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Valerie Elverton-Dixon
Valerie Elverton Dixon is an independent scholar studying ethics, peace theory, public discourse, and the civil rights movement.

What is Soul? The Artistry of Aretha Franklin


by: on August 26th, 2018 | Comments Off

In 1970, the P-Funk music group Funkadelic asked the question: What is soul? There answer was “I don’t know.” Then they made some suggestions: ham hocks in corn flakes, bathtub ring, a joint rolled in toilet paper; rusty ankles and ashy kneecaps, chitlins foo yung, woman, and funk.
What is soul?
Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, defined it: “Soul to me is a feeling a lot of depth and being able to bring to the surface that which is happening inside, to make the picture clear. Many people can have soul. It’s just the emotion and the way it affects people.” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/aretha-franklin-musics-queen-of-soul-dies-at-76/2018/08/16/c35de4b8-9e9f-11e8-83d2-70203b8d7b44_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.ee707280b8c8)
What is soul?
I say that soul is a holistic spirituality that “understands that our spiritual person is at once connected with divine transcendence, with the Source, with Divine Love, and it is connected with our fellow human beings, animals, the natural world and all of creation. The spirit also takes us deeper into ourselves. It is the wellspring of emotion. It is the source of our intuitive insights. It celebrates and it mourns. It is within and beyond reason, mind and body. The spiritual self longs to understand itself within the context of ultimate reality and ultimate meaning” (“Just Peace Theory Book One” xxxii). Soul is body, mind and spirit moving through the world in harmony and cohesion.
What is soul?
Soul is, in the words of Rev. Dr. Katie Cannon “Thinking with our hearts; feeling with our brains.” (https://vimeo.com/239890586)
Dr. Cannon taught her students that it is more than a mistake to do our work as if the head and the heart were separate parts of our being. To try to separate thinking and feeling is a violation of our humanity. Soul makes no such violation. Head and heart come together to understand the logic of our emotions and to think with feeling, joy, passion, inspiration, and sensitivity.
Aretha Franklin was the Queen of Soul because she made our feelings sensible and our thinking passionate. Her voice was a divine force that brought Holy Spirit into our sacred and secular lives if such distinctions even make sense within a holistic conception of self. For those who have ears to hear, we can hear echoes of the field hollers in Aretha Franklin’s singing and we can hear the Holy Ghost shouts that come when the sweet sweet Spirit of God enters into a worship service.
When Aretha sang, she was not present to the music to serve the notes and the words of a particular song. The words and music of the song were there to serve her task of communication and demonstration of the human emotion that the song could convey. She became a conduit of Holy Spirit. Her singing provided a moment of transcendence, and this is why her music made multiple levels of meaning available to us. For example: she took the song “Respect” written by Otis Redding about a man coming home to a wife and asking for “just a little respect” in return for handing over his paycheck and turned it into a feminist and civil rights anthem. The truth that came from her rendition emerged from the depths of her being, from her thinking feeling heart/mind, from her humanity to say that respect is something that every human beings not only wants, but deserves. The song is at once sexual and political. It is a cry for recognition and a demand.
For the fiftieth anniversary of the song, “Respect”, Essence Magazine published a commemorative edition that it has now reissued. In the commemoration, African-American women write about the song’s significance. In her essay – “The Song” – Diane McKinney-Whetstone writes: “With her sister Carolyn and Erma singing, ‘Sock it to me’ in the background and Aretha herself going to church on the piano, she offered up a voice that is both of this world and holy. It has astounding range and an ability to engage, head, heart and soul in a transcendent swirl” (10).
In her essay – “The Icon” – Farrah Jasmine Griffin writes about how Aretha Franklin’s music was the music of black people: “Steeped in the black church but also fluent in the jazz idiom, Aretha put Black genius on full display. And she didn’t do it in the rarified confines of classical music. She did it in R&B and soul, the music of the people. The song echoed from windows and cars, in clubs and on basketball courts. When it was released, she was only 25 years old, but her voice carried and extended an entire tradition of Black singing: the field holler and the spiritual, the blues moans, gospel shouts and jazz improvisations. Bessie, Mahalia and Dinah as well as Sara and Ella. Aretha is their heir” (34).
Aretha Franklin’s music made an impact on individual people’s lives. Writing -”The Impact” – Ylonda Gault says: “Mama taught me many things: God don’t like ugly. Be your own best friend. And never -ever – let anybody play you close. Today that sounds trite, a no brainer. But in the late 1960′s – as a newfound spirit of Black militancy began to emerge from the ashes of Martin, Malcom and Medgar – in many ways, a sister’s outspoken indignation was a revolutionary act in itself. In 1967 Aretha Franklin’s “R-E-S-P-E-C-T” simply set Mama’s smoldering vexation – with her husband, with her assembly-line foreman, with her life – to music” (68).
Similarly, when Aretha recorded “Natural Woman” in 1967, a song written by Carole King and Gerry Goffin, it became a hit and one her iconic songs. The song makes no sense to me since I consider myself an existential feminist/womanist who is suspicious of the notion of a singular natural woman. I say and say again that I agree with Simone de Beauvoir that women are made and not born. There are so many different ways to be an authentic woman in this world or to be a female who wants to move beyond such thinking altogether. We live in a time when gender nonconformity is acceptable.
Further, in the event that I have defined for myself what kind of “natural” woman I want to be, I would certainly not put the power of me feeling like the natural woman that I am to be in human hands. Such would give far too much power to another person. However, the logic of the emotion with which Aretha Franklin sings the song, transcends a human relationship. I am the “natural” woman that God, Divine Love, the Source created me to be and it is that Love that makes me feel like a natural woman.


