human rights

warm up the celebration

It might seem strange to use Matthew 24 as one of the readings for World Communion Sunday.  This snippet of scripture portrays wars, famines, earthquakes, torture, betrayal, people being led astray.  What kind of communion is that?  Actually, this might be a good description of our world!

This comes right after Jesus’ disciples are “oohing” and “ahhing” at the beauty of the temple.  In his gospel, Luke adds “how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God” (21:5).  So how does Jesus respond to his starry-eyed friends?  He asks, “You see all these, do you not?  Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down” (v. 2).

What a party pooper.

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"I'm the party pooper"

But he wasn’t wrong.  In the year 70, fed up with the constant rebellion of the Jews, the Romans rolled in and destroyed the temple.

(Here’s a quick note.  Actually, anything we humans build will eventually disappear.  This building we’re in right now will eventually crumble to the ground.  We are in a doomed structure!  And that word “structure” has one than one meaning.)

Still, the reason I picked this passage for today comes in verse 12: “And because of the increase of lawlessness, the love of many will grow cold.”  Back when I started reading the Bible in earnest—when I became a Christian while in college—that really jumped out at me.  It still really speaks to me.  The love of many will grow cold.  Love growing cold—that’s not a very pleasant thought!

It’s not a very lovely thought for World Communion Sunday, is it?  In some ways, it might be true of us today.  Love is growing cold.

Having said that, it’s also true that actual witch hunts rarely happen anymore.  People are not routinely burned at the stake.  And then there are stories from the 1600s of Presbyterians and others in their dealings with Baptists, who do not believe in infant baptism.  They decided to help the Baptists and grant their wish.  Since Baptists believed they needed to be baptized again, they were bound with heavy stones and tossed into the river.  Here’s your baptism!  (Still, I cannot confirm the accuracy of those reports!)

2 lmIn any case, there are some things one hopes we have left behind.  One hopes we aren’t put to the test if our civilization were to come crashing down!

A time when people were put to such a test was when the Babylonians invaded Judea.  The nation was under military occupation, with hundreds and thousands sent into forced deportation—the Babylonian exile.  The invaders destroyed the original temple, as the Romans did the second temple centuries later.

According to the book of Lamentations, during the siege of Jerusalem, food began to run out.  Apparently, some even resorted to cannibalism.[1]

The part of the book we usually focus on is in chapter 3, verses 19 to 24.  We do see the author acknowledging the dire straits.  “The thought of my affliction and my homelessness is wormwood and gall!  My soul continually thinks of it and is bowed down within me” (vv. 19-20).  The grim reality is recognized.  “But this I call to mind.”  We’re turning a corner.  There’s a light in the darkness.  “But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end” (vv. 21-22).  Even in the depths of despair, hope is still alive.

In verse 23—the mercies of the Lord “are new every morning; great is your faithfulness”—we have the inspiration of that great hymn of the church.  And for those who didn’t know the Biblical origin of “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” here it is.  It comes from a time when civilized society has collapsed.  Even when we humans screw up on a colossal scale, God is still faithful.

(Who knows?  If our civilization collapses, maybe some wise person will be inspired and pen lyrics to encourage those who come after.)

3 lmOur poet proclaims, “‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him’” (v. 24).  Unfortunately, the struggle continues.  A few verses later, he says, “When all the prisoners in a country are crushed underfoot, when human rights are overridden in defiance of the Most High, when someone is cheated of justice, does not the Lord see it?” (vv. 34-36, New Jerusalem Bible).  Lord, what are you going to do?

As the hymn says, “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, / Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!”  Seizing that hope keeps our love from growing cold.

A couple of weeks ago, I preached on the spiritual disciplines of the prayer of recollection and of secrecy.  (Again, that’s not the secrecy as opposed to keeping confidence.  It’s the secrecy Jesus displays by telling people to not turn him into a spectacle.  He heals and then tells the people to not broadcast it all over the place.)  I gave as another example of secrecy the over-the-top behavior of the guy praying very loudly, confessing his sin, in a quiet time and a quiet place.

In her work Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Adele Calhoun speaks of the discipline of celebration.[2]  It’s the discipline of abandoning oneself to joy, of giving in to the spirit of gratitude and love, of just letting go.  That covers a lot of ground; it has many different aspects, but there is something she says I readily understand.[3]

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One of them is “taking yourself less seriously.”  Some of us have more trouble in that than others!  I’ve often thought a key quality of our bearing the image of God is a sense of humor.  We humans didn’t invent humor.  Where can humor come from but a source of infinite joy and good will?

Did you know that humor is a powerful weapon?  Brian Doyle in The Thorny Grace of It speaks to this point.[4]

“Humor will destroy the brooding castles of the murderers and chase their armies wailing into the darkness.  What you do now, today, in these next few minutes, matters more than I can tell you.  It advances the universe two inches.  If we are our best selves, there will come a world where children do not weep and war is a memory and violence is a joke no one tells, having forgotten the words.  You and I know this is possible.  It is what [Jesus] said could happen if we loved well.”

