20 March 2008

Easter shorts

Reality check: As Easter returns for Western-calendar Christians, it's another chance to remind ourselves of how we human creatures too often treat one another, and another chance to commit ourselves to living by a different light.

Larry Hurtado writes in Slate,
With ancient Jews, early Christians saw resurrection as an act of God, a divine gift of radically new life, not an expression of some inherent immortality of the soul. That is, the dead don't rise by themselves; they are raised by God and will experience resurrection collectively as one of the events that comprise God's future redemption of the world and vindication of the righteous.

Historically, then, how Christians have understood Jesus' "resurrection" says a lot about how they have understood themselves, whether they have a holistic view of the human person, whether they see bodily existence as trivial or crucial, and how they imagine full salvation to be manifested. Does salvation comprise a deliverance from the body into some sort of immediate and permanent postmortem bliss (which is actually much closer to popular Christian piety down the centuries), or does salvation require a new embodiment of some sort, a more robust reaffirmation of persons?
Hurtado's excellent question reminded me of words I've quoted before from Anthony Bloom:
. . . I'm always struck by our Good Friday service: instead of the cross on which a living young Man dies, we have a wonderful service that can move us but that actually stands between us and that rude and ghastly tragedy. In place of the cross we've substituted an icon of the cross. In place of the crucifixion, we've substituted an image. In place of a retelling of the actual horror of what happened, we substitute a poetic/musical reworking of the story.

Of course that reworking does reach us, but we so easily begin to get a taste for that horror, even deeply experiencing it, being shaken and then regaining our calm, whereas the vision of a living person who is murdered is something quite different. That remains as a wound in the soul, you don't forget it; having seen it, you'll never again be the same as you were. And that is what dismays me. In some sense, the beauty and depth of our worship must break it open, and must lead every believer through that opening to the terrible and majestic secret of what is actually happening.
Despite the aesthetics and sentimentality of Easter, it should be no secret that Jesus, "physically brutalized and casually humiliated" as James Martin writes (also in Slate), actually suffered in ways that we continue to inflict on each other. The power and joy of the Easter invitation is to live (eternally!) another way, in the company of the One who experienced our worst, who overcame, and who calls you and me and our global neighbors into his shared victory.

The hope of audacity: Barack Obama performed a graceful rhetorical high-wire act with his speech on race and "a more perfect union." I'm sad but not surprised that he had to make that speech. Sad because Trinity United Church of Christ pastor Jeremiah Wright, when heard in more than four-second clips and in the context of dialogue, has said nothing that an empathetic listener could not at least partly agree with.

By "empathetic" I mean, at the very least, a fair-minded listener willing to consider the proposition that our country might have committed cruelties at home and abroad, and that the survivors of these cruelties, and their descendants, might legitimately have something to say. (Another qualification for fairness: admitting that commentators whose background does not include those same kinds of cruelties might not be the sole interpreters of what we are or aren't allowed to say in public about them!)

No, that cruelty is not the sum total of what we as a country have done and accomplished--there's much to be proud of and much that I'm personally proud of--but we have demonstrated very little national capacity for humility and repentance, and so we have kept any open conversation about our communal sins corked up. A simplistic, idolatrous form of patriotism, unworthy of a free people, has kept the cork of national denial tightly in the bottle of unhealed sins, preventing any discussion of those sins--apart from some limited and stylized settings such as those circles on the left where patriotism doesn't seem to exist at all, or right-wing circles who are ready to acknowledge national corruption as long as it can be blamed on homosexuals, feminists, and foreigners.

Why should we be surprised when, in the midst of a community whose identity was partly shaped by experiences of relentless and systemic cruelty, prying off the cork results in some fizz?? (And are we truly surprised when only the fizz, the few selectively edited seconds of fiery rhetoric, get into the mainstream media rather than the larger conversation?) In his mild way, perhaps Mike Huckabee of all people began to model some balance and sanity in the national conversation about Wright's alleged heresies, when he said,
As easy as it is for those of us who are white to look back and say, "That's a terrible statement," I grew up in a very segregated South, and I think that you have to cut some slack. And I'm going to be probably the only conservative in America who's going to say something like this, but I'm just telling you: We've got to cut some slack to people who grew up being called names, being told, "You have to sit in the balcony when you go to the movie. You have to go to the back door to go into the restaurant. And you can't sit out there with everyone else. There's a separate waiting room in the doctor's office. Here's where you sit on the bus." And you know what? Sometimes people do have a chip on their shoulder and resentment. And you have to just say, I probably would too. I probably would too. In fact, I may have had a more, more of a chip on my shoulder had it been me. [from here]
Although I wish that Obama's speech hadn't been needed, apparently it was--and so I'm grateful that, with that speech, he may have--in full public view--finally taken that terrible cork out of the bottle.

