Thursday, July 27, 2017

prayer, protest and sustaining revolutionary love in a time of despair...

NOTE: Yesterday's acerbic post about living beyond bourgeois privilege apparently struck a nerve. I keep reading how so many of my white liberal friends are exhausted, reeling in shock, and overwhelmed by the magnitude of the challenges confronting civil society. But rather than return yet again to the weariness of our social advantage, isn't this the moment for revolutionary love? Both William Barber and Valerie Kaur call this the moment when our true America is waiting to be born:

Yes the future is dark... So the mother in me asks what if? What if this darkness is not the darkness of the tomb, but the darkness of the womb? What if our America is not dead but a country that is waiting to be born? What if the story of America is one long labor? What if all of our grandfathers and grandmothers are standing behind now, those who survived occupation and genocide, slavery and Jim Crow, detentions and political assault? What if they are whispering in our ears “You are brave”? What if this is our nation’s greatest transition? What does the midwife tell us to do? Breathe. And then? Push. Because if we don’t push we will die. If we don’t push our nation will die. Tonight we will breathe. Tomorrow we will labor in love through love and your revolutionary love is the magic we will show our children.

For people of faith, let's get over our lack of discipline and self-pity and look to the core of our tradition for clues about living into revolutionary love. Here is my take on what we are called by God to incarnate.

There is an embodied “wisdom from below” gestating within many Americans who have sensed a sacred call to resistance given the rise of the Trump regime. Signs of a civic renaissance abound from rallies of solidarity for science, immigrants and women’s health to creative legal challenges to the Muslim ban. What is less clear is the continued viability of this movement. Both Malcolm X and MLK noted during the last mass surge of American moral activism that unless citizens seize the day - and sustain it with disciplined public practices - the prospect of carrying the Beloved Community to term was not encouraging.

One of the great tragedies of life is that (we) seldom bridge the gulf between practice and profession, between doing and saying. How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds! We talk passionately about peace, and at the same time assiduously prepare for war. (MLK, Strength to Love)

Already I hear white liberals talking about their numbness while living in an exhausted state of anxiety. Let me suggest that our sudden shock is everyday reality for people of color, many women, immigrants, those outside the Christian establishment and the entire queer community. So rather than give ourselves an emotional pass – as people of privilege are want to do – I believe we must embrace a spiritual corrective that could fortify our generation’s ability to bring lasting social change to birth shaped by the wisdom of three moral activists:

· Pastoral theologian, Henri Nouwen, taught that “discipline, practice and accountability” are essential for spiritual formation which he describes as “an ever increasing capacity to live from within our heart.” (Spiritual Direction)

· Dietrich Bonhoeffer, soul of Germany’s resistance to the Nazis, insisted that authentic life is “existing for others… challenging the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as the roots of all evil… (Reclaiming) moderation, purity, trust, loyalty, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty.” (Letters and Papers from Prison)

· And Walter Brueggemann, Hebrew Bible scholar, explains how we can best move through our current dislocation – a 21st century encounter with social, political, cultural and moral exile – by reclaiming practices that renewed ancient Israel. “(Only) when the church is faithful to its own past life with God, does it have ways of speaking, knowing and imagin-ing that can successfully address our cultural malaise.”

When it remembers its ancient miracles, has the courage to speak in its own cadences, and re-engages old seasons of hurt, the church possesses the rhetorical and testimonial antidotes to denial and despair. When thinking about dislocations, an Old Testament teacher moves by "dynamic analogy" to the exile, the determining and defining event of the Hebrew Scriptures. By its stubbornness, its refusal to heed the purposes of Yahweh and its resolve to act against neighborliness, Israel brought upon itself the great crisis of 587 B.C.E. In that year Jerusalem was burned and its temple destroyed, the king was exiled, the leading citizens were deported and public life ended. It was the end of privilege, certitude, domination, viable public institutions and a sustaining social fabric
. (Conversations Among Exiles, Christian Century, July 1997)

To do this requires retooling three, time-tested spiritual formation practices for new a century people. At the end of Bonhoeffer’s life he insisted upon birthing a “religionless Christianity” that would simultaneously disqualify the rhetoric of traditional Christian piety, meta-physics and sentimentality as socially irrelevant – and destructive to the common good – while empowering a diverse cadre of people of good will with the tools to live sacrificially and prayerfully in a wounded world. Now is our hour to advance this commitment to the work of solidarity with discipline, practice and accountability.

First, the practice of honest humility: not pious or anti-corporeal self-abasement, but rather a conscious commitment to listening to the stories of another’s heart. Honest humility, rooted in the word humus – that gritty m√©lange of garbage and earth that affords us the foundation of new life – includes radical social analysis, story-telling in community, and contemplation as defined as “taking a long, loving look at what is real.” Nurturing honest humility for resistance is how we move beyond the walls of our various segregations. Brueggemann writes that “The Old Testament stories of exile might be a resource that can move us from denial and despair to possibility.”

Ancient Israel understood that unless loss is examined and understood, newness will not come. The traditions of exile suggest ways of speech and faithful imagination that (we) can practice and offer as antidotes to denial and despair… (beginning with) the expression of sadness, rage, anger and loss. (Brueggemann, ibid)

Without a safe and responsible forum for listening to one another in communities of accountability our country will continue its descent into cruel nativism. How many of us living in our liberal, moderate, conservative or alienated bubbles failed to accept the near inevitability that Donald Trump – or someone very much like him - would become the 45th President of the United States? Given the vulgarity of our culture, our creative surrender to the bottom line logic of the market place, and the ethical relativism of 21st century society, why did we expect otherwise? Mr. Trump personifies our nation’s dominant practices yet 50+% of us are still react with shock.

