Barak’s Insubordination (Judges 4)

Lambert Lombard, Jaël (1530-35). Museum Grand Curtius, Liège, Belgium.

The story of Deborah and Barak usually gets read in a very un-feminist way, in spite of the fact that she’s the only named female judge of ancient Israel (Judges 4:1-24). Preachers portray Barak as being too timid: he’s afraid to go into battle against Sisera’s army (4:8). He says to Deborah, “I will go if you go,” and the implied message of these interpretations is that if he would “man up,” then he would get the glory of killing Sisera. Instead, because Barak needs a woman to hold his hand, God delivers Sisera into the hand of a nomad woman (4:21).

This interpretation is a sleight-of-hand. It takes a story with a female hero and turns it into an object lesson about the dangers of giving up masculine strength and authority.

Some interpreters read this story in a more generous and less sexist way. They see Deborah and Barak as sharing power (the song in chapter 5 does name both of them as leaders), but Barak’s failing is that he does not adequately trust God. I’m not convinced by this reading, because I don’t really see why gender becomes a relevant point of their discussion in this interpretation.

I’m even less convinced by one alternative reading mentioned in the New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, which says that Barak is “inviting Deborah to bless the military expedition.” Again, if that’s the case, why does it matter to Deborah who gets the glory, or whether they are male or female?

Instead, I approach this text with a question I’ve heard asked about other female leaders—how would Barak’s response be different if Deborah were a man? If a male prophet had told him to gather the troops and meet Sisera in the field, would he have hesitated? I think there is something other that distrust of God or benevolent invitation in Barak’s resistance. I think it’s a challenge: “Lady, it’s easy for you, to talk about going to war. But will you put your life on the line?”

Read from this direction, Barak’s failing is not cowardice, but sexism. He is insubordinate to Deborah in a way that he would not be to Gideon or David or Moses, because she is a woman.

From this reading, her response makes sense: “Fine, but the path you are following will not lead to your glory; God will sell Sisera into the hand of a woman.”

Deborah is willing to put skin in the game, to take the field of battle with the fighting men. But even she doesn’t deliver the killing blow. That service is performed by Jael (4:21), someone with even less power and standing, using a woman’s homemaker tools. Barak loses the glory of victory because he doesn’t trust a woman to lead him.

How would churches be different if this were the standard approach in sermons?

Grace Will Conquer

These lyrics seem even more appropriate after the last couple of weeks.

We sin in what we do
and what we leave undone.
We worship praise and holidays,
the dollar and the gun

And in the name of Jesus
we’ll tell you who we hate.
We’ll use our faith and politics,
Lord, to discriminate

But grace is greater than all our sin.
Grace will conquer all our sin.
But grace is greater than all our sin.
Grace will conquer all our sin.

I hear there is a kingdom
It’s coming any day
Where wounded folks find healing
and their sins are washed away.

Lord, in the arc of history
bring justice to our land.
And give us all the courage
to love they way you can.

‘Cause grace is greater than all our sin.
Grace will conquer all our sin.
Grace is greater than all our sin.
Grace will conquer all our sin.

Nothing Can Stop God’s Love

This song takes its inspiration from two places. The first is Charles Wesley’s “Blest Be the Dear Uniting Love.” The second is Central Methodist Mission in South Africa, pastored by Alan Storey, who proclaims we were born in love, by love, and for love. Steven Roberts wrote the music. Lenora Goodman sings in the video.

The uniting love that won’t let us part;
when we’re far away we’re still one in heart.
The spirit empowers us and tells us to go;
and we’ll follow Jesus here below.

We were made by love
We were made in love
We were made for love
Nothing can stop God’s love

We’ll walk in his way, and know inside
the power of one who was crucified.
We all are one, so let us agree
to share his truth in unity.

We were made by love
We were made in love
We were made for love
Nothing can stop God’s love

No height or depth, no sword of hate,
not even our death can separate.
Blest be the dear uniting love
that joins us with our God above.

