In Our Outrage is Our Hope: a Sermon after Eric Garner

In the desert today, we hear about John crying out in the wilderness. He’s angry; he’s outraged. He’s making demands on the people. He’s calling them to get their act together.

I can imagine him shouting to us. He’s yelling at us about our conspicuous consumption; about the Keystone Pipeline; about the Middle East and ISIS.

I can hear him saying, “black lives matter” across the generations.

As I see people raising their hands saying “hands up, don’t shoot,” I recollect Jesus on the cross, arms outstretched imploring that they don’t know what they are about to do.

When I hear the phrase, “I can’t breathe,” I remember when Jesus said, “I thirst.”

I can hear the outrage in the voice of John. It’s because I’m outraged also.

I sympathized with a pastor I heard recently: “Saddened, but not surprised.” Nobody who has been paying attention for the last 35 years can really say they’re surprised.

We’ve sent 4 million young men to prison in an expensive effort to avoid investing in black communities. After a while, it’s hard to be outraged because this sort of violence keeps happening all the time.

All. The. Time.

Perhaps our outrage is pointless. Despair is an alternative. Or even a kind of enlightened cynicism. I can afford it, however. Others can’t.

Let’s go back about fifty years. There was a time when any white person could do pretty much anything to a black person without any impunity. Any white person could withhold wages, sell at a higher price, or commit an act of aggression without any worry about the consequences. And if you were a white person who sought to befriend someone of a different color, you could also be subject to aggression.

Think about that. Not only did black people have to regularly negotiate a system where at any moment they could be fearful for their lives, anyone who wanted to be an ally was also at risk. Diversity was not considered a positive; multiculturalism was a problem to be solved while immigrants became Americanized. Blacks, an inconvenience.

That changed, somewhat. What happened? We outsourced the violence. Yes, our formal public spaces, our commercial context, is freer than it once was. And even though our society remains segregated, the everyday habits of violence have been relocated, although not eliminated, to an extent that the violence we do see is that much more outrageous.

But within the fountain of outrage itself, is the wellspring of hope.

Why hope? Just as John expressed his outrage, our tradition teaches that in the mess, in the conflict, is how the possibility for hope pours in. It becomes a part of the mess, working and responding within the outrage. I sense this because I see more people who have begun to understand the cruelty and the precarity within which many black people live.

And this awakening might be a clue for how we understand “repentance.” The changing of the mind, this turn, is revealed in the realization by many people what the cost of white privilege is, and why the constant barrage of black deaths have become, now, even more outrageous to the public mind.

Let me admit, I can’t stand the term “white privilege.” Yes, it’s real. I can’t stand the term mainly because it’s an emotion one can’t actually have. That’s the point. It’s a position. Having privilege is the ability NOT to feel something. So people who do have this privilege are usually completely unaware. And when it is referenced by people who have it, it’s confused with the mild inconveniences one has throughout the day, like traffic stops, a bad boss, or everyday disappointments, which makes it easy for us to plausibly deny the privilege we do have. It demonstrates the truth one philosopher noted: the slave must always think of what the master thinks, but the master need not ever think about the slave at all.

The video of Eric Garner changed, forced, and magnified the issue; what was known by black people suddenly became impossible to deny. Even people who instinctively side with police officers found themselves at a loss.

Certainly discussions about privilege are remarkably clumsy to make, because it’s trying to make someone feel in a fashion that’s really difficult to have. But I take hope that there are more people who realize that this non-feeling, this privilege of inattention, blinds us to making effective political and institutional changes that will make our republic a better place, and prevent the cost of innocents being discarded.

Let’s recollect: we have tools in our toolbox so that can deepen our understanding of these relationships.

Two related parts of the Benedictine tradition, prayer and listening, strengthen our sense of empathy with other human beings. A prayer life is, in part, about exploring the minds of others, as God does. We fit ourselves into the scriptural story; and we can do this as we hear the stories around us. What is it like to life as someone differently bodied? Are there openings where I can experience it?

We might develop a sense of humility, that underrated virtue, about the stories we hear and tell. It’s alright to enter into a conversation without a sense of what the answers are, to be a little uncomfortable. John’s making a lot of people uncomfortable. He’s also uncomfortable. He’s wearing camel hair and eating locusts.

