Saturday, July 30, 2011

Serious Business

N.B.: If reading some thoughts on a Biblical passage isn't your cup of tea, you can move along.
David and all the people with him set out and went from Baale-judah, to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the name of the Lord of hosts who is enthroned on the cherubim. They carried the ark of God on a new cart, and brought it out of the house of Abinadab, which was on the hill. Uzzah and Ahio, the sons of Abinadab, were driving the new cart with the ark of God; and Ahio went in front of the ark. David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might, with songs* and lyres and harps and tambourines and castanets and cymbals.

When they came to the threshing-floor of Nacon, Uzzah reached out his hand to the ark of God and took hold of it, for the oxen shook it. The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; and God struck him there because he reached out his hand to the ark; and he died there beside the ark of God.
2 Samuel 6:2-7
If you aren't made uncomfortable by this story, then you aren't paying attention. If you aren't challenged by this story, then you don't really care. If you want to skip this story, then you are a coward. How is it possible that we Christians can proclaim in faith after this story, "This is the word of God"? How do we reconcile the murder of Uzzah with our profession of the boundless, unmerited grace of a God who wants only to live with us?

Rather than just skip over this story, or try to create some way of squaring a circle rhetorically, I think it is best just to let this story stand here and tell us what we are about as people of faith. When we are met by the risen Christ, the question we all must ask is, Who is this God, who has given all that we may live in blessed community together for this God? More than any profession of creation, more than any doctrinal statement regarding incarnation, more than any words lifted in song in praise of some abstract idea of "God", this story stands as testimony to the One who meets us.

When Moses encounters the LORD in the burning bush, he is commanded to remove his shoes as he approaches because Moses is now treading upon holy ground. When we proclaim, with the Psalmist, that the LORD alone is holy, we may if we give the word a thought, consider Moses' bare feet on the rocky hillside. Uzzah, however, his lifeless body lying next to the Ark of the Covenant, isn't much remembered or remarked upon. I contend, however, that this moment of Divine wrath and destruction tells us what we really need to know about holiness, about Divinity, about the God who meets us in Jesus Christ. The fire of the Spirit that warmed the heart of John Wesley, that kindles in our hearts when we sit in the quiet of prayer, is as nothing compared to the inferno that struck out at Uzzah, who, in his defense, sought to protect the Ark of the Covenant.

This needs to be kept in mind. Uzzah and his brother, Ahio, are in charge of chaperoning the Ark with the royal company and the army. As they are moving along, the Ark jostles. Uzzah does little more than any one of us would have done. He reaches his hand to the Ark to steady it, to keep it from falling, perhaps breaking. It is more than just a box holding the stone tablets of the Law. It is the throne of the LORD, traveling with the King and the King's army, Emmanuel, God with them.

For this perfectly understandable, all too human response, Uzzah is struck down because, as the author of 2 Samuel says, the wrath of the LORD was kindled against Uzzah.

This story seems to confirm the old, naive idea that in the two testaments of the Bible, we have to do with different gods. Even more than the Divine genocide in Sodom, the divinely inspired wars Joshua waged against the Canaanites in which whole cities were slaughtered and razed to the ground, the wiping out of life through the flood, this death of one man in Divine wrath indicates this is a God who does not regard human life as worthy. A sane person would be perfectly sensible in wanting nothing whatsoever to do with a god who views human life so cheaply. If we are, indeed, God's precious creation, it seems insane to insist this same God would strike out and kill a man who did little more than reach his arm out toward a wooden box.

I contend, however, that this is, indeed, the same God of whom the author of the first epistle of St. John could say, "God is love." This is the same God St. Paul proclaimed as being in Christ, proving God's love for us. This is the same God whom Jesus called Father, and in whose name and for whose purpose went willingly to die on a Roman crucifix.

God is love, to be sure, and shows us what this love is in Jesus Christ. We can never forget, however, that the subject of that sentence is not "love". Love is the predicate. While the true meaning of love is exhausted when applied to the subject, the subject is not swallowed up in the predicate. God is also holy. We can play around with doctrinal discussions of "divinity" and all the fun, Greek stuff about omnipotence and omniscience, play word games about the self-contradiction inherent in these words, and satisfy ourselves that we can therefore prove that God, as so described cannot exist. Without referring to who the Bible says God is, however, it is all meaningless drivel.

