Voices United: Remembering Pete Seeger

I’m finding that I am affected by the death of Pete Seeger early this morning. In a way that seems surprising.

I listened to his music mostly when I was in high school, at a time when I was reading voraciously about the life and thought of Mahatma Gandhi and learning about the civil rights movement in the United States.

I was myself involved in the student peace and disarmament movement, and immersing myself in theories and histories of social justice movements. It seems that what I was learning about peace, civil rights and labour movements, was the black-and-white outlines that Pete Seeger’s music filled in.

There was something about his recordings, both the songs and the context he gave the songs by speaking about them, that seemed to give what I was learning its third dimension. Also, by following some of the musicians he was influenced by, and the musicians and musicologists who he influenced, that I became better grounded in the life and spirit of activism.

Hearing Pete Seeger in concert at Place des Arts was an experience in the power of raising one’s voice together with others. He told stories, sang, and most of all encouraged us to sing along.

One believed, in the presence of this musician and his audience, in the power of people united. With hundreds others, in the context of moving together for peace and social justice, it was a felt sense of solidarity and community.

I met him backstage, where he signed my programme and punctured a hole in my nostalgia, deflating any sense I had had that the “good old days” of activism were over. It seemed to me, in the Reagan-Mulroney-Thatcher eighties, that my cohorts and I were a voice crying in the wilderness.

I don’t remember his exact words, but he somehow imparted to me and my other teenaged friends that we were right in the midst of changing the world, in our own time, in our own battles, in our own way. These were the good old days.

Still, I sometimes bemoaned the fact that we didn’t seem to have any music—the LGBT and AIDS activist movements, the peace and global justice movements. Dance anthems and hip-hop came close—but were not songs to be sung together.

The only place I ever experienced anything comparable was at church.

As a youth, I began attending my local Unitarian congregation’s weekly worship. Like many who find Unitarian Universalism, when I first arrived it felt like a homecoming. So many others who think the way I do about faith and religion and the world! What made my experience more awesome was I made friends with, and was befriended by, people who were much older than I was.

There was no other place where I raised my voice in song. And no other place where I sang with others, non-professional singers all. The power of this practice—to run sound through your own body that runs through the bodies of those around you—is community-forming, an embodied way of being in solidarity–and claiming the space surrounding you.

Many others, no doubt, are giving Pete Seeger the better-articulated tribute that he so rightly deserves.  For me, his was the voice that activated something in my soul, something that longed to connect with others in solidarity and community in the struggles for freedom. That called me deeper into a life of activism. And that helped me find my voice.

May his memory be eternal.

Bearers of Dangerous Memory

There has been an outpouring celebrating the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela since his death last week. He was an outstanding statesman as well as leader and kept his nation from the brink of catastrophic civil war or worse by courageously walking the path of reconciliation, justice and peace. He refused to become like so many other post-colonial leaders, a strongman with a lifelong hold on power, insisting on serving only one term as president of a liberated South Africa.

What has been somewhat surprising has been the accolades he has received from conservative political figures. When he was a political prisoner, Nelson Mandela was considered a terrorist by the British, American and other governments. As a matter of fact, he was on a list of terrorists kept by the Department of Homeland Security up until 2008.

Politicians who claimed he was a communist instigator of instability and revolution, and who actively resisted international sanctions against apartheid South Africa, are now singing his praises. The CIA had a hand in imprisoning Mandela, he was considered so dangerous by our US government. Now the US president is lionizing Mandela at his memorial service.

Mandela never backed down from his castigating the US for its military adventures overseas, never backed down from his support for national independence for the Palestinian people, never backed down from being a voice for the oppressed and colonized.

We have seen this before, haven’t we?

In the United States, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King was considered subversive, increasingly so in the year before his assassination. Dr. King became progressively more trenchant in his criticism of the US war in Viet Nam, and increasingly vocal about economic justice and its relationship to racism and militarism.

Now he has a federal holiday in his honor, during which we are reminded how he dreamed of a bias-free society.

And guess who called upon workers to rise up and do this:

“Strike against war, for without you no battles can be fought. Strike against manufacturing shrapnel and gas bombs and all other tools of murder. Strike against preparedness that means death and misery to millions of human beings. Be not dumb, obedient slaves in an army of destruction. Be heroes in an army of construction.”

If you guessed the avowed socialist, Helen Keller, you’d be right.

Keller is lauded for her heroism in overcoming difficulties and prejudices associated with her disabilities, and her lovely words about optimism and hope are glowingly quoted. Like Dr. King, her pointed remarks about the wealthy leeching off of ordinary people while keeping them down are willfully forgotten.

This white washing of individuals who spoke out boldly for social justice, economic equity, and an end to war, colonialism, and imperialism dulls our senses and lulls us into accepting the status quo. They become domesticated saints, nonthreatening figures who stood for good things we all believe in. This revisionism is meant to keep us from catching their vision of the world made right.

Every Advent, there are right-wing pundits who deplore the so-called “war on Christmas.” In my view, the real “war on Christmas” was the battle that turned the celebration of the birth of Jesus from a warning that the powers of domination are going to be overthrown into a sentimental holiday.

The story of Jesus’ birth, told in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, tell of the political upset caused by the arrival of this baby. The stories of his birth describe him as a threat to the powers that be. King Herod seeks to destroy this claimant to his throne. Outcast sheep herders hear “good news” proclaimed about a “saviour” and “messiah” and “lord”—all political terms.

The revolutionary message of a great leader who taught and lived the way of resistance to domination, taught and lived the way of peace and reconciliation, has been domesticated and drained of its radical power.

It happens all the time.

Yet some of us will remember.

Some of us bear the memory of the ones who defied the powers—Mandela, Helen Keller, Dr. King, and a host of others, a great cloud of witnesses.

Some of us bear the memory of the prophet who proclaimed the arrival of God’s realm of justice and peace and embodied God’s desire for humanity in healing acts of protest and compassion.

Jesus was himself arrested by the powers that be, interrogated and tortured and finally executed as a political criminal. German theologian Johann Baptist Metz speaks of the “dangerous memory” of Jesus’ life and mission, dangerous because it continues to challenge the powers and principalities of this world, powers and principalities based on domination, exploitation, and violence.

Dangerous because the memory of Jesus draws us to the abandoned places of empire—the prison cell and torture chamber, the battle field and the homeless shelter, the toxic waste dump and the inner city school, the family farm and the sweatshop factories—drawing us out of our comfort zones and across lines of class, race, nation and culture to do the work of creating the realm of God.

We who are enlivened by the memory of those who proclaimed a vision of the world redeemed, the world salvaged, the world reclaimed by the passionate, unrelenting forces of love continue to struggle for it to be made in this world. We risk what they risked in the service of a vision of the world made right. In our efforts to make the world a better place, we truly remember and reenact the mission of all who came before us.

