Archive for the ‘Racism’ Tag

Deplorables   1 comment

Then [Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand:  it not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

–Matthew 15:10-11, The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

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If Jesus were speaking today, he would include websites and social media in that statement.

I used to be a news junkie.  In the middle and late 1980s, I could recognize the names of most of the United States Senators.  In 2015 and 2016, however, I began to choose being sane over being thoroughly informed.  I also decided to tend to my spiritual life more; certain public figures were bad for it, increasing exponentially my use of profanities (in private, under my breath, of course).  I did not grow up using that kind of language routinely.

I have been monitoring the news during the last few days and becoming more horrified with each passing day.  The news stories from Charlottesville, Virginia, and now from Spain have not ceased to develop, but I have collected enough information to make a few informed and moral statements.

Racism is a sin, one that I learned by societal osmosis.  Fortunately, my parents raised me well, to reject racism.

Whenever the sin of racism raises its ugly head in my thoughts (which is to say, often), I reject it and take it to God in confessional mode.  I make no excuses for racism in myself or anyone else.  Related to that ethic, I reject all biases directed at people–on the basis of religion, sexual orientation, national origin, ethnicity, gender, et cetera.  Each of us bears the image of God, and therefore carries inherent dignity.  This is a morally consistent position, regardless of the mixed political labels attached to it.

Furthermore, I condemn almost all violence, for most of it is unnecessary and morally wrong.  I do understand defense of oneself and others, however.  Human nature is flawed and the world is imperfect, after all.  Certainly I condemn the violence of the racist thugs at Charlottesville last Saturday and the terrorists in Spain yesterday.  I do so without any hesitation and backtracking.  The political causes differ, but the problem of violent radicalization is the same.  The reality of the killing and injuring of innocent people is also consistent, as is the use of vehicles as deadly weapons.

Contrary to the unscripted words of the increasingly politically isolated inhabitant of the White House, he who has professed to care about getting facts straight then who, in the wake of the attacks in Spain, has tweeted a lie about General John J. Pershing killing Muslims with bullets dipped in the blood of pigs, there was no moral equivalence between Klansmen and neo-Nazis on one side and anti-racist protesters on the other.  One of the chants of the violent racists at Charlottesville was

The Jews will not replace us.

How could there, in Trump’s words, have been

very fine people

on both sides?  This week Trump seems to have prompted many prominent Republicans in Congress to do what I had thought impossible:  grow spines.  True, based on news reports, the Vice President, based on his public comments, seems to remain an invertebrate, but the list of prominent Republican vertebrates grows longer with each passing day.

I propose a simple test for one’s denunciations of neo-Nazis and Klansmen, the sort of people who chant

The Jews will not replace us.

The condemnation must be unequivocal and focused.  Klansmen and neo-Nazis must hear it and find in it no reason to agree with any of it or take comfort in it.  None of this describes Trump’s unscripted remarks, the ones that preceded his scripted remarks, the ones he retracted.

Trump could have averted this Charlottesville-related political firestorm easily.  All he had to do was make an unequivocal statement condemning Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists as well as their violence then be consistent.  But he did not do that.  He has also blamed others for the mess he made for himself.  Trump has also been more eager to condemn journalists (calling them enemies) and CEOs with social consciences (accusing them of grandstanding) than Klansmen and neo-Nazis.

Everything is wrong with this picture.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 18, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF ERDMANN NEUMEISTER, GERMAN LUTHERAN MINISTER AND HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM PORCHER DUBOSE, EPISCOPAL THEOLOGIAN

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Adapted from this post:

https://neatnik2009.wordpress.com/2017/08/18/deplorables/

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The Failure of the Flesh   1 comment

Above:  High Priest Offering Incense on an Altar

Image in the Public Domain

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The Collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:

Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,

that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of life,

which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ,  who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979), page 236

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The Assigned Readings:

Leviticus 18:19-22; 19:19, 27-28

Psalm 118:5-9

Romans 1:8-2:11

Mark 10:32-34

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While the reading from Mark 10 marks the movement of Jesus toward his death and Psalm 118 reminds us of the wisdom of trusting in God and not in flesh, we read frequently misinterpreted passages from Leviticus and Romans.  Although the homosexual orientation has existed since antiquity, the recognition of its reality is much more recent.  The assumption in the readings, therefore, is that there is no such thing as the homosexual orientation, hence the allegedly unnatural nature of the acts.  Furthermore, Leviticus also condemns wearing clothing (except in fringes and in priestly vestments) made of two or more types of cloth and recognizes the existence of slavery.  The illicit sexual encounter in Leviticus 19:20 is allegedly wrong–and a capital offense–because someone has reserved the slave woman for another man.  As for combining linen and wool (except when one is supposed to do so), mixing them is wrong in the text, as are mixing seeds of two plants in the same field and breeding animals across species barriers.

