Aiming at our Heart

Even as our throats are choked with grief and our tongues are silenced before the evil of the violence in Ukraine and across America, we know that we must return to words and the thoughts they embody. They are about the very heart of our life. The guns that threaten the very possibility of public life, whether in Uvalde or Kyiv, can only be overcome with the trust, covenants, and constitutions that arise in  argument, mutual education, and respectful agreements in open publics. This is a truth ancient in origin and refined in the crucible of human experience.

We grieve deeply as we recognize that the United States is the only high technology republic in the world that suffers this constant gun violence. This violence is rooted in our history of European invasion and settlement, of vicious enslavement of native and African peoples, of civil war, and ethnic rivalry. But it only survives because powerful groups continue to re-heat these conflicts for their immediate profit and power, so that this past still haunts us in the fevered minds of mass-murderers and would-be vigilantes alike.

As I, like so many of you, have wrestled with these shadows and fearsome horrors in these past weeks, I have repeatedly returned to two facets of this constant threat, one constitutional, the other essentially spiritual. Here are my thoughts on these two points. The constitutional issue, as I have argued before, takes us to the Second Amendment and the false claims that have come to enshroud and enshrine it. Politicians love to start any proposal to respond to gun violence with some version of allegiance to this Amendment to the US Constitution of 1787/89. But what do they mean by this act of obeisance? Does it include the meaning of the conditioning clause with which it starts (“A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free State…”)? Most of them do not see it as establishing the purpose and conditions of the words that are to follow, but any lawyer trained in the Latin roots of this clause knew full well that that is what it intended to do. The Second Amendment is about the preservation of state militias.

In addition, though, we must remember that this purpose also implied the defense of state resistance to the federal government established by the Constitution. In short, the second amendment bears the seeds of secession and ultimately the Civil War of 1861-1865. Not to be forgotten is that this State “security” included the formation of militias to pursue, capture, and in the process terrorize the enslaved people fleeing their owners in the various states. Only the gradual subordination of these state militias into the National Guard, beginning in 1903, has removed this dagger from the heart of the Republic. The view that the second Amendment was about the preservation of these state militias governed court rulings until the end of the twentieth century. Even in the Heller decision of 2008 this has remained the Court’s basic understanding, though now used, in Scalia’s strained argument, to justify the individual right to “keep and bear arms” in the home.

And what are we to make of “the right of the people to keep and bear arms”? In contemporary arguments for “gun rights” the term “people” has lost its 18th century meaning as a near-mystical body providing alternative legitimation to the political order from that of monarchs claiming the divine right to rule. “The People” was not a collection of individuals but a collective, “body politic” assembled in councils and public assemblies. It was as theological or mystical a concept as was that of King James I’s “divine right” of kings. Contemporary interpretations, like that of Justice Scalia’s Heller opinion, reduce it to being a collection of individual consumers. This it never was.

And “keep and bear arms”? This is once again a military term of an organized militia. A person carrying a hunting rifle into the woods is not “bearing arms.” Neither is a person seeking to intimidate an elected official with a semi-automatic rifle while standing on the steps of a government building. In any case, it is hard to argue, in the context of the whole amendment, that a self-appointed gang of armed men calling themselves a militia is the “well-regulated militia” of a “people” defending “the security of a free State.”

In short, the interpretation of the Second Amendment that is used to defend the wide-spread possession of weapons designed to kill people—many people—ignores entirely its original context and meaning (despite Scalia’s so-called originalism) and contravenes much of its original purpose. It also blinds us to its original function not merely as a check on federal power but as an implied threat to its very existence. The use of the second amendment to justify wide-ranging possession, display, and use of firearms of every type has revealed once again this  sinister underlying implication of these words.

We need to relentlessly expose the lies and half-truths surrounding this amendment so that we can create the legal structures we need to defend ourselves from the domestic terrorism and impulsive killings that take the lives of over 40,000 Americans every year.

