Moving in the Direction of Justice

faithmovesjustice

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 42; 146, Joshua 2:15-24, Romans 11:13-24, Matthew 25:14-30


Have you ever heard anyone label a certain type of thinking or theology as “Old Testament” or “New Testament?” Sometimes we like to believe there’s an easy distinction, a clean break between the people of the law and the people of grace. However, many Old Testament prophets – Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, etc. – foreshadowed Jesus’s teachings by commenting on the need for justice and mercy over sacrifice. Conversely, we can be tempted to soften Jesus’ language to make him seem less OT and more WWJD.

Many, if not most, translations of the Parable of the Talents refer to the characters in the story as “servants,” but a more accurate translation is “slaves.” This is true for many Biblical passages in which the word “servant” appears. Some critics of Christianity use these passages as evidence Jesus condoned or even promoted slavery, especially since some Christians have made the same mistake.

Though we accept his teachings as universal, we understand Jesus was speaking to a specific culture at a specific time. So what can we make of problematic passages like Jesus’s casual references to slavery? First, many of the people in his audience were slaves. Using them as examples of righteousness elevated them spiritually beyond their societal stations, and was a revolutionary statement of their worth as children of God.

Second, Jesus is an example of a faithful life in the world as it is. When we acknowledge what we can do for the poor and oppressed today, we are not condoning or promoting poverty and oppression, nor are we foolish enough to pretend these conditions will cease to exist. Though Christ did not actively speak against slavery, the abolitionist movement sprouted from Christian churches. Third, as Paul says in several of his letters, in Christ there is no distinction between Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female, etc. We are all slaves to each other and to Christ. Softening the language diminishes its radical message.

Slavery is certainly not the only difficult topic in the Bible. If we are willing to understand scripture in the larger context of the world and tackle its more challenging texts head on, our faith only deepens.

Comfort: God is present even in the most unpleasant places and times.

Challenge: Find out if there are an resources in your community to combat human trafficking. You may want to start at traffickingresourcecenter.org.

Prayer: God of the Known and Unknown, let me know you as you are and not just as I’d like you to be. Amen.

Discussion: What Biblical passages make you uncomfortable?

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Gold or Sanctuary?

20160629_082105.jpg

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 12; 146, Numbers 35:1-3, 9-15, 30-34, Romans 8:31-39, Matthew 23:13-26


Jesus spoke harsh words against the hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. He called them “blind guides” – people pretending to lead but actually walking the faithful and converts alike off a spiritual cliff. He had no patience for a temple where gold and gifts were revered more than the sanctuary and altar that made them holy, where tithes of spices were more important than justice, mercy and faith. He compared them to cups polished on the outside, but filthy inside.

Today Jesus might not find coffers of gold and cumin in our sanctuaries, but he could find plenty to criticize. While there’s nothing wrong with a beautiful sanctuary – God himself directed the creation of a beautiful temple in Jerusalem – there is a problem when the image outshines the substance. A church is holy because of its character, not because of its “success.” The scandal of some churches – regardless of denomination (or lack thereof) – is not that their leadership sins, but that they collude to cover it up.

Looking the other way when our house of worship bullies, excludes, discriminates, exploits, ignores, or otherwise abuses people is never acceptable. Teaching a prosperity gospel that impoverishes the congregation while filling the pockets and three-car garage of the pastor is a betrayal of the gospel. Yet people turn a blind eye to wrongdoing in a misguided attempt to preserve the dignity of the church. Making an idol of the reputation of a corrupt institution to attract and retain members is like handing out candy you know is poisoned.

Better to worship in an outhouse crowded with the shopworn meek than a cathedral packed with gleaming hypocrites.

Christians are often taught to be nice to each other, but nice is not the same as just. Nice transfers abusive clergy without causing a commotion; just disciplines them. Nice prevents us from calling someone out for discriminating; just knows embarrassment is not worse than discrimination. Nice makes sure the cup is polished, just makes sure the contents are safe. We don’t need the world to think we are nice; we need to show the world that even when we are flawed, we strive for the just.

Comfort: You are allowed to speak up.

Challenge: Sometimes speaking up is hard; do it anyway.

Prayer: God of Justice, help us build a health church body. Amen.

Discussion: When have you spoken up, even though it might have been unpopular?

