Friday, January 18, 2013

Holding the Shoe

    For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.
-Ephesians 2:14-18 (NIV)
     In Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, four children died in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church.
     Four members of the Ku Klux Klan set the dynamite that killed them. At 10:22 AM on Sunday, September 15th, 26 children were walking into the basement assembly room when the bomb went off. Four girls - Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley - were killed in the blast. They were all between the ages of 11 and 14. Twenty-two others were injured. 
     The bombing was a response to the city’s agreement the previous May to integrate public places.
     On the day of the bombing, Atlanta Constitution editor Eugene Patterson wrote an editorial that begins this way:
     A Negro mother wept in the street Sunday morning in front of a Baptist Church in Birmingham. In her hand she held a shoe, one shoe, from the foot of her dead child. We hold that shoe with her.
     Every one of us in the white South holds that small shoe in his hand.
     It is too late to blame the sick criminals who handled the dynamite. The FBI and the police can deal with that kind. The charge against them is simple. They killed four children.
     Only we can trace the truth, Southerner -- you and I. We broke those children’s bodies.
     We watched the stage set without staying it. We listened to the prologue unbestirred. We saw the curtain opening with disinterest. We have heard the play.
     We -- who go on electing politicians who heat the kettles of hate.
     We -- who raise no hand to silence the mean and little men who have their … jokes.
     We -- who stand aside in imagined rectitude and let the mad dogs that run in every society slide their leashes from our hand, and spring.
     We -- the heirs of a proud South, who protest its worth and demand it recognition -- we are the ones who have ducked the difficult, skirted the uncomfortable, caviled at the challenge, resented the necessary, rationalized the unacceptable, and created the day surely when these children would die. 

     Not quite five years after Patterson’s editorial, I was born in Atlanta. I grew up in the South - the New South, mind you. The integrated South. By the time I started school, the turbulent 60’s had passed. My parents were horrified by racism. My schools were desegregated - even though most of my classmates were still conspicuously white. My neighborhood was desegregated - even if only white people chose to live there. 
     The blacks - and later the Latinos - well, they just preferred to go to school and live elsewhere.
     Elsewhere. In the older sections of Chattanooga, Tennessee. In the poorer neighborhoods. In the bad schools. 
     They preferred it.
     We Southerners have no small amount of regional pride - even when, like I have, we relocate. We tend to hold on to our drawls and our “y’all’s.” But Eugene Patterson was right. We watched the stage set for those killings. Every Southerner - even those of us not yet born - by what we did and did not do were complicit in those killings. Patterson’s only mistake was in not spreading the blame widely enough.
     In Montana, I saw Native Americans stereotyped and marginalized as surely as blacks ever were in the South. In Chicago, where I live now, whites still regularly enough perpetuate ethnic stereotypes and blame their problems on Blacks, on Latinos, on Poles or Asians or Indians. Our politics are still, in large part, racially divided. 
     Half a century of “enlightenment” later, Atlanta, Chattanooga, and Chicago are still racially divided cities. 
     And in all those cities, believers worship in racially divided churches.
     If Eugene Patterson was right, and Southerners and people everywhere who did nothing to stop or stand against the tenor of the times shared responsibility for the bombing of 16th Street Baptist, then isn’t he still right? Isn’t there still plenty of blame to go around for the inexcusable conditions in which minorities still live? And doesn’t blame especially fall on those of us who wear the name of Jesus?
     Jesus’ intent, Paul says, was to “create one new humanity.” Not one in which racial and ethnic differences disappear, but in which they’re acknowledged, appreciated, and celebrated. A humanity  in which what makes us different in no way causes us to lose sight of what joins us together. In one body, Paul writes - his body - he reconciles us to God and to each other. On the cross, as he dies, so does the hostility that keeps us estranged. He came and preached peace - the peace of God’s acceptance, and the peace of the Holy Spirit.
     One of the stained-glass windows at 16th Street Baptist was replaced by a Welsh artist named John Petts who was horrified by the news of the bombing. The new window showed a black Jesus, crucified - one outstretched arm pushing away hate, one offering forgiveness. And it offers as a reflection on the bombing the words of Matthew 25:40 - “You Do It to Me.”
     Our actions, or lack of action, still matter. As believers in Jesus, we have the responsibility to act out the message of the cross, that in Jesus human divisions and hostilities fall away, dead with his dying body. And that together, in one new body, we’re brought to reconciliation with God and each other. Living that out will require that we not perpetuate the hostilities and estrangement that Jesus died to demolish, either by our own words, thoughts, and actions, or by allowing the words, thoughts, and actions of others to go unchallenged. It will mean reaching out in love and self-sacrifice. It should affect the way we vote, the way we give. It might very well say something fundamental about where we go to church, where we live, and where our kids go to school. 
     It’s not enough for us to watch the news, and see the racial and ethnic hatred that still exists in our world, and thank God that we’re beyond that. And then go back to living in our own little bubbles, untroubled by the walls and barriers that Jesus died to tear down. We will act out the message of the cross in our lives, or we will act out another.
     God forbid that we must hold another shoe before we realize this.

