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Amen.

February 22nd, 2017 No comments

 

San Diego’s Catholic bishop urges citizens to be ‘disruptors’ and ‘rebuilders’ in Trump era

Even before the White House announced stricter immigration policies Tuesday, there were signs of opposition. Addressing people “of all faiths and no faith,” San Diego’s Roman Catholic bishop on Saturday urged Americans to be “disruptors” and “rebuilders.” Donald Trump, Bishop Robert McElroy noted, had campaigned for the presidency as “the disruptor.”

διαβάλλειν – The one who creates division

February 20th, 2017 No comments

In Christian theology, the Devil is an angel who defied God, and thus became morally corrupt. His name is Satan, which translates to “the accuser,” but he is also called the Devil, which derives from the Greek word διαβάλλειν (diaballein), which is generally rendered “slanderer.” Both names are appropriate because in the Christian narrative world Satan stands before God accusing humanity of rebellion, which is a slander because the division between humanity and God was instigated by Satan himself.

Bishop Robert Barron notes that the construction of the word dia-ballein combines two Greek words: dia – through, and ballein – to throw. Adding those words together creates a sense of casting asunder, or division. One must be cautious in assigning meaning based on pure etymology because words often take on meanings removed from the component parts (under-stand doesn’t mean to stand under something), but in this case I think the interpretation is useful because one can see how accusing and slandering will cast relationships asunder and cause division.

When God created humanity ‘in his image,’ he created us in a love relationship that mirrored the love relationship of the Trinity. In the Trinity there are three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) whose relationship with each other is a total outpouring of love, called perichoresis. The image of God in humans is the total outpouring of love by humanity for God, just as God pours himself out to humanity. In the Genesis story Adam and Eve stand for all humanity, and God has provided everything for their needs, given them autonomy and dominion over the earth. We read his instruction not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil as a threat: if you do it you will die. But in fact it was a warning: creating a division in our relationship will bring about the death of our love relationship. It is not, “if you put your hand on the stove I will burn you,” it is, “if you put your hand on the stove you will get burned.”

The narrative continues with the arrival on the scene of the serpent, widely understood to be Satan. Satan tempts Eve with the promise of hidden knowledge and lies to her about the consequences of giving in to that temptation. But, alas, she is helpless to resist, and she sins, and Adam includes himself in her sin. And the sin immediately resulted in death, as God had warned.

The reader may wonder how the act resulted in immediate death when the Genesis narrative shows Adam and Eve living for hundreds of years outside of Eden. But the death God warned against was the death of the love relationship. As Paul writes, they moved from love of the Creator to love of created things, and after they were never able to devote their full attention to the love of God. Their affections were divided, which removed them from the total self-giving love of God. Thus, they were divided from God. That is death. The Serpent, Satan, the Accuser, the Slanderer, had successfully brought about the fall of humanity, casting asunder the wholeness of humans, and casting asunder their relationship with God.

The curse of humanity throughout recorded history has been the operation of this division manifest in uncountable ways. Humans are not only divided from God by their disordered affections, they are separated from each other by the breaking of God’s Spirit. The result is all of the calamities known to man.

Dia-ballein. To cast asunder. Division is the fate of humanity, and as we look about us today we lament the division we see in American politics, as if it were something new. Of course it is not new but at times it is more pronounced and noticeable. Although this spirit of division is undeniable, in the national discourse its cause is debated. To the conservatives, it’s the liberals To the liberals, it’s Trump. To the immigrants and minorities it’s the whites. To the whites it’s the “other,” whoever that happens to be at the moment (Naive Americans, Blacks, Irish, Catholics, Asians, Eastern Europeans, Italians, Okies, Hispanics, Japanese, and now Muslims). There are accusing fingers pointing in every direction. Each side, at least in its own mind, has truth and righteousness on its side, but the result is ever deepening division, to the point that one wonders if it is possible to heal.

Donald Trump was elected after running a campaign that sowed division. It began with the accusation that Mexicans were sending “rapists and drug dealers” and continued with attacks on Muslims, the press, the courts, “political correctness.” To some this aggressive speech was refreshing, stating openly what they had long believed but were afraid to vocalize. Others, like the KKK and other white supremacist organizations, openly celebrated that at last their hateful ideology was becoming mainstream.

Now, I am not saying that Donald Trump is the Devil, but I am saying that Donald Trump is doing the Devil’s work. Because the Devil’s work is to accuse and slander, skills Donald Trump has mastered.