The real theme seems to be mixing.  As Everett Fox summarizes,

Mixtures in the Bible seem to be reserved for the divine sphere alone.

The Five Books of Moses (1997), page 603

And God mandates some mixing in the Torah, as I have indicated.  Exodus 28:6 and 39:29 prescribe the mixing of different types of cloth in priestly vestments and Numbers 15:37-40 commands fringes on clothing.

Mixing has long obsessed many people.  Race mixing has long occurred in the United States, for example.  It was ubiquitous on plantations–often via the rape of slave women by masters.  The social offense was getting caught.  Consensual race mixing via marriage used to be illegal in 27 states, until 1967.

The truth, of course, is that many of us are genetic hodge-podges.  I am, for example, somewhat Cherokee, although my ancestry is mostly British and Irish, with contributions from elsewhere in Western Europe.  Purity is not a matter of ethnicity or of any other form of identity, despite the fact that many people insist that it is.  Thinking vainly that is otherwise exemplifies claiming to be wise yet really being a fool.

The real point of the reading from Romans is not to judge others for doing what one also does (2:1).  Besides, judgment resides in the divine purview alone.  In Pauline theology to break one part of the Law of Moses is to violate the entire code–a thought worthy of consideration in the context of divine patience, meant to lead people to repentance.

Guilt in the reading from Roman 1-2 is both individual and collective.  Individual sins are staples of much of the theology of Protestantism, which does not handle collective sins as well as Judaism and Roman Catholicism do.  To focus on personal peccadilloes to the marginalization or denial of collective sins is to mis the point and the means of correcting the relevant social problem or problems.  And all of us are partially responsible for faults in our societies.  Will we accept that reality and act accordingly?

The natural conclusion to this post comes from Psalm 118.  Rely on God, not on flesh.  God is faithful, but flesh fails.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 7, 2017 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF FREDERICK LUCIAN HOSMER, U.S. UNITARIAN HYMN WRITER

THE FEAST OF SAINT ANTHONY MARY GIANELLI, FOUNDER OF THE MISSIONARIES OF SAINT ALPHONSUS LUGUORI AND THE SISTERS OF MARY DELL’ORTO

THE FEAST OF CHARLES AUGUSTUS BRIGGS, U.S. PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER THEN EPISCOPAL PRIEST

THE FEAST OF SAINT ROBERT OF NEWMINSTER, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT AND PRIEST

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Adapted from this post:

https://lenteaster.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/devotion-for-the-fourth-sunday-in-lent-ackerman/

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Difficulty   1 comment

Above:  St. Titus

Image in the Public Domain

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The Collect:

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:

Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,

that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of life,

which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ,  who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

The Book of Common Prayer (1979), page 236

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The Assigned Readings:

Genesis 9:18-27

Psalm 39:4-8a

Titus 2:1-10

Matthew 12:38-42

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Some of the readings for this Sunday are difficult.  Genesis 9:18-27 gives us the misnamed Curse of Ham (“Cursed be Canaan,” verse 25 says).  This curse follows a euphemistic description of either the castration or the incestuous and homosexual rape of Noah by his son Ham.  As one acquainted with the shameful history of racism, slavery, and institutionalized racial segregation  in the United States knows well, the misuse of this passage to justify these sins is an old story.  I know that story well, due to reading in both primary and secondary sources.  Primary sources include back issues of The Presbyterian Journal (founded as The Southern Presbyterian Journal), a publication by and for ardent defenders of racism and institutionalized racial segregation in the 1940s forward, some of whom went on to found the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), schismatic to the Presbyterian Church in the United States, or, informally, the old Southern Presbyterian Church, in 1973.  (The events of 1942-1972 are not ancient history!)  I have index cards from which I can cite many examples of quoting this and other passages of scripture to criticize efforts to work for the civil rights of African Americans, so nobody should challenge me regarding the facts of this objective matter.

