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Posts Tagged ‘justice

Joan Chittister, The Ten Commandments: Laws of the Heart, Maryknoll, NY: Orbis books, 2006, 152 pp.

This is the second in a series of four books about the Ten Commandments, which I purchased and read simultaneously, week by week, while I was preaching a sermon series on that topic. The sermons can be found here, June 22 through July 27. The rest of the book reviews will be posted sequentially here. 

Laws of the HeartJoan Chittister’s subtitle to her book on the ten commandments suits her style and contribution. Chittister, as always, speaks to the issues of the heart and soul, looking at the commandments with an eye on the spiritual dimension and attention to the call for justice in the world.

In the introduction, she writes:

The Ten Commandments are laws of the heart, not laws of the commonwealth. They are laws that are intended to lead to the fullness of life, not simply to the well-ordered life. … The Ten Commandments are, then, an adventure in human growth. We are not so much convicted by them as we are to be transformed by them. (10-11)

Chapter by chapter, commandment by commandment, Chittister examines each in three ways: historically, examining what it meant in the context of early Judaism; in application, imagining how it applies to life today; and reflectively, proposing ways that we can reflect on what it means for each of us to follow the commandments today.

For example, in the first commandment, she explains that the ban on material images was a part of making God bigger than every before, because this Yahweh God was “more than matter, above matter, beyond matter.”(18) She then applies the commandment: “This is the commandment that decides the orientation of our whole lives. This one asks us who or what we are making God now.” (20) Finally, she provokes with a question:

Whatever it is that you give your life to is the shrine at which you adore. The question is, Is this a big enough god for anyone to spend a life on? (22)

I found this book among the most helpful I read in transforming the commandments from exhortative sermons of “Thou shalt not!” into probing questions about the depths of human relationships. Here are some examples:

The fourth commandment reminds us that we are not worlds unto ourselves. We all came from somebody somewhere and we owe them the gratitude that comes with those gifts, however limited they may at first sight be. It is the requirement of this commandment that saves us from the terminal disease of immediacy. This commandment demands we respect the past. (54-55)

“You shall not steal” has been reduced to mean no shoplifting, no pilfering, no pickpockets, no burglary, no petty theft. It has become the province of poor people, sick people, immature people. But the stealing the Decalogue really has in mind, is really concerned about, has actually become the sin of rich people, powerful people, people in a position to say, “take it or leave it” to those who seek a living wage or subsidized housing or medical benefits and pensions. (92)

If I had only one book of these four to recommend to preachers, Chittister’s would be the one. She helps unlock the fixed nature of the commandments and open them to new ways of illuminating our sins and our possibilities.

Reality, Grief, Hope: Three Urgent Prophetic Tasks by Walter Brueggemann, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2014, 165 pp.

9780802870728I adore Walter Brueggemann’s work, and I will confess to anyone who cares to listen that I think every sermon I have ever preached on a text from the Hebrew Bible has been influenced by his scholarship and pastoral insights. This is especially true of any sermons on prophetic texts, as his original outline in The Prophetic Imagination unlocked those obscure biblical books, with their poetry and lamentation, in ways that finally made them come alive for me.

I heard Brueggemann lecture on the content of Reality, Grief, Hope before reading the book, and recognized immediately the themes he had previously developed in The Prophetic Imagination, Hopeful Imagination and other books. His perspective on the prophets is that their first word calls forth the injustice, sin and loss in the community, prompting grief. Only after the people have experienced lament can they find their way to hope, the prophet’s second word. Reality, Grief, Hope adds a new dimension to the prophet’s task, a new first word before grief: reality.

Brueggemann has observed, both in the Bible and in contemporary culture, that the prophet must first pierce through the many layers of denial. Before the grief can flow, the people must acknowledge that something has been lost that cannot be regained. In both ancient and modern contexts, the royal ideology of chosenness (the conviction that God will protect the Jerusalem establishment and its leaders) persists long after facts on the ground demonstrate that the temple and its practices will not be protected. The ideology blinds the people from seeing any facts or reality beyond itself, and therefore traps them within a false and failing way of seeing the world, denying the change and the injustice around them.