But Donald Trump is not alone. Since the election, and particularly since the inauguration, liberals have responded to the provocations of the Trump administration by pointing accusing fingers not only at Trump, but against those who support him. It may be argued that their anger is righteous, but we must also concede that the result of this anger is not righteousness but more anger and more provocation. An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind. If Donald Trump’s opponents are able to succeed in ending his presidency, it will not heal the division.

In a secular society like the United States, few are willing to consider national political and social problems in spiritual or religious terms. But it is clear that the strategies employed to solve these problems do exactly the opposite. Can we concede that peace cannot be restored or created by vanquishing our opponents? If so, then we may consider an alternative strategy.

Here, Christian theology comes to the rescue. The narrative that begins with the rebellion of humanity against the love of God, that sows division, ends with unity. The climax of the Christian story of salvation is the death and resurrection of Christ. The consequence of that event is that Christ has overcome death and division and restored the unity of man and God by restoring the love relationship. Theologically, this is accomplished by the death of the human spirit of division and rebirth in God’s Spirit of love and unity. That’s what Jesus means when he tells Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”

The biblical Christian outlook is that it is only by the death of our separateness can we be restored to union with God. When we become Christians, we receive the Spirit of Christ. There is only one Spirit of Christ. The result is that those who are living in Christ are all one, and the sign of that unity is the self-giving self-sacrificing love that Jesus modeled on the cross. When John writes “God is love,” he says implicitly that wherever self-denying self-sacrificing love is evident in the world, God is visible. And Jesus himself says that this is how his followers can be identified.

When Mohandas Gandhi was leading Satyagraha (truth war) against British rule in India, it was not difficult for him to find many willing to risk their well-being in violent revolution. It is perhaps symptomatic of the fall from grace that the human heart tends more toward vengeance than justice. But Gandhi insisted that no one could be his follower who did not surrender their inner urge to violence, even in thought. It is not enough to be nonviolent when one is incapable of mounting violent resistance. True nonviolence requires a nonviolence of the heart: a tendency to love and compassion rather than anger and punishment. The strength of Gandhi’s nonviolence was that even if he had the power to vanquish the British by force, he would rather have reached out in brotherhood. This is the Christian way.

And this must be our way. The truth is, the image of God is in all of us. We must learn to recognize that image in everyone we encounter. It is not likely that we will ever achieve substantial agreement on politics, but it is possible for us to love each other even if we disagree. South Africa in the time of apartheid could not have been any more divided. One way that President Nelson Mandela helped to heal that division was by reaching out to his opponents to work on projects they could agree on. “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

I don’t think we should expect instant reciprocation. We may in fact receive violence in return for our love. But we must never give in to violence. We must have the courage to receive the blows of the enemy, knowing that our suffering will be the instrument that will save us both.

The alternative is to continue to divide. And this is the work of the one who creates division.

Approaching Moral Death

November 30th, 2016 No comments

He’s quite concerned about insulting inanimate objects, but he has no problem with bombing children.

Trump’s Call to Strip Flag Burners of Citizenship Renews Decades-Old Debate

The obstacles include the precedent that the Constitution does not allow the government to expatriate Americans against their will, through a landmark 1967 case, Afroyim v. Rusk. They also include a 1989 decision, Texas v. Johnson, in which the court struck down criminal laws banning flag burning, ruling that the act was a form of political expression protected by the First Amendment.

Thanksgiving Peace in a Troubled World

November 25th, 2016 No comments

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Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me. Then the God of peace will be with you. (New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Php 4:4–9.)

As I considered passages that might be appropriate for Thanksgiving I ran across Paul’s exhortations to the Christians at Philippi near the end of his letter to the church there.

Those Christians would have been familiar with negativity and anxiety. Scholars have estimated that the Christian church at Philippi was probably about 2% of the population. Very few of the local elites would have been included, and the greater part of the church membership would have been at the lower echelons of a status driven society, consisting mostly of poor Greeks and slaves. Philippi was a Roman colony, awash in the paganism of the Roman Empire, a promiscuous and idol worshipping culture similar to our own. In this letter Paul calls upon the Christians to live in a way that challenges the culture, which he acknowledges they are doing. But obviously, a minority challenge from the lowest level of society to the prevailing darkness would have produced anxiety in the community.

