The Peace of God

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Pentecost 15C

meek.mildOn Wednesday, my church joined with other congregations at a local town park to pray and sing for peace and an end to violence and hate. It was a very, very good thing to do, even if we didn’t all agree on what “peace” meant. One participant wanted to sing the old Pepsi commercial: “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony…” Some thought we were talking about “inner peace.” Others thought, I think, that peace was a gift God could just give us if we prayed for it. What we did agree on was that it was important for us to come together and pray about it. So, we did.

In today’s first lesson, Jeremiah talks about peace in describing God’s dream for the world – to be made reality in the creation of Israel – to be a place of beauty and promise. A holy land where children could play without danger, where old people were safe from want, where the sick and the poor and the troubled were cared for. Where businesses were fair and honest and those who worked were paid a fair wage and treated fairly. Israel was to be the exemplar – a light to the nations. The people longed to be that and they confirmed their covenant with God. But, with one thing and another – when the plan became cumbersome –God’s people went back to covering their own individual bottoms. Shall I plant a garden or shall I keep those people over there from having any land at all? Oh, well. Sin stayed.

Israel was an incredible dream – originally and in its modern incarnation – brought about in 1948 when the United Nations carved land out of the greater Palestine area and gave it to be the nation of Israel. The necessity for having a Jewish homeland – especially on the ground named in Scripture as God’s gift to them – seemed warranted for people who had been oppressed for generations and subject to a powerful genocide movement in the last century. The complications to that decision are not our subject here. The worthy intent is. The New York Times published an article this Saturday on David Ben Gurion, a key founder of Israel, from a recently found 1968 interview. In it, Ben Gurion cited the prophet Jeremiah for his keen, though unpopular, understanding of politics, and said he, too, believed the state’s mission “was to fulfill the biblical concept of ‘an segulah,’ an exemplary nation of higher virtues, treasured by God.” “We wanted,” he said, “to create a new life, not the life that exists. I believed we had a right to this country. Not taking away from others, but recreating it.’”

The forebears of our own country had similar dreams, hoping to create the “city on a hill” described by St. Paul. And, for all the good and worthy plans that were set in motion, we fell as far afield as both biblical and modern Israel. We read about old Israel’s wars and infidelities in the Bible. We read from “new” Israel’s history the government’s immediate blocking of the dream when it refused to allow Palestinian refugees to return at the end of the 1948 war of Israel’s creation and when it placed all Arab citizens under military rule. We see in our own history, the almost immediate blow to the dream when our own founders agreed to permit slavery in the land as a quid pro quo for the support of the southern states.

We could go on, but our point here is not to discuss history, but to see where Jesus is coming from in today’s Gospel – working urgently to get his disciples and learners to understand the cost of committing to peace, of what it means to follow him in restoring God’s dream for the word. Listen again to what he says to us:

“I have come to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! … Do you think I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two, and two against three.”

This is not exactly what anyone is hoping to hear – then or now. Peace is exactly what many of us want from our faith. Peace – in the dictionary definition: tranquility, quietude, freedom from disturbance and disquieting thoughts and emotions. Who doesn’t want that? Some of us have even been led to think that is the very purpose of religion. But here’s Jesus, being confusingly provocative in his talk, not of peace, but of fire and death and baptism and stress. Suggesting that the peace he offers is something other than tranquility and family harmony.

Here’s the deal. We don’t usually think of Jesus as controversial. We even have official hymns that refer to him as meek and mild. But Jesus, quite clearly, thinks of himself as controversial and so did the people who knew him the first time. They would say, along with the picture on today’s bulletin: “Jesus. Meek and mild. As if.” Jesus goes further – saying that if we are being faithful, we may find ourselves embroiled in controversy, too. Not because conflict is a good thing – but because if we are genuinely concerned with Jesus’ Gospel, we may find ourselves considered as subversive as he was. Dom Helder Camara, the former Roman Archbishop of Brazil, gave a perfect example of this: “When I give bread to the poor,” he said, “they call me a saint. But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a Communist.” Or the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan, who found himself on trial or in prison more than once for disturbing society’s peace. He noted:

“If you want to be a Christian, you’d better look good on wood.”

