Reflection

Ashes, Sacrifice, and Abundance

This post originally appeared at Feminism and Religion on March 10, 2015

 

Last year I got my ashes at the airport. As I sat in that airport chapel, I halfheartedly listened to a (mostly terrible) litany that was proclaimed in between announcements for gate changes. I was leaving for another campus interview after having been home for only 24 hours since the previous one. The Christian season of Lent came during a time of stress and chaos in my life. That year, when I contemplated what I might give up for Lent, I could think of nothing. So much had been taken away that I had nothing left to give.

The season of Lent is often linked with the idea of sacrifice. Some people fast, others give up a favorite vice or a favorite food. As a feminist theologian, I spend a great deal of time thinking about the idea of sacrifice. I wonder how women who consider themselves part of Christian churches can be asked to sacrifice when we have already given away too much. Too often, our labor is welcomed but our voices are silenced. As a Baptist theologian and ordained minister who has sojourned in Catholic universities, I’ve felt this in my own tradition and in traditions that are not my own.

The stress and chaos of last year’s Lenten season came at least partially as a result of the friction between feminist theologians and the church. I lost my tenure-track position after being told to tone down the feminist theology in the classroom. I found out that I had been banned by the archdiocese from teaching archdiocese-funded students. I was never told why I was banned – I only learned this from students who were no longer allowed to take my classes. I was caught in the midst of an institutional shift that was bigger than even this friction. I joined a pastoral studies faculty of 13 people that was reduced to 3 only two years later. Tenured male faculty who protested these changes were offered early retirement packages, but the women, who had neither tenure nor security, left with nothing.

This year, as I received my ashes, I remembered last year’s ashes. Airport ashes. Ashes given to someone stuck in between places, someone who had nothing left to give. This year, I find myself in a better place. While I did not find a new institutional home (that felt secure enough to merit moving my family across the country), I am grateful for teaching and research that is meaningful and important and for a local church where I have a voice. I am grateful to have enough abundance to consider again what it means to sacrifice, rather than to lament being sacrificed for the sake of someone else’s ideology.

Feminist theology was born out of a discussion on the meaning of sacrifice. As Valerie Saiving Goldstein responded to the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Anders Nygren in the 1960’s, she argued that the sin of women was not the sin of pride, but of self-abnegation. Women gave up too much, she argued, and Christian theology was being irresponsible in giving them a model of agape love that asked them to sacrifice even more of themselves. In my own writing and research I have joined the many feminist voices that have been critical of the ways in which religion asks women to sacrifice themselves. Yet at the same time, I have also wondered if there is a time and a place where sacrifice is appropriate.

What I have come to is this: It is only out of our abundance and toward God’s abundance that we can sacrifice ourselves. While sacrifice can rightly be called a Christian discipline, so is the call to live abundant lives that honor the human flourishing of all creation. Sacrifice – for religious or personal reasons – can be an act of agency, but only when it does not profoundly disrupt the care we are called to give to ourselves.

Sacrifice, like any other action can be moral or immoral – just or unjust. Sacrifice can only be considered a just and moral option for those on the margins when it opens space for mutuality in our relationships with ourselves and with others. In my fieldwork in Tanzania with women living with HIV and AIDS, I learned that we must make a clear distinction between a sacrifice that promotes agency (such as caring for one’s children) and women being sacrificed for the sake of something or someone else. This means that in a church that sacrifices and silences women, sacrifice is likely not a moral option. In the same way, in a society that devalues women’s work, sacrifice is unjust if it stems from expectations surrounding gender.

With this said, when we find ourselves in spaces of abundance, where our gifts are valued and our voices are welcomed; when we live and breath in places where our sacrifice will be received with mutuality, then we can take this abundance and consider what sacrifice we might make to create a more just world. Or at least those were my thoughts this year when I got my ashes.

Activism, Reflection

Advent, Genocide, and the Baby in the Manger

This post originally appeared at Huffington Post on December 5, 2014

 

Advent is my favorite time of year. The idea of waiting for hope to be born is irresistible and wonderful. When I was a kid, I memorized the entire Christmas story from the gospel of Luke for a Christmas event at church. Since my childhood, the words from Luke 2 have never left me. My family still asks me to quote the story each Christmas when we gather on Christmas Eve.

