Thursday, December 25, 2014

A Christmas Homily

It’s been a while since I last offered a Christmas Eve homily.  I’ve always figured that the texts and the tunes will deliver their own message if I get out of the way.  But this year I feel compelled to reflect on what might seem to be at best an odd juxtaposition and at worst a contradictory paradox.

This is the season to talk about “peace on earth and good will toward all.”  Right?  But that’s not what’s in the air these days, is it?  At least, not if you’re paying any attention.  I don’t need to tell the stories – the names should be enough:
  • Michael Brown in Ferguson;
  • Eric Garner in Staten Island;
  • Tamir Rice in Cleveland, OH;
  • Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu in Brooklyn;
  • Sage Smith, Hannah Graham, Robin and Mani Aldridge – all right here in Charlottesville;
  • “Jackie” (and too many others) at UVa and elsewhere;

I could, of course, go on.

So, given what we know about the world we live in, what are we to do with this story of a baby, born to poor parents who knew oppression all too well, yet who is said to have grown up to be a living embodiment of “peace,” “good will,” and love? This story of that silent night where rulers and wise ones bowed down before a babe, with the Star of Hope shining clear in the night sky?

We could ignore it.  We could trivialize it.  We could dismiss it, saying that it’s a story from a long time ago with no relevance to today.  We could say that it’s someone else’s story to believe if they want to.  We could say that it’s just a story and as with all fairy tales we should focus instead on the way things really are.  We could do any of that.  Some of us do all of that.

But what if we didn’t?  What if we said that, story though it is, there is truth in it … power in it?  What if we opened our hearts more than our heads and let the story in?  Let it really sink into our souls?  What might happen?

This evening we’ve heard the story as it comes down to us, in its classic form, and together we’ve sung songs that have grown out of as echoes of its truths.  Did we hear those truths, or did we just sing the words?  Mike shared with us the message of the man said to have been born on that holy night so long ago – did we hear it, really hear it, or did we just listen?

2,000 years ago or so, we’re told that a baby was born to poor parents from an oppressed people living in what has been called “the greatest Empire on earth.”  And it was, for a few.  The Pax Romana – the “Roman Peace” that was the envy of the world – was great if you were Roman.  And male.  And a property owner.  The ancient 1%. 

For everyone else, though, it was awful.  Brutal.  The news of the day was not all that unlike the news of our day.

But one of the essential things about the Christmas story is that its hero was not born at the top of the pyramid, but at its bottom.  God, we’re told, chose not simply to express what theologians call a “preferential option for the poor,” but to actually become one of the poorest of the poor.  To make the same point today God might have to incarnate as a young black man with a hoodie and a bag of skittles.

So, yes, the Christmas story is about inns, and mangers, and stars, and wise men, and shepherds, and angels, and, of course, a cute little baby.   But it’s about so more than that.  It’s about an unfair, unjust society and the promise that it won’t last forever.  It’s about the ultimate victory of the forces of life over the forces of death.  It’s about nothing less than a re-ordering of society so that those who are repeatedly told that their lives don’t matter, who are so oppressed that they feel that can’t breathe, well … they’ll have the last word.  As the Gospel of Luke remembers Jesus’ mom as saying,

God has brought down rulers from their thrones
    and lifted up the humble.

God has filled the hungry with good things
    but has sent the rich away empty.

Can you believe in such a story?  Can you believe in such a vision?  I’m not asking if you believe in God – some do, some don’t.  I’m not asking if you believe in miracles – whatever that word might mean to you.  I’m asking if you believe in Love.  I’m asking if you believe in Hope.

Let me change that.  I’m asking you to believe in Love; I’m asking you to believe in Hope.  Because this world still needs that re-ordering, and this isn’t something that’s done to us … it’s something that’s done through us.  The Christian mystic Meister Eckhart said that “we are all Mothers of God because God is always needing to be born.” 

Howard Thurman, a prominent civil rights leader and Protestant minister, wrote something about Christmas that I think about each year.  I’ll give him the final word:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among [people],
To make music in the heart.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Let's Not Get Distracted ...

One of the things that's difficult about having really substantive conversations about race -- one of the challenges of really facing and trying to deal with the issues -- is that it's so hard to get distracted by details.  I think that this is predominantly a white people's problem, and that we do it because the whole thing is so incredibly uncomfortable for us.  And we're not used to being uncomfortable.

Following the events in Ferguson and Staten Island a shout erupted across the country -- Black Lives Matter!  Black and browned skinned people were giving voice to a reality that they knew all too well but that was largely overlooked by white skinned folk -- the law enforcement and social justice systems are undeniably racially biased.  (I won't go into details to try to prove that point.  I'll let Frontline do it for me.)  This is a discomforting thing for white people to hear, because the ideal of a fair and impartial justice system is such a cornerstone of how we see (and experience) the world.  To hear otherwise shakes us from our complacency (and complicity).

