Saturday, February 18, 2017

Be Beloved

            “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  That Jesus – what a kidder – no pressure folks!  Be perfect – doesn’t he know that some of us kill ourselves everyday trying to be perfect?  And these are the ways he tells us to do it? 
            This reading only comes up occasionally but is very central to who we are as Christians, right?  Seems out of proportion – like we should hear it more often.  And when we do hear it do we completely understand it?  Yet we quote it often enough – “turn the other cheek” “give your cloak as well” “go the extra mile”  - sounds all pretty and simple doesn’t it?  Let’s look closer.
            There is a biblical scholar, Walter Wink, who has done a great amount of work on this passage.  His exegesis is extraordinary at showing exactly what’s at stake in these relatively simple-sounding sayings.  It’s amazing how he explains it – I will attempt to explain it here, but you can google his paper – or look on Facebook at the Text This Week page for a link – it’s really fascinating!
            “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” is actually A LOT more specific than how we have generalized it to “turn the other cheek” – the only way for someone to strike you on the right cheek in those days was with a right-handed backhand.  Your left hand was considered dirty, contaminated, unclean – it was used for personal bidness – not for any sort of social interaction.  A backhand was considered the most humiliating sort of slap and could only be used for servants, slaves, those less than you.  A slug was for equals – an open-handed slap was an insult of sorts.  A back-handed slap was to remind the other of their place – remind them that they were less then human.  By turning the other cheek, with the left hand being rendered unclean, that would force the slapper to either an open-handed slap or a slug – either of which equalized the people.  No longer slave or free… sounds familiar?
            “If anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” – this suit would be to pay a financial debt – usually to pay unfair taxation.  Nakedness was a huge humiliation – but Wink paints the picture of being summoned to court and forced to give up your coat.  You only wear two garments – no undergarments – Jesus says give it all up and walk out naked and free!  Can you imagine the shock?  Maybe the suer would try to force your garments back on you – who is ultimately shamed? 
            “If anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second” takes on another layer of meaning  - the Greek words used in this point to the Roman Army’s privilege of being able to compel ordinary citizens to carry their military packs.  The packs could be 40-60 pounds and you were obligated to carry it a mile.  However, the soldiers would get into serious trouble for making you carry it more than a mile – there was a limit to the amount of forced labor you had to endure.  There were mile markers on every road.  Imagine the soldier following you, when you continue past that mile larker and head to the next… all of a sudden, he’s facing a flogging for breaking the military law.  He’s at your mercy to give up his pack.
            The Leviticus reading today was about recognizing those around you as human – from the top view – it assumes you own the field, you pay the laborer, you are able-bodied, you are the judge.  This Gospel reading is about making other’s recognize your humanity – your dignity as a human being – being an agent of your own humanity – giving you the power to make a choice from the view from below.  Jesus is talking to those oppressed by society.  Let’s be careful here though: “turn the other cheek” should NEVER be used to urge a spouse to stay in a marriage – NEVER.  Reclaiming human dignity then would be to leave – remove oneself from the situation.  Jesus is very clear that we are no called to be doormats!  One of my favorite images is Jesus overturning the tables in the Temple – nothing passive about that!  In this gospel today, he’s telling us about turning the tables in much more subversive ways. 
            What keeps us from claiming our own human dignity?  What keeps us from seeing the systems that stifle the human dignity of those around us?  It is so much easier to go with the status quo.  Lord, open our eyes… help us to claim our own selves – our own dignity – our own belovedness, so that we can then see the belovedness in others!  It’s only when we are mature enough in the love of God to accept ourselves as beloved children, that was can see others as equal, as just as loved, as forgiven.  We can learn from this Gospel lesson today that we are not to willingly accept humiliation – we are to overcome it by shaming those in power.