We contain within us the powerful memories of prophetic voices that proclaimed justice and truth to the powers that be. We remember all those who struggled to set the world right.

In this age of willful amnesia, such memories are dangerous.

May we all be bearers of such dangerous memories.

When We Sleepers Rise

There’s a story told about Jesus of Nazareth in the New Testament. Jesus is traveling throughout the towns of Galilee, the northern reaches of Palestine. A leader of the local synagogue in the place through which Jesus is passing seeks him out. His name is Jairus, and when he gets close to Jesus, he throws himself at the teacher’s feet. “My daughter is about to die,” he pleads in anguish. “Please, come and lay your hands on her so that she can be healed and live.”

Jesus had a reputation as a healer and was being sought out by many for the healing of their afflictions. Jesus goes with Jairus, is led by this local leader through the crowds to where the young woman is. On the way there, messengers from Jairus’ household arrive and tell him, “Your daughter has died. We don’t need to bother the teacher any longer.” Jesus overhears them and says, “Don’t be afraid. Just keep trusting.” He then takes only a select few of his students with him to the synagogue leader’s home.

When they arrive, there’s a commotion of grief surrounding the house. People are crying and wailing. “What is all this tumult and weeping for?” Jesus asks them. “The child is not dead. She’s just sleeping.” They all laugh at Jesus. Jesus gets them all to leave. He brings his students and the girl’s parents with him to the room where the child lays. She’s twelve years old. Taking her by the hand, Jesus says simply, “Little girl, rise up.” I imagine he speaks softly, squeezing her hand as he rouses her. And then she gets up. The way any of us would get out of bed first thing in the morning. And then she starts walking around. Her parents and the friends Jesus brought into the room are in shock. Jesus instructs them not to tell anybody, which seems a little odd considering the crowd that’s there mourning the death of Jairus’ daughter. What are her parents going to say, that she was merely asleep? But he says not to tell anybody and please, give this child something to eat.

There are many stories in the Christian scriptures about Jesus healing people and even reviving them from death. The gospels, the books in the New Testament that narrate the life and mission of Jesus of Nazareth, are not, of course, eyewitness accounts. These texts are not biography, nor are they journalistic reportage of events. These texts are theological proclamations written by the earliest members of the Jesus movement more than a generation after his death. The basic, remembered facts about what Jesus said and did are narrated as theological reflections on the meaning of his words and actions.

He was remembered as a healer, as a person who was able to restore health and wholeness to the bodies of the injured and infirm. Jesus is represented as God’s healing agent, a divine salve, for the suffering of the mind, body and body politic.

The followers of Jesus who wrote and redacted these stories were expecting a new world order to arrive imminently. Indeed, they believed that it was already arriving, breaking into the current world order in small sometimes unseen ways like small cracks in the solid façade of the world’s systems of domination and oppression, like small mustard seeds or bits of yeast, that would grow and expand and eventually bring the current world order down.

The incoming order is marked by the principle of shalom, the biblical ideal of peace and wholeness. Shalom is a word that resonates with meaning; it does not merely signify the absence of war. It also means wholeness, balance, health, harmony, integrity and completeness as well as peace. Shalom is right-relation, wellbeing that is personal and interpersonal, economic and social, international and planetary.

The wholeness and health and integrity of individual bodies is a microcosm for the balance and harmony and peace of the body politic, the social order. Shalom for the nation means shalom for persons, and vice versa.

In one healing story, Jesus is called upon to expel an unclean spirit that possesses a man and causes the man great suffering and self-destruction. Jesus says to the spirit, “What is your name?” And the answer comes: “Our name is Legion, for we are many.” Legion, of course, is the name for the basic unit in the Roman military. It comes from the Latin word legio, which means military conscript, because the Roman Legion were drafted from among the Empire’s citizens.

So when Jesus expels the Legion from the body of a man, who then enter a herd of pigs and drown in the sea, we are getting a theological-political statement about the power of God to expel the unclean, foreign bodies from the nation, the restoration of national wholeness and integrity and peace.  As the nation is possessed, contaminated by a foreign, unclean power, this possession is expressed in the body. So, when the formerly possessed man appears dressed and in his right mind, he is a sign of liberation and shalom.

(Lest we think such imaginative views are a product only of the ancient world, think for a moment about our own metaphors of illness. Think of our images of disease as an invasion of the body, of the immune system being a defense against that invasion—all military metaphors. Think of the names of what we might suffer from—German measles or Asian flu. Anxieties about invasion are named for national and political enemies).

Restoring the wholeness of body and mind, then, are signifiers of the in-breaking divine social order, the arrival of God’s shalom. Health is a sign of what Jesus and his movement called the kingdom of God.  It is a realm in which suffering and illness have been vanquished, in which brokenness and disease are no more. It is a realm in which God’s shalom overcomes powers of destruction and death. Perfect bodies that never experience pain, never get diseased or disabled…perfect bodies that never die.

Our bodies will no longer fail, they proclaimed, because there is a life-giving, vivifying power greater than our bodies’ failures. Greater even than death. Death itself is merely an illusion in the face of this living power—she’s not dead, she’s just sleeping.

Resurrection, for the earliest followers of Jesus of Nazareth, was ultimately about history.

It was about a time, in history, when the rule of God would manifest in the world—the real world of nations and rulers and armies. It was about a time, in the future, when worldly kingdoms were defeated and the kingdom of God was ushered in—a real territory on the actual earth. Not an otherworldly kingdom in the heavens—the real world of bodies and passions and appetites. Not an afterlife in the clouds—a restored creation, a renewed earth, an earthly paradise full of redeemed people with unfailing, perfect bodies. This was an expected utopia, a verdant place of peace and prosperity and plenty. It was coming, and the early Jesus movement believed it was coming very soon.

The gospel stories of Jesus healing and reviving people were told as indications that the Kingdom of God was arriving. And so, the stories tell us, in his presence, nobody went hungry. In his presence, bodies were restored to wholeness. In his presence, the dead are rejuvenated. Healing, being restored to wholeness, being made sound—these are signs that prefigure the arrival of that day when all have transformed bodies, when all are whole, healthy.

The word “salvation” comes from the Latin and it means to be made whole, or sound. “Salvation” is simply a Latin word for shalom. A savior in the ancient Greco-Roman world was a natural philosopher, the ancient world’s equivalent of a physician. The Roman ruler or emperor was sometimes called a savior because he brought health and soundness to the body politic.

In the Jesus movement, salvation, for individuals, was an embodied state of everlasting, abundant life in a renewed body on this renewed earth–not being bodiless in a spiritual heaven.

