Full Circle

Today is the second and last time this century that Good Friday and the Feast of the Annunciation fall on the same day. Historically, though, they’re linked. In the earliest centuries of the Church, the death and resurrection of Christ were observed, but Christ’s birth was not. However, the symbolic value of placing Christ’s conception – the Feast of the Annunciation – on the same calendar date as the day he died is actually where the date of Christmas came from: nine months after the Blessed Virgin Mary said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” Jesus was born.

God Incarnate sojourned with us, moving through the entire mortal circle of life, from conception to death. For us, that’s all there is. No immortality, no rebirth. The natural cycle for the whole created order was fulfilled by Christ on Good Friday.

An early Christian hymn declares Christ to be “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation.” We know the story, how Easter changes everything. But this language, “image of God” and “all creation” also suggests, first, that the life of Christ is not a closed circle, and further, that it has cosmic significance.

I certainly would not be the first person to map Holy Week onto the week of creation in the Genesis myth (“myth” here meaning a story with deep layers of truth beyond a literal reading). Good Friday, being the sixth day of the week…oh, dear. That’s the day God made humans in God’s image. And the day God Incarnate dies. But it’s also the day God Incarnate is conceived. So the whole mortal human life of God begins and ends with God creating human beings. That makes sense.

The seventh day, God rested.

In Holy Week, that is the full 24-hour period in which the human God is dead. In our tradition, though, he descends into hell to free all the souls imprisoned there. Well, he’s still the guy who stirred up trouble healing people on the Sabbath. Yes, Christ is indeed “the same yesterday, today, and forever!”

This mapping was not lost on early Christians, who saw that the week could not just turn over into another week as we’re used to them doing. Once God has been conceived in the Virgin’s womb, has been born, has lived a human life, and has died a human death, something new has to happen.

The Resurrection, we’re told in the Gospels, happened early on the first day of the week. But just as Christ’s conception and death can be mapped onto each other, so can the first day and the eighth day.

The eighth day is the day of resurrection – the new creation, in which, in the hypostatic union of Christ (fully God and fully human), God creates something new: a completely new way of being human. We’re baptized into that new way of being when we’re baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. That’s why so many baptismal fonts – or their bases, or the platform/steps they’re on – are octagonal.

That adds another layer: Christ’s death on Good Friday is a new kind of conception (as if a virgin conceiving weren’t enough!). In his death, Christ’s human body becomes the seed that must fall to the earth so that a different kind of life can bloom.

 

I feel a little bad that I’m only getting to this now, near the eleventh hour (literally) when the fruitful* coincidence is almost over. It’s been a long day, in a busy week with so little time to think. And now with all those circles and cycles interlacing and intertwining, I fear I’ve made myself dizzy! But I did not want to let this day pass without remark.

 

*And, yes, that’s a pun. The coincidence of today’s fast and feast is pregnant, we might say, with meaning. Just like the Blessed Virgin is beginning this day on one arc of the circle.

Advertisements

Christmas and Martyrdom: St. Stephen’s Day

Happy second day of Christmas! And happy St. Stephen’s Day.

Icon of St. Stephen.

Icon of St. Stephen.

St. Stephen was the first Christian martyr. He was also a deacon, one of seven chosen and ordained by the twelve Apostles to serve those in need. He also preached and “worked wonders,” which made him some very powerful enemies. Accused of blasphemy, he was stoned to death. You can read his full story in Acts chapters 6-7. Today, the Church commemorates him, and, in particular, his violent end.

It’s the day after Christmas, the second of the twelve days of Christmas. We’ve just welcomed the Christ child, marveled at the mystery of God becoming human. Most of us have domestic messes to clean up—dishes, gift wrap, laundry, and so forth—and are tired but happy, full of good food, with thoughts of Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and magi. Suddenly, we’re confronted with the memory of violent death: not of the babies slaughtered by Herod (that’s the day after tomorrow), but of the martyrdom of a Christian who preached Christ crucified and resurrected, and who saw, just before he died, a vision of Jesus seated at God’s right hand. That’s quite a leap in the story! It seems a strange juxtaposition.

But it’s actually what Christmas is about. Mary’s “Magnificat” had predicted that the birth of her son would turn the world upside down. The world, however, doesn’t turn upside down without a fight.

God appearing among us, in our flesh, participating in our birth and in our death, is an invitation for us to be reborn into Christ and to participate in his death. Thankfully, most of us won’t be required to face martyrdom; but we are invited to die to our selves and to our own ambitions because we are called to something better. When St. Stephen had his vision of Christ enthroned, he was seeing the end result of the Incarnation: human nature, and with it, all creation, taken into the very heart of the Triune God. In the baby Jesus, the Word of God became human. He has never stopped being human. What he is—what St. Stephen saw—is God’s design for us all: to dwell intimately with God in perfect union, not dissolved into an impersonal oneness or reabsorbed into our source, but joined to our maker in the most beautiful unity-in-diversity.