            Be perfect – that’s how the phrase from the Greek is translated here.  A more accurate translation might be “Be whole – be what God intended for YOU to be – be beloved” – we live our entire lifetime striving toward this – “being sanctified by the Holy Spirit” – we believe that we will fall short, but we will keep striving – and with God’s help through prayer and supplication, by Sacraments, by community, by striving for social justice for ALL, that we will indeed move closer and closer to wholeness – to perfection.  Jesus never said any of this would be easy.  There was only one perfect man – and look what we did to him -  but he modeled this Gospel to the very end – he refused to accept the humiliation – he himself declared his own agency with “It is finished” – and then he rose again… AMEN. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Common English Women's Bible

I am so excited that the publishers of the Common English Women's contacted RevGalBlogPals and asked several of us if we would review this new offering. I am even more excited that I know some of the women who wrote and edited this Bible: the Rev Dr Jaime Clark-Soles, the Rev Sharon Alexander, and Dr Jodie Lyon were all part of my formation and education in some way at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University.

I have been using this version for the last three weeks as I do my daily prayers and devotions, and also for sermon preparation. I was already familiar with the Common English Bible format and language. I am truly appreciating what biographical information can be gleaned about all of the different women in the Bible. I appreciate the frank non-judgmental discussions included about sex and sexual norms I have been reading. Even when my daily studies have not led me to a woman's story, the women's stories are easily identified by the formatting and I find myself wandering a bit further afield in the text daily than I would ordinarily wander. The discussion starters have already provided at least one sermon point over these last weeks.

This Common English Women's Bible has already become a staple for me in the tetris-like stack of Bibles I use to contrast and compare ideas and words. I know I will continue to enjoy the perspectives of the women who contributed and edited as I use it in my own daily devotional reading and study. It is so refreshing to "hear" these discussion starters and biographies from a woman's point of view.

Here are the specifics on the CEB Women's Bible:
  • All 80 contributors are women
  • Each book of the Bible has its own introduction.
  • Reflections—writings that can be used in personal devotions or as conversation starters—accompany nearly every chapter of the Bible.
  • Sidebar articles explore more than two hundred themes of particular relevance to women’s experiences in relationship with scripture.
  • Character sketches of more than one hundred named and unnamed women in the Bible are scattered throughout the text.
  • Every woman in the Bible—named and unnamed—is indexed.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Stand Your Ground - Black Bodies and the Justice of God - Chapter 5 - Jesus and Trayvon: The Justice of God

The Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas continues to relay the story of Trayvon Martin to us through the words and interviews with his parents. She uses their own words to illustrate their faith in God and then pulls the lens back to also use those same words to illustrate the historic faith of Black Christians in the United States. In this fifth chapter, Dr Douglas draws sharp parallels between the death of Trayvon and the death of Jesus Christ, in that they were both innocent men who were executed by the powers that be of their individual time periods.

Dr Douglas utilizes the story of the Samaritan woman at the well to show how a male Jewish Jesus uses his privilege to balance out the demonization of the female Samaritan woman. In balancing out the power by giving up his privilege, Jesus places himself in solidarity with those who did not have the social power to move freely in his society. In this movement of Jesus, from the place of privilege equalizing the place of subordinate, we find an example to follow to move from our places of sacred white space to places in solidarity with those in the cross hairs of Stand Your Ground culture today.

Dr Douglas uses the interviews with Trayvon's parents to show how they continually try to turn the conversation toward resurrection by speaking of their beloved Trayvon with pride and love. They refuse to allow Trayvon's character and life to be further crucified. According to Dr Douglas, this is in harmony with their Black Christian faith which places more weight in the resurrection than teh crucifixion. I have to say that I have never been a big fan of Matt Lauer, but Dr Douglas' reporting of his interviews with the parents make me never want to watch him again.

At the end of this chapter, Dr Douglas names Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism as America's original sin - from which most all other sins originate. It has been there since our inception as a country (chapter one) and Stand Your Ground Culture is merely the newest manifestation.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God - Chapter 4 - A Father's Faith: The Freedom of God

The Reverend Dr Kelly Brown Douglas helps us all examine Black Faith in God in chapter four. Using the Exodus Story as the primary lens, she explains that Black Faith is essentially grounded in the belief that God is completely free and therefore seeks freedom for all people. The people in the Exodus story were oppressed and that oppression led to them being God's Chosen People.