Reality must be faced and not resisted. Their rhetoric is designed to break the bubble, to make contact with the facts on the ground—that God is here and neighbor is here—and to notice the links of chosenness in the present and future fates. (23)

Brueggemann describes this phenomenon in ancient Israel, then he describes it in the 21st century of the United States. The roots of the problem today lie in American exceptionalism, and our understanding of freedom as freedom to disregard the needs of our neighbors.

Grief is the path to piercing this ideology and its systematic denial of its own failure. Brueggemann offers an extensive catalog of biblical prophets who address this need, from Jeremiah to the Psalmist to Lamentations. He then summons preachers and prophets today to engage in the same work, naming and claiming the loss of American superiority, privilege and moral certainty.

This converging loss that is beyond denial, concerning loss of political-military hegemony, loss of economic dominance, loss of social-ethnic singularity, and loss of ecclesiastical propensity, has come to amount to a loss of moral certainty and a failure of nerve about the future. In sum, we watch as the world for which we had prepared ourselves and had learned to master is disappearing before our very eyes. (81)

When that sadness and loss remains unexpressed and voiceless, it gives rise to violence and precludes us from imagining new possibilities that might spring forth by the grace of God. The grief is necessary to move into reality and into hope.

Grief can easily give way to despair. The task of the prophet, after piercing denial with reality and unleashing the grief, is to offer hope, so that the people do not fall into despair. That hope comes always from outside the ideology, outside the system and empire. Hope comes from God.

It is rather, the tradition insists, an utterance that arises “from elsewhere,” from the God who indwells the abyss and who initiates a new historical possibility by resolve that is not disrupted by the city in shambles and is not restrained by the force of empire. (106)

Brueggemann concludes by insisting that the best possibility for prophetic work today lies in local congregations, where people are known and loved against the forces of empire.

One can see the same practice in the life of a congregation wherein people are known and named, who have birthdays and anniversaries remembered, who have their sicknesses and deaths honored, all gestures that call out an affirmed, empowered personhood. (145)

This counternarrative that disrupts imperial narrative focuses upon particular persons in daily crises, naming, valuing, and empowering persons who have been disregarded, reduced or summarized by the empire. (146)

The work of prophetic imagination has a calling, I do not doubt, to walk our society into the crisis where it does not want to go, and to walk our society out of that crisis into newness that it does not believe is possible. (160)

The church, Brueggemann claims, by living its ordinary life of caring for souls and holding out the good news, is the key to helping people and society move into hope.

Reality, Grief, Hope takes Brueggemann’s existing work to a new level, and lays a new claim upon us as pastors and church leaders to engage the prophetic work of piercing reality, opening grief and proclaiming hope in God. His insistence will not release us, and the scriptures he summons will not let us doubt. As always, Walter Brueggemann brings the Bible alive and with its vitality comes a summons to follow.

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church’s Conservative Icon by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2009, 230 pp.

First PaulI was so excited when this book came out that I ordered the hardback copy right away. (I almost always wait for the paperback to save money.) I had learned so much about Jesus from Borg and Crossan’s work on on the Gospels, I knew that this would be a rich resource for learning about Paul from their perspective. For some reason, though, this made its way onto my way-too-many shelf of books “to be read” and did not manage to come out again until nearly five years later. Still, it was everything I had originally hoped it would be—a critical, radical reassessment of Paul and his writings that will lay the foundation for preaching and interpretation of all the letters attributed to him.

Borg and Crossan begin with some brief observations on the different roles Paul plays in Protestant and Catholic theologies, then name their three foundational statements:

First, not all of the letters attributed to Paul were written by him—there is more than one Paul in the New Testament. Second, it is essential to place his letters in their historical context. Third, his message—his teaching, his gospel—is grounded in his life-changing and sustaining experience of the risen Christ; Paul, we will argue, is best understood as a Jewish Christ mystic. (13)

Borg and Crossan identify the authentic letters (Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, Galatians, Philippians and Philemon) as the work of the radical Paul, the disputed letters (Ephesians, Colossians and 2 Thessalonians) as conservative, and the non-Pauline letters (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) as reactionary. Stories about Paul in the Book of Acts are a fourth Paul, with some parts more reliable than others. Borg and Crossan write predominately about the authentic letters of Paul as a radical follower of the radical Jesus, because he has had a personal life-changing encounter with the mystical Christ on the road to Damascus. Occasionally, they will offer a comparison to the conservative or reactionary Paul on issues like slavery and gender equality.

