Trust: “the coin of the realm”

Posted December 13, 2020 by Steven
Categories: Uncategorized

Here’s a shout out to George Schultz, former secretary of state (among other portfolios), who turns 100 today. I wouldn’t know what to give a centenarian for a Birthday gift, but I greatly appreciated the gift of wisdom he shared in The Washington Post on Friday. In an opinion piece reflecting on the past 100 years, he wrote: “I’ve learned much over that time, but looking back, I’m struck that there is one lesson I learned early and then relearned over and over: Trust is the coin of the realm.” The 10 examples he provides are priceless.

Are We Seeing the End of Democracy?

Posted December 10, 2020 by Steven
Categories: Uncategorized

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President Trump refuses to accept defeat. He continues to attack the electoral system and political functionaries, even from his own party. Republican leaders are pouring fuel on the fire through open support of Mr. Trump’s narrative or by remaining silent. Few have condemned the contempt he is showing for the democratic process. Democratic Party leaders are biding (Bidening?) their time, presumably shy of open confrontation and further antagonizing the president’s vocal, sometimes-armed supporters.

Zeynep Tufekci warns in The Atlantic that Americans are facing a coup of sorts. The term doesn’t quite fit and Tifekci is reflexive about it. The grayness should not become the point. She says,

Our focus should not be a debate about the proper terminology. Instead, we should react to the frightening substance of what we’re facing, even if we also believe that the crassness and the incompetence of this attempt [to steal the election] may well doom it this time.

Zeynep Tufekci, “This Must Be Your First,” The Atlantic

Her point is well taken. It seems prudent to leave the semantics to historians and political scientists who will, in the future, have a clearer picture of this surreal time.

In the short term our attention would be better spent on understanding the president’s strategy and tactics and how they’re undermining US democratic norms and institutions. We also need to attend to the 74 million Americans who voted for Trump, a large-enough proportion of whom believe his allegations that their collective will has been undermined. It is concerning that the president’s supporters, some armed, are protesting outside the homes and offices of state and local officials. Political intimidation, while not uncommon, is inimical to democratic norms when the possibility of physical violence looms.

How can the president’s supporters be convinced of the election’s legitimacy? There is ample evidence that president-elect Biden won the election fair and square and that the result stands in spite of numerous attempts to challenge and upend it. Consider the facts:

  • The presidential race was called by the Associated Press, as is customary, in favor of Mr. Biden, who won with 51.4% of the vote versus Trump’s 46.9%. This gives Biden a 306-232 advantage in the electoral college. He also won the popular vote by 7 million.
  • Election results have been re-certified after recounts in close contests.
  • The Government Services Agency accepted the election result and initiated a transition.
  • Several US courts have rejected as baseless lawsuits alleging voting irregularities.
  • The Supreme Court with three Trump appointees rejected a Republican challenge to the outcome of the election in Pennsylvania. And there seems little chance that a lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton (now joined by several states) requesting the court overturn the results in four other states will be successful.

Even so, the polarity of the moment informed by partisan media platforms, social media bubbles, fear and skepticism, the perception that meaning is derived from power, and a raft of differing hopes and dreams for the future of America, makes the result hard to accept for some. The Republican leadership’s refusal to stand up for the democratic practices and institutions that are the pride of the United States and failure to challenge the president’s false narrative, possibly for fear of losing votes in future intraparty election contests, contributes to the growing unrest. Where there is a lack of morally courageous leadership, the people flounder. I’m left to wonder if this is the end of democracy. And I don’t mean the death of democracy – but rather its telos.

Does democracy inevitably nurture intractable divisions?

Judging by the state of the Union, this seems plausible. And it’s not unprecedented. The Civil War is a rather stark reminder. Lincoln said in his Gettysburg address,

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.

Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863

The key word is “testing.” The Civil War, so viciously contested, was, according to Lincoln, a test to determine if a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that every person is created equal was – is – viable. While the Union won and emancipation resulted across the Confederate states, that test yielded mixed results at best. Emancipation did not lead to the fullness of the freedom implied by liberty. Instead, Jim Crow, valorization of the Confederate cause, red lining, lynching, and the likes were instituted. Many continue to be threatened by the notion of equality. This is especially true when politics is viewed as a zero-sum game and someone else’s right to equal economic, political, and social standing is a threat to me and mine.

The fact of the matter is that as mature a democracy as the United States is, we are still taking Lincoln’s test. We’re still determining whether a nation conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that every person is created equal, is viable. And at present, we’re again – probably, still – failing.

To invoke the preamble to the Constitution, we’re far from a more perfect Union, from establishing justice, insuring tranquility, providing for the common defense, promoting the general welfare, and securing the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.

Instead of ensuring their chances for reelection, perhaps our political leaders should set aside hubris and fear and lead again with moral courage toward a vision of a more perfect Union – a vision of a diverse yet unified people, embracing a common identity in spite of ideological differences that ensures the defense and wellbeing of every individual, community, and the people as a whole. This may sound naive, but let’s give it a chance. We surely have more to gain than lose.

It would seem that the end of democracy is embedded in the integrity with which we take the test. Could it be that the end is the means – the common practices, institutions, and thought orientations – that lead to greater unity, even a more perfect Union? The framers did not call for a perfect Union, but a “more perfect Union.” This may well be within our grasp if we can gain needed perspective on the identity markers and politics that separate us, provided we can let go of the fear that keeps us from embracing meaningful, actionable liberty and justice for all.

Perhaps the point is not to convince the president’s most ardent supporters, or even the president himself, of the veracity of the election’s result, but rather to convince them that we’re still taking the test and will receive better results when we take it together.

On Human Dignity

Posted November 24, 2020 by Steven
Categories: Uncategorized

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What if, in the course of our common life, the recognition of human dignity took center stage? While it has been dismissed among some as vacuous or problematically unspecific, dignity acknowledges the inherent value of each human being and, when acted upon, can significantly improve the quality of interpersonal and intergroup relations.

There certainly are a host of cultural resources from which to argue for human dignity. From a biblical perspective, one might look to the first chapter of Genesis and discern there a recognition of the value of each human being:

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them (Genesis 1:26-27).

This allegory then affirms that God looked out over all creation, including the human beings newly formed, and declared it all “very good.” This is surely the low-hanging fruit on which at the very least a theological argument could be built in a Jewish- or Christian-leaning cultural milieu.

In the Western intellectual tradition, one might look to Emmanuel Kant’s notion of werde, to describe the intrinsic, non-instrumental value of the human being. (Let’s suspend, for a moment, the justified critique of Kant’s Eurocentrism.) For Donna Hicks, a contemporary scholar who links the recognition of dignity to conflict resolution, dignity is a birthright composed of ten essential elements: the acceptance of identity; inclusion; safety; acknowledgement; recognition; fairness; benefit of doubt; understanding; independence; and accountability. It is thus far from a vacuous or static concept. (See Donna Hicks, 2011, Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict, Yale University Press.) When put into practice, these elements will naturally foster a greater sense of civility, justice, and equality in any society.

Seeking further justification for human dignity, one might turn to southern Africa where ubuntu, the mutual recognition of common humanity, is poignantly expressed in terms of the statement, “I am because you are.” It is no surprise, then, that protections for dignity were written into the South African Constitution. As the first Chief Justice of South Africa’s Constitutional Court wrote, “Under the South African Constitution, dignity is a value asserted to ‘invest in our democracy respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings.’ It is, as the Court has held, a value that informs the interpretation of many, possibly all, other rights.” (See Arthur Chaskelson, 2011, “Dignity as a Constitutional Value: A South African Perspective,” American University International Law Review, 26(5), 1377-1407.)

Sadly, it is possibly in violations of human dignity and the rights that stem from it that its existence becomes most obvious. And this makes it all the more urgent to foster more broadly in society — especially in US society at this highly fractured political moment — a greater awareness of and regard for human dignity.

