Bursting Fourth

America begins again

each year

with a Big Bang

so loud we cannot hear,

the smoke so dense we cannot breathe,

the light so bright we cannot see

the dead, the maimed, the dark enslaved,

the land now covered with forgetful night.

The guns that promise freedom from our fears

belch forth the independence of an orphan

the power of a madman in his cell,

an earthly devastation

impotent before our death.

Our fingers rise to cross our brows

before the colored cloth that covers coffins

coming back

from unknown shores.

The fire, the light, the noise, the smoke,

            blot out the stars,

            disguise the great immensity,

            the unimaginably new creation

            bursting from the heart of blackness

making all things bright with love,

dazzling with life.

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Religion and Our Constitutional Crisis

Last Sunday I made a Zoom presentation of a talk that had been scheduled BP (Before the Pandemic) with the Ethical Humanist Society of Asheville. In the talk, I returned to issues that have concerned me on these pages since the beginning, but now in a period of conflagration with intensified awareness of their import. Here is the gist of my remarks, which I entitled “Religion and the Republic: Parent, Prophet, or Problem?”

We are in the midst of a constitutional crisis that strikes at the cultural basis for our commitments to being a constitutional republic. It is a crisis riven by the historic fault-lines of slavery, racism, genocide of the original Americans and exploitation of the land itself. Now the coronavirus has laid bare these lines of fracture. Our Constitutional order sought to separate out the historic religion that had legitimated public order since the age of Constantine and replace it with belief in reason and science. The new order of persuasion, deliberation, negotiation, and compact would rest on appeals to scientifically verifiable truths of the actual world the participants hold in common.

However, the religion that had been sequestered into the private sphere, with its domesticated patriarchy, always sought the more expansive power manifested in the Biblical template of messianic kingship. In recent decades the work of reason and science has been undermined by both reactionaries and radicals by the acids of suspicion about the ways “reasonable words” can and have masked over the power interests of dominant groups and organizations. (Al Gore presents a fuller analysis in his The Assault on Reason republished with a new epilogue in 2017.) With its legitimacy undermined, our constitutional order has not been able to hold off the theocratic nationalism fostered by appeals to Biblical templates of political domination. A God with the lineaments of a despot—unconstrained, all-powerful, omniscient, retributive and mysteriously gracious—could re-emerge to begin breaking down the delicate separation of powers, the norms of reasoned debate, negotiation, compromise, and of a republic ordered by law.

To begin the exploration of where we go from here, to draw on M. L. King Jr.’s famous book, I pointed to three endeavors: A reconstruction of what it means to be “a people,” a religious reworking of our God image away from the despotic model of unitary omnipotence, retributive justice, and arbitrary power, and an intensified imagination of a form of truth arising from the ecological sense of the interconnection of the whole web of being.

I then developed the understanding of “the People” that emerged in Western civilization to mean the assemblies of face-to-face argument and mutual accountability. This is a far cry from the conglomeration of individuals or the mobs of self-appointed vigilantes that tend to clog the airwaves. Secondly, I pointed out how there are alternatives to the despotic God lifted out of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic scriptures that can better speak to the separation of powers, the rule of law, and the mutual respect and accountability at the heart of democratic republican order. And finally, I indicated a few ways we might think of the common good in the context of ecological interconnection. You can read the whole piece by clicking HERE.

We engaged in lively discussion of these challenges, free of masks, socially distanced but engaged, trying to be the public argument and mutual accountability that we need to re-activate if our public life is to make it through this epidemic rooted in our estrangement from the natural world and from one another. This wide-ranging conversation is what groups like the Ethical Humanist Societies were founded to pursue and I was grateful to be a part of their conversation. Your own experiences with this struggle are welcome in the comment section below.

 

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Breathing Together

I was just slipping into my night-time ritual of reading in bed before lights out when I heard a commotion out on the street and the cry, “I can’t breathe!” We live on one of the main streets in a small mountain town in the Smokies. Pulling my robe on, I went to the front door in time to see the flashing lights of one of our police cars leading a line of young people and their placards  through the street in the direction of the town center. Flashing lights brought up the rear ahead of a line of patient, but probably irritated drivers. The impromptu demonstration did indeed end at the old Courthouse for some speeches and laments before quietly dispersing. What was a tear-gassed assembly a few hundred miles north was a spontaneous walk shepherded by our police cruisers.

Our community is underlain by a mushroom mycelium of old lineages stretching back to the Scotch-Irish and German settlers of these lands. In the words of a now-deceased friend “We don’t say anything unkind about anyone, because we’re all related.” But we also have descendants of enslaved Africans as well as people who came here to work in the tourist and hotel industry. Hispanic newcomers have also settled in. Everyone knows someone or is someone who can trace some lineage back to the Cherokee whose descendants still live in these mountains. A wide array of clergy, academics and professional folks have retired here as well. They, too, begin to take root with the other mushrooms in this woods.

What appears at first to be a racial monotony is peppered with diversity. The supposed last shot of the Civil War took place a few blocks from our home. The World Methodist Council is headquartered a few miles away. Someone has a rooster nearby, but we can walk to church, the post office, the bookstore, and the library, not to mention the coffee roaster. Like everyone else, we are trying to recapture some of our precious community life without exposing ourselves to the onslaught of the Covid virus. We haven’t had any deaths yet, but we now have had over 50 cases in a county of 60,000. Our health department has done a great job of public education.

