A sacred reminder

I love Christmas. The rhythm of Advent, the hopeful anticipation, the clarifying cold, the scent of evergreen, the congealed wax at the base of the Advent wreath: these memories and images are so deeply ingrained in my soul and psyche that this time of year, more than any other, embodies a powerful —even sacramental —sentimentality. The nostalgia is an annual reminder that creation is basically, foundationally good.

But over the past few years Christmas has taken on an additional quality for me. As I age and continue to live in a Catholic Worker community, I have more experiences in closer proximity to deep human suffering and social oppression. Many people do not have this luxury. Many, from day one, were born into oppressive conditions and endure the poverty, xenophobia, and bigotry crafted and maintained by those who benefit most from empire.

I was born near the apex of our society’s system of social privileges. I’m a white, straight Christian man born into a class-comfortable family. But my time in the Catholic Worker and participating in activism led by communities of color and poor people has led to a conviction that my understanding of Christmas (and my Christian faith generally) is meaningless if it does not address the social realities of the world in which I live.

"Christ of the Breadlines" by Frank Eichenberg
“Christ of the Breadlines” by Frank Eichenberg

Last spring my community, The Minneapolis Catholic Worker/The Rye Houseworked with Black Lives Matter Minneapolis and the Mennonite Worker to host an annual Catholic Worker “faith and resistance” retreat. Close to 80 Catholic Workers came to Minneapolis from around the country to pray, learn, and participate in a nonviolent direct action.  Our retreat focused on the murder of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man shot by police in November 2015. We reflected on the history of systemic racism in our country and the wake of violence in its path.  We talked at length about the racism embedded in our beloved (and predominantly white) Catholic Worker Movement. Following the lead of organizers from Black Lives Matter and Black Liberation Project we discerned and prepared to take direct action in an attempt to better reveal the endemic racialized violence that killed Jamar.

The day before our action one of our leaders, activist-theologian Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, spoke to us about his faith. As a Christian he believed in what he called “a low Christology.” He believed in a Jesus born under duress, in a dirty stable, to an unwed mother. He believed in a Jesus that drank and laughed. His Jesus was messy, flawed, and beautifully human. But importantly, Sekou saw God’s choice in locating Jesus as revealing an emphasis and preference. In an interview with Medium.com, Sekou says “… the gospel of Jesus [is] a story about God choosing to become flesh … among an unimportant people in an unimportant part of the world. Jesus — a Palestinian Jewish peasant living under Roman occupation — is the salvation of the world. God in flesh was a subject of an empire.”  

At our retreat, Sekou explained that because God chose to embody when and where God did, the whole context of Christ’s life cannot be read outside of the context of the liberation of the oppressed. Not only is Christ’s historical location an indication of this fact, but the unavoidable emphasis of Jesus’s core message corroborates God’s intention. As Richard Rohr says in his book “Preparing for Christmas: Daily Reflections for Advent,” “Jesus’s consistent teaching … say[s] that there are three major obstacles to the coming of the reign of God … power, prestige, and possessions.

Christmas then signifies the very beginning of this radical embodiment. The holiday so beautifully represents the intentionality of the incarnation and the beginning of a life lived in joy-filled, loving resistance to social and economic oppression. But what does this Christmas reality mean for people like me, who have more in common with Roman colonizers than Jesus Christ?  

First I believe we must acknowledge that Jesus’s message of liberation is for all of us: God locating among the poor and oppressed is a blueprint.  

While American social and economic inequality obviously crushes marginalized communities first and foremost, the mechanisms that replicate the wealth and power of the privileged rob all of us of our humanity and dignity. To be complicit with an abusive economic and social order is an attempt to erase a part of our souls that yearns for connectivity. These social sins obstruct our divine programming that pushes us to see ourselves in others; to love like God calls us to love.

Second, we must be honest and courageous about locating Christ (the crucified) in our midst.  

Rev. Sekou says “The situatedness of the first century Palestinian living under Roman occupation is the same situatedness of black people in America. Thus we must resist in the way which Jesus resisted.” Sekou and other black liberation theologians accurately position the social realities of black people in America as modern mirrors reflecting Jesus’ lived experience. In her book “Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God” theologian Kelly Brown Douglas writes “That Jesus was crucified affirms his absolute identification with the Trayvons [Martin], Jordans [Davis], Renishas [McBride] … Jesus’ identification with the lynched/crucified class is not accidental. It is intentional. It did not begin with his death on the cross. In fact, that Jesus was crucified signals his prior bond with the ‘crucified class’ of his day.”

