Dakota Access Pipeline
By Steve Horn
EcoWatch.com September 7, 2016

Continental Resources—the company founded and led by CEO Harold Hamm, energy adviser to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and potential U.S. Secretary of Energy under a Trump presidency—has announced to investors that oil it obtains via fracking from North Dakota’s Bakken Shale basin is destined for transport through the hotly-contested Dakota Access Pipeline.

The company’s 37-page September 2016 Investor Update presentation walks investors in the publicly-traded company through various capital expenditure and profit-margin earning scenarios.. . . Dakota Access is slated to carry the fracked Bakken oil across South Dakota, Iowa and into Patoka, Illinois. From there, it will connect to the company’s Energy Transfer Crude Oil Pipeline (ETCOP) line, which terminates in Nederland, Texas at the Sunoco Logistics-owned refinery.

From there, contrary to company claims, the oil will not be used domestically but shipped overseas. So the proceeds will add nothing to the U.S. economy – once the temporary pipeline jobs are finished.

Much has been made of Trump’s apparent (denied then acknowledged) personal relationship with Russian Federation President Vladimir Putin. Pundits and editors of major news organizations continue to be puzzled and outraged by the “cluelessness” evidenced by Trump of the repercussions of such an unholy alliance. Naifs on the left might celebrate the “conventional wisdom” that this means the possibility of peaceful coexistence at last. But in Trump’s world, where the Apprentice wins by any means necessary, the relationship is, in Trump’s words, “nothing personal; it’s just business.”

What Trump is likely betting on is that Putin’s techies did in fact hack into the Democratic National Committee’s emails, and will continue to attempt to alter the outcome of the U.S. election in Trump’s favor — not because Putin is enamored of Trump, but because he at last would have access to all of the political, social, and economic power of the United States of America.

Trump’s world is like a gas station owner who consistently keeps her prices two cents below the competition across the street, until the competition goes out of business. Then she buys that business and makes it into an even bigger truck stop, selling cigarettes, beer, and women, until the mafia closes it down, triggering bankruptcy, and a very lucrative settlement. The business is a loss on the income tax forms, and the original owner wins.

Following this scenario on the global stage – which Trump will do – would have interesting consequences for the future of humanity as the dominant species on the planet. But the oligarchs don’t care about the future of humanity. All they care about is this life here and now.

Don’t take it personally, it’s just business.

Ultimately, somebody would get fired. Anybody want to really bet on who?

Open Letter to Black Lives of Unitarian Universalists

Response to BLUU Statement Regarding UU Response to Recent Killings

As members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick, Maryland and the UUCF Dismantling Racism Team, we support the demands spelled out in the Statement. We specifically wish to lift up the request to “not equate the system-wide killing of Black people by police with the killing of police by people unaffiliated with the Movement for Black Lives. Doing so makes life more dangerous for Black people who are already at great risk.” This is a critical point, which must be emphasized. However, it seems to be equally important for Movement representatives to avoid painting UU congregations and ministers as having “unquestioned alliance with law enforcement,” which equates Whites with “purveyors of state-sanctioned Black death and Black pain whom we protest.” Police are often part of a systematically racist society and the problem is that they reflect what undergirds that system. Two changes are needed: the “undergirding” and policing.

When our Dismantling Racism Team was formed, we agreed to contact our local City of Frederick Police Department and make an appointment with the Chief to discuss how the Chief views what is known as “community policing” and his approach to law enforcement in minority neighborhoods. We deliberately chose not to start the dialogue with a protest against the police (which is what the BLM was calling for), but to first discern what is so about police-community relationships. We found that – contrary to expectation – the City of Frederick is one of a handful of communities nationwide that is experiencing some success with peaceful and supportive community-police relations. (See http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36797980 )

In the publication, Lifting Our Voices: Readings in the Living Tradition (Unitarian Universalist Association, 2015), we find a clear call for dismantling the “undergirding” of systems of oppression and injustice (adapted from the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. [Number 149]):

“This is where we are.
Where do we go from here?
First, we must massively assert our dignity and worth.
We must stand up amidst a system that still oppresses
and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values . . .
What is needed is a realization that power without love is reckless and abusive
and that love without power is sentimental and anemic.
Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice,
and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.
And this is what we must see as we move on.”

