What White Americans Can Learn from Nelson Mandela: Nelson Mandela Day 2016

mandelafreedom“He was born Rolihlahla, “Shaker of Trees.” He became Nelson Mandela and shook the world.” ~from The Long Walk of Nelson Mandela

Several years ago I watched a documentary on the Apartheid in South Africa during Denver’s Film Festival. I have spent time in South Africa and love the country. I have seen Mandela’s cell in the prison on Robben Island. I have been to Soweto and the museum in Johannesburg and listened to the stories. Though the film revisited many of these places, I actually recall very little of it except for the story of one man. He had a position in the South African government that supported and benefitted from the apartheid, the system of legislation that enforced severe racial segregation. He was also a Christian.

What I do remember of the film was his ache. “I didn’t see, I didn’t see,” he cried. Tears of repentance and lament dimmed his eyes as he described his awakening to the suffering and humiliation imposed on black South Africans by the privileged white regime. His lament is one that I hope and pray will be the cry of many white Americans as we slowly awaken to the reality of the experience of black people in America.

We simply don’t see. It is extremely difficult for white American Christians in particular to recognize our racism. We don’t like this word. We react to this word. But to move towards healing, we need to face this word. It’s not that most of us would ever wish misfortune upon a person of color, nor would many of us knowingly treat a person of a different race insensitively. Most of us just go about our lives, trying to be nice. And comfortable. And happy.

We simply don’t see.

We have a built in defense against seeing our complicity in the painful realities of the lives of those who are not white in America. We have created a church culture in which any sense of darkness, failure or just plain selfishness in ourselves is too shameful to admit. We have learned to cast the yuckiest parts of ourselves into shadow so we can present what is manageable and attractive. It is not uncommon to hear people talking about “what the Lord has been working on in me.” But it’s rare to hear the real humility of simple honesty: I am both saint and sinner, glorious and grotesque. And sometimes I’m just a jerk. I’m afraid. I get nervous when walking past a black man I don’t know. I assume that if a cop shoots a black man then he must have been guilty. “They” struggle because “they” don’t work hard enough. We don’t admit these things out loud very often. We are too practiced at presenting ourselves to be better than we actually are, and so we are not transformed in the deep places.

We don’t understand what life is like living in a black body in this nation. We simply can’t understand why “they” can’t just be like “us.” We don’t understand systemic injustices. We don’t realize that we judge others’ experiences and complaints and sufferings through the lens of our own lives and opportunities and presumptions. We don’t see that white lives are very privileged, which means that everything is tilted in our favor. We rarely meaningfully interact with people who struggle to survive underneath our society’s oppressive heel. We don’t see that we all have an innate suspicion of the other. We simply don’t see that we are deeply racist because we are deeply human.

It will be costly to learn to see through the eyes of the other. But it doesn’t start with scolding. It starts with love. Our faith brings us face to face with the gaze of Love. Most often we turn from its penetrating brightness. But once the light of that love has illuminated our hearts, we can begin to see others with new compassion. We can see ourselves with that compassion too, and be less fearful of seeing the ugly things we haven’t wanted to see. Encountering this Love is way of healing. It lifts the logs from our eyes and we see anew. It is the way of Christ.

Nelson Mandela knew such love. He was imprisoned for 27 years for opposing a regime whose apartheid laws constitutionally entrenched the humiliation and condition of de facto slavery for South African blacks. He was considered a terrorist. However, he spent his imprisonment learning Afrikaans, the language of his white captors and over time he won their respect. He read their books, and their poetry. He knew their souls. He created relationships through which he entreated the prison guards to treat him as a fellow man – one with human dignity. When he was released he treated everyone, including his former enemies, with the same respect and dignity that he had engendered for himself. He had fought white domination and therefore refused to allow black domination. He was a master reconciler; he persuaded a whole people, in this case the most racially divided people on Earth, to change their minds towards one another.

