Not even Judas

Hidden on the mountainsides of Appalachia

lives beneath majestic canopies

a tree they call the Judas tree.

Its purple buds begin the spring

break through the bark betrayed by winter’s silver hands.

And as the sun burns higher in the sky

the leaves

turned green

turned red

like hearts

begin to tremble, shake, and beat.

Humbled underneath the shade of oak and ash it greets

the seal of Solomon

the trillium

the ginseng with its fabled powers.

Beside it bows the dogwood

bright bracts cut short by blood-brown marks,

its body twisted with a gnarled grace.

The redbud

legacy of our betrayal

brings forth the rosy lips of spring.

The dogwood

emblem of God’s suffering

whispers in the wakening gloom

not even Judas lies beyond the love of God.

Posted in Poetry and Songs | 1 Comment

Race, Remembrance, and Forgiveness

I am presently engaged in a lengthy course at our church (via Zoom, naturally) entitled “Struggling with Race, Remembrance, and Reparations.” Over forty of us are gathering every week to reflect on books such as White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo, Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander.  In addition, in cooperation with our local NAACP chapter we are viewing recorded interviews (an accommodation to the pandemic) with members of our small but historic African American community responding to the same questions we are engaging in circle conversations in our church. All of this is in preparation for further collaboration with them and other churches and community groups to participate in the Monuments Project of the Equal Justice Initiative at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Our goal is to conduct widespread conversations about racial justice in our county and place a memorial to a mob’s murder of a Black resident in 1900. (You can find out more about the EJI’s project by clicking HERE.)

One of our conversations is dealing with the difficult issue of forgiveness in the context of rightful remembrance and racial justice. I prepared a brief statement about it to inform our conversation that I share with you here. The “collaborative” form of forgiveness I sketch here needs  a great deal more development. Your thoughts would be most appreciated. (My “captcha” gatekeeper at the Comments below has been replaced, so you ought to be able to post without difficulty.)

Three Views on Forgiveness

In the words of Bishop Desmond Tutu, “There is no future without forgiveness.” In forgiveness we release others as we ourselves are released from the past acts that have imprisoned us in vengeance, retaliation, and broken trust.

The standard account of forgiveness requires apology from the one who broke trust. Apology must be a sincere expression of remorse that recognizes the harm that was done, demonstrates a desire to act in good faith in the future, and affirms a readiness to repair the damage to the greatest extent possible. Here, forgiveness emerges as a kind of contract between two individuals to live in a new relationship. In the midst of our long history of systemic racism White people find it hard to apologize in any coherent or convincing way, often because they cannot attach the recognized wrongs of the past to specific harmed persons in the present.

Forgiveness can also be extended unilaterally before an apology is given. Sometimes this is understood as a response to receiving forgiveness or grace from God. It is based in a wider sense that “all of us have sinned and fallen short.” Unilateral forgiveness trusts that the God who has forgiven all of us will sustain, transform, and guide both harm-doer and victim into a new, better relationship. This awareness of a pre-emptive forgiveness can bring about greater self-acceptance for both wrong-doer and victim so we can deal with the actual harms we have made and suffered in the world. In the overwhelming wake of historic white racism, the burden for this unilateral forgiveness falls on the shoulders of the descendants of enslaved Americans in a way that is often heroic and compelling, as with the words of forgiveness at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, but tends not to evoke the deep conversion necessary from the other side.

Drawing on classic Biblical perspectives, however, unilateral forgiveness can be understood not merely as an effect of God’s forgiveness of individuals but of our collective living into an altogether new age or creation. The early Christians believed they were already living in the dawn of this new creation, making release from the dead hand of the past a living reality claiming all people who would receive it.  This is the context for the Lord’s Prayer’s unusual formulation of forgiveness. Here, forgiveness is no longer merely an interpersonal dynamic but an expression of the actual life of a people living in a new covenant with one another formed by the world-renewing life of God. We might call this a collaborative forgiveness, for it arises in the shared commitment to live according to the promises of a new creation. It is a recognition that the history of wrong-doing and injury is being radically transformed by the love and power of God. Discerning and living into the contours of this new reality underlies our strengthened capacity for forgiveness and a new covenant of relationships among groups as well as individuals. Recalling St. Paul’s words, forgiveness is the common work of a people being transformed by the work of God, who was in Christ “reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” (II Corinthians 5:19) This can open up a perspective that might help us navigate the difficult waters of forgiveness in the midst of our long history of racial injustice.

 

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Restorative Justice, Roundtable Ministries Project | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Living in God’s Image: Despotism or Republican Democracy?

My thoughts about the despotism that is infecting our virus-plagued lives have gained a new articulation in The Christian Citizen, an American Baptist journal stimulating reflection on the church’s involvement in public life. You can read the whole piece by CLICKING HERE.

