Incarnate Spirit of Justice

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Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois did not immediately part ways after the publication of The Souls of Black Folk, in which DuBois was critical of Bookerism.  In fact, DuBois taught at Tuskegee that summer.  But part ways they did in the year after the book came out.  The particular details are complicated, but Gary Dorrien interprets the division broadly as one between DuBois' embrace of "the prophetic ethical religion of Jesus" and Washington's participation in the commercialism of the age.  Dorrien writes,

The age proclaimed that the greatness of the nation was its money; thus, religion, politics, and education became devoted to moneymaking.

Yet DuBois "believed in 'Liberty for all men' to live, vote, and associate 'as they will in a kingdom of beauty and love.'"  While Washington "became preeminent by promising a cheap and docile labor force to New South capitalists."

And so DuBois organized the Niagara movement.

The Niagara Movement demanded full manhood suffrage, "and we want it now, henceforth and forever."  It demanded the abolition of discrimination in public accomodation, the right to social freedom, and the rule of law applied equally to rich and poor, capitalists and laborers, and whites and blacks. 

They declared that black people "have the right to know, to think, to aspire."

Their meeting at Harper's Ferry drew on the legacy of John Brown. They declared, "We do not believe in violence, neither in the despised violence of the raid nor the lauded violence of the soldier, nor the barbarous violence of the mob, but we do believe in John Brown, in that incarnate spirit of justice, that hatred of a lie, that willingness to sacrifice money, reputation, and life itself on the altar of right."

That year saw rioting and lynching in Texas and Georgia.  DuBois composed "A Litany of Atlanta" in response in which he questioned of God, "Is this Thy justice, O Father?"  Here are the searingly powerful lines:

Surely Thou too are not white, O Lord, a pale, bloodless, heartless thing? . . . Forgive the thought! Forgive these wild, blasphemous words.  Thou art still the God of our black fathers, and in Thy soul's soul sit some soft darkenings of the evening, some shadowings of the velvet night.

Beautiful!

This has been my favorite chapter yet in the book The New Abolition: W. E. B. DuBois and the Black Social Gospel. Any student of church history knows that the theology of the early ecumenical councils or of the Protestant Reformation was worked out in a complex mix of discourse and action weighted by politics.  This chapter, which details the difficult and complicated organizational work that led to the NAACP, reads similarly, as the process by which a theology is developed in the midst of real world activity.

"Liberty and Equality" was the previous post in this series.


Adonis

I'm in the midst of reading the selected poems of the Syrian poet Adonis, and they are marvelous. Now I'm very puzzled why he has never won the Nobel, though he seems every year to be on the shortlist of those writers which the bookmakers imagine might win. Even without having read him, I wondered why he hadn't won during the Syrian civil war, given the Nobel's aim to often respond to something in the moment.

So many good poems, here's one I particularly liked, especially the opening lines.

The Fall

I live between fire and plague
with my language, with these mute worlds.
I live in an apple orchard and a sky,
in the first happiness and the drollness
of life with Eve,
master of those cursed trees,
master of fruit.

I live between clouds and sparks,
in a stone that grows, in a book
that knows secrets, and knows the fall.


Afrika's eloquence

I posted my brief review of Bitter Eden by Tatamkhulu Afrika the other day.  Today I'd like to share a two paragraph excerpt as an example of his eloquent writing.

As in the just-past night, only terror tinged with a dull anger stirs in us as the normally ludicrous takes on a shape of nightmare under even so high and revealing a sun, and no laughter moves in us with its saving grace as we watch the beatings as of beasts of those still struggling to free themselves from the  hobbles of their pants, and the face of our Jerry driver floats out before me like the fragment of a dream already ages old, and I reach out as to a lost and redeeming friend, but the emptiness in me is the emptier for its finding only the Now.

The ground is firm enough under our boots, but there is a hollow ring to it as of water warningly close, and I am reckoning it will be bitter and salt as the crystals strewn like some malignant frost over the curiously ochre earth.  Also, there are shallow depressions of cracking mud that tell of water in some other time, a surging, perhaps, of a capricious tide.  The occasional scrub is twisted and black as though a fire had swept it or an enervating poison gripped its roots, and the even scarcer grass is cancerous and brittle as a dying man's hair, and I am hearing the usual silence that even our frenetic trampling cannot shatter or obscure.


My People, Our God

My People, Our God

Ezekiel 11:14-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

19 March 2017

 

 

    The next four weeks I'll be preaching from the book of the prophet Ezekiel. We don't get to Ezekiel very often. One reason is that Ezekiel's prophecies can be very harsh. But contained within this book are valuable insights into covenant, our focus this Lenten season, identified with the theme Ties that Bind.