But in the midst of a pandemic in which people end their life by not breathing, one breathless death has ignited our nation. Yesterday our local chapter of the NAACP hosted a gathering at a pavilion to honor the memory of George Floyd, whose inexplicable and savage death has unlocked the frustrated rage of centuries. It is an energy that can rip us apart or one that can lead us to a time of greater justice and reconciliation.

About fifty of us showed up and gathered around the pavilion: the leadership and some of us regulars from the NAACP, friends of friends of friends, our brand new police chief, and members of the police and sheriff’s departments, some pastors, old folks and young.  Everyone wore a mask with the exception of our police officers. I surmise that they don’t want to be hidden behind some anonymous shield, but I’m not sure about that. Transparency is important, even in this pandemic.  Before an impromptu altar of flowers and candles, our president, Pastor Walter Bryson, invited people to share their concerns. Dorothea, with traces of her German birth in her speech, spoke of the importance of teaching ALL of American history to her middle school students. Carolyn, at 81, our senior and still very dynamic core leader in the African-American community, spoke in profound gestures of living her entire life trying to breathe, asking for just one year without the sense of someone’s knee on her neck. Chief Adams asked people to call him any time, offering his cell-phone number, so they could share their concerns directly with him. Walter and several others expressed gratitude for our law enforcement men and women, who are deeply involved in all aspects of the community to enable us to continue sharing a rich community life together. A woman I don’t know read a prayer from Father Richard Rohr. Philip Gibbs, our vice-president, implored us to involve more and more young people in picking up the baton.

Many of us there had been seared in the sixties and felt like nothing had changed, even with Barack Obama’s election. But something has changed. It has been the slow accretion and solidification of a cultural and civic commitment to equal justice for ALL. It is a renewed sense, partly driven by the pandemic, that we are all bound together in the single garment of our destiny, to restate King’s memorable line. The legitimacy of our white nationalist president is dissolving in the tear gas, the blasphemous attempts to manipulate our religious devotion, and the sheer incompetence of its response to our global pandemic.  We are living in that kind of end-time when new possibilities emerge in the flames of destruction.

And then we stood in silence for eight minutes and forty-six seconds, breathing as George Floyd had tried to breathe, his words to us and to his mother resounding in our ears. We breathed in a quiet resolution that he should not have died in vain. With a brief prayer from Philip, we slowly departed in a light rain, breathing the moist air, seeing through the clouds the mountains greening up around us.

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Public Life, Restorative Justice | 1 Comment

Memorial Day—A Day of Reconciliation?

It is Memorial Day in America—a time to grieve and honor those who have died in all America’s wars, including those who fought on both sides in our Civil War. Most accounts claim the day’s origin in an effort to honor those dead as well as those whose lives were gutted in body and spirit by war’s effects. So it is better a time for grief and lament than for vainglory and jingoistic militarism. This year it is overlain by grief and lament for the losses sustained in this pandemic, not only the loss in lives and treasure but the loss of faith that our institutions and leaders can meet the challenges thrust upon us. So we celebrate not only soldiers, but medical and sanitation workers, police and firefighters, truckers and grocery clerks—the everyday, essential sinews of our life together.

As I have been staying close to home in the regimen of elder care this pandemic requires, I have been translating into English an essay I wrote some fifteen years ago in German for a seminar and book on reconciliation and public life. It was an examination of and reflection on the Memorial in Washington DC to what we call the Vietnam War. Erected entirely with voluntary contributions, it was, in the words of Robert Doubek, one of its principal sponsors, “…conceived as a means to promote the healing and reconciliation of the country after the divisions caused by the war….” “The Memorial will make no political statement regarding the war or its conduct. It will transcend those issues. The hope is that the creation of the Memorial will begin a healing process.”

Like Memorial Day at its most poignant, it lifted up the individual lives of the fallen. Regardless of the motives and policies that drove America’s leaders to war, it grieved the loss of life that ripped at the fabric of existence for so many. But more than being a time of grief, as Scruggs and others hoped, it was to be one step in a greater purpose of laying the seeds for reconciliation.

And in that light I ask today, what if Memorial Day were renamed and re-imagined as Reconciliation Day? What if the lament for the lost was only the first step in the work of reconciliation, not merely among those who supported or opposed a war, such as that in Vietnam, but between those who died on all sides of a war—Russians and Americans, Germans and Japanese, Italians and French, British and Chinese? Rather than laying an American flag over the coffin of our losses, what if our eyes were drawn to see the rainbow of a new covenant within a wider world of all humanity? What if the cords of compassion for our own loss drew us wider, into a thick tapestry of common aspirations for a more just and peaceful world?

This is the kind of haunting melody that has often echoed quietly in the shadows of our laments, especially in the Armistice Day of 1918 that held out the hope for a world without war.  But over and over again, the false hope of conducting a “war to end all wars” leads only to more war. And so we return to the graves each year.

In our memorialization of this pandemic, however, we are drawn to another way, the way of mutual service. It is the heroism of healing, of compassion, of mutual respect, of the longing for the dignity of each life lived and each death endured. It is simply the way of love. Nothing glamorous here. It is the daily lifeblood of human flourishing. It is so natural and yet so unnatural that we are always amazed when it bursts forth before us. Like flowers on a forgotten grave. Remember and be reconciled. That’s enough.

 

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