The Jesus movement proclaimed that God’s saving work in the world is healing, wholeness, salvation. People’s brokenness, our wounds, are bound up in the healing salve of God’s love, our broken selves are made whole. The broken down and ruined places in our world are salvaged by God’s grace and are transformed, rebuilt. These are all motifs in the Jesus story and hearken back to stories and motifs of the other Jewish prophets found in Jewish scripture.

Some Jews (namely, the Pharisees and the followers of Jesus) believed that in the time to come, life would be restored to those righteous people who had died, and others did not. The biblical notion of the afterlife was an underworld called Sheol to which the souls of the dead retired. The New Testament, which was written in Greek, uses the Greek name Hades for the abode of the dead.

Around the time of Jesus, there came to be known another place to which dead souls went called Gehenna. The Hebrew is literally, Ge Hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, and is believed to be somewhere outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. It was a place where offal—animal remains—and other refuse was slowly burned.

Gehenna was conceived as an afterlife of torment, a place of unquenchable fire. In the New Testament, it is distinguished from Hades and Sheol as a place of punishment for the wicked. The name is also found in the Qur’an and later Jewish writings with the same meaning; the King James Version of the Bible translated Sheol, Hades and Gehenna into the single Anglo-Saxon word, Hell. This effectively erased the distinction between the silent abode of the dead and the afterlife of burning punishment for wickedness.

The resurrection of the dead came to be seen by some Jews, including Jesus’ followers, as an occurrence at the beginning of the messianic era at the end of this present age. When God was going to usher in his paradise on earth, those righteous people who had fallen asleep and were resting in their ghostly abode were to be awakened from their deathly slumber. The wicked would meet their fate in Gehenna, and both their bodies and souls would be consumed in the flames there.

Followers of Jesus were among those Jews who believed the messianic era would begin with the dead being restored to life. The righteous would rise up with their new and improved bodies and live in the realm of peace and plenty, wholeness, health and holiness. They believed Jesus, the paradigmatic figure of this incoming kingdom and time, was the first to rise up. But he was not thought of as unique in this feat.

In the apostle Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes Jesus as the firstfruits of the harvest, the first crop of a general harvest. Everybody will be resurrected; Jesus was merely the first to be given his new body. The resurrection celebrated by Christians at Easter was not the singular resuscitation of the corpse of Jesus, but a sign that the messianic age had begun.

The most articulate vision of this early Christian hope is found in the letter of Paul to the church in Corinth, the fifteenth chapter. The expectation had been that Jesus would be coming back to usher in the new world order sooner rather than later. And as time wore on and he didn’t return and his followers began to die, the question about the resurrection arose. It was this question that Paul is answering in his letter. Those dead people had merely fallen asleep and would be awakened when Jesus came back in glory to rule a redeemed world. And those that are still alive will experience themselves as transformed on that day. “Listen, I will tell you a mystery,” Paul writes.

“We will not all die [literally “fall asleep”] but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will all be changed.” (1 Corinthians 15:51-52 NRSV)

“Our dead and decaying bodies will be changed into bodies that won’t die or decay. The bodies we now have are weak and can die. But they will be changed into bodies that are eternal.” (1 Corinthians 15: 53-54 CEV)

The bodies that we will have in that time will be nothing like the bodies we have now, Paul explains. “We do have a parallel experience in gardening,” Paul says in a paraphrase of the Bible by Eugene Patterson called The Message.

“You plant a dead seed; soon there is a flourishing plant. There is no visual likeness between seed and plant. You could never guess what a tomato would look like by looking at a tomato seed. What we plant in the soil and what grows out of it don’t look anything alike. The dead body that we bury in the ground and the resurrection body that comes from it will be dramatically different.” (1 Corinthians 15:35-38)

At the resurrection, the living will be transformed. Their perishable bodies will transform into their unfailing bodies. Everybody who had lived a good life who had died or fallen asleep would be raised. The hope of this occurrence is the proclamation of the Christian gospel.

The meaning of Easter, in those years following Jesus death and appearances among his followers, was that the many who had fallen asleep were beginning to be roused; the entire citizenry of the age to come were beginning to wake up; everybody who would inhabit the future in their perfect bodies were beginning to receive them. It was a soaring hope and affirmation that the new life in the new world order was beginning.

Religion Without Mythology

All around me this week, people are attending religious ceremonies.

Passover began on Monday night, and Jewish households gathered around a festive table to ceremonially tell the story of the Israelite exodus from slavery in Egypt.

Western Christians similarly are retelling the story of Jesus’ last week, beginning with his entry into Jerusalem for the feast of Passover. The events of the last week of Jesus’ life are told ritually in worship services that reenact his last meal, his washing his disciples’ feet, his arrest and trial, his execution and reappearance.

Myths, in all cultures, find their living expression in liturgical drama. They are told and acted out by participants. Processions, costumes, songs, symbolic foods and meals, the burning of fires, being plunged into darkness—the stories of the gods and goddesses and spirits and ancestors come alive in real experiences in the here and now.

Mythology isn’t something that happened, an historical occurrence from many years ago, it is something that happens. It takes place in the present-tense of symbolic life, the life of the psyche.

Myth is something that occurs to participants in the liturgical drama. It is happening to us. We are slaves in Egypt, and we witness the saving hand of God at work in the world. We walk along the dry bottom of the sea, and are redeemed to a life of freedom. We shout Hosanna! and wave palm branches in the air to herald the arrival of a donkey-riding king. We sit at the Passover table with him, break bread and pass the cup, have our feet washed, sing lamentations at the foot of the cross.

The mythic is not historic. It’s not even always theological. It’s theatrical.

It’s always a mistake to read myth as history or science. Though it seems to be telling the story of, for example, how the universe came into being, or how human life began, this is neither history or science. It’s drama. It’s the theological poetry into which listeners (literally, an “audience”) are meant to enter as participants.

And so I am feeling a little bereft this week. My Unitarian Universalist congregation has nothing going on this week.  We will acknowledge a liberal, vaguely Christian, vaguely Pagan, form of Easter on Sunday, but that’s it.

As a religion, we don’t have myth. This is meant to be liberating and modern, but it is feeling a little soulless and disenchanting to me this week.

Many of us like to hear mythologies and ponder their meanings, but in our common worship life we never enter the darkened theatre of sacred story as actors, participants. Most keep a critical distance, sometimes pooh-poohing “superstition,” sometimes romanticizing other people’s religious practices.

This experiment in religion divorced from sacred story is relatively new, even for us. Two generations ago, Unitarians and Universalists had biblical mythology as their foundational sacred story. Some still do.

And even then, our historic traditions were low on the drama scale, at most reenacting Jesus’ table fellowship with an occasional communion service. Our worship has always focused on the word, spoken and written.

