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Mike hopes to see the world turned upside down through local communities banding together for social change, especially churches which have recognized the radical calling to be good news to the poor, to set free the prisoners and oppressed, and to become the social embodiment of the reign of God on earth as it is in heaven. He lives with the blessed memory of his wife, in Durham, NC, and has three adult children living in three different states. He also shares his life with the Mt. Level Missionary Baptist Church in Durham, the faculty and students of Shaw University Divinity School in Raleigh, NC, and the faithful fans of Duke and Baylor Basketball in his neighborhood.

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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rachel Weeping

Another day, another massacre.  This is where we have arrived.  Psychologists have studied the pattern by which people become desensitized to violence.  Although there are plenty of arguments about what such desensitization might mean for future human actions, there seems to be an agreement that exposure to acts of violence over time has the effect of reducing emotional responses, sensitivity, to subsequent exposure to violent acts.

Once, television viewers had little experience of the grotesque images of death in war.  Then reporters from Vietnam began to dispatch film of the horrors of that war.  Eventually, the dinnertime news viewing included a daily dose of explosions and war.  Now, the instantaneous images of weapons, explosions, dismemberment, and death, are round-the-clock backdrops for ads to shop at Target or take Cialis, but avoid four-hour erections.

The regularity of mass shootings in the US is making them blend into the background.  I sadly admit that I read the headline about Newtown, CT, on my screen, clicked to get a few details, and went back to whatever I was doing.  It was barely a blip on my daily rounds.  The facts of a young man killing his own mother and also killing kindergartners, continued to work on me, so I can say with some relief that I am not utterly desensitized.

What became obvious to me, as I seek to be formed by the Christian calendar and live these days in the Season of Advent, was that church people would need to turn to Matthew's text on the slaughter of the innocents.
A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (NRSV).
I was not alone in this judgment, and various fellow-travelers began to write about these words.  I was even blessed to hear a sermon on this text on Sunday morning.  I posted on facebook that I was glad not to have to preach today because of the danger of sounding smug:  Christians sometimes sound like they can pretend bad stuff is not so bad since they know how everything is going to turn out in the end.  But that is a little bit of a cop-out.  Lots of other preachers had to step into the pulpit whether they felt ready, capable, or not.

I think what speaks most loudly to the church in this moment is that the so-called best country in the world is no less marked by the radicality of evil than was the land of God's chosen people twenty centuries ago.  In Bethlehem's case, it was a powerful ruler exercising ruthless power to try to cut off any challenges to his dynasty, even if it meant killing babies.  In Newtown, we only can begin to imagine the tortured mind of a killer who plans and executes the murder of little children.

In both cases, we find ourselves living in a world armed and capable of massive, unexpected, unspeakable violence.  Someone within reach of all of us could carry it out, whether it be under orders in an electronically furnished bunker controlling unmanned Predator drones, or it be an unknown, largely unnoticed average guy picking up a gun here, some bullets there, planning, plotting, stirring up the impulse borne of rage, recklessness, anomie, or whatever drives such methodical, industrial, technical, prolific, cold, steely murder.

In everyday places--theaters, malls, classrooms, sidewalks, office towers--unspeakable violence can and does erupt.  In Nigeria and Pakistan it can happen in church, or on a train.  In Iraq it may be in a mosque or in a crowd on pilgrimage.  In Gaza and Israel it's on a bus or in the workplace.  In Wazyristan it's at a wedding.  In Afghanistan its among a group of girls learning to read.  In Congo it's in a village that got in the way of a war.  In all these places, even in our own hometowns, evil organizes, buys and sells its wares, seduces and steals hearts, corrupts intellect, breeds violence.

Rachel weeps and continues weeping for her children.  On that day long ago, Mary escaped with the little one, Jesus, and fled to another country where he continued his childhood as an undocumented immigrant, a refugee, a boy on the run.  So many other mothers were not so fortunate.  They were not consoled, because their babies were no more.  They would not see them play again.  They would not get to feed them again.  They would not see them grow, make them new clothes when they outgrew the old ones.  They had left only a long emptiness.

The kind of love that endures, relives, cherishes the moments, longs for one more shared embrace, is itself a sign of the depth of love we might find in God.  The mothers who weep in Gaza and Israel, in Columbine and Newtown, are themselves the image of a God who weeps.

