the politicization of death

On October 4, 2017, Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright, members of a 12-man unit on routine patrol in Niger, were ambushed and killed by a larger force of ISIS militants.

This past week, we have borne witness to what I consider the sordid politicization of death.

First, believing no two people ever mean the same thing when employing the same words and, thus, as the firmest believer in the necessity of defining one’s terms, I digress.

Politicization, in my lexicon, is the act or process of becoming politically conscious. Here, I understand “politically” in the primary sense, derived from the Greek polis (city) and, broadly applied, the human community (which is as expansive – locally, regionally, nationally, globally – as one’s imagination allows). Thus, to be politicized is to be aware and to practice with effective, respectful care the art of human relationships.

In the clutch of human selfish self-interest, politicization can be distorted. An example: One’s negative description and definition of the word or action (or unspoken word or untaken action) of another so to depict, so to diminish that person as lacking in character or virtue or falling short of accepted ethical norms.

This, for me, is when politicization is made sordid. This is what we witnessed this past week.

President Donald Trump telephoned Mrs. Myeshia Johnson, wife of Staff Sargent La David Johnson, to express his condolences and those of a grateful nation, saying, in part, as it has been reported, “He knew what he signed up for, but it still hurts.” U.S. Congresswoman Frederica Wilson of Florida and a friend of the Johnson family criticized Mr. Trump as lacking empathy. Mr. Trump defended himself, denying Representative Wilson’s characterization.

I am no fan of Donald Trump. I consider him zealously egoistic and injudicious in speech and action, at times, dangerously, given his role and responsibilities. (However, I am not one who claims, “He’s not my President.” I am an American. Mr. Trump is the American president. Therefore, he is my president.)

I also am less than sanguine about Representative Wilson’s public and repeated declarations of her discontent with the content of Mr. Trump’s words to Mrs. Johnson. For her criticisms, in my view, precipitated a furious round of point-and-counterpoint because of which the primary attention has been given to the politicization of death and not on the lives and legacies, the memories of and the memorials to the dead.

I never served in the military. In World War II, my father, William, served honorably in the army in the Philippines. Through his recounts of his experiences and his revelations of the scars he bore, some invisible, but no less abiding, I, at an early age, learned to honor the sacred sacrifice of all who wear the uniform and bear arms, whether near or far, to maintain the liberties Americans enjoy (though, yes, it must be confessed, imperfectly and unequally).

Thus, this day, I want to – I will – do nothing but pray:

O gracious God, Sovereign Source of all life, Supreme Solace for the dead, I pray You receive into Your nearest, dearest Presence in Your heavenly habitations the souls of Staff Sergeant Bryan Black, Staff Sergeant Jeremiah Johnson, Sergeant La David Johnson, and Staff Sergeant Dustin Wright: Heal their wounds, bind them fast and forever in Your peace. And, by the living breath of Your Spirit, comfort, come with strength upon the families and friends of these fallen brothers in arms, guiding them through the shadowy valleys of their grief with the grace of the light of Your everlasting love; through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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renewal (or what I, as a Christian, have learned by honoring my religious Jewish roots)

Yesterday, at sundown, the sounding of the shofar signaled Rosh Hashanah, literally head of the year; to be followed, at sunset on Friday, September 29, by Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. The central themes of these annual High Holy Days of Judaism are repentance for the sins, personal and communal, of the past year and reconciliation with God, others, and one’s self.

As a Christian, I long have acknowledged my eternal debt to Judaism from whence cometh Jesus of Nazareth.[1] And, o’er the years, reflecting on the High Holy Days, I have become profoundly aware, perhaps even more than through the Christian penitential season of Lent, of my constant need for spiritual and ethical renewal so to love God, others, and myself more faithfully, freely, fully. Moreover, I have come to understand that renewal is elemental to all relationships and chiefly expressed in mutual responsibility, literally the response-ability to act benevolently one with another.