UUs have lots of sacred stories (usually our own, usually individual first person stories) but no sacred story that is ritualized in worship.

UUs have rites of passage, ways of marking individual journeys through time and life’s transformations.

Many Unitarian Universalist congregations have rituals, ceremonies that usually enact or affirm our own sense of our own selves, our own community. A ceremony in which participants pour their personal portion of water into a common font to symbolize our coming together in community, for example, or a ceremony of shared flowers to symbolize the gifts we offer and share in community. Sometimes there are stories attached to these symbolic gestures—Norbert Capek and his first flower ceremony in Prague in 1923, for example.

We have the symbol of a flame within the common cup. We have heroes and heroines of our history, and retell their legends. Somebody has apparently even invented a seven-day UU holiday in December—focused on principles—principles we ourselves establish as an association—not on a story.

All this, we have. But a mythology we do not.

I suppose this is a trade-off in having a religion that is entirely self-derived. What rites and symbols we do have point to the ultimate source of the religion—our selves.

What story could we enact together liturgically? If we were to create ritual around some universal story, some collectively meaningful story, what would it be? The great Flaring Forth at the beginning of the universe? The pageantry of the emergence of life on this planet? In other words, the story that science tells?

What else?

 

Guided By The Light Within II

Within the turbulent middle seventeenth century in England, a new religious movement emerged. They called themselves Children of the Light, but their detractors called them Quakers, because of the way they trembled and quaked with enthusiasm as they prayed.

The movement’s founder, George Fox, had been a restless seeker, given to solitary, thoughtful contemplation of scripture and serious conversation with religious leaders. Dissatisfied with the Church of England’s insistence that clergy who studied at Oxford and Cambridge were therefore necessarily prepared for their duties, Fox wandered the country trying to find, among the radical preachers who had separated from the Church of England, one who could address his spiritual need.

Being educated didn’t guarantee spiritual authenticity. Being enthusiastic or critical of the established religious order didn’t make one holy, either. As he writes in his Journal, Fox was ready to give up on finding anyone, any priest or preacher, who could speak to his condition:

“And when all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus that can speak to thy condition.’ And when I heard it my heart did leap for joy.”

The direct experience of the Living Christ was not only possible, but it trumped all other ways of experiencing the presence of God. No priest or ceremony or sacrament or prayer book or scripture could adequately convey God’s presence compared to this direct encounter. George Fox proclaimed, “Christ has come to teach His people himself.” Christ was present as an inward reality, incarnate within every person. The Living Christ was a light within and among people who sought him out. Jesus says of himself in the gospel of John:

“Yet a little while is the light with you. While ye have light, believe in the light, that ye may be the children of light.” (John 12:35-36)

The fundamental authority and organizing principle of these Children of the Light, or Friends of the Light, was the direct inward encounter with God’s living presence. Revelation was ongoing and immanent. The still small voice of God could be heard by anyone with ears to hear. The Voice, the Word of God, is found in the silence.

These Quakers created formless or unprogrammed worship that cultivated this listening, inward attention. Worship was the unmediated encounter with God. Another radical dissenting religious group in England familiar to George Fox was known as the Seekers. They would gather together in silence until the Spirit gave the preacher words to convey to the congregation.

Among Quakers, worshippers remained in silence until the Spirit gave anybody present, not just the minister, something to say. There was no program of scripture reading or hymn singing or congregational prayer or pastoral preaching, simply the expectant silence of the gathered faithful waiting and listening for the voice of God.

In addition to worship, the direct encounter with the Inward Light, shaped the way the Quakers conducted themselves as a group and in the world. Church business was based on the principle of corporate direct guidance. Meetings for business were like meetings for worship in which participants waited for the promptings and leadings of the Spirit.

George Fox advised his followers “to walk cheerfully over the world, answering that of God in every one.” There was something “of God” in every person. Quakers pointed out that in John’s gospel Jesus is described as the true Light that “lighteth every man that cometh into the world.” (John 1:9) Every person had access to this light. People bore this light within themselves. And if this was true, and if God’s revelation could be directly given to anybody, then everybody was equal. Every person was to be cherished as a potential vehicle for the will of God, every person was to be valued as a possible instrument for the voice of God.

War, the division of people into lesser and higher races, inequalities because of class or gender, were all rejected in light of this view that every person held within them something of God, a divine Inner Light. This affirmation led to Quaker testimonies for peacemaking and abolition of slavery and women’s equality.

In many of these endeavors, American Quakers in the eighteenth and nineteenth century were joined by Universalists and Unitarians. These were the primary religious groups in North America that promoted the theological and spiritual idea that people were vessels of the divine, that people bore a resemblance to God, that human individuals were essentially good.

The mythic narratives of Inward Light and divine image informed a worldview that held the human person in high esteem, as distinct from majority religious groups that had a much more pessimistic view of humanity. In the majority culture, people were sinful and defective, views that were informed by narratives of an angry, punishing deity who stood in judgment of the world.

What sacred story do we tell today that guides and reinforces our principled living?

 

Guided by the Light Within

In medieval Judaism, in the esoteric tradition known as kabbalah, the story is told of the beginning of humanity, the beginning of the universe. In this story, only God existed. God was pure light, Divine Light. Wanting to understand himself better, God created the universe by contracting into a tiny seed of burning energy, withdrawing in order to make space for creation, and then exploding in a cosmic Flaring Forth.

In the process of this flaring forth, the emanating bits of Divine Light broke up into shards. These broken splinters are what constitute the material world. Within everything that exists, there is a broken off bit of Divine Light. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy.

When God then created the primordial human being, God was gathering bits of luminous dust in an attempt to reintegrate and bind together broken pieces of the Divine. The human person, then, represents the intention of integrity and wholeness. When Adam disobeyed God, his divine essence sank to a lower realm of existence and with him, all of humanity fell and falls.

Religious practice, in this Neo-Platonic Jewish version of Gnosticism, is a matter of collecting shards of Divine Light. Through prayer and study of scripture and worship and ethical action, the broken bits of God are joined. The cosmic Humpty Dumpty is being put back together. The work that people are called to is the binding together of a broken universe, the recollection of the divine particles into an integral whole.

Myths, and especially myths that tell of the universe and humanity’s origins, are valuable in that they describe a particular culture or religion or worldview’s anthropology. These stories are saying something about the nature of humanity and human life. I find a number of things compelling in this mythic story of the origins of the universe.

Human beings are made of stardust, bits of what exploded out of the origin of the universe, and so we are related to all that is. And the stuff we are made of is sacred, literally godly.

