Thursday, September 27, 2012

Vashti's Gift

It’s good to be the king.

This truism runs throughout the Mel Brooks canon of films, most notably in his 1993 opus, Robin Hood, Men in Tights.

In the climatic scene, King Richard (Patrick Stewart) pulls the beautiful Maid Marion (Amy Yasbeck) into his arms and plants a lingering and passionate kiss on her fulsome lips.

Rabbi Tuckman watches intently before giving the audience an approving wink: “It’s good to be the king.”

Brooks knows kings have been getting away with serious crap over the centuries, including having their way with willing and unwilling maidens. It’s not that Brooks approves of monarchial rape or any other abuse of power but he thinks power can be dramatically dissipated if we laugh at it. Audiences in Germany reportedly doubled up over Brooks’ “Springtime for Hitler.”

But time was when laughing at Nazis and kings was a capital offense. So it was throughout much of human history, and so it was in the time of King Ahasuerus (ah-HAZ-er-us) of Persia, a central and certainly the most powerful figure in the book of Esther.

Ahasuerus was megalomaniacal, ravenous for power, and – if the book of Esther is any indication – a devoted alcoholic whose liver must have resembled a hair ball. As the narrative opens, the king is in the midst of a six-month party in which “drinking was by flagons, without restraint” (1:8). 

Since the point of the party was to show off the king’s great wealth, the image of the palace that comes to mind is a gilded Animal House. And, as was true of virtually every Persian male alive in 450 B.C., Ahasuerus was a devoted misogynist.

The Greek version of Ahasuerus’ name is Xerxes, which many people find easier to pronounce because they remember Cecil B. DeMille’s histrionic intonation in his biblical epics: ZIRK-sees!

Most historians believe that Ahasuerus and Xerxes the First are one in the same. That would make the biblical Ahasuerus the devious victor of the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C. when his vast army destroyed a much smaller Greek militia. Afterwards, according to some reports (although no archaeological evidence exists), Xerxes is said to have burned the city of Athens to the ground.

The Ahasuerus we meet in Esther is not a monarch to trifle with. He has the power to bestow great riches upon his friends, and he could instantly execute anyone who inadvertently annoyed him. As he drained flagon after flagon of wine, no one knew where his foggy inebriation might lead.

As it turned out, “when the king was merry with wine, he commanded … the seven eunuchs who attended him to bring Queen Vashti before the king, wearing the royal crown, in order to show the peoples and the officials her beauty; for she was fair to behold. But Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s command … At this the king was enraged, and his anger burned within him.” (1:10-12).

What on earth got into Vashti, that she committed a capital offense by refusing a lawful order of the king?

The verdict of history seems to depend on the gender of the historian.

My own suspicion, admittedly Y-chromosomal, is that Vashti’s refusal is a rash and even arrogant test of her power over a king she knows to be smitten by her good looks. It makes you think of other ambitious queens, including Ann Boleyn whose miscalculation of her power over King Henry VIII led to the cleaving of her head.

The author of Esther seems to share that view. The angry King Ahasuerus summons his sages to ask what should be done with a wife who disobeys her king.

Misogyny throbs in their manly solution:

“For this deed of the queen will be made known to all women, causing them to look with contempt on their husbands, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before  him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble ladies of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will rebel against the king’s officials, and there will be no end of contempt and wrath!” (1:17-18)

It’s the dominos theory of sexual warfare: if one husband’s authority over his wife is flaunted, all husbands will lose their God-given powers over the weaker sex. And who could bear to live in a world like that?

King Ahasuerus accepts the wisdom of his macho advisors and deposes the queen. No one knows what happened to Vashti after that, although we fear the worst. Ahasuerus was not the kind of king who hesitated to take a life, or thousands of lives, at the flick of his royal finger. In Vashti’s case he was careful to make sure all seven of his male advisors were recorded by name (1:14) so history would acknowledge due process in her elimination, and he may have felt it was kinder to take her life than to send her demoted and shamed into the dung heaps of Persia.

Surely Vashti must have known she was taking an enormous personal risk by refusing a lawful order of the king, and there’s no evidence in Esther that anyone sympathized with her.

So what possessed her to say no when her whole life depended on saying yes?

For many scholars, Vashti’s refusal is an act of heroism, not arrogance or ambition.

The Rev. Martha M. Cruz (who, in the interest of full disclosure, is my spouse) holds that point of view.

“What was Vashti thinking?” I asked one night before lights-out (an aside to those who wonder what ecclesial pillow talk is like).

“What do you mean?”

“Why on earth would she refuse the king’s command to come to him when she knew what the consequences would be?”

There was a familiar pause as she quickly studied my face to see if I’d gone mad.

“Did you read it?” she asked, referring to the book of Esther.

“Yes, but …”

“Look, the king had been drinking with his minions for six months, showing off his gold and silver and marble pillars. Then when he was ‘merry with wine,’ he summons his beautiful trophy wife so he can show her off, too.”

“Yes …”

“Well, do you think she wants to be shown off like a slab of beef?”

“Well, no …”

“She was being summoned to voyeuristic abuse by the king and his drunken male friends, and she said, ‘No way!’”

I tried to think it through.

“But,” I said thoughtfully, “he asked her to wear her crown. He wasn’t asking her to pose naked. He asked her to wear the crown to introduce her as his queen …”

“It doesn’t matter if she was dressed or not. She was summoned by a powerful man to be exposed and humiliated in front of other powerful men. No woman wants that.”

“Of course,” I said. “But this was 450 B.C. The king’s power was absolute. In 450 B.C., Queen Vashti would not have been aware of any alternative but to do what the king said.” I stopped short of saying, “It’s good to be the king.”