This came to mind during my morning’s Bible study. I’ve been rereading the Book of Exodus; today, one of many encounters between God and Moses.[2]

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

For forty days and nights, Moses was on Mount Sinai listening to God and receiving the Commandments. The people, growing anxious in the absence of Moses, appealed to Aaron, Moses’ brother and spokesperson, to make a visible symbol of the divine presence to comfort them. A golden calf was fashioned.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

How easily, I believe, humans become confused, attaching their affections to a symbol and not the reality to which it points. And God, in anger, disowned the people, referring to them in speaking to Moses as “your people”, and deciding to destroy them.

In this harrowing moment, the response-ability of God and Moses was mightily manifest. God, the Almighty Judge, didn’t act against the people without first telling Moses. Moses didn’t leave the mountain at God’s command, but remained as an attorney for the defense; yet neither explaining nor excusing the people’s actions, but rather reminding God of who God is: “Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel…”

Moses reminded God that God, beginning with Abraham, made a people and when that people fell captive in Egypt, God sent Moses to save them and, in saving them, proving that God makes and keeps promises to God’s people. God, being reminded, recanted, revising the divine plan of action.

God and Moses, in their faithful exercise of mutual responsibility, were renewed; each and both. God in remembrance of the divine identity as Liberator and Moses in his re-awareness of his vocation as God’s instrument of liberation.

Taking this personally, I am led to see afresh how I, as human, oft, when anxious and confused, take my thoughts and feelings, my desires and needs and, making them supreme, fashion them into my gods. Not if, but whenever this happens I cannot fail to note how unbenevolent I become toward others, verily, toward my truest self, and, thus, need renewal – always and in all ways.

 

Illustrations:

Moses at Mount Sinai (1655), Jacques de Létin (1597-1661)

The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-1634), Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Footnotes:

[1] Without Judaism, there is no Christianity. For this reason, I believe that for a Christian to be anti-Semitic is a malevolent expression of self-hatred.

[2] Exodus 32.7-14 (my emphases): The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshipped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’” The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’” And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.

another word about forgiveness…

Note: At yesterday’s worship service at Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, following my sermon on forgiveness (September 17, 2017: the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!), another thought occurred (always does!), leading me today to add…

Forgiveness doesn’t mean forgetting.

To forgive another who has committed a wrong against us, that is, as a willful act, making a conscious choice to harbor no anger against our offender, does not mean that we, paradoxically, equally consciously are to develop a case of existential-relational-amnesia, that is, forgetting the commission of the wrong (which, in any case, isn’t possible for us to do!).[1]

Indeed, remembering the offense, I believe, can be fairly, that is, justly useful. In this, I think of Jesus’ counsel about “binding and loosing”,[2] which I interpret here as the act of our establishing and maintaining healthy boundaries in our relationships.

To wit, there have been moments in my life when, having been hurt and angry, and then, usually after a time, forgiving, “loosing” the offender from the clutches of my hurt and anger (which also freed me from the fetters of bitterness!), I observed that the one I had forgiven continued to behave toward me in a way that resulted in my additional hurt (and anger!). In such instances, I have discerned that a charitable response was “to bind” that person, that is, within my power to choose in the day-to-day concrete interactions of our relationship, to impede that person from hurting me in the same way. In a word, the kindest thing I could for that person (and, under the heading of enlightened self-interest, for myself!) was to prevent the reoccurrence of the circumstances that resulted in my hurt and anger.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Now, if we consider “forgetting” metaphorically, meaning that we intend not to rehearse the wrong and, thus, nurse or nurture our hurt and anger (which, honesty compels the confession, I’m quite proficient at doing!), then OK.

[2] “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax-collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”(Matthew 18.15-18, my emphasis).

the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…except when it can’t!

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 18.21-35, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, September 17, 2017

To be human is to live in relationships. To live in relationships is to know the joys of love and acceptance and the sorrows of disagreement and disappointment, hurt and anger with others and with one’s self. To know sorrow is to face, at times, to fight with the need for forgiveness of others and of one’s self.