Unfortunately, UUA President, Peter Morales, is not convinced that Unitarian Universalists have reached the requisite level of understanding and commitment, specifically to antiracism, antioppression, multicultural work. In his “Hand in Hand” column in the Fall 2016 issue of UU World, Dr. Morales writes:

“[At GA 2016] I heard a number of people . . . express the feeling that we had reached a new level of understanding and commitment. Clearly we are involving a new generation of UU activists. A new level of hope is palpable. [But] . . . my hope is tempered . . . [W]e tend to confuse catharsis with progress. . . . I desperately don’t want this GA to join the list of frustrating disappointments…

“I worry that we will lose steam. I worry that we will fall victim to the progressive habit of declaring victory too early. This will be a long, long struggle. Fear and ignorance abound and are deep-seated. People are still dying. We need to be relentless. We need to nurture work at the grass-roots. We on the UUA staff must partner rather than impose our views.

“Catharsis is not progress. But we have made an important beginning. We have a historic opportunity. Let’s not blow it.”

This is an extraordinary and prophetic example of leadership; a necessary caution to privileged Whites, who may be dismayed and defensive about the fact that “many Black UUs are not finding resonance in their local congregations.” Indeed, not only is resonance lacking, but “indifference and an inability to identify with Black people’s pain,” can go so far as to be perceived as“the unquestioned alliance of UU congregations and ministers with law enforcement . . .” to the detriment of Black lives.

While we the undersigned consider ourselves to be White allies with the Black Lives Matter Movement, we cannot speak for the Dismantling Racism Team as a whole, nor for the entire UU Congregation of Frederick. It is up to those of us who do ally with the Movement to work to change White hearts & minds (including sometimes recalcitrant community members, as well as police leadership).
Mary Bowman-Kruhm
Rev. M. Michael Morse
Sea Raven, D.Min.

What is your Definition of Community Policing?

(Response to Request from Ed Hargis, Chief of Police, City of Frederick, Maryland)
Mike Morse & Sea Raven

Community, Shared Responsibility, and Reciprocal Trust is the matrix within which pro-active, rather than reactive policing takes place.

Start with the word “community.” We assume this means mutuality and shared responsibility among the members of the community, and cannot be achieved without a high degree of mutual trust within the community itself. So the basic task is to address the fundamental questions that are related to building community, enabling mutual trust and calling out the highest levels of responsibility on the part of citizens and our colleagues who live in our community as our trusted friends and neighbors in the police department.

We assume further that within this matrix such attributes as compassion, empathy, and the deepest concern for individual circumstances – including race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious background – are paramount in all interactions. This includes all members of the community, including the police who are also members of the community.

So far, the term “law enforcement” has not appeared. That is because in a matrix of Community, Shared Responsibility, and Reciprocal Trust, “enforcement” of “law” is not the issue. Rather, the emphasis is helping people to be the best people that they can be – including the police officers who are charged with ensuring public safety.

At the risk of sounding naive about living in a sometimes dangerous society, none of this suggests that strong measures should not be taken within the context of crisis situations. But it does suggest that the arc of justice needs always to tilt not in the direction of the escalation of anger and violence, but in the direction of non-violent resolution of conflict and ultimately the care and concern of all those involved.

All of this is a tall order, challenging all of the assumptions that we have made about “law enforcement” in our society. Yet the crises that are obvious in our midst demand imagination, creativity, and bold action.

It’s Not “Assisted Suicide”; It’s Reclaiming Life

The State of Maryland legislature recently declined for the second consecutive year to bring to the floor a bill allowing terminally ill people to legally end their lives. Like other similar bills in Oregon, Washington, California, and Vermont, the initial bill was titled “Death With Dignity.” The 2016 version was titled “End of Life Options,” and addressed some of the greatest objections that some major constituencies have, and reflects the evolution of thinking about the issue.