    By way of introduction to the prophet Ezekiel, listen to what was written about him by Elie Wiesel, Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Peace Prize Winner,

 

No prophet was endowed with such vision—no other vision was as extreme. No man has shed such light on the future, for no other light was as forceful in tearing darkness apart. But, then, no one had ever seen such darkness, the total darkness that precedes the breaking of the dawn. . . .

When he is harsh, he seem pitiless; when he is kind, his graciousness spills over. . . .

It is enough to follow his gaze to be uplifted by the hope it conjures. Look when he orders you to do so, and you will be rewarded by the conviction that hope is forever founded and forever justified. Listen to his words, to his voice, and you will feel strong—stronger than death, more powerful than evil.

 

So, with that incredible introduction, hear now these words from the prophet Ezekiel:

 

Ezekiel 11:14-25

 

Then the word of the Lord came to me:

Mortal, your kinsfolk, your own kin,
your fellow exiles, the whole house of Israel, all of them,
are those of whom the inhabitants of Jerusalem have said,
"They have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession."

 

Therefore say:

Thus says the Lord God:

Though I removed them far away among the nations,
and though I scattered them among the countries,
yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while
in the countries where they have gone.

 

Therefore say:
Thus says the Lord God:
I will gather you from the peoples,
and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered,
and I will give you the land of Israel.
When they come there,
they will remove from it all its detestable things and all its abominations.
I will give them one heart, and put a new spirit within them;
I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh,
so that they may follow my statutes and keep my ordinances and obey them.
Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.
But as for those whose heart goes after their detestable things and their abominations,
I will bring their deeds upon their own heads, says the Lord God.

 

Then the cherubim lifted up their wings, with the wheels beside them;
and the glory of the God of Israel was above them.
And the glory of the Lord ascended from the middle of the city,
and stopped on the mountain east of the city.
The spirit lifted me up and brought me in a vision by the spirit of God into Chaldea,
to the exiles.
Then the vision that I had seen left me.
And I told the exiles all the things that the Lord had shown me.

 

For the Word of God in scripture,

For the Word of God among us,

For the Word of God within us,

Thanks be to God.

 

 

    When the nation of Judah was defeated by the Babylonian armies of King Nebuchadnezzar and many of the people were taken into exile, their faith was shaken. How could they trust in the promises of God if God had failed them so?

    Have you ever asked that question? I suppose many of you have at some dark point in your life.

    You see, God had made so many promises. To Abraham and Sarah there was the promise that they would become a great nation and that their descendants would live upon the land. When this Promised Land was settled, it was to be an insurance against slavery and occupation, a way for the people to provide for themselves, and to be free, living good lives. The promise had come to David and his descendants that they would occupy the throne in Jerusalem forever, ensuring peace and security to the people.

    And, yet, here they found themselves—defeated, occupied, their land ruined, their people exiled. As the psalm says, they sat by the waters of Babylon and cried. How could they trust in the promises of God if God had failed them so?

    In the midst of this crisis, the prophet Ezekiel spoke a vision he had received from God. He saw strange beasts, driving wheels within wheels, forming a flaming chariot. And on the chariot sat a throne and on the throne a form like a human form but made of fire and light. And everything was bathed in the splendid colors of the rainbow.

This wild and fantastical image conveyed a powerful message—God was on the move. God could not contained by the land of Israel or the Temple in Jerusalem. No, God remained with the people, in the exile, in Babylon where they wept. But, not only was God present with them, God was working on their restoration.

    This was a radically new vision of who God is, which spoke to the current needs of the traumatized people. But the message went further.

    Ezekiel also claimed that God was responsible for all the suffering the people had endured. God had brought the evil upon them as a way of punishing them for their unrighteousness.

    Of course this idea sounds quite harsh to us, for it is. This is not the theory of evil and suffering that Jesus teaches us in the New Testament.

    Ezekiel, you see, was traumatized and part of a traumatized generation.

Last autumn I read Holy Resilience: The Bible's Traumatic Origins by David M. Carr. It's a good book, which explores the Bible through the lens of trauma theory, in particular looking for the ways that post-traumatic stress disorder may have impacted the authors of the text. This is a fascinating idea, and most clearly apparent in the prophet Ezekiel

David Carr explains that by claiming that God was responsible for the suffering of the people, "Ezekiel offered his contemporaries a way to make sense of what had happened to them. It allowed them to interpret Jerusalem's destruction and the exile in a way that left [God] in control, a way that did not assume [God] was powerless or did not care."