Peter raises (unbeknownst to him, on our behalf!) this life-essential issue of forgiveness with Jesus. He proposes a limit of seven times; a magnanimous act, doubling an ancient standard of three, adding one for good measure! Jesus, as we’ve grown to expect, takes the matter to another, supernatural level, expanding the economy of forgiveness beyond the bounds of human imagination: “Not seven times, but seventy-seven” (meaning infinite) “times.”

I visualize Peter’s face, perhaps ours, too, frozen in shock as he and we struggle to comprehend limitless forgiveness. Quickly we might object: “Jesus, are you crazy? The world, yours then and ours now, doesn’t work this way! Our relationships are built and balanced on scales of give and take and our judgments of right and wrong, and, frankly Jesus, some things are terrible and can’t be forgiven and, if so, only after a long time!” But before we can stammer out our protest, Jesus holds up a calming hand, saying, “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to…”

Jesus tells a parable of a king who forgives a pleading servant unable to pay a massive debt. That servant then condemns a fellow servant who owes, in comparison, a pittance. Other servants report this ingratitude to the king, who furiously reverses his decree of amnesty, sending that unmerciful servant to his doom.

Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art

A traditional Christian interpretation considers this parable a symbol of God’s grace. The king represents God who, in the life and ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, has forgiven our sinful debt of disobedience that we could not pay. Therefore, we are to share the kindness of God’s forgiveness with our fellow human beings, whose wrongs, no matter how great in human terms, from heaven’s standpoint, cannot compare.

However, there are problems with this view…

Chief among them, the king, in revoking his pardon of the unmerciful servant, implies that there are limits on God’s illimitable forgiveness, which, at best, is a conundrum and, at worst, a contradiction…

And even if we view the torture of the unmerciful servant through a psycho-existential lens, perceiving it as the ill of bitterness that we inflict on ourselves when we refuse to forgive (though I believe that’s true!), it remains a penalty initiated by the king, who, again, represents God…

And the parable is built on a foundation of earthly inequality of authority and power between the king and servant and between servant and servant…

And, from there, the parable progresses on a worldly arc of the injustice of servant to servant and the vengeance of the fellow servants, desiring punishment, reporting the misdeed to the king who, again, revokes his pardon, therefore, imitating the cruelty of the unmerciful servant.

Limited forgiveness, inequality, injustice, vengeance. No, no, no, no! This is not, cannot be a depiction of the God Jesus reveals. This is not an image of love. Therefore, as I believe the kingdom of heaven may not be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants, this parable is a correction, verily, a condemnation of a world, our world where we humans limit forgiveness and worse, when hurt and angry, oft fall prey to the temptation to make God in our image as one whose judgments are like ours, thus not set on a scale of gracious and merciful love. (How many times has someone done another wrong and the offended party or a sympathizer said words to the effect: “God has a day of reckoning in store for that person!” or more bluntly, “God’s going to get that person!”)

Yes, some things in this life are terrible. And when terrible things, especially when wrought by human hands, happen to others and to ourselves, we would do violence to the souls of others and ourselves to demand that forgiveness, theirs and ours, be swift and absolute. Sometimes forgiveness takes time. Yet forgiveness alway is our calling that we, as God, may live in unlimited liberty, unfettered by the bonds of bitterness.

 

Illustration: Parable of the Unmerciful Servant (1556), Jan Sanders van Hemessen (1500-1579), University of Michigan Museum of Art. Note: The painting depicts the moment in the parable when the king (on the left, pointing, his countenance creased in anger) scolds the unmerciful servant (on the right, gazing at the king, his brow furrowed, his hands clasped in a pleading gesture, his mouth partially open as if speaking, seeking to make his case): “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Matthew 18.32b-33). The two other figures in van Hemessen’s portrayal of the parable are the king’s record keepers; one counting coins piled on the table and the other, with pen in hand, looking to the king for direction. In the background, a man is being dragged into an underground chamber by soldiers, representing the soon to come fate of the unmerciful servant: In anger his lord handed him over to be tortured… (Matthew 18.34).