That was, in fact, the goal all along. In the Incarnation, we see that God created the cosmos in order to dwell in it and to unite it to Godself in love. The Incarnation was no “Plan B” resulting from human sin. It was God’s intention all along, the very purpose of creation. Knowing that frees us from our own little lives that end with our individual, self-shattering deaths. That freedom allowed St. Stephen not only to accept death, but to forgive those who participated in his murder in any way (among them, the future St. Paul, who guarded the coats of those doing the actual stoning).

Holy Stephen, pray for us, that we may share your vision of Christ exalted, and so gain the freedom to die to our small selves and receive with you the life of the one whose birth we continue to celebrate these twelve days of Christmas.

Christ the King

In 1925, Pope Pius XI introduced the feast of Christ the King, which was meant as a reminder, amid the encroachments of secularization, that Christ is our Sovereign, reigning over all peoples in all places and all times—indeed, over all creation.

Such a small vision, really.

True, it’s a step beyond the old nationalistic thinking—prevalent in antiquity (according to the biblical record, at least)—that pits one people’s god against another people’s god to see which god wins. The winning god, of course, is determined through the spilling of human blood.

But with several millennia of monotheism under our belt, we know better than to think there are different gods backing different peoples and prodding them into war. We’re a little better than that. A little. The confession that Christ is King ought to help us see our unity under the one and only Lord, but instead, we want to test which of us the one Lord really favors. We want to use Christ the King to conquer our enemies and to put others in their place. If Christ is King the way human kings are king, then he might be swayed by our deference, our flattery, our lip-service, or even our genuine loyalty and obedience. As God, he’s the biggest, baddest king of them all, so we know we’re on the winning side, if we tactfully side with him:

Such a tiny, tiny vision.

Many today are uncomfortable with the language of saying that Christ is “King” or Jesus is “Lord,” and with good reason. Those words represent the kind of earthly power that Christians are being called to relinquish. Calling Jesus “King” or “Lord” can easily be misused to re-shape Christ into the image of Caesar. It has historically been used to justify social hierarchies in which the rich dominated the poor, men dominated women, clerics dominated the laity, and whites dominated people of color. These dominations and others, as we know, are still going on.

But the Gospel writers intended a much more revolutionary meaning when they said, “Jesus is Lord”—even more than the simple fact that if Jesus is Lord, Caesar isn’t. John, in particular, spelled out the insane Christian claim that the Cross of Christ is his throne, that true power is seen in self-emptying. Jesus wasn’t going to take over Caesar’s office, but rather to reveal that office’s inadequacy—irrelevancy, even. This is one of those radical reversals we find throughout Scripture. What on earth would Jesus even do with Caesar’s supposed power? It would be like a surgical nurse handing a neurosurgeon an AK-47. Or a fish.

To assert that Christ is King, or that Jesus is Lord, is to say that Kingship looks like Christ, not the other way around. Lordship looks like Jesus: it is cruciform. It takes the form of a servant. True power lays down its life and welcomes vulnerability. In the video clip above, the character of Jesus in the film, Jesus Christ Superstar, tells the crowd of his followers (in the Twitter sense—fans, really) that they don’t know what power is; that true power comes through death. Or, as the Book of Common Prayer words it, Christ has “made the way of the Cross to be the way of life.”

This is liberating news for the downtrodden and marginalized, but it is terrible news for those who hold worldly power—something most of us enjoy to some degree, if we live in the developed world. Christ’s Kingship should, for most of us (think the “99%”) be both comforting and unsettling: comforting, because we know that the powers of this world, which too often subjugate us, cannot claim ultimate victory; but unsettling, because in order to be fit for the reign of Christ, we will need to unlearn many habits. Habits that we like very much.

Habits like acquiring cheap consumer goods, the production of which most likely polluted the earth and quite possibly enslaved some worker somewhere (maybe even a child). Habits like demanding our own rights but neglecting the rights of others, or holding on to privileges we obtained through no real fault of our own. Habits like putting ourselves, or our own families, ahead of others and their families. Habits like judging others, and justifying ourselves. In other words, pretty much every habit we inherited from our pre-human ancestry. Even our good habits aren’t good enough, or they’re wrong-headed, motivated by self-interest. Christ’s self-emptying might make him seem harmless, especially when we look at a crucifix and see him nailed down where he can’t do any harm, head bowed in submission to the Father. But that self-emptying is the radical reversal of the self-interest that seems to have been one of evolution’s primary engines. Christ the King threatens to unravel everything we know and trust.