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Questions Beyond Borders

Chain Link Border Fence

A couple weeks ago I wrote a post that started about the Handmaid’s Tale and ended up a reaction to the Attorney General using Romans 13 to justify the zero-tolerance policy implemented on our southern border, and by extension its effective separation of children from their parents. I don’t get a lot of comments on my blog (read into that what you will), but I did get a private Facebook message from someone.

This person – a childhood neighbor, fellow Christian, lover of beauty and creativity, and in my humble estimation an all-around good and generous egg – asked my thoughts on a couple questions.

  • What do think would happen if hundreds of thousands of Americans decided to enter some other country without “papers” (for lack of a better word)?
  • What if a child born in the United States (parents from another country) decided to leave the USA and take up residence in the Country of his or her parents?

These questions are sincere and important and immediately sent my mind spinning in a dozen directions. I want to answer (and expound on) them sincerely and respectfully. I am grateful to her for thoughtful engagement.

WITHOUT PAPERS

The author of The Handmaid’s Tale – the source material for the television series which was the genesis of my original sidetracked post – actually does tackle the idea of a sudden onslaught of refugees from the (former) United States into Canada. The Canadians accept anyone who can make it across the border. The hope of these refugees is to eventually to reclaim and resettle to their homes, but there is no indication that will be soon. However the question was what do I think would happen. Try as I might I can’t come to a more solid answer than … it depends.

But on what?

First, it depends on the destination country.

Different nations have different philosophies and policies around immigration, refugees, and asylum. The legal distinction among those classes is important. Germany, for instance, doesn’t admit just anyone outside the European Union as a migrant for economic or personal reasons, but it has been famously accepting millions of refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East. Italy, on the other hand, has been less willing to accept such refugees. Both countries are party to the 1951 Refugee Convention – as is the United States, but only per amendments as of the 1967 Protocol which actually expands the definition of refugee – but all interpret their corresponding responsibilities differently.

Second, it would depend on the reason.

The United States is a wealthy nation offering more economic and personal security than most countries typically known for displaced refugees. Were that to change (a la The Handmaid’s Tale) due to natural disaster, civil war, economic collapse, or other circumstances, and if such changes created groups of people who were endangered with no recourse through the national government, U.S. refugees would probably be received as sympathetically as other refugees. But – and this is a big but – the last couple centuries of history of the U.S. as an extension of Western European development is that of the colonizer far more than of the oppressed. Native Americans brought to the brink of extinction, enslaved African Americans, and Japanese Americans interned during World War II would have certainly qualified as refugees from the United States under the definition of the Refugee Convention, but when we picture the possibility of “Americans” approaching foreign borders is that really who we’re thinking of? Under present circumstances, an approaching horde of Americans of Western European descent seems more likely to be seizing than fleeing. God forbid our fortune changes, but unless it does, people leaving the United States in droves is a far different scenario than people fleeing countries which have descended into violent narco-states ruled by murderous gangs.

Third, and this may seem like part of the first but I think it’s important enough to warrant its own consideration – what has been the extralegal, “wink-wink-nudge-nudge” history between the United States and the country in question?

Has it recently changed? For decades the U.S. has largely looked the other way when migrants from Mexico and other nations provided cheap labor to shore up industries like construction, hospitality and agriculture because no one wants to pay fifteen dollars per pound for apples picked at the legal minimum wage. As immigration authorities clamp down on such labor, many farmers are struggling to deal with labor shortages. This relationship has been symbiotic for many years. It hasn’t changed because of economics or danger, but because of politics. It seems to me the concern about “the illegals” has grown proportionately not with the number of Mexicans immigrating to the U.S. (the net is actually negative), but with the so-called “browning of America” – the increasingly large portion of legal, permanent (and native) Latinx residents as compared to whites.

It’d be disingenuous not to note the number of non-Mexican Latinx immigrants is increasing, but a large portion of those are seeking refugee or asylee status. If United States residents started migrating in large numbers to a country where we had been welcomed under the table for years and that country experienced an economic downturn, I expect we’d be far less welcome than we were when the country needed us to continue its flow of cheap products. Even if we weren’t taking the jobs people wanted, we’d be scapegoats. Xenophobia is ever only waiting for the right conditions to reveal itself. Populist movements in the U.S. and Europe are largely about the fear of foreigners changing the cultural and literal complexion of a nation.