Of life in the still-Christian South (a retired cleric’s occasional reflections)…

In Christ…

The St. Louis of my birth and formative years of the 1950s and 1960s was a segregated town. Blacks lived principally in the neighborhoods of the inner city and those running west and on the near north side. Whites lived largely on the south side, the far north side and, beyond the municipal boundaries, in the suburban areas.

In 1982, I was called to serve a church in Charleston, South Carolina. As I toured the city in search of housing, wherever I looked, though there were areas that were chiefly black or white, in the main, the neighborhoods were integrated. The realtor, noting my surprise, pointed out, in an airy, matter-of-fact fashion, a conspicuous reality of institutional slavery: “The distance between the master’s big house and the slave shacks was never that far.” His point. In the South, blacks and whites always lived in proximity. In this, I recall a Civil Rights Era maxim: “In the South, the white man doesn’t care how close the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too high.”[1]

This apparent, what I deem, Southern racial/relational closeness comes to mind in light of a number of weddings that have been held at Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens, Pontheolla’s and my Spartanburg, SC, bed and breakfast and events facility.

On more than one occasion, I’ve had my assumptions (read: biases) overthrown when white couples and black couples have commissioned black clergypersons and white clergypersons, respectively, to officiate at their nuptials. In speaking with the clerics, almost to a person, I discover that their affiliations with those to be wed extend far back into the years and are rooted in long-lived familial and neighborhood connections. Although the church communities of the South (everywhere?), by and large, remain racially segregated, personal relationships of deep affection across color lines have stood the test of time. In this, for me, a blessedly beatific counter-image in these days of rising racial animus, I, with gratitude, sing:

In Christ there is no east or west,

in him no south or north,

but one great fellowship of love

throughout the whole wide earth.[2]

Amen, I say! Again, I say, amen!

 

Footnotes:

[1] “High” used interchangeably with “big”; meaning socio-economically prosperous and/or politically prominent. The other part of the saying is: “In the North, the white man doesn’t care how high the Negro gets, as long as he doesn’t get too close.” I don’t know the author of this aphorism, but Dick Gregory (Richard Claxton Gregory, 1932-2017), a comedian and social critic of no mean genius, and a fellow St. Louisan, was fond of repeating it.

[2] Words by John Oxenham (aka William Arthur Dunkerley), 1852-1941

relatively speaking

preaching, 1-22-17a sermon, based on Matthew 16.21-28, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 13th Sunday after Pentecost, September 3, 2017

Our God, whom we address as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as a trinity dwells in eternal ontological, relational union. And we, created in God’s image, are physically formed and psychically, spiritually wired to be in relationship with others.

Relationships are an important, perhaps most important aspect of our lives. To use theologian Paul Tillich’s[1] descriptive phrase for God, I liken our relationships to “the ground of our being.” Our relationships are a lens through which we can perceive and know ourselves; the ground from whence we come, our histories and memories, and the ground on which we stand, our daily experience of thought and feeling, intention and action. Though, as the Apostle Paul says, “we see in a mirror, dimly,”[2] unable to know ourselves fully, it is our willingness to look that matters. And this life-long self-examination in search of ourselves, seeking to know ourselves is for the purpose of giving ourselves away in relationships with others, therefore, imitating how God is with us.

Now, here’s the challenge. Relationships are hard. For, again, it’s hard, truly impossible to know ourselves completely. And, given our self-interest, it’s hard, also impossible to give ourselves completely to others. And it’s hard to see and know clearly what others are showing and giving to us. And even when we do see and know clearly what others are showing and giving to us, it may contradict who we believe they are and conflict with who we believe we are.

All this, the rewards and risks of relationships runs through this intense encounter between Jesus and Peter.

Jesus called disciples to follow him, to be in relationship with him. At a critical moment, he asks, “Who do you say I am?”[3] (Do you see and know me?) Peter answers, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.”[4] Jesus replies, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah![5] (You do see and know me. Now, let me tell you what kind of Messiah I am.) “I must go to Jerusalem, suffer and die…” Peter doesn’t like, hates what he hears. Who Peter thinks Jesus is as Messiah is not who Jesus is. Though using the same language, they mean different things.