The good news, though, is that Christ is King: no other power will ultimately stand against him, not even the powers that bind us in our bad habits and keep us from reaching our full human potential. Because Christ is King, we are liberated from ourselves and toward each other. Our King has conquered death, by showing us that the path through death is the way to life—so that the fears and struggles for survival that shaped us as a species and as individuals ultimately hold no true power.

In the Gospel lection this year, one of the two “thieves” (read: political troublemakers, threats to worldly “power”) who is crucified with Jesus recognizes the truth we celebrate this last Sunday before Advent. He asks Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” What a strange thing for one dying man to ask another! Especially when their deaths, according to Rome, would expose them as frauds, whose aspirations to power had been thwarted by the great power of Rome that ruled the whole world!

Yeah, no. Rome had it entirely wrong.

Worldly power rewards those who worship it and punishes those who work against it. If we imagine that Jesus is aspiring to the kind of power we humans, cousins to bonobos and chimpanzees, find alluring—the power, e.g., that destroys its enemies, rewards its cronies, and makes a name for itself—then we’re trying to shoehorn Christ the King into the worthless role of Caesar. Even worse, when we aspire to that kind of power, we are swearing our allegiance to Caesar, not Christ.

And that is such a myopic vision.

Good thing Christ is King, and we aren’t.

 

Meeting Jesus on the Street (Costs More than Taking the Bus)

Tonight, I walked home from the train station—just under a mile, in the dark—to save $2.10 on bus fare. I’m counting pennies, sorta. I’m admittedly rather lousy with money, and, according to my math, my earnings over the next year won’t…quite…cover my expenses, which are pared down as much as they can be. So I feel the need to hang onto any money I can…except that on another level, I don’t really feel it. This is the time of year I earn the most. I feel like I have the amount I actually have in the bank, not like I have to squirrel away whatever I can for when it’s needed in a few months.

So I walked home in the dark to save $2.10 bus fare, because I discovered (while doing the aforementioned math) that I spend a lot more on transit than I’d realized – more than the $85 in pre-tax transit dollars I purchase each month.

But on that walk, just under a mile, I wound up giving away all $9 I had left on me to three different beggars.

Oops.

Except, not oops. These were beautiful people made in God’s image who asked me for help. How could I say no? Sure, spread out over the course of a year, I don’t have enough to be giving money away. But right now I do, and right now, that woman was standing in front of me, wrapped in a blanket, asking for help. Or that man, hauling off something he said he would be selling tomorrow (it looked like just a wooden crate to me)—he wanted a burrito. He was the first, and I regretted giving him only $2 when I saw the real gratitude in his eyes. He sped off with his crate before I could change my mind. He was in a really good mood, I could tell.

See, the thing is, I take it seriously when I hear Jesus, in the Gospels, saying things like, “Do not refuse anyone who begs from you,” or “What you have done for the least of these, you did for me.”

Except I don’t, really, do I? If I took those sayings completely to heart, I’d be on the street begging myself, having given away the resources I do have. It might be just me, but it seems like the line between “Yes, I can afford this,” and “No, I can’t afford this” is pretty arbitrary sometimes. When I set out walking tonight, instead of springing for bus fare, I honestly felt it was a matter of what I could not afford. How, then, did I have $9 in my pocket, and how was I able to hand it to strangers on the street? Will I ever miss that $9? Would I have missed the $2.10?

I really don’t have an answer to such questions. I’m not sure I want answers. Sometimes I think struggling with these questions keeps us more honest. It would be easy to fabricate answers that would satisfy me one way or the other – most likely to allow me to say “No” to the stranger while maintaining a clean conscience. What is a comfortable answer worth, anyway? $9? $2.10? Enough to make rent in a lean month?

Knowing my penchant for saying “Yes” to the stranger who begs, I guess I should’ve known that spending the bus fare was actually the more fiscally “responsible” thing to do.

But I also get quite an emotional and spiritual lift from these encounters, that I think goes beyond just the happiness you get when you give. I’ve been struggling with depression quite a bit lately, which is part of the reason this blog has been pretty quiet. But I’ve had some very graced encounters during this time.

One was with a woman named Mac. I was walking from work to the train station—in a very depressed mood—and noticed her from half a block away. She was busy sorting through cardboard in a recycling bin, as if looking for just the right piece for such and such purpose. I felt drawn to her, so I slowed my steps until we could make eye contact. I smiled and said hi, she smiled and said hi, and at some point she asked for some money.

I had a $10 bill on me, so I gave it to her. Immediately, she started into an explanation that she was only going to spend it on food and shelter, nothing else. I told her it was none of my business what she spent it on. We proceeded to have a lovely conversation, during which she thanked me several times, told me her name, complimented my haircut (!), and at one point, kissed my hand. But we did have a real conversation about stuff (including where she goes for free haircuts), and that was what I needed: a genuine interaction with another human being. As we parted, she gave me her blessing, which I commented later that night had to be worth at least a thousand blessings from a bishop or priest. “The Lord hears the cry of the poor,” the Psalmist assures us. If that’s the case, then her blessing carries an awful lot of weight. In return—as if an exchange of precious gifts—I continue to hold her in my prayers.