Taking Philemon as a model, the authors then demonstrate “How to Read a Pauline Letter.” They emphasize that readers must “remember that, when we are reading letters never intended for us, any problems of understanding are ours and not theirs.” (29) We must “turn letter into story,” the original story that would have been known and understood by the original recipients of the letter. In Philemon, that is the story of the slave Onesimus and his master Philemon. The radical Paul argues that equality must not be limited to the spiritual realm, but must exist in the earthly realm as well—that Philemon must release Onesimus from slavery, because it is incompatible with the way of radical love demanded by Christ.

The next chapter is a basic biography, constructed from insights in the authentic letters, the Book of Acts, and other historical sources for context. They talk about his likely education and background in Tarsus (even speculating about chronic malaria as the “thorn in the flesh”), his life as a Pharisaic Jew, his conversion at Damascus, the missionary journeys, and imprisonment. The chapter ends with interesting observations about the cities in which Paul planted churches, portraying them as dense, dirty places filled with tenement-like housing and persons displaced by empire. His churches began among Gentiles who were worshiping in the synagogues, not the Jews. Labeling it “adherent poaching,” Borg and Crossan say,

Our proposal is that Paul went always to the synagogue in each city not to convert his fellow Jews, but to convert the gentile adherents to Christian Judaism. And that proposal explains huge swaths of Pauline data. (88)

Paul’s letters can be interpreted much more clearly by these gentile synagogue-goers than by those who were strict adherents of Judaism.

The final four chapters explore and explain four core theological ideas in the radical Paul: “Jesus Christ is Lord,” “Christ crucified,” “Justification by Grace Through Faith,” and “Life Together in Christ.” Paul’s insistence on calling Jesus Christ “Lord” is a treasonous claim against the Roman emperor, replacing Rome’s peace through violent victory with Christ’s peace through the nonviolent justice of equality. His proclamation of Christ crucified is not a scriptural account of substitutionary atonement. Instead, it is evidence of the greatness of God’s love for the world, and the entryway to the resurrection. We participate in dying and rising with Christ, born again with a radically new heart for loving the world as God does.

The chapter on “Justification by Grace Through Faith” aims to “get Paul and his letter to the Romans out of the sixteenth century polemical Reformation world and back into the first century imperial Roman world.” (157) Borg and Crossan argue convincingly that Paul sees justification by grace as a message of God’s distributive justice, “that God’s Spirit is distributed freely to each and every one of us to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice.” (160) The argument about faith and works then becomes a concern by Paul for works-without-faith, not faith-without-works.

“Faith” means a grateful submission to the Spirit transplant of God’s own nonviolent distributive justice, which empowers us to will and enables us to work toward a reclamation of this world in collaboration with God. (184)

Paul’s work was always built around communities, creating collectives of new converts to follow life together in Christ, following the non-violent path of justice and peace together, in contrast to the domination system of the world. These communities practiced love for one another, sharing meals and resources, prayers and worship together.

The epilogue addresses speculations and evidence about Paul’s death, amid ongoing tensions with the Jerusalem community led by James. When I read it, much to my surprise, I felt the same sadness I feel at the end of any good biography with a tragic death. I was sorry that the empire, likely Nero, cut Paul’s life so short. I felt as though I knew and appreciated the man in a deeper way, and I grieved a tiny bit for his death, even 2,000 years later.

I should never have waited five years to read this book. It was excellent from beginning to end. I am a sophisticated, detailed maker of notations in non-fiction books that I read. There are countless stars and underlines here, because Borg and Crossan have such an ability to explain and evidence various aspects of the scriptures in ways I want to remember. Even without the book in hand to review, I walk away with a much better appreciation for Paul’s radical ministry of love, justice and equality. Anyone who grapples with Paul and all the baggage attributed to him should read The First Paul for clarity and hope.

 

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.

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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)

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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.

By the time we finished Hana Bendcowsky’s tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, we were on information overload and sensory overstimulation. Thankfully, it was time to go to lunch. We didn’t realize, however, that our lunch was going to be an even more worshipful, insightful, emotional time—and would last well into the afternoon.