I will go further. God killing Uzzah makes us uncomfortable because it betrays the smallness of our faith. Far too often I believe that, if we think of "God" at all, we think either of a cosmic Mr. Fix-It, or an indulgent parent. In our decadent, bourgeois day and age, we have lost the memory that, once upon a time, holiness was about more than just moral rectitude or the clarity of personal faith. We in the western Protestant churches, for all our insistence on adhering to Scriptural norms by and large are little more than liturgical mimes, going through the motions of worship with no sound or substance. We use words like "God", and "holy" and we never consider these words have meaning, specific meaning, powerful meaning.

Deadly meaning.

I have said off and on over the years that being a Christian is serious business. The rampant shallowness, the silliness, the ignorance of so much of what passes for discussions about and the practice of faith boil down, for me, to either not knowing or caring that being a Christian has nothing to do with me. Or us. All of it, the whole thing, has to do with God. Not just any God, not some idea of God, not a set of definitions dredged up from somewhere. When we profess our faith in the God revealed in the fullness of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, we are professing our faith in a specific God, a very real God, a God with a history, a God who neither knows nor cares about how we choose to understand what "divine" or "holy" or even "God" may mean, because this God has already shown us, if we have been paying attention, what those words mean.

Being serious means, among many other things, paying attention. If we are paying attention, we may realize that the business of faith isn't easy, or pretty, or fun. It definitely isn't cool, you won't win friends and influence people. If we are paying attention, we may notice that God's love and care for us revealed in Jesus Christ, the God in whose sheltering wings we are cradled, who preserves us and sustains us each second of our existence, also calls us, in the words of Jesus in the Gospel of St. Mark, to hate our families. We are called, indeed, to hate our own lives. We are called to preach the love of God, pursuing God's justice even if it kills us. Unless I am mistaken, Uzzah is hardly the first person whose corpse can be laid at the feet of God. Nor the last.

The God we proclaim to follow, whose claim on our lives is total, is the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is the God revealed, also, in the wrathful killing of Uzzah. This is a God whose holiness is defined not only by the life and love that flow out to all creation, but also on making clear that this holiness is for God. Our lives are not ours anymore. Uzzah, as a protector of the Ark of the Covenant, may well have thought he understood what that meant, but he did not. To his peril. We are no different from Uzzah, forgetting that words like "God" and "holy" and "obedience" actually mean things, things with specific referents. We need to remember, as Uzzah did not, that we are dealing with God.

This is serious business, folks. Having died and risen with Christ in our baptisms, our lives are not our own anymore. Being claimed by God is dangerous. The lifeless body lying next to the new cart carrying the Ark of the Covenant is mute testimony to just how serious.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Who Is My Neighbor?

I have no wish to pick continual fights. Really. That's not what this is about. At the same time, I want to address something I read on Facebook yesterday (you know who you are. . .) with reference to moral/political disapproval of the Slutwalk movement. A friend made the perfectly valid criticism that the Slutwalks can be construed as an elite, white phenomenon, an effort by privileged persons to have even more privileges, at the explicit expense of others. I have heard this criticism, and it does temper any serious enthusiasm for the movement. At the same time, the specific issue addressed by using the word "slut" in the title is the on-going victimization of victims of sexual violence by implicating them in their own victimization. It is for this reason, more than any other, I support the movement, and would walk if there were one close enough.

At the same time, I find more troubling the stated preference for "solidarity" with women in Saudi Arabia and other countries with gross violations of basic standards of women's rights, or in the Sahel in Africa where female circumcision is still common practice. While these are, indeed, issues about which to express outrage and for which more work needs to be done, I find it troubling, to say the least, that one would "prefer" such solidarity, which while morally admirable entails no risk of personal involvement through the messiness of actually getting to know those subjected to such treatment, or risking one's own personal freedom by stating such solidarity from a distance. It sets up a false choice - either we support a bunch of rich white women or we support a bunch of poor, suffering women of different races, ethnicities, and religious beliefs. On its face, it should be obvious why such is false.