Titus 2:1-10 is likewise troublesome.  Insisting upon submissive wives and slaves is indefensible.  If one thinks that Jesus might return during one’s lifetime, one might not argue for social reform.  God will take care of that, right?  Maybe not!  Besides, do we not still have the moral obligation to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.  The epistle dates to the first century C.E.  I am typing this post in  2017, however.  The passage of time has proven the inaccuracy of the expectation that Jesus would return in the first century C.E.

David Ackerman summarizes these two readings as focusing

on ways in which God calls Christians to repent of misusing the Bible to the unjust exclusion and oppression of others.

Beyond the Lectionary (2013), pages 37-38

The lack of faith of certain scribes and Pharisees is evident in Matthew 12, for they request a sign from Jesus.  (Faith requires no signs.)  Our Lord and Savior replies in such a way as to indicate

rejection experienced in death yet God’s victory over it.

The New Interpreter’s Study Bible (2003), page 1768

The possibility of death is evident in Psalm 39.  A sense of awareness of one’s mortality and vulnerability pervades the text.  The author turns to God for deliverance.

Sometimes deliverance from death does not come.  Yet, in God, there is victory over death.

May, via God, there also be an end to

unjust exclusion and oppression of others.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

JUNE 6, 2018 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF FRANKLIN CLARK FRY, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA AND THE LUTHERAN CHURCH IN AMERICA

THE FEAST OF SAINT CLAUDE OF BESANCON, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST, MONK, ABBOT, AND BISHOP

THE FEAST OF HENRY JAMES BUCKOLL, AUTHOR AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM KETHE, PRESBYTERIAN HYMN WRITER

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Adapted from this post:

https://lenteaster.wordpress.com/2017/06/06/devotion-for-the-second-sunday-in-lent-ackerman/

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Legalism and Fidelity   1 comment

Abraham and Lot Separate

Above:  Abraham and Lot Separate

Image in the Public Domain

Legalism and Fidelity

FEBRUARY 18 and 19, 2016

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The Collect:

God of the covenant, in the mystery of the cross

you promise everlasting life to the world.

Gather all peoples into your arms, and shelter us with your mercy,

that we may rejoice in the life we share in your Son,

Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 27

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The Assigned Readings:

Genesis 13:1-7, 14-18 (Thursday)

Genesis 14:17-24 (Friday)

Psalm 27 (Both Days)

Philippians 3:2-12 (Thursday)

Philippians 3:17-20 (Friday)

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The LORD is my light and my salvation;

whom then shall I fear?

the LORD is the strength of my life;

of whom then shall I be afraid?

–Psalm 27:1, Book of Common Worship (1993)

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Sometimes the portrayal of Abram/Abraham in the Bible puzzles me.  In Hebrews 10:8-22 the patriarch is a pillar of fidelity to God.  Yet he hedges his bets and lies in Genesis 12, and the only people who suffer are the Pharaoh of Egypt and members of the royal household.  Abram exiles his firstborn son, Ishmael, in Genesis 21:8-21.  The patriarch intercedes on behalf of strangers in Genesis 19 yet not for his second son, Isaac, three chapters later.  Abram, who is wealthy, refuses even to appear to have enriched himself by means of the King of Sodom in Genesis 14.  In so doing the patriarch, who has just paid a tithe of war booty to Melchizedek, King of Salem (Jerusalem) and priest of El Elyon, a Canaanite sky deity, invokes YHWH, not El Elyon.  I do not know what to make of Abram/Abraham.

Circumcision is a major issue in Philippians 3.  St. Paul the Apostle refers to rival missionaries who favor the circumcision of Gentile male converts to Christianity.  He calls these Judaizers “dogs,” a strong insult many Jews reserved for Gentiles.  One can find the mandate for circumcision of males (including some Gentiles) in Genesis 17:9-14, where it is a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant.  It has been, for Jews, a physical sign of the covenant for millennia.  It has become an emotional issue for people who favor it as a religious obligation and a mark of identity as well as for those who consider it cruel.

In Philippians 3 circumcision is, for St. Paul the Apostle, a physical sign of righteousness based on law, not on active faith in God.  The line between legalism and righteousness can be difficult to locate sometimes.  One should obey certain commandments out of fidelity and love and respect for God.  One loves and honors God, so one keeps the commandments of God.