The spiritual crisis points us to the loss of bonds among family members and communities and to the mental torment of so many isolated, angry, and despairing individuals in our society. This is not merely a matter of mental health services but of the erosion of the nurturing communities that make us human. At its core is a sense of fear and threat unallayed by a deep trust in the love at the heart of life. We are being torn apart by the logic of capitalist competition, economic dislocation, and a media universe driven by algorithms that promote fear and violence rather than widening circles of trust and cooperation. As this list unfurls we see that its characteristics are rooted in an individualism of self-advancement rather than mutual service, in fear of losing one’s status rather than in enhancing the well-being of all. This is a litany of alienation that is not unknown to us. It can only be countered by a renewal of the life of mutual concern that needs to be replenished constantly in our churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques, in schools and neighborhoods as well as in town halls and union halls, in civic clubs and voluntary associations. The media universe needs to serve these face-to-face groups of mutuality rather than manipulate a demographic of isolated and fearful consumers.

And thus it really is about the soul of America. Our politicians continue to fail us in nurturing the public love that can free us from this fear. Freedom is not about independence from others. It is about the bonds of mutual care that free us from our isolation and fear. Now we have to see if indeed “the people” is anything more than a motley gang of potential murderers. Maybe, just maybe, it may become a tapestry of many threads seeking to become a magnificent quilt embracing us all.

Thanks again for reading this far and pondering with me. Your own thoughts are always welcome in this struggle.

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Hattie’s Gift

When by some good grace we enter into our elder years, we begin to search for those who might help guide us into ways we might surrender our lives at the end. In a world of mechanized and computerized physical care, we find it difficult to learn or perform the ars moriendi, the art of dying, of previous ages. This is not merely a matter of foregoing expensive extraordinary measures to prolong life, but of opening up a greater Life in the process of losing our own. In recent years I have been blessed by those who gave me glimpses of this art of living as their bodies gave up what we call life. It is the phone call from a hospice bed to say they love us. It is the last visit in the nursing wing when laughter bubbles up from deep inside the vanishing vehicle of a great spirit.

On April 19 I received this gift from my old friend Hattie Polk, who lay dying peacefully, detached from the tubes and wires that might have sustained her 95-year old body a little longer. She had decided it was time to leave us. She wanted to say goodbye to old friends. I was next to last on her list. We spoke of how she had helped us launch our book of stories about the beauty and importance of gay and lesbian people in our midst, a book that has gone around the world with its message of reconciliation. Our short sentences roamed around memories of church, of projects and meetings, and of people important in our lives.

As I held her hand she told me she was seeing a beautiful peony before her, opening its petals to receive her. I have tried to put this experience into words:

Hattie leaned into God’s garden gate.

Looking over the weathered wood and iron

She saw a peony, she told me,

Opening its smile, its arms,

Surrendering its sweet bouquet,

The ants receiving its libations to the sun.

She smiled, she laughed, she opened up her arms

As it embraced her in a love

That filled the whole garden.

She danced into its warm embrace exclaiming

Peony, sweet peony!

Hattie’s life went into a greater transcendence a few days later, leaving us a gift of joy, grit, and delight in seeking a greater justice than we can ever imagine. Each of us struggles with the art of our own future dying. Let us be thankful for the cues, the scripts, the choreography of such a one-time dance that others offer us as we approach that time.

Thank you, Hattie.

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The Holy Work of Reparations

I recently finished leading a group of about 20 people here at our church through the book Reparations: A Christian Call for Repentance and Repair, by Duke Kwon and Gregory Thompson (Brazos Press). Both authors are pastors with advanced degrees in theology, well-grounded in the local work of reparations. Their readable, well-organized volume has received praise from across the theological spectrum, and deservedly so. It combines historical and sociological analysis of the impact of White supremacy on American lives throughout the period of European settlement and the life of the American republic. They are seeking not only to repair the damages of slavery, segregation, and discrimination against African Americans, but to take on the burden of the White supremacy that underlies these devastating crimes against humanity.

In their words: “We see it as our responsibility to acknowledge the truth of our collective history and our own culpability in it, to surface ethical resources in the Christian tradition that can help us engage the consequences of this history, and to call others in the church to take up the work of reparations in their own communities.” (185)

In their view the claim to White supremacy, whether revealed in enslavement, lynching, terrorism, or daily discriminations of all kinds, damages the very image of God that all humans bear. It is thus a kind of original, or primordial, sin that requires not merely reparations, but repentance, a turning to a new self-concept as the door to a new way of life. In a time of struggle over the very facts and meaning of our history, their call for repentance requires an honest assessment of our personal and collective past as well as a numbering of the destruction this racist arrogance has caused. It then requires, and here is the hard part, a certain kind of grace to hold both our systemic sin and the possibility of new levels of justice in the same mind. Though they don’t use this term (they are more Calvinist than Lutheran), it is a matter of “simul justus et peccator” (“simultaneously justified and a sinner”). This is hard for most Americans, because we want to slip quickly into the beneficent sunset of our social reconstruction, ignoring the way we have sabotaged the new beginnings we have seen before, whether in our Revolution or the brief eras of Reconstruction and the New Deal. It is a task, therefore, requiring humility as well as perseverance, gratitude, and hope.