I am very appreciative of the information Dr Douglas writes about the function of music in Black Faith. "Music allowed the captured and enslaved Africans to speak to one another across the barriers of their indigenous language and dialects that their enslavers did not respect" (pg 141). The music allowed for the transfer of information, the learning of language, and the expression of hopes and fears. It also allowed the enslaved to sing about the God they already knew from their homeland, a God that was free and demanded the freedom of everyone. This was not the same God that was preached to them as enslaved people by white preachers. The God of Home was a God who called them into being the fulness of who they were created to be (pg153). Home was a free and safe space to fully be who God created them to be.

The discussion of the people who already inhabited the Promised Land is deft and challenging. It allows for the God of Freedom to call the oppressed Home, while leaving space open to say that Home might already be occupied. Dr Douglas does not condone the acts of violence that might be attributed to God that clear out Home for others. She specifically names Native Americans again and their losses to the Manifest Destiny war.

Black Faith, as explained by Dr Douglas, does not blame God for injustice, but rather assumes that God prefers and gives strength to everyone who opposes the injustice and protests for justice.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God - Chapter Three: Manifest Destiny War

I am finally on the other side of beginning the new Sunday School season. One Sunday was Homecoming Sunday, the next started Sunday School, and then the next was Ministry Fair Sunday. It has been a busy month and I did not get back to this as quick as I thought I would. Here we all are, a few weeks later, ready to discuss Chapter Three: Manifest Destiny War in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God by the Rev. Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas.

Dr. Douglas begins the chapter by giving us a history of the term, Manifest Destiny: the combination of Anglo-Saxon as the epitome of humanity finding their place in a whole new world and setting up a societal paradise known as the United States of America. According to Manifest Destiny, the USA was a blank slate ready for the experiments of democracy as imagined by Anglo-Saxon ways and culture. God had declared Anglo-Saxons as superior and all other races were to assimilate as quickly as possible. Assuming that whiteness is superior is troublesome enough, but then requiring assimilation from every other race is a “declaration of war” (pg 107) against non-white bodies. Because God had ordained the Anglo-Saxons as superior, then the war declared against the non-whites was a religious & just war. People indigenous to the USA were killed or segregated using the ideology of Manifest Destiny. All immigrants and non-whites were expected to assimilate as fully and quickly as possible. White Space was to be defended at all costs.

Dr. Douglas then neatly traces the ideas of Manifest Destiny straight into the beginning of the Stand Your Ground Laws. If White Space is the most valuable space, then defending White Space is paramount to fulfilling Manifest Destiny and Stand Your Ground laws allow for the use of deadly violence in that protection of White Space.

The rest of the chapter explains the intersection of Stand Your Ground and White Backlash. Even before Stand Your Ground laws were enacted, non-whites could be killed with impunity simply for being in White Space. If a white person felt threatened in any way by a non-white person, and especially by a black male, that “threatening” presence could be killed or otherwise removed with no further thought. Lynchings, imprisonments, and now police shootings are the direct result of the backlash against black people for simply being in a white space. Militarized police officers and departments continue to fight the war of Manifest destiny every day.

Dr. Douglas ends the chapter by pointing out that having a Black President of the United States has triggered a whole new level of White Backlash. She ponders the idea that the only place her Black son is safe is in her own home.

I am so glad I started this book. Now that I have been introduced to these ideas of White Space and Manifest Destiny and Anglo-Saxon Superiority I cannot un-see it unfolding all around me. I admire Dr. Douglas’ methodical, logical outline of the foundations of the United States and how we got to this place that so many of us find appalling. In some ways, I wonder how we can unravel racism from the fabric of our culture, when it has been woven in so tight and methodically from the very beginning.  

Chapter Four will begin Part Two of the book, which also has three chapters. We are halfway finished reading at this point. Where are your thoughts?

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Stand Your Ground - Chapter Two - The Black Body: A Guilty Body

This chapter begins with another intriguing question: "Why are black murder victims put on trial?" (pg 48). Lower on that same page, Dr. Douglas writes, "Black victims of fatal violence are presumed guilty of bringing their deaths upon themselves. Their white killers are given the benefit of the doubt. It is readily assumed that the white killer acted as a reasonable person would who is in fear for his life."

