August 29, 2021
Our reflection piece for this season has a couple of phrases that have really worked on me each Sunday as they are read:
“It is about being willing to have our heart become deeper as we move beyond the surface layers of our assumptions, prejudices and habits in order to truly see and receive what – and who – is before us. It is about being willing to have our heart continually shattered and remade as we take in not only the brokenness of the world but the beauty of it….” (Jan Richardson, “Blessing That Meets You in Love,” The Painted Prayerbook, https://paintedprayerbook.com/2016/01/25/blessing-that-meets-you-in-love/.)
It is ironic, or maybe it is divine inspiration, that our theme for this summer season is “How Shall We Love?,” because I am struggling about how to love right now. I am struggling to love a person I admire and respect who helped me on my path to become a lawyer and the person I am today.
He was my high school teacher and he was one of those teachers that you remember, that has a huge impact on your life. So why, you are asking yourself, is this a problem? Sounds like he would be an easy person to love.
And my answer is Yes, except that through the investigation into the abuse that happened at our school it has become clear that he was culpable in allowing abuse to go unchecked even though he knew about it. At various points he was the acting headmaster at our school and so was responsible for the safety of children both in school and in the dorms, but did not protect the children.
Students reported to him, a trusted teacher and advisor, the abuse they suffered but he did not report it or do anything to stop it. His failure to act affected children and young adults, directly causing life-long mental health issues, drug addiction and suicide. Thus far this teacher has not publicly acknowledged his failures.
This man, who both Keith and I admire and respect, has been named publicly for being “culpable” by his own mission’s internal investigation into abuse at our school, and his actions and failures to act will also be revealed in the larger investigation that I have been supporting. This is why I am struggling…my hero has feet of clay.
How do I reconcile the dissonance between my admiration, gratitude and respect for this teacher, and my horror and contempt for this man who stood by silently while my classmates were abused? How do I love this man?
Over a year ago, when Celebration Circle was looking for a reflection piece for the Summer season, I came across a blog post by Erna Kim Hackett entitled, “Why I Stopped Talking About Racial Reconciliation and Started Talking About White Supremacy” (https://www.inheritancemag.com/stories/why-i-stopped-talking-about-racial-reconciliation-and-started-talking-about-white-supremacy).
It is an extremely powerful indictment of white evangelical theology’s inability to see and deal with systemic racism in the church, which I highly recommend to you, but what really struck a chord, for me and many others who shared and discussed her blog, was her reference to “Disney Princess Theology.”
“White Christianity,” Hackett says, “suffers from a bad case of Disney Princess Theology. As each individual reads scripture, they see themselves as the princess in every story. They are Esther, never Xerxes or Haman. They are Peter, but never Judas. They are the woman anointing Jesus, never the Pharisees. They are the Jews escaping slavery, never Egypt.”
Ultimately, Celebration Circle chose another reflection piece, but since I was writing the confession portion of the liturgy, I wrote a confession based on Hackett’s words and lections for that season. Let me quote just a portion of it here:
People: When we hear the story of Joseph,
we are Joseph rather than the brothers
who sold him into slavery.
Leader: When we hear the Passover story,
we see ourselves as Israelites, never Egyptians.
People: When we hear the story of feeding the five thousand,
we are the boy who gave Jesus his lunch,
rather than the disciples
who wanted the people to fend for themselves.
Leader: Eternal Hope of the oppressed,
open our hearts and minds that we may see ourselves
not just as the heroes of these stories
but also in those who acted out of fear, hypocrisy, and hatred.
The trouble with only seeing ourselves as the heroes of these biblical stories is that we start to believe that we could not possibly do anything wrong. Or as someone once said more eloquently, we start to think that our shit don’t stink!
We begin to act as though as Christians we are not subject to the same temptations as others; that somehow we are always on the side of right, that we are always the ones who save the day, that we are the ones that overcome evil rather than perpetuate it.
The story of David is surely an antidote to that belief. Since June we have been hearing the story of David in the Hebrew scripture readings. We have heard how David finally vanquished his enemies and solidified his power and built a house made of cedar in Jerusalem. God had blessed him. But it also tells us about one of his greatest sins.
One evening David goes to the rooftop and sees Bathsheba taking a bath and desires her. But when she became pregnant, he then had to cover up what he had done; so in a shamelessly callous and cruel way, he makes sure that her husband would be put in the line of fire and killed in battle; and when that happens, he takes Bathsheba as his own wife.
The prophet Nathan comes before David and tells him a parable exposing his crime, but David, blinded by arrogance or pride, does not see himself as the bad guy in the parable or that it describes what he did to Bathsheba and Uriah. It is not until Nathan says it is YOU who did this, that David finally acknowledges his own sin and repents of it.
I wonder if David too, caught a bad case of Disney Princess Theology? Here he was, anointed by God, he killed Goliath with a small stone, he defeated Saul and built a nice house made of cedar in Jerusalem. People did what he ordered them to do. No one questioned him. He was powerful and felt secure in his blessing from God. And then he saw Bathsheba….