Cynicism and mockery can’t appreciate the pure, uninhibited appeal of genuine and authentic humor.  There’s an easiness of spirit, without which we can become brittle.  When we’re brittle, we don’t have flexibility.  When we’re brittle, our sense of humor becomes twisted.  We laugh at the expense of others.  We sometimes give them nicknames, and they aren’t friendly nicknames.  We can become vulgar.  We can’t laugh at ourselves.

There’s something else that goes along with love growing cold.  The discipline of celebration entails gratitude.  When love grows cold, we have the “celebration” of ingratitude.  In our country, we seem to have taken the celebration of ingratitude to new levels.  For instance, many of our so-called “reality” TV shows extol the virtues (or should we say, the vices) of it.

5 lmIngratitude and love have a hard time co-existing.

The apostle Paul has his own take on love.  “Love is patient,” he says, “love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:4-7).

A friend of mine years ago said he sometimes would put his name in the place of “love” in this passage.  It was a lesson he needed to learn again and again.  Let me try.

James is patient; James is kind; James is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  He does not insist on his own way; he is not irritable or resentful; he does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.  He bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

James’ love has not grown cold.  That can be a high bar to set!

A posture of love that is kept warm by the Holy Spirit enables the discovery and cultivation of gifts from that same Spirit.

I began with the comment that using the reading from Matthew 24 (with the “love growing cold” business) might seem to be a strange one for World Communion Sunday.  But why not?  If there’s one place where love is meant to be warmed, it is at the table of Holy Communion.  This is where “celebration” of the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and joyful, life-affirming humor is to be found.  And surely the entire world is where it needs to happen.

The apostle says, “when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end” (v. 10).  That word “complete” (τελειος, teleios) is also translated as “perfect”—not perfect as in flawless, but as in finished.  We are not yet complete: “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.  Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (v. 12).

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What awaits us is awareness of the infinite bursting heart of love gazing into our very being, burning away the coldness and resounding through all the worlds with fierce, irresistible euphoria.  Paul is fully known—nothing is hidden—and yet is loved all the more.

Those cold hearts, overcome and warmed with the spirit of celebration, is the foundation for all of the spiritual gifts.  We are empowered by the Spirit and sent forth into a world that is dying for communion.

 

[1] “The hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food in the destruction of my people.” (4:10)

[2] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 26-28.

[3] Calhoun, 26.

[4] www.loyolapress.com/products/books/spirituality-inspiration/the-thorny-grace-of-it


light

Human Rights Day is tomorrow, and after listening to the madness of Donald Trump’s comments about barring entry by Muslims into the US, I told my wife that I needed to bathe my mind in the sanity of Neil deGrasse Tyson.

image from www.wallpaperup.com

I was reminded of him while watching a replay of last Sunday’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, in which he had a cameo appearance.  So I tuned into the excellent show he did, the updated version of Cosmos, which I’ve been revisiting.

As fate (?) would have it, the episode appearing was “Hiding in the Light,” which features, among others, Ibn al-Haytham.  (His name was Latinized as Alhazen.) One thousand years ago in present-day Iraq, he developed what would be called the scientific method.  His specialty?  The study of light.

In 2005, Brian Turner, a US veteran who had served in Bosnia and Iraq, published a book of poetry called Here, Bullet.  I mentioned this eight years ago.  I made special attention to his poem, “Alhazen of Basra.”  Here it is again:

“If I could travel a thousand years back
to August 1004, to a small tent
where Alhazen has fallen asleep among books
about sunsets, shadows, and light itself,
I wouldn’t ask whether light travels in a straight line,
or what governs the laws of refraction, or how
he discovered the bridgework of analytical geometry;
I would ask about the light within us,
what shines in the mind’s great repository
of dream, and whether he’s studied the deep shadows
daylight brings, how light defines us.”

image from gracespace.org.uk

On previous Human Rights Days, I’ve focused purely on the meaning of the day.  I wanted to go a little more “right brained” this time.  So what better way to rail against the darkness of human rights violations and small-minded bigotry than to focus on the light?

[originally posted on 9 Dec 2015]


tortured truth

Five years ago, the journal Biblical Interpretation published an essay by Jennifer A. Glancy [pictured left] with the eye-catching title, “Torture: Flesh, Truth, and the Fourth Gospel.” I came across it while researching the gospel of John. In the article, she wonders, echoing Pontius Pilate, “What is truth?” Continuing, she asks, “Does truth dwell in flesh?” (107)

The introduction to John’s gospel is filled with compelling ideas. Verse 14 of that first chapter serves as a bit of a summary: “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” It is that combination of “flesh” and “truth,” as well as the passion overseen by Pilate, that prompts Glancy’s question, “Is it possible to embrace flesh as a locus of truth and still to condemn the practice of torture? Through my carnal reading of the Johannine passion narrative, I attempt to do so. I do not know if I succeed.” (109) I can’t help but appreciate her play on words—the Word becoming flesh, the incarnation, carnal.