Our lunch was hosted by Wujoud, an organization dedicated to remembering and honoring Palestinian culture and especially empowering Palestinian women. Turning off one of the crowded stone paths of the Old City, we entered a building that you wouldn’t know existed from the street. Inside was a small museum, but we went upstairs where we could smell lunch cooking. It wasn’t a restaurant, simply a small kitchen and a few tables set up for us in one room. The women in the kitchen were preparing a Palestinian dish called “upside down,” which was made of cauliflower and carrots and onions on the bottom, rice on top, cooked all together in one pot. The trick is then to flip the dish over and keep the rice standing in the shape of the pot—hence the name “upside down.” Our cook was a master, and it was both beautiful and delicious. Although all the meals we have had have been delicious (especially lunch, which is at a local restaurant, as opposed to breakfast and dinner at the hotel), this one was one of the best. Not just because of the good, homemade food, but because it was prepared with love and served with warm hospitality. The environment felt more like a church supper than a restaurant in a foreign country. We all treasured the space they had created for us and the meal they had prepared.

After lunch, they invited us to tour the museum, but not before we met Noora Qertt, the director of the organization. Noora is a Palestinian Christian, and she has dedicated her life to preserving the culture of her people, empowering Palestinian women, fighting for justice every day, and living her Christian faith as a daily witness to peace. Her witness, her energy and her courage were awe-inspiring. Her organization has a collective of 550 women doing embroidery at home to sell in her shops and in collaboration with churches around the world. They have women learning to be professional chefs and jewelry-makers, and playing in sports leagues, along with many other programs.

Noora Qertt sharing her inspiring stories.

Noora told us about the building we sat in, which was a gift from the Orthodox church to her organization in recognition for all her good work. However, the building was falling apart when she received it, so she had to raise half a million dollars to restore it. Once she had the building, she went to people’s homes and looked through the old things and furniture they had representing life among the Palestinian people, then she talked them into donating it to the museum. The walls were covered with old photographs of Palestinian life before 1948. Downstairs, there was a room divided in two halves, like two Palestinian homes, one wealthier and one poorer, with a hearth and furniture and food and the things of home. They had amazingly beautiful hand-embroidered clothing, baptismal gowns and hats, along with furniture and woodwork from Palestine’s past.

One of the sample hearths in the small museum

The name of the organization, Wujoud, means “existence” in Arabic. Noora’s work, first and foremost, is to help the world hear from the Palestinians: “we exist.” They are a real people, with a real heritage and culture and faith—some Muslim, some Christian. Noora had worshipped alongside us just a little while earlier in the Arabic Orthodox Chapel at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where she has worshipped her whole life. Regardless of your opinion on the State of Israel, its current actions and history, or the way forward, Noora made powerful claims about the history of her community in this place. Just as an example, she said that when she gave a lecture once, someone asked her, “How long have you been a Christian?” She answered curtly, “Since Pentecost.” The Christians in this area claim their roots worshipping Christ here since the first century.

View from the roof of the Wujoud building, looking down at the street.

That story was one among many Noora told that showed her courage and refusal to be diminished, in spite of occupation. She told the story of a building project that her organization was doing in the West Bank, building a gym or school or other community building. The engineer was stopped at a checkpoint and asked to strip down. He refused the command in order to maintain his dignity, choosing instead to return to Noora with his resignation from the project. Instead of letting him go or telling him, “this is just how it is,” she asked him to accompany her back to the same checkpoint. When he pointed out the officer who had made the demand, Noora got out of the car and began walking up to him. Every gun was trained on her, but she showed that she was carrying nothing and kept moving slowly forward. She approached the officer, and told him about what had happened. She did not beg him, she did not plead with him. She explained that her organization and what they were doing in the West Bank would help eliminate violence by giving productive work and community, and she needed her engineer to be able to pass with his dignity intact. The officer was unmoved. She appealed to his humanity, “I can see you are not this man with a gun. You are a faithful man with a family back home that you want to return to. Tell you what I’m going to do for you. I’m going to pray for you. I’m going to pray that you get to go home from here safely, back to your family, that you never again have to pick up this gun and work at this checkpoint anymore, and you get to return to your life again.” With that, the officer relented, “Go, go,” he said, and let her and the engineer pass through smoothly.

