Archive for the ‘Deep Thoughts’ Category
Let me start with a disclaimer: I have not watched the play-by-play of the George Zimmerman trial in the last few weeks. This post is not about what happened at trial or why the women of the jury decided what they did based on the evidence they were presented. While I do think that the prosecution clearly failed, I am not about to dissect the legalities of the case. This is instead a commentary on the wider context of this trial, and what it says about the nation in which we live.
Tonight, George Zimmerman is a free man. The basic story is not in dispute: Zimmerman saw Trayvon Martin walking in the neighborhood, and decided that a young black man in a hoodie posed a threat to his safety. He openly admitted to following Martin in a van, calling 911, and hearing the 911 operator tell him to back off and not get out of his vehicle. Yet he did get out, a scuffle ensued, and then Zimmerman shot Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old boy, because he was afraid of him. The jury concluded that this was not a crime, and Zimmerman is not guilty.
In other words, it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
When you put it like that, it seems crazy. How is this outcome even possible?
This case is only understandable when viewed through the intersection of so many cultural narratives in our nation. I want to spend a few paragraphs naming and explaining those narratives, because they help explain how we got here, and why there is so much tension around this case.
1. Our culture loves guns, and the freedom to use them. We tolerate an absurd number of gun deaths, accidental and intentional, because we associate personal freedom with the ability to arm ourselves. No one questioned Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun, or to shoot someone who threatened him, even if that person was unarmed. If Martin had also been armed, we would have understood and tolerated a shootout on the street of a quiet neighborhood.
The best argument that the gun lobby has is that every American has the right to defend his or her life, liberty and property by carrying a weapon. But in this case, Zimmerman’s right to carry a gun overtook Martin’s basic right to life. Neither Zimmerman’s liberty nor his property were at risk, and if his life was at risk it was only because he provoked a confrontation. Their rights collided–and the verdict declared that Zimmerman’s right to defend himself with his gun was deemed more important than Martin’s right to life. Something is terribly wrong with that.
2. This case unmasks the living legacy of racism, especially the historic fear of young black men. If you doubt this case has anything to do with race, imagine if the man carrying the gun had been black and the dead boy had been white. Would the outcome have been the same? I doubt it. But it’s far more complicated than that. The U.S. has a long history of murdering young black men out of fear and prejudice and a perceived threat. Emmett Till comes first to mind. Or the fictional version in To Kill a Mockingbird, which shows that the story was common enough to be recognized immediately as a cultural reality–a young black man who was perceived as a threat, taken down by mob justice and never given fair hearing in a court of law.
We like to imagine that things have gotten better, that we are beyond the days of lynch mobs, that the Civil Rights Movement ended the fear of violence against African-Americans–but this case brings back all those bad memories and shows us that racism today is as violent and ugly as the black-and-white images of bygone eras. Trayvon Martin’s story is not new–it is very old. Many had hoped (and some had convinced themselves) it could not happen again, but it did. Those who recognize racism’s persistence were not surprised by Martin’s death, nor shocked that the jury refused to convict the man who confessed to killing him. It’s a familiar story–like all of these familiar narratives–even if Zimmerman was Latino and not a traditional white man.
3. This case makes us question our adoration of vigilante heroes and those who take the law into their own hands. As a culture, we worship lone rangers and nonconformists. Think of pretty much every summer disaster flick in the last two decades (or almost anything starring Bruce Willis or Will Smith)–it’s one guy (or a small band of folks) saving the world, because they refuse to play by the rules and follow orders. Whether it’s aliens or asteroids or giant bugs, we love to watch heroes who break the law in order to get justice. We don’t trust the system to take care of problems. We have to do it ourselves.
Except this time it didn’t go quite so well. Zimmerman followed his gut and took the law into his own hands, but he was wrong and he killed an unarmed boy. We turned to the justice system to make it right, but the system failed–just like Zimmerman expected. Just like the movies. Now there are predictions of mob justice for Zimmerman, or retribution by riots. Nearly all will publicly shake their heads at this vigilantism, but we all understand it, and many secretly support it. But do we recognize that it’s the same behavior that started this whole thing in the first place? Do we admit that this problem’s roots in American culture with our worship of individualism?
4. This case amplifies the confusion between the workings of the legal system and the idea of justice. We may refer to it as the “criminal justice system,” but the conviction and punishment of people for committing crimes is not synonymous with justice. Justice is much more than simply punishing people who do bad things. In common parlance, justice is a sense of fairness and equality before the law. In the Bible, it includes a broader picture that incorporates grace, forgiveness, abundance over scarcity, economic security, mercy and peace.
Our criminal justice system, with its “presumed innocence” and “beyond a reasonable doubt,” is designed to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent, and has nothing to do with fairness or equality, much less the broader conceptions of justice. Even more, it is obvious to anyone who participates in the system that it generally does a bad job even by its own standards, regularly imprisoning the innocent and exonerating the guilty. Prejudice, racism, money, poor lawyers, good lawyers, aggressive police work, lazy police work–all these things can change the outcome of a trial, and none of them have anything to do with justice. Justice is not the same thing as legality. (If you doubt this, compare the Zimmerman verdict with this one.)
We may have been hoping for #JusticeforTrayvon, but only the most paltry conception of justice can be found in the legal system, and even that is a rare find.
