Made Known in the Breaking of the Bread

I have always thought of the kitchen as the heart of a household. In some primordial half-remembered, half-imagined archetypal house, it is the hearth fire around which the members of a household gather. A house can shelter different, even disparate people. You can enter a household, live within its sheltering walls, and share its fellowship and rituals with your fellow inhabitants.

And what more visceral expression of a household’s unity than to share meals together regularly? We all need food to live and sharing food can be symbolic of shared life. And it is in the kitchen, the hearth and heart of a house, that the abundance of creation is chopped and julienned and boiled and sautéed and broiled and then taken and blessed and given and shared.

Perhaps you have had the experience in your family of everybody working together in the kitchen to produce a big meal. Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, summer barbecues. And you talk while you cook, tell stories, laugh together. A large table is set (maybe with the little card table set out for the youngest) and the meal is shared by all with more talk, stories and laughter. In the observance of Passover, the ancient story of freedom told around the shared meal is formalized.

At Easter, many of us ponder the stories of Jesus’ appearance to his followers in the days following his brutal execution. Isn’t it interesting how many of these texts involve food? In fact, they all involve food. In some stories, Jesus cooks the disciples a breakfast of toast and fried fish. In another he eats with them (again, a fish) as if to demonstrate that he is not a ghost. And in these appearance stories, Jesus is at first unrecognized.

In Luke’s story, the two Jesus followers who walk with a stranger to Emmaus don’t recognize that it is Jesus who walks with them until—what? They break bread together.

And more than that. “Jesus would have gone on,” the text says, “but they begged him to stay the night with them.” They offer hospitality to the stranger. And then, when he is at the table with them, he takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly their eyes were opened.

Now this language is formulaic. It is a formula, a blueprint, a recipe. He takes bread, and after blessing it, breaks it and gives it to them. This is the formula of the Eucharist, of communion, the Lord’s Supper.

Remember, of course, that the gospels are the theological expressions of the early followers of Jesus and not biographies written by eyewitnesses. So the early followers of Jesus, the original Jesus movement, are telling us something very important about how they experienced the continuing presence of Jesus in the days following his crucifixion.

In the early decades of the Christian era, followers of Jesus met in one another’s homes. In the Greco-Roman world, the home, the household, was the domain of women, so often women would preside at the table, around which songs were sung, and scriptures and letters read, a meal was shared and food distributed to the hungry. And, around the table, the Eucharist was celebrated.

Reaching out to the stranger, the inclusion of the stranger in this godly household, the act of pulling up one more chair to the collective table, was essential. At this table there is always room for one more. The universe is extravagant in the goodness bestowed upon us and out of that abundance comes the grace with which we share with others.

The point of being a household of faith is not to lock the doors and draw the blinds and parcel out God’s scarce, limited resources among ourselves. The point of being such a household—of being the church—is to invite everybody to the banquet. This is a feast and everybody is invited.

And everybody sometimes meant random guests being invited from the highways and byways, thrown together in a generous act of hospitality. People of different social status rubbed elbows at such a table.

Jesus shared a table fellowship with his followers, students, and friends. It was a symbol of what his mission was about. Jesus’ table was a symbol of God’s abundance, of the possibilities of liberation and communion when people came together and shared what they had, often across lines  of difference.

And the stories that circulated among his friends were fantastic tales of fish and loaves multiplying, of water turning into wine. In his presence, these stories tell us, nobody goes hungry. At Jesus’ table, all are fed.

Anthropologists speak of commensality—a fancy word for sharing a table—and the insights into culture when observing who is invited to eat, who sits where at the table, who is served first. Open commensality is the practice of there being no restrictions or taboos at the meal table. Jesus’ practice of open commensality is remarked upon throughout the stories of him in the New Testament.

In the beloved community, social differences are elided in a banquet of sharing and hospitality and abundance and fellowship. The bodies we all share unite us in their need for nourishment and we are all given what we need.

When Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he knew that he was going to get in trouble. He might have even known he was going to die. For at the last meal he ate with his friends, he told them that every time they came together in his name, sharing food, sharing bread and cup, they would be living out the beloved community.

Do this and remember me, Jesus says. Daily acts of eating and drinking, do it for the remembrance of me. You know, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as remembrance also means reenactment.

Do this and re-enact my table fellowship. Do this and re-enact my mission.

The shared meal, symbolic of shared life, is the centre of a household’s life, a community’s life. For the earliest followers of Jesus, the reenactment of his mission of shared abundance was the way they experienced his ongoing presence among them—the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those gathered around the freely-given, justice-creating meals of Christian worship.

 

emmaus icon

You have just arrived in town.

The mid-morning sun is heating up the stone walkways of this Mediterranean port city. The sky is a dazzling cobalt, a blue that offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. It is the first century, and you are arriving in a seaside city along the coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy.

You are a stranger here. You know nobody here and nobody knows you. Perhaps you are a migrant labourer, one of a growing number of destitute peasants looking for work. Perhaps you are a recently freed slave. A few things are certain. You have no money, you have no family, you live in the rough world of sailors, fishers, traders making up the underbelly of the Roman Empire.

And you are a Christian. You are a member of a secretive mystery cult based in the life and teachings of a Jew from Galilee, a spirit-filled miracle-worker and sage. He was executed by the Romans as a political criminal, but his earliest followers say that he lives on within and among his followers, wherever two or more are gathered in his name. And his name is Iesous, Iesous Christos. Jesus the Christ. Most of his followers that you know are not Jews, but Greeks, like you, and like you from the lower classes of the Empire.

There are networks of Christos followers, Christians, throughout the towns and villages of this region. You need to keep your cultic practices to yourself, as the religious leaders have disestablished followers of Christos, forbidding you from meeting in the Jewish meetinghouses of the diaspora.

As a newly established sect, your Greek neighbours and the Roman authorities alike are suspicious of this upstart religion. In another generation, Christians will be actively persecuted. Indeed, there are already stories circulating among the believers of court cases and accusations. The secrets of your religion must be kept.

You seek and find each other out, meeting before dawn on the first day of the week, before going to work. You meet to sing, mostly, sing and pray. And then share a meal together. A meal of fish and bread and wine. And then, at the close of worship, food from this feast is distributed.

That’s how you became a Christian. You heard that they would feed you, and so you sought out this new mystery cult. Because you were hungry, physically hungry and desperate to sustain yourself. And they helped you, these Christians. They fed you, gave you clothes, told you who in town was a Christian who you could find work with. And the network of believers exists throughout the Empire, clandestine and unseen.

Like other secret societies, yours has its version of code words and secret handshakes. It is said, for example, if you meet a stranger on the road and begin to talk about your religious practices, and you wanted to know if he or she was a Christian, you could scratch an arc into the dirt, and if without speaking, they drew a similar intersecting arch, you knew there was a brother or sister with you.

And so you arrive here, the mid-morning sun heating up the stone walkways as the cobalt blue sky above offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. You need to find work, you need to find a place to stay, you need some money, you need to eat. And although you don’t know where to look, you know there are believers here who will help you.

You begin to scan the walls, some of which are scratched with graffiti. Lovers names, political slogans, sexual innuendos, and—finally, you spot it—a fish. Two simple, intersecting arcs. The sign of the fish. It is pointing you to the right, and so you step along that alleyway, to another sign of the fish, pointing left. You continue left along the walkway, following these fish until you arrive at the household of the local Christian community, the household at which the local believers gather for pre-dawn worship on the first day of the week.

You will knock on this door. The door will be opened by somebody who will help you, somebody who will welcome you in to this city’s network of believers. You will be drawn in, welcomed into this circle, and fed. These are your people and they will not let you go hungry. These are your people, and they will take care of you.

loaves-and-fishes-mosaic-lou-ann-bagnall

The sign of the fish is the earliest Christian symbol. As early as the first century, Christian grave markers displayed images of the fish and the dove. Long before the cross, it was the fish that symbolized Christianity, the Jesus movement.

As a secretive worshipping community, the fish was a kind of password, an acrostic. If you take the Greek words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which mean Jesus Christ God Son Saviour, and take the first letter of each of those words, you get IXTHYS, the Greek word for “fish.”

It is possible that this creedal formulation (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour) emerged in Alexandria, the major Hellenistic city of North Africa in the late first century as a reaction to the reign of Domitian, who proclaimed himself a son of God, and had coins pressed with his image and these words. The Christian counter-affirmation was that Jesus was the true ruler, that their first allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

Mosaics, murals, and frescoes from the first three centuries of Christian worship spaces, including the catacombs of Italy, depict the Eucharistic gifts as a fish, a loaf of bread, and wine or grapes.

The fish is an ancient symbol of life, fertility, abundance. In the ancient world, the fish was a symbol associated with the Goddess. In the ancient Mediterranean,it was a symbol of fertility associated with various Goddesses, including Venus who is venerated on the sixth day of the week—Friday, dies Veneris. In Scandinavia, the Great Goddess was called Freya and fish were eaten in her honour, also on the day named after her: Friday. The Roman Catholic Church, until recent years, had its adherents abstain from eating meat on the day that Christ was crucified and to eat instead fish on Fridays.