    Yet, in the process of making this claim, which we might perceive as harsh, Ezekiel also helped lay the groundwork for a new understanding of God and the covenant to develop. From Ezekiel we hear God speak the powerful words, "You shall be my people, and I will be your God."

    From that insistence upon covenant loyalty and faithful presence, developed the idea of God's compassion, which we encounter in the latter parts of Isaiah in texts like the familiar Advent hymn "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people."

So, we should understand Ezekiel as part of a long trajectory in which covenant theology ultimately leads to the loving message of Jesus.

 

    When I was a sophomore in college the wife of the pastor emeritus of my home church called me to say that her husband wanted to give me his library. Dr. Weldon Marcum had been my mother's pastor when she was growing up and he only retired when I was a kid. By the time I was in college in the early 1990's, he was suffering from Alzheimer's. According to his wife Elizabeth, before he lost the ability to recollect, he had asked her to give me his library when he could no longer use it. The time had arrived.

    So I went to their house and into his office filled with books and boxed them up. As I did so, Dr. Marcum would linger, watching me. How sad to see this once brilliant man suffering from this dreaded disease. Elizabeth kept assuaging my guilt, as I packed up a lifetime of reading and study and carried it away.

    That incredible gift launched my own pastoral library and enriches my study with old volumes that otherwise might be absent in a current pastor's collection. One such book is The Prophet of Reconstruction written in 1920 by W. F. Lofthouse, a tutor in Hebrew Language and Literature from Handsworth College in Birmingham, England.

    Lofthouse wrote in the wake of the Great War, what we now call the First World War. He wrote of "our bruised and scarred civilisation" and the great new era opening up for humankind. He believed it to be the most decisive moment in human history:

 

The stake was never so great, or so widely realised. To shake ourselves free for ever from the tyranny of war, or to be condemned to the prospect of conflicts growing steadily more savage and destructive till civilisation becomes its own murderer.

 

He concluded that at that moment "Nothing seems too good to be hoped for; nothing too evil to be feared." A frightening sense of possibility, don't you think?

    What could help in this decisive moment? Lofthouse believed the words of the prophet Ezekiel, which offered hope and renewal in the midst of catastrophe, could speak to the devastation and the need to create something new.

 

    But he isn't alone in his use of these ancient words.    

    For Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, Ezekiel was also the crucial text for interpreting his experience and finding hope. He wrote, "No generation could understand Ezekiel as well—as profoundly—as ours."

    And in the era when AIDS was devastating gay communities, Jim Mitulski, then the pastor of the Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco who conducted 500 funerals a year, turned repeatedly to Ezekiel in order to learn about "an exiled community moving from devastation to resurrection."

 

    Why does this sometimes harsh text hold such lasting power? Why is it effective in our times of catastrophe?

Because of the words spoken by God through the prophet "You shall be my people, and I will be your God."

These are words to remind us that God is always present with us, no matter where we find ourselves. They remind us that God is working for our deliverance and our salvation. God will be faithful to us and to her promises.

    So, let us trust that God is going to bind us together as a people. No more will we be alienated from God, from other people, from our best selves. God will restore our home. Ours is a lasting hope.

    


For Our Lasting Good

For Our Lasting Good

Deuteronomy 6:20-25

by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones

First Central Congregational UCC

5 March 2017

 

 

    Despite having grown up in church, having completed a degree in Bible, and having been ordained just a few years before, by the turn of the millennium I was growing a little disenchanted and disengaged with church and was wondering whether ministry really was in my future. I was living in Shawnee, Oklahoma. Sadly, there is a Confederate flag rally being held in Shawnee this weekend, so you might see it on the national news.

    Part of my disenchantment was a feeling that church was growing less relevant to my life and the issues that concerned me. I delighted in the beautiful worship and close relationships I had in the church I was attending and where I was an active layman—a deacon, college Sunday school teacher, and member of the missions committee. I was longing for something more, but wasn't quite sure what it was.

    Then Tim Youmans arrived as our youth minister. Tim was just a few years older than I, and we quickly connected in our shared generational perspective on music, literature, film, television, and religion. We were both Southern Baptist kids growing more progressive as a result of our education and life experiences. Tim is now an Episcopal priest, and I'm a UCC pastor.

Those trajectories are pretty common among my group of clergy friends. You'll meet Dan Morrow next week, as he's here to preach for the twentieth anniversary of my ordination. Dan was an Oklahoma Baptist University student around this same time and now he's also an Episcopal priest. In fact he's the Canon for the Ordinary in Pennsylvania. Episcopalians have such fun titles. You can ask him next week exactly what a "Canon for the Ordinary" is.

Anyway, back to my story.

As the friendship between Tim and me was growing, and our conversations were wrestling with theological and spiritual issues, he invited me to be a sponsor for the youth retreat over the Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend.