The phrase “Assisted Suicide” conjures a slippery slope to enabling depressed people to “end it all,” or convincing elderly relatives to avoid being a burden to families, or even helping the process along in order to cash in on the patriarch’s last will and testament before he changes it. Ultimately, it applies to the ancient Greeks who presented Socrates with the hemlock because of his teaching methods, which aroused skepticism and impiety in his students. The implications for horrifying adherence to “political correctness” is obvious – but this is not what is meant by advocates of “death with dignity.”

The phrase “Death with dignity” confirms what humanity has known from the beginning: that death in the midst of debilitating pain or terminal illness is undignified – whether death is the result of deliberate infliction of pain through torture, or the result of illness accompanied by pain that is beyond any intervention. The phrase indicts the often lonely deaths of neglected patients in nursing homes. Hospice providers object – and rightly so – that death while in Hospice care is far from that kind of “bad death.” In fact, the slogan of Hospice of the Panhandle in West Virginia is, “It’s about life,” meaningful life achieved through pain management, support of caregivers, and accompaniment throughout the process of what Hospice calls “active dying.” No one under Hospice care dies alone.

My personal story in this regard is like many others. My mother was in terminal stages in a nursing home in Kansas City. The attending physician urged my brother & sister and me to sign our mother into Hospice care. As soon as we did that, she was moved from a noisy, tile-floored, smoke-filled ward in a crank-up bed left over from the 1930s, to a quiet, semi-private room, with pictures on the walls, flowers on the bedside table, and a modern hospital bed that was designed to prevent bedsores. She did indeed die in quiet dignity, as have others I have accompanied both as a partner and friend, and in my years as an “11th hour” hospice volunteer. We are the ones who make sure everyone in our care dies with dignity, and no one dies alone.

The third stage in the evolution of how to define laws that will allow terminally ill people to choose to die on their own terms is “End of Life Options.” California is the first state to pass a law under that title. The phrase “End of life options” removes some of the negative associations of names like “assisted suicide” or “death with dignity.” Most obviously, having options for the end of life means people can chose the whole range from hospital-based palliative care, to home-based Hospice care, to medically prescribed and supervised use of drugs by mentally competent, terminally ill patients to safely end their lives before their condition or disease runs its full course.

Despite some of the more strident voices in the debate (“So much money can be saved if the patients kill themselves!” Frederick News-Post letter to the editor, March 3, 2016), I am not word-smithing murder here. How we define the issue goes beyond life-or-death to the meaning of the quality of human life. We have long acknowledged that the humane treatment of animals includes putting them down when they become too old, too ill, or too injured. We “put them out of their misery” with the assistance of compassionate veterinarians. If we can treat our cats and dogs and horses that way, why not allow our loved ones and ourselves the choice when life ceases to have any meaning outside of the day-to-day slog through terminal disability and pain?

In a recent interview with PBS NewsHour reporter Jeffrey Brown, Diane Rehm talked about the understanding that she and her terminally ill husband shared. “He wanted to relinquish life. He didn’t commit suicide. He wanted to let go of life and be on to the next journey….Even after he said, I’m ready, I’m ready to die, I said to him, sweetheart, are you sure? Is this really what you want? And he said, absolutely. I can no longer use my hands. I cannot walk. I cannot feed myself. I cannot do anything for myself. I am ready to die.” John Rehm did not have the luxury of legal options for ending his life quickly and painlessly. Instead, he chose to deliberately stop eating and drinking – which took 10 days. “I so resented that John was having to go through this long 10-day process to die. He had said 10 days earlier he was ready to die, and it took him that long. It shouldn’t have, I don’t believe, taken him that long.”**

Death is no longer perceived as being part of life. Until the late 19th century, children often died before they reached the age of 5; women routinely died in child birth; plagues came and went on their own mysterious schedules, killing rich and poor alike. Modern western society has been very successful at denying the reality of death. Our scientific and medical knowledge has allowed us to keep death largely under our own control – or so it seems. We seldom think about our own mortality until some accident or sudden onset of illness confronts us. But, as illustrated by Brittany Maynard and John Rehm, when we choose the manner, time, and place of our own death – when we relinquish life – we actually reclaim life – lived to the end on our own terms.