Martha scoffed. “Do you think women were any happier to be exposed and humiliated 2500 years ago than they are now?”

I paused again to think it over. Of course, history’s most common thread is about powerless majorities being enslaved and humiliated by rich rulers, and I didn’t suppose one gender felt worse about it than the other.

But history does offer rare anecdotes of the powerless taking courageous stands against the powerful: Spartacus, the Zealots, the English peasant’s revolt of 1381, Joseph Cinqué, Nat Turner.  Maybe Queen Vashti should be added to that heroic list.

“I guess you’re right,” I said tentatively, still thinking it over. We fell asleep, as we often do, with a re-run of Law and Order: Criminal Intent on the bedroom television. I can’t remember what specific episode we were watching, but it had to have been a drama about powerful persons engaged in criminal behavior toward the weak. No doubt Detectives Eames and Goren brought the bad guys to justice in the final scenes, but it was a reminder that human conflict has changed little in 2500 years.

The conflict between King Ahasuerus and Queen Vashti was clearly sexually motivated, with the male seeking to fulfill his Freudian role of dominance and the woman raising an unexpected archetype of resistance. Later on in this same scripture it will be interesting to watch Queen Esther, Vashti’s lovely successor, use her exquisite beauty to charm the king into halting a plot by one of his ministers to exterminate the Jews of Persia. Whoever wrote the book of Esther – and I assume the author is male – obviously preferred Esther’s velvety approach to Vashti’s rebellion. In fact, no one in the narrative dares express support for Vashti – including she who benefitted most from her removal, namely, Queen Esther herself.

But the question remains about the appropriate relationship between the powerful and the powerless, as well as between women and men, both 2500 years ago and today.

We may excuse King Ahasuerus’ attitudes toward women as a Bronze Age fixation, but of course Martha is correct: even women who accepted cultural norms of low rank and submission were no more content to be objectified and humiliated then than they would be today. We tend to excuse unacceptable behavior when it conforms to historic or cultural norms, but in fact, Ahasuerus was as wide of the mark in 450 B.C. as he would be today.

This is an important lesson for the church. It’s not just the Roman Catholic hierarchy that has mishandled clergy sexual misconduct. All churches and traditions have sought to protect their professional leadership from criminal accusations on the grounds that if the clergy looks bad the church looks bad and the church’s Christian witness will suffer.

Of course it’s clergy misconduct that causes the church’s witness to suffer and efforts to cover it up make a bad situation worse. And no church that I have been aware of in the whole ecumenical movement has been entirely innocent of hiding terrible truths.

Sometimes sexual misconduct is explained away by cultural cliches, as in, “I’m a hugger,” or “I’m a toucher,” or “I grew up kissing strangers on the lips.” But that’s like excusing King Ahasuerus’ abuse of his queen on the grounds that “it’s good to be the king.”

Recently, ecumenical church bodies noticed a growing conflict in their meetings between persons who like to touch and be touched, and persons whose chests hurt if anyone stands too close to them.

The result is a brochure handed out by the National Council of Churches and Church World Service at every board and assembly meeting to explain to well-meaning Christians the truth about sexual harassment and abuse.

“Our diversity adds to the strength of our community; it is something that is cherished and celebrated,” the brochure advises.

“As we encounter one another’s differences, we cannot assume that our way of being and behaving is comfortable for every person. Sometimes our differences make it challenging to understand and communicate with one another, as well as respecting individual physical and sexual boundaries.”

As many church folks have discovered, it’s amazing how many people think a hand on the thigh or a pat on the rump is an essential component of any prayer circle.

“Behavior that has a sexual connotation, when unsolicited and unwanted, and / or repetitive, can be sexual harassment,” the brochure explains, perhaps too politely.

“Examples include: suggestive looks or comments, teasing or telling of jokes with sexual content, correspondence or calls of a sexual nature, inappropriate touching or closeness, pressure for unwanted personal or social engagement or activities with sexual overtones, or offers to use influence in return for sexual favors.

“In the end, harassment is not necessarily what is intended, but how that behavior and attitude impacts another’s well being defines harassment.”

The brochure encourages persons who feel that have been targets of sexual harassment to speak out.

“Gatherings of church bodies also need to be mindful of the presence of this kind of behavior. Within the sacred context of worship and Koinonia, sensitivity to and respect for each person is important.”

Queen Vashti is one of millions of women who were not treated with sensitivity and respect by one who held power over them.

The fact that Vashti took a stand when it would almost certainly result in her destruction is one of the most remarkable acts of courage in the Hebrew scriptures, equal to the courage of the queen who succeeded her.

We don't know what finally happened to her, but we do know this: Queen Vashti set an example not only for her time but for all time. And we honor her as one who knew her true worth in God's firmament – and showed us how to do the same.

That legacy is Vashti's gift.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Sweet Revenge

Modern cinema is a lot about revenge.

If Christians tend to flock to these payback films, it’s probably because Jesus is so not about revenge, and yet revenge feels so good.

This summer audiences cheered lustily as the Batman prevailed over the baleful Bane, a seemingly invincible villain who was poised to kill millions of innocents.

In earlier years we shouted our approval as Captain Kirk destroyed Kahn, or when Rambo reduced his enemies to quivering piles of bleeding flesh, a movie so high concept it can be rendered as a Haiku:

Rambo reduced his
enemies to quivering
Piles of bleeding flesh

My favorite revenge film is Lethal Weapon 2, a 1989 action comedy film directed by Richard Donner, and starring Mel Gibson, Danny Glover, Patsy Kensit, Joe Pesci, Derrick O'Connor and Joss Ackland.