If you love me you will obey my commands…,

John 14:15 (The Revised English Bible, 1989) quotes Jesus as saying.  But when does keeping commandments turn into a fetish of legalism?  And when does the maintenance of one’s identity transform into exclusion of others?  Where is that metaphorical line many people cross?

One sure way of knowing if one has crossed that line is catching that person obsessing over minute details while overlooking pillars of morality such as compassion.  If one, for example, complains not because Jesus has healed someone but because he has done this on the Sabbath, one is a legalist.  If one becomes uptight about personal peccadilloes yet remains unconcerned about institutionalized injustice (such as that of the sexist, racial, and economic varieties), one is a legalist.  If one’s spiritual identity entails labeling most other people as unclean or damned, one is a legalist.  If one thinks that moral living is merely a matter of following a spiritual checklist, one is a legalist.  If one becomes fixated on culturally specific examples of timeless principles at the expense of those principles, one is a legalist.

May we who claim to follow and love God eschew legalism.  May we also care for our close friends and relatives at least as much as we do suffering strangers for which we harbor concern.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

NOVEMBER 14, 2015 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF JOHN AMOS COMENIUS, FATHER OF MODERN EDUCATION

THE FEAST OF THE CONSECRATION OF SAMUEL SEABURY, FIRST EPISCOPAL BISHOP

THE FEAST OF WILLIAM ROMANIS, ANGLICAN BISHOP AND HYMN WRITER

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Adapted from this post:

https://lenteaster.wordpress.com/2015/11/14/devotion-for-thursday-and-friday-before-the-second-sunday-in-lent-year-c-elca-daily-lectionary/

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A Difficult Commandment   1 comment

Flowering Herbs

Above:  Flowering Herbs, 1597

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZ62-71911

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The Collect:

Living God, in Christ you make all things new.

Transform the poverty of our nature by the riches of your grace,

and in the renewal of our lives make known your glory,

through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.  Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 24

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The Assigned Readings:

Jeremiah 22:11-17

Psalm 120

Luke 11:37-52

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Deliver me, O LORD, from lying lips

and from the deceitful tongue.

What shall be done to you, and what more besides,

O you deceitful tongue!

–Psalm 120:2-3, The Book of Common Prayer (1979)

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A callous heart is at least as bad as a deceitful tongue.

YHWH’s criticism of King Jehoahaz (a.k.a. Shallum) of Judah (reigned 609 B.C.E.) was that he cared about himself, not justice.  King Josiah (reigned 640-609 B.C.E.), of whom biblical authors approved, had died in battle against the forces of Pharoah Neco II of Egypt.  Shallum/Jehoahaz succeeded his esteemed father as King of Judah and reigned for about three months before the Pharaoh deposed him.  Shallum/Jehoahaz died in captivity in Egypt.  For full details, read 2 Kings 23:30-35 and 2 Chronicles 36:1-4, O reader.

More than once in the canonical Gospels Jesus condemns Pharisees for obsessing over minor regulations while neglecting commandments requiring social justice.  There is some repetition from one synoptic Gospel to another due to duplication of material, but the theme repeats inside each of the Gospels.  That theme is as germane today as it was when Jesus walked on the planet.  Keeping certain commandments, although difficult, is easier than obeying others.  The proverbial low-hanging fruit is easy to reach, but keeping other commandments proves to be inconvenient at best and threatening to one’s socio-economic standing at worst.  This is one reason, for example, for many socially conservative Christians having emphasized individual holiness while doing little or nothing to oppose racism, slavery, sexism, child labor, and other social ills in the history of the United States.  Yes, many Christians worked to end these problems, but many others accepted them or even used the Bible to justify them.  Yet, as the Bible testifies again and again, God desires holiness and social justice.

YHWH and Jesus call for proper priorities.  Love your neighbor as you love yourself, they command us.  That is a difficult order.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

OCTOBER 14, 2015 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF ALL CHRISTIAN MISSIONARIES

THE FEAST OF SAMUEL ISAAC JOSEPH SCHERESCHEWSKY, EPISCOPAL BISHOP OF SHANGHAI

THE FEAST OF THOMAS HANSEN KINGO, DANISH LUTHERAN BISHOP, HYMN WRITER, AND “POET OF EASTERTIDE”

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Adapted from this post:

https://adventchristmasepiphany.wordpress.com/2015/10/14/devotion-for-wednesday-after-the-sixth-sunday-after-the-epiphany-year-c-elca-daily-lectionary/

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God, Challenging   1 comment

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

©Photo. R.M.N. / R.-G. OjŽda

Above:  The Visitation

Image in the Public Domain

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The Collect:

Almighty God, you gave us your only Son

to take on our human nature and to illumine the world with your light.

