Forgiveness

I can’t get it out of my mind and I don’t want to. On June 19, Dylan Roof, the confessed killer of nine people in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was arraigned in court and listened to passionate  words of forgiveness from Nadine Collier, Anthony Thompson, and Felicia Sanders, relatives of three of those he had killed. Their words of forgiveness, spoken with breaking hearts and soaring spirits, have planted seeds deep into the soil of America—seeds that are already bearing fruit in steps to remove racist symbols of our past from our public life.

And so the power of forgiveness is once again in our public conversations. This was not the forgiveness that is conditioned by the apology and remorse of the perpetrator of a wrong. It was a cleansing of a wound, an offering of a new beginning, both for those deeply traumatized by such a heinous assault but also for the accused killer and for the communities that had fostered, guided, and provisioned him for this crime. It was an act of love so that the hatred of the killer would not find lodging in their own hearts.

For most of us forgiveness is part of a transaction: You give me apology and I will give you forgiveness. Balance cleared. Debt erased. But this forgiveness, as so many have commented, comes from embrace of a prior act of God, the source of all new beginnings. Christians, in seizing on the conviction that God has started things anew in spite of human destructiveness, are simply trying to channel this power to others. The members of Emanuel Church (Emanu-el, “God with us”) have schooled themselves for years to the habits of forgiveness. They were ready to forgive in spite of their sense of grievous loss. These were not words within a calculation of apology and forgiveness, they were words that re-start relationships on a new level built on a different orientation of gratitude rather than resentment, love rather than fear.

At the same time that murder and forgiveness were overturning business as usual in American culture and politics, Greece, and with it the entire European Union, was entering its own cataclysm. I couldn’t help connecting these seemingly separate events, because they both were struggles over the forgiveness of debts. The forgiveness of Emanuel was entirely re-setting the debt and repayment world of retribution, violent reprisal, and apology-driven forgiveness. Greece was struggling with its own indebtedness and the inability of the world financial system to release itself from the destructive balance sheets of financial retribution.

Debts. That is what Jesus’s famous prayer ask forgiveness for. “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” (How ironic that we have these words in Greek!) Many of us mask this over by saying “Forgive us our trespasses,” but the Greek word “debts” (opheilimata) is embedded in the very concept of the Hebrew Jubilee, in which debts are released every fifty years, signaling a new beginning for the whole society.

Whether in the underlying economic subordination of American racism or in the trauma of Greek citizens today, the “debts” and the whole system of indebtedness that this radical forgiveness supplants are at the root of our problems of social justice.

So, if you’re a Christian, the next time you say The Lord’s Prayer, say “debts” and remember what the saints of Emanuel church have testified to. And fold in a prayer for the loosing of the unpayable debts that burden generations of people. It’s not everything that needs to be done, but perhaps it will open us all up to the new beginnings we need. Let me know what you think.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Journeying Toward Reconciliation

Last October I wrote about the development of Reconciling Conversations at First United Methodist Church in Waynesville, here in western North Carolina. At the time, we had put together a little book of stories from members of our congregation about their life, struggles, and faith as Gay and Lesbian members of our church, as parents, friends and families of Gay and Lesbian people, and asJourneying toward Reconciliation wrap cover “ordinary members” who had experienced a long journey toward greater acceptance and understanding of people of differing gender identities and sexual orientations. At the same time, we put together a series of nine presentations on psychology, Scripture, theology, and ethics to enable people to explore some crucial dimensions of these complex matters.

The experience exceeded our greatest expectations, with over fifty people attending for not just nine but eleven weeks of meetings throughout the fall. At the same time, people picked up the book for themselves, their families, and friends. Groups in Georgia and South Carolina began using it in churches and high schools to inspire them to write their own stories. We had a second in-house printing, which started going fast. Marshall Jones, one of our conversation group, with experience in editing and publishing, began to put together an edition through CreateSpace, the Amazon self-publishing arm. With a heightened attractiveness, covers, and minor editing—but the same stories—it is now available on-line for only $3.60.

Here is what the back cover says about the book:

Our congregation lived in silence to the pain and suffering of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgendered people in the midst of our families, friendships, and community. Inspired by simple gatherings of prayer and conversation, we began to talk to one another in circles of trusting and confidential conversation. Out of that experience we decided to put together this book of stories from members of our own congregation.