The association of the fish with abundance and fertility and life is expressed in many of the gospel stories.  A symbol rich with meaning in the minds of the people, the fish came to represent the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those communities gathered for worship that was both devotion and social justice, both reverence toward God and the distribution of foodstuffs to the needy.

The cruciform symbol of Christ’s cross came long after these early symbols of the table, and I for one take that as significant. Jesus’ death was not as significant as his ongoing mysterious presence among them at the table, where they reenacted his mission.

For me, the symbol of the living Christ is not a codeword for Jesus the man, but rather a symbol of life’s creative, transforming power. I believe to understand the symbol of the Christ, the living Christ (or the “Cosmic Christ”), we need to understand how God’s creative transforming power is lived out in communities of people.

The only compelling and truly meaningful Christology I’ve encountered in all my years of study and reflection is that of the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. In her book Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, she speaks not of the Christ, but of Christa, the feminine form used in conjunction with Community. The living Christ is Christa/Community.

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own broken-heartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it.

Jesus is like the whitecap on a wave. The whitecap is momentarily set off from the swell that is pushing it up, making us notice it. But the visibility of the whitecap, which draws our attention, rests on the enormous pushing power of the sea—of its power to push with life-giving labor, to buoy up all lives, and to unite diverse shores with its restless energy. That sea becomes monstrous and chaotically destructive when we try to control it, and its life-giving power is denied. Jesus’ power lies with the great swells of the ocean without which the white foam is not brought to visibility. To understand the fullness of erotic power we must look to the ocean which is the whole and compassionate being, including ourselves.

 

Brock argues that the very nature of the Christ insists on relationality: “What is truly christological, that is, truly revealing of divine incarnation and salvific power in human life, must reside in connectedness and not in single individuals… [Jesus] neither reveals nor embodies it, but he participates in its revelation and embodiment.”

In other words, the creative transforming power of God happens when people come together and act out the creativity and transformation of our own lives, as individuals and together in the intentional relationships we call communities. The living Christ exists where love, mercy, and compassion are enacted among human persons.

And this is not an abstract thing. We embody mercy and compassion in concrete acts of care and concern for those around us, particularly those in need, those who are most vulnerable. We embody that spirit—a meal delivered, a bandage applied, a hug, setting out food, a hospital bedside vigil—we make that spirit known in what we do with our bodies—feeding, visiting, clothing, touching.

I think those of us who gather in community can be the conduits of salvation (in that word’s sense of healing and wholeness). We, involved in the intentional relationships known as community, can be the places of saving grace and action. Within the matrix, the network, of who we are collectively moves the spirit that saves the world. Within the matrix, the network, the oceanic swell, of who we are cooperatively moves the spirit that saves the world.

At Easter time, my sense is that people celebrate a living spirit, a green springtime of the soul, a numinous presence of creative, regenerative, transforming power. This power is at work in the world, if only we would recognize it. Its alchemy transforms strangers into friends, disparate individuals into a community. It is the Life that makes all things new. For Christians, it is the living Christ.

When I was in seminary, I worked off campus. One of my co-workers was involved in something called Food Not Bombs. Once a week, these activists would collect discarded food from restaurants and supermarkets in downtown Toronto. Restaurants and supermarkets, you might know, throw away a lot of food. Things that spoil easily or are slightly bruised, food they cannot re-serve or that go off the menu the following day. The activist volunteers of Food Not Bombs collect the leftovers and the refuse of restaurants—who happily give their garbage over—and create huge, vegetarian feasts.

Once a week, Food Not Bombs sets up a table in a public park and invites all passersby to a free meal. The homeless population of the city makes good use of this free food, but it is meant for everybody. I used to love the meals of Food Not Bombs, probably because I shared many of the political aspirations of those involved, with our vision of a world of plenty, where human need comes before human greed.

It seemed to me that if the spirit of Jesus was alive anywhere, it was here. And I don’t mean in the individual face of a homeless person, and I don’t mean in the face of a young idealist. I mean the whole gesture of turning garbage into a feast, redeeming leftovers, of freely offering a table full of food to strangers, the Bay Street business man sharing a meal with a street-involved youth with a mental illness, the rough poor from the underbelly of another empire knowing where to go for food, people of disparate backgrounds rubbing elbows at a shared meal.

For me, the living Christ is not an individual, the living Christ is a feast, a table where mercies are spread, a community, a common wealth. The living Christ is a symbol of our common life shaping a world of mutuality and trust and love, a symbol of what sustains and nurtures life.

The Wrath of Jonah: A reflection on anger, forgiveness, and letting go

There are many Bible stories that many who have never read the Bible know.

Or think they know.

Jonah and the whale is one of them. Many seem to be familiar with the hapless Jonah who gets swallowed by a whale, in whose belly he lives for three days. Some might even know that he was running away from an assignment given to him by God.

What many might not appreciate, even those who know the story, is that Jonah is not really the hero of the story, in the sense that he is meant to be an exemplar of behaviour, a model to be emulated. Rather, he is an angry, judgmental, small-minded man who bitterly opposes God’s compassion and God’s mercy on those who don’t follow the rules. He’s kind of a proto-­fundamentalist.

And what’s more, the story is told about him in the Bible in a way that intends for listeners or readers of the story to laugh at Jonah. It’s a funny story. It’s a comedy. Which is another surprise to those who think of the Bible as being dreadfully boring or humourless. The story of Jonah is a bit of a caricature of religious and ethnic intolerance, a parody of small-­mindedness which lampoons those who would not be gracious or forgiving.

The word of God comes to Jonah, the way that it comes to all of the Jewish prophets. Prophets receive word from God usually to proclaim that God’s justice cannot be ignored, and that judgment will fall on those who oppress the poor, cheat their workers, or ignore the needs of the most vulnerable. A major theme for the Jewish prophets is the tendency of the Hebrews to worship other gods and goddesses, and how mad God, the God of the Hebrew people, gets when this happens.

So Jonah receives word from the God of Israel to go to the great city of Nineveh and preach against it. The wickedness of its people has come to the attention of God and God wants Jonah to go tell them about it. (Jonah 1:1-­2) Nineveh was the flourishing capital of the Assyrian empire, at the time of this story, the largest city in the ancient world. In other words, the seat of an imperial power amassing wealth through the domination of other lands. And one that is not Jewish. The Assyrians were pagan, after all.

So God is sending Jonah there to preach against Nineveh. What does he do?

He gets on the next ship out of there and goes—in the opposite direction.

He heads for Tarshish, a fabled name for a place probably on the Iberian peninsula, pretty much the outer edge of the known world. Jonah wants to get as far away as possible. If we were telling this story today, we might say something like, “Jonah got on the next plane to Timbuktu.”

God stirs up a violent storm that tosses and pounds the ship that Jonah is on. Everyone aboard starts praying to their own god while Jonah, incredibly, is asleep below deck.

The sailors wake him up and say, “What are you doing? Get up and call on your God to save us!” (1:6)

The sailors also cast lots to find out who is responsible for the calamity that has befallen them, which they discover is Jonah.

“Who are you? Where are you from? Do you know who’s responsible for the trouble we’re in?”

Jonah replies that he is a Hebrew and that he has angered his God by running away from him.

“What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?” they ask.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” is the answer Jonah gives. (1:11-­12)

That is when a huge fish (not a whale but a “huge fish”) swallows Jonah and carries Jonah in its belly for three days and three nights and spits him up onto dry land.

There, God again commands Jonah to go to Nineveh and proclaim there the message God gave Jonah. Reluctantly, Jonah goes.

Now much of the Hebrew Bible devoted to the prophets is full of threats, all of the things that God will do to the wicked. The prophets give long lists of what has made God angry: oppression of the poor, unfaithfulness, chasing after ostentatious wealth. They give long lists of punishments and tribulations: famines and droughts (economic losses) and military invasions.

Jonah, on the other hand, walks into the city of Nineveh and says, “You have forty days.” (3:4)

That’s it.

That’s all he says.

No “Woe to you,” no explanation of the wickedness that God has seen, no long lists of things to repent from.

Jonah is doing his best to make sure they don’t repent and that God punishes them.

“You have forty days.”

And then, to Jonah’s great dismay, that’s all it takes for the Ninevites to be sorry and repent.

He’s not even working that hard at prophesying, and they all are sorry for what they’ve done and immediately begin to fast and ask forgiveness. Including the king who proclaims a fast and urges everybody to “give up their evil ways and their violence. Who knows,” the king says, “God may yet relent and with compassion turn from his fierce anger so that we will not perish.” (3:8-­9)

“When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.” (3:10)

Well. Jonah is angry! He is so angry! 

He storms out of the city. “I knew you were going to this! I knew it!” he rails at God.

“I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. Now, LORD, take away my life for it is better for me to die than to live.” (4:3)

God acts like a soothing parent. “Oh, honey you don’t mean that.”