As someone who seeks to live “in Christ,” I identify with the plight of the Philippians. I have long felt that, far from being a Christian nation, the culture of the United States more resembles the paganism of the Hellenistic world. For me, this was made abundantly clear in the political process we had to endure this past several months. I allowed myself to become emotionally involved in the event, forgetting, as Paul reminds us, that “our citizenship is in heaven.” (Php. 3:20)

I think I am not the only one who has been adversely affected by the negativity of the season. I sense there is an air of bitterness and anxiety that was not resolved by the outcome of the election. Angry words are being exchanged, along with accusations and even acts of violence. The election didn’t solve anything. It seems to have deepened the divide.

So Paul’s advice to the Christians at Philippi is relevant to our own situation. He begins by essentially commanding the Philippians to rejoice. He emphasizes the command by repeating it. “I say again, rejoice!” This is not a passive admonition to “don’t worry, be happy.” The verbs in this passage are imperative.

How can Paul seriously expect worried people to respond positively to a command to rejoice? He can because he is not suggesting simply that one will oneself into joy (“lighten up!”). He is issuing a call to action. “Make your kindness known to all,” he tells them. And not to leave them scratching their heads, he follows this call to action with specific instructions.

The first thing they must do is to pray with thanksgiving. He actually prefaces the call to prayer by reminding them that “the Lord is near.” Some interpret this as a reminder of the Parousia, the second coming, but in the context of this call to prayer it more likely points out that Jesus has promised to be with us always (Mt. 28:20). So they (and we) have every reason to be grateful. We can pray with thanksgiving because we know the Lord is near, that he hears us. Our trust in the nearness of Christ in our afflictions and anxieties, if it is real, allows us to live with a peace that surpasses all understanding.

I think that last phrase deserves a little attention, because we are apt to think that Paul is writing in hyperbole. We are used to this, surrounded as we are with overblown descriptions of everything from laundry soap to toothpaste, and so we might dismiss it, as we do most advertising. But Paul didn’t live in a culture soaked in advertising, and when he writes that something surpasses all understanding, he means it. How can one understand a people who live in spiritual peace in the midst of troubled times? Are they daft? Paul assures us later in the letter that he has “learned to be content whatever the circumstances.” (Php. 4:11 NIV)

How? Paul instructs the Philippians to two counter-cultural actions. The first is to focus their attention on the things that are true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, or gracious, in short anything that speaks of the sovereignty of God in a fallen world. It is true that the world is fallen and because of that we are beset by corruption in everything, but at the same time God’s signature is still to be found: in nature, in our loving relations with those close to us, in acts of love and heroism and charity great and small. Paul here suggests that we can train our minds to notice these things first and above all. In other words, to notice God first and above all. That alone is enough to overcome the darkness of the world.

But he goes on. Paul instructs the Philippians to “keep on doing what you have learned and received and seen in me.” To know exactly what Paul means by that we have to look further back in the letter where he writes,

If there is any encouragement in Christ, any solace in love, any participation in the Spirit, any compassion and mercy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing. Do nothing out of selfishness or out of vainglory; rather, humbly regard others as more important than yourselves, each looking out not for his own interests, but [also] everyone for those of others.

Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Php. 2:1-11 NABRE)

A central theme of all of Paul’s writing is the idea of being “in Christ.” Being in Christ means the abandonment of what he calls the flesh, meaning things of secular life, and adopting the Spirit, which is that our motivation becomes entirely identified with God’s will. And what is God’s will? Is it that we satisfy our worldly desires? Is it that we triumph in politics, accumulate worldly treasures and honors, vanquish those who persecute us? No. It is that we pour ourselves out completely in our service to those around us. Even those who don’t like us, who we may not like very much. Jesus blessed and forgave those who were nailing him to the cross, and then he gave up everything for a world that despised him. That is God’s nature. And if we are in Christ, it is that nature we are being conformed to.

It may seem overwhelming. But we are not alone. The Lord is near. That is the source of our thanksgiving. That allows us to act with charity even in the midst of persecution. That is what gives a sure hope in the future. And that is where we experience the God of Peace.

No More War

September 11th, 2016 No comments

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What I am about to write will no doubt be found offensive by many. It is not my intention to offend, but I do hope that, presented with facts, the reader might pause to consider a point of view not driven by the establishment media/entertainment machine (and in this I include not only what we call the “mainstream” media, but much of the alternative media as well).