A couple weeks ago or three, I was feeling so down, that as I left work and walked to the train station, I couldn’t stop crying. (This actually happens more than I’d like to admit.) In typical San Francisco fashion, or—let’s give the natives the benefit of the doubt—perhaps in typical tourist fashion,  my fellow pedestrians only ever looked through or past me, even if I managed to give them a smile or nod. There were two exceptions. One beggar tried to engage me in his cheerful sales pitch, as if he didn’t notice I was crying. I have to confess, I said no that time. Maybe that was unfair, but it had nothing to do with him, really. I needed to keep moving in order to not completely lose it in public. But I did notice that he was putting on an act that had nothing to do with the person he was speaking to. Despite the fact that he was clearly addressing me, he too looked right through or past me. I don’t hold it against him, though. He’s got a tough gig.

But then as I reached the station, there was this other man—the same man who’s been out there begging or selling the Street Sheet for all eight years I’ve been out here, but whose name I don’t know. I don’t remember if we’ve ever formally introduced ourselves; I’m not good with names, so I might have forgotten. Anyway, a couple years ago, I had a small surplus of money (more than I needed), so I gave a lot of it to him. Every time I saw him, I gave him a $5, $10, or $20—whatever I had on me. We’d have brief conversations, enough so that I know he lives in an SRO and is out begging to cover his rent and some food, and that he’s been hospitalized a few times (sometimes that’s what he tells me after he’s been missing for a while).

But this night, the night where I couldn’t stop crying, he noticed. A look of genuine concern came over his face, and he asked, “Are you alright?” He didn’t ask me for money. He just asked if I was alright, God bless him. I only managed to say, “I will be,” and walk on into the station. But his response to me meant so much, and carried me through that night. When I saw him again a week or two later, I told him how much it had meant to me, that he had seen me, and expressed concern. He needed to know that. I felt like I’d been rude just walking on like I did, so I had to be sure to tell him. We then had a conversation about stuff, as you do—about my struggling with depression lately, about his trying to move to Oakland to get away from some of the problems in “the City.” He mentioned some people who were getting violent, and he was afraid of getting beaten up. I didn’t fully understand what he was trying to say about that, but I heard the same thing from another guy last night.

The man I came across last night looked terrible. He had small scabs all over his face and neck, and his hands were black with dirt. I made eye contact and smiled, as I do with everyone I pass in the street, and he asked me for money. I gave him some. He asked then if I could, perhaps, also buy him some food. He acknowledged that it was a strange thing to ask, and offered to give back the money I’d just given him if that was an issue, and asked if I was on my way to eat dinner. “No, I’m headed to Oakland,” I said. So he asked if he could walk with me a block or two. I said yes, and we continued in conversation. I realized then that he didn’t want me to just buy him food—he wanted some companionship.

So we chatted about all kinds of things for a couple of blocks, and then stood and chatted some more. At one point, he asked my name; I told him, and asked him his, but he didn’t tell me. He said he’d shake my hand, except he had “bugs”—I’m guessing fleas or lice or something. It was considerate of him to want to protect me from catching anything. And it explained all those little scabs, probably. But he too mentioned wanting to get away from people who were violent and causing trouble. I noticed he had a bruise on one side of his face. I didn’t ask questions, I just listened. He skipped around from topic to topic, and sometimes I couldn’t figure out how he got from point A to point B, but overall, I enjoyed our conversation. I think he did too.

This is, of course, not an exhaustive list of all the encounters of this sort that I’ve had. It’s just some recent ones. I could go on quite a bit, with stories from San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley, Detroit, Ann Arbor… I’ve had a few mildly bad encounters, such as a very early experience in Ann Arbor, in college, when I was chased by a guy until I found a shop to duck into, or another man on State Street who, when I didn’t buy incense sticks from him, yelled very grumpy things at me. I’ve also had amusing encounters. There’s the fact that twice—once in Detroit, and once in San Francisco—I’ve had panhandlers ask me why I’m so pigeon-toed! Or the fact that I’m often called “Sir” by women in particular. But I’ve also been mugged at gunpoint, and, frankly, sometimes I’ve given a beggar cash in gratitude that they’re not demanding it from me! And isn’t this what it’s all about, the gifts we freely give each other? God’s economy is a gift economy, where everything given is received in gratitude, and everyone is gift, giftee, and giver. “Freely you have received; freely give”—that’s another thing Jesus says in the Gospel.