Wouldn’t it be a boon for democracy across the globe if democratic practices and institutions could be rooted in a deep and abiding respect for the intrinsic worth of all human beings, of each human being?

Why I have been reluctant to write (but can stay silent no longer)

Posted January 7, 2020 by Steven
Categories: Uncategorized

The last thing the world needs is another disembodied voice yelling into the ever-deepening abyss of opinion that masquerades as truth. In the intervening years between my last post and this one, I have consciously sought to be silent, to listen deeply for the voices I would not hear if I were instead occupied with scattering the seeds of my own thought and listening intently for the echoes of critique and accolades that might return. But now I must speak. I must respond to the emerging madness of another potential war, this time with Iran. A significant difference between now and then is that I now speak as a citizen of an aggressor nation, a nation I have grown to love and call my own.

What a devastating lack of imagination is shown by those who seek to exercise the right to take or threaten lives. Where is that imagination that transcends violence, that moral imagination that reaches beyond cheap notions of patriotism and embraces the value of life, every life, all lives everywhere? Why is it that the chest beaters are all-too-quick to claim the title of Christianity when they ignore the powerful testimony and moral imagination of the one from whose name the tradition derives its own? 

There is a vast difference between the moral imagination inspired by the Sermon on the Mount and the one that claims for the state the monopoly of the use of force. There is an insurmountable gulf between Jesus’ call to love one’s enemies and to pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:44) and the assassination of political foes and threats of force against cities and cultural sites. Even by the laws of war, the threats of the president are an awful affront to humanity, not to mention an affront to all that is good and holy about one of the world’s major religions. 

Moral courage is sorely lacking in a nation that values zero-sum outcomes and lives by the code that military and political might alone make right irrespective of the morality of any decision or action. Moral courage is lacking because the moral imagination has not been cultivated among certain so-called elites.

Imagination implies creativity. Moral imagination opens the possibility of alternative renderings of political, social, and economic outcomes. As peacebuilder John Paul Lederach puts it, “the moral imagination [is] the capacity to imagine something rooted in the challenges of the real world yet capable of giving birth to that which does not yet exist” (The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Building Peace, Oxford, 2005, p 28). The moral imagination does not shy away from real-world problems, but creatively rises above simple-minded dualistic solutions and promises to establish new realities that before seemed impossible.

Thankfully there is no lack of moral imagination or moral courage. The voices of so many are ringing out in opposition to yet another ominous expedition of killing and wanton destruction. That these voices are animated by different perspectives – religious and secular – gives me hope that there remains common ground enough on which to build and sustain a new peace movement.  

Negotiator in Chief?

Posted April 28, 2016 by Steven
Categories: Election, Justice, Negotiation, Politics, United States

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Explaining Donald Trump’s provocative rhetoric, a long-time Republican operative was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “[Trump has] always said privately that he’s learned from negotiations that you start from the far end. If you start in the middle you lose.” This positional bargaining tactic is hardly surprising. It might even be quaint if it wasn’t so destructive or deeply entrenched in the riggings of a win-lose binary that keeps broad swaths of humanity mired in a sycophantic devotion to self-interest.

One has to wonder where Trump has been in our post Getting to Yes world. The work of Roger Fisher and William Uri, among so many since, highlights the promise and effectiveness of principled negotiating – negotiating that rests on mutuality without compromising the need for favorable results. In its most articulate expression, it gets beyond the language of winning and losing (forsaking even the coveted win-win) in favor of creative alternatives that assure mutual benefit and lasting, productive relationships.

The world of winning and losing, winners and losers is by nature unkind and violent. It is unproductive. It leads to power grabs and arms races and pushes the planet ever closer to destruction. So much energy is expended on climbing the ladder – corporate, political, social – that the weakening of the rungs is overlooked. At stake is not just the self, but the soul; not just the individual, but the gossamer web that binds society.