The response to these stories has been so overwhelming that we have now issued these stories as a book for the general public, available through Amazon.com and other book retailers.

We hope this little book can serve as a starting point for telling your own stories as your communities and congregations struggle toward a life of more acceptance, openness, forgiveness, and vitality.

Indeed, you’re invited to start your own conversations, story-telling, and explorations in your own context. The book contains a number of references to resources about circle conversations, roundtable worship, and LGBT ministries. The stories themselves are available online at our blogsite. We have set up a Facebook page where we hope to put links soon to our presentations from last fall, which are now on YouTube.com. Give us a “Like” and let us know what you’re doing.

Here’s how to get the book:

Go to www.CreateSpace.com/5530839 or to www.Amazon.com.

Pass it on. Widen the circle. As our church motto says, “Welcome ALL. Grow in Faith. Engage the World.”

Posted in Ethics, Personal Events, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged | Leave a comment

Craft Between You and Me

There’s a connection between woodworking and writing. One of them is the attention to craft. I am presently making a long-overdue desk for my son Eric, who has been using a table meant for the outdoors for a couple of years now—not exactly loaded with drawers or finished off with a smooth top. When you’re making cabinetry you have to rout out a million mortises and fit in their matching tenons. The drawers are done within 1/32nd of an inch. The whole thing has to be matched up precisely, including some attention to grain, figure, and color. No one notices all of this except other woodworkers and, of course, God, who always checks out the insides of the mortises. It’s the overall look and the smoothness of the drawers that people look for. And, of course, they want it to be useful, with the drawers the right size and a top that can accommodate whatever electronic paraphernalia will occupy it over the years.

Well, it’s the same for writing. I’m doing prose right now. It’s hard for me to switch back and forth, just as I find it hard to switch between woodturning and cabinetry. But in either case there are demands of the appropriate craft—the unseen manipulations that lie behind the piece and make it work or appeal to the eye. The point is that in both kinds of work there is an underlying craft that constantly challenges us toward precision, elegance, and simplicity—a simplicity both in movement and in construction. So it’s not surprising that from time to time I am caught by a book about the craft of these endeavors—in this case, the charming volume by Mary Norris entitled Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen. Norris has been a copy editor at The New Yorker for more than thirty years, preserving its legendary attention to the grammar, syntax, spelling and factual exactitude that has characterized its pages from the beginning.

The title grabs the attention of all of us who squirm when friends and famous speakers alike turn the required accusative after “between” into a nominative “I” just because… Well, why? Just because it’s a compound accusative? Because they want to maintain their nominative (and nominal) agency in the fact of a preposition? While the psychology is unclear, the rigor of craft is clear: “between you and me.”

And then, there is poor “who” and “whom.”Like “me,” “whom” has practically bitten the dust. And, of course, if you have been rigorous about the accusative in “between you and me,” why do you accept “It is me?” Well, it’s because of usage. With that arabesque you enter the warfare between the “descriptivists,” who argue that we accept usage that comes to predominate (who decides that?), and the “prescriptivists,” who argue for an elite of referees (The New Yorker, especially, but Mr. Webster’s shadows as well) who tell us what is right. With irrepressible humor and balance she at least illuminates the controversies, even if she can’t resolve them.

After dealing with these Sisyphean problems, she turns her eye and pen (or is it key?) to the many other pitfalls and pratfalls of the English language. Writers in English have to deal with the horrendous problem of spelling “correctly” the multitude of words from many languages that have come to populate our discourse. Good luck with that, in spite of the labors of Mr. Webster and his heirs.

And, of course, there is the ubiquitous apostrophe, whose misuse goes beyond the hand-made signs on the roadside. Whether used correctly or not, its very existence is now threatened by the US Postal service and the internet. There is also the vexed question of when to use a hyphen in a compound adjective. Or when to use a dash, a hyphen, a semi-colon, or, you guessed it, a comma. For that we need a comma queen to decide for us. She doesn’t have to be someone out of Alice in Wonderland. She can be someone as charming and funny as Mary Norris.

So, it’s not only woodworkers who face the question of whether to plane or sand, drill or carve, rout or gouge. And speaking of tools, she rounds out her scintillating discourse with a discussion of pencils—real pencils made of wood and graphite. What hardness is preferable, not to mention available? How should you sharpen them? How many do you need? She even has a delightful report on an actual pencil sharpener museum in Ohio. Someone who loves her craft can’t help but treasure her tools as well.