The fire, the passion Jesus wants to kindle us with is the kind that stirs us from our comfort with things as they are and makes us willing to care in big and little ways about what’s going on in the world around us – the wars that do unbearable damage to infants and children, the hunger and sickness of those who live under greedy governments that siphon off aid to their own bank accounts and leave their people to starve, the huge numbers of black men who occupy our prisons for non-major crimes, the crimes against the environment, for heaven’s sake, all the people and creatures who are utterly dependent upon our willingness to care about them. And he asks us to not care that other people or the authorities will be angry or not promote us or invite us or our children to their parties.

The peace of Jesus doesn’t always look like peace – any more than God’s justice and compassion and hope always look like our visions of them. It has occurred to me that the only way we’ll know for sure that we’re doing it right is if conflict reaches out for us. But by the same token, it’s been noted how many folks run around thinking they’re being prophetic when they’re just being annoying. Our job is not to go out and be controversial. Our charge is to go out and be faithful. Where has God already started a fire? On days when we feel tepid and unadventurous, our job is to go stand next to the flame and let it warm us. On other, stronger days, our job is to fan the flame and spread it. And on days when worst has come to worst and maybe this week, our job is to let the Gospel of Jesus Christ light a fire under us. And follow in the dream of building the holy land of beauty and promise, an segulah, a light to the nations chosen by God, without boundaries, where kindness and mercy reign, and meanness and injustice have no standing. Taking the tiny steps of peace.

I ask you to join me in turning to Hymn 661 in the 1982 Hymnal. And pray with me verse 4:

“The peace of God, it is no peace, but strife closed on the sod.

Yet let us pray for but one thing – the marvelous peace of God.”


My Rights vs. The Common Good (Pentecost 9C and The 4th of July)

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sparkler-with-american-flag-30f09ec483c906ae(A Sermon for the 4th of July Weekend, July 3, 2016)

Good Morning! And Happy Fourth of July Weekend! I confess I love this holiday. I love the music and the fireworks and the feeling of American solidarity that rises up among us when we gather. This year, I don’t know what it will be like because I’ve never known a time when Americans were so divided. Not simply by different opinions, not by the usual political parties, but by political blocs spewing hatred at each other. Deep and personal and irrational anger.   Outside my last sojourn in academia, I haven’t known a time when people were so identified with their grievances. When the tension between individual rights and the well-being of all seemed so volatile.

I don’t remember a time when the group considering itself most aggrieved consisted of a category of white men. And, to quote Leon Wieseltier in a Washington Post article this week, these competing groups, “in the myopia of their pain… kindle racism and nativism and xenophobia and misogyny and homophobia and anti-Semitism.”1   For starters. People look at the UK and the quick unraveling of its economy and social cohesion after BREXIT. They look at the unleashing of a racism that “Britain-firsters” deemed legitimate. Americans of all stripes now worry – could that happen here?

Well, of course, it could, but we are people of God and not limited to political and demographic data in our reflections. As Christians, we look through the lens of Scripture and of our founding documents as Americans. On this Sunday, most churches read Chapter 6 of St. Paul’s Letter to the Galations, which syncs well with the Declaration of Independence. Together, I think, they show us what Paul called a “more excellent way” through the mistrust and opprobrium that currently cloud the American political scene.

They both speak to human freedom in terms of a community of relationships and there is no indication in either of them that personal freedom might ever trump consideration of the common good. I was stunned a few years ago when several conservative American politicians were citing Ayn Rand, the prophet of selfishness, as authority for their views on individual rights. How did Ayn Rand define freedom? “Freedom (n.),” she wrote: “To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To delifelibertypend on nothing.”2 Well, bushwa. That is un-American, un-Christian, and, I would argue, patently untrue.