The day after Sekou spoke at the retreat we nonviolently blocked traffic and two transit trains in front of the Twins’ home opening game at Target Field. Our hope was to temporarily disrupt the status quo and try to steer white Minnesotans’ attention toward the reality of endemic, state-sanctioned murders of black and brown people in our city. As I peacefully stood in front the train, arms linked with other Catholic Workers, I felt Rev. Sekou’s words rooted in my heart. He helped me locate Christ in Jamar Clark, and in all the other black and brown people killed by the police. He helped me understand that God, through Christ, is calling all Christians to take risks in building the kingdom of God. In the midst of the cacophony of car horns, police sirens and hurled insults from Twin’s fans I felt grounded in my Christian identity, knowing that God demands that I work for an end to racism and modern-day crucifixions.

 

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Twins opener blockade action (courtesy of Joe Kruse)

Eight months after our retreat, in the midst of this Christmas season, I hear Rev. Sekou’s words again as I listen to the familiar and sacred story. I feel God calling us, through the work of Christ begun on Christmas day, to learn to embody “Emmanuel” (God with us). I believe that Christmas, for Christians, must be a sacred reminder that we are called to participate in a joy-filled revolution that abolishes social and economic hierarchies and embraces real reconciliation in the form of reparations. “Anything less,” Sekou bluntly, but honestly, reminds us “is heresy.”

 

About the Rabbler Rouser:

joe-kruse-jpgJoe Kruse, a friend of Sister Julia’s through the La Crosse community, is one of the founders of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker community in south Minneapolis. He grew up around Catholic Workers at the Place of Grace Catholic Worker community his parents helped start in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Now he spends most of his time working at The Rye House, one of the Minneapolis Catholic Worker hospitality houses. He also has invested a lot of time and energy into anti-frac sand organizing, leading discussions and workshops about structural racism and white privilege, and activism around racial and economic justice in Minneapolis.

advent waiting room

An eagerness for an improvement lives deep within the groans of our society, our culture, our selves.  We don’t feel as well as we would like.  We have a sense that something is wrong and someone might know the answer.  We wonder who to turn to. We suppose that God might show us a New Way, but we aren’t really sure what it would take from us.

We set an appointment with a sage, a doctor, an advisor, a Christ. We cancel other events and open up space, our minds, our hearts, our lives. We want a new consciousness so we can know what we need to do to feel well.  We gather up what we think belongs to us: our time, our knowledge, our strength, our pride. In short, we cling to our possessions and carry them with us.

We move out the door and to bus stops, cars, trains.  Fear knows we’re up to something important so the journey is rough.  Spies track our routes across stormy seas, down winding roads, along steep cliffs.  Yet, we get to where we think we need to be.  We arrive together.

It turns out that they’re not ready for us.  We have to wait in rooms full of books and news magazines.  Some of us have to wait in chapels and others wait where it is wild with nature.  In separate places, we are united together.

Although we are together, we are different. Others are confused about what we’re doing here and there. Some are even angry because they don’t understand.  Still, we remain confident that we’re in the right place.  They tease us and ask us silly questions.  We declare we have an appointment and our time is soon.

We insist on sticking around.  Really, we are so desperate to feel better that we are willing to keep waiting at all costs. We are willing: we’ll give up our jobs, we’ll fast, we’ll protest, we’ll go to jail if we must.  As we wait we study the Bible and remember recent history. We pray ancient psalms and poetry.  We are not leaving.

We keep believing that soon we’ll have our time.  We have hope that the consciousness is coming. Hope is our mantra and our message. We know there’s a Way.

We’re waiting in a room full of hope. We believe and trust in God.  We’re excited and we’re happy.  We wait in Love.

Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years
and a thousand years like one day.
The Lord does not delay his promise, as some regard “delay,”
but he is patient with you,
not wishing that any should perish
but that all should come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief,
and then the heavens will pass away with a mighty roar
and the elements will be dissolved by fire,
and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.

Since everything is to be dissolved in this way,
what sort of persons ought you to be,
conducting yourselves in holiness and devotion,
waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God,
because of which the heavens will be dissolved in flames
and the elements melted by fire.
But according to his promise
we await new heavens and a new earth
in which righteousness dwells.
Therefore, beloved, since you await these things,
be eager to be found without spot or blemish before him, at peace. –2 Peter 3:8-14


power to the people

Jesus gave power to the people a long time ago.  The power is still with the people today.

People are uniting and speaking out and rising up working for the type of justice Jesus taught us about- the justice of love. They’ve done this since the time of Jesus.  Then and now the people use their power for the goodness of God.  The poor, the disadvantaged and the overworked have declared their right for fair pay, for human rights, equality, and justice. This is good because the Kingdom of God is with the meek, the poor and the peaceful. Jesus said so himself.

Today there are people who live in excess. They stutter justifications for their diamond cuff-links while the makers of their jewels scrape by for survival.  The poor must grow cash crops such as tobacco, cotton and corn then sell these things to the rich.  Or worse, they are forced to sell their landor sacrifice their clean water and air at unfair prices.  The poor can’t grow their own food to simply live so then they starve to death.  Meanwhile, in some countries people are getting bigger and bigger and more and more food is wasted–simply tossed away.