BACK WHERE YOU CAME FROM

I don’t necessarily have to speculate about answers to the second question. There are at least a dozen countries that will grant you citizenship if you can prove your parents (and in some cases grandparents) were born as citizens of that country. Other nations would treat you as they treated anyone else who wanted to migrate.

To me, the more interesting part of the question is how we think of borders.

Particularly the borders of the United States. When Europeans began settling North America, the continent was already populated with people and their established territories. Borders didn’t seem to matter much to us as we acquired land through war and genocide. When we annexed Texas and invaded Mexico to expand into territory they would not willingly cede to us, we weren’t too worried about the sovereignty of borders. Until 1882 – nearly a century after the establishment of the US Constitution – there were no immigration laws. There were requirements for citizenship and naturalization, but when we were expanding westward and needed labor, whether people crossed our borders didn’t seem to matter much to us. The first U.S. immigration law – the Chinese Exclusion Act – was not because we wanted the limit the total number of immigrants, but because of the fear of the “Yellow Peril” – that is, Chinese people overwhelming our European heritage – as if somehow Europeans were more deserving of the land we’d stolen than were the Chinese. Other groups were excluded for various reasons, including health, literacy, and anarchist political activity. But we weren’t so worried about borders: we were worried about non-white people.

It wasn’t until 1921 – 134 years after the establishment of the nation – that we began instituting immigration quotas which roughly resembled the ethnic composition of the country at the time. (As an aside, that means anyone claiming their family immigrated “legally” before that time is making a moot point; everyone but Asians were allowed in through established ports of entry).

So what changed during those years?

There are many reasons for secure borders, but those didn’t change. What did change was that we outgrew the sense that we were in a state of constant expansion and unlimited resources. Stretched from coast to coast, bound on the North and South, we realized our limits of geography and resources and decided we didn’t want to share them with just anybody who showed up on the continent.

We basically shut down immigration during the Great Depression, and actually coerced hundreds of thousands of Mexican citizens to repatriate to Mexico. Not the Irish or Germans or English mind you – only the people who were native and who’s ancestors were here before the Europeans and just happened to involuntarily end up on our side of the border after the Mexican-American war.

People wanting to come to America were no longer seen as fellow pioneers in the Great American Experiment, but as threats. The quality of people outside our borders had not changed, but our jealousy of our resources had. Outside a slight concession to refugee resettlement in the 1980s, the focus of our immigration policy has been on maintaining employment and ethnic mix.

Now that we’ve got ours, borders matter to us.

Of course the economy is of national concern, but we need immigrants to maintain the economy. That makes the deciding factor ethnicity. There are plenty of successful people from countries which are mostly non-white, but in my experience proponents of “merit-based” systems rarely use them as examples, and are instead quick to point to mostly wealthy white countries which people have little desire to leave anyway. Our quotas and other immigration policies make implicit judgments about worthiness based on where people are from. Our talk of “merit-based” immigration is also disingenuous to the American ideal: no longer are we here for the huddled masses yearning to breathe free… but come on in if you’ve already made it big!

To me that doesn’t seem very “all men are created equal.”
It doesn’t seem very Christian.
It doesn’t seem very American Dream.

How many of us are here because our ancestors fled something?
How many wouldn’t make the cut today under the same circumstances?
How many railed against the discrimination and persecution they experienced here?
How are we more deserving of this stolen land than people facing the same situations?

THE QUESTION BEHIND THE QUESTIONS

Thinking about immigration as a matter of justice requires thinking about a much larger story than what is legal or illegal, convenient or inconvenient, or profitable or not profitable at this moment in history. Before I get to what I think is the big question behind the original two questions, I want to make a few things clear:

  • I don’t believe in lawless, open borders; I don’t personally know anyone who does.
  • I do believe we need to recognize the basic human dignity of everyone – not just citizens.
  • I don’t have a problem with prosecuting and deporting criminals.
  • I do have a problem with indefinitely separating and/or detaining children and families.