Well, almost.  First we declare that "Black Lives Matter" is, itself, a racist statement.  The reality, we say, is that all lives matter, and that as long as we keep making it an issue of black and white we'll never get anywhere toward solving our problems.  The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that it's always been a "black and white" thing.  Black and brown skinned people have always known that their experiences and white peoples experiences are radically different; that we live in two different worlds, in a sense.  White people, though, don't feel comfortable with that because as things are our lives and experiences are the standard of ... well ... the way things are.  So we want to continually "broaden" the discussion to be "more inclusive," because to do otherwise would force us to recognize that the world isn't as "fair and balanced" as we believe it to be.

But there's another way that we distract from the real issue -- we make this a black/cop thing.  Sure, we say.  We'll acknowledge that there is a racial bias in the justice system, but we have to support our police officers.  They have an impossibly difficult -- not to mention dangerous -- job.  They're doing the best that they can.  And see?  The recent murders of the two officers in Brooklyn and the one in Florida (as of this writing) show us where all this divisiveness leads.  Sure, black lives matter, but so do "blue lives," and all this racial outrage has turned into "open season" on the police.

Do you see what happened there?  The situation we find ourselves facing becomes polarized as an either/or proposition.  If you stand in solidarity with the experiences of African Americans and other marginalized people then you necessarily are standing in opposition to the police.  (And vice versa.)   And, so, we get distracted -- the conversation becomes one of whether you are for or against the police.

But that's not the issue!  Sure, there are people who are angry at the police and who consider them "the enemy."  And there are certainly racist police officers.  But that's not the issue we need to be discussing.  The perceptions and actions of individual people can certainly be problematic and should be addressed, but we can not let that distract us from the real issue -- systemic racism.

Racism is so deeply embedded in this country that it's like the ground we walk on or the air we breathe.  Individual people don't need to be committing individual racist acts for racism to be still alive and well.  I would assert that the vast majority of police officers are not, themselves, individually racist and want to see the law enforced equally and justice to be fairly meted out.  But we have all be so deeply and powerfully trained to see black and brown skinned people and white skinned people differently that when split second decisions need to be made these unconscious biases and assumptions color the reaction.  Even not so split second ones -- a white person walking in a predominantly black neighborhood is, at first glance, assumed to be lost or their for a good reason.  A black person walking in a predominantly black neighborhood is, at first glance, assumed to be out of place and up to no good.  Even black and brown skinned people often have these two different reactions, because that's the way systemic racism works.  It's not a conscious thing; it's a conditioned thing.

In the days ahead there will no doubt be more violence directed toward police officers, as well as more incidents of police violence toward people of color.  I appeal to my white kinfolk, though, not to become distracted but to keep our eyes on the real issue.  Because all of us are hurt by racism, and these particularities we argue about are just symptoms.  As Emma Lazarus said, "Until we are all free, we are none of us free."

Pax tecum,


Thursday, December 18, 2014

On Colorblindness

As the debate goes on about whether it's appropriate to chant "Black lives matter!" or whether that should be changed to say, "All Lives Matter!" I keep hearing people talk about colorblindness.  This is the supposedly ideal state where no one even sees each other's skin color, where all people are recognized to be human beings first and foremost.  Some people point back to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous line from his speech at the March on Washington: 
 I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
It's worth noting, I think, that he didn't say that he dreamed of a day when the color of his children's skin wouldn't matter.  He didn't say that he longed for a time when the color of their skin -- and the experiences and history that go with it -- are irrelevant.  He said, simply, that he dreamed of a day when his children wouldn't be judged -- pre-judged -- because of the color of their skin.

It's worth noting, too, that the brown and black skinned people who heard those words knew that he specifically meant that he dreamed of a day when brown and black skinned people would not be negatively judged on their skin color alone.  Then, as now, white people are not judged by the color of their skin.  At least, not negatively.  White skinned people are assumed to be "normal," the norm.  If anything, we (I'm a white person myself) are assumed to be up to good (as opposed to up to no good), safe, hard working, intelligent, upstanding citizens.  

Whether or not we're aware of it, the experiences and histories of folk like us are the standard -- we are what people (consciously or unconsciously) see in their heads when they think of what it means to be "human."  And even if we don't see it -- which most of us don't because, after all, it seems so "normal" to us -- people of color most certainly do.  They're used to the myriad ways that our culture subtly and not so subtly tells them that they are not the same as white people and, so, not quite "human."  One piece of history -- enshrined in this country's Constitution is the declaration that African Americans only count as 3/5ths of a person.  As someone commenting on the racial disparities in our justice system said, "It looks like the founding fathers were right."