By your grace adopt us as your children and enlighten us with your Spirit,

through Jesus Christ, our Redeemer and Lord, who lives and reigns

with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Evangelical Lutheran Worship (2006), page 20

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The Assigned Readings:

Micah 4:1-5 (December 22)

Micah 4:6-8 (December 23)

Luke 1:46b-55 (Both Days)

Ephesians 2:22-22 (December 22)

2 Peter 1:16-21 (December 23)

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And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord

and my spirit exults in God my savior;

because he has looked upon his lowly handmaid.

Yes, from this day forward all generations will call me blessed,

for the Almighty has done great things for me.

Holy is his name,

and his mercy reaches from age to age for those who fear him.

He has shown the power of his arm,

he has routed the proud of heart.

He has pulled down princes from their thrones and exalted the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich sent empty away.

He has come to the help of Israel his servant, mindful of his mercy

–according to the promise he made to our ancestors–

of his mercy to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.

–Luke 1:46-55, The Jerusalem Bible (1966)

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One function of rhetoric regarding the fully realized Kingdom of God is to criticize the errors of human social, economic, and political systems.  Exploitation of people, often via the artificial scarcity of wealth, has been a serious problem for a long time.  Many of the hardest working people are among the poorest, for many economic systems are rigged to benefit a relative few people, not the masses, and therefore the society as a whole.  Violence is among the leading causes of poverty and hunger, corruption frustrates poverty and creates more of it, and labeling groups of people “outsiders” wrongly for the benefit of the self-appointed “insiders” harms not just the “outsiders” but all members of society.  Whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves.  As even many antebellum defenders of race-based chattel slavery in the United States of America admitted, keeping a large population “in their place,” that is subservient to Whites, held back Whites and the entire society also.  After all, if keeping a large population “in their place” was to be a reality, who was going to keep them there without forgoing other tasks?  In human brotherhood free people could have advanced together, but slavery delayed the society in which it existed.

In Christ, we read in Ephesians 2, we are:

no longer strangers and aliens, but…citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.  In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord….

–Verses 19-21, The New Revised Standard Version (1989)

2 Peter 1 reminds us “cleverly concocted tales” to quote The Revised English Bible (1989), form the basis of the declaration of the majesty and power of Jesus.  The oral tradition, which informs many canonical writings, has a flexible spine which preserves the core of stories yet permits variation in recall of minor details.  Nevertheless, the narrative retains its integrity, even if it contradicts itself about, for example, in whose house a woman anointed Jesus.  So, without committing the error of biblical literalism, I affirm that something happened and that we can have at least an outline of what that was.

This is a devotion for December 22 and 23, two of the last three days of Advent.  This is a time when I complain about the inaccuracy of many manger scenes.  The shepherds, from the Gospel of Luke, were at Bethlehem.  The Magi, from the Gospel of Matthew, were at Nazareth a few years later.  What are they doing in the same visual representations?  Why have more Christians, churches, and artists not paid attention to these details?  Regarding those details I acknowledge that, even if all of them are not literally true, something still happened and we can have some reliable idea about what that was.  Via the Incarnation God broke into human history and started a new chapter in the grand narrative of salvation.  That is no “cleverly concocted tale.”

God, via Jesus and other means, seeks to reconcile us to God and to each other.  Part of this reconciliation is the correction of social injustices, the perpetuation of which provides certain benefits to many of us while harming us simultaneously.  In baby Jesus we have a reminder that God approaches us in a variety of ways, some of which we do not expect.  We might miss some of them because we are not looking for them.  Our functional fixedness is counterproductive.

God’s glorious refusal to fit into the proverbial boxes of our expectations challenges us to think and act anew.  May we rise to the challenge.

Merry Christmas!