For Katie Geneva Cannon Let Them See Your Tears


by: on August 10th, 2018 | 4 Comments »

When a human being dedicates her life to the sustenance and joy of humankind, when she works with a will for justice and for the moral evolution of humankind, when she dies, it is fitting to pay tribute. This is nothing new for me, I think that works of mourning, acts of mourning keep us grounded and connected to a reality that life on this earth, in this delicate human flesh is fragile and fleeting and over far too soon. We all live moment by moment. We cannot take tomorrow for granted, and a life well lived is a work of art.

The Rev. Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, Annie Scales Rogers Professor of Christian Ethics at Union Presbyterian Seminary, the first African-American woman ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the first African-American woman to chair the dissertation committee of another African-American woman in religious studies, a pioneer of womanist thought, a towering figure in theological ethics, my own teacher, mentor, sister and friend has died. (https://www.upsem.edu/newsroom/professor-katie-cannon-first-black-woman-ordained-in-pcusa-dies-at-68/)

This for me is personal.

There is much that I could write about her scholarship and her pedagogies that have influenced a generation of scholars, teachers and preachers. We will be writing essays about her thought in the areas of ethics, homiletics, teaching and learning for years to come. There will be much to say about her concepts of unctuousness and her thinking regarding “ethosfacts” in her application of archaeological methods in the field of social ethics. We will be dancing the dance of redemption that she adopted and adapted from her teacher Beverly Wildung Harrison, made her own, and passed on to us for our own adoption and adaptation. We will make her thinking regarding the work of sociologist Oliver Cox part of a womanist peace theory. And we will, through her spirit, continue to “debunk seamless histories; . . .unmask the deadly onslaught of stultifying intellectual mystification; . . . and disentangle the ordinary absence of women of color in whole bodies of literature.” (Katie G. Cannon “Structured Academic Amnesia” in “Deeper Shades of Purple: Womanism in Religion and Society.”)

This, however, is personal.

There is an old saying that when the student in ready, the teacher will appear. That was the case with Dr. Cannon and me. I first met her at a Society of Christian Ethics meeting in Washington, DC in the early 1990s. She was already a star. I was just starting work on my PhD in Religion at Temple University, not exactly sure whether the academy and I would make a good fit, especially when it came to academic writing. I was trained in journalism and had worked in both print and radio. I was trained to write in a clear, concise and if possible entertaining style. Academic writing was abstruse and turgid. Why use a simple word or sentence when a complex paragraph will do?