Let me riff off of that for a moment -- the founding fathers.  When I was growing up it was still commonplace for male language to be used both to refer to men specifically and to all of humanity -- all mankind -- generally.  There was no need, it was often declared, that there was no need to use more gender specific language because everyone knew that women were included because, after all, we're all just humans.  Well, to be more accurate, men often declared this.  Women, on the other hand, all to viscerally aware of their marginalization in a patriarchal world, recognized that this use of male language as if it were universal had the effect of further marginalization.  

Men didn't see this so readily because, as the dominant group, they were used to thinking about their own experiences as normative.  They experienced descriptions of themselves as being universal because, after all, they experienced themselves as normative, as the standard of what being human is all about.  Women knew from their own experiences that that wasn't true and, so, fought hard to be recognized as full and authentic people in their own right, with their own experiences and histories.  They fought for this politically, economically, and linguistically.  To those who would listen they said, "Words matter."

Do you see the parallels?  The ideal of "color blindness" similarly works to perpetuate the marginalization of people of color. Black and brown skinned people are saying that "all lives matter" actually denies the specific reality of their experience and once again subsumes their voices into the supposed "universal" category of "humankind." They are saying that in this culture it is assumed that white lives matter.  What needs to be reaffirmed is that black lives matter, too.  Yes, all lives matter, there's no question about that.  But what white Americans need to realize is that within African American experiences there have been -- and still are -- continuous implicit and overt demonstrations that their lives don't matter.

I am the father of multi-racial children.  They are growing up with white parents and are, as children, largely experiencing the world as white people do.  As they grow older, though, they will discover that in this culture black young men are treated differently than adorable black children.  I, too, dream for them of a world in which they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but neither do I want to pretend to them that the vast majority of black Americans live the same experiences we do.  Not to be overly dramatic, but their lives might well depend on that.

Pax tecum,


Monday, December 15, 2014

eyes wide(er) open

I recently read two descriptions of African American experience that really caught my attention:
"Their blackness alone was license enough to line them up against walls, to menace them with guns, to search them roughly, beat them, and rob them of every vestige of dignity."
"A black man could be walking down the road, minding his own business, and his life could suddenly change by meeting a white man or a group of white men or boys who on a whim decided to have some fun with a Negro."
Was I reading a blog post written since the events in Ferguson, Missouri once again brought a conversation about race to the national consciousness?  Not exactly.

The first was written by the historian Joel Williamson in his book The Crucible of Race; the second passage is found in Dr. James Cone's The Cross and the Lynching Tree.  Neither author is referring to the realities of 2014.  Instead, they're writing about the realities of the late nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries.  Notice anything about their descriptions?

Much of white America has absolutely no idea how different our experiences and those of people of color in this country have been.  Absolutely no idea!  Oh, yes, we  know that slavery was bad, and that segregation was hard, but look at the strides we've made since then!  There's even a black man in the White House!  And didn't Martin Luther King dream of a day when color wouldn't matter?

No.  He didn't.  He dreamed of a day when people wouldn't be "judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character."  That he said.  But he never said that we should all become "colorblind" (as if such a thing were possible).  He never said that at all.

Much of white America has absolutely no idea how different the America we live in is from the America that people of color know.  Why can't "they" just put it all behind them?  Really?  Why can't "they" just move on from the past and stop blaming race for all of "their" problems?  You've heard this, right?  I mean, you've heard people saying this for real.  No jokes.  Hell, you and I may have said it at one time or another, too.  (Or, at least, thought it.)  But anyone who says -- or even thinks -- such a thing has absolutely no idea what we're talking about.  No idea at all.

Let's take lynching -- the subject of the book by Dr. Cone that I've just started reading recently.  No one likes to talk about it much, but most liberal/progressive folk will say, if asked, that it was a terrible thing.  We'd all agree with that, right?  And we'd all agree that such an awful aberration should be left behind in the past.

By one count, at least, from 1882-1968 there were 4,743 lynchings in the United States.  3,446 -- 72.7% -- were of black (mostly) men.  It might surprise some to know that not all lynchings were of black people -- 1,297 white people were also lynched.  It's worth noting, of course, that "Many of the whites lynched were lynched for helping the black or being anti lynching ..." (according to the site Lynching Statistics for 1882-1968.)

So ... it was bad.  right?  But much of white America has absolutely no idea how bad.  Did you know that some of the reasons people were lynched included being homeless, injuring livestock, looking "suspicious," and even for skipping rocks!  (A word of warning, if you follow the preceding link you'll come to a site with "10 Outrageous Reasons Black People Were Lynched in America."  The images are graphic and disturbing.)  Just as today, black Americans knew that for absolutely no reason at all they might not come home at the end of the day.  "Their blackness alone was license enough ..."  Dr. Cone notes that the threat of lynching was almost more intimidating than the lynchings themselves.  