Webster’s New World College Dictionary notes that “relinquish implies a giving up of something desirable and connotes compulsion, or the force of necessity.” That undeniable force is life itself.
**[Diane Rehm’s memoir, On My Own, tells the story of her husband’s death and her own struggle to reconstruct her life without him.  http://tinyurl.com/zs52o5r]


 

 

Go Down Moses -- Racism: What to do?

Text: Exodus 12:1-14; Ezekiel 33:7-11; Psalm 119-33-40; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20

We know what to do. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: “Whereas the peoples of the United Nations have in the Charter reaffirmed their faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person and in the equal rights of men and women and have determined to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom.” Unitarian Universalists claim the “inherent worth and dignity of all humanity.” Christians claim the Apostle Paul’s ecstatic revelation that “You are no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or freeborn, no longer ‘male and female.’ Instead you all have the same status in the service of God’s anointed Jesus.” Leviticus 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus said, “Love your enemies.”

Ah, yes, but …

The fabled Sunday morning worship time is still the most segregated hour of the week. White liberals wring their hands and try to introduce spirituals and drums and generally appropriate Black culture into White liturgy with little success. Why? Can the reason possibly be that we’d rather give lip service than pay higher taxes that might alleviate the cycle of poverty, ignorance, violence, retribution, and despair? Why are we constantly voting for “austerity” – a dog whistle for racial and class repression – instead of the kind of distributive justice-compassion illustrated by Jesus’s “feeding of the five thousand?” John Dominic Crossan says, “[W]e prefer to emphasize a miraculous multiplication which we want but cannot obtain rather than a just distribution which we can obtain but do not want.” Do we not want justice?

Yes, but…

Matthew’s Jesus spells out the ground rules for living in Matthew’s Jerusalem community, bogged down in the minutiae of normal civilization. “Justice” is based on what can be proved or witnessed to by at least two, but ideally three people. The hair-splitting continues as Peter demands to know how many times one person must forgive another. But this is easy piety. Paul dishes out the rough stuff. “The one who loves another has fulfilled the law…. The [ten] commandments are summed up in this word: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” In that context, the verses from Chapter 7 of Paul’s amazing letter to the Romans cannot possibly be reduced to apocalyptic judgment upon petty sin – which is how it is usually interpreted by those who would continue to collaborate with convention. Paul did believe that the day of the Lord’s restoration of the Kingdom of distributive justice-compassion was imminent – and indeed it is. All that is required is to “lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light….” Just like Jesus said – the Kingdom of God is here now, all we have to do is look and listen, all we have to do is step into that parallel universe.

Ah, yes, but…

Meanwhile, back in the Old Testament, the exodus from Egypt after the commitment of the people to God and the later exile to Babylon might be seen as parallel metaphors. Both are mass movements of the Hebrew people from their settled existence. Both events were triggered by corporate injustice – the oppression of the Hebrew people by the Egyptian Pharaoh on the one hand, and on the other, the complicity with injustice by the Israelite nation in their own land. Moses is the leader of the exodus, Ezekiel is the prophet that went to Babylon. The Passover ritual is a blood ritual that identifies clearly who belongs to God and who does not, and Ezekiel is the sentinel – the guardian of the faith, who warns the people when they are slipping into injustice and away from God’s rule.

The story of Moses is foundational metaphor for the historic Black church. Slaves were forced to give up their homeland religion and embrace the white man’s faith. Oblivious plantation owners never imagined that the story of the Hebrew people’s enslavement by the Egyptian Pharaoh, and their miraculous liberation at the hand of a God determined to intervene to save his own, would be so easily and obviously applied to the slaves’ desperate certainty that God would act for their freedom. Blinded by privilege, “dominant”classes in 21st century Western societies still cannot imagine being identified with Pharaoh. “White privilege” is the unquestioned and unseen cocoon in which most of the middle class lives. As a white woman, who came of age in the lily-white suburbs of 1960’s Detroit, the realization of that privilege is always a shock. And the time-frame is “always,” because even after 50 years of interaction with non-white, repressed cultures at home and abroad, I still fall into attitudes and assumptions that prevent me from melding with those minds and spirits. I am always a stranger in a strange land.