But we’re stuck, for now, in an economy of human devising: consumer capitalism. We’re supposed to be stingy with our cash, except when purchasing gifts, perhaps. We’re supposed to want to possess things. But not everyone can participate. The rules of the game have to exclude some in order for others to get rich. I see far too many people out begging in what is supposed to be a “land of opportunity,” and far too many people refusing to share their little bit of the American Dream. The common rhetoric tends to accuse the poor of all sorts of things, from laziness to fraud to addiction, as if we would all spend our days begging if we could, but no, “we” have compunctions. The truth is that poverty is criminalized in this country, in so many ways. These folks I meet are working hard to get by in a society that is very hostile toward them.

So I give. It’s not much. It’s nowhere what they need. They’ll continue struggling, and making do, and so will I, except I have it a lot easier, however little I may have. They are poor; I’m working class. To me, it’s about solidarity, and trying, failing, and trying again to live according to the economy of the Kingdom of God which is “already and not yet” here among us.

Among us. Not inside each of us individuals, much less possessed by us, but among us, in the synapses that connect us. If we’re ever to live fully into God’s reign, we’ve got to stick together. But it costs so much.

Wrestling with angels

Eugène Delacroix, Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

Eugène Delacroix,  Jacob Wrestling with the Angel

This past Sunday (October 20), many of us who use the Revised Common Lectionary heard the wonderful story of Jacob wrestling with the “angel”:

The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip. (Genesis 32.22-31, NRSV)

It’s a great story, with many possible readings. For example, I learned today that one rather ancient Rabbinic interpretation is that Jacob was wrestling with himself—his own inner demons, you might say, or his own past, or his hopes for the future. Do listen to the homily at that link; I won’t rehearse the whole thing here. But it’s intriguing to re-read the text with that interpretation in mind. “Why is it that you ask my name?” asks the mysterious man. We might imagine him continuing, “Don’t you recognize me? I’m your very self!” And it could be a therapeutic, spiritual exercise to reflect on what it might mean to not only wrestle with, but to bless oneself, and to receive that blessing.

But I’m going to go in another direction—one no more nor less valid, I think. We’re fortunate to have the ancient stories in Scripture precisely because they are so rich with meaning. Not only is there no one “right” meaning, there’s no one “right” way to approach the text. So actually, I’m going to go in two related directions. Let me get the shorter of the two out of the way first.

Some years ago, while working on my master of arts in theology, I had the wonderful opportunity to take a course called Gender, Sexuality, and the Bible. As you can imagine, one of the “angels” we wrestled with was the traditional response to Scripture readings in Church: “The Word of the Lord.” For many, even among those who love the Scriptures, calling the Bible “the Word of God” or “The Word of the Lord” is problematic, because, well, frankly, so much in Scripture is problematic. That’s another thing I don’t really need to rehearse here, I should think. But we discussed whether there might be ways to reconcile that appellation with our discomfort with so much contained in the Bible. I suggested this passage as an image: perhaps “the Word of the Lord” is that inheritance—birthright, you might say—we continue to wrestle with both while it wounds us and until it blesses us. And, as so much in life is rather messy, it may be hard to parse out what is the wound and what is the blessing. Either way, we emerge with a new name.

My second reading of this text is not unlike the first. Jacob is told that he has “striven with God and with humans, and [has] prevailed.” And he himself stammers that he has seen God face to face—and lived to tell about it. So, what if we suppose that it’s God Jacob is wrestling with here? Why would God injure a man God is about to bless? Why would Jacob be left with that injury, left to walk off with a (likely permanent) limp?

Some years ago, in fact, I heard a preacher ask the question, Why Jacob’s hip? Personally, I actually get that. Our bodies are not incidental to our identities. Jacob’s body has changed along with his name, his identity. But why his hip? It’s precisely the limp: it’s a new gait to go with the new name. Jacob—er, Israel—can no longer walk through his life the same way, figuratively or literally. Alejandro García-Rivera named that kind of experience “a wounded innocence.” Innocence, García-Rivera writes, is not an ignorance we lose, not a pristine perfection that can only be marred, but rather a virtue we gain. Given the world we live in, we usually, if not always, gain it through struggle. Even Jesus, risen from the dead and seated at God’s right hand, still bears the scars of his awful death. And in the Resurrection, perhaps Israel ( Jacob) will still have his limp.

For the Christian, “the Word of God” is not, properly speaking, the Bible. It’s Jesus, God made flesh, the primary revelation of God to us humans. Through transitive logic, we could liken Jacob’s rough night at Peniel to our own encounter with Christ. That Christ offers us his blessing is something we easily accept. But Jesus also told his disciples, rather frequently, that life would not be easy for them—that sometimes they would suffer because of their discipleship. But he also challenged others around him (“challenged” is putting it mildly, if you ask the moneychangers in the Temple, e.g.) to give up their privilege, to “take up [their] cross” and follow him. He said horribly inconvenient things, like “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God” (Luke 18.25, NRSV).