Ackland – who five years earlier had portrayed the Christian apologist C.S. Lewis in a BBC version of Shadowlands – plays a deliciously evil bad guy, a thugly functionary of South Africa’s all-white regime who epitomized everything we hated about apartheid.

Ackland, who I love, plays a character viewers not only love to hate; they have to hate him. He is a vicious, murdering racist who, as minister of affairs for the South African consulate, exploits his governmental power to deal drugs with impunity and make millions of dollars to line his own pockets and sustain the apartheid regime.

The efforts of the glib good guys, Gibson and Glover, to arrest Ackland’s character (fittingly dubbed Arjan “Arian” Rudd), are thwarted because he has diplomatic immunity.

But as the film rolls on, the viewers’ antipathy for the character grows to despairing frustration. It is revealed that Arjan Rudd had ordered the murder of the wife of Mel Gibson’s character, Riggs. And when Arjan binds Riggs’ arms and throws him into the drink to die, Riggs sees Arjan has already murdered the leggy, luscious character played by Kensit, whose pale, perfect body lies inanimate on the bottom. The audience gasps; some stifle a sob and shout, “NOOOO!”

A reel or two later, Gibson and Glover catch up with the malevolent South Africans. In a climactic scene, Arjan appears on a high balcony and coldly shoots Gibson. As Gibson falls, Glover raises his pistol to confront Arjan.

Sneering, Arjan raises his consulate ID badge. With South African-accented contempt, he shouts: “Diplomatic immunity.”

The audience groans in frustration – and vicarious hatred.
Glover appears to be catching his breath. But then he raises his pistol and shoots Arjan in the head.

“It’s just been revoked,” Glover declares as the audience cheers in thunderous affirmation.

How sweet the revenge.

And what a brilliant acting job by Ackland. It’s difficult, while watching Lethal Weapon 2, to remember that Ackland is a nice gentleman who made us love him when he brought C.S. Lewis to life with deep sensitivity and showed the great man grieving and wrestling with God over the death of his wife.

It should also be remembered, while watching Lethal Weapon 2, is that it was filmed before Nelson Mandela was released and became president of a free South Africa. And it was before South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission gave thousands of malicious racists like Arjan the opportunity to repent, confess and become functioning members of the new South Africa.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was formed at the insistence of Christian leaders like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The commission was formed because the smell of revenge lingered poisonously in the air when apartheid was dismantled. And Desmond Tutu reminded his fellow citizens of an awkward truth: Jesus is so not about revenge.

It’s an awkward truth because revenge is so satisfying. And when our need for payback is the greatest, God’s truth intervenes.

So it is in this week’s bill of fare from the Revised Common Lectionary. St. James chides us for allowing our inner cravings to attack others (4:1). St. Mark quotes Jesus as telling us to give up the pursuit of power and status and assume the humble status of little kids (9:37). The Hebrew Scriptures offer no respite. Jeremiah talks about lambs being led to the slaughter (11:19) and Wisdom talks about the gentleness of the righteous being tested by insult and torture (2:19).

And although the Sermon on the Mount is not one of this week’s lectionary texts, all of this Sunday’s readings lead to the same conclusion:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’” Jesus said. “But I say to you, Do not resist one who is evil. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (Matthew 5:38)

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.”
(Matthew 5:44)

I often wonder what kind of audience reaction Jesus got when he first said “love your enemies.”

Monty Python imagines, not unreasonably, that the acoustical challenges of breezy lakefront property may have caused some to mishear Jesus’ words. “What did he say? Blessed are the cheesemakers?”

But what, some must have wondered, would have been more implausible than love your enemies.

“What did he say? Love your remedies?”

“No. He said, ‘don’t be lemony.’”

It’s not as far fetched as it seems. Years ago, I taught a Sunday school class of seventh grade girls. It was not one of my more successful endeavors, but no other sane adult had volunteered for the assignment so I took it on as a favor to the pastor.

I was in trouble almost immediately because the first lesson was the Sermon on the Mount. I remember droning on for a few minutes as the girls talked and giggled among themselves. I wasn’t sure if they even realized I was in the classroom, so I raised my voice.


The chattering ceased and the girls looked at me with contorted expressions.

“He what?” said one.

I cleared my throat. “Jesus said, ‘love your enemies.’” I grinned hopefully.

The girls were briefly silent as they considered whether they heard me right.

“He did not,” said one emphatically, bobbing her head sideways in contemptuous defiance.

“Not in my bible,” said another.

I started to point to the verse in my bible, but the girl looked away.

“No way.”

“Jesus may have said it,” said another, “but he didn’t say it in no seventh grade.”

“Nuh uh,” said the head bobber. “Wouldn’t last three seconds in the seventh grade.”

“Love your enemy,” said another as if it were a punch line. The class burst into laughter.

And you can hardly blame them, especially if you’re among those who enjoy revenge-oriented action movies. Loving your enemy is not nearly as satisfying as reducing them to quivering piles of bleeding flesh. And I have a feeling that enemy loving is not the best path to survival in the Serengeti of Middle School.

We also know that loving one’s enemy is no way to pick up votes. “Bin Laden is dead,” goes the Democrats’ prideful boast. “General Motors is alive.”

I don’t know what the major party candidates pray when they go to church, or if they see any dissonance in celebrating their hatred of a dead enemy.

I suspect they do what many of their fellow Christians have done for centuries: pray for their enemies on Sundays, and seek vengeance against them for the rest of the week.

It’s a form of spiritual compartmentalization we all do so well. You can see it brilliantly depicted in one of the greatest series of morality plays of all time: The Godfather I, II and III.

