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.