The events of September 11, 2001 had a profound influence on the United States and the world. Anyone who was alive and aware on that morning can well remember the shock. The coordinated attacks on the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, and the failed attempt to destroy the White House left the nation groping for answers. For a brief moment much of the discord of American life and politics was silenced, replaced by a sense of brotherhood and unity not felt since December 8, 1941. Throughout the country people stood in solidarity with New York, political wrangling in Washington ceased, and we even rallied around a President who on any other day would be detested by a large part of the population.

We had been attacked, but we were strong. We would survive. We would overcome the attacks, gain our revenge, punish the evildoers, and emerge triumphant, just as we had against Japan in World War II. The only problem was, unlike in 1941, nobody really knew who had attacked us. When shock and sadness turned to anger and cries for vengeance we were ready to kill somebody; we just didn’t know who. This cartoon by Breen captured the national mood well.

9-11-01-eagle-sharpening-talons-color-by-breen

But American unity is not always a pretty thing. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbor the nation generalized the enemy to be all who looked Japanese and subsequently engaged in a wholesale internment of people of Japanese descent, regardless of their citizenship, patriotism, or innocence; an episode that is embarrassing to admit even today. Similarly, after 9/11 many Americans concluded that the enemy was Islam; anyone who even looked Muslim was an enemy. I have a Sikh friend who wears the traditional beard and turban, whose property was vandalized after 9/11 because he was mistakenly identified as a Muslim.

Between 1941 and 2001 the country had officially internalized the lessons of World War II and subsequent events so that the President quickly affirmed that while the United States would diligently pursue whoever had attacked, our enemy was not Islam, and that there are many loyal Muslims in the United States and its military forces. Six days after the attacks President Bush visited an Islamic Center where he spoke eloquently against the harassment of Arabs and Muslims living in the United States and about the need to respect Islam.[1]

Sadly, this is a battle in the War on Terror the enemy has won. The goal of terrorist organizations has been to assume the mantle of representing Islam and to characterize American response to their attacks as a holy war against Islam. Their propaganda strategy, I think, was for local consumption, but it has succeeded probably beyond what they could have dreamed among Americans. This is not universally true but a large and vocal group in the United States continues to associate terrorism with Islam and counts all Muslims as enemies, in spite of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. This sentiment can be demonstrated by a sample from social media,

learnaboutislam

Images like this reflect the success of terrorists in hijacking Islam in the Western imagination.

In one sense it is understandable. In the aftermath of an unprovoked attack the victim is not likely to try to reason out the situation. If someone who is close to you suffers innocently at the hands of another, it is only human to lash out, whether the target of our wrath is guilty or not. And I’m not going to try to convince anyone that the generalization of 1.7 billion people as terrorists all intent on killing Americans is absurd, for the simple reason that anyone who can be convinced by logic already knows it is absurd, and the rest will remain unmoved.

Instead, what I want to do is to turn the tables. If we can generalize our enemy to be Islam, even though the real perpetrators are tiny cabals claiming to represent Islam, and in that we can find justification for waging war against any and all Muslims wherever they may be found, then how much more will it be possible for Muslims to view all Americans as their enemies? About three thousand people died in the 9/11 attacks and perhaps as many have succumbed to health conditions related to dust and smoke in the aftermath.[2] In contrast, in US wars after 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, civilian casualties are conservatively estimated at approximately 1.3 million people.[3]

That is a staggering number. It is so enormous it fits into the category Stalin referred to when he remarked “one death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” But the statistic represents in reality single tragic deaths multiplied in number by millions. Over a million tragedies. And if we in the United States can remain angry fifteen years later at the tragic death of someone we never knew and are unable even to name, how can we expect people in the Middle East and Central Asia not to be angry at those who rained death from the sky on their children, their parents, their brothers and sisters, their friends and sweethearts? If we can blame the deaths of three thousand and more innocent civilians on 1.7 billion Muslims, is it unreasonable for innocent victims of American military action to blame three hundred million Americans?

The lifeless bodies of Afghan children lay on the ground before their funeral ceremony, after a NATO airstrike killed several Afghan civilians, including ten children during a fierce gun battle with Taliban militants in Shultan, Shigal district, Kunar, eastern Afghanistan, Sunday, April 7, 2013. The U.S.-led coalition confirms that airstrikes were called in by international forces during the Afghan-led operation in a remote area of Kunar province near the Pakistan border. (AP Photo/Naimatullah Karyab)

If your kids were among these victims of American bombing, do you think your first reaction would be to say, calmly, “Well I know this was done with American weapons by Americans but they are only responding to 9/11 and so it’s ok they killed my kid — he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time?” I don’t think so.