Noora told many other stories like that one, and what I heard in all of them was how dehumanizing the Palestinian occupation is, not just for Palestinians, but for the Israeli Defense Forces guarding the checkpoints. Noora’s story was an account of the everyday work of making justice and peace. It was not about solving the thorny mess of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, it was about restoring the dignity and humanity of her engineer by restoring the dignity and humanity of the soldier, using her body and her prayer as a path to one moment of peace and justice.

I have long preached that peace and justice begin with each one of us acting in the world with love and compassion, but Noora’s stories gave me a whole new appreciation for what that might look like. In my daily life, how do I restore dignity and humanity to those around me, so that we can approach one another in a just relationship? In situations where I am powerless, do I work to reclaim my own humanity by speaking to the humanity of my antagonist? In situations when I am powerful, how do I restore dignity to those who are powerless? Would I have that kind of courage and imagination to act outside of the rules, and thereby change the situation altogether?

Sitting and listening to Noora was like being in church, and I felt the Spirit in our midst.

Noora’s work and her example made a profound impact on me. The hour at lunch and hour listening to her stories felt more like church than anything else we had experienced so far that day, on what was supposedly the most holy site in all of Christianity. Her faith inspired her to act with love even for her enemies, to be courageous in the face of great danger, and to refuse to let anyone but God tell her who she is and what she is worth. I am grateful for her witness.

Suffragettes, courtesy of allposters.com

Today marks the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” (For the story of the amendment, click here. The vote passed on August 18, 1920. The amendment became law on August 26, 1920.)

This landmark ruling is less than 100 years old. It is less than a lifetime–there are women alive today who remember the time before women had the right to vote in this country. I recall my own great-grandmother sharing her memory of the first time she was ever allowed to vote.

Because we do not have the video evidence that we have of the civil rights movement or the feminist movement of the 1960’s, we tend to forget the hardship and struggle those women endured to earn rights for women. When I was growing up, the only image I had of what a suffragette looked was Mrs. Banks, the mother character in Mary Poppins, who was portrayed as so self-absorbed and wealthy and concerned for her own rights that her children were misbehaving terribly to get any attention at all. She was the contrasting foil to Mary Poppins, the woman who did not care for herself, her pay, her image—only for the poor, neglected children. Mrs. Banks’ image matched the photos I saw of the suffrage movement, pictures of wealthy women dressed in full Victorian attire, marching with signs and pausing to pose for photos. It gave me the impression that the suffrage movement was more like an outdoor ladies’ tea than a brutal struggle for equality under the law.

It is true that many of the participants and leaders of this movement were privileged white women. There is a legacy of prejudice within the feminist movement that persists today against working class women and women of color. Those of us who are passionate about the ongoing struggle for women’s civil and social equality must continue to fight against this prejudice with all our strength. But the status of early suffragette leaders as wealthy and white does not negate the difficulty of their struggle or the cost of their sacrifice. Their portrayal as indulgent flakes like Mrs. Banks is not only false, but it diminishes their intelligence, commitment and determination, along with the importance of their movement.

The struggle for women’s rights was intense, disruptive and even violent, just like any other civil rights movement. Women with no other source of income than their husbands were thrown out of their homes and separated from their children. Single, working women lost their jobs for attending a suffrage rally. Women were denied the right of free assembly and jailed for their protests. While in jail, they were abused. They staged hunger strikes and were force-fed. They sacrificed their families, their security, their bodily safety, their income and more. For a striking portrayal, I encourage you to watch Iron-Jawed Angels, a film made in 2004 about the women’s suffrage movement in the United States.

And yet somehow we forget their sacrifice in the long litany of civil rights heroes. This erasure took place within a generation of the suffrage movement.  Robert Cooney, director of the Woman Suffrage Media Project, writes:

Suffrage leader Gertrude Foster Brown tells of interviewing one of the women who persuaded the Illinois legislature to grant presidential suffrage in 1913, a key breakthrough in the struggle for national suffrage. She ends her article with this anecdote:

“As I sat with Mrs. Booth and her husband some years ago and they told me the tale of the winning of Illinois, he, strangely enough, remembering better than she the details of the long struggle, it was the listening young people who marked for us how far the world has moved since then. Their son and daughter, then grown, sat round-eyed and enthralled by the story. They had never heard it. Did women, just because they were women, ever have to fight against such incredible odds? And was it their mother who had played the leading role on such a stage? Like most young people they had always taken her for granted–retiring, thoughtful, quiet and kind, just a mighty nice mother–and suddenly they saw her a general, a heroine in one of the great dramas of the world. For this Illinois victory was the turning point in the enfranchisement of twenty-five millions of women.”