Friday, January 11, 2013


    We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may also be revealed in our mortal body.
-2 Corinthians 4:8-11 (NIV)

Susan Jacoby authored an opinion piece in the New York Times’ “Sunday Review” section last week called “The Blessings of Atheism.” It’s an interesting piece, largely because it grapples with the problem of suffering in general, and the Sandy Hook Elementary school tragedy in particular, from the perspective of a person who has no belief in a divine being of any kind. It’s Jacoby’s attempt to respond to what she perceives as a “widespread misapprehension that atheists believe in nothing positive.”
    To make her case she first goes back to the origins of her own atheism: the sickness and eventual death of a childhood friend from polio. She remembers asking her mother, “Why would God do that to a little boy?” to which her mother replied, “I don’t know. The priest would say God must have his reasons, but I don’t know what they could be.”
     Jacoby says that her mother’s uncertainty “telegraphed her lack of conviction.” Maybe, but that’s quite an assumption for a 7-year-old to make. Perhaps a “widespread assumption” of atheists about believers is that we only have two modes: blind, rabid faith and hypocrisy. Another way of reading her mother’s uncertainty is that she was wrestling with the same thing believers throughout the centuries have wrestled with: faith in God and confusion over the events he allows to happen in a fallen world.
    When the Salk vaccine went on the market two years later, Jacoby’s mother suggested to her that God may have guided the research, to which Jacoby replied, “Well, God should have guided the doctors a long time ago so that Al wouldn’t be in an iron lung.” A completely understandable position to take, of course, and just as completely misguided. One of the convictions of believers is that we don’t dictate timing to God, but trust in his wisdom, grace, and strength when his timing doesn’t match ours.
    This is the “blessing” that Jacoby finds in atheism: being free from the questions that the person of faith has to wrestle with in the face of evil and suffering.

“When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.”