These four narratives intersect in this case, just as they do in our culture. I found it helpful to pull apart the web and look at each one individually, as well as looking at the ways they influence and pull on one another in this case. They help me understand how a jury in 2013 can reach the conclusion it did tonight: that it’s legal to shoot an unarmed black teenager if you are afraid of him.
My brain can analyze and dissect and trace threads to make sense of it all, but my heart cannot. There is no excuse, no defense, no reason for the death of Trayvon Martin. The verdict feels like betrayal. I feel angry, sad, frustrated, indignant, powerless, heartbroken. I cannot imagine the grief of the Martin family, the first inflicted by Zimmerman’s gun, the second inflicted by a verdict that seems to say their son’s death was not worthy of consequences. The whole situation makes me want to weep at the sin and brokenness of the world, and beg for God’s “justice to roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream.” (Amos 3)
I look at my own son. He will be 17 someday, and walk with that adolescent swagger, talk with that constant tone of insubordination. He may get into trouble, but his blonde hair and blue eyes will offer him a level of protection and privilege that his dark-skinned friends will not share. My heart aches for their mothers tonight, recognizing that this is not a new fear in their lives.
I pray for the safety of your sons, even as I pray for my own. I pray that they will do a better job than we have of negotiating the tensions around guns, race, heroes and justice. I pray that even though the legal system failed to act, Trayvon Martin’s death will have consequences, both for George Zimmerman and for our nation. I pray that a greater justice will indeed come to our land, that one day racism will be no more, that freedom will no longer be measured in our ability to carry weapons but in our ability to live together in peace. I pray for righteous anger that will spill over into righteous action rather than endless violence. I pray for ways to tell different stories than the ones we’ve always known, to free ourselves to truly build a nation of justice and peace, with liberty and justice for all.
In the days since President Obama’s second inaugural, the critics have reached consensus that his speech was a forthright defense of a liberal, progressive agenda. He spoke up for the values of inclusion and equality, government programs to help the poor, and the movement of justice as drawing wider the circle of democracy. He named climate change, marriage equality, health care, equal pay and the end of “perpetual war” as among his second term priorities. It was a laundry list of passionate causes for progressives like me .
For the first time in more than a decade we heard a national politician apart from Ted Kennedy make a public case for these values. My heart soared at the trinitarian invocation of “Seneca Falls, Selma and Stonewall,” three benchmarks in the struggle for equality for women, African-Americans and GLBT people. I am grateful to the president for making the case for a progressive agenda in the face of a reactionary right-wing party, and I pray that his work giving voice to these concerns will translate into action, legislation and real impact in our nation.
This critical analysis of the president’s words is not intended to denigrate his progressiveness as “not good enough,” as measured by some ideal standard. It is not a plea for political correctness. Instead, it is an argument that language matters in the struggle for justice and equality, and an attempt to use the president’s speech to demonstrate how language can include and exclude in the most subtle ways.
Just as there were moments in his speech that made me feel like at last my worldview had a voice in the political arena, there were also moments that left me feeling marginalized and set apart as “other.” Ironically, these were often the moments designed to be inclusive. In these phrases, the president’s words exemplified a common pattern I call “unconscious Othering.” Unconscious Othering happens when attempts to promote equality for historically oppressed groups actually reinscribe their marginality.
Here is the example that set me on edge in the speech:
For our journey is not complete until our wives, our mothers, and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts. Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law – for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well.
The president demonstrated his support for equal pay for women and equal marriage for GLBT people–two issues very close to my heart. However, the way he phrased his commitment made me feel sidelined instead of included. Why?
First, the phrase “wives, mothers and daughters.” This rhetoric appeals to men, inviting them to support women’s equality based on their love for the women closest to them, their wives, mothers and daughters. However, in making that appeal to men, women get reduced to their roles as wives, mothers and daughters–shutting off the fullness of our lives as a professionals, creators, agents and full persons outside our place in the family. Men are people first; husbands, fathers and sons secondarily. Women are wives, mothers and daughters first; maybe after that women can also be something else. Women who are not wives and mothers cease to matter outside of a perpetually juvenile status as daughters.
Second, the use of pronouns. The president says “our wives, our mothers and daughters can earn a living equal to their efforts,” and “our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.” The pronouns “our” and “their” create a dynamic of “us” and “them.” “Our wives, our mothers and daughters” and “their efforts” imply that the “our” is male, and women are “they.” Women may deserve equal pay, but do not simply belong to the “us” that delivers it. GLBT people may deserve equal marriage, they may even be elevated to treasured status as sisters and brothers, but they are still not part of “us.”
Quite unconsciously, the president’s words on equality have reinforced the idea that women and GLBT people are Other, different, outside the norm of “us.”
Here is another example:
We must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
If “we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice,” then the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the victims of prejudice are not a part of “us.” They are Others, for whom we must care and provide, but they do not belong to “we, the people.” It is subtle, but this unconscious Othering, even in the name of promoting equality and justice, serves to reinforce existing distinctions and their accompanying discrimination.
The president’s own place as a member of a historically oppressed group added an intriguing dynamic to these remarks. When the president says “we,” he includes himself and all other African-American men in the “us” instead of the “them.” That is a huge step forward, and not to be taken lightly. I was moved to consider the great strides and sacrifices that made it possible for an African-American man to lay claim to the power of that “we.” Yet I also recognize that he could also have claimed the “we” for more of us.
How could the president’s words have done that? Here’s are some sample rewrites.
For our journey is not complete until men and women both earn a living equal to their efforts.