In all of this craftwork, you have the competition between the rationality and logic of our minds and the demands of the wood (or language) itself—its myriad qualities, its structural properties, and the use for which it is intended. Language, like woodworking, has to produce an object that is both useful and beautiful. But this beauty and usefulness must also be embedded in a mathematics, geometry, and logic if it is to be enduring. Our language has to bear the burden of rational thought as well as aesthetic exuberance. Like any good cabinetry, it has to connect its elements in a way that communicates to other people well beyond our voice, touch, laughter, and tears.

And this is what craft is about: the activity of transforming objects, whether words or wood, in a way that can form a world, a common ground through which people can be related to one another over time. In a time that is devoted to consuming and “revolutionizing” that common world as fast as possible, leaving us alienated and lonely, we need to devote ourselves to the craft that builds them.

That concern leads me to the next book I’m reading: The World Beyond Your Head, by Matthew Crawford, the same motorcycle repairman who wrote Shop Class as Soulcraft. I talked about his work in Sawdust and Soul. I’ll write about his latest reflections, with as much craft as I can muster, next time around. Meanwhile, I think I’ll send this to Queen Norris. I’m sure I didn’t get the commas and hyphens quite right in this piece. But after all, it’s just a blog, right?

Posted in On Writing, Poetry and Songs, Woodworking | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Persons with Dignity

As the Supreme Court wound through oral arguments about same-sex marriage this past Tuesday (Obergefell v. Hodges), I was struck by the way debates over what it is to be a “person before the law” have pervaded recent judicial cases. In my graduate school studies some fifty(!) years ago, I focused my dissertation research on the question of our use of “body” to speak, with great emotional impact, of the Church, of organizations, of political orders and even of the Body of Knowledge. In the course of that research I stumbled on the long and winding history of the word “person,” derived from the Latin word persona. After the Citizens United case (2010) I wrote about how this ancient word had evolved in that decision to give business corporations the rights to free speech (meaning expenditure of funds) originally attributed to individuals in public debate. I found this development profoundly troubling for the life of a republic rooted in the rights of individuals to participate in public life.

But “personhood” debates have also taken us in other directions as well. One, of course, is the intractable debate over the personhood of the human fetus, which requires attributing the rights of living individuals to this emerging human being. In this regard our continually developing notion of “personhood” has led most of us to a more nuanced understanding of the solicitous care and protection to be given to this developing self, posing legal and moral quandaries that defy even the Wisdom of Solomon.

The same-sex marriage case, with its appeal to the “dignity” of all citizens regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity brings into clearer focus yet another attribute of the person. Dignity (Latin: dignitas) itself is another term originally attributed to the gods and to leading men in a patriarchal society who conducted affairs of government and war. This attribute is now extended increasingly to all individuals as persons. Just today an article by Jeffery Rosen on Justice Anthony Kennedy’s use of this term in gay rights cases has appeared in the Atlantic. Not only is personhood being applied ever more expansively, but it has intensified its attributes of autonomy, legal status, liberty, and economic freedom. It is not only a matter of protecting an individual “person” from government intrusions, it is a matter of enhancing and supporting that person’s access to a public life, in this case, the public life and status of marriage.

As a matter of extending personhood to individuals, this is a development to be applauded and nurtured. I hope this view prevails in the Supreme Court. However, like Rosen, I have some concerns about its wider impact. In particular, the application of personhood (itself a legal construct derived from ancient philosophy and theology) to the corporate “bodies” (also legal fictions) that dominate our economic and political life. Will we also see an expansion of the Citizens United doctrine to expand the public rights of corporations even further? The first development, now before the Court, enhances our republic’s life. The second, I fear, can sink it.

One of the torpedoes that can sink it might come from the infamous District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008 that eviscerated the Founders’ concept of “people,” replacing it with a disconnected group of individuals who now had the right, as individuals, to act like a militia that “the people” had originally formed as states. The proliferation of guns on the waves of fear in a time of social turmoil and change could indeed render us incapable of engaging in the unhindered free speech and reasonable debate that persons of dignity conduct as citizens of a flourishing republic.

 

 

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