Such denial calls to mind the scandalizing commentary Malcolm X shared after the assassination of JFK: “The chickens were coming home to roost. As I saw it… the hate in white men had not stopped with the killing of defenseless black people, but that hate, allowed to spread unchecked, had finally struck down this country’s Chief Magistrate.” (The Autobiography of Malcolm X as Told to Alex Haley) ” A 12 Steps aphorism offers a measure of humor, but tells us the same truth: “If you always do, what you’ve always done, you’ll always get, what you’ve always got.” Part of a deep resistance that changes culture begins by listening to the heart stories of those we rarely know and accepting truths we cannot yet imagine.

Second, the practice of grief work: some speak of self-emptying; others prefer an acceptance of what can and cannot be changed
. However it is described, grieving engages and embodies the anguish of reality. No abstractions are allowed in incarnational resistance. “You have no right to sing Gregorian chant,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer told his allies “unless you are standing up for the Jews.” Grief is fundamentally about loss and solidarity: we feel the agony of the abused; we own our own complicity; we acknowledge the suffering of our own lives and consciously choose to trust that “the arc of the moral universe tilts ever so slightly towards justice.” Brueggemann notes that ancient Israel systematically revisited their wounds in a public and orderly fashion to awaken moral imagination and celebrate compassionate behavior.

At the time of the exile, some believed that life in Jerusalem had been trivialized and emptied of meaning. All parts of life, including God, self and neighbor, had been reduced to managed "things." The sacramental voice of the priests (identified in scholarship as "the priestly tradition")—a kind of language markedly absent in our shrill moralisms—insists that when old patterns of meaning are destroyed, one may find refuge in liturgic construals of ordered holiness. People like us shy away from holiness, worried about ostentatiousness or self-righteous punctiliousness. But in that urgent situation, the priests did not flinch. Without embarrassment, they proclaimed God’s call: "I am the Lord your God; sanctify yourselves therefore and be holy. You shall not defile yourselves. ... You shall be holy for I am holy"
(Lev. 11:44-45). (ibid)

This is resistance out loud and in public. No individual can enter the full grief of this moment in our culture – the promise or the pain – in solitude. We have neither the stamina nor the insight to practice in private the depth or honesty that freedom requires. That is why we need both the well-timed public marches and rallies calling out this regime’s greed and cruelty, as well as carefully crafted cultural events like “Songs of Solidarity” or the recent coordinated showings of “1984” or “I Am Not Your Negro.” Further, an essential for moral revival is consistent participation in a support community of faith and/or shared values. For close to 100 years, religion in middle class America has not practiced the inward journey of prayer. As has been documented by Joseph Driskill of the Pacific School of Religion, since the Scopes Monkey Trails progressive and moderate Christians have abandoned the tools of piety - prayer - in order to escape the brain dead, pseudo-sciences of the evangelical realm. Indeed, we have only intentionally turned to God when our health is threatened or when we must write a social justice resolution for our denomination. But without intimate inspiration from the Divine, we are left to our own energies and insights. And all have fallen short of the glory of God and sinned - and I mean all. Prayer, protest and communities of creativity are key to sustaining a revolution of love.

Dislocation carries with it a temptation to be preoccupied with self, to flee the hard task of community formation for the sake of private well-being. This is all too evident in our own society, where public responsibility is on the wane and the most privileged desperately work to improve their private estate… or the self-preoccupied individualism in the greed that our society calls "opportunity.” The Deuteronomic tradition, however, presents society as a neighborhood and enjoins attitudes and policies that enhance neighborliness… it insists that economic life must be organized to ensure the well-being of widows, orphans and immigrants. This response insists that maintaining a public economy of compassion and justice is a way to move beyond despair.

Third, the practice of revolutionary patience: grief work must drain us utterly so that inspiration and creativity has room to bloom. Brueggemann writes: “The exiles in Babylon faced an empire that seemed to circumscribe and dictate everything, just as the military-industrial complex seems to circumscribe our lives. Ancient Israel came within a whisker of being able to imagine its future only in the terms permitted and sanctioned by Babylon.”

Into this scene stepped the prophet Isaiah, the most vigorous, daring and imaginative of all the voices of faith during the exile. In the midst of the suffering and despair of his people, Isaiah (sensed) a radical new possibility. He dared to say defiantly, in the face of imperial power, “the time of suffering is ending. You shall go out in joy, you shall be led back in peace (55:12).”

After being emptied – after sitting by the waters of Babylon, weeping as priests and scholars and politicians, women and men and children, rich and poor united into a community of sorrow – after waiting with revolutionary not passive patience – ancient Israel was visited by a surge of unexpected creative hope that answered the question: “Can these dry bones live?” Bonheoffer is instructive: besides a dogged vigilance to resistance, he actively listened to the creative imagination of artists, prophets and poets outside of the church, as well as secular leaders being anointed as new bearers of hope. Religionless Christianity was never about abandoning God, but discerning the movement of the holy beyond the confines of piety. It was the path of orthopraxis over orthodoxy.

In 2017, careful attention – revolutionary patience – is required to grasp both the tender and bold ways the sacred is at work breaking down barriers to birthing the Beloved Community. Already labor is reaching out to Queer allies; Christian gospel choirs are joining Muslim imams alongside sassy poets of color; and scientists have left their laboratories for the streets to share not just analysis and outrage, but a new vision of compassion and justice. St. Paul grasped how this came to pass when he proclaimed poetically:

Now we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope… and hope is God’s love being poured into our hearts by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 5)

History has called us into a disciplined resistance of moral courage and artistic creativity. Let us seize not only this day, but use the tools that can sustain our calling on behalf of all of God’s creation.

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