The Declaration of Independence was revolutionary in its proclamation that governments cannot just own people or claim sovereignty over them based on military might or power. Instead, the Founders asserted that human beings have human rights that precede government. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” The Founders dreamed this nation into being grounded on what they perceived were God-given rights all people could claim and no one could take away.   They meant the Declaration to be a beacon of light to the rest of the world, and the ideas they espoused are as radical now as they were then.

There have been complications. The British Empire didn’t agree with their ideas, nobody really knew how to implement them or even to enforce the rights claimed. Nor, as you know, did the nation’s founders agree on precisely to whom they applied. It was a long time before anybody thought to extend the term “all men” to men who didn’t own property or men who were black or to women of any color or social status.

domviolThe tension between individual rights and the well-being of the whole reared its head early and continues to trend. Consider the argument over gun regulation: I have the right to own and carry firearms however and whenever I want vs. we have the right to safety in public places and to the reasonable protection of our children. What gives? And when we read the 6th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we see the same tension. In v. 2, Paul says: “Bear one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” But in v.5, he says: “All must carry their own loads.” Which is it? If I have to carry your burdens, that impinges on my own freedom. How about I’ll carry my own burdens and you carry yours. That sounds more fair.

And we respect it. I like the example someone recently gave of the mother eagle who decides that an eaglet is ready to fly. The eaglet stands at the edge of the nest and its mother gives it a shove. She flies above her baby in case something goes wrong, but the baby learns pretty quickly how to unfurl its wings, flap them and fly.

We respect also the independent spirit of those who have suffered greatly and refuse to be defined by it. We admire those who have somehow found the resources in themselves to demand that others not treat them as victims – of cruelty, neglect, or bad luck. Not because they’re too proud or don’t deserve sympathy and understanding, but because self-pity feels bad and doesn’t help. If you ever decide to “help” a blind person walk down the street, you will find this out right away.

But how about the “bearing one another’s burdens” part? It obviously refers to helping each other out in times of hardship – something the church community excels at. But it’s more than that. This is the one Paul calls the “law of Christ.” Caring for someone who’s sick or has a baby or has difficulty getting out of the house. Caring for someone whose life has fallen apart. Caring – from afar – for people who lack resources or need care. We are, as Christians, committed to this “bearing of one another’s burdens.” And if bearing our own burdens, when possible, produces respect, bearing another’s burdens, when needed, produces love.WHRD

It’s the flip side that gets us. Most of us believe so strongly in the virtue of independence that we have a profound fear of being seen to be dependent. It’s as though we’d rather die than owe somebody something. We fear the loss of dignity we believe is a byproduct of dependence. But it’s independence that, in the end, leaves us alone and robs us of the love that can transform our lives. Dependence and care create holy relationships that are vital and life-giving – with our children, our parents, our friends and whomever else falls into our web of compassion.

So where does all this leave us? Our faith and our freedom and our politics and our participation in the great dream that is America? What do we do now? I think we start by moving beyond what Wieseltier, in the same Washington Post article, called the “parochialism of pain.” Let us listen and care about the tribulations of others and the injustices done to them — as much as we’d like theWhat-does-the-Lord-require-of-you-wordpressm to listen and care about ours. Let us not compete for whose is worse. And then let us build on the deeper understanding we glean from each other. Because this holiday and these Scriptures call us – not to hatred and opposition to people who disagree – but to interdependence, to collaboration, to cooperation and to sacrifice in our time and in our place. To practice God’s politics, which are guided always by justice and compassion and a willingness to work for all people to enjoy the blessings of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Amen.


1 Leon Wieseltier, “How voters’ personal suffering overtook reason — and brought us Donald Trump,”  The Washington Post, June 22, 2016

2 Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead (1943), Chapter XII, p. 149 ; Dominique Françon to Alvah Scarret.

Why do you preach what you preach?