In this brief essay I argue that Trump’s support by Evangelical Christians is not a blind contradiction of Jesus’s teachings but is actually an expression of their allegiance to an image of God they rehearse daily in prayer and weekly in worship. This is the God who creates reality out of His own words and will. It is a God of inexplicable vengeance as well as grace and pardon. It is a God of will more than reason, command rather than law, magic rather than wisdom. It is God as despot, the ancient Greek ruler of a submissive household of women, children, and slaves.

Moreover, this image is not merely an Evangelical fixation. It is found in the everyday piety of prayers for health and well-being as well as in Hallelujah choruses, creeds, and benedictions. That is, it is a problem for Christians across the boards. It creates the perennial gap between our images and accepted formulas for God, the source of all power and authority, and the republican, constitutional, and democratic convictions at the heart of the American Constitution.

Having laid out this tension and the way Evangelicals who support Trump have taken the despotic image of God to its logical political conclusion, I then point out that there are many other images in our ancient as well as recent traditions that offer other ways to imagine our source of authority and power. They include not only the radically suffering God embodied In Jesus’s self-giving, but the Trinitarian ideas of the “procession” of the “persons” of God, the visions of God in process theology, and the eco-feminist notions of the earth as God’s body. And there are others.

Thus, the scandal of Evangelical support for Trump is a theological problem for Christians across the spectrum. The perilous state in which we find ourselves is a deeply theological one that requires renewed commitment to the task of formulating an understanding of the Divine mystery in a way that revitalizes just governance. Moreover, it requires finding ways to express this fundamental conception of God in prayer, worship, and song. Let me know what you see from your vantage point. We need all the voices we can get.

Posted in Ethics, Public Life, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment

Gathering in (Virtual) Circles

We are now gathering for our monthly Roundtable Worship here in a virtual circle tied together by the internet. In one sense, this expands our circle to anyone who wants to sign in. But, of course, what is missing are the subtle visuals, the touches, the hugs, the shared bread, and yes, even the smells. So worship is, more than ever, an act of anticipation, a rehearsal for a more real time we long for in the future. It is so like our “real” lives.

But the words remain the same, even as our efforts to speak and sing them in response and unison create a cacophony that is at best a joyful noise. Here are some words from our recent gathering, some new, some repeated every month. They are in the order of long custom: Call, Remembrance, Thanksgiving, Hope, and Commitment. Like most anything in the ether these days, you can read them any time. We are surrounded by points of near-eternal light. Be well.

Call to the Table

When I am in an anxious place, confined, confused,

                        You spread the splendor of your cosmos out before my eyes.

When I sink beneath the raging waves of fear,

            Your breath becomes the buoy guiding me to shore.

When we huddle in the fortress of our anger and self-righteousness,

You find your way through every opening to bring aromas of your peace.

When pestilence unseen, unheard, untouched upends our lives,

            You lead us to the heart of love that brings new life.

When we hunger for your saving presence,

            You recall us to your table plentiful with harvest.

We run to your table,

            Your table of Peace.

ALL. Amen. Amin, Ameyn.

Remembrance

From your hand were offered nuts and fruits and cereals in the garden of our infancy.

With your outstretched arm we were led beyond the powers of oppression to a land abundant with the manna of your grace.

By your hand were prophets fed and sheltered in their lonely cry for justice.

From your nailed hand the blood of everlasting love streamed down upon our heads.

In your hands the bread of everlasting life was shared around the table of your peace.

With your hands the trees and all creation clapped for joy in your renewal of the earth.

Thanksgiving

O Faithful Healer of the Universe,

For the healers and the helpers who have brought us through this wilderness of suffering and death, we speak our thanks in humble gratitude. For words of hope and gentleness arising in the midst of pain we offer up our hearty thanks. For your presence in the midst of lonely death our lips are filled with thankfulness. For the life that springs up in the gardens of our hope our voices fill with song:

We give our thanks to God (4x)

          We give our hearts to you (3x)

                                    because you first loved us.

We give our feet to you (3x)

                                    because you walk with us.

The Hope Prayer

O Source of Life, You alone are holy.

Come, govern us in perfect peace.

Give us today the food that we need.

Release us from our sin as we release our enemies.

Sustain us in our times of trial.

Liberate us all from evil powers.

Guide us in your justice, wisdom, and peace. Amen, Amin, Ameyn

Words of Commitment

In God’s love, we will seek the path of reconciliation.

In God’s power, we will walk the ways of peace.

In God’s wisdom, we will struggle for God’s justice in this world.

In God’s mercy, we will seek to care for Earth, our home.

Posted in Roundtable Ministries Project, Worship and Spirituality | 1 Comment