But oh how horrific those lynchings were.  Crowds gathered.  Families gathered.  Mom, dad, and the kids would spread out the picnic blanket and make a day of it.  Photos were snapped with people standing near the corpse like fisherman stand proudly with the marlin they'd just caught.  Portable printing operations were set up so that postcards could be made on the spot.  Sometimes the day, time, and place had been advertised; crowds of up to 15,000 -- that's fifteen thousand -- people came out.  How do you "get over" something like that?

A lot of this I knew.  You may have, too.  In a not-too-graphic way it's touched on in history class.  I'd even heard about the crowds.  But there's so much that I didn't know.  So much that I had no idea about.  I didn't know that many of these lynching victims were also burned, and often burned alive.  I didn't know that people from the crowd were invited to cut off body parts to take home as souvenirs.  And that this torture could go on for hours before the hanging itself.  How does anyone "move on" from experiences like these?

Especially -- especially -- because these experiences have not been left in the past.  In August -- August of this year -- a 17-year old boy was found dead, hanging from a swing set.  His death was pronounced a suicide, but the FBI is now investigating because there are elements to the story that don't quite add up.  The last lynching may not have been in 1968.

African Americans who might be reading this post are probably now thinking to themselves, the last lynching may not have been in 1968?  May not?  Is this guy serious?  And they'd be right.  Because in the final analysis lynching was never so much about a particular technique for murdering someone, but about sending a particular message by doing so.  And that message was not hard to decipher -- black lives don't matter.  Black women and men are not the equals of white women and men.  And they never will be.  Don't even try; don't get any crazy ideas about equality or anything like that.

In Dr. Cone's book he draws the obvious -- though largely unexplored -- parallel between crucifixion and the practice of lynching.  He quotes Paula Frederickson from her book Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews:

Crucifixion was a Roman form of public service announcement:  Do not engage in sedition as this person has, or your fate will be similar.  The point of the exercise was not the death of the offender as such, but getting the attention of those watching.  Crucifixion first and foremost is addressed to an audience.

The same is true of lynching.  And it can be argued that the same is true today of the phenomenon of police violence toward people of color.  Yes.  Of course there are times when lethal force is required, and police are working in an incredibly tense environment.  All of that is true.  Yet it is also unarguably true that when the use of deadly force is 21 times more likely when an African American man is on the receiving end, something else is at work.

Michelle Alexander argues quite persuasively in her book The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness that America's "war on drugs" is, at heart, a new expression of the same impulse that fueled segregation.  If you haven't read her book -- read it.  And then look for the parallels between then and now.  As William Faulkner famously said, "The past is never dead.  It's not even past."

My eyes continue to be more widely open.  I know -- I am afraid -- that they will need to be even more open still.  There is so much that I don't yet know, but that doesn't mean it's not part of the discussion.

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, December 09, 2014

a movement, not a moment

I've never been particularly good at estimating -- age, weight, number of people in a group -- but I'd say that the crowd that gathered at the First Baptist Church on West Main Street would easily have filled the sanctuary I am privileged to preach in each Sunday.  That means it topped 200, maybe 250, people.  (And if my extremely rough calculations are anywhere near correct, somewhere around 5% or more of that crowd were other Unitarian Universalists.  Shout out to my peeps.)

We walked in a line from First Baptist over to the Federal Courthouse, where we heard some inspiring words.  Words to inspire us.  Inspire us to not let this one night's march be the end of things.  Inspire us to feel the anger, and the grief, and to come together to make a difference.  A real difference in a system that so desperately needs to be different than it is.

From there we marched to Charlottesville's famed Free Speech Wall.  More speeches.  One speaker said -- look out at you all.  Black, white, hispanic, aisan, gay, straight, young, old -- this is what unity looks like!  We were reminded, encouraged, called on not to let our disagreements over little things get in the way of our desire to move in the same direction.  One person said that this should be a movement, not a moment.

As we marched we chanted -- "No peace -- no justice!"  "Hands up -- don't shoot!"  "I can't breathe."

As we marched we were protected by Charlottesville police officers who wanted to keep us safe and free to voice our outrage and our sorrow.  I was not the only one to step out of the line and walk over to one of their motorcycles to thank them.  I said to one, "I'd imagine that this is kind of a weird thing for you."  "Yeah, but I get it," he said.

I get it.

I'm often tempted to think I "get it" too.  I don't.  At least, not fully.  I understand the concepts.  As much as I'd like to be able to ignore or refute the facts, I see them.  But I don't know what it feels like to live with them every day.  I don't know what it is like.