Chagall_Hagar & Ishmael in the Desert“I kind of wished you had preached on the Gospel,” a parishioner said to me after last Sunday’s service. “I’d like to understand what Jesus meant when he said ‘For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother….’” It was a reasonable request.

Instead, I had preached on the appointed Genesis story about Abraham’s abandonment of the slave who had given birth to his child, ousting both her and the child into the wilderness with a jug of water and some bread. What is a preacher to do when two of the texts read publicly in the service are troublesome? In this case, both the Genesis narrative and the Gospel needed some explication in order to hear the good news — without glossing over what, at first blush, sounds like pretty bad news.

This coming Sunday poses its own quandary. The first text is, again, from Genesis, and it is even harder than last week’s. This week, Abraham — that paragon of family values — hears God tell him to take his remaining son up the mountain and kill him as a sacrifice. God stops him before he does the deed, but, as William Saffron once pointed out, it’s no wonder Isaac’s name for God after that was “The Fear.” This week’s Gospel carries on from Matthew, it’s only two sentences and it’s about welcome – specifically, welcome as a critical part of our presence in the world around us. Which one do you hope your pastor chooses? Welcome sounds pretty innocuous, though it isn’t, at all. The Genesis lesson? It’s the original Text of Terror.

My own bent is to choose the darker passage. If you don’t confront it, most of your hearers will not hear anything else you say. They’re back at the first gasp: the part where they’re thinking, “wait a minute – God told this guy to truss up his kid, put him on the altar, and slay him?”   An additional reason, as the brilliant Frederick Buechner once noted, is that, truly, before the gospel is good news, it’s just the news. This is how things are. All of us – pastors and congregations – know as much about emptiness as we do fullness, and in the midst of our lives, as Buechner would also say, we are all straining to hear the truth. Why it all matters. If we cannot tell the truth about the darkness and the places where God seems absent, why would anybody believe us when we talk about the light and God’s presence. My rector at a church in New York City once told a visiting preacher, before he headed up to the pulpit: “Do not lie to these people. They ride the subway daily.”

Anyway, as you know, you can’t really hear the Gospel in snippets. You have to read the whole book to get the whole, glorious story. This is a good Sunday to be in church. At least, you know it will be interesting.

Patriotism and Faith …. 2013

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fourth-july-fireworksUsually, on the Fourth of July long weekend, we try to keep religion and patriotism in their own corners, lest we confuse them to our peril.  Still, there is a way in which they come together: in which Scripture speaks to our citizenship and the national celebration partakes of our faith.  Our national Independence Day is not a religious holiday, but it stirs in us much that is religious – that has to do with high ideals and high hopes and a dream of justice and equality that requires a deeply costly and sacred commitment.

It has been suggested that the founders of this country dreamed the nation into being.  Imagine it:  “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  Those words are powerfully stirring.  But, it hit me with special force this year, what they describe is not self–evident.  It isn’t self-evident now.  And it wasn’t self-evident then.  The world in which the founders lived did not look like that.  Most of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence owned slaves and even after the Revolution, the only people who had a right to vote were white men who owned their own property and had the deed to prove it.

Liberty? Rights? Equality? Hardly. But the vulnerability and the tenuousness of those convictions did not end the dream.  And new people picked up where the old ones left off.  In church today, we hear of Elijah’s healing of the Aramite voting rights protestgeneral by having him immerse himself in the river seven times.  (1 Kings 5:1-14)  Well, this country has needed to dip into the river more than a few times to keep on healing our national consciousness.  Between 1776 and now, African-American men have won recognition of their citizenship and the right to vote.  Women didn’t achieve that right until 1920.  And the truth is, it took the mighty Civil Rights Movement of the last century before African-Americans in all parts of the country really could vote without risking their lives and property – a right that is looking dubious given the Supreme Court’s recent gutting of critical sections of the Voting Rights Act.   Even so, between then and now, children have won a legal right to equal education, African-Americans and white people  won the right to marry an opposite sex partner of their choice, and, only last week, gay people in this country won recognition of their right, equal with all others in this country, to marry and create families.