I think you would react the way you did react after 9/11 and curse America and all Americans and begin to nurse a cancerous resentment that would blossom into irrepressible hatred. And just as the 9/11 attacks caused American wrath to rain on the just and the unjust alike in many corners of the world, so America’s response causes unending blind hatred against us. We cannot excuse ourselves by saying I’m not the one doing the bombing. The bombing is being done in our name, and when we don’t speak against it, when we allow it, we are complicit.

The candidates for President of the United States for the two major parties are committed to continuing America’s reign of terror in the Middle East. One of them sounds relatively reasonable and prudent and the other foams at the mouth, but they are both counseling policies that would either directly or indirectly result in the deaths of more innocent people, with the very predictable result of creating more mortal enemies. It may be unpopular to suggest on a day devoted to chest beating patriotism that we ought to strive for peace through peaceful action rather than “peace through strength” (translation: aggression), but I feel obligated to do it all the same. I’m not suggesting devoting ourselves to peace is an easy thing to do in a world of provocations, but I am affirming it is the only moral thing to do.

No more war.

[1] George Bush, “Islam Is Peace” (Speech, Islamic Center of Washington D.C., Washington, DC, September 17, 2001), accessed September 11, 2016, http://georgewbush-whitehouse.archives.gov/news/releases/2001/09/20010917-11.html.

[2] Joanna Walters, “9/11 Health Crisis: Death Toll from Illness Nears Number Killed On Day of Attacks,” Guardian US (New York), September 11, 2016, accessed September 11, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/sep/11/9-11-illnesses-death-toll.

[3] Body Count: Casualty Figures After 10 Years of The (Washington, D.C.: Physicians for Social Responsibility, March 2015), 15.

Christ and the Gay Bar

June 17th, 2016 No comments

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When I read about Christian preachers celebrating the deaths of gays murdered in Orlando, I just shook my head. Here we go again. I know there are a lot of people who call themselves Christians who draw attention to themselves with these Trump-like antics at every opportunity, particularly at precisely the wrong moment. But I also know these two things: they are fringe groups promoted by sensationalizing media to smear an entire religion, and they do not represent Christianity. Sound familiar? What didn’t get reported in the mainstream media is that far more Christians reacted with love than hate. The difference is that those Christians acted in ways that didn’t seek to draw attention to themselves. But their efforts were much more concrete and helpful than the vapid “thoughts and prayers” offered by the Congress.

Because there are so many different expressions of faith in a religion claimed by 2.2 billion people, there is in fact no way to pin down what Christianity is. Even Christians in small denominations cannot agree on what they believe. When I was a seminarian I used to engage in very heated arguments about minute points of theology that were of interest to only a tiny few and of importance to none. We can’t even agree on the most fundamental doctrines. So to make any kind of definitive statement about what Christians believe is to be deceptive both to ourselves and to whomever we are speaking. But any group calling itself Christian who claims the Christian Bible – Old and New Testaments – cannot avoid these two scripture passages.

“All have sinned.” (Ro. 3:23) How disheartening to watch our public conversation descend into angry finger-pointing. We delight in pointing out the sins of others. But there is very little introspection. The biblical doctrine is that we all stand condemned before God. None of us can live a sinless life. No matter how sinful my neighbor is, my sin is no less. If sins were arranged according to severity (I’m not sure they ultimately are), surely self-righteousness would be close to the top, because self-righteousness, while it stands in condemnation of your sins, ignores my own, and keeps me in darkness. Acknowledging my own frailty leads to appreciation for our common humanity. “I am not different from you brother. I too am weak and in need of forgiveness.” Acknowledging our own fault leads away from judgment, intolerance, and hate.

Which leads to the second passage, “I give you a new commandment: love one another. As I have loved you, so you should love one another. This is how all will know you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35 NABRE). Now, if you think Jesus is telling us here to have warm fuzzies for each other, you have missed the point entirely. When Jesus says love as I have loved he means with a total outpouring of self-sacrifice for the benefit of the other, even the enemy, with no thought of reciprocation or reward. This is what John means when he writes “God is love.” Jesus poured out his life on the cross to free from the bondage of sin even people who despised him. And Jesus says, in this passage, that this is the kind of love which will identify his followers. If self-sacrificing love is evident, we are witnessing Christ, if not, not.

We are not called to judge; the world has already been judged. We are called to love.

