Monday, July 18, 2016

From Sea to Shining Sea: Freedom, Obedience & A World in Chaos

We all came here as candidates for the slaughter of the innocents... James Baldwin

Bridge over the Bosphorus, Istanbul (Europe to R, Asia to L)

What is obedience?

Since I am not employed at present, I have some extra time to contemplate. I try to imagine serving a congregation at this moment, and trying to bring together the elements that trouble our hearts and minds.In one week's time, the world has been alarmed by so much: Nice... Baton Rouge... Turkey... and our ever-growing unease about our own political future. We need a spiritual place to rest.

I will start with Turkey. Turkey, and the alleged “coup.” It is there I begin, because I know a few things that others may not. I had a beautiful, unbidden and serendipitous opportunity to travel there for a two week tour in 2008. I went with other clergy from Kentucky, and with one official from the University of KY. Our entire tour was funded by a group, the local members of which we’d come to know well, called “Rumi Forum.” These young men, students at UK, had frequently visited our Sunday services, invited us to Eid celebrations and a fabulous annual Banquet, and started Interfaith dialogue with Muslims, Jews, and Christians as well as non-believers in the community and at UK.

 Clearly, they were progressive, even liberal Muslims.

Still, before we accepted this largesse, some of us felt compelled to “investigate” the organization behind the trip. Who on earth would pay for people to go to Turkey, no strings attached? But all we could discover was that Fatullah Gulen, a cleric who led the Gulen movement, and whose followers also started the Rumi Forum, was living in the US, and strove to maintain and encourage the spirit of openness and interfaith cooperation that had mostly flourished under the era of Attaturk and the secular state. They saw Turkey as a key to peace in the Middle East, if it could remain progressive.

As you can imagine (or maybe not!) Turkey is an astoundingly beautiful land, with historical sites from Christianity as well as Islam and even Judaism. We visited all three, and met with craftspeople, newspapers ( Zaman, the Gulen paper now banished by Erdoğan,) and drank lots of tea and consumed so many platters of baklava that I began to dread another piece.  That's a lot!The people were warm, open, smiling generous of heart and hand.

At the Palace Dolmabache

So, you can imagine my alarm and anxiety at hearing that Gulen is being blamed, along with his followers, for the coup. I fear for my friends, their families, for Gulen himself, and for the hope of freedom and democracy in Turkey. Please… take a moment and pray for Turkey.

And if you feel inspired, spend a moment, and read, beyond the mainstream media, about Gulen, the Rumi Forum, and what Gulen is being accused of doing in Turkey, compared with what is actually known about him.  I could be wrong.. but what I see happening is a massive, world-altering potential situation in Turkey, that most people know nothing about, and for that matter don't care about either. In fact, they are lots more excited about catching Pokemon critters! 

I do not know everything about Fetullah Gulen and his followers; much is secretive. But I do know that the President of Turkey, Erdoğan, has by today, detained 50,000 people, and has over the past several years brought less freedom, less liberty, and less openness to the people of Turkey

One of the places I visited was Ephesus. Here it was that Paul brought the message of “the church” to the people. He preached and taught those who had been pagans, worshippers of the Goddess Diana.

I wish I’d spent more time reading Ephesians before I traveled to Ephesus. It would have helped me understand why the Christian ministers found its sites so significant. The Letter to the Ephesians sets out a lot of Paul’s rhetoric, starting with predestination, election, and prevenient grace, then moves quickly into a description of the posture of Christians toward God as understood by Paul (or whoever wrote the letter in his name.) Wives, submit to your husbands; Children, submit to your parents; and Slaves, obey your masters. In my mind, Paul was a creepy prude who came along and trampled out the pagan traditions that, were they still alive, might have sustained our earth.

Because re-reading it, I remembered why it, and most of the letters of Paul made me furious as a seminary student (which is the last time many UU ministers studied the scriptures in detail.) I was looking at the parts of his edicts that have been taken literally by those who would use them to justify slavery; to justify strict and unyielding parenting; to justify authoritative, even abusive marriages.

Ephesus, men washing before Muslim prayer

It’s good to look back on the pictures of Ephesus and to think about the freedom that was represented by that trip, and by the outreach of the Rumi Forum. That dream is not dead. It’s good to look at Ephesians and set aside the passages that are clearly time bound. Some words of wisdom remain: do not let the sun go down while you are still angry. Do not give the devil a foothold. (4:26-27) Get rid of all bitterness, rage, and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. (5:31)

These words don’t grate. But they do point to another aspect of  orthodox Christianity that is troubling. So much of the interpretation of Christ’s teachings has been about meekness and obedience. It's been about passivity. And it's led to a citizenry that have no idea what to do with rage.