We were made by love
We were made in love
We were made for love
Nothing can stop God’s love

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A Prayer for National Trans Day of Remembrance

Cain said to his brother Abel, ‘Let us go out to the field.’ And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? Listen; your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground! (Genesis 4:8-10, NRSV)
God, the blood of our trans siblings, our trans brothers, our trans sisters, calls out to you from the ground. You love them so much, you have counted the hairs upon their heads. Not even a sparrow falls that you do not notice.
And how like birds they have been! Some have been trapped by the hunter’s snare. They were killed for their plumage, or their voice, or their presumption to sing their own song. Yet in truth they were killed for none of these. Violence always justifies itself, but it has no reason; all it has are excuses.
Some have taken their own lives, because a world of rejection and fear is too much like hell. Those appointed to speak good news to them have often preached only bad news and a hopeless future. Yet you hold the keys of hell and death, and your good news to all people is really and truly for all people.
We lament their deaths, but celebrate their lives, and the lives of all who are trans. For all of us who put our hope in you wish to be trans. We wish to be trans-mortal. Trans-spiritual. Trans-human. We set our hope on the resurrection and the promise of a new body, an embodied existence where Jew or Greek, poor or rich, male and female are no longer the ways we see the world. Our bodies, these fragile vessels of pain and pleasure, carry everything we are, and in the resurrection we do not know what we will be—but we will all be changed.
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled: ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’ ‘Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?’ (1 Corinthians 15:54-55, NRSV)
God, swallow up death with your life. Wipe out injustice and abuse with your shalom. Inspire us with a resurrection vision for all people.
Amen.

“Would You Agree the World is Getting Worse?”

Ribeira_Lixo_GDFL_040825_049

“No, I wouldn’t.”

The lady who had asked me the question looked appalled, like I had just belched in her face. She and her friend had shown up in our yard to share their faith. It was not the answer she was expecting. Nor, in fact, was I. I had planned on simply giving my usual “I’m not interested in a theological conversation” answer (which isn’t technically true—I’m almost always interested in having a theological conversation, one which involves me asking my questions, too).

I think her statement reflects one of the biggest problems I have with many theological and political perspectives—they assume that we’re going to hell in a hand basket. Now, I don’t think we’re marching happily toward utopia, and I don’t put my faith in human progress. But I don’t know many people who would trade living in 2015 for living in 1915. Cancer, polio, or heart disease? Sorry. Women’s suffrage? Out of luck. Jim Crow and segregation? Here to stay. Child labor? It’s a free market, baby. War? The world’s three most deadly decades are still in front of us.

So, no, I don’t agree that the world is getting worse. We have some formidable challenges in front of us: economic inequality, systemic racism, gun violence, and climate change, just to name a few. An extinction-level event due to climate change may be unfolding in front of us. But if you offer me a time machine to pick any decade from the past in which to live, would I choose any time but now?

Not likely.

Her question inspired me to pick up and reread some of Jurgen Moltmann’s Theology of Hope. I still think God’s invitation to join God in a salvation project for the world is the most exciting Good News that Christians can spread. In the resurrected Christ, the future is radically open, and the horizon between God’s impending kingdom and our present is always shrinking. It’s not something we build with our own effort, but we anticipate and participate in what God is already doing. The Kingdom is among y’all, says Jesus. It’s like a portal to the dimension of love and justice, and it’s leaking into this world and contaminating it with grace.

Reading a Pro-slavery Sermon from 1863

Family_of_African_American_slaves_on_Smith's_Plantation_Beaufort_South_Carolina

Family on Smith’s Plantation, Beaufort, South Carolina, circa 1862. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress and learnnc.org

This is an excerpt from a sermon given at Christ Church in Savannah in 1863. It is a pro-slavery, pro-Confederacy sermon. I’m sharing it, with my commentary, because I think it illumines contemporary rhetoric about race, history, war, international politics, and the South. I’ve added emphasis where I think the rhetoric is particularly interesting.

Preachers need to understand preaching history because we often replicate the rhetoric of pundits and politicians in sermons. Churches soothe the moral conscience of parishioners by repeating the talking points of our dominant culture. But how do you know when you are preaching the gospel, and when you are preaching Empire? How can you determine when you are preaching prophetically, and when you are accommodating the culture?