That last point shifted the focus of my prior blog post, which in turn raised the questions addressed in this one. My post was about exploiting scripture to defend the indefensible, and how that is neither conservative nor liberal but dangerously fundamentalist. I specifically didn’t advocate any policy, yet it raised policy-related questions for at least one reader. And the connecting thread between these questions was a deeper question…

What would other countries do?

My short answer to this question behind the questions is: I don’t think it matters.

I want us as a nation to do what is right and merciful, regardless of whether other nations would reciprocate. I’m not going to pretend I personally have the prescription for what is right, but it’s certainly something better than what we have now. As a Christian – as a human being – I can’t look at something as artificial and shifting and arbitrary and historically cruel as a border to restrict my compassion. I’m not advocating for some liberal theocracy (that would be hypocritical), but I think if Christianity does influence American politics it should be through values like mercy and sacrifice.

Make no mistake, I love my country. Heck, it allows me the freedom to write critiques of it, which in this world is no small thing!  But loving something doesn’t mean excusing everything it’s done or is doing. That’s flag-waving tribalism, which leads to stagnation, collapse, and – at its worst – genocide. We need to be vigilant about avoiding tribalism, about valuing or devaluing others based on their ethnicity, and about dehumanizing notions à la Manifest Destiny.

We may not have any more opportunities for geographic expansion, but we can still be pioneers of justice and dignity, even when it requires sacrifice. At its heart, that will be what keeps us a nation worth seeking.


Note: Regarding the history of U.S. immigration law, I drew heavily from this Wikipedia article. Yeah it’s Wiki, but they’re all sourced.

The One and the Ninety-Nine

ewe aint one

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20Psalms 97; 147:12-20, Numbers 12:1-16, Romans 2:12-24, Matthew 18:10-20


“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. Or the one.”
– Mr. Spock, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

“The needs of the one … outweighed the needs of the many.”
– Captain Kirk, Star Trek III: The Search for Spock

Humankind has always struggled to balance individual need against the need of the greater community. The modern tool of choice is economic system: capitalism, socialism, communism, etc. Lying along a continuum from individualism to collectivism, these models have achieved various levels of success – if measured economically. Measured spiritually, all fall short because they are not ends, but means. How do we approach this struggle of knowing what and when to sacrifice?

Sacrificial living does not necessarily lead to a literal cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the shepherd leaves behind ninety-nine sheep to find one. Fine if you’re the one, but most of us are among the ninety-nine left on the mountain. Do we grumble about being temporarily inconvenienced and blame the one’s misfortune on its own failure to keep up? Are we willing to sacrifice a little convenience so the one may survive? Often our answer depends on whether we’ve chosen freely or been coerced … but the shepherd doesn’t bother to survey the sheep.

Sacrifice is valued mostly via lip service. We “sacrifice” trips to the movies or our usual pricy selection at Starbucks to keep our debt down or to save for our children’s college. Rarely outside the military are we asked to make true sacrifices in the sacred sense of giving without expecting anything in return. Or maybe the opportunities are abundant but we value merit over mercy. Does the shepherd seem concerned with whether he is giving the lost sheep “a hand up or a handout?” Are we prepared to make the real sacrifices necessary to save the lost in our society? Because in the end, the hands up demand more personal cost in time, money and comfort than do the handouts.

When it’s our turn to be the one sheep, how will we want the ninety-nine to respond? That’s what we should be prepared to sacrifice.

Comfort: No matter how lost you feel, Christ is searching for you.

Challenge: Remember that lost sheep started out part of the flock. They are family, so their burdens are our burdens.

Prayer: Merciful God, I trust you to find me when I am lost. Amen.

Discussion: When you’ve felt lost, how did you know God had found you again?

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Schadenfreund *

hotcoals

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 56; 149, Proverbs 25:15-28, 1 Timothy 6:6-21, Matthew 13:36-43


Schadenfreude is a German word which roughly means “finding joy in the misfortune of others.” It’s not properly used to describe being happy about random misery like starving children or disaster victims – there are other words for that, some of them in English – but reserved for the misfortunes of our enemies, rivals, or people who just plain irritate us. It’s not very Christ-like, but it’s human nature. When we want to think of ourselves as too enlightened for that sort of pettiness, we may call it “poetic justice.”

Proverbs 25:21-22 advises us: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread to eat; and if they are thirsty, give them water to drink; for you will heap coals of fire on their heads, and the LORD will reward you.”

