Saturday, May 21, 2016

Taking It to the Streets (Festival Day 4)


Pastor Michael McBride has a gentle, open face, and a sweet way about him.  But he’s a Pentecostal preacher to the core, steeped in the power of words; and, yesterday in Louisville, it didn’t take long to get "Pastor Mike" going.  “We need our own campaign,” he said, not so subtly referencing the candidate addressing the NRA just across town.  “But ours is undeniably a campaign for peacemaking and justice.”  If the other campaign relies on fear and bigotry, the justice campaign is to be built on love and courage.  “To do so,” Pastor Mike urged, “is to make love both the subject and the verb, both the instrument and the practice, of our campaign.”

Yesterday, this Festival of Faiths explored the movement known as Black Lives Matter.  It wasn't easy.  Not now, and not with the NRA in town.  Fifty years after Selma, activists question America's intentions and the church's resolve.  How can it be that a nation so enthusiastically religious continues to embrace racist politicians and economic apartheid?  How can it be that religions of peace so easily sanction gluttony and violence?  Questions hung like bodies on crosses. 

One speaker quoted James Cone of Union Seminary, who's suggested of late that "discipleship for whites in America means dying to whiteness."  Another referenced the young Ferguson activist, organizing in the street, who insisted that "what we need now is not allies, but accomplices."  With my eyes and ears I recognized these voices, appreciated them, honored them.  In my heart I ached. Does it have to be so hard?

And of course, it does.  

What a powerful, provocative day.  Louisville may not be the “buckle” of the Bible Belt—but it's got to be close.  I shivered in appreciation of the bold preachers, daring imams and thoughtful rabbis on stage.  Pastor Mike (Michael McBride of the Way Christian Center in Berkeley) noted that Martin Luther King once diagnosed America as the most violent force on the planet; and that was fifty years ago.  Before Iraq and Ferguson.  Before Reagan's Contras and Cheney's waterboards.  Then Pastor Mike asked leaders in the room a troubling, but essential question.  “Will we decide to be chaplains to a failing empire?” he asked.  “Or will we be prophets in a moral and spiritual revolution?”  Sounds like a straight-forward choice.  But is it really?  

Pastor Michael McBride
Our challenge, Pastor Mike insisted, is to reckon faithfully with history.  Do we pay special attention to the voices of the suffering?  Do we pay special attention to the voices of the captive and poor, the devalued and unheard?  As we do, he said, we draw closer to Jesus and his freedom project, Jesus who experienced the Spirit’s anointing that he might preach good news to the poor and release for the captives.  But there aren't a lot of short cuts.

The project begins by reckoning faithfully with history, and hearing particular voices, voices of the beaten and captive, voices of the fleeing and frightened.  Trayvon Martin must be heard.  Michael Brown must be heard.  Jessica Nelson must be heard.  Their parents and friends must be heard.  Only then will Black Lives Matter.  Only then will redemption be at hand, for all of us together.  And the project meaningfully engaged.

Justice is what love looks like in public.

Cornel West

Just then, Pastor Mike spoke directly and prophetically to the church.  “Faith formation,” he said, “is underdeveloped in the Christian west, insufficent and hollow.”  Love remains a romantic aspiration, “a me-centered position,” rather than a “we-focused practice” of discipleship and beloved community.  “We’ve just got to do better,” he cried, with love in his bright eyes, and all over his face.  Faithful reckoning with American history moves disciples and accomplices on the 'way of the cross.'


Later--after the workshop, after reciting the names of Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Jessica Nelson--Pastor Mike gathered twenty of us in the festival lobby.  There we linked arms, sang “This Little Light of Mine,” and followed our Pentecostal prophet quite literally into the street.  We were Jewish and Christian, Muslim and agnostic.  And our motley crew crossed four lanes of one-way traffic and followed Pastor Mike into the office building where NRA committees were just then sitting in closed session.  Arm in arm, we climbed a central stairway.  Arm in arm, we marched down the long hallway.  Everywhere I go, I’m gonna let it shine.  And when Pastor Mike reached the NRA’s closed door, he knocked on it.

A stunned representative appeared shortly.  Mike asked to speak to the committee and was told that wouldn’t be happening.  Instead, he spoke directly and respectfully to the still stunned NRA representative: We just want to offer some faith-filled recommendations to the NRA, how to save more lives, to keep our communities safe.”  When the representative turned to leave, Mike continued. "Many of us are working on many strategies to make us safer.  So part of what we'd like to do is just ask that the NRA consider life-saving strategies and endorse them.  We know that there's resistance to common-sense gun laws, like background checks, but there are many other strategies you could pursue."  As the bewildered NRA leader looked around, Mike urged his NRA to consider safety features to protect kids and to divest from prison-for-profit corporations.
Beat swords into ploughshares?