Much of the discourse I heard at the conference was over my head, and I was not certain whether people really knew what they were talking about or if the difficult language was an obfuscation to cover up intellectual uncertainties and insecurities. I remember that she and I had a short conversation in the lobby of the hotel near the end of the conference. I do not remember how the conversation started. I probably saw her and walked up to her and started the conversation. As a journalist, I am not shy about approaching total strangers, introducing myself and starting a conversation. I do not remember much of what we said, but I do remember that she asked me what I was interested in studying and that she listen very carefully. She gave me her complete attention. After I had answered her question, she encouraged me to continue my studies. She thought that my intellectual project was worthwhile. I never questioned whether or not I ought to work toward the PhD after that conversation.


Faith in the Face of Bad Faith


by: on July 4th, 2018 | Comments Off

Shortly after the death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, very shortly after, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) decided that the Senate would not consider a replacement nominated by President Barack Obama, he not only demonstrated bad faith, but he also showed that he does not function out of a duty to the Constitution of the United States. Worse, to cover up his naked disregard for the Constitution and his disregard for good faith understood as fair play, he used words from a speech given by Joe Biden when he was in the senate taken out of context to craft a fig-leaf, some non-existent something called the Biden Rule.

According to McConnell’s lie, the Biden Rule says that the Senate ought not to consider a Supreme Court nominee in an election year. McConnell said “the people” ought to decide who would make the next pick. Clearly McConnell and his invertebrate GOP minions in the Senate who lied then and continue to lie now, who are participants in a theft of a Supreme Court seat, have forgotten that we live in the age of fact checking, that there is video tape that allows us to see what Biden actually said.

First, according to PolitiFacts, the context of Biden’s remarks was very different. When Biden spoke about this in 1992, there was no vacancy on the Court. Biden made his remarks thinking of the toxic political climate at the time and suggested that if a vacancy were to occur, that the process ought to wait until after the election. Second, there was no recommendation that President Bush the elder not fill the vacancy. Biden spoke about compromise in the event that Bill Clinton won the election. (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/mar/17/context-biden-rule-supreme-court-nominations/)

Beyond the lies that McConnell told about the so-called Biden Rule, some people want to say that McConnell’s move to end the filibuster rule for Supreme Court nominations is the next logical step from the action taken by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid in 2013 to end the filibuster for nominations to the federal judiciary below the Supreme Court. This again is an analysis that does not consider the context.

Some of us do not live in the United States of Amnesia. We remember 2013 and before that. We remember the 2009 inauguration night conspiracy where Republican leaders of Congress met at dinner to conspire to obstruct EVERYTHING President Obama would propose. This while President and Mrs. Obama were dancing at the various inauguration balls. This while the nation was facing the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, while fighting two wars.

Mitch McConnell did not attend this dinner, but he announced that his primary goal was to make President Obama a one-term president, and the Republicans in the Senate did all they could to not only stop President Obama’s legislative efforts, but to stop his nominations for cabinet positions and for judgships. The unprecedented obstruction continued after President Obama won a second term. This is why Reid and the Democrats who were in the majority changed the rule.

When the Republicans won the majority in 2014, they had the numbers to take obstruction to its ultimate by refusing to allow President Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court the respect of a hearing and a vote. During the 2016 election, more than one Republican senator spoke of refusing to give a hearing or a vote to anyone who Hillary Clinton would nominate if she were to win. For McConnell and the Republicans to talk about the nonexistent Biden Rule or to blame their obstruction on Harry Reid is disingenuous in the extreme. The refusal of the majority of one body to do its job was probably unthinkable to the founders.

So, McConnell is a liar and a thief. He and his colleagues failed to honor the Constitution that they are sworn to defend. Here is the oath of office for United States senators:

“I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.” (https://www.cop.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/common/briefing/Oath_Office.htm)

Regarding nominations to the Court, the Constitution says in Article II Section 2 describing presidential powers:

“. . . and he shall nominate, and by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, shall appoint Ambassadors, other public Ministers and Consuls, Judges of the supreme Court, and all other Officers of the United States, whose Appointments are not herein otherwise provided for, and which shall be established by Law.” (https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/constitution-transcript)

There is nothing here about an exception for an election year. The people voiced their preference during the previous election, and the president’s term is four years.