Thomas Paine wrote in his influential The Rights of Man,

The mutual dependence and reciprocal interest which man has upon man, and all the parts of civilised community upon each other, create that great chain of connection which holds it together. The landholder, the farmer, the manufacturer, the merchant, the tradesman, and every occupation, prospers by the aid which each receives from the other, and from the whole. Common interest regulates their concerns, and forms their law; and the laws which common usage ordains, have a greater influence than the laws of government.

Mutual dependence and reciprocal interest are the antidote to anarchy and lawlessness. Win-lose modalities support the latter and undermine the former, all the while eroding any semblance of a great chain of connection.

It’s little surprise that Trump’s populist campaign, which follows the path of least resistance with its win-at-all-costs posture, has been so effective in attracting the support of especially white males whose sense of entitlement is rooted in historical privilege. This sense of entitlement comes at great cost to society, which remains fragmented in terms of race, gender, and class (among a host of other prefabricated divisions).

In all fairness, Trump is not alone. Despite varying political agendas and approaches, it is clear that each of the candidates has bought into the dominant narrative of the win-lose dichotomy. It seems a necessity of the current practice of democracy. The Sanders campaign, for all that it claims to present an alternative narrative, does not reflect the level of rhetorical or policy awareness that would bind society more closely together. Across the spectrum of candidates in this awfully long election season, there’s an almost complete dearth of talk about working with opponents or negotiating compromises that would serve the best interests of all the people.

The angry, often bitter rhetoric sown recklessly by the candidates and exploited by the media’s self-interest in ratings that drive advertising revenues is a significant threat to the fabric of society. It belies an arrogance that conquers by dividing rather than painstakingly sowing together the tears and tatters of the great American tapestry envisioned by the Founders.

With the balance of power carefully distributed between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches – and given the specific powers granted the president – the Constitution calls forth not just a commander in chief, but a negotiator in chief. It envisions a reasonable president, Congress, and judiciary working together in service of the more perfect union called for in the Preamble, where justice is established, domestic tranquility ensured, common defense provided, general welfare promoted, and in which the blessings of liberty are secured in the present and for posterity.

This may sound naïve in light of deepening political divisions, but I believe the vision of the Founders may yet become the renewed vision of the nation. It will take principled leaders to guide the nation and principled negotiations to reframe political discourse and shift the status quo toward a more productive footing. The language of mutuality and reciprocity needs to be regained. Common interest, as Payne suggests, needs to regulate concerns and form laws so that society as a whole may be sewn together through good governance and a revived sense of common identity.

Children of an (un)known God

Posted January 12, 2016 by Steven
Categories: Interfaith Dialogue, Religion, Spiritual Practices, Theology

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The debacle surrounding a Wheaton College professor’s conviction that Christians and Muslims worship the same God has again raised the invidious compulsions of Christian exclusivism. To be sure, this is far from representative of the broad umbrella of Christian traditions. Dr. Larycia Hawkins’ offending statement invoked Pope Francis, who has unapologetically stated that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. Wheaton, an evangelical institution, alleges Dr. Hawkins’ belief contravenes its statement of faith.

I can sympathize with the Wheaton administration’s need to protect a brand based on religious belief and identity. The free practice of religion is rightly protected by law. But freedom of speech is, too, and Dr. Hawkins has every right to voice her beliefs. As tenured faculty she is surely entitled to the privileges and protections she has earned.

It’s unlikely that Hawkins’ statement is the only cause of offense given her spiritual practice in Advent of donning a hijab in solidarity with Muslims, who are increasingly targets of noxious right-wing political rhetoric in the United States. In this climate of a radicalizing right, Wheaton’s administration must surely be under tremendous political pressure not to alienate its conservative-leaning evangelical support base.

It would appear the administration’s condemnation of Hawkins, based on an interpretation of the school’s statement of faith, has more to do with contemporary political trends than a sober reading of theology centered on the teachings of Christ. There’s an apparent failure of recognizing the radical nature of the love Christ taught and demonstrated, especially for the marginalized and outcast. His ethic of loving God and loving neighbor seems to be lost amidst the clamor of vote-seeking fearmongers.

