The Good Old Days (Proper 20, Year A)

The good old days.

When I was in high school I worked in a deli with an old school butcher. The sort that stored a couple huge carcasses in the freezer, where behind the counter the owner made his own sausages and ground his own beef. He cooked and spiced his own roast beef, which was always a perfectly cooked medium rare. The radio tuned to a golden oldie’s station that played a lot of Frank Sinatra.

“Those were the days,” he’d say. “When singers could sing and songwriters wrote.” Billy Strayhorn and Cole Porter, they wrote, and Tony Bennett and Ella Fitzgerald sang. The Beatles? They lacked depth. Even Bob Dylan was a disaster.

“He can’t sing. What is this? Who wants to listen to that voice?” He’d say this in his thick German accent. The good old days, when songwriters wrote and singers could sing. Way before Autotune made Katy Perry a star.

There’s the story of Pete Seeger getting so upset at Bob Dylan’s use of the electric guitar at the Newport Folk Festival that he just went up with an axe and cut through it. It actually never happened; and the reason was probably more because of poor sound overall than a hostility to the electric sound. But when people tell the story, it’s to reflect the feeling of some time being more pure and unadulterated. A previous time, and a fear about the future.

And so the Israelites are busy thinking about the good old days. Yes, they’d been enslaved; yes, they were busy nursing other people’s children; and perhaps life was hard and difficult, but they were fed. While they are now free, they are also starving, and deeply insecure because they’re entering foreign territory. Security usually trumps freedom when you don’t know where you’re next meal’s coming from.

Sometimes hope requires a full belly.

We construct narratives, stories of our past in part to survive. Who wants to remember the bad times, the times we were hurt and abused and bullied? And those who always remember, who wants to hang with those guys? Get some therapy, keep your chin up, and endure! Ideally we learn to talk ourselves out of the resentment, fear or the simple feeling that we’re damaged because of what we’ve inherited. But our faith says we cannot avoid the truth, no matter how hard it was, is and will be.

Those narratives can be misleading. Was life great in the 1950’s? Well, for some, yes; for some, no. It’s great that families may have eaten together; but then, who was doing all the cooking? Some people wish we could return to some of those glory days, but do you remember how high taxes were during Nixon? We trusted government, but then, what of the Gulf of Tonkin? Not a lot of African-Americans want to go back to the 1950’s, but on the other hand, some would argue there was a stronger black middle class. So let’s talk about the good old days without idealizing them. We can admit they made us who we are, but who we can and will be, that’s another story.

So the Israelites create this story – life was better in the old days. But they don’t see how, even in the wilderness, there are resources that God provides. One woman in recovery once said to me, when I gave up the drink, I then had to find an inner strength I didn’t know I had; but I also had to look around me and learn about what I really wanted in my life. I wanted good friendships, so I started calling people; I wanted to read more and I learned to value a cup of tea instead. They were all there beforehand, but I just overlooked them.

Around us we have what we need. We just don’t see it.

And so in our own wilderness, part of what we do is to find what has been placed there all around us that can feed us. If we seek transformation, the work will be difficult; because we are like novices, or children, at being free. Nobody just grows up learning to be free in any society; that’s work that requires formation, in an environment where it’s also alright to get things wrong and make mistakes. It’s easier to live a liberated life when you have some security around you.

But the gospel today does not say, “it’s tough to be free, so, if you make a mistake, then go back to Egypt.” It says, you can keep going. It doesn’t matter when you begin the journey. Some have been around a long time. They had their spiritual vision and insight when they were 20 and still organize their lives around it, and God Bless Them. Others won’t get there until they’re 85, when they suddenly realize, “wow, I’ve been an Episcopalian all my life, and I’m only now realizing how wonderful the daily office is!” When the landowner rewards the worker who came late, it may seem like the eldest child who suddenly finds the youngest getting more attention; or even like a newcomer who the rector spends most of their time cultivating. Te youngest will not know what the good old days were like, except through fantasy and legend; the newcomer only intuits what has gone before, and has no desire for the fleshpots of Egypt.

So some people have come late to the party. It may have been a tough road for them to get through the door. That just as some of us have been here a long time, in this church, on this planet, our work in the wilderness also requires the ones just arriving. Perhaps also, we’re the newcomer, we’re the ones who got to the vineyard at 5pm, and we’re benefitting from all that has been given to us from before.