When we look at our country on this weekend of celebration, we can see progress in our stretching for what the Rev’d Martin Luther King, Jr. called the justice toward which the arc of history is bent.  The process, hallowed by Jesus, of continuing to expand the circle of acceptable people, entitled to rights and God’s love.  And we can also see great gaps – in our wars, in the ways we treat prisoners, in our continuing racism and homophobia and plain old sexism, in the violence – physical and emotional — with which we continue to resort as a response to threat or fear.

But as it turns out, that’s where God is – in the gap.  God works in the struggle, the stirring, our recommitment to what we are about.   And, on this weekend, I believe God is calling us to renew our faith in his power and in his grace and in his goodness – to believe and to act — in hope – for the good of all those who are yet on the margins – looking for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  Giving thanks for this country and thanks for the dream.  And letting our faith guide our citizenship in the knowledge that God’s plan is sure.  That God’s plan works through us.  And that God’s grace can provide all that we need to help heal the world.  One piece here, another piece there.  All in the gaps.

bakersfield+same+se+marriage+rallyHave a blessed week.

Theology of Weegee: Quick Share

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God’s in His Heaven:  Theological Thoughts on Two Exhibits

Stromholm jacky

Stromholm: Nana, Jacky and Adèle Chanel, 1961

“God’s in his Heaven — All’s right with the world.
[Robert Browning, Pippa Passes, 1841]


And not by a long chalk. And some people choose an interpretation of meaninglessness. And some redefine the meaning of “all right.” And still others simply ignore the gap between religious claim and reality. But none of those are adequate for those of us who need “a faith that can encompass tragedy without reducing it to a meaningless episode….” 1

This seems particularly true on a weekend in which the whole country is mourning the specific tragedy of the mad shooting of the crowd watching “Batman” at a theater in Aurora, Colorado. There is no way to gloss over such evil with reassurances of a fundamentally good world. And yet.

I’ve had occasion of late to reflect on art that speaks to the incarnational sense of God’s presence in the things which are “not all right,” the bits about death and war and cruelty that provoke us all to look to God for some sort of accounting as we simultaneously point a finger at each other. There are two exhibitions currently on display at the International Center of Photography that reflect such a theology. The main attraction is “Murder is My Business,” which carefully curates the crime and calamity photos taken in New York between 1935 and 1946 by photojournalist Arthur Fellig, better known as “Weegee.” The second, “Les Amies de Place Blanche,” shares Swedish photographer Christer Strömholm’s photos of the community of transexual prostitutes he befriended and lived among in 1960’s Paris. Both shows are artistically stunning. But, as important, the photographers convey the sad and harrowing realities of particular worlds without dictating despair. Between the two of them, they create a grammar that negotiates what Patrick Miller once called (in another context entirely) “the very thin line between the redemptive and the demonic possibilities for life on this planet.”2

Weegee tenement fire

Tenement fire, Harlem, 1942

Mother and daughter looking up at the top floor, where another daughter and her baby are trapped

Weegee and Strömholm share a humanity, but what bends their work, I think, to a artistic theology that matters is their ability to uncover flashes of connection in a world of only sometimes mitigated tragedy. Weegee’s work here seems harshest because it is wholly unvarnished. He shows us horrible, catastrophic things, people bloodied and savaged, senselessly killed, and in anguish over the death of a husband or brother. He shows it all without cheapness or sentimentality or any effort to invoke sympathy or opinion. Like a good war photographer, Weegee shows us exactly what happened and how, and what everybody looked like when it went down. What he shows us is beautiful, though it is beauty “infiltrated” by as-yet-unredeemed reality.3

CRI 208183

Weegee: My Man, 1941

One striking thing is that virtually none of Weegee’s pictures would be likely to appear in any major newspaper of our own time. They are just too lurid, too graphic, too invasive. Worse, the crowds that gather at a crime scene in Weegee’s photos are far from innocent bystanders. They are entertained. No matter what has happened — a fire, a murder, a tragic accident — the crowds stand there looking on with interest: men, women, and children. They are as fascinated as motorists crawling past the scene of an accident hoping to see something horrible.