After Mandela’s release and the dismantling of apartheid law, the ANC (African National Congress) party was certain to win the first democratic election in South Africa in 1994. Nelson Mandela would become the President of South Africa. The party faced the small problem of deciding what would be the new national anthem for an essentially new nation. The old anthem celebrated the advance of white colonizers as they crushed black resistance. The unofficial anthem of black South Africans was a soulful, heartfelt tune about their longsuffering. It was gleefully clear to the new committee that the official white anthem was out. Mandela responded however, “This song that you treat so easily holds the emotions of many people who you don’t represent yet. With the stroke of a pen, you would take a decision to destroy the very – the only – basis that we are building upon: reconciliation.” He had spent 27 years getting to know the heart of those who had been his enemies. He taught that you win over people by respecting their symbols and all that is deeply meaningful to them saying, “You don’t address their brains, you address their hearts.” Eventually they pulled together two anthems in five languages into one united song.

And slowly, gently, hearts were changed, like that of the weeping Christian man in the documentary. “I was blind and now I see,” he cried. Hearts were transformed because someone listened, learned, and opened himself to the other. Mandela refused to ever compromise on the dignity of the human person no matter what color, political stance or religion. Some in the former apartheid regime feared a reverse apartheid. Instead, Mandela learned their stories, he listened to their souls, and he honored their lives. He crossed over into the reality of the other. And a nation healed.

May it be so for us, America. We have been graced with the light of God’s love and the hard won wisdom of this teacher who helps to illuminate our darkened path.

 

The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. (JN. 1:5)

“I once asked Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace prize winner like Mandela, and one of the people who knew him most intimately, if he could define Mandela’s greatest quality. Tutu thought for a moment and then – triumphantly – uttered one word: magnanimity. ‘Yes,’ he repeated, more solemnly the second time, almost in a whisper. ‘Magnanimity!’ There is no better word to define Mandela. No leader more big-hearted, more regal, more generously wise. Not now and, quite possibly, not ever.” ~John Carlin

Mandela was a reader. Some books that help with learning and listening include: Disunity in Christ by Christena Cleveland, Divided by Faith by Emerson and Smith, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, Just Mercy by Bryan Stephenson, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the many powerful novels by Toni Morrison.

A poem/prayer for the descendants of Cain

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My heart is heavy with grief this morning. So much fear and hatred. So much violence. From this grief I wrote this poem/prayer:

A poem and prayer for the descendants of Cain:

I watched the video.
Saw his dark face streaked with tears
Of the same color and saltiness as mine.
We are human, he cried. I am a man.

That’s all he was saying. I am. I am.

Perhaps we clutch the cold steel of our weapons so tightly
because we have forgotten
the “I am” within our own souls-
That spaciousness that is God
in us.

We forget,
so we pray and wait passively, helplessly,
for help from above.
When right here right now
Hope is already in the heart that says,

I see you.
And I am, too.

World Refugee Day: Imagining a New Way

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Photograph by Daniel Etter.

There are few who haven’t been moved by the visible anguish of Laith Majid as he and his family finally landed safely on the shores of a Greek island. Clutching his little ones, he arrived drenched and freezing in a rubber dinghy barely afloat, with an entire nation’s pain written on his face. His bravery and suffering awakened my heart like a stinging slap of icy salt water.

I wept for him. I tried to imagine what it was like to be him.

  • I have never been so very desperate as to dare to bring my family and others across a huge sea in a rubber dinghy meant for three.
  •  I have never had to leave absolutely everything behind, showing up in a new land as a pauper with children in tow, fully dependent on the good will of others.
  •  I have never had to test the courage it takes to simply choose to live.

It’s easy to go throughout my busy week and forget that millions of people live on this planet with refugee status. The UN says that there are “currently some 43 million uprooted victims of conflict and persecution worldwide. More than 15 million of them are refugees who have fled their countries, while another 27 million are people who remain displaced by conflict inside their own homelands — so-called ‘internally displaced people’.” The sheer numbers of desperate people are overwhelming. They are people who love and are loved, people who have hopes and dreams. And for the many who are housed in refugee camps, generations will pass before anything really changes for them.

I don’t believe we forget because we don’t care. A good many of us are simply trying to love God and our families, do our jobs, pay our bills, and surf the ups and downs of our lives. It’s not lost on us that in America we have it pretty good.

But here are desperate human beings asking the world for help.

This brings up lots of legitimate questions and concerns. How many refugees can a local economy take at once? How do we designate resources for all the people in need? Is there enough to go around? Is there enough for us? And what if they have terrorist leanings? Are we inviting the horrific cruelty of ISIL into our midst? We all know that the political struggle over the issues has been divisive and brutal.