It’s important to learn from the past, to watch the dance of rhetoric and ethics that preachers have done every Sunday for centuries. It isn’t surprising that white Southern Christian preachers justified both slavery and war. Some of their talking points sound awfully familiar.

This preacher (Stephen Ellis) preaches a sermon to encourage the young Confederacy. At 24 pages, it was probably at least an hour long. It is verbose, in the way of 19th-century homileticians, who were well-educated and thought it important to speak in a way that fit their class. He quotes Greek philosophers, contemporary statesmen, and news reports. He refers to the Greek language. He comes off as smart and well-spoken.

The scripture is the story of Samson getting honey from the corpse of a lion he killed. There is no exegesis of the text. It’s simply a jumping-off point for the speech that follows. Out of a strong conflict will come something sweet.

He touches on some familiar themes: the danger of appeasement, the difference between a just peace and an unjust peace, the horrors of war, and endurance through trying times. He uses flowery language and long, image-heavy descriptions.

But delightful as is the word [peace], and attractive as are its associations, we should not be seduced by them to yield up either right or truth or justice for its attainment. It would indeed be a great burden rolled from our hearts if we could take our children to our bosoms, and feel that they indeed had a country–if we could look upon our noble sons and rejoice that they were freed with honour from any further conflict with foemen so unworthy of their steel–if we could glance around our hearthstones and be satisfied that no rude trumpet would again disturb their peace, no roar of cannon drive us from their shadow–if we could enter the temples of God and sing the angels song of peace on earth, good will towards men.

White men, that is.

The preacher has done a good job setting up the siren song of peace. He indicated early on that he is crafting this image simply to undo it. This illusion is no real peace, he says.

Missing, of course, is any reference to the lives of slaves. (Presumably, the life of a slave is all peace.)

But until we can do so with honor and with security, let us banish the idea from our thoughts. Let there be no making haste to find Peace. It will come when God sees that war has accomplished his purposes, and it ought to come no sooner. Unless we follow his guidance in this matter, we shall fall into temptation and a snare, and in grasping at a shadow, lose the substance which we have already gained at the cost of so much precious blood.

In other words, dreams of peace must be put aside, for now, or else all the troops will have died in vain. This is a common pro-war talking point in any conflict.

“Precious blood,” of course, has theological overtones—it’s Jesus’ precious blood that saves us from hell and punishment, according to penal substitutionary atonement theory.

I believe this atonement theory is especially prevalent in the South because it helped justify slavery. If you want to exterminate indigenous people and base an economy on slavery, it helps to frame sin as “rebellion,” and God’s justice as physical, painful retribution—in this life or the next. The requirement of justice is the violent death of someone—and the unjust death of an innocent man, a lynching, helps restore equilibrium. Any violence you then use to enforce social order and compliance is infinitely more merciful than social anarchy or the eternal flames of hell. For the good of the nation, the powerless must die. But their deaths are noble. Preserving social order, the Great Chain of Being ordained by God, is necessary to prevent a slide down the slippery slope into the anarchy of the savages.

The preacher also establishes that the war, a historical necessity, must be the will of God. War is a refining, purifying fire, in which the mettle of their (manly) resolve is tested.

Now the preacher turns to the political part of his sermon, justifying secession and portraying the Northern aggressors in negative terms:

We seceded from the Government of which we were once a part, because we felt that under it we no longer had a country. For what is our country? Our country is in its constitution, and its provisions were openly and shamefully violated–our country is in its religion, and its altars were desecrated by infidelity and the vilest fanaticism–our country is in its institutions, and they were threatened with total subversion –our country is in its social life, and that was covered all over with rude abuse and malignant defamation. And shall we, for peace sake, think for a moment of returning to the embrace of such an Union? God forbid! Let us learn at once the stern truth that we have no country until we make one. We can never go back to that whence we came out. We should not recognize it in its present garb of tyranny. We should not discern that once proud Republic under the mask which it now wears, with the oriental despotism that rules over it, and the oriental submission that kisses its feet. In its delirium it has lost all sense of regulated liberty–it remembers only passion and vengeance. Closing its eyes against all truth, and shutting its ears against all wisdom, it is striking at man madly in its rage, and it is cursing God who has placed the bit in its mouth, and is saying to it, “Thus far shalt thou go and no further.”