It's not a day to say something sweet and neat about God's ultimate victory.  The boy in Bethlehem whose parents helped him flee infanticide, as a grown man eventually had to run away to Galilee after the next king in the dynasty beheaded his cousin and was looking for him.  The mother who was blessed to see her son live to adulthood had to witness his murder at the hands of another ruler from another land.  Rachel is weeping and is not consoled.  It is not the will of God that any should perish.  Today we try not to sink into the abyss by gingerly letting our feet and our tears fall on the breadth of God's sorrow at the way humanity dispatches our brothers and sisters without regret.  Today we hope against hope that such a God may one day deliver us.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Hosea's Story Hammers Home the Main Idea

The prophet Hosea's story is filled with tragedy, betrayal, steadfast love, and hope.  It is a story readers find themselves caught up in.  Foreshadowing Jesus' parable of the lost sheep, Hosea goes to unexpected lengths to find and recover his wife.  He demonstrates a love deep and wide enough to keep seeking and drawing her back even with repeated unfaithfulness.  It is a story we could retell about a husband or a wife in our day, but the social stigma assigned to sex workers in Gomer's time and in our time entrenches this particular set of circumstances with moral and emotional power.  Readers seeking to know God find ourselves opened to a kind of wonderment about whether our God's love might pursue us as far into degradation as we might go.  Whether we paint it as personal immorality or becoming caught in the deadly structures of evil in the world, Gomer's path into the abyss strikes the reader as an extreme devolution of a life.

It is also a story that gets too uncomfortable for the straightlaced and proper church people.  What kind of fool takes a prostitute for his wife?  Who would expect a prostitute to become a life partner and a mother?  We don't know what demons pursue Gomer into self-destructive behavior.  We don't know if there is a hidden history of abuse in her family of origin.  We don't know if her "friends" conspired to get her alone and vulnerable, then rape her, destroying her trust in human relationships.  We don't know if her desire for excitement and risk kept her from settling into habits of a good life and created a downward spiral and cycle she could not seem to escape.  And "respectable" people may not want to know those things.  They are satisfied to know what she is:  a "whore," which they believe is what she will always be.  They don't really like to think about this story because it implies that people who made such terrible choices, choices they never made, might be as valuable to God as respectable people are.  It implies God might be a fool like Hosea.  It implies that some fool God or preacher might expect them to be in the same church with someone like Gomer.

This powerful story, punctuated by the allegorical naming of the children, dominates the opening chapters of Hosea's prophecy.  This narration of a family's struggles, this brief narrative, stands in as an embodied sign of the grand narrative of God's calling to Israel, and through Israel to all creation.  It speaks of a certain circumstance within that grand narrative.  It tells of a certain plot turning within the life of God.  That particular moment in the grand narrative addresses a particular situation in the history of Israel.

Thus intermixed with the narrative of Hosea, Gomer, and their children are clues to the particular crisis of God's people.  The first such clue appears in the opening statement.  It addresses when Hosea prophesied.  It was during the reign of Jereboam II.  The verses which follow, naming the firstborn son Jezreel, expand on this problem.  Jereboam II, of the dynasty of Jehu, is from a bloody, violent dynasty, and what went around with Jehu will now come around with Jehu's descendents.   Just as Jehu gained power through double regicide in Jezreel, Jezreel will be the sign of his dynasty's downfall.

Jehu committed regicide against the son of Ahab and Jezebel, then led a revolt that included assassination of all the living relatives of Ahab's Omride clan.  Jezebel was killed by her courtiers.  Jehu showed signs of trying to bring Israel back to God's purposes, but neither he nor his descendents eliminated the syncretistic worship of the Northern Kingdom.  Moreover, having also killed the king of Judah and severed the cooperative relationship with the Southern Kingdom, Jehu forged an alliance with Assyria, offering tribute, as a way to play the balance of power game against Syria and Judah.  The reigning dynasty was built on violence, ambition for royal power, and strategic military alliances.  It was far from the kind of social existence God intended for humanity.  Israel was no emblem of Yahweh.