I’m tired of arguing a “side”. I can only dare myself to gaze at Mr. Majid’s face and encounter his need. It scares me.

I am grateful that we have our stories, our sacred narratives that can speak to the humbling truth that I have no idea what to do. The refugee situation is a worldwide crisis. The battle of the Left and Right keeps us stuck. But I have been reading some of the work of theologian Walter Brueggemann who brings us to the stories that deal with overwhelming pain and stuckness.

[Note: These next paragraphs are my attempt to synthesize and summarize Dr. Brueggemann’s brilliant words and work from The Prophetic Imagination. The first edition of this book was written in 1978 but I find it uncannily fitting for today. Any and all brilliance in the following paragraphs is purely his.]

The story of the Exodus is a powerful point of identity for Israel. They had been were slaves in Egypt. They had become accustomed to life under Pharaoh. It was the only social reality that could be imagined. Even the religion of the Hebrew people was subverted to work for the Pharaoh’s purposes to keep the machinations of his kingdom moving. Life was hard but at least there was work and food. But Israel cried out under their bondage. And God heard.

In the stories that follow, we see that the claims of Pharaohs’ empire are ended by the disclosure of the freedom of God, that is, that God is not beholden to maintain the purposes of the dominant culture. God is not captive to anyone’s social perception or purposes. The God of Moses subverts the comfortable reality of Pharaoh and sides with the oppressed and the marginalized. The God of Moses dismantled the politics of oppression and exploitation by countering it with the politics of justice and compassion. The Hebrews found themselves being formed into a new way of being, to match the vision of God’s freedom.

The revolution of Moses was sustained for generations (with some significant ups and downs) until under King Solomon, Israel itself became “empire”. The kingdom of Solomon was one of incredible affluence. Whereas the alternative consciousness of Moses arose in a time of scarcity, there were enough consumer goods in Israel under Solomon to remove much of their anxiety about survival. The alternative consciousness brought by Moses began to lose ground. It is difficult to maintain a revolution of justice and freedom when there is satiation. In our own economy for example, says Brueggemann, it is hard to maintain passion for civil rights when we are so overly fed.

However, he continues, the great Solomonic achievement was achieved by oppressive social policy. The affluence was hierarchal and unevenly distributed. Brueggemann also suggests that the religion of the Hebrews once again became a static religion in which the freedom of God was subverted into servicing the purposes of the King. He calls this a “religion of immanence” which means that the prevailing idea was that God was at the disposal of the King. When religion becomes static in order to maintain the purposes of empire, the people are conditioned to become afraid of anything that might change the status quo. The passion for real freedom and justice has been co-opted for lesser things. Those in power know that all it takes to counter an alternative consciousness is satiation.

Brueggemann describes the effects of the empire’s numbing satiation of the people: In the royal program of achievable satiation there is a religion of optimism in which God has no business other than to maintain our standard of living. There are no mysteries to honor but only problems to be solved using the cost accounting of management mentality. The value of a soul is calculated by statistics and financial speculations. This numbing satiation also requires the annulment of neighbor as life giver. It imagines we can “live outside history as self-made men and women.”

America, in all her splendor, is not unlike the empire of Solomon and Pharaoh. We boast unprecedented affluence and yet, the distribution of such affluence is extremely inequitable. As with Solomon and Pharaoh, the working class supports the upper echelon. American Christianity has in large part become conflated with the American dream, the religion of optimism. Being self-made and pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps has become a religious value. American Christianity has become static in that we cannot see beyond our infighting to imagine a different reality this side of heaven. In our sleepy satiation, pockmarked with bouts of fear, we only can see to preserve ourselves.

But just as it was with Israel, it seems we have come to a time when God has tired of indifferent affluence. Like the prophets of old, the sopping, traumatized travelers that are washing up on the earth’s shores serve as a means of startling our hearts awake beyond our fears, our politics, and our comforts. The reality of human suffering – all of our suffering- can awaken us to seek a better vision that matches the freedom of God.

Even as empire lives by numbness and controlled perceptions, Jesus penetrates numbness and enters into the hurt of desperate people, and eventually comes to embody it. He reveals a very different value system than empire, where the outcast and the loser are the valued ones, where he calls into question even all moral distinction on which the society was based, and where he transforms through his own vulnerable solidarity with poor, empty and grieving.