What I am getting at, rather clumsily, I admit, is that once you meet Jesus, you wind up with a blessing and a limp. The rich young man who was told by Jesus to sell all he had and give it to the poor—he walked away sadly, but presumably, with an unchanged gait. Had he resolved to do as Jesus said, he would have been set free, but into a curious kind of freedom: any life-changing encounter with God in Christ will leave you unable to walk in the world in the way you did before.

It might mean a life of self-giving sacrifice. It might mean the renunciation of privilege—economic, racial, sex, whatever. I believe it should mean you can no longer acquiesce to the way things are, to the power and money and the “logic” of the market that (seemingly) make the world go round, or the various –isms that offer comfortable certainties, often at the expense of others. It probably means wrestling with yourself, like Jacob/Israel did. It will definitely mean no longer living for yourself, but rather being broken open to God, to all humans, and in fact to all creatures.

So, let us go limping. That awful, dull ache or sharp pain can be transformed: it’s a reminder of our new identity in Christ. A sort of stigmata, really. Own it or wrestle with it until it gives you insight, a new way of seeing, of being in the world.

On what road are you currently limping along?

Othering, Eight Mile, and Original Sin

Earlier this week, a Detroit pastor was shot dead while asking his partying neighbors to keep the noise level down. I read the online article from WDIV, channel 4.

I know better, but as with any bad habit, I did it anyway: I read the comments. They rivaled the story itself as examples of heartbreaking failures of love. Some commenters brought up the Zimmerman trial, decrying the “liberal” media for playing up white-on-black violence but ignoring black-on-black violence; others called for gun control, implying that the primary issue here was someone’s possession of a gun; still others baldly asserted that this is simply how black people behave; others used the opportunity to badmouth Detroit. The politicization and racism in the comments section is as predictable as inner-city violence itself has sadly come to be. Where is the compassion for a family and a community so senselessly devastated? Where is the respect for the man of God murdered at the young age of 46?

Nevertheless, I think the comments, nasty and unhelpful as they are, stem from two very human impulses: our instinctive drive to figure things out, to solve problems by analyzing them; and our equally instinctive need to distance ourselves from tragic situations, to assure ourselves that such things happen to other people. Both these impulses are ambivalent gifts of evolution. They both serve to keep us alive and functioning.

But both impulses also work against us. In particular, the second—the urge to distance ourselves from danger—constantly warps our ability to analyze: if a problem belongs to other people, then surely my safety lies in disconnecting myself from (certain) others…right? (In Detroit, that’s generally symbolized by Eight Mile Road.)

The Christian doctrine of “original sin” serves as a warning against trusting those base instincts unquestioningly. Our instincts were, as far as we can tell, forged on the fly in response to certain conditions our ancestors—human and pre-human—faced. The goal, or more accurately, the mechanism, was survival. One way to think about original sin, then, is to consider that we, as individuals, but also as a species, learned to do wrong before we’d become moral agents. Just as selfishness, generally, considered a vice in most ethical systems, is necessary to a baby’s survival, behaviors we now consider morally reprehensible actually got us here, as a species, in the first place. But now, as spiritual and moral beings who ought to know better (what Bruce Cockburn called the “Angel Beast“), our task is to transcend our animal instincts, testing them and keeping what is good, but learning to control and move beyond those that actually harm us.

Central to any ethical system is the consideration of others. Our instincts will mostly serve us well if our goal is personal safety, the rest of the world be damned. But humans are social animals. As spiritual social animals, our ethical obligation, and also our health, consists in opening ourselves to each other, to the universe, and to God. Our task is to grow into greater interdependence.

Sadly, our culture itself works against that growth. Consumer capitalism, American “rugged individualism”—these forces, or, as the Bible terms them, “principalities and powers,” are bigger than any of us, and perhaps than all of us; they discourage our growth into interdependence. The market needs individual, mobile workers and consumers. Consumer culture has so pervaded our lives that we identify ourselves with our brand loyalties, including political parties and religious affiliations. The more labels we are willing to wear, the more we are drawing lines between ourselves and those like us, and others who are not like us. Even “family values” have been co-opted by this thinking, becoming a means to delineate an “us” vs. “them” and to camouflage self-interest with the patina of religiosity.

Indeed, self-interest is entirely at home in American Christianity, which, historically, has largely been moralistic and private. Our spiritual practices, like our consumer habits, are predominately individualistic. In the religious realm, our animal survival instinct concerns itself with what will get me into heaven, the rest of the world be damned. This is an exaggeration, of course; I hope very few, if any, American Christians consciously adopt that attitude! But that attitude is seen wherever “sin” is only conceived in personal terms—epitomized in our culture at the moment by sexual behavior—while ignoring social sins such as institutional racism and environmental degradation. In America, too many Christians honestly believe all is well with their soul as long as they abstain from certain individual behaviors, believe the right things about God, and ask Jesus to forgive their sins. And this is seen as perfectly compatible with, say, unquestioningly benefitting from race or gender privilege, or buying clothing made using slave labor, or making comments like those attached to the article referenced at the beginning of this post.