For our journey is not complete until our daughters have the same opportunity as our sons to earn a living equal to their efforts.
Our journey is not complete until the love between a man and a woman, between two women or two men is treated equally under the law…
Our journey is not complete until, gay or straight, our relationships are recognized equally under the law…
We must be a source of hope to one another, when we are poor, or sick, or marginalized, or the victims of prejudice – not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.
In the above rewrites, the “we” includes those groups awaiting justice, rather than demanding equality while still drawing the “we” in such a way that they are not a part of it.
This unconscious Othering happens all the time. Its subtle ways of reinforcing privilege can easily go unnoticed. The president’s speech offered such a clear example that I wanted to use it as a chance to illustrate the problem, especially since it came in the context of attempts to be inclusive, not tokenism or attempts to exclude.
Can you think of further examples of unconscious Othering? How can we think more critically about our use of pronouns, and the lines of “us” and “them” we subtly draw in our speech?
I heard an interview on NPR’s Talk of the Nation last week with Louis Michael Seidman, author of a controversial New York Times editorial and forthcoming book entitled On Constitutional Disobedience. Seidman is a constitutional law professor at Georgetown whose editorial was called, “Let’s Give Up on the Constitution.”
The basic thesis is this:
Our obsession with the Constitution has saddled us with a dysfunctional political system, kept us from debating the merits of divisive issues and inflamed our public discourse. Instead of arguing about what is to be done, we argue about what James Madison might have wanted done 225 years ago.
Seidman argues that good government requires that we commit to certain principles (e.g. free speech, equality under the law) not because a document requires them, but because we all agree they are important. Notice he does not attack the Constitution or its contents, simply the obsession we have developed with adherence to the document and its principles, or the principles of its authors.
As one might expect, his editorial has elicited a dramatic reaction, mostly negative. At the opening of the NPR interview, Seidman spoke about hundreds of e-mails he had received, the majority of which are abusive. Many include virulent anti-Semitism and some even threaten physical violence. The anger and hatred are clearly disproportionate to the weight of the editorial.
Seidman summarized his argument in the editorial—that we who are current residents of the country should be free to decide for ourselves what kind of country to have, not be beholden to a group of white men who lived more than 250 years ago. Host Neal Conan responded with a question that led to this exchange:
Conan: If you start ditching some parts because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you do think are right?
Seidman: …Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Constitution. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. And what we need to do is just acknowledge that fact and talk and make decisions for ourselves about the kind of country we want to live in.
Seidman went on to cite examples of sections of the Constitution we disregard, but it was in that exchange that I realized the connection. I have heard that exact conversation many, many times before, with a minor adjustment:
If you start ditching some parts of the Bible because you don’t think they’re right, then how do you then make sure you keep the parts that you think are right?
Over the years we’ve ditched many parts of the Bible. There are lots of provisions that are not obeyed. (Fill in the blank here: keeping a kosher diet, insisting that women cover their heads, mixing fibers, etc.)
I would argue that what Seidman is encountering in the harsh responses to his work is not hyper-patriotism, it is another variant in the wider worldview that is fundamentalism. Instead of fundamentalist interpretations applied to the Qu’ran or Torah or Bible, they are applied to the Constitution. The anger, defensiveness and either-for-us-or-against-us politics of Seidman’s harsh attackers resembles the decades-long rhetoric and practice of fundamentalist movements.
Fundamentalism traces its origins to a Christian reaction to modernism, but the term’s use has broadened to incorporate similar trends in other religious and theopolitical movements. To my knowledge, however, it has not been used to describe a non-religious political position or to describe the right-wing movement in the United States that understands themselves as defenders of the Constitution. However, a closer examination reveals that the sentiment represented by Seidman’s detractors, by some within the Tea Party, and by other right-wing coalitions maps on to the characteristics of other fundamentalist groups.
Karen Armstrong, in her landmark history of fundamentalism The Battle for God, does not give a definition of fundamentalism, but follows the lead of Martin Marty and R. Scott Appleby’s Fundamentalism Project and offers a set of characteristics of fundamentalist movements.
They are embattled forms of spirituality, which have emerged as a response to a perceived crisis. They are engaged in a conflict with enemies whose secularist policies and beliefs seem inimical to religion itself. Fundamentalists do not regard this battle as a conventional political struggle, but experience it as a cosmic war between the forces of good and evil. They fear annihilation, and try to fortify their beleaguered identity by means of a selective retrieval of certain doctrines and practices of the past. (xiii, adapted from Marty & Appleby)
Those who seize upon the purity of the Constitution also practice a kind of spirituality. They see central values like freedom, democracy, independence and patriotism (all narrowly defined) under threat from outside forces. Their inerrant scripture is the Constitution, and they appeal to the era of the founding fathers as the authoritative and idyllic.
The most important insight to remember when understanding fundamentalism is that it is a new phenomenon, in spite of its appeals to the past. Fundamentalism is a reactionary move against modernism, a way to fight the cultural changes that threaten former ways of knowing and living. Armstrong distinguishes between mythos and logos. Mythos is the truth that gives meaning to our daily lives. In pre-modern societies, it was the primary form of truth, and never intended to be taken literally. Mythos connects our experiences to timeless, eternal realities larger than ourselves and our era. Logos, by contrast, is the “rational, pragmatic and scientific thought that enabled men and women to function well in the world.” (xvi) Logos looks to control the environment and pursues new ideas and technologies. The pre-modern world placed mythos as the primary form of truth, but embraced logos as well. The modern world has all but dismissed mythos, and taken logos as the primary form of truth.
