Wealth and Responsibility: reflections on today’s daily office

From Today’s Daily office:

Deuteronomy 8

12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, “My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth.” 18 But remember the LORD your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

And from the first letter of James:

Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act-they will be blessed in their doing. 26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

In our conversations about wealth, I hear some who say that the wealth is theirs. They earned it, and they worked hard. Their participation in the public should not be mandated, but voluntary. And we see how the public wastes.

The gospel critiques this. It does not say that abundance or wealth is bad. It implicitly approves: we multiply our wealth – and that is a gift. But the risk is apparent: as we make more, we place ourselves upon the throne that God would inhabit. We delude ourselves into thinking we are independent, when the truth is the opposite. The most wealthy are, truly, the most dependent upon our entire system perpetuating.

The scriptures assert: as we have built our wealth, we must not forget that we were once slaves. We once resisted. We created idols. And we forgot that we were once poor, and had to rely upon the generosity of others. Remember how wealth easily disfigures our ability to connect and empathize. It need not be so, but this is why we challenge the powerful have a healthy appreciation for public institutions, and the willingness to share leadership and power.

We hear, of course, of powerful “self-made” men who forget all the work that came before them. But the scriptures offer a correction. Remember that modern inventions rely upon the previous inventions and protections and contributions of others who were not properly compensated. We rely upon the work of others to make our lives bearable. But the entitled forget that the value of their labor is not purely their own. Others must help, must buy, must see and approve. The scriptures do not deny income inequality when it is simply a matter of one person working harder than another. But no person works 50,000 times as hard as another person, and it is the wealthier person who is dependent upon all the relationships that brought money into their hands than the truly poor. They see money as an efficient tool rather than as the symbol it is: the accumulation of trust, or debt, or sin, that is in their hands.

The gospel then says, through James, that our role is simply this: not merely to talk about God, or about Jesus, but to care. In a world of entitlement, we declare our humility; in a world of contempt, we offer kindness. The gospel says repeatedly, that no matter what, people count. Each person matters, no matter what they have in their account. Not one person is expendable. At heart, that is why we challenge a system that measures human beings through the sign value of money. We are more than that.

Decluttering as a Lenten Discipline

I’ve got a lot of stuff.

Some I’ve inherited. The books, tools, and furniture from my parents. Photos, film reels, and old board games. Cooking utensils such as beautiful Sabatier-K that still cuts vegetables cleanly and easily. It was the first real cooking knife my mother had bought.

Then there’s clothes, some of which I can’t wear anymore as they seem to have diminished over time. I’m not sure how fabric does that, but it’s how it is. Books from college, and notes from divinity school.  Lots of stuff.

In the old testament, sin could be defined as a “burden,” and I wonder if much of the stuff represents the burdens I’ve carried along the way. Or even, given the many things I’ve bought on a credit card, that the stuff represents another, later definition of sin, my debts.

Recently, a book about tidying has become quite popular: it’s method is to declutter any specific category of stuff, like books, clothes, glasses, all at once. She discerns what to toss and what to keep by asking: does this thing bring joy? The consequence is that we become surrounded by objects that make us happy.

I wonder if this gives us a bit of a strategy for thinking about decluttering and refocusing during Lent. Concentrating on what brings us joy. But let us not be vague or ethereal about the question, look at the concrete, specific, everyday objects that we use, without shame or sentimentality. Don’t start, she suggests, with the sentimental: begin with clothes, books, and other things that will not stoke nostalgic feelings. Perhaps by laughing off all the excess stuff we have in our lives, we can begin to live more lightly, unburdened, liberated.

Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu

Two police officers were murdered Saturday at 2:45pm.

This crime highlights the connection between the escalation between cops and the communities they serve,with the ubiquity of guns. When the people are armed, the police can’t easily distinguish between the ones who are dangerous and those who aren’t.

Further, there is another dimension worth examining. The killer had just engaged in an act of domestic violence; it’s a crime that is particularly dangerous for both the partner and the police as well. It seems clear that what we should do is find ways to get communities and cops to work together to get guns off the street; and identify those individuals who are likely to purchase a gun and use it on a partner or a police officer. I wonder if preventing domestic violence should be central to what the police do – I suspect it will be even more useful than the broken windows theory. Track it and see what’s revealed.

