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Our Toxic Civil Discourse

May21

by: on May 21st, 2018 | No Comments »

A Love/Hate Relationship: What Can Be Done?

We complain about the toxic level of our public discourse even as we practice and indulge it. We genuinely want that toxicity to go away, but we can’t seem to stop ourselves from promoting it. We are, it seems, both habitual perps and frustrated victims, advocates for civility in our public conversations while, at the same time, unapologetic advocates for standing up for what we believe and for passionately “calling-it-like-it-is” in language of our choosing. I have been thinking about this lately and have become uncomfortably aware that, if I don’t at least own up to my personal duplicity, my hypocrisy, I ought, in good conscience, not complain; I’m not totally without principle. I can’t have it both ways; at least, I shouldn’t.

No longer willing to turn a blind eye to my moral dishonesty by shuttling between these two positions, and chagrined by my naively waiting for someone to come and fix the problem, I’ve begun pondering this conundrum. I have some thoughts and insights I’d like to share, starting with the observation and experience that life consists of speed-bumps wherein we are continuously finding ourselves caught in binds that force us to choose between competing principles we value and having to then live with the consequences of those choices. These binds can be between principles that are petty and personal, (e.g. Do I park illegally to catch the end of my granddaughter’s soccer game, or obey the law and disappoint my granddaughter?) They can be personal and consequential. (e.g. Do I look the other way at the malfeasance of my boss to ensure my paycheck that will send my children to college, or do I risk the latter for the sake of an abstract notion, justice?) These binds are often communal (e.g. Do I shout down and silence that public speaker spewing lies and hatred, or do I support his right to free-speech and do nothing as he befouls the spirit and decency of my community?) Finally, they can be national and political. (e.g. Do we crush an emerging nation’s efforts at self-determination to insure they don’t opt for a governing system that might threaten our status as global leader, our commerce and, with that, our national security, or do our democratic values of fairness and freedom come ahead of those values?) In short, betrayals of principle are neither abnormal nor rare: they are a normative part of our daily lives.

Nonetheless, we manage to live with the consequences of these betrayals. We accept them as inevitable or out of our control. We feel bad for a moment, even feel guilt and remorse, but we promptly forget and move on. We don’t berate or flog ourselves; we learn and grow from this experience. We become wiser to the ways of the world and of mankind and about ourselves. We see and understand that life is neither simple nor easy. We forgive ourselves and accept that we’re not perfect and life isn’t either. We see that for everything there is a season. So we do the best we can and truck on.

But there’s a problem regarding our current betrayals: we may be getting older, but we are not becoming wiser. We do berate and flog, only this time, the other fellow – not ourselves. We are certainly not moving on, not in the sense of growth and wisdom, we are missing a step. We’re missing that step where we feel bad. We don’t feel bad, not even for an instant, and we neither notice nor care. It is as if, for that learning and growing step, there must first be some reaction to our infidelity, at least some acknowledgment that our choice had consequences, that there’s a principle we value that we’re dishonoring.

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

May20

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.

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STOP Calling the Police – Engage Instead

May17

by: on May 17th, 2018 | 3 Comments »

Yet another incident of a white person calling the police or security on a black person came to my attention today. In this instance, it was a man walking with his son in a stroller in D.C. #ParentingWhileBlack. I immediately thought of a situation that seemed relevant to this incredible barrage of circumstances in which white people call the police (or security) on a black person for no reason other than being black.

One day I was walking into a pet food store (the pet food store shares a parking lot with a grocery store and a few other establishments – I had just come from the grocery store), and I noticed a baby (maybe 6 months old) sitting alone in his car seat in the back of the car. There was no adult in the car or nearby. The sky light to the car was open and the window near the baby was cracked open. The doors were locked.

I felt concerned and did not know what to do. The child was African American. I knew one thing for sure, I would not call the police. I called out loud and no one responded. There were enough stores around that it seemed futile to begin walking into different stores, and I did not want to leave the child alone. So I decided to wait. I was hoping that the parent (or caretaker) would arrive shortly. I went up to the window next to the child, who was happily playing in his car seat and enjoying himself, so I knew he was fine. I called my husband on my cell phone because I noticed the discomfort in my body and I wanted to have support to manage my discomfort so I didn’t do something stupid – like call the police!

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Hate Speech, Violence, and Sacred Texts

May7

by: on May 7th, 2018 | 4 Comments »

In the Winter 2017 edition of Tikkun, Rabbi Michael Lerner and Peter Gabel wrote of rising racism, sexism, and xenophobia in the current political and social face of America. Much was made of attempts to narrow today’s divisive gap between “Trump-ism” and the progressive political movements. Among the valuable suggestions made on how to achieve this goal was an emphasis on Tikkun‘s Network of Spiritual Progressives. Speaking truth to power was mentioned more than once.

However, if there is one area in which speaking truth to power is simply not acceptable, it is what the world embraces as spiritual. This is true not only of religions of which we are not a part, it is true of our own spiritual texts.

In the long history of the spiritual fracturing of these three great Biblical religions, each tradition has pointed to problematic texts in the religions of the others. But the response is not the same when criticism is leveled at our own. There are texts of hatred and racism in the sacred texts of other traditions, but that is another essay. I am interested in dealing with our sacred texts because when it comes to our own, we have all sorts of red herring excuses, dogmatic apologetics, and other evasive responses to any who would point to racism, sexism, and xenophobia in our Torah. It is easy to focus on the problems of the others, but almost impossible to do so when we are challenged about our own bits of the spiritually abhorrent.

