News That is Good

I know the news seems bleak,
and some days seem without hope,
which makes it hard to remember
that everything in the universe is made out of love;
everything is held together by love;
and the end and purpose of everything is love;
and when it’s time to tally the scores,
we will be full of laughter
because the points have always been irrelevant
and the only thing worth keeping track of
is love.

Deals With the Devil

In the classic stories, people who make deals with the devil get exactly what they want, but find out later that it’s actually a curse. Midas gets the golden touch but finds out he can’t eat gold. Faust gets the girl but destroys his chance at happiness with her.

This is how it is with oppression. People are fighting to build walls and maintain their positions of privilege in systems of oppression because they have bought into the lie that they have a good deal, as if they are winning something. Like it’s worth ingesting your daily dose of toxic masculinity so you can not go to the doctor and die earlier of heart disease? So you can have fewer friends than the women in your life do? Like it’s worth sucking down your daily dose of white supremacy so you can live in the prison capital of the world? So you can pay billions of dollars a year to disenfranchise people of their vote and maintain de facto segregation? Like it’s worth maintaining sex-negativity and purity culture in order to make LGBTQIA people feel like 2nd-class citizens? As if that’s not going to have an impact on straight folks’ ability to have intimacy and authentic relationships?

There is a cost to maintaining oppression for those who “benefit.” I am deeply suspicious of narratives that make it sound like oppressors are getting what they really want.

They are not. Most of those who think they are thriving are simply succeeding at distracting themselves from the poverty of the hell they are building for themselves. Sure, they may enjoy their net worth, their McVacations, their ability to get praise for mediocrity, and the constant simmer of jealousy or suspicion that someone, somewhere, is getting away with more than they have.

I am not a hellfire and brimstone preacher, but I do think hell is real, and I think a lot of people would prefer it to a heaven they had to share with those they’ve spent a lifetime avoiding or oppressing.

Only those who see through the lie can be free.

The Captain Marvel I Remember

The Captain Marvel I remember was a black woman. I started collecting the Avengers comics in the mid-80’s. In 1987, Monica Rambeau (as Captain Marvel—she later became “Photon”) was chair of the Avengers. I remember Storm being leader of the X-Men. And in the New Mutants (my favorite team), Danielle Moonstar was the leader. As an adolescent white dude in the mid-80’s, comics were about the only pop culture media in which I remember seeing women of color in leadership.

I stopped collecting for awhile, and I missed the major Carol Danvers story. So “Captain Marvel” for me has always been Monica Rambeau. If I were to pick a superpower for myself, it would have been her ability to transform into multiple kinds of energy. When they introduced Monica as a little girl in the recent Captain Marvel movie, I couldn’t help elbowing my wife and whispering “she’s going to be badass.”

IMG_1940

Captain Marvel gets nominated to lead the Avengers — The Avengers 279, May 1987, page 5

I’m not in any way saying that this deprogrammed me or counteracted the enormous implicit bias I was trained to have. Nor am I dismissing all the sexism and lookism and tokenism that comics geared toward adolescent boys often reinforced. BUT these stories embedded themselves in my imagination and subconscious. 

IMG_1941

Doctor Druid and Thor showing their fragility.

I’m sharing this because I remember this stuff from my childhood. It reinforces the importance of representation in our imagination and the stories we tell. Superhero movies, as Mr. Glass says, are our modern myths—they tell us who we aspire to be. When we are doing science fiction or fantasy or superhero stories, we’re engaged in subtle acts of resistance to the dominant narrative. We’re imagining that the world could be otherwise.

And the reason it causes so much backlash among fragile white dudes is that they correctly sense that it threatens the status quo. In the above panel, Doctor Druid and Thor both react in predictable ways, questioning Monica’s ability. Later on in the story, She-Hulk confides to Black Knight that she prefers a less hierarchical and more egalitarian form of leadership, and she hopes Captain Marvel will step up to lead the group. 