The answers we seek lie in the awakening of our consciousness. Our future is not bound by this present. It cannot be assured or guaranteed by the values of empire. However, Jesus shows us the way to this alternative consciousness, this new mind. It is the way that empire can never imagine. It is the way of self-emptying. Jesus does not numb himself to the pain of the hurting; he joins it. He is mercy.

Brueggemann says that the future is an unqualified yes from God. Every great teacher of mine agrees! God is free from the mechanistic ways of our best systems, our “what if’s”, and our fears around fairness and deservingness. If we believe this is true, we are also free to imagine a reality different from the one we have created. We are free to risk and to enter into the pain of the refugee. We are free to awaken the passion of mercy.

Brueggemann reflects:

“Passion is the capacity and readiness to care, to suffer, to die, and to feel is the enemy of imperial reality. Imperial economy is designed to keep people satiated so that they do not notice. Its politics tend to block out the cries of the denied ones. Its religion is to be an opiate so that no one discerns misery alive in the heart of God.”

The misery of Mr. Majid and countless others like him, is the misery of God. As we awaken again to the freedom of God, we may just find a way to join Mr. Majid there in God’s aching heart. We may awaken enough to dare to imagine God’s alternative reality, and we may just heal the world.

 

 

Dear Straight Christians, Can we talk?

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Dear Straight Christians,

We are all reeling from the fact that fifty precious children of God were gunned down in the wee hours of last Sunday morning. Fifty families are grieving the loss of their children. Fifty-three more families sit with their wounded loved ones in Florida hospitals.

Make no mistake, these souls were specifically targeted because of their sexual orientations. My gay family members and friends who I love dearly are devastated, broken hearted and traumatized. Our nation is once again aching from the raw, open wound of senseless, violent loss.

Loving them well now is going to ask a lot of us. Because, it isn’t about us.

Let’s be honest. The gay community already knows what too many Christians believe about their orientations. They know how they have been judged in character. They have heard, “You’re rebellious, you offend God, you are a mess, disgusting, disobedient. We don’t affirm you or support you. We don’t seek need to seek to understand you.” Then they have heard, “love the sinner, hate the sin” as a posture that attempts to justify the things we’ve said. But what that phrase actually communicates is, “We can judge what is acceptable in you and what is not. You are tainted. You must hide part of your soul away.” These things can never communicate love.

Can we have the courage to be even more honest here? Words and beliefs such as these help to create a climate of mistrust and otherness that can pave the way for hurtful actions. I am not assigning blame. I am saying we need to be aware of the ramifications of our ideologies. We affect the whole, for good or for not, and creating so much otherness fans the flames of those who need a target. After an event like this, we shouldn’t be surprised if the gay community has difficulty trusting our tears and love now.

The human ego cannot face its own shadow. We each keep our lesser-than, insecure, unloved parts hidden away, believing that if all I show to others is what will give others the best impression of me, then that impression is who I am. And it’s who I want to believe I am. However, Jesus was never fooled by the “clean cups” of the Pharisees that were gleaming on the outside, but filthy on the inside. When we hate, disdain or feel threatened by something in others, we are actually projecting the hated and rejected parts of ourselves out onto them. It’s a way of feeling purged and feeling acceptable by comparison as we reject, diminish or set them apart in some way. We even dare to believe that our rejection of the unacceptable other (or their parts) pleases God. This way of thinking sets up an atmosphere of fear and mistrust that opens the doorway to justify hurting the excluded ones. This pattern is as old as Cain and Abel. It’s been in our own sacred narratives from the very beginning.

The gay community have long been our scapegoats. And now that they are hurting and afraid, we have the opportunity to change for the sake of love. We have opportunity to be a part of the healing of the world that we so long for. It’s an opportunity to recall and reflect that the heart of God is not either/or. The heart of God is Mercy.

Jesus always beckons us into deeper and deeper depths of love. His way is always the path of kenosis, the emptying out of ourselves and our egos. Just as a swimmer cannot enter the depths of any waters weighted down with baggage, so must we leave our shoulds and oughts and dogmas and statements of beliefs on the riverbank, emptying ourselves of everything, so we may dive in too.

