American Intifada: Ferguson and the coming insurrection

At the beginning of the trouble in Ferguson, Missouri, a friend wrote on his Facebook page, “What is going on in Ferguson?”

To which I replied, “An American intifada.”

To be sure, it is not a perfect analogy, but the sight of popular civilian protests facing off against an army firing tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowds, training their automatic weapons on civilians as they patrolled the streets in helmets and camouflage, seemed apropos.

The comparison has been made by others, including Palestinian human rights activists who tweeted hard-won advice to the citizens of Ferguson about engaging with the police-army, dealing with tear gas, and other practical matters.

Not a perfect parallel, but consider this:

Saint Louis County police chief Timothy Fitch, along with other US law enforcement officials, has gone to Israel for training and advice. Fitch joined a delegation of American law enforcement on a trip to Israel sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League in April 2011.

The pro-Israel lobby in the United States has been making good use of the fear of terrorism in this country, bringing police chiefs from American cities to Israel to learn from the experts.

In 2008, the ADL sponsored policing delegations from Miami, Philadelphia, Lexington, KY, Mobile, AL, Salt Lake City, UT among ten others.

The Jewish United Fund, along with the Israeli government, hosted a delegation of law enforcement officials from Chicago in 2010, who were given a seminar in policing techniques, including a field trip to occupied East Jerusalem and its checkpoints. Every major division of Chicago law enforcement (Bureau of Investigative Services, Emergency Management, Organized Crime, SWAT) has been to Israel on such trips.

In October 2012, the American Jewish Committee brought police officers from New York City, Los Angeles, Oakland, Austin, and Houston to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. They visited Megiddo Prison, near Haifa, notorious for its appalling conditions and for torturing inmates—many of them “administrative detainees” held without charge or trial.

Ali Abunimah, in his powerful book The Battle for Justice in Palestine, reports:

 The Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs…says it has brought more than one hundred federal, state, and local law enforcement officials to Israel as part of its Law Enforcement Exchange Program and has trained eleven thousand more law enforcement officers from across the United States since 2002.

Israel—with its “field tested” weapons and techniques used to subdue the Palestinians—is being held up as the model for US law enforcement. US police officers and law enforcement officials are being supplied with techniques and strategies of how a military occupation deals with a hostile population, how an official ethnocracy deals with officially disenfranchised minorities.

Think about that for a minute.

Whatever you personally believe about Israel or the Palestinians—just think about the fact that in the United States of America, police departments across the country are learning how to deal with its citizenry (who they are supposedly charged to protect) from a country that is illegally occupying another people’s land—and all that this implies in terms of military force.

Much electronic ink has been spilled over the last week about the increasing militarization of police departments around the US. Local police forces are acquiring weapons and equipment downloaded from federal US armed forces—armored personnel carriers, automatic rifles, flash bang grenades, and more.

The War On Drugs has met its equally nefarious lover, The War On Terror, and this, dear reader, is their offspring. Ferguson, MO makes visible in stark terms what has been happening in the United States for at least a generation. African American communities and individuals—youth and young men in particular—are under siege in a new way.

The massive effort, in a supposedly “post racial” society, to reinvent the terms of slavery and Jim Crow through the machinations of law enforcement has become well known through the writing of Michelle Alexander, and the movements against mass incarceration and minimum drug sentencing that her book, The New Jim Crow, helped inspire.

The conditions of this re-deployment of state power against people of color is dangerous, violent, and acts with increasing impunity. As it always has.

And the machinations of the reinvented conditions of slavery and Jim Crow are increasingly militarized. The Bull Connor of old is now driving an armored vehicle, equipped with automatic rifles.

Are citizens of the United States being targeted as enemy combatants by a military force? Are we a population to be subdued through curfews, checkpoints, arrest, torture, searches, seizures and other forms of state violence?

If our situation is analogous to military occupation, are the events in Ferguson an insurrection?

What would it take for us to have a widespread civilian uprising against this occupation?

In what ways can we refuse to cooperate, on a mass scale, with the occupation? How do we—collectively, individually—withdraw our power from it?

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?