A God who is not omnipotent, and which needs humanity in order to exist is a contradiction of mainstream Jewish thinking about God, and indeed to many monotheists is pure anathema. God cannot mend the world on his own, in this worldview, but needs humankind to do it with and for him. Salvation, creating an integrated whole out of what is broken, is human work, not divine work. It is human beings, through our actions, that mend the broken world. This is the meaning of tikkun olam, literally the repair or mending of the world. Contemporary liberal and progressive Judaism has taken this notion of tikkun olam and applies it to the work of social justice, helping contemporary Jews and others understand the work of making the world a better place as a sacred calling.

And finally, I find this myth compelling in what it says about human community. It is when we gather together that our tiny sparks unite to make a divine fire, a collective godly blaze. Inherent godliness, action in the world and the importance of community are the parts of this myth I find captivating.

The traditional, accepted version of how the world came to be in Judaism is found in the Bible. There are actually two creation stories told there. We find in the book of Genesis a basic affirmation echoed throughout the world’s monotheistic religions.“Then God said, ‘Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness” so that humans can rule over the rest of God’s created order, to be, in some sense, God’s representatives in creation, God’s agents in creation.

“So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27)

In this cosmogony, God distinguishes between the human race and the rest of creation. God made us in his own image—we bear a family resemblance to our Creator. We have capacities beyond those of other animals, including, as it turns out in the second creation story in the book of Genesis, the capacity to choose.

“What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mere mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels, and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands.” (Psalm 8:4-6)

This celebration of the human has frequently been misinterpreted as a divine permission to do whatever we want with the natural order. Or that we are over and above the rest of the natural world rather than embedded within nature as creation’s self-reflective agent. This story calls us, instead, to act within the creation as God would—creatively, caringly, with a sense of balance and order and rightness.

In this worldview, we are given abilities and responsibilities in order to reflect God’s own nature in the world. Our task, our calling, as human creatures, is as bearers of the divine image in the ongoing and unfolding drama of creation, to participate in restoring the world’s balance, saving the world’s integrity, and savoring the world’s beauty.

The human person, as a living icon of the divine, is sacred. The worth and dignity of the human person is inherent. We are not intrinsically wicked or depraved or flawed. We are not the unwilling heirs of an original sin committed by primordial humankind. We are inheritors of divine consecration, born into original blessing. Our dignity and worth is not something that we have to work at, it does not accrue to our personhood through acts of righteousness.

Nor, conversely, can it be taken away. I remember participating in a ludicrous online discussion among Unitarian Universalist ministers who publicly pondered the inherent dignity and worth of the terrorists who committed the unspeakably horrific acts of September 11, 2001. Could these terrorists’ inherent dignity and worth be denied because of their heinous crimes against humanity? these ponderous theologians asked, as if the meaning of the word “inherent” had escaped them and as if they had forgotten the witness of our movement’s most basic theological principles.

The radical and distinctive testimony of Universalists and Unitarians throughout history has been precisely that the most wicked of men and women are still made in the image and likeness of God, and are therefore redeemable. Every person, no matter how lowly or uneducated or misguided, is salvageable and will be saved. Every person, no matter how imperfect, can be perfected. The torturer and the terrorist, the dictator and the demagogue, share with the entire human family the divine likeness.

Hangings and lethal injections, torture and war, hunger and injury are all desecrations. They desecrate the holy image of God. Any threat to the health, wholeness and integrity of the human person desecrates what reflects the divine. Unitarians and Universalists, and contemporary Unitarian Universalists are inheritors of this worldview. Our heritage is rooted in these stories of original blessing, though today we no longer have a common theological language—or indeed much of a theological language at all.

We speak in secular terms of the inherent dignity and worth of every person. We speak of the inherent dignity and worth of each individual person as an a priori philosophical assumption. These words flow glibly off the tongue—inherent dignity and worth of people—and we don’t always wrestle with the radical, deeply profoundly radical, implications of this affirmation.

Are we really able to recognize something divine, something precious and holy, in the most despicable of individuals?

To have forgotten the divine imprint, to have forfeited God’s original blessing, is to deny the responsibility of being divine agents in the world creating the social order of justice, peace, and wholeness. The work of making justice is therefore work that needs to call to mind “that of God” in every person. Justice making is work that reminds torturer and tortured, terrorist and terrorized alike that we each bear the image and likeness of our Creator. The work of tikkun olam, the mending or repair of the world, happens only as the divine light within each person is acknowledged and honored. At the core of what is, there burns a holy fire, a spark of sacred energy, an Inner Light.

Our vocation as contemporary religious liberals is to act in the light of our affirmation that there is something precious about each individual. There is something unique and indeed sacred in every person.

And that includes people we don’t like. That includes our enemies.

It is our calling, through our actions, to mend the broken world, to create a social order grounded in justice, equity and peace. What story do we tell today about the how and why of this high calling?

The Christmas That Never Was

Another Christmas is upon us.

What do you hope for at this time of year? What are your longings?

Such questions. Most of us sound like beauty pageant contestants in our answers. “World peace,” we might say.

But underneath our hopes and fears of all the years, what do we want to get out of the holidays? Underneath it all, are there not wishes and desires not only unarticulated but perhaps inarticulate—wants and expectations so deep we may not even be aware that we are wanting or expecting anything?

My experience is that people—myself included—get spooked during the December holidays, especially about Christmas, the way animals get spooked before a storm or natural disaster. Like Ebenezer Scrooge himself, we are unnerved and haunted by ghosts of Christmases past and yet to come.

We try so hard for magic and love and community and familial harmony. We work so hard to reproduce the atmosphere of a “true” Christmas, an “authentic”  holiday—with cookie and cake recipes that have to come out right, greeting cards to all the people that need to get one from us, the perfect gift for every person, family traditions that must be just so, certain relatives and friends that must be present for the holiday.

And then. Inevitably. Disappointment.

The present we got is the wrong size, the wrong kind, the wrong color—or simply does not have the sheen it did in the shopping catalogue of our imagination.

Family members quarrel. Family members are far away.

Recipes don’t work. Greeting cards are late or we forgot somebody.

And after a push toward being jolly and merry and happy at Christmas that begins November 1, it all comes to a crashing halt on December 25. Bereft amid the cookie crumbs, leftovers, torn and discarded gift wrapping, we ask ourselves, What was missing?

It is in that moment, I believe, that we come the closest to realizing our unconscious hopes and desires about Christmas. What had we hoped for that we didn’t get? What were we longing for that went unrealized?

Many of us have a nostalgia for a Christmas that may never have truly existed or happened. Our nostalgia is for something that we have only longed for, been  homesick for, that doesn’t exist.

The perfect Christmas does not exist.

Even the Christmases that we “remember” from years past are reconstructed from our memories made unreliable by our unfulfilled desires and distorted by the lens of nostalgia.