As a former Chicagoan, I've been interested in the coverage of Obama's church, the Trinity United Church of Christ. Church historian Martin Marty has written several times about Trinity, including these words in a "Sightings" column he wrote last year:
To those in range of Chicago TV I'd recommend a watching of Trinity's Sunday services, and challenge you to find anything "cultic" or "sectarian" about them. More important, for Trinity, being "unashamedly black" does not mean being "anti-white." My wife and I on occasion attend, and, like all other non-blacks, are enthusiastically welcomed.
And, in the midst of all this controversy, the Gospel is preached! I was delighted to hear this passage in the interview Michele Noris conducted on National Public Radio with pastor Otis Moss:
Noris: If Barack Obama remains a member of your congregation--it sounds like he's going to do just that--it seems like people are going to be watching very carefully everything you say, everything you do at the pulpit.
Moss: I'm excited about that. I'm hoping that some people will get saved in the process, that they will come to know the unconditional love of Jesus Christ, they will come to know that it is through the church, which is a citadel of hope, that we will be able to help people who are on the edge of despair.
Now that's what I'm talking about!

Righteous links:

It hasn't appeared there yet, but watch the "Sightings" archive for another article about Trinity UCC, "The Perils of Publicity," by Daniel Sack. ("...Having a member run for president creates both opportunities and challenges.")

Another Christian in politics ... Gorbachev??? (Thanks to Carol Holmes for the referral.)

"What's disturbing is that you find in American political circles and in American journalistic circles an almost compulsive tendency to demonize figures in Russia that they hold responsible for Russia not becoming just like the United States." More from Washington Profile's interview with author David Foglesong on Sean Guillory's blog.

Remembering Van Cliburn's Moscow triumph of 1958.

Friday PS: Thanks to Quakerygma: a happier ending to the story of Marianne Kearney-Brown, fired from teaching math because of her Quaker insistence on amending her loyalty oath, and then reinstated.

. . . And some interesting thoughts from Street Corner Society on the (Protestant) tendency to confuse the pastor (e.g., Jeremiah Wright) with the congregation (e.g., Trinity UCC).

Oh Happy Day!


Anonymous said...

"Mike Huckabee of all people"? I've been impressed by Huckabee's humane compassion all the way through this campaign season! This latest is not out of character for him.

I had missed the comments Huckabee made on ABC regarding Obama and Wright, and am grateful to you for calling them to my attention. They moved me so much, I posted them on Facebook and recommended them in an e-mail to my wife & daughter.

I wish you could hear my black female co-workers at the department store where I sell men's clothing — and the poor black men I rode the Greyhound with this last week, when I went to New York YM's Powell House — commenting on Obama. What is really striking, at least to me, is the note of simple compassion in their voices for whites who are entangled in fears.

Johan Maurer said...

Hi, Marshall! I'm not actually surprised, either, because Huckabee really does seem to have a refreshing streak of common-sense compassion. As you no doubt so in the larger interview, he explains, from experience no doubt, how extemporaneous preaching can lead to unanticipated flights of rhetoric.

It's actually a bit ironic. Wright preached from a sense of moral outrage, and that led him to make statements that, carefully edited, sound awful to many ears. Some of the people who've torn him apart seem themselves to be experts in expressing outrage. In the service of their righteous outrage on behalf of an abstraction, they are totally ready to tear down a human being, namely Wright--and, perhaps, Obama as well if he doesn't snap to attention and slap on a flag lapel pin to their satisfaction. In the battle over who has the right to be most outraged, Obama himself comes off looking very good.