Fundamentalism is a particular and peculiar reaction to this modernity that seeks to take mythos and turn it into logos. As the mythos no longer matches the logos of science, they shore it up by trying to claim it is logos. For example, the story of a six-day creation in Genesis is a myth. Its primary purpose is to tell us that the world is God’s creation, that it is good, and that we humans were also created by God and reflect God’s goodness. It is a story about meaning. Fundamentalism takes that mythos and makes it into logos by arguing that the story of creation is a factual scientific explanation about the beginning of the universe. It is not even a return to something old (which would be a pre-modern coexistence of mythos and logos, with mythos as primary), it is a creative, novel reaction to modernity.
One example of this kind of American Constitutional fundamentalism can be found in conversations about the Second Amendment. It has reared up strongly in recent weeks as the country talks about gun control in response to the shooting at Newtown, Connecticut. Many who resist gun control consider themselves defenders of the Second Amendment, and they grow agitated at any suggestion that we might want to control access to certain kinds of weapons or ammunition. Rather than making an argument about how access to those weapons nurtures a free society, they believe themselves to be beseiged, drawing dramatic lines between “us” and “them,” “real Americans” and those who should “leave the country.” Claiming to be standard bearers for the Constitution, this group of gun advocates appeal to the document and the founding fathers, and dismiss any who disagree as unpatriotic, unfaithful to the Constitution, and underminers of liberty.
Just yesterday, a Tennessee man named James Yeager made the news for posting videos on YouTube threatening to “start shooting people” if they tried to take away his guns. His interview with a local television station contains all the characteristics of fundamentalism listed above. Below is the raw interview with the local television station, in which he initially tries to calm his rhetoric, but eventually gets more agitated. (If you don’t want to watch the whole thing, at least watch the section starting around 2:10, where he talks about shooting people to defend the Constitution. You can also watch the edited news story here, which includes clips from his original YouTube postings.) Since that time, the state has withdrawn his gun permit in response to his threats, but as of this writing there has been no attempt to collect his weapons, and we do not know if he intends shoot people if they do.
Mr. Yeager is not unique. The rhetoric he spouts and the appeal he makes to the Constitution can be found throughout right-wing organizations in the United States, including the Tea Party, NRA, and the conservative radio, television and blogosphere. They are another form of fundamentalism, alongside Christian, Jewish and Islamic fundamentalist ideologies. Just as within faith groups, not everyone who is a conservative member of those groups is a fundamentalist, but fundamentalism is a unique segment found within those groups.
Many of us in faith communities have struggled against fundamentalist perversions of our faith for many years, but they persist and even seem to grow stronger. I’m not sure we have much to say that will open up the conversation or create useful common ground to move forward. However, it seems helpful and insightful to identify the parallels between the rhetoric around religion and politics, and to name both as fundamentalist in their reactionary characteristics.
In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land.
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them.
My spiritual personality is suited to the season of my birth. Like Advent, my spirit dwells more in the realm of possibility and promise than in the here and now. I pray in a state of anticipation, connecting to the God of the Prophets who promises justice, righteousness and peace. My spiritual gifts in ministry involve imagination, vision and leadership—helping people come together for a journey to an unknown place.
I wonder if the season of my birth is what gives me this Advent heart.
Many millions of people for many thousands of years have believed in the Zodiac, claiming that the alignment of the stars at your birth portends your character and your future. Could the same thing be true for those of us steeped in Christian tradition? Is the season of our birth like a Zodiac sign for our spiritual self?
Imagine what traits and gifts each sign might inherit.
Advent: Those born in Advent come into this world with a deep longing that they carry with them throughout their whole lives. Their relationship with God is not about fulfilling that longing, which is a beloved companion, but about knowing that God shares their yearning for a better world.
Favorite Hymns: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel; For the Healing of the Nations; God of Grace and God of Glory
Favorite Scriptures: All the prophets, major and minor
Christmas: This is the shortest season, and those born in these twelve short days are always about incarnation. They are connected to the earth and the world, and see God’s mystery and beauty in ordinary, unexpected places. They are creators and builders, organizers and caregivers.
Favorite Hymns: For the Beauty of the Earth, O Little Town of Bethlehem
Favorite Scriptures: Creation stories
Epiphany: Epiphany’s child is born with a sense of wonder and delight that follows them throughout their lives. They see God’s manifestation everywhere, and radiate with a bright passion for the presence of God in our midst. Their relationship with God is filled with a sense of mystery and discovery, always finding God’s new appearances in their midst.
Favorite Hymns: Arise! Your Light Has Come; Be Thou My Vision
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus’ teaching and ministry
Lent: Those born in Lent have a lifelong passion for God’s grace and redemption. They are not gloomy and guilt-ridden, but they have a profound grasp of the pain of sin and suffering. Consequently, they have boundless grace for sinners and endless compassion for any soul who suffers.
Favorite Hymns: Just as I am, Amazing Grace
Favorite Scriptures: Gospel stories of Jesus healing and forgiving sins
Easter: Easter people possess enormous zest for life. They are survivors who can overcome any challenge, and embrace change and newness with great energy and excitement. They excel at make-overs, turnarounds and renewals, confident of God’s power to change anything for the good.