But this Advent, I’m not thinking about the story in Luke’s gospel; I’m stuck onMatthew’s account instead. In light of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown,Tamir Rice, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, John Crawford, and too many others, the image of a sweet, sanitized (too often white) baby Jesus in a manger is inadequate. We need to read the story from the gospel of Matthew and remember that the baby we celebrate was nearly a victim of a genocide organized to keep the powerful in power. This Advent we must remember that the holy family had to flee to Egypt where they waited for Herod to finish killing every baby boy under two in Bethlehem.

No, this year Advent cannot be about silent night. Not when black lives don’t seem to matter on our streets. Our silence and complicity has been rightly interrupted by protesters’ loud screams for the tone deaf to listen.

If there’s an Advent song that fits this season, it is this:

A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more (Matthew 2:18, NRSV)

This is a song of grief to help us grieve, but it is also a song that screams for us to wake up. Too often at Christmas, Jesus is born white. But this Christmas, we must recognize that Jesus was born black. If Jesus is not born black and fleeing genocide, then we have no hope for changing this world. The Jesus we celebrate during Advent was clear in his mission:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

As a white Christian with privilege I do not find myself in these verses. While I have experienced discrimination because of my gender, I do not consider myself oppressed. I do not fear for my child’s life. Instead, I fear for the lives of her black and brown friends. And even as I name this truth I’m tired, too tired, of hearing white folks say this. What we white folks need this Advent is a black Jesus to save us from ourselves. A black Jesus who demands that we join in this struggle or stop calling his name at all.

Black Theologian James Cone reminds us that if Jesus is to have any meaning for us then he must be black. Jesus is black because he stands with the oppressed in their struggle. The very life of God is bound up in freedom for the oppressed. Our lives should be as well.

The church — especially white folks in the church — must realize that these deaths (and the failures to indict) are not isolated incidents, but evidence of a system that was built to privilege white bodies and police and oppress black and brown bodies. If we as Christians cannot get this, with our thick understanding of sin, and the way it spills into every inch of our lives, then we are in trouble.

Advent is a time of hope, and the hope of Advent is this: God with us came into this world to turn everything upside down. Only a Christ who fled a violent genocide can teach us how to end violence for good.

The violence against black bodies will not end with a few protests or policy changes. This is only the beginning. The struggle will be long because the entire structure of our society must be reshaped. We must work for a world where #BlackLivesMatter more than cigarillos or untaxed cigarettes. We must work for a world where black men and boys aren’t killed for holding toy guns while white men are allowed to open carry assault rifles in their local grocery story. We must work for a world where peace and justice are valued more than power, violence, and oppression.

For white folks like me who want to be part of this change, it means listening — really listening — to black folks who are speaking their stories right now. And after listening, it means following the lead of black folks who know this terrain and can teach us all how to change it. If we want to find our own salvation this Advent, then we must listen to our black friends and neighbors as if Christ himself were speaking (because he is.)

There is much work to be done to deconstruct and reconstruct this built-to-be-broken system. But that is the hope of Advent. Jesus came to completely change the world. This Advent, our call is nothing less than this impossible, hopeful task.

Advocacy, Reflection

Dare to Sit With Suffering

This post originally appeared at ON Scripture on March 16, 2014

 

Abram left his homeland on a promise and a prayer. God called. Abram went. The Biblical text makes it seem so simple. There are no signs of struggle or doubt. There is no grief over what is left behind, only the forward look toward a new land and a new future. Leaving home for Abram seems so easy.

As I reflect on this week’s scripture, I’m in Lebanon listening to stories of Syrian refugees who left their country and their kindred to find a place of refuge. Unlike Abram, they did not leave on the promise that they would become a great nation. They left because bombs fell on their houses. They left because food became scarce. They left because they watched their loved ones die in the rubble as buildings fell to the ground.

As we enter into this season of Lent, it is fitting for us to pause and listen to their stories. Remembering Christ’s suffering is more than an exercise in gratitude. It is a chance for us to stand in solidarity with those around the world who suffer each day. It is a challenge for us to take our own suffering (be it large or small) and connect it to the suffering of others and to the suffering of Christ on the cross.

As we seek out this space of solidarity, the cross of Christ can be a powerful connector across time and space. When we look back to Christ’s cross, we see echoes of the same injustices in our modern lives. People are still poor and oppressed. People are still sacrificed for the sake of political ideologies – be it via bombs in Syria or the war over minimum wage in the US. The same violent power that nailed Christ to his cross still forces people to bear their own crosses each day.