Nowhere in Wheaton’s statement of faith is there mention of other faiths and whether or not they worship the same God. There’s certainly no condemnation of other religions. It’s a positive statement of the evangelical faith the school aspires to and is clearly predicated on the particularity of Jesus Christ. While the statement is open to an exclusivist viewpoint, it also encourages proclamation of “God’s redemptive love to the ends of the earth by word and deed; by caring for all of God’s creation and actively seeking the good of everyone, especially the poor and needy.”

The statement of faith does not condemn Muslims or cast aspersions on their religion. It is merely a statement of beliefs about God that form the underpinnings of evangelical faith.

To in any way imply that it captures fully the essence of the imminent and transcendent Holy One is to build a tower of Babel with the feeble blocks of language. To limit God to a statement of faith or creed would be to lose in an instant the very nature of God, who is uncontainable, wildly free to be whatever God will be. Remember Moses before the burning bush?

It’s no wonder so many people are losing faith in religion. The “dones” and the “nones” are tired of grasping at castles in the sky. An increasing number of active religious across the faiths and traditions are too. Beyond even a generous orthodoxy, the immanence and transcendence of that which is Holy and wholly beyond comprehension is being sought through authentic relationship with the other and in relationship with the world around.

I would encourage anyone who doubts whether Christians and Muslims worship the same God to engage in meaningful conversation with someone of the other faith – not about politics or the Middle East, but about the qualities of God and the spiritual practices that bring the other more truly into relationship with God. Come into the presence of the Divine with such a deep love and respect for the other that for a moment one’s most dearly held beliefs may be suspended in favor of listening deeply and openly to the other. To listen is to love.

In my experience, engaging in interfaith and ecumenical conversations has helped develop my own sense of who I am in relation to the (Un)Knowable One I worship. It has not weakened my belief in the particularity of Jesus the Christ or my Christian faith, but it has opened my heart and spirit to new experiences of the Divine.

Surely in a world as fragmented and violent as ours is the path to peace is through compassionate respect for people who approach and articulate their faith in ways that differ from our own. Let’s not limit God through narrow interpretations of creeds or statements, but strive to love more deeply, live more generously, and counteract fear by engaging the other.

Hunting Fiction in the Beloved Country

Posted December 24, 2015 by Steven
Categories: Literature, Race, South Africa

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As I reflect on the year that has been, I am grateful for yet another fabulous trip to South Africa. One of the highlights this year was the South African Book Fair and Mail & Guardian Literary Festival in Johannesburg. Alighting the Gautrain in the city center and walking the torn-up pavements of Hillbrow before correcting course toward Newtown and the fair was exhilarating.

SA Book FairSeveral prior trips to bookstores had left me empty handed. I was on the hunt for contemporary South African fiction written by black South African authors. Each time a slightly grungy and introverted sales person (bookstore peeps are the same everywhere) pointed me in a possible direction it was invariably to a back corner where a few copies of Sol Plaatjes’ work could be found along with a token of Zakes Mda’s contributions to the literary world.

It’s not that there wasn’t any new South African literature being published. The problem was that I was looking for fiction and eventually in exasperation nonfiction written by black authors amidst a sea of newly published nonfiction works by white authors. Besides some political commentary and Xolala Mangcu’s robust Biko, there was almost nothing that could provide insight into the imaginative future being presupposed by SA’s up and coming black literati.

A few years ago Toni Morrison’s Beloved attuned me to the importance of literary imagination in fostering social transformation. Ms. Morrison says, through the immortal wonder of Baby Suggs, that the only grace you can have is the grace you can imagine. If you cannot see it, you will not have it.

I would love to know what kind of future South African authors are dreaming for the country. If you cannot see it, you will not have it.

My primary question, then, to the publishers, authors, and booksellers at the fair and literary festival was where are my black compatriot fiction authors? I was gratified to learn of Niq Mhlongo, Kgebeti Moele, Phaswane Mpe, Sifiso Mzobe, and Zukiswa Wanner, whose work was highly touted. Not one of their names was mentioned in any bookstore I visisted. In fact, my only resolution for 2016 is to expose as much of their work as possible in this blog and other review forums.