In the continuation of Jehu's dynasty, Jereboam II's reign was long and prosperous, under the protection of Assyria.  His father, Jehoash, invaded Jerusalem and stole the Temple vessels and palace treasures, carrying them to Samaria, not exactly a sign of respect for the heritage of God's people.  Jereboam II's Assyrian protection from his neighbors to the north (Syria) and south (Judah) allowed the economy to prosper through trade.  This obsession with luxurious goods of trade shows up in 2:5, where the association with the Assyrian empire becomes tied to ready supplies of wool and flax, oil and wine.  Since Israel also exported olive oil and wine, the demand for imported oils and wines must have been focused among the wealthy looking for exotic and premium goods.  Further down in the same chapter, God reminds Israel that it is divine provision that gives them grain, oil, and wine.  The coming judgment will take away the imported flax and wool, signs of how they have become so enamored with the ways, the power, and the gods of the Assyrians.  Bedecked with gold and silver, they pursued the Assyrian imperial blessing, and turned away from God and their own people.

In this context of self-satisfied prosperity, of believing it is Assyria who blesses them, Hosea names his other two children.  A daughter receives the name "No Pity," and a son receives the name "Not My People."  These words deny any love remains.  These names break the covenant.  As Hosea's story continues, Gomer who has gone away becomes a sign of the eventual dispersement of the people into the nations, the extended and diasporic exile of the Northern Kingdom.  From this disappearance, this utter dissolution, God will come after Israel, as Hosea went to find Gomer who was lost to him and their children.  And Hosea promises that the children's names will change:  the daughter will be called "Pitied" and the son, "My People," even "Children of the Living God."

This prophetic family's story breaks open a view of what is happening in Israel in a certain moment in time.  This dynasty, reaching its greatest wealth under Jereboam II, is also reaching its greatest unfaithfulness to God.  They may be blind to how they have sought after other gods, but Hosea is driving home the main idea through this story.  A few of the specifics get hinted at in the opening chapters.  As the prophetic oracle continues, Hosea will make it plain where and why Israel has gone wrong and become unfaithful.

Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Hosea's Troubling Oracle

Last Sunday my mom said she had heard a good introductory Sunday school lesson at the beginning of a unit on the Prophet Hosea.  Then she asked, "What do you have to say about Hosea?"  This is, of course, an occupational hazard for theology professors.  Most people avoid conversation with me once they find out I teach theology and ethics to ministers, based perhaps on their presuppositions of what I must think about God and the world.  But others want me to weigh in on whatever recent idea or question they have had about any type of religious or moral question.

Sometimes this can be uncomfortable or tedious, but with Mom it's just a good chance to spin out things I have been thinking through.  In this case, I could only answer, "It's been a long time since I read Hosea."  But of course, a Mom's question deserves a better answer than that.  So a few hours later I opened up my Olive Tree Bible Reader and started working on Hosea.

Not so long ago, I started reading the Prophet Isaiah with the point of view that I would "see what I can see."  What quickly struck me was the way that my deeper journey into discipleship had given me a different sort of eyes than I once had as a Bible reader.  In this blog, I wrote a series of pieces about the singleminded emphasis of Isaiah on the economic injustices of Judah, perpetrated by the rulers and the wealthy elites.

Since that time I have come to realize that teaching certain strategies for reading can help people move from the individualistic and inward focus so often taught in US churches.  So I knew from the beginning that I would be looking for signs of social injustices, economic corruption, and ruling class oppression.  Unlike Isaiah, however, Hosea did not quickly turn to these specific characteristics of what had gone wrong in Israel.

The well-known story of Hosea has many parallels in Isaiah's prophecy, including the use of symbolic names for the prophet's children.  But Hosea brings the analogy of marital unfaithfulness to the front and center.  Israel is portrayed as the unfaithful wife, the wife who becomes a prostitute.  The analogy then compares judgment to a husband's disappointment, anger, lashing out, and abandonment of his wife.

Here in Hosea, the first of the Book of Twelve and one of the earliest literary or classical prophets, introduces a form of argument that becomes increasingly troubling as later prophets innovate and expand the analogy.  These are the "texts of terror," in which harsh and brutal treatment of women becomes a primary way of describing God's judgment.  There is no easy way around this problem.  It offers apparent divine tolerance for acts of battery, exposure, and rape.  It reiterates a violent patriarchal order as an accurate portrayal of the pattern of divine justice.

I will not try to apologize for the text.  There are many things that can be said about the historical context of writer and reader, and they may offer some explanation without providing an excuse.  Violence against women was and is wrong.  The overwhelming arc of scripture, reaching its apex in Jesus, cannot and does not condone it.  Yet when we read these prophets, the seemingly justified violence toward a weaker woman by a powerful man continues to operate as the quintessential and appropriate description of punishment for unfaithfulness.