I write this in the midst of Holy Week, in which we Christians re-live the drama in which the suffering, despised, and crucified prophetic Rabbi from the outback of Israel took all the violence of the world onto himself, that we might live into the life that swallows up death in the inexhaustible love of God. On Friday, here in our local community, we will walk down Main Street with a large cross, praying at various stations along the way. We will then gather for a lunch and discuss James Cone’s classic book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, in which these two horrendous symbols are brought clashing into our consciousness, calling for repentance as well as new life. Regardless of whether you grab hold of Reparations or Cone’s testament, I hope we all will catch a glimpse this week of how new life emerges out of the suffering of our world.



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A Collision of Christendoms

We are all trying to make our way through the images of inhuman warfare in Ukraine, grief-stricken by the loss not only of lives but of dreams of stability and peace in a globalized world. In this blurry confusion I have found myself realizing that my own country stands on shaky moral ground. Blinded by the victory over the evils of fascism in the Second World War, we took on wars around the world in defense of the civilization of democracy we claimed to espouse—in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. And then there were the clandestine overthrows of governments in Chile, Iran, Guatemala, and other places. Our claims to defend national sovereignty or self-determination ring hollow in the face of this history, not to mention the repercussions of slavery and genocide that haunt us to this day. In the decades of this American “crusade” to make the world safe for democracy, America’s churches have often wedded themselves to this expression of American imperial ambition to support a kind of American “Christendom.”

At the same time I have been very aware that the Russian invasion of Ukraine presents a crisis to the Orthodox communion of churches as Moscow takes on a war against Kyiv. (For a helpful introduction to this see John Burgess’s critical analysis in The Christian Century this week.) We thus have two colliding versions of Christendom: the Evangelical wedding with American nationalism and the Orthodox vision of a “Russkii Mir” (Russian Peace/World) uniting all the Slavic peoples under Moscow’s rule. On each side, we have contests between supporters of this imperial model of Christendom and those who seek a critical engagement of churches in open republics of democratic governance.

In this midst of these reflections, my friend John de Gruchy sent me a link to the statement of Orthodox theologians and leaders on “A Declaration on the “Russian World” (Russkii Mir) Teaching” that lays out the biblical and theological basis for opposing this imperial version of Christendom threatening the world’s peace. Here is the core of their statement:

“The principle of the ethnic organization of the Church was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 1872. The false teaching of ethno-phyletism is the basis for “Russian world” ideology. If we hold such false principles as valid, then the Orthodox Church ceases to be the Church of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, the Ecumenical Councils, and the Fathers of the Church. Unity becomes intrinsically impossible.
“Therefore, we reject the “Russian world” heresy and the shameful actions of the Government of Russia in unleashing war against Ukraine which flows from this vile and indefensible teaching with the connivance of the Russian Orthodox Church, as profoundly un-Orthodox, un-Christian and against humanity, which is called to be “justified… illumined… and washed in the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of God” (Baptismal Rite).”

The war in Ukraine is not only a struggle over autocracy versus democracy (and not simply over the value of national sovereignty). It is a struggle over the degree to which Christian churches will align themselves with nationalisms and imperial versions of “Christendom.” It is a struggle to affirm and continually refine the alternative view of the critical engagement between church and public order, of the Christian case for democratic, republican orders of government, and the integrity of the image of God in each person. This is what I am thinking about as I see the faces of the beautiful people of Ukraine, of the mangled bodies of Russian soldiers, of the wreckage surrounding the ancient churches of Ukraine. The Russian word “mir” means both “peace” and “world.” What we mean by “world” and “peace” hangs in the balance in this war.

I close with a picture of the famous Madonna of Kyiv, which dates from the 12th century and which now hangs (safely, we hope) in Moscow. Even as it testifies to the unity of the  Orthodox churches, it also becomes a prize in their warfare. Above all, it reminds us of the loving heart of God that underlies God’s image in us all.

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