Favorite Hymns: God’s Eye is on the Sparrow; In the Garden; There is a Balm in Gilead
Favorite Scriptures: Stories of conversion, resurrection and transformation (Lazarus, Damascus Road, Jesus casting out demons)
Pentecost is a long season, united always by the attention to the Holy Spirit. However, there may be wide differences between those born closest to Pentecost and those born later in Ordinary Time.
Early Pentecost: Those born closest to the day of Pentecost show the fire and flair of the Spirit in all things. They are dramatic souls who prize a burning passion for God above all else in their faith life. They are often talkative and extroverted, with a contagious energy that draws others in to see the Spirit at work.
Favorite Hymn: Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee; I Love to Tell the Story; How Great Thou Art
Favorite Scriptures: Any dramatic miracles (Pentecost, crossing the Red Sea, battle of Jericho)
Mid-Pentecost: People born in the middle of the Pentecost season are concerned about the presence of the Spirit in everyday life. They are pragmatic in their spirituality, and view their faith as a lifelong journey, taken one day at a time. They value unity, community and connectedness above all else, and they can point out the Spirit’s presence in the ordinary life of the church.
Favorite Hymns: The Church’s One Foundation; Blest Be the Tie That Binds; Great is Thy Faithfulness
Favorite Scriptures: Epistles
Late Pentecost: Those born in late Pentecost see the Spirit’s presence in the whole journey of history from creation to redemption to culmination in “thy kingdom come.” They emphasize the eternity of God and the promise of life after death. They see themselves as just one generation in a long line of God’s faithful, taking spiritual strength from those who have gone before and those who will come after them.
Favorite Hymn: Forward through Ages; O God, Our Help in Ages Past
Favorite Scriptures: Apocalyptic Literature, Heroes of the Bible
This is my imagination. What’s yours? Does this connect to your spiritual life? Are you drawn to one of those types, and does it match the season of your birth? What would you add? What’s your sign?
Tonight, just across town, on the campus where my husband teaches, Indiana Senatorial Candidate Richard Mourdock said the following:
Life is a gift from God, and even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that it is something that God intended to happen.
My friends, Republican or Democrat, this post is not about politics, even though everything is political and I think this should impact how you think about your vote. This post is not about abortion, even though I strongly support access to safe and legal abortion as a fundamental aspect of securing women’s health and safety. This is a post about theology, and it is written from my pastoral heart, with care and concern for people hurt by misguided, dangerous theology. (Although, as always, posts here reflect my own views and do not stand for the views of my wonderfully diverse congregation.)
Hear this loud and clear:
GOD DOES NOT INTEND RAPE.
RAPE AND VIOLENCE ARE NEVER GOD’S WILL.
GOD DOES NOT DESIRE SUFFERING FOR SOME GREATER GOOD.
If you are a survivor, God did not send your rapist to hurt you or test you or teach you or punish you or improve you. God did not sacrifice your body and your safety and your security, even to bring the most wonderful child into the world. A human being acted out of violence, power, rage or some other sinful place to hurt you. God did not intend for you to be raped.
There can be no equivocation there. God does not afflict us. So where is God in suffering?
The heart of the Christian story deals with just this concern. The cross plays a central role in our faith, and it is a symbol of suffering caused by violence and power. Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross showed us that God does not desire our pain to obtain salvation, that God does not require our blood sacrifice, that violence is not God’s way, and that God will pursue justice and peace even unto death.
Three days later, our faith proclaims that something miraculous happened—God took the tools of violence and destruction and transformed them into Easter resurrection and new life. To say that God made new life out of something horrible, whether a rape or a cross, is to proclaim that God can overcome anything. God can take the worst this world has to offer, and God can make hope and new life. God can take a murder on a cross and create resurrection. God can take a violent rape and create a beautiful child.
That does not mean that God intends murder and rape. God does not cause horrific things to happen to us in order to make miracles. That’s not sanctified, it’s sadistic.
That also does not mean that every pregnancy resulting from rape is a gift from God. Not even every non-violent conception is a gift from God. To declare that every pregnancy is intended by God conjures a cruel Master who shows only disdain for the suffering it inflicts.
- Imagine a woman who becomes pregnant as a result of rape. Forced to carry an unwanted child to term, she is unable to begin her healing until the pregnancy is over. Even if she gives the baby up for adoption, she must live with the physical reminder of her violent trauma every day. Every kick, every contraction, every moment of labor causes her to relive the rape again in her mind. Instead of lasting for a night, her trauma lasts for nine months.
- Imagine a woman who already has three children. Her fourth pregnancy puts her own life in danger. While her unborn child may or may not survive, she will not. Her older children will be left motherless. The children’s father will be unable to provide for them without her income, and they will likely be separated into foster care.
- Imagine a woman trapped in a violent relationship. She has a plan to get out, but she discovers that the partner who abuses her has also conceived a child in her womb. She knows she cannot escape if she is pregnant, and that this violent man will have parental rights to the child even if she leaves him.
Some women would claim God’s new life in these pregnancies, no matter the circumstances. They will love and raise the child with joy and faithfulness. Others would claim God’s new life and possibility in the freedom to terminate a difficult pregnancy and claim the value of their own lives as God’s beloved. They will live their lives with purpose serving God in other ways. In neither case does God intend the suffering to get to the new life. In both circumstances, God can heal and redeem the suffering by bringing new life.
