The Worship at the Heart of Liberation

Each year our church seeks out 40 people from the congregation to write a brief meditation to help people follow a discipline of reflection during Lent—the forty weekdays leading to Holy Week and Easter. I was on this year’s list and was offered a passage from the middle of the book, Exodus 23:1-9. As I read through the entire book and reflected on its meaning for us, I came to the following reflection. Here’s the passage:

You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with the wicked to act as a malicious witness. You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing; when you bear witness in a lawsuit, you shall not side with the majority so as to pervert justice; nor shall you be partial to the poor in a lawsuit.

When you come upon your enemy’s ox or donkey going astray, you shall bring it back. When you see the donkey of one who hates you lying under its burden and you would hold back from setting it free, you must help to set it free.

You shall not pervert the justice due to your poor in their lawsuits.  Keep far from a false charge, and do not kill the innocent and those in the right, for I will not acquit the guilty.  You shall take no bribe, for a bribe blinds the officials, and subverts the cause of those who are in the right.

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.

We are used to seeing the book of Exodus as a story of liberation from slavery. It is about freedom from oppression—something that resonates with the American story of revolution and emancipation from slavery. However, beyond that I have come to see it as Israel’s answer to the question: How can we rightly worship the mysterious “I am” of our life? How can we live in single-minded devotion to the Source of our life?

When this mysterious YHWH tells Moses to go to Pharaoh on behalf of his people, this YHWH says “Let my son [Israel] go that he may worship me.” At each point in the deadly events leading up to Passover and the escape from Egypt Moses goes before the Pharaoh with the words “Let my people go so that they may worship me.” The issue at the core of Israel’s bondage in Egypt is rightful worship, not merely the physical suffering of the people.

To worship this YHWH rightly the people are led into a wilderness where they must strip away all their usual safeguards and supports. They subsist on daily manna and miraculous water from a rock. Only when they have entered this world of naked dependence can they then rightly worship YHWH. And what is this right worship? It is the reception of God’s divine law and covenant. It is devotion to the right ways of the “I Am” so that they can live out a fruitful life in a new land.

The middle section of the book contains the commandments, laws, and ordinances that shape the right way, including the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20). Some of them, like provisions for the sale of daughters into slavery, are revolting to our own consciences today. But in many places, as in chapter twenty-three, we come to the core of it all. It is clear that the Israelites were a quarrelsome lot. Moses has to set up a whole judiciary to deal with them. Thus, the list in this chapter begins with prohibitions of false witness, lying, perjury, bribes, and betrayal of conscience for the favor of the majority. But above all, they are admonished not to “oppress a resident alien, [for] you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”  At the core of the way of life that rightly worships the source of all being—the great “I AM”—is identification with the alien, the outcaste, the poor and oppressed of the earth. It is this identification with the oppressed and marginalized that finally undergirds the Great Commandment to love others as ourselves (Leviticus 19:18, Matthew 12:37-40). It is a claim as foreign to many of us today as it was to the fearful refugees at Sinai.

It is only after the recitation of numerous commandments around this theme that the final chapters of Exodus proceed to the temple construction and priestly instructions for expressing this devotion to YHWH in symbolic ways. Above all, Exodus calls us to remember that our liberation consists not in having control over our lives so that we can do what we want but in stripping away all our powers in order to embrace the mysterious life of the “I Am” that underlies the life of all creatures on this earth. That is rightful worship. That is the way of exodus into abundant life.

 

 

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Whose Apocalypse?

Australia is burning. It’s been burning even from the beginning of its springtime. The fires will not relent for some months to come. And then California and parts of other western states will take their turn before the fire of climate change. It is like a blow torch sweeping over the earth between the episodes of floods in Indonesia, Bangladesh or North Carolina. It is an apocalypse.

Apocalyptic. The word flows through the news reports beside “catastrophe” and “wake-up call” for the near brain dead. In the night I turned this ancient Greek word over and over in my mind. For most of us it signifies destruction in the end times, the razing of the world as we know it. As I chew on the word I realize it has two meanings for us, one ancient and Biblical, the other contemporary and scientific.

The Greek meaning of apocalypse is “unveiling” or “uncovering.” It carried over into Latin and then into English as “revelation.” Hence, the apocalyptic vision in John of Patmos’s writings at the end of the New Testament is usually titled “The Revelation According to St. John.” In this biblical literature what is revealed is the cosmic struggle between the forces of Good (God, Christ) and Evil (Satan) and the victory of God or Christ, ushering in a new era of peace and justice. The fallen age of sin in which we now live is succeeded by an age of righteousness. Apocalyptic in the Bible is a prophetic vision revealing the enormity of evil in our world and the greater power of God for transformation according to God’s purpose of Life. Thus, John’s Revelation concludes with the famous passage:

“Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” (Revelations 21:1-5a)

Biblical apocalyptic is a prophetic vision calling us to judgment, purging us so that we can live into God’s act of redemptive struggle on our behalf to claim a redeemed world, whether through the destruction of the present order or its perfection in God.