One empowering narrative of Christ’s story is that the cross of Christ offers a place where the suffering of the whole world is connected. “For God so loved the world that God gave God’s only son…”

After the bombing at the Boston Marathon, I was struck by a photo of Syrians holding a banner showing their solidarity with the US in the wake of this tragedy. The banner read, “Boston bombings represent a sorrowful scene of what happens everyday in Syria. Do accept our condolences.” To me this represented a powerful reminder of the connectedness of all suffering.

Too often, we play the game of “oppression Olympics” where we ask whose suffering is the greatest. This game of comparisons hurts us all in the end, because it masks the structural violence that causes many manifestations of suffering. As we learn to recognize the connectedness of suffering, we can be empowered to work to dismantle its structural roots. This digging up the roots of injustice is the hard work required to prepare a place for the in-breaking of the kingdom (or rather kin-dom) of God.

 

The Cross and the Kin-dom

Like Nicodemus, we’re offered a chance to be born anew, to take on the imagination of a child and dream God’s dream for a just world. And with Nicodemus we admit that this imagining is an impossible, wonderful task.

The kin-dom of God is not a great nation bound by borders. Rather, it is a space and a place where we can imagine human flourishing. The kin-dom of God is where we learn to remember that because “God so loves the world” God offers “eternal life” in the place of suffering and death.

Digging up the roots of injustice requires us to simultaneously cast a vision of justice. We cannot dismantle unjust structures without knowing what we will rebuild in its place. It is this vision of justice that acts as a wrecking ball, tearing away what should not be, creating a place for human flourishing and abundant life.

During Lent, we remember that the destruction of the cross is incomplete without the vision of the resurrection. As we connect the suffering of our world to Christ’s cross, we are invited to become the hands and feet of Christ as we construct the kin-dom of God. Yet even as we live into this task we remember that the hands and feet of Christ bore the suffering of the cross. These are wounded hands, wounded feet, with which we love this world.

 

God with Us

During my time in Lebanon, I’ve learned a great deal from our hosts, Chaouki and Maha Boulos who serve as field personnel with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. One way Maha and Chaouki are responding to the needs of Syrian refugees in Lebanon is through providing food packets to help refugees meet their basic needs. In Lebanon, rent on a small apartment usually exceeds a worker’s minimum wage. Even if a refugee finds work, they are often unable to afford food or other basic necessities. In one project in Beirut, Maha works with 350 women who receive monthly food packets. Some of these refugee women have volunteered to help each month in preparing the food packets for others in their community. In taking on this task, these women have become leaders in helping others from Syria navigate life as a refugee.

As I was talking to Chaouki about the way these women volunteer their time to help others in their community, he said that in times of crisis, he believes that God calls out leaders to help their people navigate the suffering they are experiencing.

This does not mean that God ordains suffering. What it means is that when people suffer, God is in their midst. This is the story of the cross – God is with us in the rubble of our lives, God is present in the debris after the bombs have fallen. But God is not content to leave us there or even merely to bring us out. The call of the kin-dom of God is a call to rebuild in the midst of all that is lost, to bring peace where there is war, justice where there is oppression.

The season of Lent calls us to give up something as a way of making room for Christ to enter our lives. As we look to the cross, we are asked to remember suffering, to sit with it, to experience it, to not ignore it, as we are so prone to do. This year as you remember the suffering of Christ, remember also the suffering of creation. As you draw near to the cross, sit with stories from Syria, or from the Ukraine. Listen to stories of economic refugees in the US who have lost their houses due to foreclosure or who work minimum wage jobs but still cannot afford to feed their families.

Whatever you do, don’t turn away. Dare yourself to sit with suffering. Look for God there. God is always close to broken bodies and bruised dreams. And as you sit with this suffering, ask yourself what you might do to dig up the roots of injustice and rebuild the kin-dom of God in our midst. For this is the call of the cross. This is the gift of God with us.

 

Questions for Discussion

1. Do you agree with the author that the suffering of the world is connected? Why or why not?

2. As you observe Lent this season, how might you “sit with suffering”?

3. What work might you commit yourself to that could help dig out the roots of injustice and prepare a place for the kin-dom of God?

 

For Further Reading

Frontline – “Syria Behind the Lines” (36 min) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/foreign-affairs-defense/syria-behind-the-lines/the-bombing-of-al-bara/#bmb1

Frontline – “The Battle for Syria” (22 min) http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/battle-for-syria/#b

Harvard-Belfer on Syria –http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/project/74/harvardbelfer_on_syria.html

Tobias Winright, “The Grace of Doing Something in Syria,” http://catholicmoraltheology.com/the-grace-of-doing-something-in-syria/

 

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