More to the point, involvement in the morally messy lives of persons whom we may well encounter each and every day places a far greater level of moral commitment and potential cost upon us. Regardless of the socio-economic status of the women in question, I doubt few would believe it in any way justifiable to say, as far too many in both law enforcement and the media have, that victims of sexual violence are somehow complicit in their own victimization because of how they dress or otherwise appear in public. To be blunt, slutiness is in the eye of the beholder. A woman returning from a night on the town, dressed to attract men at the club, is not in any way morally culpable for violence visited upon her for that reason. This whole movement began in Toronto for precisely this reason; a police officer was quoted as saying of a victim of sexual assault that she was dressed "slutty", in no small way implying that she should have expected some kind of unwanted advance.

It is easy to stand way far away from horrible situations and call for them to change. In particular, when doing so entails little more than the cost of internet access, we reward ourselves for our concern without any real involvement. On the other hand, a young woman down the street, a friend of a friend, perhaps even a somewhat prominent member of the community, attacked for no other reason than there are men who believe that women exist solely for satisfying their momentary lusts, should call forth a more immediate, and far more dangerous (for us) response.

Finally, just as an aside, when Jesus was asked the above question, according to the narrative in the Gospel of St. Luke, he responded with the well-known parable of the Good Samaritan. Who is our neighbor? The person we encounter who is in need. It is this encounter, this involvement, this risk-taking, that lies at the heart of it all. Not just this story, but my preference for supporting something that, while certainly not perfect, nevertheless addresses head on the continuing moral infantilizing of women. In the end, it isn't about who is or is not privileged, or who is more in need of expressions of concerns. It's about who is right here, in or near my life, asking for help. I don't pass out questionnaires before doing things for people. Someone right here next to me needing my help is my neighbor. That's it, and that's all.

Something Soothing This Way Comes

Happy birthday yesterday, Bobbie Gentry!

I've been overwhelmed by a mixture of sadness and an anger I wish I could root out of myself. In my desperation, I've decided to turn to some slightly moldy oldies that remind me of my childhood, of times when my biggest concern was what my Mom was fixing for dinner. This song brings to mind childhood trips to visit relatives in Dayton, OH, my wonderful cousins, my . . . interesting . . . maternal aunts and uncles, the time my brother tried making popcorn in my Aunt Joan's kitchen and covered the floor in the stuff. Simple stuff. A reprieve from the madness of the moment.

This was the song that was playing the very first time I kissed a girl at a high school dance. If that makes me a late bloomer in that regard, that's OK, because I think I made up for lost time. She's a friend on FB now, and I'm happy about that for any number of reasons. Maybe Jo Nesbo is right, we can't really recapture those moments that will always linger in our lives. That they linger, though, is evidence of just how special, how important, how vital they are. I may never be not-quite-sixteen again, surprised at the warmth of that moment when I first kissed a girl there on that dance floor, but I can recall it so vividly, and all the tangled adolescent emotions that, really, I don't need to do it again.

Early mornings, it's nice to have music playing. It has to be the right music. Soothing, itself rather quiet. Music that doesn't intrude too much, but adds something to the ambiance of the sun rising, the birds feeding and chattering. More than just background music, less than mood-setting. More reflective of the moment, as my wife and I sit together, reading, drinking coffee, chatting in quiet voices.

Now, I think I'm ready for whatever might come my way.

Improv (Travel Bleary Capricorn) - King Crimson, live, 1969
Refuge of the Roads - Joni Mitchell
Good Lovin' - Grateful Dead (1980, Nassau Colloseum)
Another Brick in the Wall, Part 3 (Live) - Pink Floyd
Ripples - Genesis
The 13th - The Cure
Play With Me - Jeff Beck
Eleven Four - Dave Brubeck Quartet, Live at Carnegie Hall, 1963
The Acid Queen - The Who, The Complete Live At Leeds
Vicarious - Tool

Because it's in keeping with the theme, here's Joni, who in her old age has turned in to a bit of a crank.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Blood Of Abel

The bodies have yet to be buried, the families are only beginning the long journey of mourning and grieving, Norway is only beginning to struggle with this eruption of murderous violence, and all anyone seems to be able to do is either make sure that Anders Breivik's Christianity is disallowed or defend his beliefs without defending his actions. Does anyone, anywhere, want to stand with the families of the victims, while admitting culpability with the ideas that spawned one man's murderous rampage? Breivik is just the latest in a line of bloody-handed Christians, going all the way back to Constantine's decision to put crosses on the shields of his warriors to ensure his victory in battle. Jews and Muslims, Christian minority groups labeled "heretical" and women accused of witchcraft, Protestants and Anabaptists, African slaves and indigenous people in the newly-encountered Western Hemisphere have all felt the sting of the spear at the end of the cross Christians carried.