Deuteronomy 30:19-20 says:
“Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, that you and your descendants might live! “
I believe that sometimes the choice to end a pregnancy is a way of choosing life—life for the mother, life for other children, life free from abuse. God can make new life out of terrible things, but we cannot always equate God’s new life with an unborn child. We cannot know how God will work in a woman’s heart, nor can we know the path of life in every situation. I stand firmly against the use of speculation about God’s intentions to legislate forced pregnancy.
Above all, this is clear: God does not intend violence. Rape is not part of God’s grand plan. Neither is forced pregnancy part of God’s will. God comes to us in Christ so that we “might have life, and have it more abundantly.” (John 10:10) The prayerful discernment about what it means to choose to “have life, and have it more abundantly” belongs to each woman, her own womb and her own conversation with God—not our legislators.
I recently joined a writers’ group, and this was our first assignment, as a way to get to know each other. I wrote on this topic awhile back, on the first anniversary of this blog. I am sharing this new version, because I realize that I am not writing for the same reasons I did two years ago.
I started writing as a way of remembering. My earliest writings can be found in a pink diary with a built-in lock. For years, I wore the gold key on a chain around my neck. My diary contained all the secrets of a lonely girl, and all the daily dramas I wanted to remember forever. I tried to write every night, an earnest attempt to capture every moment of my life and carry it with me into the future. When I didn’t have the energy to construct a narrative of the day, I made lists of things to write about later. I fancied myself in the tradition of Laura Ingalls, Anne Frank or Go Ask Alice. I imagined that someday my life would be interesting, and that I would want to remember back to the days when it wasn’t.
In college, I majored in English and history. I studied expository writing as an academic pursuit, a way of making a case or telling a compelling story or unfolding an analysis. While I knew I could write clearly and well, I did not consider myself a writer. Writers created worlds. Writers gave birth to characters and invented moments. I could only report on the world or analyze a character or explain a moment, which was not the same.
I write because it is a way to think and to pray. Sometime in junior high school, I discovered paper’s patience. Sharing feelings never came naturally to me, but I trusted paper to hold all my vulnerabilities and heartbreaks. I tamed my feelings and gave voice to my fears in the pages of my journals. I discovered that writing did not just hold my feelings, it healed them. Writing often became an outpouring of prayer.
My journey from adolescence into adulthood happened in writing. I wrote myself into being, trying on voices and identities until I figured out who I was becoming and who God was calling me to be. I could write about things long before I had the courage to do them, and the bold words on the page pushed me to bolder living in the world.
As I entered adulthood, I wrote because I had something to say. My calling into ministry meant that God had a purpose for my voice. I study and contemplate and read and realize I have a lot to say. In sermons, in papers, in pastoral messages, I write to console, to teach, to reveal, to inform, to coach, to call, to convey, to evoke. What I write, by the Spirit’s grace, can sometimes even connect people with the presence of the Holy.
All those reasons for writing are still active in my life. I still write to remember. I started blogging three years ago when my son was a toddler, because I wanted to capture the experience of parenting and create a record of his early explorations. I still write to tame feelings. I have a journal on my shelf that contains all my recent heartbreaks and most vulnerable moments. I write in it when I am broken and need to knit myself back together. I still write because I have things to say. My ego is big enough to believe that I have something meaningful to contribute to the world.
My best writing happens when all those reasons come together—when I capture a true moment, explore my own thoughts and feelings about it, then connect it to something deeper beyond myself. I want to write more from that place. When it happens, it feels transcendent.
At church on Sunday, B got a giveaway bible, just a little pocket New Testament that had been left over from a previous event. He is a budding reader, so he came home that day and sat down to start reading it. J and I were both intrigued with what he might possibly grasp, and wondered how to interpret the gospels with him.
Ever the ardent atheist, J chuckled and remarked, “You know, it always cracks me up that your faith, that the Bible, is not age appropriate. Your God is not safe for children.”
He’s right, of course. From Cain and Abel to the mass slaughter of Canaanites to the stoning of an adulteress to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, the Bible is loaded with the kind of violence that we would ban from video games and television programs for children. Biblical clans generally set bad examples for the “traditional family values” that we want to instill in our children—Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, sisters Leah and Rachel try to destroy each other over a man, Paul says it’s better not to get married to focus on the Gospel. Even Jesus disses his family when they try to get in the way of his ministry. Hardships like poverty, disease, natural disaster and corrupt rulers fill every page.
Then there’s all the sex stuff—and not just the beautiful erotic poetry in Song of Solomon. Abraham tells his wife Sarah to pretend she is his sister and become the king’s mistress. Visitors are threatened with rape in Sodom and Gomorrah. Onan is struck down for “spilling his seed on the ground.” (Yes, that means what you think it means.) Tamar dresses up as a prostitute to trick her father-in-law into getting her pregnant. And we haven’t even made it out of Genesis yet.
God’s story is clearly rated R. When we introduce children to God, we carefully select the stories of Jesus welcoming children and multiplying loaves and fishes, Jonah and the whale, Daniel and the lions, Moses and the ten commandments, Abraham and Sarah laughing at the impossible promise of a baby. We carefully omit the content that is inappropriate for young children, and avoid the parts that would be considered NSFW* as a Youtube video.