At my meditation group this week, our teacher read a lovely message sent by Pema Chodron on her 80th birthday, in which she spoke of the issues of racism and police killings. A woman there said, well, if people wouldn't keep agitating, to which Joe, our teacher, gently chided, Jesus was the biggest agitator of all. He didn't get executed for hugging children and petting sheep.

I cannot imagine being a person of color today (or any time in history) and not having a backlog of rage so vast it would be all-consuming. I have rage as a woman in this society. I am well aware that my repressed anger does not, could not touch that of an African American, a Latino/a, an Asian, an Arab. Hence, when I hear of the killings of police officers this week, I am sorry, I am sad, but I am not surprised.

Where can rage go?

The answer to the conundrum can be found in Ephesians as well.

Woven into some of the text are encouragements to truth (Each of you must put off false hood and speak truthfully to his neighbor, for we are all of one body. 4:25) and (speaking the truth in Love 4:15) as well as  exhortations to “standing” against forces of repression, forces that Paul calls the “devil’s schemes..” and the “day of evil…” but which I heard preached with a different shade of meaning in an AME Zion church not long ago.

Clearly the woman pastor there was calling upon her people, not just her congregation, but African American people and all oppressed people to hear these words of Paul as a calling, an exhortation, a command from God, to use the “Armor of God” as a shield from the racism they faced daily, in small, petty, micro-aggressions, as well as in protest against the tsunami of hatred and racist screeds that are symbolized by Trump, his supporters, the resurgence of the Confederate flag, and the refusal to indict, or if indicted, to find guilty, any police officers who murder unarmed black men and 

My memory stammers, but my soul is a witness... James Baldwin

Son of a preacher, Baldwin had to go into exile as an artist to be free as a Black man in twentieth century America. His home in France was close to Nice, the scene of yet another attempt to destroy freedom and joy. 

I have seen scripture used to bully, to oppress, to deny humanity, and to kill. I've also seen it liberate.

postcard: a Black eunuch at Topkapi Palace 1912...

From Dallas to Ephesus. From Baton Rouge to Nice. One question recurs. For me, it is not the question, how will we prevent more violence?.... because that always leads back to more enforcement, more militarism, and more “obedience.” For me, the question is how can we maximize the freedom and creative capacity of each individual?

What if we took these words, not as a command to fight the temptations of the "Devil," but a command to stand up against the evils that are happening right before us, here, now, daily? Racism, injustice, ageism, ableism, and the economic disempowerment of 99% of the population.

10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. 11 Put on the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. 12 For our[b] struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. 13 Therefore take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. 14 Stand therefore, and fasten the belt of truth around your waist, and put on the breastplate of righteousness. 15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace. 16 With all of these,[c] take the shield of faith, with which you will be able to quench all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
18 Pray in the Spirit at all times in every prayer and supplication. To that end keep alert and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.19 Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel,[d] 20 for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it boldly, as I must speak.
(Ephesians 6:10)

Not a question easily answered, and probably not one that many people outside the church will ever wish to consider. But perhaps it’s an argument for the survival of religion, or something like it.

We are History, and what goes around, comes around. (James Baldwin)

So may it be.
Mediterranean Sea, Antalya

*Baldwin quotes are from The Evidence of Things Not Seen, prelude.

Sunday, July 10, 2016



So, the name of the shooter was Micah.

Micah was one of the Hebrew Testament prophets who warned against the greed and avarice of the leaders of the day, and who defended the poor and disenfranchised against the rich and powerful. The book of Micah both laments and prophesies coming doom, as well as predicts an era of peace under the leadership of a monarch in the Davidic line… (which Christians later understood to be Jesus Christ.)

Now, I haven’t heard anyone else make this connection, so I’m sure I’m going out on a theological limb here.

Let’s get one thing straight. I do not believe in a God who would engineer the killing of police officers by the hand of someone with a conveniently Biblical name to make a point. God, for me, is just not that detail-oriented.

However, I’m a Jungian, and I think the synchronicity here, and very possibly the sheer coincidence, is fascinating. And maybe I’m just being an English major/theologian who can’t resist a great extended metaphor.

But, unlike some of my colleagues, who wish they did not have to preach this Sunday, I would love to be with the people of God. Because anti-racism has been my calling since I entered ministry more than twenty years ago, this time in particular has become a time of passionate involvement for me, informed not only by my faith, but by all of my humanity: parent, child, woman, friend, student, writer, wanderer, and preacher.