I don’t know about you, but every December 25 that I wake up and am not a child, I am disappointed. That excitement, that magic, that wonder—none of those will ever be mine again because I am no longer a child.

As mature, self-differentiated adults, we handle our disappointments with lightness and grace. The clearer we are about what we can and cannot have, what is possible, practical, probable and impossible, the better our own hearts and spirits will be this season.

Peace in our hearts, our families, our households, our church comes when we act with intelligence and emotional wisdom.

What do you hope for at this time of year? What are your longings?

It’s worth taking the time to truly answer such questions.

The Holy Innocents

Every December 24, my church community comes together for Christmas Eve worship services that, among other things, tell the story of Jesus’ birth.

Our version of the story has the journey to Bethlehem, angels, shepherds, the barn, baby Jesus laid in a manger, a star, the Magi visiting and presenting gifts to the newborn king.

And that’s where we usually end it.

But there is more to the story.

Matthew’s gospel, the story with the Magi from the East following a star, doesn’t end there. Joseph and Mary are warned to flee because the baby is in danger. The Magi, rather than going back to King Herod to report to him where they found his newborn rival, also take flight.

The king realizes he’s been deceived. Enraged, Herod then massacres all the children in Bethlehem.

Matthew then quotes the prophet Jeremiah:

A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.

Hardly the sentiment of our Christmas Eve services. So we simply omit this part of the story.

After the horrific, deeply disturbing massacre of children and teachers at Newtown, Connecticut last Friday, my mind immediately went to this expunged part of the Christmas story.

Bringing children into this brutal world is a courageous, hopeful act.

President Obama spoke eloquently of this at an interfaith service in Newtown this past Sunday evening. He said:

“With their very first cry, this most precious, vital part of ourselves—our child—is suddenly exposed to the world, to possible mishap or malice. And every parent knows there is nothing we will not do to shield our children from harm. And yet, we also know that with that child’s very first step, and each step after that, they are separating from us; that we can’t always be there for them. They’ll suffer sickness and setbacks and broken hearts and disappointments. And we learn that our most important job is to give them what they need to become self-reliant and capable and resilient, ready to face the world without fear.”

The vulnerability to accident or cruelty, the caution and anxiety of exposure to harm, is written into the story of the birth of a child so many are celebrating this time of year. The urge to shield these precious, innocent lives that are in mortal danger without our protection is part of the Christmas story. Weeping and fear are mixed in with joy and laughter at the arrival of a child.

We—individually and collectively—are the guardian angels of the children in our midst. My hope for all of us this Christmas is for us to dedicate ourselves to doing everything we can so that the most vulnerable among us not ever be exposed to murderous brutality and malevolence.

May we hold our children close even as we know we must entrust them to a world beyond ourselves, a world not always of our own making. And let us do everything in our power to make the world into which we release our children a world of peace.

Transforming The Heart of Our Violence

On Friday morning, a gunman entered an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, shooting and killing six adults and twenty children before killing himself.

This incomprehensible act has caused enormous mourning and outrage. So many of us have been feeling grief and also numbness, bewilderment and anger. Our thoughts turn toward those killed and their loved ones. How does a parent survive something like this? How do any of those who lost a loved one that day endure? And because our own humanity connects us, we ask how we ourselves are to go on, and what can we do on behalf of healing and integrity and justice.

In an early briefing, the White House press secretary said it was too soon after the tragedy to start talking about policy issues related to this tragedy, such as gun control. Other politicians have repeated this.

I disagree. It’s not too soon. It’s too late.

It’s too late for those children and their teachers, too late for the gunman and his mother, who he also shot. This horrific crime needs to spur a policy discussion about the proliferation of firearms in this country. If not now, when?

There have been 19 mass shootings in this country since the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. Friday’s tragedy was the sixth such shooting in the United States this year alone. After the killing in an Amish school, after the killing in a movie theatre, after the killing in a Sikh temple, after each one of these incidents people have grieved and asked why and pointed fingers.

But according to opinion polls, a growing majority of Americans oppose restrictions on access to guns. Politically, the issue is a nonstarter. In his long campaign for reelection, President Obama mentioned gun control policy a total of three times. If not now, when? If not after this tragedy, when?

According to the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 30,000 people a year lose their lives in this country because of gun violence. For every person killed with guns, two others are wounded. These include homicides, suicides, and police interventions. Most of these deaths and injuries take place without much notice in the press.

We know from the experience of other countries that banning certain weapons or making them difficult to obtain has led to fewer deaths by homicide, fewer deaths from gun violence. We also know from the experience of other countries—countries that have similar ratios of guns to population—that the rate of gun violence in the US is even then comparatively high. In other words, even when access to guns is comparable in other countries, the number of gun deaths and injuries in the US is still higher.  Other countries with proportional numbers of guns do not have as high rates of homicide as the United States. What is the unique relationship of US society and culture to guns and to violence?

What we know about strength and safety, about resolving conflict and encountering difference, arises from our context, a national culture which from its beginnings in colonialism and slavery has favored armed defense and military might. Power and security, dominating others and our natural environment, this is our shadow as a nation. We’re armed to the teeth because we’re afraid.  We are afraid that those we have subjugated for our benefit will overwhelm us.

And the seemingly plausible answer given by a majority of Americans is that we’ll be safer if more of us have guns, we’ll be less afraid if we’re armed.

Gun control may indeed see the statistics of mass shootings and other gun violence go down, but gun control alone will not address the moral and spiritual crisis of our culture’s worldview which is the basis for so much violence in this country. It’s a worldview based on fear—fear of the unknown, fear of difference, fear of the other. It’s a worldview based on the dictum that might makes right, and if we don’t understand something—the unknown, the different, the other—we must conquer or destroy it, rather than engage it.

In addition to social policies that must change, we need to also ask, what within ourselves needs to change as well. What are the seeds of fear within myself? What sources of distrust, suspicion, and anxiety are there within me? How do I handle difference, how do I relate with those who differ from me? What is my encounter with the unfamiliar marked by—is it openness, curiosity? In my dealings with others, do I seek points of connection or only points of contention?

How do we, individually and as families and households, a town and a neighborhood, a community of faith, how do we contribute to the culture of fear? How do we resist it? What forms of desensitization and dehumanization do we participate in?

We need to make space to ask these questions, these queries of self-examination. We need to make space for an internal change, an inner conversion from fear to trust, from fear to love.

These transformations have repercussions for the social order. Gustav Landauer, a nineteenth century German anarchist, says:

“The state is not something which can be destroyed by revolution, but is a condition, a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behaviour; we destroy it by contracting other relationships, by behaving differently.”