And so, may we stun the world with what the love of God really looks like:

  • Love comes to us as we are.
  • Love does not come with caveats.
  • Love doesn’t draw lines, make demands, or ultimatums.
  • Love seeks to know what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.
  • Love doesn’t look down upon anyone.
  • Love never says, “us and them.” Love creates “we.”

And, may we graciously stand in the way of those who could do harm during this time of grief:

  • It is not time to expect the gay community to be grateful for our sorrow. But they sure could use genuine advocates for their safety and basic human rights. Even simply asking one another to watch how we speak can help.
  • There are a lot of competing voices clamoring for attention today in the aftermath, rendering the pain of the gay community invisible. Honor the grieving by not allowing yourself to get sidetracked in arguing other issues.
  • There’s lots of scapegoating and blame, which is always driven by fear, not love. Be the voice that says, the wounded and fallen ones did not deserve this.
  • Remember, it’s not about our caveats, and making sure people know where you stand. That’s ultimately only self-serving because it creates “us and them” again. It’s all about unfettered, unbounded love.

We have been down this road so many times. Late night host and person of faith Stephen Colbert said, “What do you say in the face of this horror? I don’t know what to say…But sadly, you know what to say because it has been said too many times before… It’s as if there’s a national script that we have learned. By accepting the script we tacitly accept that the script will end the same way every time with nothing changing, except for the loved ones of the victims and families for whom nothing will ever be the same. It’s easy to…despair and say, that is the way the world is now. I don’t know what to do, but I do know that despair is a victory for hate. Hate wants us to be too weak to change anything. Love does not despair. Love makes us strong. Love gives us the courage to act. Love gives us hope that change is possible. Love allows us to change the script.” Preach, brother.

Love can even move an obstacle as heavy and stubborn as the human ego. Love moves us beyond despair to open up the courageous humility that transformation requires. Love awakens us to its powerful movement throughout all of creation that will ultimately knit us all together as one.

The love of Christ says, you are not other than me.

May all of these children rest in peace with God.

Love,
a fellow sojourner

 

The Stones Still Cry Out: Earth Day 2016

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Jesus spoke with gentleness to people whose lives were precarious and unpredictable. His people understood subsistence living in a way that we Western, privileged, modern people simply cannot. They were deeply dependent on the patterns of weather for harvests and the health of their herds for food. Jesus understood their anxious hearts, and he pointed them back to creation. “Consider the birds, consider the lilies,” he said. He assured them that God knew their needs and yet, there was another way to live without so much fear.

People of modern societies can barely envision their world. Imagine the electric surging of neural pathways in the minds of ancient peoples as they pondered creation, trying to make sense of the explosions of thunder storms and bursts of fresh rain, hearing the first cries of a newborn person, and spying a glimpse of green shoots pushing up through the soil after the scarcity of winter. In their eyes, the world was extravagantly miraculous. They knew both awe and fear in their deep connection with and dependence on this garden home and the forces unseen that guided its ways. They instinctively knew there was something bigger than themselves. They intuited both their earthiness and their connection to spirit. On a deep and primal level, they knew the Gardener.

Creation, the cosmos, was our first teacher. It was our first “book” to point us to God.

In our time we have learned to know in different ways. The Christian church first took its eyes off of the cosmos as a means of knowing God after we learned that the universe was not as static and fixed as once thought. (And they have only just forgiven Copernicus and Galileo a few decades ago for pointing that out.) Much of our early theology had been shaped around that understanding of the cosmos as static and fixed. If the cosmos was static and fixed, it followed then that God and God’s ways must be static and fixed. If that certainty was gone, how could we possibly understand God now? So rather than look to the inconstant cosmos in order to know, we began to look at the mind. “I think therefore I am,” became the way to discern reality. We now stand apart from the cosmos in order to define, dissect, categorize and file everything scientifically and theologically. The cosmos, even the Earth we stand on, has become to us as mere objects to be studied, like dead rocks.

Jesuit scientist Teilhard De Chardin lamented, “The artificial separation between humans and cosmos is at the root of our contemporary moral confusion.” To distance ourselves from this humus, this humble earth, is to also distance ourselves from Spirit, from God. When we pull up our roots from the ground from which we were formed, we pull away from the interweaving of each other and all things, and from the web of relations in which God makes Godself known to us. We forget who we are. Our identities have become wrapped around much smaller things, like ideologies, money and power. Scientist and theologian Sr. Ilia Delio says that there is a profound connection between our loss of a shared cosmology and our increasing global problems. We grasp and hoard and worry, and others suffer, especially the poor.