A father, a pastor, was murdered for asking his neighbors to keep the noise down. This wasn’t an isolated and bizarre action by a disturbed individual we can easily other. What took him wasn’t just a gun or a person’s anger, but some kind of twisted thinking where one’s own enjoyment is more important than the very life of one’s neighbor. That thinking is endemic in America, from the Koch Brothers who are in the news now for dumping their pollution on Detroit, to the food industry using cheap, unhealthy ingredients, to for-profit prisons, to corrupt politicians stealing from the People, attacking minority religions under the guise of freedom of religion and freedom of speech—why would that kind of thinking not also be at a party next door to a pastor? Until we really start to believe that our neighbor’s well-being is as important as our own, all this sickness and violence (literal and economic) is just going to escalate.

All of us are implicated in this shooter’s belief that his “right” to do what he wanted was of more value than his neighbor’s life. Ours is a culture that idolizes the weasel words “liberty” and “freedom.” And however well-meaning we try to be, our actions as consumers and as citizens of this representative democracy constantly privilege our own comfort, wealth, rights, and freedoms over whatever neighbor needs to be othered in order for our privilege to remain intact. I know this from experience; I try and I fail all the time.

It’s human instinct. It’s original sin. It’s bigger than any of us as individuals and it’s bigger than all of us lumped together, at least in our sub-cultures. And sometimes it’s how we survive. But it’s also what we’re called to struggle against.

But what if Christians really believed that their personal salvation depended upon the well-being of their neighbor? If that seems a scary prospect, don’t go asking Jesus precisely who your neighbor might be.

Chances are, they’re on the other side of Eight Mile.

MLK

Here are some questions to consider:

How often do I secure my own interests at the expense of someone else’s life, health, happiness, security?

What might repentance look like? How would it really affect my daily life, including my consumer choices?

How can I use my spheres of influence to encourage growth into interdependence in myself and those around me? How can the wider culture be transformed, and what might be my role in that?

The Geresene Demoniac

(This passage is the Gospel assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary for Year C Proper 7: Luke 8.26-39. In other words, this past Sunday. My point isn’t to stay ahead of the lectionary, obviously. This is too good a story with too many insights to let go without blogging on it, though.)

If you’re not familiar with the story, please read it at the above link.

 

[Reading this story as a] factually literal account of what happened…is not only boring, it impoverishes the text.

In this Gospel story, Jesus steps off a boat only to see a crazy man, “demon-possessed” in first-century language, naked and thrashing about in a tomb, cutting and bruising himself. He had shackles on his hands and feet, but had broken the chains. Still, he remained where he had been shackled. “What do you have to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High?” the man screams as he sees Jesus approaching. Yikes! The demons inside him knew who Jesus was!

Jesus, being Jesus, engages him in dialogue.

“What is your name?” The crazy, not the man, replies: “My name is Legion, for we are many.”

Jesus commands the demons to leave the man alone, to never bother him again. Now, demons, just like the rest of us, apparently are not interested in being sent to hell. They beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of swine—which tells you how many of them there were!—instead, which Jesus does. Then they drown the pigs. Oops. Off to hell with them, now, we assume. The story doesn’t find that detail important, though, so doesn’t really say.

Sadly, to some, this story is nothing more than a newspaper account—a factually literal account of what happened. In my opinion, that sort of reading is not only boring, it impoverishes the text. To be clear—there’s nothing wrong with believing this all literally happened, or not believing it all literally happened, either. The point is that biblical texts have so much more to offer than a surface reading. This story isn’t just there to wow us with some cool miracle Jesus did, even if by being wowed by it we come to believe Jesus is the Son of God as he claimed—not that such an insight isn’t already quite valuable!

People who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.

On a recent thread (NB: the link may break if the thread disappears) over at Ship of Fools, we were discussing this text, and I think the original question posed is a great entry into the text: Why did Jesus destroy the livelihood of the pigs’ owner(s) and/or tender(s)? In a story about healing and liberation, in which Jesus clearly values the demon-possessed man more than a herd of swine, doesn’t Jesus care about the person(s) who will suffer as a result of losing their swine? Pointing out that pigs are unclean under Jewish dietary laws doesn’t help much; this is the same Jesus we believe eventually gave Peter that vision of the sheet full of unclean animals and said, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” (Meaning primarily, of course, the Gentiles who eat that stuff, but also the stuff they eat.)