It is disconcerting to watch the devoutly Christian Don Vito Corleone raise his family in the church while ordering the termination of those who have betrayed him or dispatching messengers to his enemies to offer deals they can’t refuse.

For the Don, church and family are personal and his underworld empire is business and the two must never connect.

There are two scenes in the Godfather trilogy where piety and vengeance are simultaneously carried out but separated in hermetically sealed compartments. At the end of Godfather I, the new Don, Michael Corleone, stands dutifully in church at the baptismal font and prays as his infant godson is baptized in a rite that expresses uncompromising acceptance of Christ and rejection of Satan. While he prays, the split screen exposes gory glimpses of the bloody murders he has ordered on all his enemies.

In Godfather III, Michael visits a cardinal in Rome. Cardinal Lamberto, a wise and gentle man who is intended to remind us of Pope John Paul I, urges Michael to make his first confession in 30 years. Michael tearfully confesses to his crimes, including the murder of his brother. The cardinal tells Michael his sins are terrible and “it is just that you suffer.” But the cardinal also tells Michael that God would still forgive him if he asked, “but I know you don’t believe that.”

Michael walks away, still in his sins. The theme of unholy revenge is played out to the end of the film until Michael has lost all he loves.

The confession scene, I think, is one of the great sermons of cinema. Michael Corleone’s sins are terrible beyond imagining, but he has been given a great gift: the opportunity to lay them all before God and walk away unburdened, a free and redeemed man.

But all his life he has placed his faith and his sin in separate boxes until one no longer has access to the other. He dies an old and rejected man, separated all his life and now for all eternity from the love of God that has been within his grasp all along.

When Jesus said, “Love your enemies,” he probably was thinking about the seventh grade and he was thinking about Osama bin Laden and racists and homophobes and all the other dastards with whom we are forced to share our lives.

When our enemies do us great harm, there is nothing sweeter on earth than vengeance.

But, inconveniently, Jesus is not telling us to love our enemies on Sunday while we savor their destruction the rest of the week.

As entertaining as that may be, there are better things in store for us.

And one of those things is the unconditional redemption God extends to all of us once we are able to set aside the need for revenge that, sweet though it may be, prevents us from accepting God’s unimaginable gift.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remembering September 11

Note: An earlier version of this blog was published on September 10, 2011.

We all have our stories.

My spouse Martha and I had just settled into our offices in The Interchurch Center, more than 100 blocks north of the World Trade Center. On September 11, 2001, Martha directed public relations and communication for the United Church of Christ Pension Boards on the 10th floor (as she still does), and I was communications officer of the U.S. conference for the World Council of Churches on the 9th floor.

I was probably sipping the last dregs of my morning coffee when Martha called. “Did you hear a plane has flown into the World Trade Center?”

Instinctively, I turned to my keyboard and typed The Associated Press had tentatively moved a story with a file picture of the twin towers.

“What a mess,” I thought. I could imagine a small plane veering off course from Teeterboro and straying into one of the 1,340 foot-high towers. No doubt some office workers in the tower had been injured.

Martha called back. “We have an office on the 19th floor,” she said. “We can see the towers from there.” I met her at the elevator and we went up. Tom, the office IT director, shook his head as we walked in and nodded toward a southerly window.

The towers were nearly seven miles south of us, but in my memory they seemed just a few blocks away. Black smoke billowed from the northern façade of the North Tower, and I still assumed an errant small plane had done the damage. Most of the people in the office had stopped looking out the window and had returned to their tasks.

We watched the smoke streaming eastward for several minutes.

“I have a service downstairs in the chapel,” Martha said.

One of her coworkers had died over the weekend, and Martha, an ordained Baptist minister, was in charge of the memorial. We thanked Tom for allowing us to satisfy our curiosity and walked out. Seconds after we closed the door behind us, the second plane hit the South Tower.

An hour later, when Martha and her colleagues emerged from the memorial service, both towers were fully involved in flames and on the verge of collapse.

Across the river in Hoboken, Martha’s cousin Tony watched in horror as people leaped from the towers to escape the flames and fell to their deaths on the plaza below.

Martha’s cousin Alina was stranded with her colleagues at Brown Brothers Harriman on nearby Wall Street. In the Empire State Building on 34th street, Alina’s husband, Steve, was making urgent calls to her office to see if she was all right.

Back at the Interchurch Center on 120th Street, my colleagues Jean and Sonia were literally holding each other up as news came of the collapse of the North Tower. Jean’s niece, who had been staying with her that summer, worked at one of the buildings adjacent to the towers and Jean had been unable to reach her.

As I sat in my office overlooking the Hudson River, I spun my radio dial, seeking additional updates. I listened briefly to an FM deejay who said he was broadcasting from one of the towers. “They’re telling us to evacuate,” he said excitedly, “But I’m staying at my post as a public service, ‘cause folks need to know what’s goin’ on …” I spun past him looking for 1010 WINS or another all news station and didn’t give the deejay a second thought. But ten years later, I wonder: did the guy wise up and get the hell out of the tower? Or did I accidentally tune in to his last words on earth?

It wasn’t easy getting news about what was happening outside. I began receiving emails from a World Council of Churches colleague in Geneva, Switzwerland. Martin Robra, a German Lutheran peace activist, was monitoring the news in Europe and it was in one of his emails that I learned a plane had also struck the Pentagon in Washington. “You are at war,” Martin wrote ominously.

Our offices in The Interchurch Center at 120th Street and Riverside were far from Ground Zero and still unaffected by the calamity that was unfolding downtown. Two days later, a foul yellow haze that stung the eyes and burned the throat would spread throughout all of Manhattan. But in the midday hours of September 11, the air was still clear uptown. If you turned northward toward the George Washington Bridge, it was a beautifully pristine late summer day.