“What?!” you may be asking yourself. “I can please God and honk off my enemies at the same time?” Technically, yes. Once we’ve nursed a good grudge against someone – be it a person, nation, or rival bowling team – we don’t want them to reveal any redeeming traits, because that really sucks the joy out of hating them. It may even force us to examine our own motives. So loving your enemy (which is how you act toward them, not how you feel about them), while the right thing to do, may be exactly what they don’t want.

But how long is it possible to think of someone as an enemy if they continually show you kindness?  And how long is it possible to think of someone as an enemy if you see them hungry, thirsty, tired, and in need of all the same things you are? Unless one or both of you intentionally stokes those coals of fire, they will cool and vengeful kindness becomes simply … kindness.

By the time Paul quotes this verse from Proverbs in his letter to the Romans, Jesus has taught and shown us what it means to love and pray for our enemies. Revenge masquerades as human justice; God’s justice is about reconciliation and forgiveness, and he’s not above subverting our baser instincts to help us get there.

Comfort: You don’t have to feel good about your enemies to love them as Christ instructs.

Challenge: Examine how you treat your enemies or rivals in the workplace or social situations.

Prayer: Merciful God, teach me to love my enemies and take joy in their well-being. Amen.

Discussion: Where have you seen the healing power of reconciliation? Did one or more parties have to demonstrate worldly “weakness” but faithful strength?

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*not a misspelling; an attempt at a German pun

Justice Evolution

heartofflesh

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 92; 149, Ezekiel 36:22-27, Ephesians 6:1-24, Matthew 9:18-26


“Slaves obey your earthly masters with fear and trembling.”

We can thank Saint Paul for that gem. Sure he also said “in Christ there is no slave or free” and instructed masters to be merciful to their slaves because they ultimately served the same master in heaven, but neither of those satisfactorily addresses the fact that at no time did Paul (or Jesus, for that matter) explicitly condemn slavery. For most of Christian history, slavery was taken for granted, and that verse has been used to justify it.

Once the idea of slavery became unacceptable to almost all mainstream Christians, we weren’t sure what to do with Jesus’s seeming acceptance of it. Some of us tried to differentiate the experience of Biblical slavery versus pre-Civil War slavery in the United States, but in the end all slavery boils down to owning human beings as property. Shouldn’t Jesus have a problem with that?

Of course that question implies Jesus is OK with the way most Christians do things now, and that can be a dangerous assumption. Every human system is flawed. America seems to all but worship capitalism, lumping it in with democracy and Christianity as a kind of US-bred holy trinity, but capitalism itself is amoral and by definition favors the rich above the poor. Not that communism has a fantastic human rights track record. Democracy is subject to mob rule and corruption, and monarchy to tremendous abuses of power. No earthly economic or government system has or can eradicate poverty, oppression, and injustice.

Christ’s message (and consequently Paul’s) transcends these human structures. As the church matures, each generation expands its concept of justice. The past does not invalidate the message, so much as prompt us to look at the present with a more critical eye. Christians led the fight against slavery. The church has evolved from feeding the hungry to tackling the systemic problems which starve them in the first place. What are the next steps in learning to love our neighbors as ourselves? Our job is not to perform theological contortions to explain away the inexcusable; it is to determine how we are to apply Christ’s message today.

Someone will always be waiting to be freed by the gospel.

Comfort: You don’t have to try to excuse the inexcusable things of the past…

Challenge: … but you can’t ignore the inexcusable things of the present.

Prayer: God of love, teach me to shine your light on injustice. Amen.

Discussion: What commonly accepted practices do you think future Christians will look back on in moral embarrassment?

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Org Chart

wantjustice

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 97; 145, Exodus 18:13-27, 1 Peter 5:1-14, Matthew (1:1-17) 3:1-6


Did you know Moses had to develop an organizational chart? He was spending morning to evening serving as judge for the people. His father-in-law, Jethro, realized this situation was unsustainable; Moses would soon be exhausted and the people would suffer for it. Jethro suggested he select trustworthy men to share the burden, so Moses appointed judges “over thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens.” Does this system of lower and higher courts sound familiar? Only the most difficult cases floated up to Moses, a “supreme court” of one, which was probably fine since he reported directly to God.