Our social order is a certain relationship between human beings, a mode of human behavior. Changes in how we order our thinking and our relationships—shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice—revolutionizes the social order, the political order.  As Mahatma Gandhi put it: “We must be the change that we want to see.”

And it begins in our own dark hearts. It begins in a long vigil through the longest night until dawn breaks, until vision comes. It begins in our own places of expectant waiting, of contemplative vigilance.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, says,

“Your mind is like a piece of land planted with many different kinds of seeds: seeds of joy, peace, mindfulness, understanding, and love; seeds of craving, anger, fear, hate, and forgetfulness. These wholesome and unwholesome seeds are always there, sleeping in the soil of your mind.”

He goes on to say that what grows in the soil of your mind is what you cultivate. The seeds you awaken and water and encourage will be what you sow in your life and relationships—let it be the seeds of peace, understanding, love. Let it be the seeds of joy, mindfulness and understanding.

Contemplation, mindfulness meditation and prayer are forms of cultivating the seeds of peace. Reshaping and transforming our whole lives are next steps, including all of how we relate to others, remaking and transfiguring the social relationships which are the fabric of our civic society.

We need to enter the simple, dark void, the sheltered silence out of which comes power and change, dreams and visions made possible only in that mysterious empty space. We need to look long and hard through windows of our darkness, into the self, into the everything and the nothing within to touch the sources of our personal and political and planetary transformation.

Guadalupe: Mother of My Cross-Bred Soul

The year is 1531.

It is not quite dawn and the hills outside Mexico City are still shrouded in darkness, the sky lightening where the stars are disappearing in the east. A Native man, dressed in the simple cactus-fiber tunic that the peasants here wear, is making his way to Mass on this Saturday morning.

It is December, and the air is crisp with cold. The man, a recent convert to Roman Catholicism, stops as he hears voices. He looks up to Mount Tepeyac, from where it appears the sound of singing, like that of precious birds, is coming. From the summit of the hill, he hears a voice. “Dignified Juan,” the voice says, calling him by name. “Dignified Juan Diego.”

Juan begins up the hill uncertainly. Up ahead, he sees a lady, standing and beckoning him to come forward. She is beautiful and glows with a radiant light. This most amazing light illumines the rocks and shrubs surrounding her. She speaks, saying, “I am the entirely and ever Virgin, Saint Mary.”

She goes on to tell Juan Diego that she wants a shrine, a hermitage, a shelter built in her honor, here on Mount Tepeyac. And that she wants Juan to go to the palace of the bishop in Mexico City with this request.

Taking his leave of her, Juan Diego goes straight into the city to the palace of the bishop. The bishop, of course, is a ruling-class Spaniard, and this is the imperial city of Tenochtilan, and Juan is, of course, a peasant and an Indian. The bishop’s attendants leave him waiting for a long time, and when the bishop finally speaks to Juan, in passing, he dismisses his vision.

Returning, Juan finds the heavenly lady waiting for him in the same place he had encountered her earlier. Juan tells her what has happened, how he was kept waiting, and how the bishop dismissed him without even hearing his story. Juan begs the Virgin to send somebody nobler, better known, somebody respected and esteemed. “No one will believe me, my Lady and my Queen. I am nothing but a campesino.” The Virgin rejects these protestations, insisting that he is the one to make her message known to the official church.

Again, Juan heads into the city, and again is put off from seeing the bishop, and again is admitted reluctantly. This time, the bishop tells Juan that he must provide some proof that this vision he says he keeps having is actually the Virgin Mary herself.

The next day, Juan hastens to the bedside of his uncle who is dying of a pestilence. His uncle begs Juan to fetch a priest to give him last rites before he dies. Juan hurries off into the crisp December dawn. He needs to take the path upon which the Virgin Mary has appeared to him, but, because his last interview with the bishop didn’t go so well, he wants to avoid her, so he goes another way. Despite his attempt, the Heavenly Lady again appears before him glowing with preternatural light, surrounded by the sound of birds.

“Where are you going?” she asks. Juan confesses that he needs to get the priest before his uncle dies. She tells him that his uncle is well, that he has been healed. She tells Juan to go back to see for himself that his uncle is well, and that when Juan returns, she will provide proof of her identity for the skeptical bishop.

On December 12, 1531, the Virgin Mary appears again to Juan Diego on top of Tepeyac hill. Flowers, rich, fragrant roses from Castile in full bloom, surround her though this is neither the place nor the season for such flowers. It is the desert in winter in Mesoamerica.

“Collect these flowers,” she tells Juan. “They will be your proof to the bishop so that he will believe it is I who am requesting a shrine be built for me upon this hill.” With the flowers gathered up into his simple tunic, Juan heads for the bishop’s palace. This time, the attendants are astounded that the poor Indian who doesn’t seem to know when to go away is back, and back with what seems to be miraculous flowers. Juan is ushered into the bishop’s presence right away. Juan unwraps his tunic, and the fragrant, out-of-season, Castilian flowers tumble out triumphantly at the bishop’s feet.

And there, on the fabric of the poor Indian’s tunic, is an image. It is an image of the Ever Virgin Holy Mary Mother of God.

Virgen_de_guadalupe1

You can see this image today, at the basilica in Mexico City dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe. The bishop, it seems, heard and believed, and built a shelter dedicated to her on that hill. The image in the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the original cloth, though about a hundred years after these events, somebody has touched it up to make it look a little more like the European representations of the Virgin Mary. They added stars and a crown and a crescent moon beneath her feet and a halo around her entire body. It is, of course, possible that the entire image was painted on and there are many who claim this is the case, a seventeenth century fiction fabricated (so to speak) within a discourse that pitted Native piety against Church hierarchy.

Her mantel drapes her head and falls about her shoulder and arms. Her hands are clasped before her. She is not carrying a baby. She is serene. And all around her, the spiky body halo. The most remarkable feature of this now ubiquitous image of Our Lady of Guadalupe is the fact that she is brown-skinned. She is widely known in Mexico as la virgen morena, the dark-skinned virgin. She looks more like an aboriginal princess than a European lady. The very name Guadalupe, in fact, is probably a reference to the statue of the Virgin Mary in northern Spain by that name. That statue is carved out of a very dark wood, giving the impression of a dark-skinned Goddess more than the pale images of Mary current in European art. Many of the Spanish troops stationed at Tepeyac were from this region of Spain and may have identified the Mexican virgin with the one in Spain.

I was first introduced to the Virgin of Guadalupe soon after her feast day many years ago, when I found myself in Trinity Church in Boston, hearing about a pilgrimage somebody had made in her honor. When I visited Santa Fe, New Mexico a few weeks later, I discovered such pilgrimages were common there, with pilgrims not only going to the basilica in Mexico, but to various sacred places in the state. Sante Fe is the home of the first church dedicated to her in the United States.