I can walk down the street with my hands in my pockets or my hoodie up without any concern that I might get stopped by the police and interrogated because someone had called them having seen me and being afraid.  I don't know what it's like to get violently thrown to the ground -- or shot -- because I have the audacity to question an unnecessary and inappropriate request to "prove" myself innocent.  I don't have to have in the back of my head the idea that even when I'm doing nothing at all in a place I belong I can be "in the wrong place at the wrong time."  I don't have to live with the assumptions -- other's assumptions of me and mine of them.  I don't have to live and breathe every day the reality that I am nearly always cast as "the Other."

I can understand all this, but I can't fully "get it."  I don't have to live it.

I have two transracially adopted sons.  One looks like his Irish birth mother rather than his African American birth father.  (He used to say "my brown skin's on the inside.)  The other is a beautiful cross between his East Indian birth mother and his African American and Cherokee birth father.  I know that the world will treat them differently.  I know that someday, and someday soon, my older son will transform from a "cute little brown-skinned boy" into a "threatening black-skinned man."  He's going to "get it."  I have to stop it.

"You are not my enemy," one of the speakers said last night.  "I am not your enemy."  Looking out at the crowd he said, "I don't want to be afraid of you; you don't need to be afraid of me."  "We have to work together to change things."  This is what unity looks like.

This has to be a movement, not a moment.  I can't become complacent, shift my attention to the next thing to come along, return to "life as normal."  Because "life as normal" for me is protected, shielded, from "life as normal" for the vast majority of people of color.  And when I return to my safe "life as normal," I abandon others to a "life as normal" that is unlike any "normal" I'd ever want to experience.  And not just me -- I don't want anyone to have to experience it.  And since my "normal" is, in a very real sense, paid for by this other "normal," then I have to be actively involved in changing things.

Pax tecum,


P.S. -- yes, it's true, "all live matter."  But there are two reasons I think it's important that we keep the focus on black lives.  First, it's taken for granted in our culture that white lives matter.  That's assumed; that's expected.  When something challenges that it's thought to be an aberration.  Not so for people of color.  It needs to be asserted -- again and again and again -- that not only white lives but black lives too, matter.

Secondly, one of the ways that white liberals have learned to avoid seeing the real devastation in body, mind, and spirit that racism causes is to affirm that -- we're all in this together.  Yes, we say, black lives matter, but really -- don't all lives matter?  Of course.  But this impulse toward "we're all one" is a way denying the really differences that exist between white and black experiences.  It's a way of saying, "see?  you're just like me," but that'd be asserting that people of color have all the same privileges that I do as a white man.  And that's really a way of blinding myself to the reality that we're not all the same.  Or, rather, perhaps more accurately, that we're not all treated the same.  We need -- I need -- to keep reminding myself and being reminded of those differences so that I can keep being motivated to dismantle them.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Who Do You Say That I Am?

Jesus at 12 in the Temple by Bénèdite de la Roncière
 See more at: JesusMAFA
Yesterday I had the pleasure and privilege of speaking to the Christian Fellowship here at Thomas Jefferson Memorial Church - Unitarian Universalist.

In many ways each Sunday in a Unitarian Universalist church is an interfaith service, and like all interfaith services it is important to consider the words and symbols used so as to make the service as accessible to as many as possible.

I’ve often said that religions are like languages.  You can convey most things in most languages, but friends who speak more than one language tell me that there are certain things that you can really only say in French, for instance, or that you really have to speak Russian in order to fully comprehend a certain idea.  I have become quite comfortable in my adopted language of Unitarian Universalist, and I have a fair proficiency in Buddhist, but my native tongue is Christian.
This morning I want to hang the sermon on four passages from the Christian scriptures.  There is a story told in the Gospel of Mark:
“And Jesus went on with his disciples, to the villages of Caesarea Philippi; and on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do the people say that I am?’  And they told him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’  And he asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’
And, you know, this question kind of makes sense, doesn’t it?  It’s a very human question, isn’t it? 

Have you ever been introduced to someone and had them say, “Oh … I’ve heard a lot about you.”?  When that happens to me I usually say something like, “Oh, I’m so sorry to hear that,” or something like that, but don’t you wonder what they’ve heard?  I know that 12 Steppers have a saying – your opinion of me is none of my business – but you kind of want to know, don’t you?  So Jesus asks, “Who do the people say that I am?”
I imagine them walking as they’re talking – Jesus up in front with long, powerful strides, the others half running to keep up.  But after his friends tell him about other people’s opinions of him I imagine Jesus stopping – the disciples nearly bumping into him and each other.  He looks at them, hard, and then he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

And that’s really the crux of things, isn’t it?  The heart of this whole Jesus thing, right?  Who do I – who do you – say this Jesus – Yeshua ben Miriam – who do we say that he is?  Because more so than any other religion I know of, the language of Christianity is the language of relationship.  Who do you say that I am?  It’s not an academic question; it’s a relational one.