A Family Reunion


by: on June 6th, 2018 | 1 Comment »

When my family gets together it is a good time.

This Memorial Day Weekend, my paternal extended family met in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a good time. A family reunion is interesting because it links past and present in the eternal now, and we see in real time, in flesh and blood and music and dancing and food and stories told and new memories made and worship and more food and more music and more dancing our connection—in blood and in love—to other human beings. These people look like us and act like us, and we are growing old together.

Since my father’s death in 2013, I am part of the elder generation. We get together and laugh about who is the eldest of the elders, remembering when we were the young bunch. We see younger cousins who remind us of aunts and uncles and cousins who were long dead when they were born. We tell the stories of these people so the younger generations will know that they too are connected.

While in Memphis, our family visited the Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. This is a historical site that tells the story of the Underground Railroad, a system of houses and hideouts that helped enslaved people to escape slavery into the north even into Canada. When my younger cousins who had organized the reunion said we were going to the Slave Haven, I must confess that I experienced cognitive dissonance. What kind of haven could there be for slaves? Now that I am of the elder generation, I am determined not to be a mean old lady who is constantly critical of the younger generations. So, I held my peace and just decided that I would see in the due course of time what a slave haven was. I was not disappointed. (http://www.slavehavenmemphis.com/)

The museum is located in the home of Jacob Burkle, a German immigrant and a member of the anti-slavery movement who helped enslaved people escape from 1855 until the end of the Civil War. I know the story of the Underground Railroad well. When I lived in Rochester, New York, I lived near houses that were stops on the way to Canada. When I lived in Dayton, Ohio, I learned of the route of the enslaved as they crossed the Ohio River on their way to Michigan and on to Canada. I have always pictured the houses on the secret road to freedom to be in the north. I always imagined slaves hiding in swamps or in the southern woods until they found their way north. However, the Slave Haven helped me to understand that there must have been people in the south who were willing to risk their own lives to help other people get to freedom by allowing their homes to be a stopping point.


On A Royal Wedding Sermon: The Power of Love or When Love is the Way


by: on May 20th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

When the Most Reverend Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop and primate of the Episcopal Church, prepared the address he delivered at the wedding of the now Duke and Duchess of Sussex, he knew he would not only be speaking to the couple about to be pronounced married and to the 600 guests in the building and thousands more outside. He knew he would be speaking to millions of people across the globe, and he did not miss his opportunity to preach the good news about God who is Love.

There was no title for his address published in the order of service that I saw, but I say: we can title his remarks the “The Power of Love” or “When Love is the Way.” When Meghan married Harry, the couple brought elements of an African ethos into the proceedings, a way of being in the world born from the history, beliefs, philosophy, and spirituality of a people. An African ethos is one that values community and a spirituality that comes from the participation of the community in ritual.

Within an African, African-American, African-Caribbean, African-British, context the preaching moment is an oral performance that invites and even requires audience participation. The task of the speaker is to bring speaker and audience together into a spiritual community that unifies head and heart, intellect and emotion, to hear the voice and the will of the Divine. The truth cannot come forth from a passive listening to a speech stripped of emotion for the sake of decorum. Within a pan-African ethos, the voice of the Divine comes from the affirmation of the people. It is not given to a consecrated individual who tells a passive audience what God wants. It does not come through a sovereign, constitutional or otherwise. It is bottom up, not top down.

Bishop Curry brought emotion and logic to his sermon in a way that baffled and or amused some in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle who were not accustomed to the African-American preaching tradition. No one there would break decorum and give Bishop Curry the out loud “Amens” that he would have received in a black church setting. However, this did not stop the power of his words from reaching millions across the globe. The truth of his sermon resonated anyway.

He started by quoting a part of the scripture reading from the Song of Solomon that speaks of the power of love, that speaks of love as a fire that cannot be extinguished. Next he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr. on the power of love. He told his global audience that God is Love and that Jesus commanded his followers to love God with all of their hearts, minds, souls and strength, and to love the neighbor as we would love ourselves. Such love is deeper than the love between lover and beloved. Such love is revolutionary.