Outside the city, persons following the events on television wondered if all New York was in flames. Our son, Will, then a junior at Port Chester High School, left an urgent message on Martha’s cell phone. He had heard the city was under attack by military jets flying out of the White Plains airport and he pleaded with his mother to get in touch with him. Unfortunately, we didn’t get the message until hours later, when we were all safely home.

Daughter Victoria was in sixth grade in Port Chester on September 11 and we felt sure she would be safe with her teachers until the end of the day. However, daughter Katie was in a special education program in an outside school district and needed to take a school bus home. What the traffic situation would be like in Westchester County was anyone’s guess.

“Let’s go pick up Katie,” Martha said. I told Jean and Sonia that we were heading home, and they waved their hands as if to shoo us out. “Be careful,” Jean said. She had just heard that all bridges and access routes to Manhattan has been closed.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s see how far we can get.”

As it turned out, Riverside Drive was virtually empty. When we got to the Bronx-bound Henry Hudson Bridge, I looked for signs it had been closed. Instead, an MTA officer waved us through the tolls. We made it to Katie’s school in Ardsley in half the usual time.

But there were scores of cars jamming the high school parking lot. Parents from all over the district had come to take their children home. We parked at the far end of the lot and headed for the nurse’s office to sign Katie out. We found ourselves waiting in a line of anxious parents as a stressed-out gray-haired nurse scolded us.

“This is crazy,” she hissed, “You people are over-reacting,” as she impatiently scribbled her signature on dismissal slips.

After several minutes, Katie was escorted to the office by her teacher, Erin. Erin smiled at us but she must have had other things on her mind. She knew her brother, an employee at Cantor Fitzgerald, could have been one of nearly 3,000 people killed at the World Trade Center. It would be weeks before his remains were identified, but hours after the attack his fate was still unknown.

That night, as the sun began to set on September 11, the Port Chester members of the family were safely home on Wesley Avenue. Throughout the tri-state area that night, thousands of shaken people who made it home kept an eye on their neighbors’ homes to see if they returned safely. But many never did.

As supper was being prepared, I stepped outside briefly, probably to retrieve something from the car. A military fighter jet roared overhead at a low altitude; if the jet had been slower, I could have read the words on the fuselage, but it thundered angrily and disappeared. My knees buckled as I ducked instinctively, but in an instant the air was silent again. I thought to myself, “We really are at war.”

It’s difficult to exaggerate the worldwide effects of September 11. The attacks – and our reaction to the attacks – had an indelible impact on billions of people. On September 12 we learned that our British friends John and Bridget had been traveling from London to New York on September 11. When U.S. airports closed, their flight was diverted to Nova Scotia. They and other passengers were taken in by friendly Canadian farmers until the planes started flying again, on September 14.

Our daughter Lauren had planned to fly from Washington State to Philadelphia on September 11.

“I was going to a wedding in Philadelphia on the 15th,” Lauren recalls. “My flight was supposed to be a red eye leaving on the night of the 11th, but it didn’t get out until the 14th. I waited on line at (the Seattle-Tacoma airport) so long that I got free water and snacks from the Red Cross.”

Lauren was in a tiny minority of Americans who still wanted to fly that week. As it turned out, she made it to the wedding on time. “The minister pointed out that weddings are always audacious acts of hope in a world full of tragedy,” she recalls. “It’s hopeful, loving, life affirming acts like marriage that get us through everything else.”

It was not easy to find loving, life affirming acts in the aftermath of September 11. It’s not any easier today as the war in Afghanistan, launched as a direct reaction to the terror attacks, goes on and on. For many of us, the murder of Osama Bin Laden a decade after the attacks did little to ease the anger and salve the grief.

Perhaps one of the most prophetic statements that came out of September 11 appeared within days after the attacks. It was called, “Deny them their victory,” and it was written by four interfaith leaders* and signed by 4,000 people, including Martha and me and perhaps including you.

“We, American religious leaders, share the broken hearts of our fellow citizens,” the statement said. “The worst terrorist attack in history that assaulted New York City, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, has been felt in every American community. Each life lost was of unique and sacred value in the eyes of God, and the connections Americans feel to those lives run very deep. In the face of such a cruel catastrophe, it is a time to look to God and to each other for the strength we need and the response we will make. We must dig deep to the roots of our faith for sustenance, solace, and wisdom.”

The statement continued: “The terrorists have offered us a stark view of the world they would create, where the remedy to every human grievance and injustice is a resort to the random and cowardly violence of revenge – even against the most innocent . . . The terrorists must feel victorious.

“But we can deny them their victory by refusing to submit to a world created in their image. Terrorism inflicts not only death and destruction but also emotional oppression to further its aims. We must not allow this terror to drive us away from being the people God has called us to be. We assert the vision of community, tolerance, compassion, justice, and the sacredness of human life, which lies at the heart of all our religious traditions. America must be a safe place for all our citizens in all their diversity. It is especially important that our citizens who share national origins, ethnicity, or religion with whoever attacked us are, themselves, protected among us.”

Ten years after the attacks, I still can’t bring myself to watch the television images of the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. They are simply too painful.

But there was another historic event that occurred less than a week after September 11, 2001, and many religious leaders have called upon people of faith to recognize it whenever they pray about September 11.

On September 17, President George W. Bush, in an extraordinary act of statesmanship, began his day with a visit to a mosque in Washington.

He bought coffee for a cafeteria full of people as he appealed to Americans to get back to everyday business and not turn against their Muslim neighbors.