Pat Lynch, however, isn’t helping the problem. I suspect, however, his rhetoric has more to do with upcoming contract negotiations than with the issues at hand. But the mayor isn’t responsible. the murderer is. If anything, there’s been an outpouring of support from many of the people who have been protesting against the cops. Lynch’s rhetoric is inexcusable.

Yes, there are some who chant “fuck the police” at marches. At best it’s in poor taste, and worst incendiary. But speech is exactly what the police are supposed to protect. The best test of that rule is when you hear speech you don’t like. That’s when we need protection the most.

Leaving my house today, I ran into a cop who had helped me a few months ago. He was walking his puppy, a beautiful German Shepherd. I said, “Tough times. Terrible tragedy.” He said, “It’s demoralizing.” He blamed the media. And then he said, “they should just release all the grand jury tapes. Then they would all know.”

It was a sentiment members in my parish had shared. Without transparency, trust becomes impossible to build. Although there will always be those who really hate the police, even poor, black communities want police presence. Small steps toward openness might go a long way. People might still see different things, but the intensity of the response would be diminished.

And now, let us turn our eyes toward the NRA.

Torture and Christians

I am one of those Christians who believe that torture is outside the realm of Christian behavior. It distinguishes the legitimate actions of the state and the church, and the church must have no part in it.

So I was initially surprised when reading about a poll that indicates that Christians, overall, supported torture in greater numbers than the unreligious. But on the other hand it makes sense.

For those of us who see secularity, as a logical outgrowth of the Christian tradition, this should be seen as a success. This view holds that Christianity has pervaded the culture so thoroughly that we expect the state to uphold the integrity of the body. Our expectations of the behavior of the state are now different than how a pagan state had viewed torture. I do worry that this hold is shaky – more of the elites in this country are now formed by The Fountainhead rather than the Sermon on the Mount. But that non-religious people do not support torture should be comforting. There is no intrinsic reason why they should have inculcated such views.

But over the last 40 years, as liberal protestantism has diminished, Christians by and large have become captivated by the Republican party. They are its foot soldiers. So it might be that what is really happening is a defense of the Bush-Cheney years, a way of reconfirming one’s previous position. It takes too much psychic energy to admit one is wrong and change one’s mind. In short, Christians who support torture do so because their political allegiances form how they are religious.  They are politically captive.

The benefit of knowing Christ means that we realize we can afford to be wrong, to be transformed, to change, while also remembering we are still worthy of love and respect even though, and perhaps because of, the mistakes we make. A faithful Christian must be able to take the risk of being willing to change one’s mind and conform with Christ, not with the needs of the imperial state.

The purpose of torture has always been, primarily, to silence dissent, invoke fear, and force conformity. After 9/11 the administration instructed the CIA to conduct these exercises, creating conflict within the organization. Those responsible for ordering these practices should be held for war crimes.

Cuba Libre!

Our policy against Cuba has always been one of those issues that gets me into fits. I start ranting, my head begins to ache, and I get lost in a morass of incomprehensibility, because the policy is incomprehensible.

But yesterday I was liberated from that.

Now if someone can only end the war on drugs; and explain to me how financing stadiums helps cities.

I agree, of course, that the Cuban state has been poisonous; it has also been at war. But no matter how one thinks of Castro’s legacy, the embargo was not successful, and it was only internal American politics that stalled our ability to move forward.

That the Vatican was essential to the reestablishment of diplomatic relations illustrates how the church can use its power well. The church has always had a useful diplomatic role to play; it is different because it does not have an army, and like most organizations with a degree of moral heft, it can be ignored. It also has built up relationships over a longer period of time than most states. Granted, it makes choices the way any other institution makes choices, but because its stakeholders are different, it’s perspective is valuable. Although I disagree with the Vatican on almost everything they say, in particular, about sex, in the role of encouraging people to collaborate and work together, I’m glad to see how it’s doing the work.

I’m ready to book my trip.

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.