Lawyers get blamed for our lawsuit-happy culture, but people have been seeking compensation for wrongs for millenia. The preamble to the Code of Hammurabi, the oldest known recorded set of laws pre-dating Moses by 300 years, states the Code was created in part “so that the strong should not harm the weak” and to “[bring] about the well-being of the oppressed.” Some of the penalties required under both Hammurabi and Moses might make that difficult to believe (adultery was punishable by death), but it’s important to remember both represented tremendous advances. “An eye for an eye” is a vast improvement over an essentially lawless culture practicing “the lives of your children for my eye.”

Whatever structure our legal system takes, people of faith must remember God’s justice does not begin with “what do people deserve?” but with “what do people need?” After all, the hungry steal less bread if there are fewer of them, and a person who has to leap twice as many hurdles to reach the same opportunity as someone else is half as likely to get there honestly. If we are to reflect God’s grace, unearned but freely given, we must found our sense of justice on mercy, not revenge. By the time punishment needs to be applied, the “justice” system has already failed.

Tens of people seeking God’s justice together soon form fifties. Then hundreds. Then thousands. While we look higher on the org chart and seek mercy, let’s be sure to look lower to see those who hopes for the same from us.

Comfort: God’s grace is freely given. Your job is to accept it, not earn it.

Challenge: Seriously consider where your ideas of justice diverge from the ideas Christ describes.

Prayer: Loving God, forgive me my sins as I forgive those who sin against me. Amen. 

Discussion: In what areas are you more concerned with the satisfaction of revenge or punishment than establishing a truly just society? What changes can you make in yourself and the world?

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No Turning Back

faithforsafety

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 93; 150, Exodus 14:5-22, 1 John 1:1-7, John 14:1-7


Pharaoh quickly regretted his decision to free Israel and sent his army to bring them back. When Israel saw the approaching army, the people were frightened and declared it was better to live in servitude than to die in the wilderness. Moses assured them the Lord would save them if they stood firm.The Lord parted the Red Sea so Israel could pass through it, then He closed it over the Egyptian army of soldiers and chariots.

We often choose servitude when we should be trusting the Lord to lead us  through the wilderness. Maybe it’s the servitude of acceptance; we hide our true selves – the people God created us to be – when we fear the wilderness of judgment. Then there’s the servitude of success. Our culture tells us bigger (homes, cars, etc) equals better quality of life. How many of us would seriously consider scaling back our standard of living to find peace – or follow Christ? Servitude to safety is also common. Maybe we would die for our right to be Christians, but would we put ourselves in danger to actually follow the teachings of Christ?

Most of us are comfortable briefly venturing into the wilderness of hunger, poverty, and sickness like tourists being led on a soup-kitchen safari, but – citing common sense and a need for security – we let others do the dangerous work of exploring that terrain and creating safe outposts for us to visit. We can strike a balance; because Jesus knew he was dispatching the apostles into unfriendly territory, he sent them in pairs … but he still sent them.

Facing an uncertain future, Israel quickly began to look back on centuries of slavery as “the good old days.” When we pine for the “simplicity” of the past, we tend to gloss over the bad parts like slavery, genocide, racism, sexism, disease, violence, and lack of indoor plumbing. Perhaps that’s because we are in the servitude of denial that all these things are still problems today.

Faith calls us to the wilderness. Fear tells us to turn back. Only one of those directions leads to the promised land.

Comfort: The future may seem uncertain to you, but it is all in God’s hands.

Challenge: God not promise us lives of ease or comfort.

Prayer: God of justice, help me embrace your freedom even when it frightens me. Thank you for leading me through the wilderness. Amen.

Discussion: Where do you feel drawn, but afraid, to serve?

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The Rest of the Story

historyvtruth

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab/window):
Psalms 98; 146, Exodus 12:28-39, 1 Corinthians 15:12-28, Mark 16:9-20


The phrase “history is written by the victors” is usually attributed to Winston Churchill or Walter Benjamin. The implication is that each culture or civilization gaining prominence rewrites history as propaganda flattering itself. Some facts may be inconvenient or unavoidable, but over time the need to define ourselves as the good guys spins them; consider recent proposed textbook revisions redefining slaves as “immigrants” and the slave trade as the “Atlantic triangular trade,” or Canadian First Nations peoples mutually agreeing to “make room” for European settlers.