Abraham Lincoln? He’s no Christian. He’s an “oriental despot.” (Today, he might be called a Muslim tyrant.) He’s no Western statesman who believes in representative government (for white men).

The preacher describes four kinds of federal overreach—constitutional, religious, institutional (the unnamed institution being slavery), and social. In all of these ways, he says, the South was a victim. Abolitionists and the North have closed their eyes “against all truth” and shut their ears “against all wisdom.” They are examples of the “vilest fanaticism,” impugning the character of honest Southerners.

When activists recently advocated for marriage equality, they were likewise shaking their fist at God, according to Franklin Graham, and undermining the institution of marriage. They subjected their opponents to “malignant defamation” by calling them bigots, or worse.

People who support status quo inequality between white and black folks, who object to discussion of white supremacy and systemic racism, continue to complain about the “malignant defamation” that white people or police officers or America receives at the hands of activists. Advocating for justice is perceived as “vile fanaticism,” an attack upon our country and our way of life.

Yet the preacher offers patriarchal hope to his congregation:

In quietness and confidence is our strength. Manly fortitude and heroic patience will accomplish for us in due time all that we are contending for. We did not enter upon this conflict in the temper of children, who were quarrelling for some mere point of pique, but with the resolution of men who perceived that every thing which made life tolerable was trembling in the balance. Let peace come to us, and let us not forget our manhood and go in search of peace.

The preacher moves on to mourn the fact that the international community has not come to the aid of the South. He only gets around to mentioning slavery toward the end, but it forms the background of everything he says. At first, it’s only an oblique reference: “the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.”

At the commencement of our revolution… we believed very sincerely that the cotton interest constituted so large a portion of [England and France’s] manufacturing and commercial wealth, that any serious interruption of the supply would create not only great distress in those countries, but would perhaps produce revolution. Under this delusion we continued for eighteen months after our movement began, and it is not yet entirely dissipated. It will require at least two years more of British endurance to convince us of our mistake, but we are, nevertheless, learning our lesson by degrees. We are finding out that God does not permit, under his Providential arrangements, any one nation to hold in its hand the fate, or even the destiny of other nations, but that climate, soil, labor, staples, are so distributed throughout the world, that if a supply of any necessary article is dried up in one direction, its production can be forced in some other direction.

England can replace the slave labor of the South with India. Such is the law of the marketplace.

That we hold great advantages over any other portion of the earth in the growth of our great staples, no one can deny. We can defy competition, because of the peculiar conditions of our labor and climate, but we cannot rule the world as we once conceived that we could.

This line gets me every time I read it: “The peculiar conditions of our labor and climate.” Wow.

The limits of Confederate exceptionalism have become clear to the preacher. But slavery? It’s still hunky-dory:

Until within a year after our war began, many of our own people, and almost all the nations outside of us, considered the institution of slavery as resting upon a very insecure basis. They almost universally believed that domestic insurrection would accompany foreign war, and that we should find our slaves rising “en masse,” and distracting all our efforts. Those who had studied this question most thoroughly, and looked at it in the light of philosophy, and especially of the Scriptures, did not fall into this error, and were satisfied from the beginning that the institution would come out of the war stronger than it went into it. Two years of the war have rid every one of any evil anticipations upon this head, and have satisfied the United States government that if these people are to change their condition, it must be changed for them by external force. And while this quiescence on the part of our servants vindicates us from the charges of cruelty and barbarity which have been so industriously circulated against us, it is also teaching us that we can, hereafter, with entire safety, and with most excellent results to ourselves, introduce them gradually to a higher moral and religious life. They know all that is going on. They are well informed about the proceedings of our enemies, and about their pretended philanthropy, and yet what advantage have they taken of it?

One of the favorite tropes of white-privilege apologists is that anyone who stirs up conversation of racial inequality is not really interested in racism, but simply exploiting racial tension for political gain. It is pretended philanthropy. But our black folks are happy just the way they are.

Dang, this strategy is old.