Why I am Participating in the National Day of Prayer


by: on May 2nd, 2018 | 3 Comments »

I must confess that I am suspicious of a National Day of Prayer (the first Thursday in May), especially when it is a matter of law and is proclaimed by the president. My suspicion predates the current political moment. It existed before Donald Trump and before the acquiescence and complicity of the so-called religious right to Trumpism. (https://www.onfaith.co/onfaith/2010/04/27/the-dangers-of-a-national-day-of-prayer/9027)

I am suspicious of the National Day of Prayer because it opens the door to a civil religion that in my judgement is idolatry. It is a worship of the state as an ultimate entity when the state is not and cannot be ultimate. To worship a created thing rather than the creator is idolatry. The civil religion therefore is idolatry that has the danger to make various religious traditions denominations of itself.

Last year, the presiding elder of my church asked me to organize a National Day of Prayer service in cooperation with a local consortium of Christian churches. I said yes because I do believe in the worth of prayer, and it is the duty of religious organizations and communities to pray for the nation. Christians are instructed to pray for leaders of the nations: “For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.” (I Timothy 2:2)

While the National Day of Prayer is supposed to be for people of all faiths, the National Day of Prayer Task Force website is run by people who call themselves Christians. When I looked at the staff, it was clear that these were some of the same people who support President Trump. There is a statement of faith that is exclusively Christian in its orientation. There is information on voter registration and an exhortation to encourage friends and family to vote. I am not mad at this. I think churches and religious communities ought to encourage good citizenship, and voting is an important duty that comes with living in a free society.

What makes my participation difficult this year is because I do not understand how anyone who calls themselves a Christian can support Mr. Trump. A Christian is a follower of Christ. It means to belong to the party of Christ. The people who support Trump are not followers of Christ, but they have become followers of Trump. Let us set aside Mr. Trump’s past sexual behavior. Let us set aside his bragging about predatory behavior and the several women who have come forward to say that he did what he said he did without their consent. Let us set aside his unscrupulous and possibly illegal business practices, and his vulgarity. Let us set aside the ways that he demeans the office of the presidency on a daily basis with his disrespectful name calling of his enemies. Let us set aside his attacks on the free press, the FBI, his own Department of Justice, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller. What no person who claims to follow Jesus ought to overlook is his slander against President Obama and his continual lying.

Jesus of Nazareth taught in the Gospel of John: “You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.” (John 8:44) Jesus goes on to say that the people who do not believe him cannot hear him because they are not of God.


In Honor of James H. Cone


by: on April 29th, 2018 | Comments Off

Image Courtesy of Coolhappysteve

There are few scholars, preacher-teachers whose work paints such a bright line across the landscape of their discipline that we have to say there is a radical difference between before and after. James H. Cone, known as the father of black liberation theology, is such a person.

James Cone died April 28, 2018, and those of us who have been influenced by his life and work must pause to acknowledge the debt we owe to him. There is Christian theology before Cone that was primarily interested in getting to heaven after death, and there is Christian theology after Cone that is primarily interested in bringing the justice and truth of heaven to earth. There is the Christian theology before Cone that did not recognize the black struggle for human dignity and justice to exist at the heart of the Christian project, and there is after Cone that understands that God is the God of the oppressed, that being in right relationship with God means being in right relationship with the least among us. There is Christian theology before Cone that basically ignored the matter of lynching, pogroms, and systematic violence against black people, and Christian theology after Cone where such ignore-ance is sin. If the theological project is faith seeking understanding, then theology before Cone that does not see the daily lives and struggles of ordinary black people as a source of theological reflection can never understand the faith of the oppressed. After Cone, we understand that unless our theological reflections are baptized in the tears and sweat of ordinary people working to build decent lives for themselves and for their families, we will never understand a faith that is able to not only sustain life, but make life worth living. For Cone, Jesus is black as are all oppressed people, no matter the color of their skin or their religion or their nation or class or sexual orientation or gender identification.