I also appreciate Glancy’s stated humility, understanding the difficulty of her project. As to that project, she includes as a footnote to her title the statement, “July 10, 2004. I date this manuscript to situate it in a particular moment in the history of torture.” That phrase, “in the history of torture,” is especially appropriate, considering that tomorrow is Human Rights Day. Sadly, we have mirrored the imperial values of Roman law about torture, which meant “the infliction of anguish and agony on the body to elicit the truth.” (108)

We have our own law, or at least legal opinion, that guides our own attempts to wrench truth from flesh. For example, there’s the notorious August 2002 Justice Department memorandum arguing that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, has the authority to authorize torture (though in legalese, it’s not called that) in interrogations of suspected terrorists. Glancy remarks, “An Empire of torture recognizes no limits in its campaign to force truth from flesh.” (118) I wonder, is that us? Are we “an empire of torture”?

She speaks of three intentions of torture, which sometimes may overlap. There is “judicial” torture, in which the intent is to discover the truth. Secondly, there is “penal” torture, which is meant as punishment. Finally, there is “terroristic” torture, which “is part of an attempt to control the larger population to which the individual belongs.” (115) When we include the element of sexual humiliation (those crucified were naked), there are uncomfortable parallels with our own behavior in Iraq.

Does it matter that our torture is directed at the (suspected) terrorists? At the enemy? Aside from the stench of its blatant illegality and bankrupt political philosophy (despite whatever fig leaf of legality we devise), Christians should be the first to speak against torture. We worship the tortured one, one who identifies with the tortured.

Commenting on the strangeness of a resurrected body that retains wounds, Glancy uses almost mystical language. “Wounds tell the truth of flesh given for the life of the world, the indelible truth of flesh tortured, perhaps, simply, the truth of flesh…Skin demarcates the boundary of each self from the world, distinguishing what is me from what is not-me, what is you from what is not-you. Jesus’ open wounds blur what is Jesus and what is not-Jesus. Splinters stripe bloody flesh. Slivers of skin are pounded into a wooden beam. The ground is stained a ferrous red with fluid that hemorrhages from Jesus’ side. Jesus’ ‘spaces of absence’ gape open to expose his truth to the world.” (133-4, emphasis added)

Is it too much to hope that, in this new moment in the history of torture—Human Rights Day of 2010—we can repent of and investigate our own torturous practices and allow for some measure of justice?

[originally posted on 9 Dec 2010]


out of the shadows

 image from www.irct.orgOn this Sunday, the 26th, the International Day in Support of Victims of Torture will be observed.  (Or for short, the International Day against Torture.)

For the past decade, starting with 9-11, our country has had a relationship with torture that we can safely call “conflicted.”  It’s probably true that most countries have engaged in torture at some level.  But rarely are the practices that constitute torture stated as public policy.  And very rarely are they stated as public policy in a country that prides itself on being a beacon of human rights.

In his book, On the Threshold of Transformation, Franciscan priest Richard Rohr speaks of Jung’s concept of “shadow” as “where we put our qualities and traits that we deem unacceptable.” (194)  It’s our blind spot; it’s where we put stuff that we don’t want to deal with.

Cultures also have shadows.  Cultures of all kinds have them:  businesses, churches, even nations.  “Everything that seems unsuitable goes underground…Soon we forget the shadow’s existence, and we believe our public image.  When that happens, a group or nation is capable of doing great evil without recognizing it as evil.” (210)

Sometimes feelings of guilt hinder us from resolution.  We try to deny or redefine our actions.  However it happens, we can find ourselves acting with impunity.  We act as though we are a special case; we should be exempted from the penalty that, in any otherwise objective sense of the law, might justly be imposed.

In the particular case of our country, for two presidents in a row, it has been stated public policy to keep torture in the dark.  None of the architects of torture has been legally charged, and Obama’s refusal to even call for an investigation puts us in the category of being a nation of men, not laws.

Jesus has interesting words on the shadow, words that apply to all of us.  “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.  Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.” (Luke 12:2-3) 

On the matter of cultural shadow, Rohr notes that “God sends prophets to make nations aware of their shadow side, which usually results in the prophets getting persecuted or killed.” (210)

[originally posted on 24 Jun 2011]


remembering to be aware

“Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured.” (Hebrews 13:3)

The PC(USA) Office of Public Witness has teamed up with the National Religious Campaign against Torture (NRCAT) to encourage us to remember that June is Torture Awareness Month.  The annual focus in that regard is on the 26th, which is the International Day Against Torture.