    That’s one question to ask in the face of suffering, of course. Another, one that people of faith have often asked in response to suffering, is this: “How might God use me to alleviate this pain? How might I be a channel of his grace to serve that loved one, care for those homeless, comfort those grieving parents?” Our faith in a loving, compassionate God who cares for the grieving, the weak, the marginalized, and the oppressed isn’t seriously shaken by the suffering we see around us. It reminds us that the world in which we live is not what God wants it to be, it reminds us to do what we can, when we can, to set it right, and it reminds us to live with anticipation of the day that God renews and restores his creation.
    Jacoby quotes with approval Robert Ingersoll’s eulogy at the funeral of a friend’s child in 1882: “They who stand with breaking hearts around this little grave, need have no fear. The larger and the nobler faith in all that is, and is to be, tells us that death, even at its worst, is only perfect rest ... The dead do not suffer.” She finds this eulogy to be comforting, somehow, and I’m happy that she does. But - and I’m obviously not objective - it doesn’t seem to me to answer the argument that atheists believe in nothing positive. Ingersoll’s eulogy strips away the hope of the gospel - a hope certified by the historic event of Jesus’ resurrection - and leaves his grieving friend with the obvious. “The dead do not suffer.”
    Reading Jacoby’s piece, I thought of Paul’s words. He didn’t try to ignore the questions that human evil and suffering raised. He didn’t try to ignore them, or sugarcoat them, or spin them. He didn’t even try to explain why God lets suffering and pain happen.
    Maybe that’s the reason that sometimes people of faith aren’t very convincing or comforting in the face of suffering either; maybe we try to explain too much, and wind up saying too little. Paul doesn’t say that God is present in spite of suffering, or that he works around suffering. That leaves us with a God who, at best, is clever in adapting to the suffering that threatens at every turn to overthrow his plans. That’s not much of a God at all.
    What Paul says, in fact, is that God is at work even in suffering. Believers suffer too; we may well be hard pressed, perplexed, persecuted, and struck down. We don’t always have answers to give, like Susan Jacoby’s mother wrestling with the awful reality of her daughter’s friend in an iron lung. Death is a reality for us, just like it is for every human being on the planet. We carry death around with us.
    But God comes to us in all our suffering, with the stench of death all around us. He comes in the person of Jesus, and he suffers, and he dies. He lives with us and takes on all the suffering of human existence - even to the extreme of death.
    And then God does something totally off the map. He raises Jesus from the dead. And, for believers, our own deaths are transformed into “the death of Jesus,” and our faithfulness in suffering displays “the life of Jesus.” Death, suffering, and evil are turned back. Even in our suffering, our faith and hope and love witness to resurrection. We’re not crushed, or abandoned, or in despair, or destroyed. Our suffering and death are redeemed by his, and he shares his life with us.
    I understand why Susan Jacoby doesn’t believe. I applaud without reservation her desire to give meaning and comfort to those who suffer and grieve. But, with respect, I don’t find what she can offer adequate to the task. The evil and pain in our world doesn’t negate the existence of a loving, compassionate God. It cries out for it. Demands it.
    May our lives be a quiet, convincing, powerful witness to God’s redemptive power in Jesus Christ.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Change or Exchange

“No one tears a piece out of a new garment to patch an old one. Otherwise, they will have torn the new garment, and the patch from the new will not match the old. And no one pours new wine into old wineskins. Otherwise, the new wine will burst the skins; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, new wine must be poured into new wineskins. And no one after drinking old wine wants the new, for they say, ‘The old is better.’ ”
-Luke 5:36-39 (NIV)