The Associated Press reported that Bush removed his shoes in Muslim fashion and “padded through the ornate mosque on Washington’s Embassy Row and heard stories from his hosts about Muslim-American women afraid to leave their homes for fear of prejudiced backlash after last week’s terrorist strikes.”

“Those who feel like they can intimidate our fellow citizens to take out their anger don’t represent the best of America, they represent the worst of humankind and they should be ashamed of that kind of behavior,” Bush said.

He quoted from the Quran and fervently defended the Islam faith: “Islam is peace,” he said. “These terrorists don’t represent peace, they represent evil and war.”

The judgment of history is still pending on George W. Bush, and millions of his admirers and critics engage in spirited debate about his preparedness for a terrorist attack, or his decisions to go to war in Afghanistan – a war that continues to this day.

But on September 17, 2001, he demonstrated the kind of leadership the nation needed most. He made it clear that the terror attacks were the acts of mad and evil men who had no connection to millions of peace loving Muslims around the world. And he said people who felt otherwise “should be ashamed.”

It’s a reminder that should engage us all as we look back on those terrible days.
* The writers of "Deny Them Their Victory" were Jim Wallis, Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, David Saperstein, and Bob Edgar.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Quotations from Chairman Yahweh

As the presidential campaign begins in earnest, is it a peculiar coincidence or a bit of playful providence? Most of the scriptures slated for reading in churches this Sunday sound unabashedly political.

Selected aphorisms from Proverbs sound like planks in a major party platform:

“Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the LORD pleads their cause and despoils of life those who despoil them.” (Proverbs 22:22-23)

Psalm 146 warns voters to be wary of politicians who promise more than they can deliver, or who ignore God’s political manifesto of justice and equality:

“Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. Happy are those whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD their God, who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them; who keeps faith forever; who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets the prisoners free; the LORD opens the eyes of the blind. The LORD lifts up those who are bowed down; the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow, but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin.” (Psalms 146:3-9)

The Epistle writer James indignantly dismantles the trickle down theory of economics:

“If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.” (James 2:15-17)

And in Mark’s Gospel, a woman of low estate refuses to be ignored by Jesus and stands tall enough to puncture the testosterone ceiling that has reduced her and other women to the status of a slave.

“Jesus said to her, ‘Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.’ But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs.” (Mark 7:27-28)

In these few words, scripture reveals God’s position on class impartiality, economic justice, immigration reform, and equal opportunity for women.

I’ll leave it to the reader to decide which of the current candidates for office come closest to embracing God’s platform.

But these verses selected by the Revised Common Lectionary for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost (that’s September 9) make God’s politics hard to ignore.

God loves the poor.

God hates injustice.

God blesses the rich only insofar as they love justice and share their bounty with the poor.

God watches over prisoners, immigrants, orphans and widows, and expects all of us to do the same.

And God has declared that women and men are equal, and their common faith gives women and men the same access to the special blessings of Jesus.

Jesus associated himself with the same platform when he addressed his congregation in Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Jesus’ reference to “the acceptable year” puts him – and us – in particularly radical territory because it refers to the Levitical law which requires the faithful to return all purchased property, free all slaves, and forgive all debts that have been accumulating in the past 50 years.

But returning property and forgiving debts is far too sweeping a stimulus package for today’s politicians, most of whom rationalize it away as impractical, economically untenable, or Jesus must have been kidding.

But of course Jesus isn’t kidding. God’s partiality for the poor is a common thread running through scripture that is nearly 3,500 years old.

God loves the poor.

God hates injustice.

God blesses the rich only insofar as they love justice and share their bounty with the poor.

God watches over prisoners, immigrants, orphans and widows, and expects all of us to do the same.

And God has declared that women and men are equal.

As candidates for high executive and legislative office and thousands of their supporters sit in churches all over the country, they will be reminded of these same scriptures.

I wonder how they will react to these quotations from Chairman Yahweh. And I wonder if they will get any fresh insights into God’s political program that will affect their platforms.

Throughout the past several years, most politicians – including President Obama and Governor Romney – have positioned themselves as champions of the great middle class. Mr. Obama says he will improve the lives of the middle class by lowering their taxes, providing better access to education and health care, and paying for it by increasing taxes on the rich. Mr. Romney calls for easing the tax burdens on the rich to encourage them to create more jobs, and for reducing the federal deficit by cutting billions of dollars out of federal programs.

Neither Mr. Obama nor Mr. Romney have offered many details about what they will do to help the very poor, the millions of Americans and other world citizens who live so far below the poverty line that it threatens their very lives.

Meanwhile, the U.S. House and Senate continue to debate how much money should be cut from federal programs in order to reduce the national debt.

Neither political party is talking seriously about slashing waste from the defense budget and representatives of both parties strenuously oppose closing military installations in their districts. This is always puzzling because one would think there would be more flexibility in the defense budget. An order to stop building only one F35 fighter jet would free up $113 million dollars, which would feed a lot of hungry children.

But if Congress moves ahead with the cuts it is proposing, there will be a lot more hungry children in the world.

In an effort to lower the national debt, which some economists say is hurting the economy, many in Congress want to cut or eliminate programs that provide direct support for poor people at home and abroad. These badly needed programs include food Assistance; SNAP (formerly food stamps); free and reduced-price school meals; low-Income Child Care and Early Education; Head Start; Low-Income Health Care; Medicaid; Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP); Tax Credits and Income Support; Refundable tax credits (EITC: the refundable component of the Child Tax Credit); Low-Income Education and Training; Shelter and Homelessness; Preventing Child Maltreatment; Refugee Assistance.