“Yes I do! I’d rather be dead than glad that you didn’t destroy them!”

“Is it right for you to be angry?” God asks repeatedly.

“I’m going to sit right here and watch the city and wait and see what happens to them.” (4:5)

And that’s pretty much how the story ends. (Although we also get this comic situation where God shelters Jonah out there in the desert with a tree that grows up where he is sulking, after which God takes it away and Jonah blows up again).

But that is pretty much how the story ends. Jonah sulking and a soothing parental God saying, “Is it right for you to be angry?”

Is it right for you to be angry?

Sometimes it is right to be angry. Anger at an injustice is a sign of an active moral conscience. Getting mad when something unfair happens is a good sign. It can be the energy that gets us to move toward making justice, toward righting the wrong. Anger can be the motivation for action.

But Jonah is mad because the people of Nineveh have been spared. The compassion—the mercy—of the God he reveres is greater than Jonah’s petty need for revenge and retribution. Jonah is angry because he didn’t get what he wanted— God smiting the people he doesn’t like.

The citizens of Nineveh, remember, are not even Jews. The story plays on the distinction that the Hebrews made between themselves and other nations, that they had been chosen out of all the nations of the world in a special covenant with God. That God’s covenant could be universal, and could include all peoples, was anathema to those who claimed the superiority of their ethnic and national group over all others.

I myself have known people like Jonah, given to jingoistic sloganeering about their nation being the best nation on Earth, given to confirming their prejudices by quoting a scripture chapter and verse, and who refuse to acknowledge goodness in people different from them or deemed enemies to themselves.

I see in the character of Jonah something I see all the time. When you’re really mad at somebody who has wronged you in some way. They’ve really done something unskillful and hurtful and you just can’t wait until you see them because you are going to let them have it. You are going to tell them what they did and how it made you feel and what you’re going to do about it and what they should do about it and the kind of person you think they are.

You rehearse what you’re going to say in your mind, making all kinds of brilliant points about this other person’s shortcomings and failures.

And then.

When you see them, before you can even get a word out, they apologize.

Without your explaining it, they acknowledge what they’ve done. They say they realize what they did and see how unskillful and hurtful it was toward you, and they are sorry. And they ask you to accept their apology.

You don’t want them to be sorry!

You want to have the fight you’ve been rehearsing in your head!

You don’t want to accept their apology, you want to enumerate the ways in which they are wrong, and now you’re even angrier because they’ve taken that away from you.

They’ve done it themselves and apologized for it.

Sometimes we don’t want reconciliation or resolution. We want to be proven right. We want to triumph in victory over another. We ourselves can be vengeful or spiteful and in so doing, perpetuate a conflict, continue a difference we have with another.

Maybe you have known people like Jonah, who refuse to give up their resentments, refuse to let go of a justified anger or a grudge, who seethe with bitterness at the perceived or actual wrongdoing of others.

Some people collect grievances.

There was a woman in a church I once served who was known to take people to task for not following rules or procedures, or for being sloppy or incorrect. She’d phone you and go on and on about everything you had done wrong, some of them quite petty, and if you hung up on her, she’d call right back and continue.

Just wait, I was told when I arrived in this church, you’ll see. When I asked about the covenant of right-­relation this congregation had, people scoffed. “You try holding her to that!”

Sure enough, in due time, this woman called me on the phone and lay into me everything that I had done wrong since I had arrived at this church, on and on with great vehemence.

I had been there three weeks.

She collected grievances. She derived some benefit to always feeling wronged. She needed to always be right.

I have known people who always have to win, whether it’s a game or an argument. They have to be right. A wall of righteousness and arrogance and ego blocks them from acknowledging they could be wrong, their knowledge could be partial, that there could be goodness and thoughtfulness in a person or people they designate their opponent.

I think we all know somebody who is like Jonah and I think that we all, in one way or another, are ourselves quite like him.

We don’t need to look very far to find smug and self-­righteous people. We’re right here.

We don’t need to look to other groups of people in other religions or with different politics from us to find people who are convinced that they are right. We’re right here.

Some of the most smug and self-­righteous people I’ve ever known I met in supposedly liberal circles. Tell such people that you eat meat, or can’t stand listening to NPR, or that you own a gun, or vote Republican—and just see what happens.

Jonah needed to be right. There are rules and if you don’t follow them, you are to be punished. That is the correct way of running an ordered and predictable world. There is a moral and good way to act and an immoral and evil way to act. The good are rewarded. Wrongdoers are punished. God is on the side of those who are right, moral and good. God is on our side and against them.

This either-­or, black-­and-­white way of ordering people and the world can’t handle compassion and forgiveness. The idea that wrong can go unpunished is unbearable and upsetting.

Anger can, as Thich Nhat Hanh notes, form a kind of knot within us, a formation that is difficult to undo. When that knot has formed within us, the person with whom we disagree or who has wronged us is all wrong, all the time.

We cannot see anything else about that person.

We hold on to that anger, as resentment, because we think that doing so is going to punish them for what they did wrong. It’s like swallowing a burning poison to hurt somebody else. We are only hurting ourselves.

Physically, even, when we carry anger and resentment around within us, our bodies are affected negatively—ulcers, headaches, muscle pain. If we choose to be free of suffering, it will be because we let go of the resentment we are holding on to.

We need to ask ourselves, Do I want to be right? Or do I want to be free?

And we can choose freedom. In living a compassionate life, practicing forgiveness, we do the hard spiritual work of giving up the demand to be vindicated.

What about those that have harmed us? What happens when they do not reach out to make amends, or insist they have done nothing wrong, or will not engage with you at all? What about needing to forgive somebody who has died or is otherwise indisposed?

It seems to me we then have the choice of either holding on to our sense of being aggrieved or let it go. We can constantly tell ourselves the story of how we were wronged and live out that identity of the righteous victim. Or, without excusing the other’s actions, without forgetting the harm they caused, we can let go of the hurt and the anger and the acrimony and vindictiveness.

Anger and resentment are corrosive to the soul, eating you up inside. Forgiveness can be an act of self-­care, even as one stands in opposition to the others’ actions, firmly standing against their behaviour.

One does the work of justice, of resolving conflict, of being in relation with difficult people, without becoming full of negative emotion. It’s a kind of non-­attached engagement; we are not detached, but we don’t get hooked and reeled in by the reactivity, the ill will of those with whom we are in conflict. We maintain a spacious, serene mind and equilibrium in our hearts. Even as we oppose them.

Being unforgiving is essentially a fantasy of making the past different and wanting to punish somebody for doing something they cannot change.

Forgiveness is a practice that liberates us from what cannot be undone; it frees us from an unchanging past.

Forgiveness, being fully in the present moment and oriented toward possibilities of the future, is what it takes for peace and understanding.

I can understand and appreciate how the story of Jonah is traditionally the Haftorah reading for the afternoon Yom Kippur service. Yom Kippur is an intense time of self-scrutiny and prayer, a time for forgiveness of wrongs, making amends, and reconciliation.

We can laugh at the caricature that Jonah represents, but let it be the laughter of recognition and not derision, that we see in this character something of our own character.

And let us recognize that we ourselves at times are like the citizens of Nineveh, unable to tell our right hand from our left, and that concern and grace and love is shown to us, even in our confusion and uncertainty, more than we sometimes know.

And let us find it within ourselves to live more graciously and with more compassion, for ourselves as well as others, forgiving and asking forgiveness, that we may live with ease and at peace.

More Love Somewhere: The unedited hymn

I have long been uneasy with a recent practice among Unitarian Universalists of singing changed words to a particular song in Singing the Living Tradition, the hymnal published by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Granted, we are always changing words to make them more palatable and therefore singable in our congregations. We free original hymns of their sexism and God-talk, for example, in an effort for our worship to be more inclusive.

The changed lyrics I am thinking of are to the old African American song, “There Is More Love Somewhere.” I have heard it sung by UUs as “There is more love right here.”

And as much explaining as I have done from the pulpit about understanding and respecting the history and context of the song, I field questions from congregation members who protest the song’s words when we sing it as is.

There is much to be troubled by this, and not merely annoyed that, yet again, Unitarian Universalists know better than less enlightened people what they should have been singing.

People who have everything they need don’t understand why they would sing about love and hope and joy being somewhere else.

People privileged enough to not want for many of life’s blessings can be incapable of hearing the yearning of those who go without.

Lament is a misunderstood and unappreciated form of prayer. We can be grateful for what we have, we can ask for what we need, we can admit when we’ve made mistakes. To cry out “Why? How long must I endure this?” does none of these things, yet is as authentic a prayer as any.

Longing for what is not yet, yearning for what is absent ultimately affirms hope. Not optimism, hope. Happiness and love and joy and peace are attainable, even as they are not yet attained.

Expressions of aching desire do not merely allow us to wallow. It is not an admission of defeat. Calling out for what is missing is ultimately an affirmation of resolve and expectation: “I’m going to keep on till I find it.”