For all that, Weegee’s photos also leave his subjects — pretty much all of them — with their innate dignity. A series of shots of men under arrest for cross-dressing on one wall was particularly impressive. The arresting officers mock them, but the men themselves (labelled “boys dressing as women” on the photo margins) do not look either shamed or ridiculous.

Weegee  man arrested

Weegee  man arrested 2

By contrast, Christer Strömholm’s much smaller show aims to do more than document. Strömholm, the “father of Swedish photography” (who knew?) can be read as raising “issues about identity, sexuality, and gender,”4 but the impact of “Les Amies de Place Blanche” is much broader than that. In his foreword to the book of the same name, Strömholm described the work, in part, as about “insecurity… humiliation…, the quest for self-identity, … the right to live, … the right to own and control one’s own body… [but also] about friendship.”5

At bottom, Strömholm claims this body of photos as “about friendship.” And that friendship is not only his own. The women he records have befriended each other and Strömholm documents their creation of a community.

Stromholm  Jacky 1961

Strömholm, Jacky, 1961

A rough kindness infuses the entire series. Strömholm’s shots are honest and ineluctably dissonant, but he also seems protective of his subjects. There is such a huge gap between their hopes and their prospects, and he catches their yearning as almost palpably beautiful. He paints the beauty of their wounds. And, in fact, his final judgment is of beauty.

Neither of them presents a Thomas Kincaid sort of world for the solace of anyone. But by presenting worlds we know to be true, they honor us and communicate the place of the divine in what seems most broken. Both shows are on through the summer.
1 Gregory Wolfe, “The Tragic Sense of Life” in Image, Issue #61 (Spring 2009)
2 Patrick Miller, “Poetry and Theology, Theology Today (speaking of Yeats, “The Second Coming”)
3 In*The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism* 57. no. 1 (1999): 7 in @101, Peg Zeglin Brand speaks of “Beauty infiltrated by the dangerous, transgressive, bizarre, grotesque and the horrible.”
4 Christopher Harrity, Advocate.Com/Artist Spotlight, 5/29/12
5 Christer Strômholm,Les Amies de la Place Blanche, Reprint of the 1983 edition, Arman Iman Éditions, Dewi Lewis Publishing (March 13, 2012)

Gospel for Insiders and Outsiders


Jesus and the Canaanite Woman* (Pentecost 15A)

I am not preaching tomorrow and have the luxury of simply noodling around in a difficult text, i.e., the story told in Matthew’s Gospel about a woman who accosts Jesus while he is trying to take some down time from his own unbelievably stressed daily life.

If you know the story, then you know that the scandal of this invasion of Jesus’s privacy is not only that the accoster is female, but that she belongs to an inferior group of people – the Gentiles. Since most of us are Gentiles, we may not immediately realize what a bad and alien thing that is in Jesus’s particular First Century Jewish culture. Jesus’ disciples rudely prevent the foreign woman’s access to their group.

The woman responds to their jeers by shouting that she needs to see Jesus because her daughter is “tormented by a demon.” Jesus has a popular reputation for curing people of diseases and infirmities and she wants his help. Jesus answers by calling the woman’s people “dogs,” the woman seems to make a witty retort, and Jesus ends up healing the daughter because, he says, the woman has great faith.

That’s the story. And very often, in dealing with this text, preachers claim that Jesus was just kidding or that he was testing her, and, anyway, that the reference to “dogs” can be explained away and is not nearly as derogatory as it sounds. I’ve done it myself so I can quickly get to the punch line of how the woman’s insistence in addressing Jesus ultimately changed his mind about his mission.