International programs targeted for reduction include International Food Assistance and Emergency Response; P.L. 480 Title II Food for Peace; McGovern-Dole International Food for Education; Global Health; Global Health and Child Survival—State Department (includes PEPFAR); Child Survival and Maternal Health; Sustainable International Development Programs; Development Assistance; International Refugee Assistance and Post-Conflict Support; Peacekeeping; Sustainable International Development Programs; International Poverty-Focused Financial Services (in ways that serve the poorest of the poor).

It’s astonishing, frankly, to listen to the same politicians advocate reducing taxes on rich people while recommending cuts in programs that are helping to keep poor people alive.

Perhaps you saw Sister Simone Campbell address the Democratic Convention last week Sister Simone is an organizer of the “Nuns on the Bus” program that traveled around the country this summer in the name of social justice.

Sister Simone characterized the federal budget as “a moral document.” But the budget proposed by Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan, a Roman Catholic layman, is anything but, she said.

“Paul Ryan claims this budget reflects the principles of our shared faith,” Sister Simone said, “but the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that the Ryan budget failed a basic moral test, because it would harm families living in poverty.”

Sister Simone, who also opposes some of Mr. Obama’s programs such as support for marriage equity and freedom of choice, received a standing ovation when she endorsed ObamaCare “as part of my pro-life stance and the right thing to do.”

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Nuns on the Bus are part of an unprecedented coalition of liberal, mainline, evangelical, and Pentecostal groups that oppose federal budget cuts in programs that help the programs. Sister Simone is one of the founding members of the Circle of Protection that came together last year to protect these programs. 

The Circle of Protection members also include the National Association of Evangelicals, the National Council of Churches, Bread for the World, Sojourners, the Alliance to End Hunger, the Salvation Army, the National African American Clergy Network, the National Baptist Convention of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, and others. (You can join at

“As Christians, we believe the moral measure of the debate is how the most poor and vulnerable people fare,” the organizers said in a statement of purpose. “We look at every budget proposal from the bottom up—how it treats those Jesus called ‘the least of these.’” (Matthew 25:45).

“They do not have powerful lobbies, but they have the most compelling claim on our consciences and common resources,” the organizers said. “The Christian community has an obligation to help them be heard, to join with others to insist that programs that serve the most vulnerable in our nation and around the world are protected. We know from our experience serving hungry and homeless people that these programs meet basic human needs and protect the lives and dignity of the most vulnerable. We believe that God is calling us to pray, fast, give alms, and to speak out for justice.”

Bringing the National Association of Evangelicals into the same cause as the National Council of Churches seems an almost miraculous achievement, but there is a practical reason for it.

The reason is this: both groups believe what scripture says.

And scripture has been proclaiming the same message for thousands of years:

God loves the poor.

God hates injustice.

God blesses the rich only insofar as they love justice and share their bounty with the poor.

God watches over prisoners, immigrants, orphans and widows, and expects all of us to do the same.

And God has declared that women and men are equal.

As the political campaign of 2012 continues, this should be our prayer: that the religious men and women running for office read their scriptures and take them to heart.

And once they have enriched their faith, may they put the admonishment of St. James (2:14-17) into action:

“What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Arise, my love

Close your eyes, remember when you were first in love, and listen:

The voice of my beloved! Look, he comes, leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills. My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in at the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land.  The fig tree puts forth its figs, and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” Song of Songs 2:8-13

Years ago I was a member of a small African American church in Conshohocken, Pennsylvania. One of the founding couples, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben, decided to organize a dinner to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. They asked me if I would say a few words after the meal.

I was, to say the least, hesitant. Not only were the Reubens many years my senior, I was all too aware I had not unlocked any secrets about marital longevity. I had no idea what to say to this saintly couple whose love and devotion set standards most members of the congregation would never match.

But their very specialness meant I couldn’t turn down the Reubens’ invitation to address the occasion. In those antediluvian days before Google, before any topic could be instantly and exhaustively searched by typing a few characters into the search bar, I pulled my old English literature texts from a moldy box and scanned the indexes for words of love.

I found Dante’s passionate tributes to his beloved Beatrice:

Already a third of the hours were almost past
of the time when all the stars were shining,
when Love suddenly appeared to me
whose memory fills me with terror.
Joyfully Love seemed to me to hold
my heart in his hand, and held in his arms
my lady wrapped in a cloth sleeping.

I found Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s immortal question:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love tee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.

I sought the Bard’s eternal cadences and bottomless insights into human nature and emotion:

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate,
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.

Even the cynical Langston Hughes found value in love, saying,

When people care for you and cry for you, they can straighten out your soul.

And Maya Angelou cast the deepest truth in the fewest words:

If we lose love and self respect for each other, this is how we finally die.

In my search for the right words, I leafed through the concordance of my Revised Standard Version Bible and found what may be the greatest, deepest, most beautiful, and most erotic love poems in all literature: the Song of Songs.

The poem presents a bride so in love with her betrothed that the very sight of him excites her:

O that you would kiss me with the kisses of your mouth!
For your love is better than wine, your anointing oils are fragrant,
Your name is oil poured out;
Therefore the maidens love you.
Draw me after you, let us make haste.
The king has brought me into his chambers.
We will exult and rejoice in you;
We will extol and rejoice in you;
We will extol your love more than wine;
Rightly do they love you. (1:2-4)

The lovesick groom is no less enamored:

You have ravished my heart, my sister, my bride,
You have ravished my heart with a glance of your eyes,
With one jewel of your necklace.
How sweet is your love, my sister, my bride!
How much better is your love than wine,
And the fragrance of your oils than any spice! (4:9-10)

The poetry is exquisite and charms anyone who has ever been in love. But the Song of Songs, attributed to King Solomon himself, is the expression of young love, physical love, the unfathomable infatuation of two beautiful children thrashing about in their own newly discovered hormonal pools.