When were they ever more quiet, more civil, more useful, more contented than they now are? Ignorance is really our worst enemy amongst them, and I sincerely hope that when this war is over, we shall, in token of their fidelity and good will, render their domestic relations more permanent, and consult more closely their feelings and affections…

Wow. We’ll let them keep their families together.

Of course, you could also read “domestic relations” as perpetual servanthood. And they didn’t need slavery to do that. They had Jim Crow.

Take a look at this logic:
1. Our slaves (black folks) are fine and happy.
2. If they wanted to change their condition, they would do so themselves.
3. It’s wrong for outsiders to come in and stir them up toward rebellion
4. We’ll help them improve their condition when other conditions are met.

See, it’s all benevolent. Heritage, not hate.

It belies the fact that the Southern elite were terrified of slave revolt, and had spent a century passing more and more restrictive laws to keep poor whites and black slaves from working together or colluding to overthrow the institution of slavery. The preacher himself mentions Harpers Ferry early in the sermon.

Toward the end, the preacher swells to a crescendo praising the Confederacy:

But at the war-cry of her children, “Sic semper Tyrannis,” how her rich blood has rushed back upon her heart, and startled her into life! The sound of freedom’s cry has disenchanted her, and she has sprung full armed into the arena. Her noble sons have gathered around her from her hills and from her valleys, from all her fields of historic fame, from the blue waters of the Chesapeake to the dark rushing torrent of the Kanawha–sons worthy of such a mother. All her old energy has come back to her. All her power of self-denial and self-sacrifice has revived within her. Proud, fearless, indomitable, she looks into the very eye of tyranny, and makes it quail before her majesty of right and truth! The mother of States, she bares her bosom to receive upon it the strokes which are aimed at her children. Hurling defiance in the teeth of her oppressors, she prepares herself to conquer or to die. She hopes, she prays, she struggles for victory, but knowing that everything is in the hands of God, she presses on, uttering the noble words of DeRanville–“If the genius of evil is to prove triumphant, if legitimate government is again to fall, let it at least fall with honor; shame alone has no future.”

And thus white supremacy held onto the notion that it would be justified by God and history well after the war’s end. It wed notions of Christian destiny, feudal honor, patriarchy, slavery, and violent atonement theory.

White patriarchy continues to use this same rhetoric. It appropriates the language of oppression and justice, hoping to turn the tables on activists by pointing out their “vile fanaticism” as a cowardly mask for political or financial gain. People who advocate for equality are “tyrants” who will oppress the majority, if they ever get their hands on political power. We fear our own sin so much that we project it onto our enemies, imagining that they will be just as oppressive as we are—while denying that oppression even exists.

We are such gentle rulers. They will be such harsh ones. That is why they must be kept in their place.

Same song. Different verse. White supremacy did not need to rise again; it was never defeated. It has been hiding in plain sight (from white Christians, anyway) for a long, long time.

I like to imagine how someone in 200 years will read my sermons. I cannot imagine what my blind spots are—that’s why they are blind spots. But if we do not study preaching history, our cosmic vision of what God is up to in the world is limited to our immediate pastoral, ecclesial, political, and social concerns. We will miss the ways that God is working with the church—and in spite of the church—to bend the arc of history toward justice.

When Not to Apologize

Don’t apologize for apologizing—these are suggestions, not commandments:

Don’t apologize for being wobbly if you haven’t been on a bike in a long time.

Don’t apologize for not being practiced at a skill.

Don’t apologize for speaking up.

Don’t apologize for not knowing something.

Don’t apologize for knowing something. For God’s sake, don’t apologize for being smart.

As Julia Child said, don’t apologize for anything you cook.

Don’t apologize for being overdressed or underdressed.

Don’t apologize for liking things that other people consider uncultured, frivolous, elitist, or passé.

Don’t apologize for refusing to accept other people’s projected insecurities.

Apologize for doing harm. Apologize for being thoughtless or careless if it hurts someone or hurts the planet. In those cases, repent and sin no more.

But do not apologize for being human. God revels in watching you grow and learn, in taking tiny steps of courage. God delights in your gloriously, messily awesome self.