So consider the birds, Jesus said. The cosmos still holds the roadmap. Just as we once were seized with awe and gratitude for the dance of spirit and matter that gives us life, shelter, food and drink, this same enlivened cosmos can speak to our postmodern minds. Science has continued to read the cosmos and has found once again the deep connectedness of all things. Quantum physics now gives us the evidence for what our ancestors always knew. In addition, we can see now that the universe is actually dynamic and changing, increasing in depth, complexity, and diversity, with new life always emerging. Even death is swallowed up as part of the ongoing cycle of new creation. Nothing is ever lost. Creation still offers us a lens through which to behold with awe that which reveals God in a way that is deeper and wider than ever before. Creation can help us reframe our old, static theology to create a new way of being together in this world, with this world.

Science now teaches us that nature and the entire cosmos are not composed of material substances as much as deeply entangled fields of energy. The nature of the universe is undivided wholeness. It is all interlocking fields. Everything is connected at the quantum level so how we act and how we think truly affects the whole. “Pick a flower on earth and you have moved the farthest star,” says physicist Paul Dirac. We are deeply entwined and interdependent. The cosmos and our place in it, this beautiful Earth, are reminding us that we belong to each other.

On a much simpler level, we can see that the Earth embodies and teaches forgiveness because even though we pillage, poison and pollute this planet, she stills bears us much fruit. If we are willing to see our Earth and the cosmos as a teacher again to help us know the Source of all Life, we will begin to see as poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning has said, that all earth is crammed with heaven. It is imbued with sacred meaning. We will learn to see God in the peach, in the light dancing on a lake, even behind the eyes of our enemy. We learn to worship with our whole lives.

The Earth teaches us a consciousness of interrelatedness without which Sr. Ilia Delio warns, “we do not see ourselves related to the poor, and thus we do not feel compelled to limit our consumer patterns to aid the poor or to develop alternate economies. Until we have a new cosmological narrative that binds us together in a new way, we will not change. In fact, we will continue to (implicitly) insist that the rest of the world become like us.” Awakening again to the realities of our deep connectedness in the here and now can re-animate our hearts towards mercy and justice.

The Earth will teach us how to heal.

Our earthly home is not a stopgap place for our existence. It is our mother, friend and teacher. It plays an essential role in the journey of becoming human, the Imago Dei. It calls us back to what is most deeply true about ourselves. We are at once both human and divine, temporal and eternal, sinful and precious, made of dust and destined for God.

Our earthly home is constantly being renewed and yet, she does not do this alone. We have been given the privilege of being co-creators and fellow gardeners along with God. We are therefore a necessary part of the Earth’s health and renewal. In our blindness to the preciousness of the Earth and her inherent ties to her Creator, we have made the earth very ill. Sr. Ilia Delio says, “[We] cannot sustain our first world footprint far into the future. The costs on the poor are deeply inequitable, and we are running out of resources.” If we are to love God and love others as Jesus once taught to anxious people, we must once again love and care for the Earth.

In these days many people still see the Earth as merely an issue to be debated and a commodity to be bought, sold and used up. But even though we have forgotten her, the Earth will continue to sing forth her song. Though we may lose our way and we are afraid, the stones will still cry out, Hosanna, Hosanna, Hosanna. The Earth is always telling the story of ancient and future time, and orienting us back to God. We just need to lean in once again, and listen.

(Written with all thanks to one who I will always consider my teacher, Sr. Ilia Delio, a scientist, theologian and nun who is an irrepressible fountain of hope.)

 

 

 

 

August 2012 Synchroblog and Provoketive Magazine: Follow Me

This month the Synchroblog is partnering with Provoketive Magazine once again. We will each explore the implications of Jesus’ words: “Take up your cross and follow me.”

“Take up your cross and follow me.” ~Jesus

As I reflect on the severely polarized and politicized struggles within American Christianity it is evident how little these struggles really have to do with Jesus. Both sides are more interested in isolating an ideology and then vilifying those who hold a different view. And of course, we are all convinced that our ideology is more “biblical” than any other. In all honesty, I think we hold on for dear life to our stances and beliefs so that we may convince ourselves that this is what Jesus really wants from us. It’s like a collective thought disorder. But it’s much easier than following him.