In one sterling moment of recognition, they had drawn so close. In the next shattering instant, they fall far apart. For Jesus, Peter, his chief disciple, upon whose confession of his messianic identity he would build his church,[6] becomes “a stumbling block”, so great an impediment to Jesus doing God’s will that he calls him “Satan.” And Peter has to question who Jesus is and why he has given up everything to follow him, and, if Jesus’ predictions of his suffering and death come true, then what will happen to him; must he suffer and die, too?

Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Rétire-toi, Satan) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

How easy it would have been for them to part company: Jesus casting Peter aside, Peter walking, running away. But they didn’t. They remained in relationship and experienced everything that Jesus prophesied; his suffering, his dying, and (as he also foretold) his rising on the third day (but, I believe, prefaced by the predication of suffering and dying, Peter missed that part!). And all this leading to a relationship, a life without end.

So, too, for us as we continue to follow Jesus in our living and, yes, our suffering and our dying, whenever and however it comes, and then, yes, thank you, Jesus, our rising.

 

Illustration: Get Thee Behind Me, Satan (Rétire-toi, Satan) (1886-1896), James Tissot (1836-1902)

Footnotes:

[1] Paul Johannes Tillich (1886-1965), German American Christian existentialist philosopher and theologian

[2] 1 Corinthians 13.12

[3] Matthew 16.15

[4] Matthew 16.16

[5] Matthew 16.17a

[6] Matthew 16.18

106 and counting…

Dad & me, Tuesday, 7-29-86, Charleston Int'l Airport

Note: Today would have been my dad’s 106th birthday. William John Abernathy (August 7, 1911-April 27, 1996) and I had a difficult relationship; one fraught with the daily tension and enduring mutual resentment of the clash between his irresistible force of an alway-authoritarian, at times, arbitrary disposition and my ever-immovable object of adolescent rebellion (which continued well into my adulthood). O’er the years and o’er many trails of solemn reflection and trials of sober regret and sincerest repentance for my great part in our brokenness, I’ve come to understand, love, and respect my father. Today, the thought occurring (Why? I’m not entirely sure) to leaf through one of my journals, I found this forgotten (and astonishingly dated) twenty year old entry…

+

Thursday, August 7, 1997: On Sunday evening, August 3, Pontheolla and I attended a Healing Eucharist at the Washington National Cathedral. At the time worshipers were invited to come forward, we went and knelt at the altar rail. I asked “to be delivered from my long held bitterness against my departed father so that I can be free and so that he might be free!” I was anointed with oil and received the laying-on-of-hands by the celebrant, Ted Karpf, who prayed a prayer for my healing. I experienced then and continue to experience an ever-deepening sense, spirit of relief and of release. I wept a single, slow-moving tear of thankfulness as I sat with Pontheolla, holding hands, praying my healing would abide.

Ironies, painful and heart-rending, abound…

Ted had preached a homily, speaking eloquently and provocatively of the human condition, which finds self-worth in work and does not (cannot!) hear and respond to God’s gracious word of worth in being…simply being. Ted couldn’t have known that he was speaking so directly to one of my life’s issues, hurts, questions! (I pray my healing will abide.)

Moreover, the service was held in the War Memorial Chapel. Perhaps what I perceive as the irony of setting a service of healing in the place memorializing those who have died honorably in defense of country in times of war, if not intentional, was, at the least, purposeful. Verily, those who have endured the wars of acceptance and rejection in wounded, broken relationships need healing, for they have died a 1000 deaths and perhaps have killed others a 1000 times in those recurring mental scenarios of vengeance. (I pray my healing will abide.)

 

Photograph: Dad and me at the Charleston (SC) International Airport, Tuesday, July 29, 1986 (one of the few pictures of my father and me in which we are more or less smiling)