The comics I collected seldom mentioned race as part of the storyline. Danielle Moonstar’s Cheyenne heritage in The New Mutants is far more explicit than Monica’s blackness in The Avengers. In that sense, my favorite comics promoted the false narrative of colorblindness. But it also shows Monica talking with her parents about sidelining her desire to start a business. The story gives her a past, a family, and an internal life.

IMG_1942

Internalized oppression is a thing. Monica feels she needs permission to lead because she’s a woman. (The fact that she’s black is never mentioned).

It’s a comic book from the 80’s, so there are some dialogue choices and storyline choices that make me cringe. But I remember that these comics expanded my imagination in ways that I only now can appreciate. I am looking forward to seeing the Captain Marvel that I grew up with transform into a living beam of light and burn a hole through steel.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice

So on Saturday, I’m at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice with a couple of other families. My friend’s six-year-old child asks me to read one of the placards to him. It’s about lynching.

There are some big words, and if I read them he starts getting bored, so I choose to paraphrase—very carefully, aware that there is also an audience of adults listening in to a white man talking to a black child about lynching. I’m trying to summarize without sanitizing. I explain that black men and women were being executed by white crowds for made-up reasons. He asks,

“You mean like Jesus?”

Through tears, I said, yes, like Jesus. It was like James Cone was standing over there, nodding.

Polarizaion: Text Of the Day for May 3, 2018

Today’s text is from John 10:19-20. Jesus has just finished saying he has the power to lay down his life and take it up again:

Again the Judeans were divided because of these words. Many of them were saying, “He has a demon and is out of his mind. Why listen to him?”

 

In the Gospel of John, wherever Jesus goes in Jerusalem, he causes division. Some support him, others reject him (see John 9:16).

People often talk about polarization as a problem in our society, and indeed it is true that we face a challenge adapting to new communications technologies. And it is also true that if we try harder, we can find common ground when arguing about contentious topics.

But polarization is part of change. The authors of This is an Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt is Shaping the Twenty-First Century point out that polarization is an important tactic:

So much of mainstream politics involves an appeal to togetherness. Politicians perennially pledge to create common ground and help the country’s citizens overcome their disagreements. And yet, social movements often take an approach that is almost the exact opposite: instead of bridging differences between groups, they widen them. (199)

They also quote the words of 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.” (205)

Critics often decried Martin Luther King, Jr.’s tactics as “divisive,” the same way they deride every other social movement ever. Sure, people today are polarized. They are polarized primarily because we had a black president, and the ugliness of white supremacy is lashing back. We are beholding our racism, classism, and misogyny laid bare, and it is ugly—and plenty of folks love the ugliness.

John describes what happens when Jesus’ light shines in the darkness: “And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19). Polarization happens. People either turn toward Jesus’ light or away from it. They either turn toward the love of God incarnate in Jesus, or toward human systems of power and control, toward wounding ourselves, each other, and the world; toward sin.

Along Interstate 65, from Huntsville to Nashville near the Tennessee border, there is a giant silver-and-gold-painted statue of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and the first Grand Dragon of the KKK. It is surrounded by Confederate battle flags. It is hideous. You can’t see a close-up of his face from the road, but here it is:

Forrest2

When light shines on the ugliness in our world, on the ways we wound ourselves, each other, and the planet, it is inherently divisive and polarizing. While we can hope that heart-to-heart conversations will find common ground, that hard hearts will become soft, and that the Holy Spirit will lead to conversion, taking sin seriously means recognizing that there are forces of evil determined to hold onto power. What is driving polarization in our country is not simply that people are unwilling to listen to each other. What is driving polarization is the pervasive sin of racism and white supremacy, tucked into the corners of churches, communities, and public offices, masquerading as “economic anxiety” or differences of opinion over policy.

Shining a light on this ugliness may be “divisive.” It is also completely necessary.


Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Text Of the Day: New Devotional Readings for May-June

 

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my twice-weekly reflections on scriptures during Lent. I’m going to take a short break and resume in May with the story of Pentecost. If you’ve gotten something out of these devotional readings, please consider supporting this work financially by giving to the ministry of Saint Junia United Methodist Church at this link. It costs about $25 a month to send out text messages to our list of 160 people, but since our tiny screens demand so much of our attention, I think it’s important to use them to carve out space for attention to matters of faith and justice. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: Text Of The Day.

A church is a group of Jesus-followers who are attempting to integrate their theology with their lives, to embody or incarnate the teachings of the Christ in a real community. I offer these devotionals to give us some scriptural support in that work. Thank you for partnering with us to start more house churches, nurture disciples, and spread the good news—which is really GOOD news—for all people.


You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Throwing Jesus Under the Bus: Text Of the Day for March 27, 2018

I have a hard time hearing this passage (John 11:47-53) without inserting the deep bass voice of Caiaphas from the 1973 movie: “For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.” (The scene from the 2000 film is also good).

So the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the council, and said, “What are we to do? This man is performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and destroy both our holy place and our nation.” But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.” He did not say this on his own, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. So from that day on they planned to put him to death. 

While they are often portrayed as the bad guys, I have sympathy for chief priests. They are, after all, acting for the good of the many. Like the rest of their people, they are under the heel of Roman oppression, and don’t want to see a Roman crackdown. Seventy years later, the Roman crackdown will come anyway. According to Josephus, the Romans will crucify so many people they will run out of wood; every tree within twenty miles will be cut down in the mass executions. The chief priests have good reason to be afraid.

On the other hand, Roman oppression has been pretty good to them. They live in the nicest part of Jerusalem. They have money and social status. They have some extra incentives to throw Jesus under the bus to maintain The System.

Milton_Transit_Bus_0804

Over the last several years, as I’ve gotten more involved with various justice-oriented organizations, I’ve heard this expression quite a bit. To be thrown under the bus means to have a supposed ally or friend act in a way that lets a larger force crush you. Throwing someone under the bus means cooperating with the forces of systemic injustice, to leave someone hanging or standing alone when you should stand by them. It’s a good metaphor for acting in such a way that lets you off the hook for someone else’s misfortune. You can be complicit in injustice simply by standing back, giving a nudge, or actively “throwing” someone under the wheels of injustice.

The chief priests conspire to turn Jesus over to the Romans because systems of power evolve ways to divide and conquer. This is why slave masters appointed some slaves to be overseers. It is why there will never be any lack of anti-feminist women in political leadership, and why racism is rampant among gay white men. There’s a lot more I’d like to say about both the betrayal mindset and the hypersensitivity of activists in justice-seeking organizations, but I’ll leave it for later—mainly because in terms of social hierarchy, I’m a lot closer to the chief priests than I’d like to admit. If Jesus showed up talking about destroying Christianity the way he talked about destroying the temple, plenty of clergy would be happy to see someone else shut him up—permanently.

The irony that John points out is that Caiaphas has no idea of the truth he speaks. He and his privileged few plan to throw Jesus under the Roman bus—and by doing so he will reveal God’s solidarity with those who are scattered and betrayed, who will ultimately bring them together.


Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Occupy the Temple: Text Of the Day for March 23, 2018

This upcoming Sunday is Palm Sunday, and one of the lectionary texts will be Mark 11:1-11. This story is often referred to as “the triumphal entry.”

When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,

“Hosanna!
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”

Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.

I love Mark’s ending to the parade, which is a bit anticlimactic. In Matthew and Luke, Jesus charges straight into the temple and starts flipping tables over, but in Mark, Jesus is late, and the crowds have already gone home. He comes back the next day to “cleanse” the temple. Mark’s version reveals two things: First, Jesus wasn’t always on time. Second the whole event is staged.