Marcus Borg, beloved scholar, says that to be Christian we must “take seriously what Jesus took seriously.”  He seems to be suggesting that – well, no, actually, he doesn’t “seem to be suggesting,” he’s outright saying it – that creeds and theological constructs really aren’t all that important.  What matters really isn’t what you believe about Jesus, it is – and here we are again – the relationship you have.  Do you care about the things he cared about?  Do you look at the world in the same way?  Antoine de Saint-Exupery said, "Love does not consist in gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction."
And apparently this is what God thinks, too.  At the dramatic height of the story of the Transfiguration, told in both Matthew and Luke, the disciples see a vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses and Elijah, and they hear a voice from heaven saying, “This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!”  Note that the voice does not say, “Bow down and worship him,” but, simply, “Listen to him.”  Pay attention.  Take seriously what he’s taking seriously, because these are the things I take seriously too. 
In the Gospel of Luke there’s a passage that I think points us toward what those things are:
“When the crowds learned [where Jesus was], they followed him; and he welcomed them and spoke to them of the kingdom of God, and cured those who had need of healing”
Four points (and I’m going to quote from Teacher, Guide, Companion for a bit.):
First, crowds of people followed him.  Something about Jesus—what he did, what he taught, who he was—drew people to him. The Gospels consistently tell us that people would not let Jesus alone; crowds followed him everywhere he went, seeking to be in his presence.  
Second, Jesus welcomed these crowds.  He welcomed not only the stereotypically “holy” or “righteous,” but anyone who came to him.  Each Gospel makes a pretty big deal of Jesus eating with “sinners,” “tax collectors,” and others that his society considered “unclean.”  Yet you might be particularly struck when reading Luke by how often Jesus was said to have eaten with Pharisees and Scribes!  Everyone—anyone—who came to Jesus was welcomed; no one was turned away.
Third— … and [he] spoke to them of the kingdom of God, . .  Jesus tried to teach people what God’s rule, God’s empire (in Greek, basileia) was like.  Jesus—with his unconditional welcome—formed a community that strove to be a living model of God’s reign, God’s kingdom, the Beloved Community where a seat at the “heavenly banquet” was offered to anyone who came.  Which was markedly different than the empire of Caesar … the only empire anyone knew at the time.  And not to put too fine a point on it, this Kingdom of God is still different from the nations known today.]
The fourth, and final, element in Luke’s summation of Jesus’ ministry is that, “. . .[he] cured those who had need of healing.”  Jesus—in his lifetime—was known as a healer.  A lot of us have an acculturated skepticism about “faith healing” and may find this hard to accept, yet there really isn’t any way around it.  Those who knew him, and even Jesus himself, acknowledged that his role as a healer was central to his overall ministry. 
Yet, while not wanting to minimize at all the element of physical healing in Jesus’ ministry, we shouldn’t limit our understanding of his healing work to bodily cures.  In the Buddhist tradition, Siddhartha Gutama, who was called the Buddha, was also known as “the Great Doctor” and his teachings were called “Medicine.”   In the Christian tradition, Jesus of Nazareth, who was called the Christ, was known to heal the body, mind, and soul of any who needed healing.
So … that seems to be what Jesus took seriously.  Do we?  Do you?  I’d say that I try to, but I’ll confess that I don’t always come anywhere close.  I forget … a lot.  My teachers at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation would say that we are easily “kidnapped” by the cares of our lives and the confusions of our culture.  Those things that Jesus took seriously?  Not so readily apparent in the values of the world around us; not so heavily reinforced.  So I try … and I forget.  After writing and giving this sermon I’ll probably remember for a day or two.  How ‘bout you?

So I’ve touched now on three of the four scripture passages on which I’d said I’d hang this sermon.  And … in case you hadn’t noticed … I’ve neatly managed to avoid answering directly the question Jesus posed to his friends along the road to Caesarea Philippi – who do I say that he is?  What is my relationship with this first century Rabi?

In Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth – and, apparently, most Biblical scholars do think this is actually one of Paul’s (or, maybe, two of Paul’s. but that’s a discussion for another time) – in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians he says of Jesus, “all God’s promises find their ‘yes’ in him.”  Isn’t that cool?  All God’s promises find their “yes” in this man, Jesus.  Yeshua.  We might say that he is a living, breathing embodiment of God.  Oh wait – that has been said.  That’s what’s meant by “incarnation.”

To me, Jesus is a model.  If you will, a teacher and a guide.  When John records him saying “I am the way and the truth and the light” I think of Mahatma Gandhi saying, “What is my message?  My life is my message.”  Jesus is the way.  The way of Jesus is the way.  (And that’s what the earliest Christians were known as – people of the way.)
And Jesus was not merely just and good; in Bishop Spong’s words, he was “God-intoxicated.”  Those who see Jesus as a fine moral example or as a gifted ethical teacher, yet who want to keep God out of the picture, miss a fundamental fact about this man.  Wherever he went, in everything he did—not only in his words but in the living of his life—Jesus “spoke . . . of God.” Stephen Patterson notes that the quest to know Jesus is the quest to know God; the two cannot be separated.  Jesus’ example points me toward God.