In this Sunday’s passage from Mark, Jesus is asked by the Pharisees why his disciples don’t follow dietary laws and wash their hands before eating. Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t engage with the issue of whether or not the tradition of dietary laws should be followed; instead he opens the conversation wider and asks the question, What defiles a person? And he answers his own question with the following:
“For it is from within – from our hearts – that evil intentions emerge: promiscuity, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, obscenity, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evils come from within and make us impure.”
As one commentator said about this passage, “[it] is not how or what one should eat but the internal corruption of the human [soul]. It is this malignancy that chokes the life out of tradition, turns it into an enemy of God, contorts it in a way of excusing injustice and blinds those afflicted by it to their own culpability for the evils that trouble the world.” (Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8 (Anchor Bible 27; New York: Doubleday, 2000), 460-61.)
In other words, we are all capable of evil intentions and bad acts. Even the traditions or practices that we set up to maintain our goodness can be corrupted and become evil. We can all be Pharisees imposing traditions that are not accessible to everyone; we could all be David plotting to kill Uriah so he could cover up his sin. We know who the enemy is. It is me and you, it is all of us.
And yet do we really believe that? Do we really think we could be capable of such horrible acts? Do I excuse injustice and am I blind to my own culpability for the evils that trouble the world? In our reading from James, the writer says:
“Those who listen to God’s word, but don’t put it into practice are like those who look into mirrors at their own faces; they look at themselves, then go off and promptly forget what they looked like. But those who look steadily at the perfect law of freedom and make it their habit – not listening and then forgetting, but actively putting it into practice – will be blessed in all that they do.”
If we look into the mirror, what do we see? What do I see?
When Obama was first inaugurated in early 2009, my father got a call from his friend Dorman Smith in California. They had been able to get tickets to the inauguration and the whole family was coming to Washington, DC. He wondered if my dad and our family might meet up with them at their hotel. Some of you might remember Dorman and his wife, Betty, who spoke at my dad’s memorial service.
For those of you who were not present for that service, Dorman and my father met at Moody Bible Institute and became fast friends. Dorman who is Black and my father who was raised in the farm country of southern Wisconsin, might seem like unlikely people to be friends, but their friendship was deep, and lasting.
So we accepted Dorman’s invitation and met at their hotel the night before the inauguration. I had the opportunity to meet their kids and grandchildren and particularly their oldest son. He started asking me about racism in the US, talking about things that I now recognize as systemic racism, inequality, and injustice, but I did not understand or grasp their import then. Instead, I was riding high on the wave of white privilege, supporting a Democratic candidate who had broken the color barrier to become president, an event that I thought epitomized how far we had come in overcoming racism, hatred and prejudice. The conversation was awkward and challenging to say the least. One of the things he said to me, maybe not in these words, but which became very clear to me as I reflected on the conversation over and over, was this:
“My parents supported you all these years with money we could have used ourselves, and we prayed for you every day. Your picture was in our living room in a place of honor. But you do not understand anything about what it means to be Black in America.”
And he was right. I was blind…I did not see. I was culpable in so many ways that I am only barely able to see even part of it now. Like David, it wasn’t until Dorman’s son said “YOU” that I finally could see.
As our reflection piece for this season says, “[i]t is about being willing to have our heart become deeper as we move beyond the surface layers of our assumptions, prejudices and habits in order to truly see and receive what – and who – is before us. It is about being willing to have our heart continually shattered and remade as we take in not only the brokenness of the world but the beauty of it….”
So how should we love?
In the lovely excerpt from the Song of Solomon we heard this morning, the mutual desire, respect and admiration, as well as the give and take that is reflected in that reading, are one example of what both Eros and Agape love can look like.
I know that love that is “bestowed” by someone who feels they are superior, is a burden to the recipient and does not feel like love at all.
I know that love that is disrespectful or does not acknowledge the totality of the person, can feel conditional and quickly becomes unhealthy.
I know that Jesus points out over and over again that LOVE is the path to God. God loves the world; God loves us, and we who love God must love each other.
So how do we love? How do I love this teacher who was both role model and failure? How do I reconcile my respect and my anger?
It’s complicated, isn’t it?
Even now I don’t feel like I have fully resolved this conundrum. Even now I feel like I am seeing through a glass darkly, but I think I am seeing a few stepping stones in the path before me.
I think the path towards loving people you find challenging to love begins by looking in the mirror. It begins with humility and a sense of not just being the hero or the righteous one, but also being capable of acting out of fear, hypocrisy and hatred. Humility means we need to be aware of the brokenness in ourselves and that helps open your heart to the brokenness in others. This does not mean you approve of what they did, anymore that you approve of the wrongs you have been blind to in your own life. It just means that you acknowledge their humanity, their capacity to screw up, just like you see it in yourself.
That is the start. That is the first step. And there are many more. Maybe I will never resolve this conundrum for myself entirely, but at least I am on the path. I hope that the path will continue to be revealed to me as I continue to look into the mirror, to have my heart shattered and remade over and over again so I can see myself…and this part of the body of Christ…and my neighbors and my teacher…and take in not only the brokenness but the beauty in each one.
Broken and whole all at once.