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 21, 2015 COMMON ERA

 THE FEAST OF JOHN ATHELSTAN LAURIE RILEY, ANGLICAN ECUMENIST, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

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Adapted from this post:

https://adventchristmasepiphany.wordpress.com/2015/08/21/devotion-for-december-22-and-23-year-c-elca-daily-lectionary/

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Wrestling with John Brown   Leave a comment

tragicprelude

Above:  Tragic Prelude (1938-1940), by John Steuart Curry, Capitol Building, Topeka, Kansas

A Fair Use Image

John Brown as a Latter-Day Moses-Christ Figure

Notice, O reader, the Alpha and the Omega on the Bible.

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Always treat others as you would like others to treat you:  that is the law and the prophets.

–Matthew 7:12, The Revised English Bible (1989)

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[Judith] went to the bed-rail beside Holofernes’s head, reached down his sword, and drawing close to the bed she gripped him by the hair.  “Now give me strength, O Lord, God of Israel,” she said, and struck at his neck twice with all her might and cut off his head.  She rolled the body off the bed and removed the mosquito-net from its posts; quickly she came out and gave Holofernes’ head to the maid, who put it in the food-bag.

–Judith 13:6-10a, The Revised English Bible (1989)

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Besides, Brown saw slavery as a state of war against an entire race.  Sometimes a social evil is so egregious, so entrenched, that violence is the only answer.  For those of John Brown’s moral vision, American slavery–a system of repression, torture, rape, and murder–had to be eliminated by any means.  And it was.

–David S. Reynolds, John Brown, Abolitionist:  The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights (New York, NY:  Random House, 2006), page x.  Paperback, 2006.

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This, then, is the truth:  the cost of liberty is less than the cost of repression, even though that cost be blood.

–William Edward Burghardt DuBois, John Brown, 1909.  Reprint, New York, NY:  The Modern Library, 2001, page 237.

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I have tried to be a pacifist.  Alas, that suit does not suit me.  I do, however, respect pacifists, for I wish that more people were nonviolent in that way.  Although I am a nonviolent person, I acknowledge the following realities:

  1. Violence is unavoidable sometimes;
  2. Nonviolence is the worst option on other occasions; and
  3. I live in freedom under the protection of police and military forces which protect me from the violence of bad people.

Violence has become an issue I have pondered deeply and regarding which I have arrived at nuanced opinions.  Many to my left and my right disagree with me strongly, often for different reasons.  In time I might change my mind, and therefore disagree with my current position.  I am a realist with a strong moral conscience, not an ideologue.  Jesus commands me to love my neighbors as I love myself and to behave toward them as I would have them to act toward me.  All people are my neighbors.  But what if one of my neighbors is holding others of my neighbors hostage and threatening their lives?  What if that criminal neighbor is thwarting all attempts to resolve the matter nonviolently?  Perhaps the violent liberation of my hostage neighbors will prove necessary, to the detriment of my criminal neighbor.

Now I step into the nineteenth century.

Frederick Douglass

Above:  Frederick Douglass, Circa 1870

Photographer = John White Hurn

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-DIG-ds-07422

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), a great abolitionist, wrote of John Brown (1800-1859) in 1881:

He was a constant thorn in my side.  I could not help feeling that this man’s zeal in the cause of my enslaved people was holier and higher than mine.  I could speak for my race–he could fight for my race.  I could live for my race–John Brown could die for my race.  My zeal was bounded by time; his stretched into the silent depths of eternity.

Brown, who according to Douglass, put him to shame, has prompted a range of reactions and responses in many people.  On one end of the spectrum is the understanding of Brown as a hero and a martyr.  After his execution (December 2, 1859) many abolitionist ministers in the North, taking their inspiration from Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), likened the gallows where Brown died to the cross of Christ, for example.

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Above:  John Brown–The Martyr (1870)

Image Creator = Currier & Ives

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZC2-2703

There were other opinions.  Many others supported the abolition of slavery yet condemned Brown’s tactics.  Abraham Lincoln was one prominent figure who held this opinion.  Then there were those who condemned Brown, his cause, and his tactics.  Many White Southerners of the time fit into this category.

Since Brown’s lifetime the range of opinions has persisted.  The treatment of him in public school textbooks has varied over time.  In some, for example, he was sane, but in others he was out of his mind.  I posit that his mental state was what it was, so both evaluations cannot not be accurate.  The range of opinions regarding Brown has indicated more about those who have held those perspectives than about the executed abolitionist.