In helping us to understand how this has historically developed,  Dr. Douglas revisits the Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism and how it lead to the belief that black people could be excluded from consideration as being human (pg 52). She then tracks the concept of "Black Body as Chattel" (pgs 52-56). She shows how the church and state affirmed that not only were black people not equal to white people, but that "equality with white people - and certainly not to speak of superiority over them - is immoral" (pg 57).

I found it hard to read the "Hypersexualized Black Body" section (pgs 64-68). It makes logical sense that in this terrible way of perceiving black bodies, the charge of rape would be unfathomable; I had never allowed my thoughts to wander that far. The sexual abuse of slaves was another way to de-humanize them, force a higher birth rate, and set them apart as "other," specifically the blacks males as threats to white women.

"The Dangerous Black Body" was illustrative for me for what seems to be happening over and over again in the killings of black bodies by police officers right now in America (pgs 68-76). "When black people step into [white/public] social space, they do so as intruders, and thus they have created a dangerous situation because white people are compelled , by divine law nonetheless, to protect their space from intruders" (pg 69). A lot of the calls to the police in the instances of the killings that have necessitated the Black Lives Matter movement, incorrectly identify black bodies as threatening in some way: carrying a weapon. threatening property, threatening suicide, etc. The police then respond with preconceived notions of danger and act without truly assessing the situation.

The dangerous black body then becomes the "Criminal Black Body" for the rest of chapter two (pgs 77-89). If you have not yet read Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow, it should be the very next book on your White Person's Reading List on Racial Reconciliation. It is a dense read, and as well-researched and well-written as Stand Your Ground, in my opinion.

As Dr. Douglas traces how the anti-vagrancy laws came to reinforce a new type of forced labor for the males (pgs 77-82), she also shows how black women are dismissed as "criminally immoral" or "mean and angry" (pg 83). In the week or so since I read this section, I have noticed the stereotype of "Angry Black Woman" (pg 85) more then I ever have before in my lifetime.

So then, if black men are criminal, and black women are so angry as to be irrational and then become criminal, then Dr. Douglas' last stories in chapter two show how "free black bodies have to be guilty of something" (pg 86). Therefore all black murder victims are ultimately put on trial for their own murder. The story Dr. Douglas tells of her toddler son's interaction with an elementary-age white boy at a playground is heart-wrenching (pgs 86-87).

**Aside for Chapter Three: I may not be able to post again next week, so there may be a two-week lapse until the next post. There are some program-year tasks I need to get accomplished to get the Sunday School year started well at Trinity.**

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Stand Your Ground - Chapter One - America's Exceptionalism

Dr Douglas begins this chapter with the question, "If Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?" (pg3). In the next 44 pages, she presents a well-researched position that traces writings concerning Anglo-Saxon superiority to 98 CE (pg4). Those writings are quoted in the founding documents of our country, and are used to strengthen and legitimize white "as Cherished Property" (pg 23). Thus, white as supreme: skin color, cultural norms, etc. The very foundations of culture and religion are built on white supremacy.

The rights of white supremacy include the rights to exclude, the rights of property ownership and the rights of personal space. These are only some of the privileges I have been historically able to hold as a white person. While those first two may be lessening, it is the third one that I see causing the clashes more and more in our society today. It seems like the calls to law enforcement go something like this, "There is a Black person outside with a gun." Law enforcement shows up, assumes the truth of the call and a Black person is detained, arrested, or killed = a Black person in a white space is seen as the problem. Public streets, even in Black neighborhoods, are seen as white space.

Dr Douglas has opened my eyes to how I travel trough daily life. I do not feel safe everywhere, but I certainly expect that my body and my rights will be protected everywhere, as a white person. I now see how our forefathers could write about the rights of all, yet truly mean only those of white heritage. This is a suspicion I held before this, and I am thankful to have such a tightly-researched chapter to trace the lineage of influence.

What are your thoughts as you digest chapter one and ponder what exceptionalism means? Where are you and your family history weaved in and out of this story? How have you noticed your privilege differently since reading this chapter?