But to a person at the book fair there was the recognition that the publishing industry finds itself in a quandary. South Africans with the resources to purchase books would generally only pick up those by “recognized” authors, or as one publisher’s rep said, authors with recognizable ‘white’ names. There was a lament throughout that distributors and mainstream bookstores were not doing their parts to market black authors in such a way that they become commonly known and read.

Another important dimension of the challenge faced by fiction writers was explored in the Mail & Guardian. It published an excerpt from Leon de Kok’s new book Losing the Plot: Crime, Reality, and Fiction in Post-Apartheid Writing (Wits University Press), pointing out how nonfiction has increasingly outsold fiction in postapartheid South Africa. He attributes the “real” as opposed to the fictional being accented to the interactive nature of online media as well as existential crises commonly faced due to poverty, inequality, political uneasiness, and violent crime. According to Mr. de Kok,

“several high calibre South African writers, among them Marlene van Niekerk, Antjie Krog and Rian Malan, have observed that postapartheid conditions are such that nonfiction appears to be a far more serviceable mode of writing than fiction.

This stands in contrast to the pre-postapartheid period, when realist fiction in the Gordimer “history from the inside” mode and metafictional fabulation about ethical agency, in the manner of JM Coetzee, rode the crest of the wave in the literary truth game.”

While this excerpt sets in perspective the literary shift in the postapartheid era, it also highlights the continued preeminence of “high calibre” white writers. Don’t get me wrong, these authors have made outsized contributions to literature, both fiction and nonfiction, and have held out a mirror and moral compass to the privileged classes. My concern is the lack of attention given to black authors. Race matters. I trust de Kok’s Losing the Plot addresses this and look forward to reading it.

Venue for the SA Book Fair

Turbine Hall, Book Fair Venue

I also hope to see evidence on my next visit to the beloved country of a push to highlight black South African authors and their works. And I hope to see reclamation of fiction that sets both the present and future in perspective. It would be incredible to begin to visualize a future for South Africa beyond the current events of growing unrest, crime and murder, xenophobia, cynical calls that #zumamustfall, corruption, political cronyism, and white pessimism with its culture of blatant and dog-whistle racism.

It would be wonderful if my intuition that South Africa has a far brighter, uniquely African future ahead of it could be filled in by reading the creative stories of a new generation of authors whose imaginations hold the key to unlocking this future.

If you have responses to this reflection or can point me in the direction of black South African authors and their works, please share by leaving a comment or let me know by sending a message on the contact page of this site.

Challenging the Metaphysics of Violence

Posted December 21, 2015 by Steven
Categories: Political Theology, Religion, Theology, Violence

Tags: , , , , , ,

IMG_3477This is the first time in eight years that I will not be leading worship services on Christmas Eve or ending my Christmas homily just as the minute and hour hands converge on midnight. Our decision to move to Ohio so that Nanette can pursue her calling as Senior Minister of a large urban congregation meant that I took my leave from the wonderful folks of First Church in Farmington at the end of September. Our parting was sooner than we had imagined and tinged with sadness. Yet this move was a continuation of my preaching on love, mutuality, and equality as I now follow and support my wife and her ministry while preparing myself for new possibilities. I believe it was Saint Francis who said, “Preach the gospel at all times and when necessary use words.”

Words. I’ve been thinking about the words I would have preached this Christmas Eve were I back in the elevated pulpit of First Church. As I think over the texts that give rise to pretty Christmas card scenes, what stands out to me this year is the potential of a single person to challenge and overcome the metaphysics of violence.

The metaphysics of violence speaks to the apparent ontological claim of violence to absolute authority and being. It gives rise to a theodicy that confines horizons of imagination and agency to an action-reaction framework where the end goal is always victory over an enemy. An enemy is the person who threatens to take away what I have or who I am. Engaging the enemy, real or imagined, binds the hope and destiny of nations to materialist gain rather than the lofty ideals of peace through mutuality, equality, and liberty.