Now, I had never had any interest in youth ministry. What I said to people who asked was "I didn't understand teenagers when I was one, and I definitely don't understand them now."

But Tim persuaded me into grudgingly agreeing to go along.

On a cold Friday evening, I parked my car at the First Baptist Church and carried my luggage, sleeping bag, and pillow onto the church bus where I met a bunch of middle and high school kids who changed my life.

 

I'm standing here as your pastor today because of Will Sims and Matt Little and Adam Shepherd and Tyler Holland and a score of other Shawnee teenagers—well they were teenagers in 2000 but are now mostly thirtysomethings with their own kids. Because it was those kids who drew me back into the vitality of church and clarified my own vocation. It was because of them that I felt called into youth ministry for the first time. It was because of them that I chose to abandon the search for academic employment and life as a tenured professor and instead took a job as an associate pastor in Fayetteville, Arkansas.

How did those kids do it?

They pestered me with their questions.

They were unrelenting. Especially Will. I know what Jesus meant when he talked about fishing for men, because when I walked onto that bus, I was caught in a net I didn't know had been thrown to ensnare me.

Through the sheer force of their personalities, their curiosity about me and what I believed, and their insisting that I become their teacher and friend, the Holy Spirit worked to renew my sense of call.

 

We live in age of individualism, materialism, and consumerism which has ripped apart the social fabric and our sense of the common good. Our corrosive politics is merely a symptom of an underlying disease. I've been trying to grasp what that underlying issue is.

Earlier this year I was reading some essays by R. R. Reno who is the editor of the journal First Things. He is a former Creighton theology professor and a very conservative thinker, with whom I have much disagreement. But in his December 30 post he wrote that "what we need in 2017 is a renewal of covenant."

Back in 2009 my colleague and friend Robin Meyers, the pastor of Mayflower Congregational Church in Oklahoma City and a very outspoken liberal, published a book entitled Saving Jesus from the Church (which we studied once during Lent by the way) in which he argued that if our nation wanted to survive we needed "a renewed understanding of the meaning of covenant."

So, here's some common ground. And it is, in fact, the common ground. Covenant is the idea that we are bound together. Robin writes that covenant is "a collective expression of gratitude and mutuality."

 

 

 

When the staff got together months ago to plan Lent we decided to focus on this idea of covenant and chose as our theme "The Ties that Bind." We will be focused on the ways that God saves us from our sins by bonding us together in mission for the world.

At our worship brainstorming party, it was suggested that we begin with the messiness of our lives in order to show how God takes the messiness and weaves it into something beautiful. So, on Ash Wednesday I asked you to consider what the mess is in your life right now. What do you need help with?

Sometime this season, today or another Sunday, I invite you to take one of the ribbons or strings or scraps of material which is in this basket here at the foot of the cross and tie it to the wire or weave it through. Let that scrap represent the thing in your life you need help with. And over the course of this season we'll watch as the messes are woven into something new.

 

 

In our moments of uncertainty and distress, God is with us—working to deliver us, and bring us to safety and abundance.

 

Central to the biblical story is this idea that we are offered a choice. We can follow our own path and accept the consequences. Or we can choose to be part of the covenant community by doing what is right and good. And God promises that that path leads to new life and blessing.

That path is "for our lasting good."

Those Shawnee kids drew me into relationship with them. And through their friendship I better understood myself and what God was calling me to do.

    This Lent, let's allow God to take the messiness of our lives and weave it into a beautiful pattern that binds us together.


The Humility Code

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"The humble path to the beautiful life," is what David Brooks summarizes at the conclusion of The Road to Character.  Here are the fifteen points of the Humility Code.

  1. "The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul and is nourished by moral joy, the quiet sense of gratitude and tranquility that comes as a byproduct of successful moral struggle."
  2. "The long road to character begins with an accurate understanding of our nature, and the core of that understanding is that we are flawed creatures."
  3. "We are also splendidly endowed."
  4. "Humility is the greatest virtue."
  5. "Pride is the central vice."
  6. "The struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life."
  7. "Character is built in the course of your inner confrontation."
  8. "The things that lead us astray are short term . . . The things we call character endure over the long term."
  9. "Everybody needs redemptive assistance from outside."
  10. "We are all ultimately saved by grace."
  11. "Defeating weakness often means quieting the self."
  12. "Wisdom starts with epistemological modesty."
  13. "No good life is possible unless it is organized around a vocation."
  14. "The best leader tries to lead along the grain of human nature rather than go against it."
  15. "A mature person possesses a settled unity of purpose."