And as the church we are called, fundamentally, to be a trust building organization. We do not demonize our police forces; we commend them when the need be commended. But holding them accountable is the best way to reestablish trust. I hope one day the police will see how the blind loyalty to each other undermines their work. While there is no single solution, if you carefully look throughout the country, there are valuable experiments, from LA to Utah that are worth testing elsewhere and replicating. Even now in NYC, there’s been a drop in arrests because the government has changed its priorities. There are ways God is working; but it will require our institutions to diminish their own fear of change within their ranks.

What’s happened is along a few other cultural shifts. The institutions that held authority have demonstrated their limits, how they easily succumb to human pride and fear. Who can trust the government since the Gulf of Tonkin led us into war and Watergate covered Nixon’s treason? Who trusts priests after the pedophilia scandals? Can you trust a corporation after Enron? But this is also a source of hope; for as this dissolution continues, we may find places for grace to enter. We must find new ways to organize ourselves when the older institutions fail us. This is, in part, our modern challenge.

But let us hold the outrage as a gift. For the outrage itself is evidence that there is a world worth hoping for.

John’s outrage was, a herald, a call, a warning, a proclamation – for once he had see the world for what it was, once he could see what had not been seen, once understood that a new world awaits, and the prince of peace would soon enter the world. Without that understanding, would he have even been in the desert, telling us of things to come?

On this side of Easter, we say that through our outrage we trust in the world to come; we say that we have not given up on the world, and anticipate God’s entrance. Let His work be unveiled. Come Emmanuel.

Church Basics

Sometimes when I am baptizing a child, I wonder what the parents will teach the children about the ways we are identified as “Christian.” It’s easy to think that our daily work is a set of rules, such as being nice, or generally wet-blanket, or severe, pious, and stiff-lipped.

During a baptism, one of the first questions is Will people follow in the teaching of the apostles, the fellowship, the breaking of the bread and in the prayers. It’s a pretty good breakdown of how we work in a Christian community. It merits explanation.

The “apostles teaching” is, firstly, scripture – the bible and the early church readings. I suggest, however, that it is not only scripture, because the congregation is the primary place where should be scripture read.  At the very heart of the apostle’s teaching, especially as an essential part of the Anglican teaching, is the practice of reading, which is fundamentally an act of listening.  It is in listening we learn the minds and existence of other people.

This may seem frivolous, a low bar for the believer. But as we enter into a primarily visual culture, we become removed from the interiority that reading encourages, the learning of how other minds work. The viable options around us now become the outrage machine that is our cable news, which are a mix of profiteering and cynicism; and the images that frame our understanding of the world, often narratives that are selected to increase anxiety and dissatisfaction for the sake of captivating our attention. Reading more effectively teaches us how other people think and deepens our empathy.  A reading habit is a spiritual habit.

I do not want to burden this with a demand that we encourage children to read at 3, or to advocate for any particular canon. Whether it be Harry Potter or Stephen King or Annie Dillard or Octavia Butler or Dostoyevsky or Archie Comics, it’s the habit that matters, and through the habit we learn to read more complex work.

The second is fellowship. Too often I hear that the church should not be a country club or a social organization like a sailing club or the Knights of Columbus. Certainly it should not ONLY be a club or a social organization – and what a really weird club that would be. It must be more. But it cannot ignore that sociability is important. Jesus went to parties, and parties are often where we learn to just deal with each other.  The image for fellowship is a wedding feast, and it behooves Christians to experience fellowship with each other.  And if you are a fancy-pants club member, you should at least be seeking to offer an equal portion to your church community.

The third is the breaking of the bread. This symbolic act is at the heart, even if we’re carb free.  This is an image of being together and recognizing each others’ broken humanity. We allocate god’s love equally in communion; we recognize each other as present in the image of God, regardless of class or caste or gender.  We are not merged into one another, but we are together.

Last: we pray. Prayer is the habit of opening of our minds, fostering a resilience that allows us to have time to discover meaning in the lives we are already leading. Prayer, as a practice, is about listening, letting go, and also learning to think differently. It’s preparation for learning to be transformed. In our daily work, having time to focus, to pay attention, to be open is what will give us the strength to handle the vicissitudes of our precarious world.  Prayer, remember, is not “wishing” but much more: wonder, plea and forgiveness. Without prayer, the world can overwhelm, flatten or diminish us in our daily work. Certainly there are many ways to pray, but without the ability to reflect, to wonder, to listen to God, the world becomes a far more impossible place.

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.