While J intended his remark as a gentle taunt, I am proud to claim an R-rated God and an R-rated faith. My life and my world have no need of a squeaky-clean God with a scripture full of nice and pleasant stories. Violence, sex, poverty, broken families, twisted relationships abound in the world we live in. They weigh heavy on the lives of people everywhere and threaten to drown them in despair. We need a God who can enter that kind of world and still find a way for the divine light of hope, love and peace shine through. I do not need the Divine Disney to create a magic kingdom insulated from poverty, violence, sex and oppression. I need a God who comes to dwell among the grit, the grime and the graphic and somehow finds a way to redeem it all in the end.
The R-rated story of God in the Bible makes possible a mature faith for an adult world. Stories of violence show me that God can go with us into the valley of the shadow of death. Broken families help us to know that we are not alone in our imperfect relationships, and God knows our struggles to love and be loved. Sex in the Bible reveals that intimacy is a gift from God, and sin only enters sexuality with power, violence, deception and manipulation. The prominence of the poor, the ill and the outcast in the Bible teach us that hardship and oppression cannot separate us from God’s love, nor should it separate us from loving one another. The prominence of sinful biblical heroes reminds us that God loves us and God can use even our messed-up lives for good and holy purposes.
The world is not rated G, so neither is our God. The R-rated God comes to R-related people in an R-rated world, to change the “R” from restricted to redeemed, by the power of love. I’ll claim that rating for my faith any day.
*NSFW is code for “not safe for work,” and usually applied to videos or online materials with graphic content.
On March 2, deadly tornadoes ripped through our community. In the immediate aftermath, experts and volunteers and resources poured in from across the country. Now, two months later, we have established a long term recovery team with eight active committees in charge of everything from construction and volunteer management to spiritual and emotional care. Local leaders, including me, have come forward to lead the organization for the next 18-24 months. The outside experts and leaders are on their way out. FEMA left town on Friday. In the last few weeks I have heard these disaster responders, both from the government and religious organizations, repeatedly use the phrase “own your own disaster.” It’s time, they say, for the community to own its own disaster, and take charge of their own recovery.
Owning our own disaster is not an easy process. In the first few days, it was all about having survived, and helping neighbors survive. As the days turned into weeks, it was all about getting help. Everyone was eagerly awaiting aid from others—from insurance, from FEMA, from the Red Cross, from family or churches or other organizations. People seemed to believe that these groups would save them from their distress, that money and resources would pour in, and that these aid groups would restore them to wholeness.
However, insurance has deductibles. FEMA only gives away money to those without insurance; others must take out low-interest loans, which must be paid back. Even voluntary organizations reserve their dollars and donations for those with no other resources of their own. The realization that no one was going to fix it was met with anger, frustration and grief, as we realized that the much of the burden and cost of the disaster would still rest with those who had already lost so much.
As the weeks have passed, the emotions have tempered and the community has come together to move forward. It is our community, after all. We should be the ones in charge of rebuilding it. The recovery will take many months, and those outside volunteers and experts need to return to their lives and their homes. They cannot bear the cost of rebuilding our community for us. The disaster represents much hardship, but also much opportunity—the chance to remake things better than they were before. As we learn to own our own disaster, we take responsibility for the future of our own community.
I can’t help but reflect that I have seen this pattern before, many times, as I have walked with families through their own personal disasters. A tragedy, a diagnosis, an accident, a life-changing mistake—there is always an initial rush of aid, followed by the disappointing realization that no one can fix this for you, that only you and God can put your own life back together again. The grief, the anger, the frustration are all too familiar. Like the survivors of the tornado, sometimes it’s hard to realize that even though the disaster occurred through no fault of your own, the responsibility for healing and rebuilding still lies with you, because it’s your life. Sometimes, when we find ourselves in disasters of our own making, we still want someone else to step in and rescue us.
Yet in order to heal and be restored to wholeness, we all have to learn to own our own disasters. It may not be fair, but little in life is. We can’t heal unless we take responsibility for our own healing, and that requires for taking responsibility for our own disaster, even if it came about through no fault of our own.
This Sunday was part of Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend, and I wanted to be sure to attend a service that marked the occasion. I decided to worship on Sunday morning at a well-respected African-American megachurch that has a satellite campus in our town. I have developed a nice collegial relationship with one of the pastors there, and the worship and preaching are always stellar.
This time, however, the transcendent moment came from a choir anthem, sung by a magnificent choir that was at least 75 voices strong. The anthem was called “Manifest.” Although online sources credit T.D. Jakes, whose church choir made a famous recording of it, the piece was written by Jonathan Nelson and John Paul McGee. The version by Jakes’ The Potter’s House Choir is below (there is preaching at the beginning, skip ahead to 2:25 to hear the music), but you can listen to Nelson’s more mellow recording here. The rendition I heard was far more free-form, as the soloist and choir leader led each other and followed the movement of the Spirit as they repeated certain refrains, took the crowd to a crescendo and let each section of the anthem go on as long as it needed to.
I wavered for the first two verses about whether I would be drawn into the song or not.
Pregnant possibilities now birth anew,
travailing to obtain it for it must come to pass.
I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit
to become what God’s designed me to be.
Your future, your promises shall be fulfilled,
yes, you shall obtain it for it must come to pass.
Creeping in the background, I could see the images of the prosperity gospel, which I think is a twisted, evil distortion of the gospel of sacrifice and service. However, I loved the idea of pregnant possibilities, and the call to become everything God has designed us to be. In the context of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and death, I remembered something I heard about the power and importance of the black church. (There’s probably a famous quote to this effect from a famous preacher, but I don’t remember it.) All week long, out in the world, black people are despised and filled with the lie that they are worthless. On Sunday morning, the church tells them the real truth: that they are holy and whole and loved and powerful. Worship gives the community strength and healing to face the world knowing the truth of who they are. I decided to go with this message, and let myself be moved by the power of the song. In the end, “moved” doesn’t even begin to describe my experience.