This section is filled with much rich material, wonderful quotes, and deep allusions to our moral tradition.  I will be mining it for sermons, etc., for years.

I hope this series of blog posts on moral character in the midst of our current national catastrophe has been helpful in grasping what we must do in order to reweave the social fabric and restore the moral order.

"Out of Balance" was the previous post in this blog series.


Out of Balance

Tolstoy-List-Main

David Brooks uses Leo Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilyich to comment on how the pendulum has swung too far with the change in moral climate.  He writes, "Many of us are in Ivan Ilyich's position, recognizing that the social system we are part of pushes us to live out one sort of insufficient external life. . . .  The answer must be to stand against, at least in part, the prevailing winds of culture."

So, what's wrong with the current moral climate?  He lists some overarching problems and focuses on a few areas of society.  First, the overarching problems.

We have become "less morally articulate."  We are more materialistic.  More individualistic.  Less empathetic.  

We have become "a more competitive meritocracy."  He writes:

You have, like me, spent your life trying to make something of yourself, trying to have an impact, trying to be reasonably successful in this world.  That's meant a lot of competition and a lot of emphasis on individual achievement--doing reasonably well in school, getting into the right college, landing the right job, moving toward success and status.

 What results is a culture of busyness where we fail to take the time to cultivate our moral and spiritual sides.  I thought of Richard Rohr's writing while reading this section.

The meaning of the term character itself has changed, away from an embodiment of the traditional virtues to now "describe traits like self-control, grit, resilience, and tenacity."  

Brooks does not think that social media has ruined us, as the damage was largely already done, but it has had "three effects on the moral ecology."  First, "It is harder to attend to the soft, still voices that come from the depths."  Second, "Social media allow a more self-referential information environment."  And finally, it "encourages a broadcasting personality."

He spends a few pages on changes in parenting that he dislikes, but I thought those arguments were overwrought.

In the final post of this series on his book, we'll look at what he calls "the humble path to the beautiful life."

The previous post in this series discussed self-actualization by looking at Katherine Graham.  And the post before that reviewed this change in moral culture.


Exploring an individual's metaphysical sensitivity

This weekend I began reading a collection of poems by Adonis, who is often mentioned as a contender for a Nobel prize.  And being a Syrian in exile who is in his late 80's, I've been surprised that he hasn't won in recent years.

In the introduction the translator summarizes Adonis' view of poetry.

Poetry, he argued, must remain a realm in which language and ideas are examined, reshaped, and refined, in which the poet refuses to descend to the level of daily expediencies.  Emerging as one of the most eloquent practitioners and defenders of this approach, Adonis wrote that the poet is a "metaphysical being who penetrates to the depths" and , in so doing, "keeps solidarity with others."  Poetry's function is to convey eternal human anxieties.  It is the exploration of an individual's metaphysical sensitivity, not a collective political or socially oriented vision.


No Picnic on Mount Kenya

No Picnic on Mount KenyaNo Picnic on Mount Kenya by Felice Benuzzi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While browsing a book store in Dublin I came across this book and was intrigued.

Three Italians prisoners of war of the British in Kenya during the Second World War are tired of their confinement but do not believe they could escape to a neutral or friendly country. Instead, they decide to escape and climb Mount Kenya, which beckons from above their camp. And, there plan is to return to camp when finished. Just an excursion to spend some time in freedom and to accomplish something.

So, this is a wonderful adventure story about the power of the human spirit. And it's quite fun.

With none of the proper equip or recent training and no weapons to protect them from the wild animals of the jungle and savanna, the group (with the help of others in the camp) spends months fashioning crude implements, hiding them, and readying for the day of escape.

What follows is a daring nighttime run from the camp, days of trekking through the jungle and highlands, working to avoid people and wildlife, bitter cold nights spent on the rocks, hunger from lack of provisions, splendid beauty, and dangerous moments, all well told by one of the prisoner/mountaineers in a book he wrote after the war.

As the author summarizes near the conclusion, "Hadn't we, wretched prisoners that we were, also raised our hands toward the Mountain, to ask her to give us back to ourselves?"

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The Prelude

Wordsworth: The PreludeWordsworth: The Prelude by William Wordsworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My morning poetry reading has not been that consistent since Sebastian's birth, disappearing with most parts of my decades-long morning routine. Oh well.

So, it took me a long time to get through Wordsworth's Prelude. Part of that is because the poem itself bogs down in places. The opening and closing books are the best, filled with his experiences of nature.

I've long known (and even written on) Wordsworth's influence on Whitehead's philosophy of perception. Having now finally read all of the Prelude I believe that Wordsworth may be the most important influence for understanding Whitehead and the development of process philosophy.

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