Micah starts out with a rebuke to those who worship “false gods.” If I were preaching about that today, I’d have a lot to say, but let me start with Chapter 2:

Woe to those who plan iniquity
to those who plot evil on their beds
At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.
…They defraud a man of his home, a fellowman of his inheritance.
Therefore, the Lord says, I am planning disaster against this people
from which you cannot save yourselves.

There is more… lots more. Grab a Bible, and read Micah. It’s short. But essentially (leaving aside the ranting and railing against ‘pagans’) the prophets were full of these exhortations. Micah, in just a few pages, moves rapidly though the threats, channeling God, to the promise (almost identical to that made in Isaiah:

Come. Let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob.
He will teach us his ways so that we may walk in his paths…
(People of many nations) will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nor will they train for war anymore.

It is quite clear to me that Micah, the prophet, spoke wisdom that applies today. When leaders neglect the poor, the disenfranchised, those who have no voice, no agency, and do so for decades, for centuries, then what we are seeing now is what is wrought.

What surprises me is why this is news.

Why are we shocked?

These extrajudicial killings have gone on and will go on until policing is radically reformed. For me, policing should be abolished, along with prisons, but I realize that is a radical position that will cloud this argument. Having militarized, uniformed, guards patrolling our city streets, stopping and accosting citizens for what has been shown, again and again, to be without cause, and then refusing to use tactics to de-escalate, unless the citizens are white, can no longer be tolerated. African Americans have tolerated and bent to it for decades because they had no choice if they wanted to live.  So, white people who chant “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and refuse to listen to the cries of injustice no matter who issues them…you expect people of color to what? Be quiet and go back into submissiveness?

That won’t happen. And there is one reason it will not happen.

God is on the side of the oppressed. Christ is on the side of the oppressed.

James Cone, eminent Liberation theologian, writes: “The gospel is found wherever poor people struggle for justice, fighting for their right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree)
“The Gospel of Liberation is bad news to all oppressors because they have defined their ‘freedom’ in terms of slavery of others.”

And more than that.  Christ is Black. The cross is Blackness. Micah is advocating for people of Color.
James Cone: “The coming of Christ means a denial of what we thought we were. It means destroying the white devil in us. Reconciliation to God means that white people are prepared to deny themselves (whiteness)Take up the cross(blackness) and follow Christ (the Black ghetto.)

I daresay any number of white churches, most if not all, will honor those police officers who died last week. That’s understandable. My question: have they raised up the Black Lives and black bodies in the same way? The sad and ironic thing about the killings wrought by this present day Micah and his prophecy is that of all police departments, Dallas was one that was trying to “reform.” The officers had decided not to wear riot gear, which would have protected them. That’s tragic. Each one killed was not responsible for his death.

But the system is corrupt. Almost everyone understands, but will not acknowledge, the code of secrecy and silence kept by officers. It’s the circling of wagons and the denial and defensiveness against any suggestion of wrong doing that underlies the rage that simply boiled over in someone like Micah. Their tragic and lamentable deaths were wrought by more than that one person.

In Chapter One, besides ‘pagans,’ Micah goes on about ‘prostitutes.’ It’s synchronous again, because I’d not read that when I dreamed last night about police officers. I was in a tower and trying to get out. I kept trying to go up or down winding stairs and saw others going into a room, which I gradually became aware was a place that cops went to meet prostitutes who were kept there. I tried to break through a secret “door” in the wall, but each break uncovered more stone walls. I went into the lobby but saw many cops lounging around, all in street clothes. Of course, since I am Jungian, I have to understand this dream as one that is more about myself than about the police.  I have to ask where I am policing myself, why am I trapped in this tower, what is being prostituted and why? Details to follow. But today I can’t help touching upon the surface, more literal meaning, not that I think cops are holding prostitutes in towers, (although I was told the frequenting of them and silencing around it is routine and well known in Atlantic City) but that I see actual police as somehow selling out or keeping me from being free. Is there something about this race/police issue that I can’t break through to? That I am trapped/imprisoned about? It was clear to me that I would not be kept amongst the prostitutes. I was too old. And yet… I couldn’t escape. There was no way out.

And, this: Micah was trained by our military. We made him a sniper. We, who have allowed, since 9/11, endless wars and militarization, and horrible (I have experienced this first hand with Veterans in my congregations) after care and mental illness care for Vets, and with the militarization of police departments in turn, a Micah to even be out there. No place to turn with his rage.  No real help for his deep, deep distress. He, too, is a victim. And killed, by a militarized, robotic, bomb. I will not name him a monster.

As James Cone said, The truth about injustice always sounds outrageous.