So on this anniversary day, let us do three things.

Remember

Lucy Stone,  Alice Paul, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Sojourner Truth, Carrie Chapman Catt, Alice Stone Blackwell, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell, Frances Willard, Julia Ward Howe—these women and all their anonymous companions deserve a prominent place in our pantheon of justice heroes. Let us remember their sacrifice, courage and dedication, and the true cost of civil rights.

Give Thanks

My life today would not be possible without the women’s movements of days past. My ordination, my career choice, my family, my equal pay, my partnership with my spouse, my legal protection from rape and domestic violence, my reproductive freedom, my political activism, my hyphenated name, my degree in Women’s Studies, my protection from sexual harassment and so many more things that are an intimate part of my daily life and my identity would never have been possible even a generation or two ago. I give thanks to God and to those women who made my life possible.

Recommit

Even here in the United States, there is much work yet to be done for women to overcome discrimination and stand on an equal footing with men. Women still make only $.76 for every dollar a man earns. Domestic violence still takes the life of a woman every single day. Girls can grow up to be anything they want to be—but there is still a dearth of women in top leadership positions in the social, political and corporate sectors. The right to birth control and access to abortion are still hotly debated, and rights are being lost rather than won. Sexual harassment is still ridiculed and date rape is still rampant on college campuses. Women still fight enormous expectations about their bodies, their demeanor, their sexuality and their freedom.

Beyond the United States, many of the world’s women find an even harsher reality. There are still many countries where women do not have the right to vote, to divorce, to leave an abusive husband, to be heard in court, to drive, even to be seen in public without a male escort. Women across the world are poorer than men and more likely to be victims of violence.

We who benefit from the privilege of earlier generations of the women’s movement must recommit to standing together and continuing the struggle, for we still have a long way to go.

Those three acts—remembering, giving thanks and recommitting—are intertwined. Remembering the struggles of the suffragettes moves me to give thanks for the rights I have as a woman in 21st century America. Remembering their courage and sacrifice inspires me to courage and sacrifice of my own, that all women and girls of this earth might have a chance at life, health, self-determination, peace and justice.

This is my favorite passage in all of American literature—and probably world literature, excluding scripture:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams locked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. They then act and do things accordingly.

These are the opening lines of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

If you’ve never read this book, please do. It’s my favorite novel of all time, and one of the few books I read over and over again. I was reminded of it again last night after enjoying the American Masters episode about Zora Neale Hurston on PBS.

What I love about this passage is the proclamation that “the dream is the truth.” What a holy pronouncement! My images of the dream come mostly from scripture:

  • “they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (Isaiah 2)
  • “you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in” (Isaiah 58)
  • “God has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; God has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich empty away” (Luke 1, Mary’s Magnificat)
  • “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a flowing stream” (Amos 5)
  • “Death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (Revelation 21)

But I also think of images from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning if its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal.”

Whatever image we set out as the dream, that is the truth, says Zora. Now act and do accordingly. It reminds me of the old saying among radicals, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” If the dream is justice, live justice. If the dream is equality, live with all as equal brothers and sisters. If the dream is peace, live peace. If the dream is an end to poverty, live your life against poverty. Because that is the Truth.

In Christianity, we use the term “Word,” capital “W”, to refer to God, with the understanding that God’s word, God’s speech, is so powerful that it is Word, an entity unto itself with a force that can call worlds into being and bring flesh to life and animate the world. I think we could contemplate Word as synonymous with Truth, as Zora Neale Hurston uses it. The dream is the Truth–the promise of God is the Word of God. It is a force that can and will make things happen. The dream is not some fuzzy notion, hardly visible at the edge of sleep. Nor is it a hastily-scribbled IOU for the future. The dream is the truth—hard and fast, secure and tangible, as real as mud.

We who know this act and do things accordingly.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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