John Brown

Above:  John Brown

Image Source = Library of Congress

Reproduction Number = LC-USZ62-21600

On the positive side Brown was a radical for social justice.  At a time when most White Americans (even many abolitionists) were unapologetic racists Brown was not a racist.  He affirmed human equality and acted accordingly in a variety of ways.  For example, when he dined and spoke with African Americans, he treated them as his social equals–often to their shock and the surprise of onlooking White people.

His violence, however has caused generations of people to struggle with his legacy.  Yes, Brown was on the right side of history.  Yes, his activities (especially the raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859), sped up the coming of the Civil War, which hastened the end of slavery.  Yet hacking people to death in “Bleeding Kansas” was inconsistent with the Golden Rule, a standard he cited in court after the judge announced the death penalty on November 2, 1859:

I have, may it please the court, a few words to say.

In the first place, I deny everything but what I have all along admitted, — the design on my part to free slaves. I intended certainly to have made a clean thing of that matter, as I did last winter, when I went into Missouri and took slaves without the snapping of a gun on either side, moved them through the country, and finally left them in Canada. I designed to do the same thing again, on a larger scale. That was all I intended. I never did intend murder, or treason, or the destruction of property, or to excite or incite slaves to rebellion, or to make insurrection.

I have another objection; and that is, it is unjust that I should suffer such a penalty. Had I interfered in the manner which I admit, and which I admit has been fairly proved (for I admire the truthfulness and candor of the greater portion of the witnesses who have testified in this case), — had I so interfered in behalf of the rich, the powerful, the intelligent, the so-called great, or in behalf of any of their friends — either father, mother, sister, wife, or children, or any of that class — and suffered and sacrificed what I have in this interference, it would have been all right; and every man in this court would have deemed it an act worthy of reward rather than punishment.

The court acknowledges, as I suppose, the validity of the law of God. I see a book kissed here which I suppose to be the Bible, or at least the New Testament. That teaches me that all things whatsoever I would that men should do to me, I should do even so to them. It teaches me further to “remember them that are in bonds, as bound with them.” I endeavored to act up to that instruction. I say, I am too young to understand that God is any respecter of persons. I believe that to have interfered as I have done — as I have always freely admitted I have done — in behalf of His despised poor, was not wrong, but right. Now if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments. — I submit; so let it be done!

Let me say one word further.

I feel entirely satisfied with the treatment I have received on my trial. Considering all the circumstances, it has been more generous than I expected. I feel no consciousness of my guilt. I have stated from the first what was my intention, and what was not. I never had any design against the life of any person, nor any disposition to commit treason, or excite slaves to rebel, or make any general insurrection. I never encouraged any man to do so, but always discouraged any idea of any kind.

Let me say also, a word in regard to the statements made by some to those connected with me. I hear it has been said by some of them that I have induced them to join me. But the contrary is true. I do not say this to injure them, but as regretting their weakness. There is not one of them but joined me of his own accord, and the greater part of them at their own expense. A number of them I never saw, and never had a word of conversation with, till the day they came to me; and that was for the purpose I have stated.

Now I have done.

Brown was an Old Testament Christian who understood God to command him to smite evildoers, especially slaveholders and defenders of slavery.  He smote with skill and efficiency.

His violence–vigilantism at best and domestic terrorism at worst–was a serious matter for moral consideration at the time.  It is also such a matter in contemporary times.  Hopefully nobody who imagines himself or herself to be a latter-day John Brown will target me or someone I know for a reason he or she considers justifiable.  Although some violence becomes unavoidable due to human actions and violence becomes preferable for the same reasons, much violence is both avoidable and needless.  The cycle of violence is destructive to all involved in it.  May the level of violence in society decrease and the level of justice in society increase.

May we also give Brown his due, for he was unambiguously correct in at least one matter.  His last written statement, from December 2, 1859, the day of his execution, declared:

I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood.  I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.