The other day the Republican Lieutenant Governor of Utah Nelson Cox remarked as follows when speaking about the tragedy in Orlando, “calling people idiots, communists, fascists or bigots on Facebook is not going to change any hearts or minds.” Those things are not love. They are judgments.

If we desire peace, in our hearts and in our world, we must lay aside judgment and embrace love.

The Urgency of a Moral Economy

April 15th, 2016 No comments
Bernie Sanders at The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences 4/15/16

Over a century ago, Pope Leo XIII highlighted economic issues and challenges in Rerum Novarum that continue to haunt us today, such as what he called “the enormous wealth of a few as opposed to the poverty of the many.”

And let us be clear. That situation is worse today. In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people – 60 people – own more than the bottom half – 3 1/2 billion people. At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable.

 

 

The Urgency of a Moral Economy: Reflections on the 25th Anniversary of Centesimus Annus – Bernie Sanders

I am honored to be with you today and was pleased to receive your invitation to speak to this conference of The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. Today we celebrate the encyclical Centesimus Annus and reflect on its meaning for our world a quarter-century after it was presented by Pope John Paul II.

What Kind of Extremists Will We Be?

January 18th, 2016 No comments

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The life and legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. has been woven into a narrative that serves the interests of the status quo. It is not that the ways he is portrayed are entirely inaccurate, but they are misleading. Our narrative celebrates his life as a triumph of civil rights; that after marching across the Pettus bridge to Washington he gave a speech declaring “Let my people go!” and the racial divide closed. Whew. Glad that’s over with. And now we have a black president we can despise and our racial issue has been solved. Or so it once seemed.

King has been tamed like all of our heroes have been tamed. But Dr. King was not a tame man. And he was not a moderate. If he had been a tame moderate he would not have been able to concentrate enough ill will against him to warrant assassination. Dr. King was dangerous.

The first misconception is that King’s concern was focused or even mainly focused on racial justice. It is true that he entered the stage of public action in support of a movement to remove demeaning racial barriers in Montgomery. King’s activism challenged and demolished the system of Jim Crow segregation, the maintenance of a legally enforced inferior class based on race. And for that we rightly celebrate his life.

But even in the midst of that struggle his vision was greater and more dangerous. In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail King writes about a conversation with his white guards where he observed that rather than opposing him poor whites should support his cause, because the system created a false sense of superiority in whites that left them content to be little or no better off than their black neighbors. Their economic and social plight was almost identical, but they were content to allow it by the logic that at least they weren’t black. Racism in America was fostered as a means of social control — of both blacks and whites. King’s vision wasn’t simply justice for black people. It was justice for everyone. That’s what made him so dangerous.

I once was lulled like many others into the false belief that because of King’s work our national racial divisions had been set on a course of inevitable solution. Yes, there was still work to do, but we were making progress. The final vision of a racially blind society was inevitable. But in the last couple of years I have been forced to acknowledge, as have many others, that my torpor only served to perpetuate injustices that have yet to be addressed. Racism may be illegal but it is nevertheless still enshrined in the hearts and practices of many, even some who deny (even with sincerity) they are racist.

Less than three weeks before he was murdered Dr. King delivered remarks that addressed the civil unrest plaguing America at that time. Here is what he said:

Now I wanted to say something about the fact that we have lived over these last two or three summers with agony and we have seen our cities going up in flames. And I would be the first to say that I am still committed to militant, powerful, massive, non­-violence as the most potent weapon in grappling with the problem from a direct action point of view. I’m absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt. And I feel that we must always work with an effective, powerful weapon and method that brings about tangible results. But it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.[1]

Does it not seem that these words could be spoken today? The injustices that King fought against are still with us.

King’s ultimate goal was the creation of what he called “The Beloved Community.” The Beloved Community would consist of a world without division; all people living in harmony through the love of God (agape) as expressed in the human heart. If we pigeon-hole King into the Civil Rights box and leave him there we really don’t know him at all, and we do him great disservice.

The world has changed too little since King’s assassination. King never spoke in favor of violence, he never advocated division, he decried economic and social injustice, and he sought a world community based on true brotherhood. And for boldly proclaiming that dangerous vision he ended on the balcony of a motel in Memphis in a pool of blood. Today we see throngs cheering the extremist voices of violence and fear and exclusion and division and hate. And I’m not referring to foreign despots and jihadists, I’m pointing the finger at our own political “leaders.” It seems we have little to celebrate on the day we commemorate Martin Luther King.