Whoever has come late, the truth is that we need as many hands as possible, because there remains plenty of manna around, for us to discover, for us to gather and for us to eat.

The Resignation of Bruce Shipman

Last week, The Rev. Bruce Shipman resigned as the Episcopal Chaplain at Yale. He had written a letter to the New York Times about the connection between Israeli actions and the recent anti-Semitic violence in Europe, and quickly received the approbation of numerous pundits. Since then, he has been vilified as an anti-Semite, with mainly a single letter as evidence, his background and previous views exposed and critiqued before the press. Others even accused him of raising the specter of the holocaust and describing him and his words as vile and sickening. Even more, he hates Jews.

Really? This is dialogue? Did I read the same letter?

The argument is that Fr. Shipman was blaming the victim. Perhaps. This accusation implies that victims cannot also be perpetrators. In the context of war, the argument is a good way of justifying that the Palestinians caused their own problems (blaming the victim, indeed). In this way, Israel abdicates its own responsibility for conducting a war, offering the comfort to her supporters that the obliteration of Gaza was necessary and unavoidable. They just had to do it.

This view, however, ignores the possibility that in any conflict, the dynamic includes multiple partners. Might it be that no individual or single institution is singularly responsible; we all have dirty hands? This alternate perspective, of course, disappears when we’re talking about good vs evil, and because our side – by nature – is always on the side of good.

When did we all become such Manicheans?

The argument that Israel is responsible for increased occurrences anti-Semitism requires some excavation. Perviously, Norman Finklestein argued such in his book The Holocaust Industry, where he posited that the “shakedown” of Swiss banks and the institutional diminishment of other genocides might have increased European resentment towards those organizations seeking reparations. I’m not sure how to evaluate such claims, but what’s plausible that is that money, opportunism and moral righteousness make an appealing, and appalling trifecta.

For some, this is construed as reaffirming anti-Semitic stereotypes; but for some of us, opportunism is universal behavior. To claim that such accusations are anti-Semitic becomes a slight-of-hand, a get out of jail free card that directs away from  crime itself. The power to accuse someone of anti-Semitism ensures an impenetrable armor of righteousness. It makes it harder for some to gather justice when the accusation doesn’t actually fit the behavior.

Let us be clear: anti-Semitism, like all hatred of minority communities, should be swiftly condemned. In Shipman’s case, contra the headline of the American Interest, he was referring to institutional actors (the patrons, like the United States of America itself) who do influence policy, not all the Jews themselves. I’d be a little more precise: Israel should not be blamed for anti-Semitism, but be unsurprised by blowback. Both Hamas and Israel might want to consider the long term consequences of their violence. Israel’s previous support of Hamas and ambivalence toward Fatah, and their success in occupying the West Bank have had repercussions. And I’m not the sort who compares Israel to the Reich, nor do I think that Israel is creating an apartheid state. But it’s evident that living in Palestine isn’t kittens and rainbows, and Israel bears a greater responsibility for the conditions on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza.

The other question is practical: Do American Jewish Institutions do have an impact on Israel, or on our own relationship with Israel?  It seems to me that if Israel has an impact on the decisions of the United States, a realist position identifies those institutions that have credibility in Israel. My own institutions do not; but I know of plenty of Jewish institutions that have stronger relationships. I work with some them in a variety of ways to keep our dialogue going and identify ways to create peace. I would say, even, they DO feel responsible already.

Unfortunately, there is an unintended consequence of his resignation. It implies the anti-Semitic belief in a Jewish conspiracy to overwhelm honest public conversations about Israel. It makes Shipman’s critics look like powerful, abusive, easily frightened bullies. Who’s really scared of an academic Episcopal cleric? No person who knows Fr. Shipman would accuse him of having a single anti-Semitic bone in his body. And yet, the opposition has gone on to gang up on him (crucify?) for his imprecision and error. What is unfortunate is that these are the sorts of critics who seem motivated by the view that peace between Israel and Palestine is a zero sum game. One side’s victims can be known and acknowledged; the others deserve their fate.