It may be that we can accept that Jesus was, sometimes, and toward some people (and animals), a bit heartless. But this troublesome question might also suggest that we not take the pigs bit so literally. One common reading of this story actually has the pigs symbolizing the occupying Romans—after all, the demon(s) self-identified as “Legion.” I do find this reading helpful. In fact, it provides a further insight (as I realized while posting on Ship of Fools): that people who are oppressed or in captivity often internalize their oppression or captivity and become complicit in it. A literal, bodily freeing is a great first step, but healing is also necessary.

Note that the man possessed by demons actually broke his own chains. Yet he continued living in the tombs, cutting and bruising himself. Most of us read this story as the healing of a mental illness rather than the casting out of literal evil spirits, but the demonic is still a powerful symbol. Luke, in good poetic fashion, seems to take the opportunity to let the demonic oppression of this one man symbolize not only his own mental and physical suffering and captivity, but that of the people living in occupied Israel. And while Jesus drives out the occupying forces, letting them drown themselves (as God did with Pharaoh’s army in the prototypical liberation story), the most important liberation is the healing of the formerly-possessed man. He is seen, at the end of the story, “clothed and in his right mind.” He wants to go with Jesus, but Jesus gives him something more important to do: stay home, and declare what God has done for him. He now occupies his home land. But his neighbors are terrified of Jesus precisely because Jesus has returned this man to his right mind. What will they think of the now-sane man? Will they receive him? The story doesn’t say.

Are we supposed to take all this
greed and fear and hatred seriously?
It’s like watching dust settle.
It never changes. It’s too consistent.
Mercy is not consistent.
It’s like the wind—it goes where it will.
Mercy is comic,
and it’s the only thing worth taking seriously.
T Bone Burnett, “The Wild Truth

One alternate way of reading a passage, at least on the occasions when the passage is read in church, is to listen to its juxtaposition with the other selections from the lectionary for that day. For the Sunday in Year C on which this Gospel is assigned, the Revised Common Lectionary allows a choice for the Hebrew Scripture reading. One of those choices—the one I heard in church this past Sunday—is Isaiah 65.1-9. In that passage, God declares judgment on those who “sit in tombs” and “eat swine’s flesh,” among other things. I doubt St. Luke intentionally alluded to that passage when composing this story, but when placed together, something interesting happens. Instead of judgment, Jesus brings the demoniac liberation and healing, restoration to his family and community. Yet no one had sent for Jesus. In Christ, God was, as Isaiah puts it,

“…ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
to a nation that did not call on my name.”

Jesus overcomes the demonic oppressors just because he sees a suffering man and pities him. Mercy goes where it will.

When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?

This past Sunday evening, Jude Harmon, a minor canon at Grace Cathedral, San Francisco, preached precisely on that compassion of Christ, pointing out two other instances that, unlike the first, are unexpected. First, Jesus has compassion on the demons, who ask to not just be sent back “into the abyss” (v. 31). Jesus honors their request. Of all the characters in the story to receive Jesus’ compassion! But at the end of the story, Jesus also has compassion on the townspeople, who are terrified by the whole event. They beg him to leave, and he honors their request too.

What were the townspeople so afraid of? It’s an interesting question. Liberation can be scary: it leads to the unknown. Clearly Jesus was a strong force who could effect that kind of miracle—what might he do next? Jude invited the congregation to see themselves—ourselves—at this point in the story. When, and how often, do we really ask Jesus to leave, because what he might do, or lead us to do, is too scary?

Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?

In our discussion over at Ship of Fools, a member who goes by the screen name “leo” had another interesting insight about the drowning of the pigs. In his reading, not only does their drowning recall the Exodus, but it also symbolizes the now-bearers of the evil spirits being plunged into the waters of chaos at creation (to be re-created)—perhaps even into the waters of baptism! Recall that for the early Church, and still in the Catholic, Orthodox, and (sometimes) Anglican traditions, baptism was and is an exorcism. In the Catholic Church, there are prayers over catechumens during Lent that refer to this ancient understanding. In the Episcopal Church, it mostly turns up in our baptismal liturgy:

“Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?”
“Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?”
“Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?”

Reading this story in light of baptism, then, actually makes sense—not that it’s the “correct” or only reading, but that the symbolism really is there. The man formerly possessed by demons is clothed as the newly-baptized are. Baptism, then, puts us in our “right mind”—what St. Paul calls “the mind of Christ.”

Personally, I want all these readings to be true. I want the story to tell of a literal physical and mental healing, of the liberation of a people, and of the spiritual liberation given in baptism (despite what political, mental, or physical captivities we might still suffer). While I still have questions about this passage—for example, why do the demons get a name, but ultimately the man doesn’t?—I find a lot of hope in the story. And why not? It’s the nature of a good story that it have many layers of meaning, many truths to keep telling. And this one is nothing if not a good story.

Especially if we re-write the pig bit.
(Image swiped from this blog post.)