Has capitalism become another type of feudalism?

We’ve seen power and control mess things up for a long while now.  Jesus knew all about it, so he turned things all around.  Jesus  tried to warn the privileged that he wasn’t going to trust them with building the Kingdom anymore as they were doing a pretty horrible job.  Today, we still seem to be clueless about what this means.

I couldn’t help but to think of “Occupy Wall Street” and other revolutions when I studied the Gospel last Sunday:

Jesus said to the chief priests and the elders of the people:
“Hear another parable.
There was a landowner who planted a vineyard,
put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower.
Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.
When vintage time drew near,
he sent his servants to the tenants to obtain his produce.
But the tenants seized the servants and one they beat,
another they killed, and a third they stoned.
Again he sent other servants, more numerous than the first ones,
but they treated them in the same way.
Finally, he sent his son to them, thinking,
‘They will respect my son.’
But when the tenants saw the son, they said to one another,
‘This is the heir.
Come, let us kill him and acquire his inheritance.’
They seized him, threw him out of the vineyard, and killed him.
What will the owner of the vineyard do to those tenants when he comes?”
They answered him,
“He will put those wretched men to a wretched death
and lease his vineyard to other tenants
who will give him the produce at the proper times.”
Jesus said to them, “Did you never read in the Scriptures:
The stone that the builders rejected
has become the cornerstone;
by the Lord has this been done,
and it is wonderful in our eyes?
Therefore, I say to you,
the kingdom of God will be taken away from you
and given to a people that will produce its fruit.”

It seems like an awful parable that could leave any person feeling confused and discouraged- like it did me.  Why would our great teacher of non-violence use so many images of violence to teach a point? What is the point?

We must pay attention to whom Jesus is speaking to really get the warning. He’s talking to the people of privilege- the people who think that they have some sort of divine right to control the poor, the dogma, the systems and the economics.  It seems to me that we are being told that violence , wealth and privilege aren’t the answers.

The answers live with the rejected.  The power is burning in the hearts of the powerless, in their peaceful revolutions and their voices that are united for change.  The answers are in the quiet fields where the poor labor for freedom.

The Kingdom of God is here now and not yet.  Power has been redefined.  The people of poverty experience redemption as they reject the systems that have rejected them.  The poor are creating the peace that Jesus teaches about when they do acts of mercy and refuse the acts of war. The rejected are powerful with they show God’s “kingdom come” and “will be done” as they love and serve one another.

I am not really sure where I fit in it all. I commit the sin of over-consumption and mindless cooperation with corrupt systems.  I feel powerless, yet overwhelmed and sick from my privilege.  I justify purchases of unnecessary and over-packaged treats because I hear the news radio preach about “consumer confidence” as the way out of economic dysfunction.  I pray for the kingdom of God, yet I keep looking in the wrong places for the answers to the questions that drive me.

I have a suspicion that if I truly heeded the words of Jesus and looked for the kingdom of God with the peaceful people of poverty, I would find myself poor and powerful.  I would probably find myself in the arms of our good, loving God.

set down the stones

I do not advise that young children watch this video.  The facts are very heavy and I believe its content is only appropriate for mature adults:

We’re approaching Jerusalem.  It is nearly time to wave branches and shout Hosanna’s.  We’ll rejoice with hope as our Love rides into town on a simple donkey.  Gathered around a dusty street we can reach out and trustingly hand Him the pains of the world.

We hope for a revolution, but will instead know redemption.

The redemption is enlightened empowerment. We’re all good, we’re all God’s children, all of us have rights because we all have dignity. It’s refreshing to be reminded. We have power to make changes. It’s awesome!

But, in the face of intense suffering, we’re overwhelmed and challenged.  We are stunned and slowed by the horror of children being used as sex slaves and other horrific sins.  How can we be the body of Christ and heal and help when the hurt is so extreme? How can we help others to know the sacredness of their own bodies and beings when they have never been told the truth?

How can we save the children?

The good news is that Jesus saves.  It’s not up to us to be messiahs, just helpers.  Christ’s power continues to unfold through us.  The Jerusalem story is our story.  Jesus has given us arms of love and compassion.  Jesus taught us how to set people free from the lies that enslave them.  We truly are instruments of peace.

It’s really hard work.  This love revolution won’t work if we’re judgmental or defensive, which is sometimes our automatic action.

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”     –Jn 8:1-11

These radical actions of compassion and forgiveness are daily acts of regular relationships and small communities.

Turning the awfulness to joy and justice is also the acts of nations.  The United States’ new federal budget just expanded defense spending by 5 billion dollars, while drastically cutting funding to programs that provide assistance to the poorest of the poor.  We’ve reduced our acts of love and compassion and increased defense.

These last days of lent free us from all the stones of sin that are too heavy for us to carry. In order to pick up our palm branches we need to set down our stones.

When, O humanity, will we ever set down our stones?!