Having said this, you will perhaps rejoice with me that finally in 4:14 Hosea at least lets the tables be turned briefly.  He says that punishing the women who have become prostitutes is not right, since it is the men who have sought prostitutes that are the cause of the unfaithfulness.  They have put in place the system which creates and encourages adultery, prostitution, and unfaithfulness.  It is they who are to blame and deserve to be punished.  It is not a complete turnaround, nor is it a "balance" for the other texts.  But at least it functions as a kind of subversive voice amid the terror.

Here also, is an important textual clue toward the larger issue of what has gone wrong in Israel.  There have been many clues up to this point, but it is really here and in chapter 5 that the reader can begin to put the puzzle together.  Hosea has focused on Israel's sin in general terms as "unfaithfulness" and "playing the whore."  Some clues in the early chapters help show that this entails idolatry and imperial alliances.  But finally Hosea is getting down to specifics of how the prophets, priests, rulers, and powerful have created a system that defies the God who took a wandering band of nomads and made them a nation.  These things don't happen out of thin air.  Powerful people make them happen.  That is where the fault lies as Hosea continues making his case. 

I'll return to the opening chapters to highlight the emerging argument in future posts.

Sunday, December 02, 2012

Advent Aspect

When I was growing up, I did not know about Advent.  It had been swept away centuries before in the iconoclastic fury of the late reformation, bundled together with an inchoate bundle of artifacts and traditions under the category "Popery."  Any so-called Protestant still willing to hold on to such things fell into the class of "false churches," most notably because they continued the practice of infant baptism.

As a seminarian in my younger twenties, Advent came as a breath of fresh air.  It was a way of getting ready for Christmas that departed from the cultural liturgy of Santa praise, affluenzic consumption, and trumped up cheeriness.  It gave us more ways to be drawn back to the scriptures and the stories.  We learned that it was a time of waiting, a pre-celebratory season, a time to remember the difference between certitude and hope.  There were centuries in which tropes of Messianic promise took form in polyphonic harmony and dissonance (thanks Barry Harvey for this language).  The bluesmen and blueswomen that were prophets played and replayed these riffs as improvisational jazz (Jon Michael Spencer, Cornel West, and many others here).  It was music and language for meditation and imagination of God's presence and plan.

During the thirty or so years since that time, many Advents have come and gone.  In the intensity of graduate school, new jobs, and grading papers, the shine wore off for me and I just wanted to get the season over with.  Moments of interruption, when the Spirit would break into the monotony and stress would sometimes remind me what a gift the season of Advent could be.  Of course, other parents will remember with me, that in those years when Everly was pregnant with our three children, Advent took on a certain aspect, a recognition of the struggle of Mary who had fled her hometown embarrassed yet hoping for the word of Gabriel to be fulfilled.  And in the subsequent years when our three little infant children had their first Christmas, the wonderment of an infant child full of promise and blessing brought another aspect to Advent.

In this fifty-fourth Advent of my time in this world, there is a new aspect.  We have been doing lots of waiting this year.  We wait for the report on medical imaging scans.  We wait for the drugs to trickle into Everly's bloodstream.  We wait for the symptoms to start after each treatment.  We wait for the symptoms to subside again.  We wait to hear what the next step will be.  And we wait for a possible respite from this harsh mercy known as chemotherapy.  Shadows lurk in our going out and coming in.

Everly's work as an educator, a leader, and a world-changer has been intense, with long hours.  Now she waits to feel good enough to put in a couple of hours of activity during the day.  She waits for doctors and pharmacies to return her calls.  She waits for me to have the focus and drive to be her partner in all she is facing.  Whatever the future holds, she waits with confidence that she can share it with her loved ones.  Her siblings, her parents, our children, my parents, my sister and brother-in-law--we all stay close, treasuring the gift she is for each one of us.

Some of the triumphal theology of Americanism has eroded:  good riddance.  The idea that everything will always be the same as it has been sank into the sea.  It makes a little more existential sense why someone would ask, "How can we sing the songs of Zion now that all this has happened?"

So it is a good time to start anew in the Broadway household.  It is a good time to remember the stories of others who longed for redemption's song.  And it is a good time to remember that after waiting, the Word became flesh and moved in next door.
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