The steps from "They are living in error," to, "They pose a threat to our way of life," to, "Let's kill 'em all and all those traitors in our midst to save ourselves," are so small, it's a wonder it hasn't occurred on this grand a scale elsewhere. Every dehumanizing word uttered against Muslims and gays, against non-believers and those seen as appeasers of enemies of Our Way Of Life is just more ideological ammunition, helping to support those who wish to make the same kind of decision Anders Breivik did.

We Christians of all stripes bear an enormous burden of guilt and shame. History is strewn with the corpses of those who stood in the way of the victorious cross. All of us - I don't care what your denomination is, what your ideological or theological self-identification may be - share a certain amount of responsibility for what happened in Oslo. We just have not done enough - we can never do enough - to atone for the mass graves brought about by those who call themselves Christian. We haven't done enough to make clear that we are servants of all. We haven't made clear that ours is not a claim of certainty, but of faith. We haven't made clear that, rather than tell the world how wrong it is, we are called to live out how much God loves this world.

The blood of Abel cries out, and we do not hear it. Instead, like Cain, we make our excuses. To paraphrase Jefferson, I tremble for myself and my fellow Christians when I remember that God is just.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Defaulting While At War

I know I have written about this issue before. I just want to say it again for those who aren't paying attention. We are on the brink of defaulting on our sovereign debt at a time when we have troops in combat in three different places (please don't say, "But we're out of Iraq!" because we have 45,000 or so troops there in the midst of an on-going civil war), with obligations to a fourth - Libya - that strain the credulity of the Obama Administration's arguments that it doesn't count as a war.

When terrorists attacked the United States 10 years ago, Congress had just passed a massive tax cut, weighted heavily toward the highest income brackets. As it became clear there would be a military component to our response, the first thing to be tossed to one side should have been those tax cuts. Please remember, even Pres. Bush claimed the war would be long and difficult. We had troops and advisers sent not only to Central Asia and the Middle East, but the Philippines, Indonesia, Africa - pretty much anywhere there was a potential or actual threat of Islamist activity. Rather than seek a formal, Congressional declaration of war - as the Constitution demands - the Bush Administration merely rode a wave of public favor in sending troops to Afghanistan. This was an odd choice, as Congress would have made such a declaration easily.

Had there been a formal declaration of hostilities, the Administration and Congress could have acted under its authority to mobilize much of the economy and industrial infrastructure to support it. Wage and price controls could have been enacted. Tax rates that under normal conditions would have been considered unduly confiscatory would have passed without a dissenting vote. Consumer economic activity would have become secondary to keeping the United States on a war footing.

Most important, with a formal declaration of hostilities, a formal end would also be clear. The various war-time economic mobilization measures would have been removed slowly, to reduce the amount of shock to the system. The tax rates could have been lowered, at the very least, to Clinton-era rates, and the drop would have felt like a huge cut, freeing up billions of dollars in demand.

Instead, we did the whole thing, from Afghanistan through Iraq and now to Yemen and Libya, as if we could finance a major military venture on a wing and a prayer. Bush Administration officials appearing before Congress made up numbers about the cost of an invasion of Iraq, then speculated that we would either confiscate their oil wealth, or they would gladly give it to us for having invaded their country.

The on-going wars have been fought not only on the cheap, but by and large invisibly. Soldiers, sailors, and airmen are called upon, again and again, to return to the field of battle, using equipment that is taking a beating from the use. Not just regular troops, either. National Guard and Reserve units are sent over, performing support roles yet still exposed to the hazards of combat in a war without fronts. The toll on their bodies and minds continues to rise, as evidenced by Pres. Obama's decision a few weeks back to send condolence letters to the families of military personnel who commit suicide.

And now we are weeks away from defaulting. While most people are pointing fingers, insisting it is someone else's fault for the situation we are in, it would be nice if everyone stopped for a moment and realized where the fault really sits - on all of us. This is our problem, and we need to find and demand a solution to it as soon as possible. We can no longer afford, in any sense of that word, to pretend we have the capacity to operate as a nation at peace even as hundreds of thousands of our sons and daughters face combat.

Virtual Tin Cup

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