Because truthfully, who really wants to follow him?

He did the very thing that our American worldview does not allow. We are all about being upwardly mobile, successful, safe and prosperous and so we have co-opted God into that belief. We believe that God is all about blessing our efforts and that our success proves God’s favor. Our Christianity has become a prop for middle to upper class comfort and security. That ideal is found nowhere in the gospels. Jesus’ movement was decidedly downward. He moved right into the neighborhood of powerlessness and need.

I think what is most difficult for us is that Jesus, though already fairly poor, chose to become homeless. He claimed all humanity as his family and moved away from his nuclear family, which in his culture was a shameful act. (He obviously needs a tutorial in family values.) But in addition to that, while most good Jewish men of his age would have married and started having children, his singleness aligned him with the “non-procreators”, like the eunuchs, who were considered unclean and inferior. There were no categories of gay or straight in Jesus’ day; people were either procreative or non-procreative. Those who did not or could not produce children for any reason were suspect, or outcast. (See Jesus’ words in Matt. 19:11-12.) He chose solidarity with the most despised.

We know he treated women as full and competent disciples, he welcomed the stranger and the sick, touched the dead, and healed the children of the enemy. In his presence the tight miserly hands that held onto precious silver and gold opened wide. He undermined every structure of religion and empire and really, really ticked off those with power. Let’s just be honest. It’s far, far easier and safer to convince ourselves that being pro-life and justifying the harsh realities of the lives of those with less (money, resources, opportunity), or feeling superior for being more tolerant than thou, is somehow at all like the path Jesus walked.  Instead, Jesus asks us to pick up the instrument of our death and to follow where he goes. Any sane person would count the cost. Any sane person would struggle with it, because to follow Jesus means that we no longer get to co-opt the faith to make our own lives work.

Many of those whom I know that consider themselves to be “biblical” Christians feel that the “dying” that is asked of them means they reject the “world” and its values (hence the dogged political views). However, I wonder if how we have come to understand “the world” has become quite distorted. Blogger and Wild Goose Founder Mike Morrell says, “Jesus was referring to the world of principalities and powers, those inhuman and dehumanizing forces of religion and empire. He wasn’t referring to culture-as-such, and certainly not to planet earth. Millions of friends-of-God are awakening to the reality that we live in a God-blessed and God-beloved world that God still thinks is ‘very good,’ however marred by egoic haze and degradation its become. We’re all connected – for life or death.”

And there it is. What will “kill” us is following Jesus’ movement into the God-blessed and God-beloved world, and receiving those for whom Christ died as we would Christ Himself. That means making a home with them all, in the here and now. That means looking beyond political and doctrinal divisions into the eyes of all humanity, not to minister to them or over them, but to join them and work alongside them. Jesus asks us to do the very thing our religious and political hearts find abhorrent. But by making space within ourselves to receive the other, we are changed by them and ego dies. We begin to become less defined by our certainties and stances, and more defined by love, by becoming “we”. And Kingdom comes. That was Jesus’ prayer for us before he died, and his prayer for us as he continues to live.

It’s much easier to convince ourselves that we are following Jesus by choosing to eat or not to eat at a certain chicken restaurant. It’s much harder to share your table with those whom you have decided don’t belong. It’s even harder to admit that there is only One Table. However, we are going to need each other because let’s face it, Jesus’ path is more than a little crazy. It will cost us our lives.

Links to the Synchrobloggers will be added as they come in.:)

Carol Kuniholm Which “Way” Am I Called to Follow?

Glenn Hager Strange Places

A Memorial Day prayer by Mark Twain, if we dare

The War Prayer

by Mark Twain

It was a time of great and exalting excitement. The country was up in arms, the war was on, in every breast burned the holy fire of patriotism; the drums were beating, the bands playing, the toy pistols popping, the bunched firecrackers hissing and sputtering; on every hand and far down the receding and fading spreads of roofs and balconies a fluttering wilderness of flags flashed in the sun; daily the young volunteers marched down the wide avenue gay and fine in their new uniforms, the proud fathers and mothers and sisters and sweethearts cheering them with voices choked with happy emotion as they swung by; nightly the packed mass meetings listened, panting, to patriot oratory which stirred the deepest deeps of their hearts and which they interrupted at briefest intervals with cyclones of applause, the tears running down their cheeks the while; in the churches the pastors preached devotion to flag and country and invoked the God of Battles, beseeching His aid in our good cause in outpouring of fervid eloquence which moved every listener.