But the fact that we do remember says that at some level we still value his vision. It is something still to strive for. It won’t be realized by following the fear-laden siren song of our contemporary culture, and it won’t come into existence by denying the ugliness of the world as it is. It can only be made real by opposing extreme hate with extreme love. In response to being labelled an extremist by his fellow clergymen for his desegregation efforts in Birmingham, Dr. King wrote:

But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?[2]

The world moves through the motivation of extremism. If we want to create the world of brotherhood King envisioned, we too must be extremists. Even our inaction is an extremist act. What kind of extremists will we be?

 

[1] Martin Luther King, “The Other America” (Speech, Grosse Pointe High School, Grosse Pointe, Michigan, March 14, 1968), accessed January 18, 2016, http://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/.

[2] Martin Luther King, “Letter from Birmingham City Jail,” The King Center, accessed January 18, 2016,http://www.thekingcenter.org/archive/document/letter-birmingham-city-jail-0.

Beauty from Tragedy

December 25th, 2015 No comments

The Civil War: beauty from tragedy, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day”

The Washington Times, Thursday, December 22, 2011 – The Civil War by Martha M. Boltz

VIENNA, Va., December 22, 2011 — Many musicians and writers of poetry will admit that some of their finest work comes when they have experienced a death or a tragedy of some kind, that the writing of poetry has an almost cathartic effect on the writer.

Such is the case of one of the best known and most beloved carols associated with Christmas, “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” which came from the pen of American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) and was written on Christmas Day, 1864.

His had been a tortured life in last few years before that day. On July 11, 1861, his wife Fanny had clipped some long curls from the head of her seven-year-old daughter, Edith, and wanting to save them in an envelope, melted a bar of sealing wax with a candle to seal the envelope.

Somehow the thin fabric of her clothing caught fire, and she quickly ran to Longfellow’s nearby study for help.  He immediately tried to extinguish the flames with a small rug, and when that failed, he threw his arms around Fanny to smother the flames, causing him to sustain serious burns on his face, arms, and hands. His heroic act did not suffice, and Fanny died the next morning of her injuries. Longfellow was unable to even attend the funeral.

Photographs of Longfellow taken or made after the fire usually show him with a full beard, since he was no longer able to shave properly due to the burns and scarring.

The coming of the holiday season in the Longfellow house became a time of grieving for his wife while trying to provide a happy time for the children left at home. It was during Christmas 1862 that he wrote in his journal, “A ‘merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.”

He had also suffered another disappointment when his oldest son, Charles Appleton “Charley” Longfellow, quietly left their Cambridge, Mass. home, and enlisted in the Union Army much against the wishes of his father.

In mid-March, Longfellow had received word from Charles, saying, “I have tried hard to resist the temptation of going without your leave, but I cannot any longer.”  The determined young man continued, “I feel it to be my first duty to do what I can for my country and I would willingly lay down my life for it if it would be of any good.”

He was 17 years old and went to Capt. W. H. McCartney, who was in charge of Battery A of the 1st Mass. Artillery, asking to be allowed to enlist. McCartney knew the boy and knew he did not have his father’s permission, so he contacted the senior Longfellow to see if he could obtain it on his behalf.  Longfellow conceded and acceded to the request.

It was only a few months later that Charley came down with typhoid fever and malaria and was sent home to recover, not rejoining his unit until August 15, 1863.

Following the Gettysburg battle, which Charley had fortunately missed, the conflict made its way into Virginia, and it was at the Battle of New Hope Church, in Orange, VA., part of the Mine Run Campaign, that the young Lt. Longfellow sustained injuries, which seriously disabled him. He was hit in the shoulder and the ricocheting bullet took out some portions of several vertebrae. It was reported that he missed being paralyzed by less than one inch.  Longfellow traveled to where his injured son was hospitalized and brought him home to Cambridge to recover.

The war for Charley was over.

And so at Christmas of 1864, a reflective and sad poet sat down and began to write the beautiful words that we sing each Christmas:

 I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day

Their old familiar carols play,

And wild and sweet the words repeat

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

I thought how, as the day had come,

The belfries of all Christendom

Had rolled along the unbroken song

Of peace on earth, good will to men.

 

And in despair I bowed my head:

“There is no peace on earth,” I said,

“For hate is strong and mocks the song

 Of peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:

“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;

The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,

With peace on earth, good will to men.”