“There Is More Love Somewhere” is among that repertoire of African American songs from the time of slavery. Spirituals give voice to the experience of slavery, the African American experience of survival and resilience. These songs give theological voice to those who endured slavery, making meaning and spurring resistance as they are sung. When (in my case) white people ask for word changes in such a song, my alarm bells start ringing.

Are white Unitarian Universalists not capable of identifying with Black experience? Not willing, perhaps, to imagine the context out of which this song originated?

Glibly rewriting a slavery-era African American expression of hope and determination should give us all pause.

There’s an air of hubris in this wordsmithing, and a lack of insight.

Joining together to sing “there is more love right here” to me smacks of self-satisfaction and self-centredness. In a world filled with have-nots, the haves glorying in their wealth, their abundance of blessings. We have hymns of thanksgiving. Can’t we sing them, instead of this awkward revision?

It’s been my experience that Unitarian Universalists shy away from sharing experiences of loss and suffering, and are uncomfortable with needing or wanting or asking for help. I think many UUs don’t like to publicly admit that we are anything but autonomous, self-determining masters of our own destinies.

In the public privacy that is worship, can we admit that we are sometimes in need? Can we pour out our desire for what is lacking in our lives?

We look upon the misery of the world but don’t always see. We look at the misery of the world and see what we are going to do about it. This laudable desire to improve the world, to make our social order more fair and equitable, to build an environmentally sustainable and just economy is to be celebrated.

And the practice of compassion must go with it, or we become clanging know-it-alls and a sounding cymbal of self-righteousness. Compassion, as the word’s Latin roots suggest, is the ability to suffer with. To enter into the suffering of another is to acknowledge and accept their subjectivity. To attempt to understand what it feels like, to feel their pain.

Can singing a song do all this for white Unitarian Universalists? Perhaps. But not if we erase the words we find uncomfortable. Not if, in so doing, we erase the history and experience—the story—of a people.

Unitarianism and Universalism each began as religious movements grounded in an optimistic religious philosophy. The world, and humankind within it, were imperfect but perfectible. A loving God conquered all.

This theologia gloriae has been the dominant mode in Christianity. (Which is supremely ironic given that Christianity has at its centre a suffering God, a God who suffers-with the world and all its creatures). Uncertainty and ambiguity are pushed to the side. The via negativa, the way of negation, gives up certainty and the positive affirmations of who and what the divine is, in favour of humility and honest questioning.

A theology of glory is triumphalist. Canadian theologian Douglas John Hall writes:

“Triumphalism refers to the tendency in all strongly held worldviews, whether religious or secular, to present themselves as full and complete accounts of reality, leaving little if any room for debate or difference of opinion and expecting adherents unflinching belief and loyalty. Such a tendency is triumphalistic in the sense that it triumphs—at least in its own self-estimate—over all ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and incompleteness, as well, of course, as over every other point of view.”

Theologia gloriae is the theological underpinning of American Christian triumphalism, the bright light of rightness that allows for no shade or shadow, no ambiguity or doubt. Stumbling around in the dark, crying out for light, is not the American Christian way. Our God triumphs and the anguish of the world will be conquered.

The Unitarian Universalist gloss on this theology of glory which we inherited, is that we ourselves are the source and power of the world’s redemption. We ourselves are capable of putting an end to suffering. Racial and economic injustice, sexism and homophobia, climate change and other evils will be vanquished by our advancing guard of yellow-shirted UUs, marching as to war.

Can we take time to acknowledge that we are not there yet? That we are powered by our love for the world and our compassion for those who suffer? Can we take time to lament? To grieve that there is not enough goodness and trust and solidarity in the world? To grieve that there is not enough love in the world?

That there is more love somewhere? And that we will keep on until we find it?

When I sing “There Is More Love Somewhere,” I enter into that inward space of not-yet, of acknowledging that the way things are is often unjust, unkind. But justice and kindness will be ours. Peace and joy will be ours.

Knowing that what I am singing is the hope and yearning of people whose traumatic and brutal circumstance I can only imagine, when I sing this song, I lament for the way things are. I lament the current social order.

I lament my present circumstances that are incomplete. I long for more love, more joy, more peace and I lift that longing up in an act of worship, an act of prayer.

Will you please join me in singing hymn #95, “There Is More Love Somewhere”?

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.

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 Tattered Web of Life: Individuality, Autonomy and Liberalism

Here in Massachusetts, a question on our ballot on election day would, if a majority votes yes, make it possible for a physician licensed in the state to write a lethal prescription for a patient suffering from a terminal illness and deemed to have fewer than six months to live, which the patient could then self-administer to end their own life.

This “death with dignity” initiative is highly favored among Unitarian Universalists and other religious liberals. Most of us are probably going to vote for it.

My congregation this past week sponsored a week of programming around this question and more broadly around choices at the end of life. Last Sunday, I participated in a panel discussion of local clergy on these issues. In that conversation with my colleagues from across the religious and theological spectrum, something came clear for me.

Autonomy is a cherished value among Unitarian Universalists, as well as among other religious liberals. Political liberalism, too, is founded on individual freedom. The ability of the individual person to make and affect choices in their life is paramount. Any interference in an individual’s ability to choose for him- or herself is anathema.

I certainly affirm the basic principle of having control over my own body and life. There is no way I would give the state more power to regulate what I can and cannot do with my own body. It is a basic freedom for every citizen and person in a democratic society.

Who we have sexual relations with, whether to get pregnant, whether to give birth, whether to eat your broccoli, whether to drink 28 ounces of soda all at once… the state may have an interest in the choices we make in these and other regards, but ultimately the choice is ours to make. And ought to be ours to make.

Autonomy and integrity of the individual person are the starting point for much liberal theological ethics. While I am not interested here in defending or promoting the death with dignity initiative (and certainly not in denouncing it) I do want to reflect on this enthrallment we have with autonomy as the foundation of our ethics.

One of the arguments for physician-assisted dying is the loss of dignity a person experiences when ill or disabled. In a culture like ours that prizes individuality and autonomy, disability is stigmatized in very particular ways. Disability, and people with disabilities, are thought of as a burden; others need to help care for them, sometimes even to do routine functions for them.

Temporarily able-bodied people fear this loss of autonomy and consider it undignified. Impairment, pain, incontinence, lack of control, not being able to feed ourselves—these   are conditions many temporarily able-bodied persons want to avoid.

In states where physician-assisted dying is legal, patients often cite “feeling like a burden on others” as one reason for wanting to end their lives. In the name of our dignity, we would rather have the ability to end our lives than endure these circumstances.

And yet people do. Many disabled and elderly people do live with these conditions.

And often enough, they depend on others.

And they do so with dignity. And insist on the dignity and worth of the lives they are living. This insistence, this living with dignity rather than dying for lack of it, rubs against the grain of a culture that does not see, let alone affirm, the worthiness of their lives.

The biblical affirmation (one of my co-panelists reminded us) is that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God. As such, the human person is a reflection and icon of the divine. The sacred worth of the person is intrinsic. It cannot be granted or withdrawn, given or taken away.

The dignity and worth of every person is inherent–inherent in being human.

What is anathema, if we truly affirm the inherent dignity and worth of every person, is to claim that some lives are worth more than others, that some persons are more worthy than others, that dignity accrues to some individuals and not others.

That some lives are not worth living.

I used to be a bookseller in a large bookstore in downtown Toronto. One busy evening, a cyclist came to the cash register. I was training a new cashier and she greeted him and began ringing up his purchase.

She noted that he didn’t have a bike helmet with him, and made a lighthearted remark about biking without a helmet.

This customer answered, “You know, I’m a physician. And I’ve worked in the emergency room. I see what happens to people who survive a car crash on their bike because they were wearing a helmet. Believe me, I’d rather be dead. I’d rather be dead than quadriplegic.”

He took his purchase and cheerfully left the store.

That casual remark has stayed with me all these many years. Partly because it was a customer service training moment (“Just keep smiling!”). Mostly because of the chill it gave me.

My bicycle was my primary means of transportation and I always wore a helmet.  I had never thought seriously about surviving a collision with an automobile. Of course, I would get rushed to the hospital and they would do everything they could to keep me alive. That’s how it works. But what if the pain was unbearable? What if I survived but was severely disabled? Would I rather be dead?

His remark was chilling also because this was a physician who had been and would be called upon to treat people with disabilities. What might his attitude with these and other patients be?  What level of care would he offer to patients he might think would be better off dead?

If I had a disability or a chronic illness, would I want to be treated by a doctor who thought of me as a waste of a human life?

Would my life, in fact, still be worth living?

Why is depending on others considered undignified? Are we not part of an interdependent cosmos—isn’t all of existence an interrelated network of relationship?

What might our vaunted autonomy and radical individualism look like refracted through the lens of an essentially social reality? Does our affirmation of the intrinsic goodness of the person come at the cost of recognizing that individuals are social beings, socially constituted and interrelated with our social and natural surroundings?