The Franciscan priest Richard Rohr – who, if you haven’t encountered yet you really should – made a point in something I was reading recently that really touched me.  He said that the important thing for us, today, about Jesus is not the assertion that Jesus was like God.  Rather, he said, the really important thing for us to realize is that God is like him.  So God welcomes all who come – an open and inviting welcome that does not concern itself with categories.  God cares about justice, especially for those who are most in need of it, the few that the many would ignore, the ones people often say don’t “deserve” it, aren’t “good enough.”  And God heals.  Cures your cancer?  Maybe not.  But offers a way toward wholeness?  Absolutely.  Remember –  health, wholeness, and holy all share the same root.

Yet I think there’s something more, too.  For me Jesus is not just a teacher and a guide, he’s a present companion, too.  I can’t quite explain it – and it may just be a kind of imaginative play – but when I am not caught up, not kidnapped, then I do sense a presence that is with me.  Not just a teacher then¸ but a teacher now.  I’ll admit that it doesn’t make sense, but honestly?  I don’t need it to.

Now … I’d like to open up the conversation so that you can share your answers, too … [That invitation was extended to the people in the room, but I'd extend it to anybody reading this.]

Pax tecum,


Thursday, December 04, 2014

the need to wake up

This morning I am still wrestling with what I can do in the wake of the New York Grand Jury not to indict Daniel Pantaleo who has been accused of killing Eric Garner this past July.  They reached this decision despite there being video evidence of Officer Pantaleo using a banned "choke hold" on Mr. Garner, audio of Mr. Garner repeatedly telling the officer that he couldn't breathe, and the coroner ruling the death a homicide.  How could all of that not even warrant a trial to determine the facts more conclusively?  And with this decision coming on the heels of a similar decision in the case of Darren Wilson's alleged murder of Mike Brown, and within the context of the literally hundreds of cases of fatal encounters between young black men and law enforcement personnel ....  I'm wrestling with what to do.

I mean, I got up this morning and had to get my kids off to school and I had to get to work.  And while my job as a parish minister allows me a great deal of flexibility in how I use my time, I still have things that I have to do that have nothing to do with addressing racial inequalities in our culture.  (Not to mention disparities between gender expressions, economic status, sexual orientation, differing abilities, etc., etc., etc.)  And later on the dog has to be taken for a walk, and dinner has to be cooked, and Peter Pan LIVE! is on NBC tonight.

I don't really mean to be flip and, yet, I do want to drive home how easy it is for me -- as a liberal, white, heterosexual, middle class, well-educated man -- to put all of this other stuff behind me and return to my life "as normal."  And see, that's the thing -- as a white man I have been taught in so many ways, both explicit and implicit, that my life experiences are "normal."  I am free to choose where to go, and generally feel safe when I get there.  I won't be stopped by the police for no particular reason -- like, for instance, walking with my hands in my pockets on a cold day in Michigan.  I can even try to break into my car when I've locked myself out and no one will bat an eye.  Why?  Because I'm a white man and that means I'm given the benefit of the doubt, there's an assumption that I'm okay.  

But if I were black?  World famous scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home because a neighbor had seen someone "suspicious" trying to break into a house.  Gates had forgotten his keys, and even though he had already changed into his bathrobe by the time the police arrived, and he could prove that the house was, in fact, his, he was still arrested.  As with Brandon McKean in Michigan, it seems that in the eyes of many, at least, black = suspicious.

Let me change that a bit.  I said, "in the eyes of many," yet even good liberal, non-racist folk will often hold their purses a little tighter, or cross the street, if they see a group of young black men walking down the street toward them.  It's not intentional.  It's not even conscious.  Racism is part of the air we all breathe and, as well all now know, even non-smokers are affected by second hand smoke.  We are all -- even the "good ones" of us -- infected by second hand racism.

If I were a person of color I would have no choice but to look at, deal with, the reality of racism in our culture.  I would be reminded on a daily -- perhaps even hourly -- basis of the systemic disparities which tend to put me at a disadvantage in innumerable situations.  I honestly and truly can't fully imagine what that would be like.

Because I have white skin.  So I have the choice to look at all of this or not.  I have the freedom to step away from my discomfort and into the safe normalcy that is whiteness.  I can choose to live in a world where racist actions are anomalies and where racists are a dying breed.  I can choose to live in a world where so much progress has been made that the President of the United States is an African American man.  This is a large part of what's meant by "white privilege" -- I have the privilege of being able to make these choices.