It was indeed a glad and gracious time, and the half dozen rash spirits that ventured to disapprove of the war and cast a doubt upon its righteousness straightway got such a stern and angry warning that for their personal safety’s sake they quickly shrank out of sight and offended no more in that way.

Sunday morning came – next day the battalions would leave for the front; the church was filled; the volunteers were there, their faces alight with material dreams – visions of a stern advance, the gathering momentum, the rushing charge, the flashing sabers, the flight of the foe, the tumult, the enveloping smoke, the fierce pursuit, the surrender! – then home from the war, bronzed heros, welcomed, adored, submerged in golden seas of glory! With the volunteers sat their dear ones, proud, happy, and envied by the neighbors and friends who had no sons and brothers to send forth to the field of honor, there to win for the flag or, failing, die the noblest of noble deaths. The service proceeded; a war chapter from the Old Testament was read; the first prayer was said; it was followed by an organ burst that shook the building, and with one impulse the house rose, with glowing eyes and beating hearts, and poured out that tremendous invocation – “God the all-terrible! Thou who ordainest, Thunder thy clarion and lightning thy sword!”

Then came the “long” prayer. None could remember the like of it for passionate pleading and moving and beautiful language. The burden of its supplication was that an ever-merciful and benignant Father of us all would watch over our noble young soldiers and aid, comfort, and encourage them in their patriotic work; bless them, shield them in His mighty hand, make them strong and confident, invincible in the bloody onset; help them to crush the foe, grant to them and to their flag and country imperishable honor and glory.

An aged stranger entered and moved with slow and noiseless step up the main aisle, his eyes fixed upon the minister, his long body clothed in a robe that reached to his feet, his head bare, his white hair descending in a frothy cataract to his shoulders, his seamy face unnaturally pale, pale even to ghastliness. With all eyes following him and wondering, he made his silent way; without pausing, he ascended to the preacher’s side and stood there, waiting.

With shut lids the preacher, unconscious of his presence, continued his moving prayer, and at last finished it with the words, uttered in fervent appeal,” Bless our arms, grant us the victory, O Lord our God, Father and Protector of our land and flag!”

The stranger touched his arm, motioned him to step aside – which the startled minister did – and took his place. During some moments he surveyed the spellbound audience with solemn eyes in which burned an uncanny light; then in a deep voice he said:

“I come from the Throne – bearing a message from Almighty God!” The words smote the house with a shock; if the stranger perceived it he gave no attention. “He has heard the prayer of His servant your shepherd and grant it if such shall be your desire after I, His messenger, shall have explained to you its import – that is to say, its full import. For it is like unto many of the prayers of men, in that it asks for more than he who utters it is aware of – except he pause and think.

“God’s servant and yours has prayed his prayer. Has he paused and taken thought? Is it one prayer? No, it is two – one uttered, the other not. Both have reached the ear of His Who hearth all supplications, the spoken and the unspoken. Ponder this – keep it in mind. If you beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor’s crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.

“You have heard your servant’s prayer – the uttered part of it. I am commissioned by God to put into words the other part of it – that part which the pastor, and also you in your hearts, fervently prayed silently. And ignorantly and unthinkingly? God grant that it was so! You heard these words: ‘Grant us the victory, O Lord our God!’ That is sufficient. The whole of the uttered prayer is compact into those pregnant words. Elaborations were not necessary. When you have prayed for victory you have prayed for many unmentioned results which follow victory – must follow it, cannot help but follow it. Upon the listening spirit of God the Father fell also the unspoken part of the prayer. He commandeth me to put it into words. Listen!

“O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle – be Thou near them! With them, in spirit, we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it – for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

(After a pause)

“Ye have prayed it; if ye still desire it, speak! The messenger of the Most High waits.”

It was believed afterward that the man was a lunatic, because there was no sense in what he said.