A friend of mine told me on the phone this week about some of the Christmas gifts he received. He thought I might be interested in a couple of books that he got from family: a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and theologian who stood against the Third Reich (and was executed for his trouble), and a compilation of Bonhoeffer’s writings. He knew that we share an admiration for Bonhoeffer, both for his theology and his willingness to suffer and die for his convictions.
    Since I was thinking of Bonhoeffer, I was all the more surprised when he mentioned what his brother-in-law got him for Christmas.
    A set of throwing knives.
    Guess what will be at the top of my list next year?  Spoiler alert: it’s not Bonhoeffer.
    Most of us get surprising gifts. Sometimes they’re a surprise because you didn’t ask for them, but they turn out to be just what you wanted. Sometimes they’re a surprise because, well, you can’t imagine why anyone would think you’d want that. And sometimes...
    Well, one of my most surprising gifts this year was at one of those white elephant gift exchanges. I know, you’re supposed to be staggered by the ridiculous at those things, but I was literally speechless when I opened my gift and found what I can only assume are recordings of Korean soap operas from the ’70’s. On eight-track tape.
    Now, if someone will give me an eight-track player next year, I can get caught up on 횃불.
    But even that wasn’t my most surprising gift. My aunt went all out this year: she mailed in a DNA swab to National Geographic’s Genographic Project, and then gave me, my sister, my son, and my parents the results as part of our Christmas gifts. After all, her results would at least apply to us.
    That wasn’t even the surprising part. The surprising part was what the results indicated. According to the pie chart I received, my ancestry is 34% French-Canadian, 28% Ethiopian, 16% Australian, 10% Germanic, 7% “Post-Terra”, and 5% Scottish.
    I know we all have roots in Africa, but 28%? And Ethiopian? How would they know that? And French-Canadian? I don’t even like Canadian Bacon on my pizza. Harboring no ill will toward any of those countries or ethnicities, I was still surprised. What the results said I was didn’t really fit with what I thought I was.
    Well, it turns out that the results were a gag. Apparently things are backed up at the National Geographic genetics lab, and my aunt didn’t get her report in time for Christmas. So she made up the results, just to make us wonder.
    Sometimes we need to be surprised, don’t we? Sometimes it’s only a good surprise that will shake us out of our comfort zones and make us take a good long look at ourselves. Sometimes we need a spiritual DNA test that makes us realize that what we think we are and what we really are don’t match up all that well.
    Gifts are new, of course. (Unless you get recordings of 1970’s Korean soaps - though, even then, they’re new to you...) They bring new choices to your life. Add new functionality. We often don’t think about it, but gifts disrupt our lives. They demand something of us as we figure out how to install them and integrate them into our lives. Sometimes they don’t integrate into our existing lives very well at all. They demand a decision of us - will we change or lives, or exchange the gift? Change, or exchange?
    Paul reminds those of us who follow Jesus that God wasn’t just offering us something to dress up our lives when he sent his Son to us. He was doing nothing less than bringing about a “new creation.” That, in Jesus, we say goodbye to the old and welcome the new.
    So it’s no wonder that Jesus spoke of a “new covenant” and a “new command.” The covenants and commands that God had given to his people before Jesus came didn’t really fit with the new reality that he was bringing into being. Jesus’ gift forced people - and still does - to that same crisis: change, or exchange? Be willing to change in response to God’s amazingly gracious and completely disruptive gift, or exchange that gift for something that doesn’t demand quite so much of us?
    That’s the point of Jesus’ parables of the patch and the wineskins. Jesus doesn’t just recycle us. He doesn’t come with reassuring words that reinforce the opinions of ourselves and our lives and our world that we’ve already settled on. He comes telling us of his Father’s kingdom, and warning us that if we hold on tightly to our self-determined identities, priorities, and values that we won’t have a free hand to receive his gift. Jesus, and the kingdom he opens to us, is the new “patch” that will rip apart the fabric of any life that isn’t willing to change under its influence. Jesus, and the kingdom he opens to us, is the new wine that won’t be contained by old habits, attitudes, structures, and rituals.
    In short, Jesus doesn’t come to affirm what we already believe to be true about ourselves. He comes to deconstruct it, tear it down, rip it apart, so we can know who we really are in him. So we can know about the person God created us and always intended us to be.
    Right now, at the beginning of a new year, we have the perfect opportunity to really receive the brand new thing that God is doing in us, through Jesus, and in the power of the Holy Spirit. As we integrate our new gifts into our lives, let’s also let the gift Jesus offers start to have its way. May we be prayerful and honest about the ways in which we need to let the kingdom of God tear at the fabric of our lives. May we be willing to stretch to accommodate Jesus, so that we don’t lose the new wine of God’s wonderful blessings. And may we not be so intoxicated by the comfort of our old lives that we fail to receive the new thing God is doing in us, through Jesus.
    At least you don’t have to figure out how Korean soap operas fit into your life.
    Who knows? Maybe the real results of my aunt’s DNA test will reveal that some of the actors are my relatives.