Dear Jephthah

Alexandre_Cabanel_-_The_Daughter_of_Jephthah_(1879,_Oil_on_canvas)
You thought perhaps
it would be someone else—
a servant, or a servant’s child,
or a child’s pet.
You would trade
in someone else’s grief,
while you made sad eyes
and talked about a greater purpose
and collateral damage
and breaking eggs to make omelettes,
and the cost of discipleship
and each of us bearing our cross
and sacrifice.

 

When she ran out of the door,
smiling,
breathless,
almost as tall as you,
long limbs (where does the time go?)
covering the ground in half the time
(where does it go?)
as your wife,
and the servants
and their children
and their pets,
first through the door,
because she was faster than the wind,

 

I saw your face crack;
I heard your heart break.
Only last month
(or was it last year?)
she asked for a story every night,
followed by a song,
followed by a prayer,
and I hoped you would have the sense
to know that God has no need
for anyone to prove their righteousness.

 

When you swore your oath,
to sacrifice the first creature
who ran out of your door
in exchange for victory,
the chance was slim,
you thought;
and if it did so happen
that it was your child,
then you saw yourself as faithful as Abraham.
In your head,
you were already composing the story,
and you were the hero
because you sacrificed so much.

 

(Do not bring God into this.
Your idea
never entered God’s mind.)

 

You told her to go into the mountains
and bewail her virginity, and so
that is what she told you
she did.

 

I heard what she bewailed:
She bewailed a world
where men trade their children
for the image of their own virtue,
where they prize abstinence and virginity
more than life,
where legislators
and preachers
and pundits
and generals
bereave parents again and again and again,
where people in authority
make foolish oaths,
and stupid laws,
and empty promises,
that keep taking the lives
of queer kids,
and straight kids,
and any child
who sprints out of the door,
full of hope, and excitement, and love.

 

Jephthah, God is tired;
tired of parents grieving
so you can prove
how worthy you are
by sacrificing their children
for your holy war.

 

Jeremiah 7:31
Judges 11:29-40

Reflection on “The Exodus”

Thanks to everyone who has found this blog by reading “The Exodus.” I’ve appreciated reading the feedback—all of it, positive, negative, questioning, or reflective. I’ve especially appreciated some of the email from folks who shared deeply personal struggles with faith, those who feel alienated by the dominant Christian narrative in our culture, or who simply resonated with the words. I’ve been touched by stories of people who have told me they have left church, but would go to a church if they could find one that said these words.

Thanks to John Archibald and Kissing Fish for helping it to go viral.

I was inspired to write it after reading the Song of Miriam in Exodus. Some scholars believe it may be the oldest text in the Bible.

I just want to offer a few words to folks who have commented, emailed, or shared discussion on social media.

1) In The Four Loves, CS Lewis says that friends are those who “see the same truth.” So I am delighted to make the acquaintance of new friends. When I read something that plucks a string in my soul that vibrates for days, or I’m stunned to learn someone else has put into words thoughts I’ve thought or feelings I’ve felt, I feel less alone. It means a lot to me that some of you have shared that these words did that for you, or that they offered courage, comfort, or challenge. Thank you.

2) For everyone who has been alienated from the church, who told me it is a relief or a surprise to hear Christian religious language used in a way that was not advancing a right-wing agenda, just know that there is a long, long tradition of religious social justice work. I’m part of a grassroots community organizing group called Faith in Action Alabama, and one of our themes is that what we’re talking about is not a thin veneer of religious language over a political agenda, but a deeply-rooted faith response that claims that God is not neutral about injustice, that all human beings are made in God’s image, and that prophetic imagination is part of our calling. I encourage you to find a group doing such work in your area. I also recommend Common Prayer for daily devotional.

While the piece is titled “The Exodus,” I’m still very firmly part of a church. Even an institutional church. But I totally understand the desire to leave both church and nation for a new land. For me, the Good News is that there is an alternative in our midst. “The Kingdom is among y’all,” as JC said.

3) For critics, know that I appreciate thoughtful criticism and read what you write, even if I don’t always reply. I am happy to debate the finer points of policy, government intervention, evidence-based programs that reduce poverty, and the effects of legislation on things like the health of LGBTQ persons and reduction of abortion. I believe in respectful dialogue and giving folks the benefit of the doubt.

But polemic, art, and imagination—not rational debate—is the proper response to oppressive, bullying, tone-policing, white-supremacist, patriarchal theology. Jesus knew this, and his response to the dominant theology of his day is recorded in Matthew 23. I will not legitimize the dominant narrative by speaking on its terms. Doing so is simply throwing pearls before swine, an activity Jesus admonishes his followers to avoid (Matthew 7:6).

I reject any view of the Bible that limits it to how we behave in our personal lives, or that walls off personal faith from the personal lives of marginalized communities under threat. A faith that is strictly private and does not impinge upon public life, that does not inform how we talk about poverty or injustice in the public sphere, that makes Jesus my Personal Savior but not Savior of the World, is a faith not worth having, in my opinion. There are plenty of Dominionists working in our federal government, and their vision of God and God’s Kingdom is directly opposed to everything I love. And retreat from politics into a privileged sphere of personal pietistic religion is not a luxury I—or the church—can afford.

Jesus told us to take up our crosses. This did not mean giving up chocolate, sex, or beer. The cross was reserved for enemies of the state. If your faith does not lead you to stand with the crucified, with black kids gunned down, with LGBTQ families prevented from adopting, with refugees, then I have no interest in your religion. It simply fails the test. I have no interest in following a Jesus who does not offer the cross. Characterize it as “left wing” if you like. That’s hardly a stinging critique in the world we live in. I have yet to see a martyr of the faith crucified by the state for defending the rights of the privileged and powerful.

4) Here are some books that I’ve been reading recently that inspired my writing:
Pamela Lightsey, Our Lives Matter: A Womanist Queer Theology.
Walter Brueggemann, Practice of Prophetic Imagination: Preaching an Emancipating Word.
Walter Wink, The Powers that Be: Theology for a New Millennium.
Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus.

Thanks again for reading, for sharing, and for commenting.
“Be a prophet of the resistance, not a priest of the empire.”

Ledgers

Some folks have ledgers,
and in their records
you will always be
in the red,

Even if you have
never met these folks,
and you do not know
who they are,

Nor do they know you
or your place of birth,
or your family,
or your dreams.

Some claim you owe them
to look as they look,
to want as they want,
forever.

Here is the fine print:
you only ever
pay the interest
until death.

Here is the loophole:
No one can collect
(though they may call you
and send bills.)

So, already free,
do not pay in hate;
but owe to no one
anything
except love.

—Dave Barnhart, 2014

Romans 13:8