One of the things I have admired about Tikkun and its writers is their willingness to challenge Israel when it violates the greatest of our moral teachings. Perhaps that is easy because it can be seen as a political issue rather than one rooted in parts of our spiritually foundational texts. I suggest that without an honest examination of the roots of these spiritual forms of hatred, we will accomplish little.

As Jewish children attend regular religious schools and services, Torah passages where “God” commands genocide, texts of racism, xenophobia, and sexism are judiciously avoided. They don’t learn them. Many a rabbi, including myself, don’t read them the whole meghillah; we stop the hanging of Haman, thus avoiding the rampage of our Israelite ancestors who killed tens of thousands of the evil Haman’s followers. We rush past the extermination of other tribes in our passage to the Holy Land. We teach them “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho,” Noah and the rainbow, Jacob’s dream, and Elijah’s chariot in the sky. The “rest of the story” gets no mention, or is rapidly glossed over.


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Why I am Participating in the National Day of Prayer

May2

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.

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In Honor of James H. Cone

Apr29

by: on April 29th, 2018 | No Comments »

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.

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Stepping off the Line into Freedom and Interdependence, Part One: Why

Apr28

by: on April 28th, 2018 | No Comments »

One of the potent images of our modern, competitive era is that of a long line we are all trying to get ahead in. Our spot in the line determines our access to resources to sustain our bodies, souls, and families. On a recent Facing Privilege call, one caller I will call Jennifer put on the menu for our conversation a question that directly refers to this invisible and pervasive line. She spoke of feeling bad for having enough. She wanted to know: did she get to have enough by pushing others out of the way to get to the head of the line? Was there a way she could both keep her intent to get her own needs met and do so while caring about other people’s needs? Here’s a distillation of the very engaging conversation that involved many in the group: none of us created the line. The line was created long before any of us were born, and has been perfected and refined and intensified for several thousand years. Jennifer and all of us were born into a world in which we are all on this endless line. We don’t choose the line. We only choose how we relate both to our place in the line and to the existence of the line.

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Beyond Resistance: Prophetic Empathy and Radical Love

Apr13

by: Rev. Carolyn Wilkins on April 13th, 2018 | 2 Comments »

Cat Zavis leading a Spiritual Activism Training in January 2017

Cat Zavis leading a Spiritual Activism Training, January 2017

These are the times that try men’s souls, but we can Rise Up!

A few weeks ago, I was walking to join a protest rally at City Hall in Los Angeles, when I caught the eye of one of the city employees. We briefly exchanged salutations and he then whispered to me, ‘Oh no, not another protest,’ and continued to express his distaste for having his day interrupted by people complaining about something. Instead of arguing with him, I shared that he’s right: most people do complain, but here is a group that wants to do something about it -they are standing up for justice. As my new friend went his way, he said, ‘You’re right, they are doing something worthwhile.’

Many of the people I speak with are frustrated and angry about congress, this administration, the NRA, the environment, Trump supporters, etc. These are (indeed) the times that try (wo)men’s souls - this quote from Thomas Paine, written to dispirited soldiers in Washington, DC, seems so appropriate at a time like this. Yet, we have a choice on how we want to respond to this moment in history… We can complain or we can rise up, take action, and give voice to our vision of a loving and just world.

I want to personally invite you to our next Spiritual Activism Training that begins on April 24. In our program, titled Beyond Resistance:Prophetic Empathy and Radical Love, we are integrating spirituality and activism to build a world of love and justice.

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Who Are “They”?

Apr9

by: on April 9th, 2018 | No Comments »

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)

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Israeli Human Rights Group B’Tselem Urges Soldiers to Refuse Orders Demanding They Fire on Unarmed Palestinian Protesters

Apr4

by: on April 4th, 2018 | 7 Comments »

In the wake of last Friday’s violent response to protests along the Gaza border, in which at least 17 Palestinians were killed by IDF snipers and hundreds more wounded, Israeli human rights NGO B’Tselem is urging soldiers to refuse “illegal orders” to fire upon unarmed protesters.

The campaign, which is called, “Sorry commander, I cannot shoot,” comes at a critical time. More protests are scheduled for this coming Friday, and many more will occur leading up to May 15, which is the 70th anniversary of Israel’s establishment, referred to as the Nakba (catastrophe) by Palestinians. May 15 is also the date the Trump administration hopes to move the United States embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move which promises to further intensify already growing tensions and frustrations.

B’Tselem’s campaign also comes on the heels of Israeli officials publicly reaffirming the military’s firing policies, further warning that any Palestinians who come within 100 meters of the Gaza fence will be risking their lives, even if they are unarmed.

A part of B’Tselem’s statement on its campaign, which will appear in newspapers across Israel, reads:

An order that permits live gunfire at unarmed civilians is blatantly unlawful. As Justice Benjamin Halevy ruled in the Kafr Qasem case back in the 1950s, the illegality of such orders “is not a question of form, nor is it imperceptible, or partially imperceptible.” On the contrary, it is a case of “unmistakable illegality patently evident in the order itself, it is a command that bears a clearly criminal nature or that the actions it orders are of a clearly criminal nature. It is an illegality that pains the eye and outrages the heart, if the eye be not blind and the heart be not callous or corrupt.”

The responsibility for issuing these unlawful orders and for their lethal consequences rests with the policy makers and – above all – with Israel’s prime minister, defense minister, and the chief of staff. They are also the ones who bear the obligation to change these regulations immediately, before this Friday’s planned protests, in order to forestall any further casualties.

That said, it is also a criminal offense to obey patently illegal orders. Therefore, as long as soldiers in the field continue to receive orders to use live fire against unarmed civilians, they are duty-bound to refuse to comply.


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