We also have this interesting dialogue about procuring the colt. Had Jesus already made arrangements behind the scenes? Or did he simply have divine foreknowledge about the colt? I suspect Jesus has engineered this confrontation.

I did a Google image search for “triumphal entry,” which is how people often refer to this story. There were the usual classical paintings of Jesus on a donkey, but there were also these:

Triumphal_entry_of_Joan_of_Arc_into_Orléans

When we call this story “the triumphal entry,” we frame the event in terms of a conquest or occupation, sometimes for the sake of contrast: Jesus is a peaceful messiah, not a military one. I don’t think that’s wrong, but the title isn’t in the text. I do think the writer is calling to mind the story of 2 Maccabees 10, in which Judas Maccabeus (“Judah the Hammer”) retakes Jerusalem from “the foreigners” and purifies the temple. There are clearly revolutionary and militant overtones, but there always are in protests. And that’s how I frame this story: a planned protest, an “occupation” more like Occupy Wall Street, and a “triumphal entry” more like the Civil Rights marches.

This story is geographical. There is a lot of movement from Jesus’ base of operations in Bethany to the dangerous religious and military stronghold of Jerusalem. When Jesus commandeers a colt, marches into Jerusalem, and throws out the moneychangers as if he and his followers own the place, they are occupying a contested public space.

So if you have a problem with public protests and marches, you wouldn’t actually like Jesus very much.


Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Striking the Shepherd: Text Of the Day for March 20, 2018

Today I want to share one short line from Mark 14:27:

And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’

What does it mean for Jesus to refer to himself as a “shepherd?”

First, “shepherd” is a metaphor for king.

Alan Storey makes a point I think the church needs to hear: we’re confused about leadership, and our words demonstrate it. In the church, we call clergy “pastor,” and the word “pastor” means shepherd, but the Bible does not use the word “shepherd” to describe clergy. The word “shepherd” is applied to kingsAlthough I carry the title “pastor” and talk about “pastoral care,” it’s always against the background that this metaphor is basically wrong. Whenever the Bible uses the metaphor of shepherd, it refers to a king or a national leader (1 Kings 22, Psalm 78:70-72, Isaiah 44:27-28). Moses and David are the most famous leader-shepherds. They are not—and this is important—priests.

800px-Jableh

Shepherd in Jableh, Syria, from Wikimedia Commons by 
Victor.ibrahiem.photographe

 

Storey says that the ancient Israelites understood that national leaders were responsible for the well-being of the people. Most of those shepherd-kings had paid advisors called prophets (and some, like Amos, who did the job for free). The role of the prophet was to hold the shepherds accountable. The church has lost its prophetic voice because it has essentially let national leaders off the hook and assigned “shepherding” to clergy, claiming that it is the church’s business to take care of the poor. But prophets like Ezekiel made it clear that part of the job of shepherds (national leaders) was to make sure the fat sheep (the rich) didn’t take resources from the starving sheep (the poor). It is not surprising that today, the rich and powerful prefer a society in which the role of “shepherd” is shifted to an apolitical and impotent church, and the role of the prophet goes unfulfilled.

Second, Jesus shows he’s already thinking of himself as a king.

(The other place Jesus refers to himself as a shepherd is in John, where he calls himself “The Good Shepherd,” but describes other leaders as “hired hands” and “thieves.”)

Here in Mark, as Jesus prepares his disciples to face his arrest, trial, and execution, he’s taking on the role of a king who is under siege from an enemy power. In the very next chapter, Pilate will ask Jesus directly, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He will be referred to as king in a mocking way by Pilate, the Roman soldiers, and the sign over his head.

This was a familiar story to Israel and Judah, who saw their kings humiliated and executed and their people scattered by the Assyrians and Babylonians. Jesus indicates that he embodies Israel’s history in his captivity and execution. Like Israel, he will be treated unjustly by his captors:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
    Who could have imagined his future? (Isaiah 53:8)

But also, like Israel and Judah, he and his followers will be reunited and restored. “Who could have imagined his future?” The scattered sheep will be gathered again, and the Good Shepherd will take over.