Could this idea influence our reading of the Passover story in Exodus?

Moses had been trying to convince Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave captivity to worship in the wilderness. Every time Pharaoh refused to free them – the text says God “hardened Pharaoh’s heart” – God sent another plague upon Egypt. These escalated in severity until finally, in the dead of night, God slew all the firstborn of Egypt. Through Moses God warned the Hebrews to mark their doorways with blood, so their houses were passed over for death. As grief devastated Egypt, Pharaoh finally relented.

Exodus was written by the Hebrew people for the Hebrew people. Of course they are its heroes … but God also created the Egyptians. They were estranged from Him and worshipped other Gods, but surely He took no joy in slaughtering His children. Our Christian story traces its roots through the history of the Hebrew people, so we celebrate this victory, but can we imagine the horror of this story from the perspective of an Egyptian peasant family losing their only son?

In numerous biblical passages, God forbade the Jews to return to Egypt. Yet when the infant Jesus was in danger of being killed by Herod, God instructed Joseph to flee to Egypt, where he and his family stayed for years. Moabites, Uzzites, and Samaritans were similarly vilified, but God raised heroes from them and Christ spoke freely with them. When we wrestle to reconcile texts like the Passover narrative to God’s loving nature (and we should), we should also be wrestling with our own attitudes about personal, cultural, and historical enemies. People on the losing side of history have stories too.

Comfort: It’s OK to think critically and ask questions of difficult Biblical material. God will always be able to handle your questions and doubts.

Challenge: Do some research into history as relayed by people who didn’t fare so well.

Prayer: God of the past, present, and future, guide me so my contributions to the story of humankind are just and merciful. Amen.

Discussion: What parts of your national history are subject to “whitewashing?”

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Unthinkable Donkeys

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Christ Entering Jerusalem by Ernst Deger

Today’s readings (click below to open in new tab):
Psalms 84; 150, Zechariah 9:9-12, 1 Timothy 6:12-16, Zechariah 12:9-11, 13:1, 7-9


The Sunday before Easter is Palm (or Passion) Sunday, when we remember Christ’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the height of his ministry and controversy, Christ entered the city riding a donkey, and the huge crowd gathered for Passover greeted him by throwing palm fronds on the path before him. This gesture was a sign of respect for victorious warrior kings … but that donkey told another story.

The prophet Zechariah wrote about the coming messiah as someone who would “command peace to the nations.” Traditionally a warrior king rode into conquered territory on an armored warhorse to signal his victory and dominance. A donkey, though, sent a message of humility. To a people hoping for a military savior to conquer their oppressors, this idea would have chafed. Yet Zechariah was not the only prophet telling the people of Israel to expect the unexpected. Christ’s reign was accomplished not only through peace, but through subservience, including submission to death on a cross. It was unthinkable. It certainly wasn’t what people wanted to hear, but prophetic voices told them anyway.

Like the Israelites, do we hope to assert our future through force? Every year churchgoers read the passion story and join our voices to those who shouted: “Crucify him!” By Easter we’re back to celebrating the resurrection, and little has changed. Rather than humbly live as we believe, we try to pass laws imposing our beliefs on the nation. We fail to speak truth to power – because in this time and place we are the power. All our talk of peace crumbles when we feel threatened; surely Jesus didn’t expect us to suffer for our faith when we could defend ourselves by going on the offensive?

Jesus enters the world through the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. Through our enemies. When we treat them with love we aren’t doing it on behalf of Jesus – we are doing it for Jesus. Christ reaches us not through merely unexpected avenues, but through unthinkable ones. Following Christ means choosing the donkey instead of the warhorse, even when that palm-strewn road leads to the cross.

Comfort: There are voices telling us how to follow Christ. We just need to learn to listen for them.

Challenge: Be careful not to confuse civic and secular authority with salvation and grace.

Prayer: God of Love, teach me the humble way of Jesus. Grant me ears to hear the truth, even when I don’t like it. Set words of peace and justice on my lips. Amen.

Discussion: What leaders appeal to your sense of anger, force, or division? When they speak, are you able to separate what you want to hear from the truth?

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