Cone’s theology was born from his life growing up in Arkansas and coming of age during the early days of the civil rights movement. His work is a response to the idea that Christianity is a religion of white supremacy, that black people ought to first liberate themselves from Christianity before they can liberate themselves from social, cultural, political, and economic oppression. Cone knew the terrors of white supremacy personally, but he also knew that Christianity is far from the “opiate of the people,” as Marx described. It can be fuel that keeps oppressed people going. It is a balm in Gilead that heals a sin-sick soul. It is a way for black people to not only stay alive, but to stay alive while preserving their human dignity. And, in a country that wants black people either quiet, subservient, invisible, or dead, to stay alive knowing that black people are children of God and beloved of God is a revolutionary act.


Who Are “They”?


by: on April 9th, 2018 | Comments Off

April 9, 1968, Benjamin Mays gave the eulogy at Martin Luther King, Jr.’s funeral. Only five days after King’s death, the world did not yet know who pulled the trigger on the gun that killed him. Mays understood and said so in his eulogy that more than one individual was responsible for King’s death. Mays was not talking about a conspiracy theory of any kind, but he was talking about the entire nation being complicit in murder.

Mays said:
“We all pray that the assassin will be apprehended and brought to justice. But, make no mistake, the American people are in part responsible for Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death. The assassin heard enough condemnation of King and of Negroes to feel that he had public support.”

Mays spoke about the millions who hated King. He spoke of the Memphis city officials who ought to have given the garbage workers a living wage without demonstrations. He spoke of a nation where African Americans needed to sit-in and demonstrate and march to be treated equally in this society. He said:

“We too are guilty of murder. It is time for the American people to repent and make democracy equally applicable to all Americans.”

He told his audience that we have the power to make things right. (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/02/benjamin-mays-mlk-eulogy/552545/)

When I first heard that King had been shot, the same thought that came to me when I learned that Malcolm X had been killed returned: “Well, they got him.” From that day to this, I have been thinking about who the “they” is in my thought.

I grew up during a time when news of murder, bombings and assassinations punctuated our daily lives. I remember my parents’ sorrow when Medgar Evers was assassinated in June of 1963. They had attended college with him at Alcorn College in Mississippi. A few months later, four little girls died in a bombing in Birmingham, Alabama. In November of that year, we learned of President Kennedy’s assassination when our teacher was late coming into the room after lunch. In 1965, Malcolm X died. Cities erupted in violence, and the anti-war demonstrations gained intensity as the Vietnam War came home for dinner each night on the evening news.
So, when I learned that King had been killed, I was not angry or afraid or surprised or shocked or even sad. I was resigned to the fact of American life, that as Mays said in his eulogy millions of Americans wanted him dead.

As I have thought about the “they” who are responsible for the death of King and others, I have determined that the “they” are not only human beings. As the writer of the Letter to the Ephesians tells us:

“For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.” (Ephesians 6:12 KJV)


On Earth as it Is in Heaven


by: on March 31st, 2018 | 4 Comments »

I say and say again that in the eyes of the Roman government and of the religious authorities of his day, Jesus was not an innocent man. For the most part, Christian theology says that Jesus was a sinless man, a perfect sacrifice, who died for the propitiation of the sins of humankind. John 3:16 says: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The Christian witness to a call to believe that Jesus lived a perfect sinless life, that he died on the cross to save humanity, and was raised on the third day with all power and authority in his hands. When we believe, we are saved from hell. We are saved through faith alone. This is the soteriology of Jesus’ story.

I want to consider the ethics of his life and death. I want to consider the possibility of bringing heaven to earth.

Jesus was condemned to death by the Roman authorities because he was a threat to their power. He was handed over by religious authorities because he was a threat to their position and authority. The story of the last days of Jesus’ life is a story of the result of economic, religious and political power coming together to preserve itself. It is a warning of what happens when religious authorities stop speaking truth to power and seek to use the power of the state to maintain their traditions. It is a story of what happens when people begin to worship the idol of tradition.

Jesus was not a Christian. He was born into a Jewish household and raised to understand the law and the prophets. However, his ministry was about teaching people to observe the spirit of the law and the prophets and not only the letter of the law. He came to teach a radical love as demonstrated in compassion and living the Golden Rule that says: “IN EVERYTHING do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” He taught that human beings ought to love God with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. As ourselves. There is no them and us, there is only us. When we read the Sermon on the Mount, we ought to read it as a guide to living in this world.