Shipman never advocated violence against Israel, or its elimination. He is not a militant supporter of Hamas. He has toured the holy land with Jews and Arabs. After he wrote the letter, he met with Professor Maurice Samuels, director of the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism.  Is that the action of someone who is a vile Jew hater? No. Because he isn’t, in spite of the claims of his critics. Misinformed? Possibly. Tone deaf? Surely. Wrong? Who knows?

Shipman should have stayed, if only to illustrate that honest, hard conversations in the academy are necessary. Let him be called names; let him be engaged; let his error be corrected.

But let the conversation continue.

Reparations

Last week’s readings included the story from Exodus where God gives instructions about how to eat the ritual meal that would become the Passover. Roast and eat lamb. One should stand, eating quickly.

I wish he had said something about bibs.

God then says he’s going to take the first born child and animal of every Egyptian. It seems a little harsh, right? Couldn’t we just say, “we’re off!” And make a couple threats? No need to keep on killing. But I suppose the story is to illustrate that our God has power and Pharaoh’s doesn’t.

I suspect this story has some economic content. It’s not about revenge; it’s about reparations. Pharaoh thought his wealth was his: he invested, right? He made the money. He just forgot that the property he had, was people. And they did the work. It wasn’t his wealth; it was the wealth created by God’s people, who cared for Egyptian children, plowed their fields and built their pyramids.

It wasn’t revenge, but compensation.

God could have asked for more. After all, the wealth isn’t just His People’s. It’s all his. Everything.

Recently a book revealing how American capitalism grew because of the torture used upon slaves, I think, highlights this point. Our economy has a system where we increase productivity, but we don’t pay people much. Go to a corporation and plenty of the middle managers, the drones, the cogs, working without much help, will recognize the management structure. There’ aren’t any whips, perhaps, just the fear of losing a salary, of being displaced.

But the gospel reminds us that we are fully interdependent. When we think the money’s all ours, watch out. There’s probably someone we aren’t paying.

Five Things to Know about Church Shopping

Originally posted on i feast therefore i am:

As a pastor, I have the chance to talk with many people about what they are looking for in a church. Some have landed at Oglethorpe, others have not. Here are a couple of things that I have learned along the way:

1) You’re Shopping. And That’s OK.

Some people are troubled by the idea that they are doing something as crass as “shopping” for something as important as church. If you are “brand loyal” (i.e. your theology is only at home in a Catholic, or Associate Reformed, or Orthodox, or COGIC church), then you shouldn’t shop. Otherwise, get over it. Even if a congregation has a denominational affiliation, this label probably says more about how they are governed than about how they worship or what they do.

In our case, we are Presbyterian, which means that we are connected to other churches in accountability and support, and that our…

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On being wrong: a couple thoughts on Gaza

While away on vacation, I made the unwise move of keeping connected via wireless. So on the island of Isla Mujeres I was consistently reading the running commentary on Gaza. Remember this: if you want a good vacation, pack swim trunks, sunscreen, and – before leaving – create peace in the Middle East. I blame Netanyahu and Hamas for a terrible vacation. How can anyone have a good time when the world is burning?

Next time, the wireless is off.

First world problems.

Now that I’m back, to work with the interfaith gatherings and protests.

About a week ago, a group of local politicians gathered in downtown White Plains to declare their support for Israel. I’m not particularly offended, or surprised, by this activity: politicians cater to their constituents, and most Americans are pro-Israel. It is also one of those issues that the cost for support is little; the price for anything else could be disastrous, because there are enough individuals for which Israel is non-negotiable.

What pains me, however, is not that people are taking sides; but the consequence of having our public officials be unanimous in the contours the debate. There’s little room, even, for a healthy agnosticism, a willingness to suspend judgment, or universal empathy.  If anything, the dialogue is more truncated and limited among our public officials than among American Jewry or the Israeli public itself.

Unanimity invites the pernicious, anti-Semitic view that the Jews run American Politics. For that reason, we need healthy opposition, even if it may be wrong, by our public officials. It would be a benefit to our debate if we had a few elected representatives willing to get into more public discussions about our proper role.

Further, I wonder about the power of liberal Judaism in the debate. It saddens me that my friends, who deeply love Israel and yet do not share in the common racism evident in the twitter feeds of many Israelis, will find themselves shut out, dismissed, and ridiculed.