Beatitudes

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

But woe to
you who are rich
‘cause you’ll find
life is a
‘bout more than your money and you may find you’re missing out, honey

We’ll be happy
with our mercy
cause we all need mercy, too.
He said happy
are the heart-pure
God will show God’s face to you.
You’ll be happy
when you make peace
reconciling humankind
and the kingdom
will be among you
if you search then you will find.

But don’t think
that you won’t get hit
They’ll drag your
name through the
shameful situation, and they’ll trash your reputation

He said happy
are the hopeless
‘cause the kingdom will be theirs
he said happy
are the sad ones
‘cause God will dry up all their tears

He said happy
are the meek ones
‘cause God will give them all the world
He said happy
are the hungry
‘cause God will feed them ‘till they’re full

A Lament for a Marriage

According to the United Methodist Book of Discipline, clergy are not allowed to conduct same sex weddings or bless same sex unions. Since I am not allowed to publicly pray for blessing, I wrote this lament many months ago. I offer it here, because I know some of my UMC clergy colleagues are going to be asked to officiate. Perhaps they will choose to officiate and risk retribution, or perhaps they will make referrals. Or perhaps they will find other creative ways to resist injustice:


 

God of covenant love, host of the wedding banquet, I bring you my lament that I am forbidden to bless this union. I lament that church rules dictate that I must be like one without a wedding garment. I lament that, as in Jesus’ story about the guests who refused to attend the wedding banuet, many have cut themselves off from witnessing the joy of this moment. We pray for all those whose disapproval hurts only themselves.

Yet, Lord, I also rejoice. When Balaam was hired to curse the Hebrew people, he could not; for how can one curse those whom God has blessed? It is not we clergy who bless, but you! And I’m grateful that our Methodist movement has been a movement of laypeople from the beginning, and when the church doors were closed to John Wesley, he preached from his father’s grave. Your blessings cannot be contained by legislation, or buildings, or authority figures, and we praise you because in the relationship of NAME and NAME, we see the fruits of your Spirit already growing: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We see your Spirit at work, and like Peter when he met Cornelius, we understand that we should call no one profane or unclean, but that everyone who does what is right is acceptable to you.

I am grateful, O God, for your grace that cannot be contained, that precedes our asking for it, frees us from sin and death, and continues to grow and perfect us in love. This couple, joined in covenant love, united in mission of love and service, is a testimony to your ongoing activity to work through your church, and when necessary, around it, to bring blessing and salvation to a world that desperately needs it.

Thank you, Almighty God, that though I cannot pray a blessing for them, you have seen fit to bless us with them. Your generosity astounds us. Amen.

How White Supremacy is like Addiction

image

  1. Admitting you have a problem may be the hardest step.
  2. Admitting you can’t fix it individually, on your own, is the next hardest step.
  3. Addicts often promise to change, and then don’t. Many won’t until they hit rock bottom.
  4. Everybody is afraid of “making a fearless moral inventory,” but when they do, it’s actually quite liberating. As a culture, most white folks still haven’t done this.
  5. Making amends or reparations is even scarier and more complicated, but necessary to move forward.
  6. Addicts have a hard time listening to folks who aren’t addicts. It’s hard for anyone else to call out their BS.
  7. Wallowing in guilt and shame is actually counterproductive. Addicts use self-pity as an excuse to stay stuck.
  8. White supremacy, like addiction, is a social disease. It may not be your fault, but it’s still your responsibility.
  9. There are vested interests in maintaining addiction for power and profit. Some people want you to relapse.
  10. White supremacy, like addiction, thrives in toxic family and social systems.
  11. The folks who have been abused cannot be obligated to stay in those toxic relationships with addicts. Forgiveness does not mean going back to business as usual.

Like any metaphor, it’s imperfect. In our panel discussion last night, I said psychoanalyzing white culture is not what this is about, since that puts whiteness at the center of the story. But because it’s so hard for white folks to hear about their disease without getting defensive, we need multiple ways of talking about it.

Ultimately, I believe, the goal should be to dismantle the very concept of race. But until we do the 12 steps, talking about its social construction with racists is like giving whiskey to an alcoholic.