At this point, the committee member slipped back into the conference room, closing the door behind him, and in Pastor Mike's generous, loving, courageous face.  Mike continued, naming the values we shared in that march, and our intention to continue working and organizing and struggling for justice and peace for our neighborhoods.  When we left the building, two young security guards eagerly pursued Pastor Mike and let him know that he was no longer welcome in the building, and that he'd surely be arrested if he returned a second time.  "We've done what we came to do," the Pentecostal peacemaker said without malice or disappointment.  "We've done what we came here to do." 

All last night, I wondered about Pastor Mike's critique of formation in the church: that it's "underdeveloped," that we don't build courage in our people, that we have so much more to do.  As disciples and accomplices 'on the way.'  What a gift he gave us all, in showing us what he's talking about!  What witness he offered in taking us to the streets, turning ideas into actions, bringing light to darkness and carrying himself (and us) with such dignity and grace.  What will it take for the Christian church--around the country--to shape lives, and build communities, capable of such things?   

Here's how I see it, after a long night of prayer and restlessness.  Without a robust commitment to formation in the 21st century, churches ask too little of their members (that is, of disciples) and allow an anemic gospel to claim Christian lives and mindsAn "underdeveloped" faith is satisfied with kindness, whereas Jesus insisted on release for the captives and comfort for the afflicted (Luke 4).  An "underdeveloped" faith is satisfied with forgiveness, whereas Jesus insisted on reparation (Isaiah 58), reconciliation (Luke 15) and holy celebration.  An "underdeveloped" faith is satisfied with peaceful living, whereas Jesus insisted on inner disarmament, active nonviolence and compassion.  See the difference?  An "underdeveloped" faith acquiesces to dominant cultural paradigms, expectations, even religious passivity.  But Jesus said, "Take up your cross and follow me."


Which brings me back to the Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak and his story about South Africa's Truth & Reconciliation Commision.  The context, I think, was Dr. Boesak's reflection on oppression and grievance, cheap grace and reconciliation; and he was quick to say that the Truth & Reconciliation Commission did not set out to quickly or magically heal so many wrongs.  No one can or should forget what happened in South Africa, to families, widows, children, and to the larger society of human beings as well.  

Allan Boesak
Still, choices have to be made: retribution, fierce contempt, truth-telling, faith.  Choices.  On Wednesday, in the Festival of Faiths' first session, Dr. Boesak told the story of one widow and her appearance before the Commission in 1996 or so.  Her husband had been killed ten or twelve years before.  And for the first time, this woman sat that day before representatives of her dear husband's brutal and racist murderers.  

Dr. Boesak described the scene: how she leaned back in her chair and offered up her grief, fully and physically and powerfully.  Such a cry as he had never heard.  And two decades later, he called it a defining, even self-critical moment in the "reckoning" (that's Pastor Mike's word) of South Africans with apartheid, its terror and their history.  The widow could not, and did not, expect to make things right that day, or to exorcise the past or her pain, or to bring back her murdered husband and the years lost.  And that's not what "truth and reconciliation" is all about, either.

Reconciliation, said Allan Boesak, has to be "real" (and not some version of quietism), "radical" (and that means leaning into real justice, safeguarding human rights) and "revolutionary" (and that means transforming the person in relation to society, and the society in relation to the world).  These three words are his: real, radical and revolutionary.   

Enduring Witness
And South Africa's revolutionary work, its prophetic work, begins for Allan Boesak in the widow's prolonged and agonizing cry--in the nation's "reckoning" with her cry and her loss.  Her human cry, her humanness, and her human loss.  Her pain--she insisted on this that day--must be heard by the oppressor, by the culture: not as an "issue" or a problem to be fixed, but as pain itself.  Pain itself, hers, must now be reckoned with.  (This, it seems to me, is something like the Black Lives Matter project now.  Pain, reckoning and justice.  Real, radical and revolutionary.)

Biblically, it's something like Hannah rising in 1 Samuel 1, and insisting that her pain be seen and acknowledged.  "Look on the misery of your servant, and remember me, and do not forget your servant!"  It's something very much like the Syro-Phoenician mother refusing to yield and insisting that Jesus' acknowledge her distress, her daughter's pain (Mark 7).  Even after Jesus dismissed her out of hand the first time around.
With her prolonged, agonizing cry, the South African widow insisted on being heard and demanded true and meaningful reconciliation.  Not some fairy tale ending.  Not a quick and easy apology.

Here, then, is the hermeneutic for biblical faith: the widow crying out, wailing before her husband's killers in South Africa.  She's insisting on something deeply, profoundly, theologically essential: meaningful reconcilation, gospel peacePastor Michael McBride said on Friday that "if there is no capacity to change, there are no subjects or verbs, there is no love."  Gospel insists on such capacity, counts on it, waits for it if necessary.

For those of us hanging on in the Christian church, in the Jesus movement, this hermeneutic does two things.  First, it RECKONS with history, and then it FORMS a people, a beloved community capable of courageous love and merciful justice.  We read scripture, we wrestle with ancient order to RECKON with history from the vantage point of God's mercy and justice...and in order to FORM ourselves into the servant church, the called-out, shook-up people of God.  Taking it to the streets.