It’s a snare into which political leaders and news agencies perpetually lead all-too-willing populations. It appeals to the lowest common denominator in consumerist societies where rationality and agency are sacrificed on the altar of democratic process to ratify the hegemonic power of the state, thereby ordaining the state to do whatever it takes to protect the interests of citizens and businesses from the terrors that lurk in the darkness of chaos and otherness.

Terror, chaos, and suspicion of the other are the currency of the metaphysics of violence. Terrorism is its most sinister embodiment. Those who employ terrorist methodologies aim to inflict not just sporadic physical harm to victims of attacks, but more comprehensively to spark terror so stark and so pervasive that the imaginative horizons of people and societies are curtailed by existential minutia. In the spiritual quagmire that results anyone and anything that is opposed to or different from me and mine is a threat that needs to be dealt with immediately, decisively, violently.

How easy it is to exploit people in this atmosphere of fear. Shoot to kill. Build a wall. Turn away Muslims. Make the sands of the Middle East glow. Go to war. Shock and awe. Terrorize.

Into the dark night of this terror glows a feint star heralding an alternative spirituality grounded in the metaphysics of self-giving love. From a religious perspective, the Christian narrative of the birth of Jesus and his subsequent life, ministry, death and resurrection offers an antidote to the metaphysics of violence. True to its nature violence threatens always in the shadows of this story. Violence underscores its climax and lies in tatters in its denouement.

At the center of this story is the single personage of Jesus, who stands opposed to empire and oppression, fear and loathing of the other, and violence in all of its many forms.

Jesus taught that peacemakers would be blessed, enemies should be loved, persecutors prayed for, disputes amicably settled, and that vengeance should be left to God alone. In keeping with his Jewish tradition of praying the Shema he advocated absolute love for God and love for neighbor. He gave a new commandment that his disciples love one another as he had loved them – on his knees washing their feet and sacrificing his very life as a scapegoat for the political and theological sins of a world exhausted by the metaphysics of violence.

The term “sacrifice” should be understood with its Latin roots in mind: sacer (meaning sacred or holy) and facio (meaning to do or to make). By sacrificing his life, the babe of Bethlehem grown to be a man sanctified not just himself but a world opened to the possibility of definitive stands against the metaphysics of violence.

IMG_3911Standing against spiritualities that are predicated on violence does not depend on status or vocation. One need not feel like an imposter or eminence grise. It merely takes courage to wage peace by exhibiting self-sacrificing love. The illustrious work of Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malala Yousefzai started with a decision to take a stand against fear, terror, and violence. One could argue that the actions of Chelsea Manning and Edward Snowden are in this vain, though Snowden’s case would be more compelling were he to return to the United States and justify his actions in a court of law, presuming a fair trial is possible.

The high profile of theese examples notwithstanding, opposing the metaphysics of violence starts simply with a decision to take a stand.

As I ponder the words I might have preached this Christmas were I back in the warm Meetinghouse in Farmington, I think I would point to the story of the babe born in a stable in Bethlehem and encourage my hearers to give serious consideration to the change he heralded. I would ask them to imagine the change they might usher into the world by taking a stand, just as he did, against the metaphysics of violence, a stand based in the metaphysics of God’s self-sacrificing love for all the world.

The Massacre in a Charleston Church

Posted June 19, 2015 by Steven
Categories: Charleston, Massacre, privilege, Race, Racism, Violence

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Mass killings are horrendous. I can’t fathom why someone would walk into a school with the intent to murder children and their teachers. I can’t begin to understand how anyone could be motivated to open fire in a movie theater, college classroom, or shopping mall.

This week we’re shocked by yet another mass shooting, this time in the historic Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. The immediate impact of this shooting has affected me more deeply than any other. I’m struck by deep, deep sadness. It’s not just because it was in a church while people were in prayer and study, though somehow this makes it especially contemptible. It’s not just the accumulation of the despair I’ve felt over so many of these events in recent years. It’s that the killer is white and his victims are black: an act of unspeakable terror rooted in the evil of racism.