The choir began repeating the same refrain: “I decree it, declare it, and call it in the Spirit/to become what God’s designed me to be.” They built it up to a crescendo, and a young woman took the microphone and began to sing out above them, increasing the intensity. Together, she and the choir were not simply singing a song anymore—their words were acting like the Word, the Word that calls worlds into being, the Word whose utterances are entities in themselves, the Word whose voice is power and light and hope incarnate. As they sang “I decree it, declare it,” I could see the bodies and souls of the choir members taking on the design that God had for each of them, becoming wholly a vehicle of God’s praise. As we in the congregation stood and joined them, their decree and declaration took hold of us as well, calling down the Spirit to shape us into God’s design for our lives, so that we too could become vessels of God’s glory.
The culminating moment came when the choir began to repeat the title word: “manifest.” Over and over, with power and might, with chords and discords, with prayer and supplication they sang out: “Manifest!” At first, it was a pleading prayer to the Holy One, urging the Divine to come into our midst, to manifest among us. I recalled the Isaiah passage from the first Sunday of Advent: “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” (Isaiah 64:1) With the voices, I ached for God to manifest in our presence, a theophany. Their pleading grew bolder, and it was like they were issuing a command to the Almighty’s own self. Like a petulant child: “Get down here right now! Manifest!”
As the intensity grew, something in me shifted, and I realized it was a command—but not to the Almighty. The anthem was a command to ourselves. Manifest! Manifest God! Right here, right now. Manifest God in your life. Manifest God in your words and your deeds. Manifest God in your own body. Get rid of all that baggage and those useless pursuits. Become what God has designed you to be. Manifest!
The soloist continued, but her words were lost on me. All I heard was the choir proclaiming the Word: Manifest! The song reached its climax and began to wind down, turning quiet and introspective in the repeated refrain: “become what God designed you to be.” It was then that I realized that the song was itself a manifestation. By their song, the choir had actually made manifest the presence of the Spirit in our midst. Then they had manifest that Spirit in us, sweeping the congregation into the Spirit’s work. We heard the truth that we are loved by God, and called by God to love others. The power of the music became the power of God. The Word was again made flesh, manifest in that hour of worship in voices and bodies lifted in praise and turned toward what God designed us to be. Thanks be to God.
I awoke this morning sensing that God was very near. More accurately, realizing that my heart, mind and spirit had been broken open to feel God’s presence. I just knew that, if I could stay open, God would come very near. I felt as if my spirit was waking up after a long sleep. St. Patrick’s Breastplate prayer came to me:
I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through the belief in the threeness,
Through confession of the oneness
Of the Creator of Creation
After taking B to school, I went to a nearby park to take a walk. Instead of my normal alt-folk-rock Pandora mix, a classical station appeared. I realized that wordlessness suited my prayerful mood, and set out walking. What happened next felt like magic, a mystical revelation of God’s presence.
The music was in 3/4 time, and my feet slipped into a waltzing pattern. I couldn’t help it—it felt like I was dancing along the path instead of just walking. I first noticed it as I came upon the duck pond. Over the music in my earbuds, I could hear the quacking and squawking—and they seemed perfectly attuned to the pulsing staccato of the symphony. As the wind blew through the trees, I began to imagine that nature’s own movements had been choreographed to the music in my ears. Through a short line of trees, the thickness of the symphony dwindled at the same moment I stepped into a wide, open meadow. The chatter of the symphony calmed, as did the ducks. The violins played a simple melody, clear and smooth, as a solitary bird flew overhead, from one end of the meadow to the other. I waltzed across the meadow entranced, open to the simple melody, to the space and to the spirit.
The symphony grew thicker and more invitational, and I approached a grove of trees. I imagined them welcoming me into their fellowship, out of the solitude and emptiness of the open meadow and into a space of warmth and companionship. Together we frolicked with the lilting of the music, and I felt like I was a guest at a lovely party. I found myself triple-timing the waltz steps, and my arms followed the arc of the music.
Slowly, the music turned heavier, as the grove of trees also became more dense. I felt the weightiness of journey, of struggle, of pilgrimage. I contemplated the way our life’s journeys twist and turn, grow thick and thin. Sometimes we are surrounded by friends, sometimes we are alone. I kept walking in time with the music. The tension and discord grew heavier, then suddenly exploded into fullness and light, beaming with deep radiance.
I felt my Spirit coming alive. God did not choreograph the movements of the trees and the birds to the movement of my feet, like Disney’s Fantasia, but God opened me again to the music of the world, to the ability to pay attention to all that was happening around me.
I finally looked to see what the piece was. It was Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, which is called “Resurrection.”
These are the things for which sabbatical was made. Long walks, a spirit of prayer, attentive listening. For resurrection. Thanks be to God.
(Below is the entire symphony. I was listening, I suspect, to the second movement, which begins around minute 24. I discovered, in researching the piece when I returned home, that the second movement is based on a Ländler, an Austrian folk dance that preceded the waltz. When I was in a folk dance group in college, the Ländler was one of my favorite dances. No wonder my feet stepped in time. Zillertaler Ländler was always my favorite.)