(Corrected for spelling and punctuation)

The Civil War, which had become inevitable, was an extremely bloody affair.  Slavery was never going to end by means of slaves and antislavery activists asking nicely.  In states where the “Peculiar Institution of the South” (not entirely Southern, but overwhelmingly so) was the crucial to the economic, political, and social order, and was therefore entrenched, the way to end slavery was with violence.  Denmark Vesey (circa 1767-1822), Nat Turner (1800-1831), and John Brown understood this reality well.  So did certain federal officials, including Thomas Jefferson (a slaveholder) and Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).  So did leading Confederates, such as Vice President Alexander Hamilton Stephens (1812-1883), who declared to a cheering audience in Savannah, Georgia, on March 21, 1861, that race-based slavery was the cornerstone of the Confederacy:

But not to be tedious in enumerating the numerous changes for the better, allow me to allude to one other though last, not least. The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution. Jefferson in his forecast, had anticipated this, as the “rock upon which the old Union would split.” He was right. What was conjecture with him, is now a realized fact. But whether he fully comprehended the great truth upon which that rock stood and stands, may be doubted. The prevailing ideas entertained by him and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically. It was an evil they knew not well how to deal with, but the general opinion of the men of that day was that, somehow or other in the order of Providence, the institution would be evanescent and pass away. This idea, though not incorporated in the constitution, was the prevailing idea at that time. The constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the “storm came and the wind blew.”

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. This truth has been slow in the process of its development, like all other truths in the various departments of science. It has been so even amongst us. Many who hear me, perhaps, can recollect well, that this truth was not generally admitted, even within their day. The errors of the past generation still clung to many as late as twenty years ago. Those at the North, who still cling to these errors, with a zeal above knowledge, we justly denominate fanatics. All fanaticism springs from an aberration of the mind from a defect in reasoning. It is a species of insanity. One of the most striking characteristics of insanity, in many instances, is forming correct conclusions from fancied or erroneous premises; so with the anti-slavery fanatics. Their conclusions are right if their premises were. They assume that the negro is equal, and hence conclude that he is entitled to equal privileges and rights with the white man. If their premises were correct, their conclusions would be logical and just but their premise being wrong, their whole argument fails. I recollect once of having heard a gentleman from one of the northern States, of great power and ability, announce in the House of Representatives, with imposing effect, that we of the South would be compelled, ultimately, to yield upon this subject of slavery, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics, as it was in physics or mechanics. That the principle would ultimately prevail. That we, in maintaining slavery as it exists with us, were warring against a principle, a principle founded in nature, the principle of the equality of men. The reply I made to him was, that upon his own grounds, we should, ultimately, succeed, and that he and his associates, in this crusade against our institutions, would ultimately fail. The truth announced, that it was as impossible to war successfully against a principle in politics as it was in physics and mechanics, I admitted; but told him that it was he, and those acting with him, who were warring against a principle. They were attempting to make things equal which the Creator had made unequal.

In the conflict thus far, success has been on our side, complete throughout the length and breadth of the Confederate States. It is upon this, as I have stated, our social fabric is firmly planted; and I cannot permit myself to doubt the ultimate success of a full recognition of this principle throughout the civilized and enlightened world.

Brown simultaneously frightens me and earns my admiration and scorn.  It is a complicated response to a complicated man who was right and wrong at the same time.  In John Brown (1909), half a century after Brown died and during the latter stage of the construction of Jim Crow in the South, William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963) argued that

John Brown was right.

My evaluation is nuanced.  Brown was unambiguously correct about much, but his tactics and case should not become an excuse for any violent extremist.  The study of the past tells me that, among other things, violence can become a legitimate and necessary tactic of non-state players when the state is oppressive, stifling even nonviolent dissent.  Thus the oppressive state encourages the radicalization of its opponents.  These circumstances do not exist in many contexts in which non-state players commit violence in the name of social change.

Brown challenges me.  He defies easy categorization as either a hero or a villain.  He functions as a Rorschach test, forcing people to look into themselves.  So be it.

KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR

AUGUST 4, 2015 COMMON ERA

THE FEAST OF ALFRED TENNYSON, ENGLISH POET

THE FEAST OF FREDERICK WILLIAM FOSTER, ENGLISH MORAVIAN BISHOP, LITURGIST, HYMN WRITER, AND HYMN TRANSLATOR

THE FEAST OF J. ROBERT HARRIS, SOUTHERN BAPTIST MINISTER AND WITNESS FOR CIVIL RIGHTS

THE FEAST OF JOHN BROWNLIE, SCOTTISH PRESBYTERIAN MINISTER, HYMN WRITER, AND TRANSLATOR OF HYMNS

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