The heroic self, rising above entanglements with others, is not a natural and universal understanding of the human person. It is the heritage of Western, male-centered hetero-patriarchy. (Oh that!). The rhetoric of “being who I am” and “becoming my own person” and “forging my own path” is expressed in everything from artistic sensibility that favors uniqueness and novelty, to psychology that stresses individuation over relation.

It has been, and can be, very liberating.

It can also lead to a distorted individualism that breaks down community. When there is only “me” and no “we,” a commitment to human solidarity and environmental responsibility breaks down. Greed and narcissism, self-indulgence and covetousness, flourish.

What kind of ethics and theology emerge when rather than the radical autonomy of the individual, the individual’s sociality takes center stage? What kind of ethics and theology emerge when the interrelated, interdependent nature of all existence is affirmed as a first principle?

American Idols

My last several years living in the United States of America has been an exercise in, as my Canadian friends would say, living in the belly of the beast. It hardly feels this way, of course, surrounded as I am by people of good will. I reflect on the wars and the violence, the inequities and injustices, and it is easy to not feel that I am somehow contributing to it. I ignore the reality that the taxes I pay here go to fund things I do not in good conscience support. I float along feeling that if I am not actively contributing to the things that I find objectionable, then I am doing all right. I get momentary flashes, however, when I think, If I am not actively resisting, then I am participating.

That is the nature of living in the midst of what the New Testament calls powers and principalities. The social ills one would actively resist are actually systems, whole networks of power relations. It is difficult to stand apart from a system. Daily life is a mundane series of choices that one makes unthinking, and many of these are aspects of the powers and principalities of the nation.

I like to personify these powers and principalities as idols, false gods, to keep them as personalities before my eyes to better clarify the choices that I make. Idolatry, in the monotheistic religions, is the worship of deities other than the one true God. It is the deification of objects; idols are objects made of stone and wood and metal and are revered as divine. Judaism, Christianity and Islam all have prohibitions and limitations on representing the divine. The caution is in mistaking the representation for what is represented, the sign for what it signifies, thus drawing worshippers away from the one true God and toward the worship of symbols and images.

“You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the LORD your God am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:1-6).

The Bible describes idolatry as the worship of images and also of polytheistic deities. The biblical language of idolatry (the Hebrew literally means “foreign worship”) is a polemic against the indigenous nations of the ancient Near East, which saw the natural world as imbued with supernatural forces. Hebrew monotheism, by contrast, saw the divine as entirely beyond the world. The pagan religions that surrounded the ancient Hebrew people used statues, talismans, and natural objects in their worship, frequently believing that the divine was immanent within such objects or within certain geographical locations. In setting themselves apart from the nations, the ancient Hebrews shored up their national identity by forbidding the worship of foreign deities, and banishing the use of sacred objects. To do so was unpatriotic as well as irreligious.

Devotion to pagan gods and goddesses was nevertheless not uncommon among the ancient Hebrews, as we read throughout Hebrew Scriptures. No sooner had Moses received the Ten Commandments on top of Mount Sinai, than the Israelites below fashioned a golden calf to worship. They built poles to honor the goddess Asherah and frequently worshipped other Canaanite gods such as Baal.

The prophets and judges decry such infidelity to the God of Israel and frequently lambast the creation and worship of idols. In separating themselves out from other ancient peoples, the Hebrews not only strictly forbade the use of any created thing in worship, they also set limits on ways in which the divine could be mediated or communicated through objects. Though such things as the Ark of the Covenant, or the equipment and vestments of the Temple were sacred, they were not worshipped as such, for God was utterly transcendent.

The Bible affirms that the one true God is shapeless and formless, so no image or idea or created thing can represent God. The reverencing of images is thus forbidden. The Protestant Reformation renewed among Christians the sense of God’s transcendence and the caution against sacred objects and images. Puritanism is the stream of Christianity that is most similar to the Jewish view. The more sacramental currents of Christianity allowed icons and statues to be reverenced as mediators of God’s grace, and bread, wine, water and oil to be signifiers of God’s presence and grace. Our Puritan forebears (those of us who stand in Unitarian and Congregational traditions) were iconoclasts, literally destroying icons, images, and statues in an effort to purify Christian faith and practice from idolatrous distractions.

For each of the monotheistic traditions, the sole object of worship and adoration is the transcendent God. Valuing something or somebody that hinders the love and trust owed to God alone is considered idolatry. God and God alone comes first and God and God alone is foremost in the lives of the faithful. Though God provides many gifts for our use in a life that glorifies him, we are not to confuse the gift with the Giver. Though all of creation speaks of God and God’s handiwork, we are not to confuse the creation with the Creator. It seems to me that we offer our blind and excessive devotion to powers and principalities that are neither God nor godly. Refusal to worship them is deemed unpatriotic.

The idols and false gods that reign here in the United States are militarism and wealth. These are our contemporary American idols. We put our trust in military might. We worship Mammon, the New Testament personification of wealth. We lay waste to the Earth in the name of our economies, feeding its fires with our children’s futures, feeding the voracious appetites of economic growth with no less vigor than ancients fed their own children to the god Molech. Militarism is a false god whose parents are nationalism and violence. Militarism is the belief that a strong military is needed for security and peace, that a strong military must be maintained at all costs, and that the military must be prepared for preemptive and aggressive action in defense not only of the nation’s borders, but of its economic and geopolitical interests.

The ideology of the nation state and the legitimacy of violence are the faith and practices of this false religion. This is most clearly seen in totalitarian regimes. The image of its despotic leader is ubiquitous, its bureaucratic apparatus all-powerful. God is replaced by the state and given the humanizing face of its leader. Its scriptures are its laws and constitutions, its spirituality appeals to blood and soil, its worship military and nationalist parades and processionals. Discipleship with this idol is obedience, patriotism, and an unquestioning loyalty to our own ethnic, racial, linguistic and national group. The theology of the state is its reinforcing ideologies; whether that be democracy or free enterprise, state socialism or Marxism, pan-Arab nationalism or jihadist Islamism.

We are not without our own processionals and parades in the United States of America. We celebrate the American Revolution and the principles of democracy in a haze of nostalgia. We play out the rituals of a constitutional democracy, even as the Supreme Court grants legal personhood to corporations, as lobbyists for banks, oil companies and other industries become government policy makers, passing through a revolving door of influence and governance, as public institutions are handed over to private interests. The republic transmogrifies into an empire, marching ever further away from the ideals of the founding fathers, and we are swept up and carried along in the patriotic parade willy-nilly.

We are a nation at war, and war has become so ubiquitous and unending that it is no longer remarkable. Warfare is the air we breathe. War is our daily reality. Yet we are inured to its violence, its daily death, its very presence. Unlike the Second World War, we are not asked to conserve electricity and other resources, plant victory gardens or participate in a popular mobilization around a war effort. American soldiers, many of them young, working class, and people of color, are deployed again and again, unnoticed and unseen. Lost in a flurry of distractions, we forget the wars that we wage overseas. The wars seem to go on in the background, with the volume muted, not interfering with our day-to-day lives.

“The idols of the nations are silver and gold, the work of human hands.They have mouths but they do not speak; they have eyes but they do not see; they have ears but they do not hear, and there is no breath in their mouths. Those who make them and all who trust in them shall become like them.” (Psalm 135:15-18)

Have we become like them? Unspeaking, not using our voice? Unseeing, turning a blind eye from what our actions and inactions are causing? Unhearing, refusing to listen to the cries of the hungry, the cries of the non-human animals, the cries of wounded soldiers and grieving civilians a world away?

The United States government budgets more than one trillion dollars in military spending. The false god of militarism is literally consuming our national treasure. A fraction of the money spent on war and war preparations could fund homes, schools, university scholarships, teachers salaries, and equip homes with renewable electricity.

Our technologies, our wealth, and our economies are three of our other false gods, fed by and fuel for the American idol of military might. Competition for resources, especially cheap oil, is the motivation for our militarism and global belligerence. Americans consume far more than our fair share of the planet’s resources and to maintain our bloated lifestyles of acquisitiveness and overconsumption, we need to maintain by force the steady flow of natural resources into the fires of our economic engines. Our styles of life, based on growth economies that devour the Earth, are quickly rendering the planet uninhabitable.

“If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the LORD your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul—then he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil; and he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you will eat your fill. Take care, or you will be seduced into turning away, serving other gods and worshiping them, for then the anger of the LORD will be kindled against you and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain and the land will yield no fruit; then you will perish quickly off the good land that the LORD is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17)

In biblical religion, to love and serve God heart and soul, to not be turned away by the false gods, leads to an abundant, lively relationship with the Earth. To be devoted in love and service to the divine, we need nothing less than a conversion, a turning away from domination and violence, hoarding and destruction, limitless growth and greed.

We need to convert our elected government’s priorities from funding endless wars to funding the common good. We need to convert our petroleum fueled war economy of the past into the sustainable, ecologically sound economy of the future. To love and serve the divine is to take seriously biblical and humane values: cooperation and sharing, conservation and stewardship, mutuality and nonviolence, prudence and justice.  We need to be converted anew to these principles as individuals and as a society.

