Challenging the Metaphysics of Violence

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

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.

Overcoming Mental Short-cuts

In recent days I’ve been taken with FBI director James Comey’s statement about lazy mental short-cuts that law enforcement officers sometimes make. Don’t we all just with less-lethal consequences? It gave me a great springboard for a program at the church to challenge assumptions of race, xenophobia, homophobia, and suspicion of people of other religions – especially in our tumultuous world. So here’s my March newsletter article. Feel free to join in, if you are able to.

Beloved friends,

One of the greatest strengths of our congregation is our ability to maintain diverse perspectives while working toward a common goal. This goal is nothing short of mirroring the Kingdom of Heaven here on earth by living ever more deeply into the extravagant love of God we have come to know through Christ Jesus.

Living into this love comes with great joys and, admittedly, great costs.

In recent months, given events at home and abroad, I have been prayerfully mulling how First Church can respond to the racism, xenophobia, homophobia and religious violence that characterize so much of life today. In our own beautiful country we have to face what FBI director James Comey recently called “lazy mental short-cuts” that lead to the killings by law enforcement of unarmed black men. The chokehold and shooting deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown respectively are two high-profile examples.

We need to acknowledge that these lazy mental short-cuts are made all the time by many, if not all, of us when it comes to race. The same is true of our encounters with people of different religions, economic brackets, national origins or immigration status, and people of non-heteronormative sexual orientations.

The primary question we face is how we can combat these lazy mental short-cuts and the attitudes and actions that flow from them?

Our task in combatting these mental short-cuts is compounded by the horrendous killings of Jews, Christians, Kurds, and Muslims in the Middle East, Europe, and Africa by supporters of ISIS, Boko Haram, Al Shabaab, and Al Qaeda. I believe they have raised the specter of the greatest evil the world has faced since the holocaust. It’s awfully tempting, as a result, to make lazy mental short-cuts.

We need to be on guard. We can’t afford to remain mentally lazy and lump all Muslims or brown skinned Middle Easterners in the same camp. We can’t lump all of Africa in the same basket. We have to break the cycle of superiority that keeps us from valuing people who are different from us.

I therefore invite you to join me in the following activities:
1.) A reading of James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree this Lent.
2.) A series of sacred conversations on race this Eastertide through Pentecost.
3.) A panel discussion by representatives of the Jewish, Muslim, and Christian faiths on the questions: i) what is the character of your God and ii) what is the highest religious end you wish to achieve.
4.) Participating in the Moral Monday movement being started in Hartford by our friend Bishop John Selders.
5.) Honest and earnest prayerful searching about diversity and how God is calling us to respond to violence.
(Dates for discussions will be determined.)

This is not always going to be easy. We may come into conflict. The mere suggestion of this course of action may well be distressing you. But it’s something we need to do in a spirit of living more fully into God’s extravagant love. How else will we and the world be transformed? How else will First Church truly live into our great mission of mirroring the Kingdom of God here on earth.

I believe we can do this and invite you to participate with me.

Grace and Peace,

Steven

Losing Faith in Religion

So here’s my dilemma: given the rash of religiously inspired violence over the past few months (not to mention, decades and centuries), I’m increasingly suspicious of religion. My vocation as a Christian minister in the progressive theological tradition of the United Church of Christ values deeply other faiths and traditions and those schools of thought and meaning-making that shun religious faith altogether. I am able to hold a/theism without feeling threatened. Science I see as complimentary to religion. Literary criticism and socio-historical readings add to the experience of holy texts. I carry an awareness of the ways religious leaders and institutions have snuffed out the Holy One they hold at their core, and also the ways they’ve responded in marvelous life-giving ways.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great good in the world. We see it all the time in acts of kindness, justice, peace, love, compassion, and sacrifice that are inspired by religious belief. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very best in the believer.

Sadly, the opposite is horrifyingly true as well.

There can be little doubt that religion has the capacity to inspire great evil in the world. We see it all the time in acts of terror, injustice, violence, hatred, abuse, and self-aggrandizement. Such acts aren’t unique to religion, but they’re often inspired by the intuition that lies at the heart of religion: that holiness or divinity exists beyond the human self that seems to call out the very worst in the believer.

The outcome of religious belief depends on a broad range of individual and communal interpretations of religious traditions and on theological notions pertaining to the character of the deity at the center of the faith, the reason for the religious community’s existence (its ultimate purpose), and the specific ends it is encouraged to seek. Interpretations of religion no doubt stem from a combination of factors, including culture, socio-political dynamics, economic class, education, geographical location, social pressures, and perceptions of history.

Given the increasing intensity of religious violence in the world and the heinous acts being committed in the name of religion – the horrendous evils committed by ISIS, Boko Haram, and Al Shabaab; the attacks in Sydney, Paris, and Denmark; the Anders Behring Breivik attack in Sweden; the killing last week of three Muslim students in North Carolina (though no confirmed as religiously motivated crime); sectarian violence in nations around the world; the war in Gaza last summer; and so many small attacks that barely or never make the news – I am led to question the usefulness of religion. I can see why many people today (comedian Bill Maher comes to mind) completely recoil from and often attack religion. People who claim to be religious have a lot to answer for. No religious tradition is off the hook.

I don’t know what the answer is to religion, and I fear a world without religion. Perhaps the only way forward is for religious people of goodwill and good conscience to stand up more vocally and with greater fervor against the violence and harm being done in the name of their religions. The great challenge in this would have to be that the means of protest would of necessity have to be consistent with the desired end. The only problem is that I don’t think religious people can ever truly agree on the desired end. It’s impossible within traditions, let alone across religions.