But here's the thing -- if I can choose to close my eyes and turn my back to these realities faced so regularly by people of color and nearly never by me and people who look like me ... well ... then I can choose not to, as well.  I can choose to keep my eyes open; keep my ears open; keep my heart open.   I can recognize the experiences of people of color as as real as mine even as they differ, even as I can recognize that some folks seriously love hip hop even though it doesn't sound like Beethoven.  And then, well then I might actually even start listening to hip hop and discover its incredible rhythmic and poetic complexity.  Similarly, when I come to recognize that there's a whole other world that I never have to experience, I can choose to begin to experience it as best I can ... stepping out of my safe bubble, taking what I'll call "racial risks" (the risk of saying or doing the 'wrong" thing), really listening to the experiences of people of color, and standing in solidarity with folks who have for too long had to stand alone.

What should I do in the wake of the recent Grand Jury verdicts?  Perhaps the first thing would be to wake up and open my eyes.  Then I can try to wake up as many people as I can.  Who will you wake up>

Pax tecum,


Tuesday, December 02, 2014

to look clear-eyed and what's happening all around us

I am angry.  I'm heartbroken.  I despair.  I feel impotent.  My heart keens and my soul is screaming.

Michael Brown in Ferguson.

Tamir Rice in Cleveland.

Akai Gurley in Brooklyn.

Aura Rain Rosser in Ann Arbor.

Tanisha Anderson in Cleveland.

Roshad McIntosh in Chicago.

Darien Hunt in Saratoga Springs.

Ezell Ford and Omar Brego in Los Angeles.

Eric Garner, Kajieme Powell, Vonderitt D. Meyers, Jr., John Crawford III, Cary Ball Jr., Eleanor Bumpurs, Michael Stewart, Eula Love, Amadu Diallo, Oscar Grant, Patrick Dorismond, Malice Green, Tyisha Miller, Sean Bell, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Margaret LaVerne Mitchell ...

I could go on, of course.  I could go on, but I'd have to go on, and on, and on.  The Stolen Lives Project has collected data on over 2,000 cases of people killed by law enforcement in the 1990s alone.  (You can put a face to some of the names here.)

Were all of these people people of color?  No, but the vast majority were.  The incidents of violent interactions between law enforcement and citizens skews overwhelmingly along racial lines.  (And a Google search on the phrase "racial disparities in police violence" yields more evidence than any reasonable person could need.)

Were all of these people innocent?  Of course not, yet there are far, far too many cases of innocent people being beaten or shot by police officers, and of these the victims were predominantly young men of color.

Law enforcement personnel have an extraordinarily difficult job.  They must decide -- often with virtually not time -- how to respond to threatening and seemingly threatening situations.  I would not want to do what they have to do, and I do believe that the majority of police officers are good people trying to do good things and are not secretly "gunning for black people."

Yet we live in a culture that still considers white, heterosexual men the norm and which casts people of color (and women, and homosexuals, and ...) as Other.  Brown skinned men, and in particular young brown skinned men are seen as "dangerous" and "threatening" by white skinned people -- consciously or unconsciously.  Think of how typical it is for a white person to feel ever-so-slightly apprehensive when they see a black man walking down the street toward them.  It's unconscious.  It's instinctive.  It's reinforced by countless means, both subtle and overt.  (And by "countless" I really do mean that there are far too many ways to count that reinforce these stereotypes.)

And, so, in this context -- the real world in which we live -- it almost doesn't matter if, in any particular case, the shooting is "justified;" there are always exceptions.  But the pattern ... the pattern is where the problem is.  It is the pattern of unjustifiable police targeting of people of color for violence that leads to the cry, "Black Lives Matter!"

It seems to me that one would have to be willfully looking away not to see what is happening.  And, so, I am angry.  I'm heartbroken.  I despair.  My heart screams and my soul is keening.  And I feel impotent.  What can I do -- a straight, white, middle class, well-educated, minister ensconced in a bubble of privilege?  What can I possibly do from here -- from my own lived experience -- to make any kind of change?  Joseph Osmundson and David J. Leonard, in an essay on Huffington post, name "12 Things White People Can Actually Do After the Ferguson Decision."  It is well worth reading, and all thinking white people should not only read it but follow all the links, as well.

The other thing I can do -- and you can do, too, if you find yourself in the privileged position of being white in this society -- can take advantage of our white privilege and speak up ... speak out.  The world -- okay, let's be honest, the white world ... the dominant world -- listens more closely when a white person speaks out.  And if you're a white male, all the better.  So, if you need to, pull your head out of the obfuscating fog and look clear-eyed and what's happening all around us.  (Just because it's not your experience does not mean it's not happening.)  And then talk about it.  Post on FaceBook and Twitter.  Bring it up at holiday parties (a risk, sure, but nowhere near the risk of "walking while black" has become).

Prove that black lives matter.  Prove that all lives matter.

Pax tecum,