I love the glimpses the Bible offers of a divine dream for the earth; it offers us direct “thou shall not’s” as well as the visions of its prophets. Security and peace are not gained by outgunning the enemy, by clobbering those who we view as competing with us for limited resources. Isaiah, Micah, Amos, and others foresaw a time when war and war making were banished, and peace the order of the day.

“They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation nor with they train for war anymore. Everyone will sit under their own vine and under their own fig tree and no one will make them afraid.”

The causes of war – economic disparity, scarcity – are removed. Everyone has their own land, their own vine and fig tree; everyone has enough. Security comes with having enough.

This is peace in the holistic sense of shalom, the integrity and wholeness of creation. In Isaiah’s vision, animals that typically fight each other lie down together in peace, and even the mountains and hills burst into song, the trees of the field clap their hands, in the day of God’s shalom on earth. The biblical injunction to remember the Sabbath and to keep it holy is an exercise in setting limits. A balance of work and play is required in the worship of the one true God. Work is given meaning and dignity, as forms of tending the green garden bequeathed to humankind. Overwork and exhausting the soil are anathema to biblical principles and its Sabbath economics. No person or animal or farm should have the life squeezed out of it by overwork.

The holy invites us into a spacious sense of abundance and plenty by giving us enough. Ostentation and material gain for its own sake are rejected in favor of limits within which we flourish. We need only enough. Mammon is the biblical word for riches, the personification of wealth as a false god. Greed and excessive love of money are forms of idolatry, a betrayal of a trusting relationship with the God who provides us with enough. Mammon is the endless treadmill of wanting and getting, getting more and wanting more. Manna, the food the Israelites ate while they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, is the antidote to Mammon. It was provided freely by God and rotted if it was hoarded. Everybody had exactly enough, everybody had exactly as much as they needed.

We read in the book of Acts this description of the earliest followers of Jesus:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. … they ate their food with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:44-46)

Goods were shared and wealth redistributed to all as any had need.  The economics of manna is a joint venture in everybody having enough, in everybody having a glad and generous heart. This is a small echo of the biblical vision of the Jubilee Year, a time when there is rest for the land, forgiveness of debts, when land is returned to its ancestral owners and slaves are freed. Land, in the ancient world was wealth. If you became indebted and had to sell your land, it would be returned to you in the Jubilee Year. Nobody could buy up land and keep it for him or herself in perpetuity. The fact that the Bible mandates a regular dismantling of structures that might keep wealth in the hands of few points toward a vision in which there is enough for everyone. Wide gaps between rich and poor are not God’s dream for his world. Nobody has more than is needed and nobody hoards. Everybody has enough. This is a vision of work and prosperity for all, indebtedness and slavery being relieved, balance between work and play, and personal and environmental rejuvenation.

Provoking the Powers: The Palm Sunday Action

The Canadian journal Adbusters is known for its provocative design. It makes use of a technique known as détournement—literally “derailing” or “turnaround.” The Adbusters artists call what they do “culture jamming.” They take familiar media figures, like Joe Camel, the cartoon promoter of Camel cigarettes, and put him in a hospital bed, redubbing him “Joe Cancer.” The logos and campaigns of Nike, Coca-Cola, and Shell Oil are similarly subverted in ways that highlight those companies’ labor and environmental abuses. Sometimes, the likeness to the actual media campaigns of these corporations are so realistic, viewers are fooled.

That’s the point. Not to fool viewers, but to mimic the propaganda of the powerful and so unmask their motives—is this really an advertisement for pollution and the exploitation of workers?

It was Adbusters that provided the spark that ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Last spring, it published a call for protesters to flood lower Manhattan and camp out on Wall Street until a federal investigation of the corporate influence on US politics was begun.

Wall Street is a street in New York City, yet when we say “Wall Street” what we actually mean is: the finance industry, the banks, the stock exchange, the market. The location is highly symbolic. Protesters have taken over Wall Street in the past, of course, and for this very reason. On the 50th anniversary of the stock market crash in 1979, protesters occupied Wall Street, blockading traffic to protest the nuclear industry and arms manufacturing.

In the late 1980s and early 90s, I was involved in an activist group that was famous for its graphic designs and theatrical actions to bring attention to the HIV/AIDS epidemic and the political crisis surrounding it, including the slow governmental response. It was called ACT UP—the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power.  It began in New York when playwright Larry Kramer called for direct action to pressure governments and drug companies into acting. The first protest was on Wall Street on March 24, 1987 and was dubbed No More Business As Usual. Activists protested the unholy alliance of the Food and Drug Administration with the pharmaceutical companies producing the only approved HIV treatment at the time and the profiteering of Big Pharmacy.

Certain symbolic actions work in a similar way. Gandhi marching to the seaside to make his own salt. People of different colors sitting together at a lunch counter to be served. Michael Moore escorting youth who were shot during the Columbine massacre, with the bullets still lodged in their bodies, to the corporate headquarters of Kmart, which sold the ammunition to the Columbine killers, in order to give those bullets back. The agitprop gesture itself is speaking to much larger issues in the society—salt tax and empire, segregation and institutionalized racism, gun violence and access to firearms.

Dollar bills, piggy banks, Monopoly playing cards are some of the visual cues that protesters on Wall Street have used, along with costumes—the mask from the graphic novel V is for Vendetta, a banker with bowler hat, monocle and cigar. Without ever being granted an interview by the media, these protesters effectively get their point across. Without ever being granted the ability to explain their demonstration protesters use images with which most people are familiar. This is a form of protest known as guerilla theatre.

Using familiar images, easily recognized characters in costumes and masks, and symbolic actions, guerilla theatre is able to summarize, in a few short visual bytes, an entire political position. In quickly understood symbols and gestures, guerilla theatre summarizes whole economic and social analyses. Through enacting and ritualizing power relations in dramatic forms, the powers that be are provoked, the effects of their power unmasked.

Guerilla theatre, détournement, symbolic actions are practices of those who would protest systems of domination and exploitation. Imaginative and humorous use of images, characters, and stories are practices of those who would bring about a change in awareness, consciousness, who would transform the political, social, cultural and economic landscape to be more just, more peaceful, and more equitable. Satire, parody, irony simultaneously make people laugh and question the powers that be.

The Jewish prophets knew something about guerilla theatre. The visionaries of ancient Israel, they were constantly using attention-grabbing antics to convey God’s displeasure. Hosea marries a prostitute, symbolizing the people’s unfaithfulness to God. Jeremiah burns a linen belt, he smashes a clay jar in front of the priests, to illustrate God’s coming punishment of Judah; he puts on a yoke and parades around with it on, to illustrate living under the oppression of Babylon. Isaiah goes naked and barefoot for three years. Ezekiel lies on his side for 390 days and eats only measured amounts of food, food cooked over human dung. (When Ezekiel protests, God relents and lets him use cow dung, but the message is the same: the people will be restricted and defiled when they are in exile).

Jeremiah stands at the entrance to the Temple in Jerusalem and yells at everybody going in. “Don’t think that you are safe just by being in God’s temple and praying. Only through social justice, not oppressing the marginalized and not shedding innocent blood will you be close to God.” The prophets in general targeted the elites in Jerusalem and their association with the Temple. Since the beginning of the monarchy in ancient Israel, God called upon certain visionaries to proclaim an alternative vision of the social order free from the abuses of hierarchy and domination. The prophets rose up to proclaim the alternative to monarchy. So when we read the prophets, we find Jerusalem and the Temple targets of their wrath as well as hope for the redemption of Jerusalem and the Temple.

By the time of Jesus, Jerusalem was the center not only of Jewish aristocracy, but also of its collaboration with Roman imperial rule. The Romans, in acquiring lands for their empire, generally allowed local customs and religion to continue, as long as tribute was paid annually to the emperor in Rome. The Romans commonly used local wealthy elites to rule on their behalf and collect the tribute. Jerusalem and the Temple, then, had become symbols both of domination by elites and by foreign powers. The people were being increasingly forced into debt, their land confiscated outright or foreclosed upon, all in funding the payments to Rome, and the payouts in land to the Romans and their local collaborators.

What’s more, faithful pilgrims to the Temple in Jerusalem needed to pay for the animals that were to be sacrificed for them by the priests. They had a store of such sacrificial animals for those traveling from far, which could not be paid for with Roman coins. This secular money had forbidden images on it, and so the money was exchanged in the Temple for Temple currency. And in so doing, the Temple charged a fee. Because the celebration of Passover necessitated the ritual sacrifice of an animal in the Temple at Jerusalem, the faithful multitudes, already overtaxed and indebted, were further gouged.

Passover was a tense and turbulent festival in Jerusalem. It was, after all, a celebration of the Jewish people’s liberation from slavery, a fact not lost on either those who wanted to be liberated from Roman rule or on the Romans themselves, who tightened security during the weeklong observance. The city became crowded with pilgrims and large crowds could easily become mobs in rebellion against Rome. This had in fact happened within memory at the time of Jesus’ arrival to the city.