The poem is instructive reading for young persons who think they invented love. But it’s easy enough for young lovers to believe that love is a torch their parents long ago passed to a new generation and I wondered if there were any flickers remaining for Mr. and Mrs. Reuben.

In church they sat apart. Mr. Reuben was an ordained deacon who sat with his peers in the front pew while Mrs. Reuben sat with lady friends across the aisle. After worship they would smile and mingle with other congregants, reaching out to touch shoulders, to ask if people were well, to inquire if they needed anything. They were loving and caring people. But I rarely saw Mr. and Mrs. Reuben talking with one another, even when they put on their coats and walked out together. Their interpersonal communication, I speculated, must have been subliminal.

So as I aroused myself re-reading the love lines of the Song of Songs, I began to worry if the words were entirely appropriate for an old couple married half a century.

As some bible commentaries point out, the title of the poem is “Solomon’s Song of Songs,” but no one knows if this means it was written by Solomon or for him, or –perhaps – about him. Solomon is mentioned seven times in the song, and even non-scholars can tell the poem was written in a single voice, by a single author. Whether that author was indeed the king is an ancient mystery. Solomon reigned in the 10th century B.C., and many scholars date the origins of the poem to his lifetime.

When the New Revised Standard Version of the bible was being developed in the 1980s, I was a communicator for American Baptist Churches USA. I was assigned the task of keeping American Baptists informed about this modern translation, which sought to make the ancient biblical language easier to understand by 20th and 21st century readers.

During this period I worked frequently with Dr. J. Randall Bailey, who at the time was one of the few African American Old Testament scholars in the world.

Randy, who was dually aligned with the American Baptists and the Progressive National Baptist Convention USA, Inc., was a member of the NRSV translation committee and he regularly supplied me with reams of corrected NRSV galleys to keep me up to date on developments. He also asked me to bring the galleys with me when we traveled to churches, relieving his luggage of 10 to 20 pounds of additional weight.

As a layman, I was impressed by the sheer volume of errata produced by the translators. I concluded that while the NRSV would be widely regarded as the most accurate English bible translation on the market, no one could claim it was inerrant.

On one of our bible promotion journeys, Randy told me about a special contribution he had made to broaden the cultural horizons of the new bible.

In the earlier Revised Standard Version, in the Song of Songs, a translator betrayed his or her assumption that dark skin was not necessarily synonymous with beauty.

“I am very dark, but comely,” the bride says, with emphasis on the “but.”

“Do not gaze at me because I am swarthy, because the sun has scorched me.” (1:5a-6)

Randy was convinced a centuries-old European cultural and ethnic bias had distorted the translation. He offered an improved phrase for the NRSV:

“I am black and beautiful, O daughters of Jerusalem, like the tents of Kedar, like the curtains of Solomon. Do not gaze at me because I am dark, because the sun has gazed on me.” (1:5-6a)

I think Randy also improved the poetry of the song, and in the end I decided to go ahead and read an excerpt of Song of Songs to Mr. And Mrs. Reuben on their golden anniversary.

The couple sat beside one another at the banquet table and smiled. They didn’t take their eyes off me while I read.

“How fair and pleasant you are, O loved one, delectable maiden! You are as stately as a palm tree, and your breasts are like its clusters. I say I will climb the palm tree and lay hold of its branches. Oh, may your breasts be like clusters of the vine, and the scent of your breath like apples, and your kisses like the best wine that goes down smoothly, gliding over lips and teeth.” (7:6-9)

“Set me as a seal upon your heart, as a seal upon your arm; for love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.” (8:6-7)

I stopped reading and looked at Mr. and Mrs. Reuben. Their eyes were dry and they were still smiling. But as I closed my bible and put it aside, Mr. Reuben turned to look at Mrs. Reuben. He caught her eye and she grinned, blushing imperceptibly. He gently took her hand, held it for a second or two, and put it down. They both looked up at me, still smiling.

“Thank you,” he said.

“Yes,” she said.

It wasn’t a potent demonstration of passion but, then again, it didn’t need to be. Over fifty long years, they had learned to express their love with secret glances and touches, and long moments would pass without words and gestures. No longer did their love require speeches, recitations or explanations.

A half century after they said their vows, Mr. and Mrs. Reuben had become the soul mates every lover seeks. They lived in the same space, slept in the same bed, thought the same thoughts, had the same reactions when they witnessed happiness and tragedy, and were no longer capable of conceiving a life without the other. Whatever passionate thoughts and gestures they shared were theirs alone.

The love poetry of the Song of Songs is passionate, arousing, erotic.

Why is it in the bible?’

Because the Song of Songs reminds us that God’s love for us is equally passionate; and the passion lovers feel for one another is God’s gift to be relished and ecstatically enjoyed without guilt.

In that sense, sex is the ultimate sermon: When young lovers make love, God feels their bliss and allows them a special insight into the joys of eternity.

But so, too, the sedate but intimate surety of old lovers becomes a perfect sermon about God’s love for each of us.

Whether God expresses love for us through orgasmic passion or by blessing us with a quiet haven of intimacy, it is all the same. God’s love is the air we breathe throughout our lives.

And as Solomon’s wisdom continually assures us,

“love is as strong as death, passion fierce as the grave. Its flashes are flashes of fire, a raging flame. Many waters cannot quench love, neither can floods drown it. If one offered for love all the wealth of his house, it would be utterly scorned.” (8:6-7)