In a review of the just-published Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, David Brooks attempts to reassure Mr. Coates that “the American Dream of equal opportunity… cherishes the future… abandons old wrongs and transcends old sins for the sake of a better tomorrow” (New York Times: “Listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates While White,” July 17, 2015). Brooks tries to mimic Coates’ narrative device by writing his column in the form of a personal letter – as though Brooks were the wise editor and Coates the idealistic, angry young writer who just isn’t willing to believe the inclusiveness of the American experiment. What Brooks is unable to do is to step outside the paradigm of dominator (white) privilege and consider the possibility that Brooks himself participates in Pharaoh’s Empire. He cannot see that the “American Dream” was built and is maintained with colonial suppression by and for Pharaoh’s 1 percent.

In the Exodus story, God seems to revel in deliberately “hardening the heart” of Pharaoh, so that Moses can demonstrate God’s awesome power through nine plagues. Only when the first-born children of the top 1 percent start dying does Pharaoh relent. Then he does not stop at merely letting the people go, he throws them out. God tells Ezekiel that if he warns the people about turning away from God, and the people pay no attention, then God will destroy the people, and their blood will be on their own heads. However, if Ezekiel does not warn the people, and they turn away from God, the people will be destroyed, and Ezekiel along with them.

What kind of God is this, who seems to insist upon retribution, pay-back, blackmail, extortion – but is that what is really going on? Or are we seeing the consequences of a transformational understanding of distributive justice? In his eulogy honoring the life and work of Rev. Dr. Clementa Pinckney (June 26, 2015), President Obama said that Dylann Roof had no idea God was using him that day to teach us all the meaning of grace (the radical abandonment of self interest). The point is that the leaders are accountable for the fidelity of the people to God’s rule, which is distributive justice-compassion, and the leaders are equally accountable for the consequences of infidelity. What an interesting concept for 21st century civilizations. We may ask, who belongs to God today, and who are the sentinels?

Four questions frame the difference between the continuing normalcy of civilization and its retributive systems of control, and participation in the ongoing struggle to restore God’s distributive justice-compassion, as taught by Jesus:

1) What is the nature of God? Violent or non-violent?
2) What is the nature of Jesus’ message? Inclusive or exclusive?
3) What is faith? Literal belief, or commitment to the great work of justice-compassion?
4) What is deliverance? Salvation from hell, or liberation from injustice?

The answers for Pharaoh’s conventional Empire are: violent, exclusive, literal belief, and salvation from hell in the next life. The answers for counter-cultural Covenant are non-violent, inclusive, commitment to the great work, and liberation from injustice in this life, here and now. These answers provide guideposts to the authentic teachings of Jesus, and to a faith that might swing the balance to distributive justice-compassion, to sustainable, conscious life on Planet Earth. But Covenant cannot be assumed by anyone, whether blinded by privilege or immersed in oppression. Injustice must be recognized, named, acknowledged, and owned. The Ten Commandments (that great foundation for conventional piety) are irrelevant, says Paul. What matters is the radical abandonment of self-interest: “. . . make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.” This is not about petty sin, but comfort at the expense of the environment; profit at the expense of well-being; personal advancement at the expense of relationship.

Participants in the unending struggle for distributive justice-compassion are the sentinels for our time. The proof lies in the results. Are you in?

Yes, but …

Works referenced:

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Crossan, John Dominic. God and Empire. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007.
__________. First Light. Living the Questions Leaders Manual p. 24.
Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. In Search of Paul: How Jesus’s Apostle Opposed Rome’s Empire with God’s Kingdom. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004.
Dewey, Arthur J., Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt. The Authentic Letters of Paul: A New Reading of Paul’s Rhetoric and Meaning. Salem, OR: Polebridge Press, 2010.
Miller, Robert J., ed. The Complete Gospels (4th Edition). Salem, Oregon: Polebridge Press, 2010.
Wilmore, Gayraud S. Black Religion and Black Radicalism: An Interpretation of the Religious History of African Americans (Third Edition, Revised and Enlarged). Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1999.