A scientific vision, based in evolutionary theories, does not see our present apocalyptic time as a struggle between Good and Evil. It is the natural consequence of the way humans have been living in the fossil-fuel era of the last two centuries. The inexorable laws of physics that explain greenhouse emissions and global warming are not evil. They are simply “the way things are.” While we can call our normal way of industrial life sin and perhaps even evil, the apocalypse we see in these fires and floods is not the work of Satan. Our present course of human behavior ensures that we will extinguish the very conditions of human life. The earth will go on without us and many other species that have shared our ecological niche in the evolution of this planet. Our descendants will be no more. God will have a new earth without us, God’s failed ecological experiment. Apocalypse is simply the inevitable outcome of the way human beings have developed.

Both views of apocalypse shape our vision and our arguments today. The biblical vision can easily fuel the survivalist ethos portrayed  in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Tara Westover’s family in Educated.  For McCarthy, however, the world they survive into is the burned cinder we see today in the Australian outback. For Westover’s isolated Mormon family in Idaho, we presume, it is John’s “new heaven and new earth.” Neither, however, responds to the cry of the scientific apocalypse that, though the laws of climate change are unalterable, our collective behavior might, just might, be able to change enough to avert total destruction. The outcome would not be a new heaven and a new earth, but it might be livable for some, at least after horrendous warfare over the spoils.

I would like to find a way to claim both—the optimism of John’s apocalypse and the scientific call to change our collective ways short of extinction of a human-friendly planet. But that requires a planet-friendly humanity. The fires in Australia and California may illuminate our way toward planetary redemption, but they may also frighten us into acquiescence to an inevitable destruction. Apocalypse invites our decision and we should be trembling, awestruck, as the smoke rises in God’s temple that we call earth. The decision is upon us.

 

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Kings, Despots, and the Children

It’s Advent again, overlaid with the sediments of Christmas, and so I return again to familiar themes—Jesus, Mary, Joseph the builder, Herod, and yes, the slaughtered children. But as evil as he was, Herod was a king and not a despot. Before King Herod made his annual appearance on my calendar, I had been thinking a lot about despots in the past few months (maybe you have too). In spite of our present confusions and controversies, there really are differences between kings and despots, both then and now. Centuries before Herod, Aristotle gave us the classical Greek understanding of a despot. The despot was the master of a household. All the members of the household—women, boys, and slaves—were subordinate to his absolute control. His mind, his will, and his desires controlled them like a mind controls a body. Despots are the natural form of rule for people who, by nature, as the Greeks believed, are servile, especially the children.

Therefore, despotism in government is rule by one who treats the whole community as his household and his citizens as ignorant children. Despotism does not recognize any distinction between the private and public spheres. They are collapsed together under the unlimited rule of the despot. This differs from kingship, our usual image of monarchy, because kingship is rule within traditional constraints, including legal ones. The king is “kin” to his subjects but they have a degree of independent dignity apart from the king. The despot, however, absorbs everyone’s life and welfare into his own.

Over against despotism, a republic, as it emerged in Greco-Roman thought, sets aside a certain sphere of life as a public in which people engage as equals, as free persons, to govern themselves according to mutually agreed understandings of order and the common good. Because of their equality, they have to govern through persuasion according to common reason rather than through fear and force. This is the tradition in which our own American republic was founded. The founders recognized that the passions of a mob would always want to throw up a despot who would seek to obliterate the constitution of the public in order to rule the people as his private household, turning them into slaves to his wishes, whether through fear or abject dependence. This is what informed their elaborate covenant of public order, our Constitution.

Our republic has now found its despot and we are wondering whether our public officials and public-spirited citizens will defend the integrity of the republic or, like frightened children or slaves, submit to its dissolution into the despot’s household. What wars have not been able to extinguish can be snuffed out through the people’s loss of the virtue necessary to sustain public life and republican governance within a constitutional order.

And the children? Even as we are all tempted to act like infantile servants of the despot’s will, so are real children caged at our borders, deprived of adequate health care, and thrown before the fury of our impending climate cataclysm. But in their midst, the Gretas of the world begin to stand up and create a free space of love for this earth, for its people, and for the public life through which we can come to our senses in service of the common good. When we are reduced to the whimpering fear of the little child we become the people who “by nature” must be ruled by a despot. But when we recover the awe of the child, the longing for the mother’s face, the readiness to touch one another in goodness, then perhaps we may be able to recover our dignity as citizens engaged in the great work of restoring our wounded earth. That is what I hope is coming even as our current despots seek to swallow up our public love in his private rage. Let’s anchor in Advent, leaning into the dawn of Christmas. For the sake of the children.