The more I learned her story and saw her image, the more fascinated I became by this figure, and by the meanings that resonate out from around her like the glow of her halo. I became intrigued with what seemed to me a rich, archetypal symbol of the divine feminine and an incarnation of liberationist, post-colonial wisdom.

The fact that this is the story of a Native, an Aztec who converted to Catholicism first caught my attention. My ear is always inclined toward colonized peoples and the stories we tell through our art and religious expression. It is the story of an indigenous person whom the divine visits, and whose narration of this visitation is disbelieved by the colonial powers that be.

Who is authorized to narrate stories of the miraculous, of the divine? By what authority does a Native talk back to the power that subjugate his people, take his land, that erase his language, religion, and existence? What empowers the poor and disenfranchised to talk back to the ruling class?

“Send somebody else,” Juan Diego says. “Send a nobleman, a Spaniard, somebody educated and literate. Not me.” But the Heavenly Lady insists it must be him, and it is the bishop, representing imperial Spain, that must be converted to this poor indigenous person’s simple message to honor her wishes.

Also of note is the fact that the mountain on which Our Lady of Guadalupe is asking to be honored happens to have been the mountain that was sacred to the Aztec goddess Tonantzin. The memory of the Goddess, officially erased by the church, asserts itself. Like a flashback through the clouds of amnesia, the Goddess remains alive. The Franciscans whose missionary activities accompanied Spain’s colonization translated the Virgin Mary into the local dialect as Tonantzin, meaning “our precious mother,” though this word was also the name of the erstwhile Aztec goddess.

Her extinction is resisted by subterfuge; she lives on inscribed within the image of the European Christian Mary. The memory of Tonantzin persists in an act of resistance, in opposition to the disappearance of Native culture and religion.

What also interested me were the uses Our Lady of Guadalupe has had by the First Nations of Mesoamerica. In the 1500s, there were several Native and mestizo uprisings against Spanish rule that took on Guadalupe as their patron. The Mexican patriot Hidalgo, leading bands of mestizo and Native rebels, carried a banner depicting the Virgin of Guadalupe into battle in the 1880s, as did Emiliano Zapata in 1914.  The republic’s first president, Guadalupe Victoria took his patroness’s name after she helped him, he believes, win a decisive battle. In the 1960s and 70s, the Mexican-American labor activist Cesar Chavez marched under a banner of Our Lady of Guadalupe as he agitated for the rights of migrant farm workers.

Guadalupe is an oppositional symbol, a sign of resistance to the powers that be. She is referred to often as the Madonna of the Barrios, the protector of the poor. She is the compassionate mother, and also the defiant Mary who proclaimed the Magnificat:

“[God] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.”

Colonized people respond in many ways to our colonizers. One way is to adopt wholesale the imperial culture, to speak its language and learn its customs, to play its music, to practice its visual art and its religion. This was the so-called “civilizing mission” of the Spanish, along with of course the French and the British. As their empires spanned the globe, these imperial cultures thought of themselves as bringing civilization to the savages. At the same time, they didn’t really believe that the indigenous peoples of the continents they conquered were actually capable of becoming civilized. So the colonized person who adopts wholesale the culture of the colonizer is never really admitted into the circle of civilization despite his or her best efforts.

Another response is for the colonized to reject the colonial culture entirely, to assert our own, aboriginal culture and identity. This is the way of nationalists and separatists, who insist on preserving and promoting the traditional ways of the people. Traditions of language and art and religion are maintained with a sense of pride and self-worth.

One other response might be what we see in the figure of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Aspects of the colonial culture are adopted, but not wholesale. They are invested with meanings the colonizers did not intend, oppositional meanings that, like Juan Diego, talk back to the powers that be. The indigenous cultures are not wiped out wholesale, not silenced definitively, but rather remain present and in constant dialogue with imperial power.

Colonized people do not passively accept domination, even as the unequal power relations strip away all means of cultural production and self-determination. Liberatory, transgressive, and self-affirming messages from the dominating culture are highlighted and drawn upon. An evolving, hybrid culture emerges that is a vehicle for the self-expression of the colonized using the narratives and images imposed by the colonizer. Juan Diego is the prototype of the Indian who is a Christian but not a traitor. Juan Diego is a convert who does not abandon the traditions of his ancestors.

The Virgin of Guadalupe is mestiza, a mixture of Spanish and Native American. I myself am a mix of cultures and national identities. I am drawn to her. She gathers in all of us caught between worlds, between languages and cultures and religions, between the worlds of home and foreign land, of belonging and exile.

I see myself in the story of Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe. More often than not, I am the bishop, the skeptic. I don’t believe in miracles. And if you say you have experienced something miraculous, I want proof.

But I see myself in Juan Diego, too. Caught between cultures, wanting to move into new territory religiously without abandoning the old altogether, finding a voice to talk back to the powers that be, a bearer of dangerous memories–like him, remembering the Goddess on the hill and using the language and piety of the changed circumstances his people found themselves in.

In the collage of our soul’s world, we rearrange the pieces we are given, creating our own works of art and beauty. I had once dismissed the Virgin Mary as a useful potential archetype of the divine feminine, hopelessly trapped up there on her sexist pedestal, meek and submissive, lauded only for who her son turned out to be–until I met Guadalupe.

Guadalupe is for me the figure of America, the Americas–not European, but not Native or African either, but rather mestizo, creole, an emblem of the hybridity and mixed cultures that is both my own heritage and the fraught heritage of the encounter of Spanish, French, English, African and First Nations peoples. Guadalupe is the figure of my own queer spirit, my own immigrant, cross-bred soul–and can be, I think, for any of us who grew up strange and queer to our own families, who adopted the ways of this country to our parents’ chagrin, who are nostalgic for a homeland we have never seen, who have crossed oceans of loneliness to make our own way in an unfriendly land, who are émigrés from devastated places that no longer exist, who are unrelated by blood to those closest to us, who long for companions to speak to us in a mother tongue we have forgotten. For all of us lost, forgotten, and abandoned, she comes.

Without knowing what I needed until I met her, I am devoted to her now. She represents the creating, subversive power within and the creative subversions of post-colonial peoples. She is the invitation to speak, to narrate, to tell, to talk back. She is an emblem of the long march toward justice and inclusion in which I walk.

The voice that calls will not choose somebody else. It is we who must do this work, to use what is found to forge a religion of the present and future–we who have been unauthorized and demonized, silenced and sidelined.

And so I invite you to a place in the twilight of dawn, where the imagination, the soul, is awakened. Into this numinous space we come, this place of potential for creating religious culture that is a vehicle for our self-expression, for our becoming, that can re-imagine the past in order to create a future that includes all of our hybrid, complicated, contradictory selves.