I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice. (Ezekiel 34:16)

I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:23)


Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia. 

Is God Unfair? Text Of the Day for March 16, 2018

Does God break God’s promises? Is God unfair?

I’m sure most believers will reflexively reply, “No.” I think it’s important to linger over the discomfort of this question, because it’s a central problem in the Bible. Theologians call the problem of struggling with God’s justice “theodicy.” Job is probably the most explicit in his struggle with the goodness and reliability of God, but plenty of other authors raise the question.

Before we get to today’s text (in Jeremiah), it’s important to get a little history: Israel and Judah were destroyed by invading armies (in 722 BCE and 587 BCE). Most of the prophets attributed their nations’ destruction and exile to the judgment of God. They said that the Israelites and Judeans had turned away from God to idols, or had failed to do justice to the poor. Invasion and exile was God’s punishment.

Tissot

Tissot’s 1896 depiction of the Babylonian Exile, “Flight of the Prisoners”

But what about all the people who hadn’t worshiped idols? What about the children who were collateral damage, who were “dashed against the rocks” (Psalm 137:9) by invaders? Biblical authors struggle with a God who would do such things. This is why Abraham chides God: “Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). This is also why the same scene plays out with God and Jonah, but with roles reversed: now God reprimands Jonah: “…should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:11).

The standard history I was taught in Sunday school was this: Israel sinned and turned away from God, so God punished them with invasion and exile. This is a stunning attribution of violence to a God of love. But there are plenty of voices in the Bible who object to this version of history. One of my favorites is in Psalm 44.

You have made us like sheep for slaughter,
    and have scattered us among the nations.
You have sold your people for a trifle,
    demanding no high price for them…

All this has come upon us,
    yet we have not forgotten you,
    or been false to your covenant. [my emphasis]
Our heart has not turned back,
    nor have our steps departed from your way,
yet you have broken us in the haunt of jackals,
    and covered us with deep darkness.

If we had forgotten the name of our God,
    or spread out our hands to a strange god,
would not God discover this?
    For he knows the secrets of the heart.
Because of you we are being killed all day long,
    and accounted as sheep for the slaughter.

“God, you are being unfair!” says the Psalmist, before concluding, “Rouse yourself! Why do you sleep!?” This is pretty gutsy stuff to say to God, reminiscent of Elijah taunting the priests of Ba’al: “perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened” (1 Kings 18:27).

It’s important to hear this background rather than the trite moralizing we’re often taught in church that trivializes oppression, the trauma of war, and human suffering. The question “does God break God’s promises” is a question about history. It is a gut-wrenching “why?” asked of the universe. It’s important to acknowledge this pain before hearing the lectionary text for this Sunday from Jeremiah:

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of humans and the seed of animals. And just as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring evil, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, says the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say: “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” But all shall die for their own sins; the teeth of everyone who eats sour grapes shall be set on edge. The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (Jeremiah 31:27-34).

Jeremiah, like other prophets, is struggling with the justice of God. While he accepts the standard interpretation of history, he says God is about to do a new thing, something which is both more just more profound. Rather than punishing children for the crimes of their parents, God will evaluate us on a case-by-case basis. Rather than punishing a nation for the sins of its leaders, God will have an intimate covenant with all people, “from the least to the greatest.”

I don’t think Jeremiah’s answer satisfies the problem of God’s justice, but he makes a major theological shift: God will forge a new, more humane, and more personal relationship with human beings. God is doing something new.


Twice a week during Lent (usually Tuesday and Thursday) I do a short reflection on a Bible verse from a devotional and social justice perspective. You can sign up to get a prompt via SMS here: 

Text Of The Day

You can give online here to support the ministry of Saint Junia.