The Roman governor of the region, Pontius Pilate, made sure to come to Jerusalem with reinforcements. Usually stationed on the seaside Roman city of Caesarea Maritima, Pontius Pilate and his soldiers paraded, in a show of force, from the east up to Jerusalem. Banners emblazoned with Roman symbols of empire and might waved as the procession marched along. Legions of professional warriors, helmeted and heavily armed, were surrounded by lightly armed auxiliary forces. Shields, swords, javelins, bows and arrows, slings were all on display as the army made its way on horseback to the Roman fortress on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. People no doubt gathered along the way, watching, in awe, in fear, in resentment.

Jesus, too, paraded into Jerusalem for the Passover feast. In what I suggest to you was an act of guerilla theatre, Jesus and his fellow protesters staged a mock military parade parodying the Roman one. The Roman governor and his army arrived through the east of the city, Jesus and his followers from Bethany and the Mount of Olives, from the west. Jesus did not come riding on a horse, but unarmed and without armor, rode a donkey. Jesus likely entered the city by the Golden Gate, where it was believed the messiah would appear. Protesters waved branches, palms according to John’s gospel, symbols of triumph and victory. They covered the path before Jesus as he went along, a sign of honor and homage.

The donkey added humor and pathos to the parade; the humble, stubborn beast made a mockery of the Romans with their horses. It also harkened back to the messianic visions of the prophet Zechariah, who saw the coming ruler of Israel “triumphant and victorious, humble and riding on a donkey.” Zechariah continues: “He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim, and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations.” (Zech. 9:9-10) Banishing weapons and war, this king would usher in peace. Perhaps this is why Jesus chose a donkey; the messianic vision would have resonated with the crowds, a king of peace. Jesus’ followers shouted out that he is the son of David, the heir of the David’s throne, also political and messianic affirmations. The rule of the Romans will end and the messianic era, the rule of God will begin. The kingdom of Caesar will fall and the kingdom of God will be ushered in. And systems of domination will fall as systems of right-relation, justice and righteousness will prevail.

Imagine the laughter and excitement at this demonstration, the astonishment at this act of provocation, this détournement of a military parade. Imagine the underlying sense of awe and hope.

The Romans rode into town from the east. Jesus rode in from the west. One procession represented the force of empire, the rule of military might, the powers of domination. The other represented the force of love, the rule of peace, and the powers of cooperation. One way of life was based on power over others, on exploitation, on the hoarding of resources. The other way of life was based on power within, on equity, and the sharing of resources. One a social order of fear and scarcity, the other a social order of faith and abundance.

Which of these two parades do we, today, find ourselves in?

The next symbolic act of guerilla theatre that Jesus performed, in his campaign to highlight the incoming rule of God, was to target the profiteering of the Temple elites. He came into the place in the Temple where secular money was exchanged for Temple currency, and where animals such as doves were being sold for sacrifice. He drove them out. He upset their tables, scattering their coins as he dumped everything onto the floor. Jesus and his followers then blockaded traffic in that area of the Temple, not allowing anybody to carry anything through. It was a sit-in, this blockade. No more business as usual! Jesus condemned the Temple elite as thieves, robbers who were hiding out in the Temple. Like Jeremiah before him, he decried those hiding in the Temple, thinking they were holy, when in fact they sanctioned injustice, oppressed the marginalized, and turned a profit from people who simply wanted to get close to God.

This event is frequently misrepresented as Jesus “cleansing the Temple,” as if the Temple needed to be pure and this purification meant ridding it of money, filthy lucre. It should be a house of prayer, not a house of commerce. This obfuscation of the gospel spiritualizes this action, and in so doing drains it of its import and power. Jesus was making a point about the power relations of his society, how the Jewish aristocracy had acquiesced to Roman power, allowing the Romans even to appoint and remove chief priests at their will. Jesus targeted the Temple in this way to highlight this situation.

In quickly understood, dramatic, symbolic gestures Jesus summarized his whole economic and social analyses. Using familiar images and easily recognized characterization, Jesus was able encapsulate, in a few short visual bytes, his entire program and mission. A social order based on compassion, forgiveness (including the forgiveness of debts), and peace was at hand. This was to be God’s imperial rule that stood in opposition to Roman imperial rule and all forms of rule that included domination, exploitation and inequity.

Jesus made his message known not just through his words, his stories and parables. He also enacted his message, choosing actions that would convey more than words could. His détournement of Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem is a good case in point, using humor and song and parody and symbols that readily conveyed his message that there was a more powerful ruler in the world than Caesar, and this power flowed with grace and humility and peace. Referencing the prophets, using messianic symbols, everybody watching would get the point even if they never heard of Jesus or heard him speak. His interrupting business as usual in the Temple was another case in point, gestures that conveyed his message of judgment against the unfair powers that be.

Crucifixion was a Roman form of punishment reserved for insurgents and those guilty of sedition. It was a gruesome form of public execution meant to quell any further forms of dissent. When I hear the mission and teaching of Jesus characterized by people as: “Jesus taught his followers to be nice to people,” I always laugh. Be nice to each other? You do not get executed by the Roman Empire as a political criminal for walking around telling people to be nice to each other! You get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for antagonizing their interests, for challenging the legitimacy of their rule. You get crucified by the powers that be for suggesting that another world is possible.

I can’t help but think of all of those who have stood on the side of love and paid for it with their lives. Who have told the world that another way is possible—individual lives rooted in the practices of kindness, forgiveness and empathy, a social order rooted in the values of compassion, mercy and mutuality. I can’t help but think of all the other protest movements that have stood on the side of love, on the side of peace, on the side of justice. I can’t help but wonder if the powers that be will always win, if domination and war and wastefulness are the fate of human beings and human communities.

Which procession do we, today, find ourselves in, which parade up to the Passover feast, the celebration of liberation? The military procession of empire or the protest march of freedom?  Are we following the processions of militarism and money or the procession of prophecy and peace? We can stand by the side of the road in fear or jump in to the laughing, dancing throngs that are hailing the news: another world is possible. 

Another World is Possible: Biblical Visions

When I meet somebody new, one of the first things they inquire about is what I do for a living. When I tell them (I’m a clergyperson), I almost always find myself deep in conversation about religion. They haven’t been to church in a long time, they will tell me right off the bat, and then proceed to defensively list the reasons why. They tell me why the Bible is wrong about certain things, or how Jesus never really existed, or they want my opinions on fasting, the efficacy of prayer, or other spiritual concerns they are having.

What nobody ever says is, “So you’re religious, what do you think about how Wall Street should be regulated?” They never ask if I think the Bible justifies wars of aggression or what my faith teaches me about the morality of greed, violence, and social inequity and what I might therefore think about the financial industry, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or health care reform, poverty or immigration. None of these, to the modern mind, are religious questions. Religion, in our modern day and time, is concerned only with spiritual matters. These are defined as private and relegated to the sphere of private opinion.

The separation of church and state in the United States does not mean that citizens cannot be shaped by their faith traditions. Nor does it mean that citizens will not be motivated by their faith to be involved in the civic life of their community and nation. This is not simply true of those people of faith concerned with denying reproductive rights or marriage equality, but includes progressive, liberal and other folks as well. War is a moral issue. So is poverty. “Values voters” include those of us concerned for the welfare of the most vulnerable people in our society, those who want to protect our environment, those who advocate for equality.

As the progressive evangelical pastor Jim Wallis says, “Faith is always personal, but not private.” There are public consequences to faith, and people of faith have played essential roles in forming social change movements, including the anti-slavery and temperance movements, the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements. Communities of faith are often at the center of local anti-poverty and hunger projects, reaching out into the community in a variety of ways to serve the needs of others.

The ancient world did not divide these up into separate spheres, and indeed saw no division between religious practice and civic society, spirituality and the public sphere, religion and the economic order. It was all of a piece. This is one of the reasons I look to ancient sources of wisdom, including Earth-centered and biblical traditions, which encourage a more holistic view of faith and practice. The Hebrew Scriptures are full of explicit ways in which the most marginal in society are to be protected, ways in which the most needy are to receive their just share of common resources

Here’s my take on the biblical witness.

The biblical narrative is one of a God who redeems a people, who rescues them from oppression. God leads a people, his people, out of slavery, inviting them into an adventure of moving outside the land of slave masters, of kings and emperors, beyond the land of kingdoms and empires. God delivers them out of oppression and into the Promised Land, promising them something better than they have known, a life of abundance in a land that flows with milk and honey. Out of the nations of the world, God forms a new kind of people, a holy nation that will be a guiding light to other peoples.