The problem with deflecting attention away from the actual letter of the text is that it blatantly disrespects the word, treating it, as Augustine scholar Robert O’Connell once put it, “as a trampoline, [the] occasion for an impatient leap into the discarnate realms of spiritual interpretation.”**

The text, O’Connell argued, deserves respect. And so do the “real, historical things” dealt with in the text – the context, the town, the earth, etc. — which ought not simply be “sublimated into symbols.” Id. The fact that a biblical text offends our own sense of possibility is not sufficient reason to treat it as spiritual metaphor.

The truth is, this gospel of Jesus and the Canaanite woman is patently offensive and needs taking seriously because it is offensive to us. What Jesus says to this woman sounds racist. At best, he seems to have adopted a stereotyped bias against an “outsider” – non-Jewish and non-male – who is not entitled to respect or attention.

Moreover, and this also is offensive to us, the woman in the story debases herself by making a witticism to mask the insult of Jesus’ rejection of her personhood. I thought immediately of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s late 19th century poem, “We Wear the Mask,” which describes black people smiling to mask their anger.*** And I thought of how women, historically, often have played dumb or ditzy in order to have any power at all. The truth is, I suspect, that oppressed people smile and shuffle a lot.

What is interesting here is Jesus and I think of St. Paul’s comment that “he became sin for our sake.” Jesus is human, and therefore tribal, and therefore benefitting from the accidents of being Jewish and male in a society that values and rewards Jewish males: I cannot, he says, “take the children’s food and give it to dogs.” He will not, he says, take the salvation and healing intended for the Chosen People and dispense it to infidels and outsiders.

One of the reasons scholars are said to accept this story as true is because they think it is so unflattering to Jesus that it’s unlikely to have been kept in if it didn’t really happen. Ah, but it raises uncomfortable questions about our own place in this story. What, e.g., enabled Jesus to empathize with this woman who, moments before, was – as far as he was concerned — essentially subhuman? Was it her persistence in coming at him? There was a Stanford study reported by ABC News last year which concluded that people who are targets of prejudice confront a bigot only when they think the bigoted person can change. Is that what happened? Did she see his possibilities before he did?

Did this unnamed woman show Jesus his “dark side,” the Jungian Human Shadow that we are told we must all face if we are ever to understand our humanity and vulnerability to being outsiders? And is our own knowledge of suffering and victimhood actually necessary to acquire the gift of compassion?

I continue to ponder… .

* Jesus left Gennesaret and went away to the district of Tyre and Sidon. Just then a Canaanite woman from that region came out and started shouting, “Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.” But he did not answer her at all. And his disciples came and urged him, saying, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she came and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, help me.” He answered, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” She said, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Then Jesus answered her, “Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter was healed instantly. Matthew 15:21-282.

** This wonderful phrase is from his 1978 article, “Art and the Christian Intelligence” (in St. Augustine, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, p. 138).

***  “We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties.”

Feeling Syria

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If I were a painter, I would be trying to paint my sense of what is going on in Syria.

I would need thick oils and a flat knife for slicing the images onto canvas.  What I want to convey would be too violent for brushes, I think.  It’s not that I want to make somebody else see what I see, but it does need expressing.

The facts are out there and on the ground: tanks and soldiers, thugs, screams, bullets, fear and running, dust and miasma, desolate townscapes, people churning through narrow streets, relying on each other for the audacity to protest.  There are diminished lumps on the ground that may have been people.

Someone twittered videos from a candlelight protest in Hama last night.  It was stirring to see random small lights in the darkness, flames really, and, finally, to hear the merged voices of the crowd, singing. Someone else tweeted that people were joining in and chanting from inside their homes.

Instead, I made this collage.  The photographs, unattributed, come from a variety of internet sites, most of them cited by Twitter correspondents.  The art at the bottom of the page is, of course, Kathe Köllwitz’s Downtrodden, and came out of her own response to the human devastation of the first World War.  It is no mistake that the work invokes a “Pieta,” in fact, is a “Pieta,” because it is the only answer to where God is in this tumult.