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Imagining the Way of Peace

Our Interfaith Peace Conference on “The Arts of Peace: Imagining the Way” has come to pass, moving from anticipation into memory. Sylvia and I now live “APC” (After the Peace Conference) savoring its many vivid personalities and events as we move into America’s time of Thanksgiving. I cannot recount these many inspiring moments here (you can get DVDs of some of them at www.LakeJunaluska.com/shop), but I do want to track one thread that remains at the core of these memories.

We began with a presentation by Mariela Shaker, who recounted to us her story of exile from her native Syria, her message of peace in music, and, only a week ago, her gaining United States  citizenship. What haunted us all were photos of her native Aleppo, one of the world’s oldest cities, once a showcase of beauty and culture now lying in tortured ruin. These images, reinforced by the piercing anguish of the women in the subsequent drama, Women and War, drove home the horror and senseless brutality of war. The remorseless devastation of war erupts continuously from our fear that we do not have enough, that others are poised to take what is ours, and our egoistic belief that we can overcome death through monuments of our victory over others. The despots driving people to war in Syria are no different from those that threaten peace around the world, including in our own country. The Conference reminded us to cherish and nurture the love that overcomes fear—love of neighbor, of this beautiful earth, and of the Creator of us all.

Mariela’s assumption of American citizenship was not an easy task in this time of enmity toward the new blood that will enrich us all. Her faith in the American project, in spite of our current struggles, evoked in us a renewed commitment to the fundamental values of a republic that embraces all in the arguments about how to pursue our common good. At the core of these common values lie the much-disputed texts of the Constitution and of the documents flowing from it and those that continually lift us to wider visions, whether from Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr.

Texts revitalized by embellishment and illumination lay before us throughout the conference. Texts can kill as well as heal. What they continually require is argument over their meaning. Arguments that appeal to reason, to ever-wider shared meanings, and to the higher purposes that guided their construction can indeed construct the framework of peace. Violence destroys argument, even as it destroys the places in which we might come together for the conversations of common life. This capacity for reasonable persuasion around texts venerated by the wisdom of many generations stands at the heart of peace.

Throughout the conference the texts of our faith traditions lay before us—the magnificently illuminated Saint John’s Bible, a Torah scroll, a gilded copy of the Qur’an. The texts before us were not just the ancient scriptures of our faith traditions. Every participant received a beautifully prepared journal book compiled by our friend Roger Dowdy, each page with a work of visual art next to which they could write their own reflections, making these images their own. We also had the brand new text that we sang throughout the conference, one that I wrote for that purpose and which was set to music by Scott Taylor, Director of Music and the Worship Arts at our church. Here are the words:

Imagine the Way

Antiphon:

  1. Peace, Peace, Peace, Peace. Peace, Peace, Peace, Peace.
  2. Shalom, Shalom. Shalom, Shalom.
  3. Salaam, Salaam. Salaam, Salaam.

Verses:

  1. Peace in all colors, Peace in all music, Peace in all hearts.

            Peace in all colors, Peace in all music, Peace in all hearts.

  1. Peace in all letters, Peace in all dances, Peace in all hands.

            Peace in all letters, Peace in all dances, Peace in all hands.

  1. Peace in all patterns, Peace in all paintings, Peace in all lands.

           Peace in all patterns, Peace in all paintings, Peace in all lands.

Refrain:

Peace, Peace, Catch the vision. Dance to the rhythm. Imagine the way.

Thanks to Scott’s engaging melody, participants were humming the song and remembering the words as they left the hall to return to their daily lives. (Contact me if you would like a copy.) And that’s the point, isn’t it? The music enables the words to take up lodging in our minds, emotions, and habits. They make the words live in a way they don’t when they are left flat on the page.

While the Peace Conference has now run its envisioned decade, we can only hope that it has planted seeds and songs that others can take up. We cannot have peace without building up the possibility for conversation and argument among citizens longing for an ever- more perfect republic of beauty, of harmony with God’s purposes. Peace is the dynamic confirmation we receive in that courage to participate in wider relations, to listen to others, to seek common ground on this common earth. It resides in the call to live for more than the simply existence of our bodies, to live into the love that drives out all fear. That’s the big story we’ve been trying to tell. Let me know how you might be trying to tell it.

Above all, give thanks. Sing the song. Join in the dance.

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