Finally, I turned, this weekend, to another James: James Baldwin. “Jimmy,” as he was known to his many friends and colleagues, wrote so eloquently and poignantly of the state of being black in America, a state he could see with eyes that pierced through the illusions we mostly live by. He suffered for the truths he told, and ultimately left this country. He went to a beautiful, country estate in France, not far from Nice, where he could be what he could never be in America, a free, Black man.

I’ll let his words be the benediction:
In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finger there is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth. People pay for what they do, and still more, for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it simply: by the lives they lead.

What life will you lead? In the final analysis, you may have more freedom than you imagine.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

On Self-Doubt, and the White Saviour Phenomenon: Reflections at MLK Week.

Our son Seth at Disneyland, 2012

When I am in Kentucky, I am working on a project to gather and make public the stories of the people of color in a small town. In order to do this, I'm working hand-in-hand with a woman who grew up in the African American community, and who is deeply entwined in their history. She asked me to work with her. In my mind, and in my heart, I know that I am using the skills I have gleaned as a minister, as a writer, and as a spiritual director, to be present with people, to draw out and treasure their tales, and to bring them cohesively into what I pray will be a narrative that is both an agent of change and an agent of healing for a still-marginalized and very much oppressed minority.

This is in addition to the work that the interim congregation I am serving in New Jersey has done by posting a Black Lives Matter sign, and starting a partnership/lecture series with a Black United Methodist congregation in Atlantic City. So, many of my waking hours are devoted to the issues of Black Lives, which have become, in my eyes, the issues of the day.

Residents of Atlantic City & Atlantic County share stories on Black Lives
Why did I put the white guy in the center!? 

But I perpetually question my own motives. What part of this is about me, and my need to feel useful, to feel that somehow I am doing something to stand against the forces of racism and discrimination that still exist across this land? Worst of all, do I fall into the category of the "white Saviour?"

During the week before the MLK holiday, I was at home in Kentucky, and when there, I often attend the town's AME Zion chapel. The pastor, a woman, has agreed to collaborate in the project, as well as to allow the photographer I've asked to potentially work with us to take some photos during a service. I have felt both blessed and somewhat surprised at their welcome for me. Let's just say that were I a person of color in a small town that felt as if it were about 1975 today, I'd question the motives of a white woman coming in from outside to "write a book or a documentary.." Enough said.

"Oh, NO! I am centering myself. " (White savior anxiety)

Last time I went there, I spoke with a woman from the community I'd known for a few years, and met her son, who is 11. On the way to school the next day, I mentioned to Seth, who, because of his Autism, doesn't get a lot of play dates, that maybe the two could play together sometime. At first he thought I was talking about the congregation I am serving in New Jersey. No, I said, the African American church we went to. To which he responded: I thought Martin Luther King fixed that a long time ago. I stammered something, and he added: What? Did the white people forget?

Indeed the correct answer here is "Yes. The white people did forget." And that includes those of us, liberals and progressives, who, whether because of our preoccupation with other matters or, and I will freely admit that I fall into this category, because of our fear of being looked upon with mistrust and even scorn, of being seen as or even actually being  that "white savior"  mentioned in articles like this one from Huffington Post  or this one, from the Atlantic, just quietly stepped away from working on matters of racism.
Second attack on sign. Since this one, it was painted over again.

The reality is that some of us dedicated our ministry to anti-racism decades ago. We are not looking to be "saviors" or to win awards. We are compelled to join the struggle because to do otherwise would be to live a life of such compromise that we would feel, especially now, that a new Civil Rights movement has begun in full bloom, utterly hypocritical.

Unified Black Students of Stockton Rally November 2015.

James W. Perkinson, in White Theology: Outing Supremacy in Modernity, argues persuasively and eloquently that white solidarity must be born of not only conviction but of pedagogy and struggle. He also states that white solidarity, to be genuine, must be embodied in what he calls "the sacrament of a post white vocation.." a kind of Baptism. For white people, the functional equivalent of such a "baptismal" reprogramming is a life-long self-discipline and self-confrontation in the existential schools of racial encounter, inculcating a different habit of perception, able to see and feel the significance of the entire system of supremacy that bears down with such intransigent weight...Before there can be cognition of a new possibility, there is need for a newly felt consternation inside "the problem." The problem is a code of absolute differentiation habituated deep inside the white body that requires sustained confrontation and interior work.  (Perkinson, 245)

So, while I have to check in with my colleagues who are also active in this movement, while I need to examine my own motives and my own actions, I also need to trust my heart, stay true to my convictions. I need to listen to and read the voices that affirm my passion. In fact, I should have done that long ago.
My great grandmother, Mora Lake Patton. Cherokee Indian. I think of her sometimes. She died in childbirth.