Some theologians think that it is meant in a symbolic and spiritual sense. I disagree. When Jesus instructs his audiences to turn the other cheek, to walk the extra mile, to give up coat and cloak, to love enemies, to stop worrying about the future and what we will eat and wear, he is talking about a new way to live in this world. Jesus advocated a radical love economy where everyone entered into an obligation to help those who needed help when they needed it. In the model prayer known as “The Lord’s Prayer”, he prays that the heavenly Father would forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors. He instructed at least one rich man to sell all he owed and give it to the poor.

Jesus instructed his followers to leave their gifts at the altar if someone has something against us. We are to make peace with the person then return to give our gifts. He taught secrecy in giving, prayer, and fasting. He taught that what the Father sees in secret, he rewards openly. So much for public piety.


Enough is Enough. It’sTime for a Change. Never Again.


by: on March 24th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Image Courtesy of Mathias Wasik

The last time I wrote about gun violence was in October of 2017 after the mass shooting in Las Vegas. The essay I wrote at that time was titled “I Surrender.” (https://www.tikkun.org/tikkundaily/2017/10/02/i-surrender/) In that essay, I stated that after so many mass shootings, after several essays that I had written over a number of years, at least since the mass shooting that nearly killed Gabby Giffords, I had nothing more to say. Valentine’s Day this year saw another mass shooting, this time at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Seventeen students and teachers were killed and another 17 were injured, making it one of the deadliest school shootings in American history.

The day it happened, I had nothing more to say. Just as in the Las Vegas shooting, I had no words, no tears, only a sick, sinking resignation that I live in a country that has lost both its mind and its soul. I expected the usual ritual. Politicians would offer thoughts and prayers. We would see candle light vigils and memorials made of candles and teddy bears and stuffed toys. The media would be on the ground for a day or two. We would hear the life stories of the people who died, and some information about the shooter, who was captured alive. Then the nation would move on until the next mass shooting.

However, this time was different. The students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School decided this time would be different. They rallied, appeared on television, met with the president of the United States, and appeared on a CNN town hall. They called out politicians for their unwillingness to pass gun regulations. They called out politicians who take money from the National Rifle Association. They travelled to Tallahassee, the Florida state capital to demand gun regulations. They organized a walk out of school to protest gun violence, and students from schools around the nation walked out in solidarity.

Saturday, March, 24, 2018, the students organized a march on Washington that brought more than half a million people to the nation’s capital to protest gun violence and to demand gun regulations. Some 800 sibling marches were planned throughout the United States and across the globe. The young people were astonishing. In the DC march, only young people spoke. They were beautiful, passionate, articulate and moving. More than that, they were strategic.

I say and say again that the powers that be in the United States cannot stand unity. It is a frightening thing when We the People of the United States decide that we will not be divided according to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, religion or a myriad other ways we have to identify our particular tribe. The students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School that organized this event understand the power of unity, so they invited young people of color from Los Angeles, Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York City and other places to speak. We heard from a young Latina who told about ducking bullets before she learned to read. We heard from a young black woman from Chicago who was present at an armed robbery, the memory of which stays with her every day. There were two young black men from Chicago who called themselves warriors for peace. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s granddaughter spoke about her dream of the end of guns. Period. We heard from a young black man from Washington, DC who had lost his twin brother to gun violence. And, we heard from young people who had been on lock down at another school down the street during the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. These young people understand the power of unity.

These young people were fearless. They called out the NRA. Senator Marco Rubio took heat for the amount of money he has taken from the NRA. The students divided the number of students in Florida into the amount of money that Rubio has taken from the NRA and concluded that Rubio has sold out the students for $1.05 per student.

There were elders in the crowd. One woman carried a sign saying Nana marches for and named her grandchildren. I saw at least one woman in a hat from the Woman’s March. And another woman wearing a Nasty Woman tee shirt. One man carried a sign reminding us that John Lennon had been killed by gun violence. Paul McCartney marched in New York City in honor of Lennon.