One of the themes this year is on the terrible impact that prolonged solitary confinement has on prisoners in the US.  The NRCAT website reports that those in solitary “typically spend 23 hours per day in their cells and exercise alone for the remaining hour.  As a result, many experience paranoia, delusions, and other long-term mental harm.  Prolonged solitary confinement destroys prisoners’ minds, denies the opportunity for community, and violates the inherent, God-given dignity and worth of every person.”

In “confronting the culture of torture,” as the image taken from the Office of Public Witness’ blog says, we address a number of mentalities.  Among them would be one that responds to prisoners damaged by extended time in “the hole,” with the comment, “Too bad, that’s what you get!  You give up your rights when you go to prison.”

But that’s looking at it backwards.  No one deserves to be tortured.  When people are tortured, so is the God in whose image they are made.

[originally posted on 14 Jun 2012]


not American...but much more, not Christian

“What we say about the intentional cruelty of U.S. soldiers, spies, and shadowy ‘contractors’ is what we have said about the same cruelty by others:  it degrades us all, and must be renounced and repented of before the Living God, whose eye sees into every hidden cell and secret budget allocation.  Our basis for speaking:  Jesus Christ, the head of the Church, was tortured to death, first by being flogged, and then by a slow form of capital punishment.  Thus we join countless patriots in saying; ‘This is not America.’  But deeper down we know, too:  ‘This is not Christian.’” (11)

That is a quote from the Resolution on Human Rights in a Time of Terrorism and Torture, which was produced by the 217th General Assembly of PC(USA) in 2006.  Perhaps the Bush administration enshrined torture as policy, but the Obama administration has done little to actually confront the culture of torture.  In some regards, the consolidation of power and lack of transparency needed for such a culture to exist have been strengthened.

The International Day against Torture is tomorrow.  May issues of substance like that be brought to the forefront in the election campaigns. 

As the resolution states:  “‘This is not America.’  But deeper down we know, too:  ‘This is not Christian.’”

[originally posted on 25 Jun 2012]


buried alive

“Solitary confinement locks prisoners in a cell for 23 hours a day, sometimes with an hour alone in an exercise cage.  Food is pushed through a small slot in the door.  Meaningful socialization is completely denied, while phone calls and visitation are extremely limited.  Those who have survived it describe the experience as being ‘buried alive’…  Prolonged isolation destroys a person’s mind, body and spirit and thus flies in the face of basic Jewish values which embrace human dignity, rehabilitation and reintegration and reject excessive and destructive punishment.”

That’s how Rabbi Rachel Gartner describes prolonged solitary confinement, sometimes referred to as being put “in the hole.”  She looks at it through a Jewish prism.  Working with the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, comprised of numerous faith communities, Rabbi Gartner understands that torture in prisons is rampant. 

The International Day against Torture, on the 26th, will soon be here.  Please remember that being buried alive is a terrible way to treat any human being.

[originally posted on 13 Jun 2014]


Mertonian rights

On this date in 1968, the world lost one of the great spiritual figures of the 20th century, Thomas Merton.  From his monastery in Kentucky, he was a prolific writer.  He commented, of course, on so-called “spiritual” topics, but he also had great insights into art, culture, social issues, and politics.  In his final years, he made major strides into interfaith dialogue, especially with Buddhism and Zen.  In fact, he was at a conference in Thailand pursuing those aims when, going back to his room, he was electrocuted by a faulty fan.

Merton had a keen understanding of something we seem to have regressed on:  torture.  The report on CIA torture that was finally released is testimony to that.  How sadly appropriate this comes as we observe Human Rights Day.

In his book, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, he speaks of torture as a struggle of the individual against a bankrupt process.  (Forgive the gender-exclusive language!)

“He who is tortured is reduced to a condition in which nature speaks instead of freedom, instead of conscience. Pain speaks, not the person. Torture is the instrument of those who fear personality, fear responsibility, and wish to convince themselves again and again that personality does not really exist. That freedom is weaker than natural necessity. That the person can be silenced by the demands of nature.

“In the calculated use of torture there is also a special evil. The person is pitted against the process in such a way that the process infallibly wins. From the inmost sanctuary of the individual person there is extracted, by means of torture, not the voice of the person, but the voice of the process. The tortured one does not merely echo the process, but he finally utters, from his own inmost self, the ‘confession of faith’ which bears witness to the reality of the process, and to the abdication of his own spiritual freedom.” (Kindle edition, 2.57.1-2)

We often think of torture as violating one’s rights, one’s human dignity—and it certainly is that.  But even more, it is an assault on the human spirit.  We Americans can begin to address that evil, in part, by bringing the responsible parties to justice—not by simply releasing a report.

[originally posted on 10 Dec 2014]