 

Till, ringing, singing, on its way,

The world revolved from night to day,

A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,

Of peace on earth, good will to men!

Remembering that this was written during the Civil War, even though not published until 1872, we see the concerns of the War were much on Longfellow’s mind and heart. Thus there were two other verses that appeared in the original as verses four and five and are not song today, since they emphasize his feelings surrounding the War:

Then from each black accursed mouth

The cannon thundered in the South,

And with the sound,

The carols drowned

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

 

It was as if an earthquake rent

The hearth-stones of a continent,

And made forlorn,

The households born

Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

Longfellow’s heartfelt words of loss and hope were published and well received. John Baptiste Calkin (1827-1905), an English composer, was similarly affected by the poem, and it was he who penned the music that we know and sing today, slightly rearranging the verses or stanzas as he did.

While he was an organist and a music teacher, Calkin probably is best known as the composer of the music for Longfellow’s poem.

It is a glorious carol and provides the enduring concept that despite tragedy, loss, and even warfare, there is within most of us the hope and wish for “peace on earth, good-will to men!”

The War on Christmas

December 24th, 2015 No comments

war on christmas

If you get to the heart of it, the Christmas event is about rescue. Most of the time we don’t feel we need to be rescued. Many of us have never experienced the need for rescue. And certainly the spiritual aspects of the Christmas event are overshadowed by cultural expectations. I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who has ever felt a need to be rescued from “Xmas”.

What do I mean when I refer to “the Christmas event?” Yes, it is the familiar story of the birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem. But that story is the climax of a larger one: the story of humanity’s waywardness and rebellion and God’s barely fathomable mercy. I say “barely” because if you have kids you know that you are willing to forgive much. The Christmas event is the turning point in the movie. Do you remember the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast, at the very end, when the last petal fell off the rose and there was no longer any hope, and all of the kids in the theater were crying, and suddenly – a miracle! Everything came back to life. Better than ever. It’s that.

Since I have come to have a sense of the historical and theological significance of Christmas I have been somewhat of a Scrooge. Because I can see very clearly that whatever it is we are doing between Thanksgiving and Christmas has little if anything to do with the Christ event. At its finest point, where it is most accurate, it is a generic sense that we ought to be good to each other. But we don’t need the sacrifice of the creator of the universe to tell us that. We already know that.

In the end, Christmas is not about saying Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays or Happy Festivus or about red coffee cups with or without snowflakes or holiday parades or a Charlie Brown Christmas performed with or without the scripture passage from Luke. Anyone who is disturbed by anyone else’s celebration or non-celebration has completely missed the point. Christmas is about rescue.

Most of the time we don’t feel we need to be rescued. Yet we are beset by the worst of human depravity. It is not only exterior threats but the evil we carry within, that we make manifest in our responses to our fears. We are afraid.

One of the most prominent criticisms of Christianity that I have encountered is exclusivity. Christians are quite certain that Christ is the only way. This offends modern sensibilities because in a pluralistic democracy we ought to be able to choose our own way. The celebration of rugged individualism has brought us to the point that we have our own radio stations, our own TV stations, our own Social Media presence, our own everything. Personalized just for me. And so we sit isolated in our virtual worlds hoping desperately someone will notice us by clicking the “Like” button. This is hell. Or we respond to the constant onslaught of terror and temptation by giving in to our basest instincts. And we discover that this, too, is hell. Our abyss may look different from others’ and from our forebears’ but the experience of separation and fear is the same.

The significance of the Christmas event is that God himself provided a way out of hell. The moral of the Christmas story is not “believe in Jesus or go to hell”, it is “you are already in hell, let me show you the way out.” If you don’t think you need to be rescued from hell, Christmas in the Christian sense is meaningless.

The heart of the Christmas story is that God suffered spiritual self-immolation to rescue people who would beat him and mock him and nail him to two pieces of wood and spit on him until he died. And having suffered that, because he is God, he rose from death and offered his life to those same people (us). Like Jesus, if we are to rise we must die. And like Jesus, when we rise, we rise to the life of Christ. When we are rescued, we become the rescuer. That is why the sign of those who are rescued by the Christ event is self-sacrificing love.

One way that love can be manifest is in letting people celebrate (or not) as they see fit. There isn’t any war on Christmas. If there is a war, it is in your own heart. No one can separate you from the love of Christ. I have a friend who once remarked, “Other people really enjoy Christmas. Why don’t we let them?” Amen.

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