Racism can’t be explained away by mental illness or white-washed away as solely an act of individual choice, though there certainly was individual choice involved.

Racism is a societal ill, a communal sin for which responsibility rests on the shoulders of every white person. It rests on my shoulders. Racist realities are perpetuated – knowingly and unknowingly – by those of us whose skin color affords us privilege and allows us to turn a blind eye to the plight of others.

I have often seen this in my ministry. Each time I preach or teach in my overwhelmingly white and well-meaning congregation about the need to confront and combat racism I am greeted with the same refrains: “I just don’t see it.” “Don’t you think we’re beyond that now?” “You shouldn’t preach politics.” “Naturally you’re preaching about this because of where you come from.” (I am South African.) Many speak up in support of efforts to challenge and overcome racism, yet mention the “black lives matter” campaign and you’re immediately told “all lives matter.”

Sure, all lives should matter. But the point is that black lives matter; they really, really do. And, on the whole, society does not treat black lives as if they matter as much as white lives. Just a few months ago in Charleston a white police officer gunned down in cold blood Walter Scott, an African American citizen. The officer shot him in the back. Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Trayvon Martin are more than rallying cries. They are victims of societally sanctioned and approved racism that emerges all too often as state-sanctioned violence. The social and economic challenges faced by so many in the African American community stemming from pernicious structural injustices dating back to the days of slavery, the mass incarceration of African American men, the ways my African American friends are more likely than I am to be pulled over by police or followed in department stores (yes, it still happens) point to a system that is bent on exploitation and oppression.

Based on what? Based on a construct.

Race is a social construct that conveniently feeds into a hierarchy where lighter skin color equates to greater value and darker skin color to lesser value. It touches every aspect of life, personal and social. It feeds into perceptions of intelligence, ability, worthiness, acceptability. It also goes conveniently unacknowledged by most with lighter skin tones, those of us who are more prone to blame the victim than to ask the hard questions that will lead to necessary inner change. Inner change is the route to outer, societal change. And yes, it comes at a cost.

If it is difficult for many whites to acknowledge the ways our skin color leads to privilege, it is even harder to pluck out those attitudes, beliefs, and feelings that lie at the heart of racism. This becomes especially difficult when your perception of self worth is based on notions that benefit you over others, even when they’re based on something as fickle as skin color. And let’s face it, it is incredibly hard to share privilege when you’re afraid of losing what you’ve “worked” for.

In light of the massacre of African American churchgoers in a Charleston church Wednesday night, I hope that the deniers of racism and the cowardly comfortable masses of whites will open our eyes to the very real and present danger of racism. We’re not talking here about a random act of terror. Racism rears its ugly head all the time, and not always as perceptible violence. But make no mistake: it is violent by nature even if the evil of racism is mostly so subtle it goes conveniently unnoticed by those who perpetuate it in unacknowledged ways.

The responsibility to confront and combat racism rests with whites and we collectively bear the responsibility for what happened in Charleston. It’s up to us to start making the necessary shifts to confront and combat racism within ourselves and within our society. In the end, it’s up to me and that leads me to the deep, deep sorrow I feel in this moment.

As a white person I bear part of the responsibility for what happened Wednesday night in Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

A Wildly Inclusive Welcome

Posted April 29, 2015 by Steven
Categories: Church, extravagant welcome, Justice, Religion, Uncategorized

Ever since I first visited Hope Church Boston in the summer of 2003 I’ve nurtured a dream for the church: a dream of extravagant welcome and non-judgmental inclusivity. The seeds of this dream were planted at the Sunday evening Jazz service at First Church in Cambridge where I first encountered a truly open Communion table. I found it expressed at Hope in the welcome statement read each Sunday at the beginning of the service. It’s a welcome message I’ve adapted and continue to proclaim at the beginning of worship each week, both as a tip of the hat to the community that ordained me and as a statement of my belief that no one should be excluded from meaningful experiences of the Divine. I recently had the chance to sit down and record it with the help of Nick DiLullo, who is a member of First Church in Farmington and a fabulous videographer.