The Radical Abandonment of Self-interest

Text: Psalm 23; Isaiah 50:4-9a; Philippians 2:5-11; John 10:11-18

Civilization defines justice as retribution – payback; an eye for an eye. But the deeper meaning of justice is distributive: the rain falls on the good, the bad, and the ugly without partiality. Civilization does not use that definition except in cases where there is clearly injustice if partiality enters the picture. The positive understanding of distributive justice is contained in the term distributive justice-compassion. The normal development of civilizations has historically led to systems for assuring safety and security of citizens. But as any reader of Charles Dickens must be aware, those systems often exclude the poor, the uneducated, those who are presumed to have no economic or social power (women, minorities). Continue reading The Radical Abandonment of Self-interest

Yes, Leviticus: Sacred Ecology

Text: Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18; Matthew 25:14-30

The Old Testament book of Leviticus is often used by religious liberals who want to deride biblical literalists. One can certainly get very lost in the weeds of ancient Jewish regulations for living in beloved community. The most intimate of human activities are subject to specific rules, which may account for the decision by the creators of the Revised Common Lectionary to ignore all but 19:1-2 and 19:15-18. Those carefully cherry-picked verses appear twice in the readings for Year A (The Year of Matthew): Epiphany, and Proper 25, and it is very easy for worship planners and sermon writers to leave even those verses out. They demand judging your neighbor with justice; avoiding slander; prohibiting hate; and not keeping grudges – pretty tame stuff compared with some of the other recommendations in Chapter 19, such as verse 29a: “Do not profane your daughter by making her a prostitute,” which implies that doing so must have been fairly routine in some quarters. (The one about selling your daughter as a slave is actually Exodus 21:7-11, but that’s a digression into the economy of redemption.)

Within the recommended verses from Leviticus are found the basics for a transformed stewardship – and a sacred ecology.

Continue reading Yes, Leviticus: Sacred Ecology

O Sapientia -- Wisdom's Feast

Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21; John 1:1-5; 14-15

On this Sunday before the feast of the Epiphany (Orthodox Christmas Day), I invite us to look again at the advent hymn, O Come O Come Emmanuel and specifically at the second verse in the familiar translation by Henry Sloane Coffin (1916):

O Come thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh.
To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in her way to go.

We sang the original Latin chant as our opening hymn. It is the first in the series of chants called the “O Antiphons,” and dates to the eighth century, C.E. (and possibly earlier). It begins with the call to Wisdom: O Sapientia. The United Church of Christ’s New Century Hymnal has this translation: “O Wisdom breathed from God Most High, your depths all cosmic bounds defy. Your might in gentleness holds sway; come forth and teach your prudent way.” The note at the bottom of the page suggests that “Sophia,” the Greek word for Wisdom, may be used. Then Wisdom becomes personified, as it is in the poems from the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical books. Michael Dowd illustrates the importance of “personifying” deity – creating metaphors that help us understand the various aspects of sacred creation. Listen to these personifications of Wisdom from Sirach and Proverbs 8.

Those medieval monks were very likely onto something important when they put Wisdom first in their Advent prayers. Continue reading O Sapientia — Wisdom’s Feast

Torture: Who Cares?

Twenty-two days have passed since the Senate Intelligence Oversight Committee released its five-hundred twenty-five -page executive summary of its report on the CIA’s use of torture following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center. On December 21, The New York Times called for a criminal investigation that – in order to be credible – “should include former Vice President Dick Cheney; Mr.Cheney’s chief of staff, David Addington; the former C.I.A. director George Tenet; and John Yoo and Jay Bybee, the Office of Legal Counsel lawyers who drafted what became known as the torture memos”; among the “many more names that could be considered” are “Jose Rodriguez, Jr., the C.I.A. official who ordered the destruction of the videotapes; the psychologists who devised the torture regimen; and the C.I.A. employees who carried out that regimen.” On December 22, Human Rights Watch and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for an investigation of “serious federal crimes, including torture, conspiracy, sexual assault, and homicide, and [to prosecute where appropriate.”

The “Justice” Department has not responded. The Obama Administration seems to be sticking to its policy of “looking forward not backward,” perhaps unwilling to open the Pandora’s box of holding previous administrations accountable for high crimes and misdemeanors.

Equally silent is the “progressive” branch of American Christianity.

Continue reading Torture: Who Cares?