I believe that the issues are obscure; there are political stories that remain hidden.  I don’t understand everything that determines how the military decisions are getting made. It seems to me that a number of powerful Israelis were unconvinced that the war was necessary, but the Rubicon has been crossed.

However, I remain outraged at the collective punishment of the Gazans, and this time generally unimpressed with what passes for moral argument of the Israeli government. It seems true that we’re always inclined to hate our enemies and love our friends. Vengeance remains close to our hearts, and for most of us, its the fastest representation of justice. 

It is why the scriptures do not stop with justice. They also say, love mercy.

My Birthday

It’s was birthday on Friday. I’m entering a new marketing niche, on that caters to men about to go through midlife crises. Usually they’d be family men, but since I’m not really one of those, perhaps I can ignore the changes.

I told someone I’ve been a priest for nearly 18 years today. I’m not going to muse on what I’ve learned – I’ll wait for the anniversary of my ordination for that. But that’s 2/5ths of my entire life.

I didn’t have to teach on my birthday, and I had submitted my grades the day before. I started off my birthday at midnight by beginning The Desolation of Smaug. But now that I’m older, I couldn’t finish it.

I woke up and didn’t go to the gym.

My plan was to see if I could still squat 300 pounds. Or at least how close I could get. I’m not, actually, that far off.

My birthday was a luncheon with the presiding bishop. Not just myself, but with the NY clergy. The lunch was delicious and if clergy had such delicious lunches on a regular basis, I’m sure morale would improve, and also congregational leadership.

We had a rehearsal for the consecration. I left after 20 minutes as my role had finished. I had a birthday to celebrate.

My choice this year? Have beer with some friends at the local saloon, that had Avery Maharaja on tap; Godzilla in the Imax 3-d theater. It was a good B movie, but Bryan Cranston died way too soon. I finished the evening with a 2000 Clos de Vougeot Gran Cru by Jean Grivot.  It was good, but I think it should have been opened earlier. Either that, or it wasn’t kept as well as it should have been. Good sour cherry and licorice notes, earthy with some pepper and mushroom on the finish. I probably should have let it open for a couple hours beforehand.

But it was a good birthday.

On Piketty

The new book by Piketty is causing quite a stir. No I haven’t read it.

But neither have many others, it seems.

Some mistakes: Piketty isn’t a Marxist. However, he is data driven, unlike many others who thrive in mathematical obscurantism.

What conservative critics don’t seem to understand is that Piketty isn’t  advocating a classless society or public ownership of the means of production. Like Marx, his immediate problem is defining how capital works. Any good economist is going to spend some time defining what capital is and where it goes.

What Piketty has shown, according to his interviews and reviewers, is that unregulated markets do not distribute wealth equitably. Capital flows to the top. It does not trickle down. Government has been the engine that protects capital flow for the middle class.

This is not a moral argument. It’s a descriptive one. Except when it comes to the corollary that people who have a lot more money have a lot more political power. In the end, as one libertarian economist sheepishly admitted to me, one cannot have both the sort of markets that create income inequality, and the traditional, republican, community virtues. One must have an oligarchy, or a republic, and capital by and large leans toward the former.

Efficiency and economies of scale still produce hierarchies. But that’s not the primary point. He’s not arguing against income inequality, social stratification or corporate organization. He’s saying something about capital flow. But in some conversations he’s remarked that A CEO making 20-25 times the lowest paid worker will be no less productive than a CEO making 500 times that. He asserts that level of income inequality is simply not necessary for a market to function productively. And this is what has some conservatives hopping mad: it seems that they want it all.

So unregulated wealth flows upward. Now what? Well, I can’t affirm much about policy at this point. Our faith requires realism about wealth and a distinguishing between things and people. It takes a subtle conscience to acknowledge each financial misery, one’s own riches, how one’s own wealth is through grace. That kind of sophistication is rare: the eye of the needle, perhaps.

Our communities, however, can provide spaces where people are invited to be generous with each other. For we think it’s all God’s, and we should not be afraid of loss, not afraid of sharing, resentful of the prosperous, or judgmental of the poor. At least, however, Piketty has called us to pay attention and face the truth: capital flows toward the top, unless our public institutions ensure that it flows freely for all.