God makes an agreement with this people, a covenant. God is to be their only king and the Torah, God’s instructions, is to be the guidebook, the manual, to their common life. God instructs his people not only in how he is to be properly worshipped, and other “religious” matters. Much of the Torah is about the social order for this new society, including trade and farming and debt. God cares as much about his people’s material wellbeing as he does their spiritual wholeness. One could honor God, and the covenant with God, through how one treated one’s workers, how one collected a loan or negotiated a debt, how one harvested one’s field in a way that allows the poor to glean from it, how one was honest in business dealings, or how one treated foreigners, widows, orphans. These actions, among many others, were ways of being faithful to God.

The formative event for the ancient Hebrews was the exodus from slavery in Egypt. This liberation story informs the covenant God makes with them, and they with each other. Never again will they be enslaved, and no worker in their social order will be indentured forever. The covenant calls for periodic release of slaves and indentured workers, redistribution of property and cancellation of debts. In some sense, ancient Israel was to be an alternative to the imperial economies, such as the one in Egypt, which relied on domination, expropriation and war. The Hebrew nation was meant to be countercultural, distinct from the nations around it by its practices of freedom, social equity, mutual support and cooperation.

The covenant was enforced through a series of blessings and curses. God will bless the people if they carry out these instructions and abide by the covenant, and God will curse them if they do not. In the 27th and 28th chapters of Deuteronomy, we read a full list of blessings and curses: “Cursed is the man who moves his neighbor’s boundary stone! Cursed is the man who withholds justice from the alien, the fatherless or the widow! Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by not carrying them out!” (27: 17, 19, 26) Abiding by God’s covenant ensures a blessing on one’s barn and kneading trough, one’s crops and livestock.

“The LORD will open the heavens, the storehouse of his bounty, to send rain on your land in season and to bless all the work of your hands. You will lend to many nations but will borrow from none.” (28:12)

The Israelites established themselves in the hill country of Palestine. Theirs was a commonwealth of federated agricultural communities. Prophet-leaders, or judges, such as Samuel, interpreted the will of God for the people. The Israelites established themselves as distinct from the nations of the world, including not merely the peculiar holiness codes and dietary laws or the practice of circumcision, but also by not being governed by kings or warlords. God claims leadership of this people who are not to have kings the way other nations have. God is their only king.

Soon enough, however, the Israelites want to be like the other nations. They betray God’s desire for them to be a nation set apart, a nation unlike others in which God alone was ruler. The Israelites want a human king, a king they could see and revere. So they demand of Samuel a king.

“Samuel, do everything they want you to do. I am really the one they have rejected as their king. Ever since the day I rescued my people from Egypt, they have turned from me to worship idols. Now they are turning away from you. Do everything they ask, but warn them and tell them how a king will treat them.” (1 Samuel 8:7-8 CEV)

The people are told what it would mean to have a king: a king would make them his slaves and soldiers, servants of his palaces and of his wars. God reminds them of the things that kings do, with their invasions and war mongering, their domination and conquests, their empire building and centralizing of power, their taxation and military drafts. They want a king anyway. They abandon the vocation they have of being unlike other nations, of being a people ruled by God alone.

What follows is a succession of kings, from Saul to David to Solomon, a long line of kings, some of them good some of them not so good. Wars with the surrounding peoples are fought, a capital city is built and the wandering Ark of the Covenant, representing the presence of God, is installed in an elaborate temple in the capital city, Jerusalem. A priesthood is established and ceremonies of sacrifice take place in the temple.

And yet God’s dream for his people, for his world, his creation, is not forgotten. God does not abandon his vision and plan. God makes sure that for every king, there is a prophet. For every national ruler, there is somebody who reminds the king and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with him. The Hebrew prophets are the counterpoint to the Hebrew kings and lords, God’s way of countering and questioning the habits of nations, conquerors, and empires. The prophetic voice reminds the people of their covenant with God: God will bless, prosper and defend the nation if the people create a society of justice, righteousness and abundance. God withdraws his blessing in the absence of justice. The prophets are constantly calling the people back to faithfulness with God. Come back to the Lord, they say, and do what he wants us to do. Sacrifices and elaborate ceremonies are not what God desires. God desires justice, mercy and intimacy with his people.

The Hebrew prophets were the critics on the margins, the thorn in the side of every ruler. They proclaim justice and a redeemed world of peace and plenty. They pull wild stunts, display signs and wonders, engage in guerrilla theatre. They provoke the status quo. They interrupt business as usual. They call on the people to be unlike other nations—to abandon the ways of war and empire, to abandon unfairness, exploitation, and greed. They call to mind the covenant with God, recalling God’s vision.

Jesus of Nazareth appears as one in line with the Hebrew prophets. Jesus’ basic message is to change one’s thinking, one’s consciousness, for the direct rule of God was arriving and taking place here and now (“repent for the Kingdom of God is at hand.”) In line with the Hebrew prophets, Jesus was calling the people back to being ruled by God and God alone. In line with the Hebrew prophets, he reminded the rulers and the people of God’s vision and plan of a peaceful, cooperative, abundant nation in direct relationship with God, although, Jesus’s followers universalized this message for all peoples. Jesus was promoting a way of thinking about God and being in relation with God outside the official sacrificial system controlled by the religious elite, the Temple elite that was collaborating with the Roman Empire.  This was an unauthorized, unmediated relationship with God. One’s relationship with others was similarly re-imagined. The lines that divide people can be traversed, boundaries that separate people can be crossed – national, ethnic, sexual, religious – these are false divisions that keep people from seeing “that of God” in their neighbor. The change in how one orders one’s thinking and one’s relationships (shaping them around mutuality and cooperation and justice) revolutionizes the social order, the political order.

The metaphors that Jesus used for this transformation, the changed relationships with God and neighbor, were political. He did not talk about the family of God, nor did he talk about the school of God. He talked about the kingdom of God. Having a direct, unmediated, intimate relationship with the living God and the resulting transformations of daily life put oneself in the kingdom of God, God’s order and rule. The titles that Jesus was associated with – messiah, Christ, son of God, savior, lord – are political titles. The language his followers used – kingdom, gospel, assembly (“church”) – were all taken from the Hebrew and Roman political lexicon. This is political language. And it is clear from the gospels that Jesus was proclaiming a new order, a different kingdom, a counter-realm of peace, mutuality, cooperation, justice. My kingdom, Jesus tells the Roman governor, is unlike the world’s kingdoms. If it were like them, my followers would have violently opposed my arrest. (John 18:36) My kingdom is not worldly, not armed, not violent.

Jesus was renewing the covenant of God and the covenantal relationship with neighbor. He reminded his listeners of God’s blessings and curses, reminded them of God’s liberating power to bring them out of slavery and into a life of abundance. His listeners suffered a number of Roman military conquests, and were increasingly taxed and indebted. Not only were they responsible for paying a tithe to the collaborationist Temple elite, and the Roman tribute as well, in Jesus’ lifetime, Galileans also needed to fund the Herod who was now located in their region. They were exhausting their reserves, borrowing from the wealthy at high interest rates, and increasingly at risk for having their property seized or foreclosed upon. Jesus’ blessings and curses speak to the desperate economic circumstances of his listeners and followers. His blessings and curses evoke those in the Torah, and were meant to bring his listeners into line with the original covenant.

Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. Blessed are you who hunger now, for you will be satisfied. Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.But woe to you who are rich, for you have already received your comfort.Woe to you who are well fed now, for you will go hungry. Woe to you who laugh now, for you will mourn and weep.Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you, for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.” (Luke 6:20-26)

Much of what Jesus said and did was around what people do with their resources. Many of Jesus’ parables as well as stories about him involve debt and talents, wage earners and unfair bosses and vineyard laborers, taxes and coins, bread and credit. The prayer Jesus taught his followers to pray petitions for sufficient food and cancellation of debts. He taught first and foremost that all that we have ultimately belongs to God. God is the Creator and we simply stewards of God’s creation. The person who believes that they have created or earned their own wealth displaces God as lord of all. Jesus also teaches that our resources are to be used for the benefit of all, for the common good. He consistently privileges the needy—those who are marginal; he calls us to look to such persons when deciding how to best use our resources. Will our actions increase the livelihood of the least of these? Will our actions help or harm the least of these?

The covenant to which Jesus called his listeners back is one of fundamental concern for the neighbor, for the wellbeing of the entire community, the entire household of God. They are to ensure, as acts of faith, that all have access to the resources needed for an abundant life, and that all fully participate in the life of the community.

It is particularly exasperating to me how much of the political force of the biblical vision of economic justice and peace has been drained of its power by the religious status quo. This is particularly true of Jesus, who was especially confrontational toward the powers that be (one did not get executed by the Romans as a political criminal for anything less). His teachings and actions have been so spiritualized their actual, full-bodied meaning in his cultural and historical context are almost lost. I hope that all who take the Bible seriously (if not literally) are able to read and hear the voice within its pages that calls for the re-ordering of our communal household to embody the divine care and concern for the most needy and vulnerable, that describes a vision of the world redeemed—the world at peace with all peoples living in security and plenty, that calls for a social order marked by mutuality, cooperation, justice, and that sings a joyful song of a new day in which the hungry are filled with good things and rulers are brought down from their thrones. May that day come soon!