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Unreconciled

A colleague recently explained that his target readers are friends in the State Department. I explained my target readers are readers who haven’t given up on the local paper. About a year ago, I sent an op-ed, unbidden, to the Durham Herald Sun. I heard back that they really liked my piece, and that they wanted to run an essay for the first Sunday of every month. (You can find them all if you want, online.) Academics brag about how many words we’ve written in a day, but I have learned that saying something worthwhile in 800 is tricky. Last month, I wrote something on pornography, online education, and pull-down-screen preaching that was so tricky a colleague I respect told me he finds my work “disgraceful.” I stand by what I wrote. It was a good op-ed. I asked people to think, and to ask good questions, and even to laugh at themselves. The following essay is what I have submitted for this month’s entry. I never ran for student government, at San Angelo Central High, at Emory, or at Yale. I am not comfortable playing by rules if the rules are set by people who are intimidated by the truth. In other words, I never wanted to be Hillary, and I will not vote for her. Here is my first op-ed against the Fellowship Family. I don’t like the way they play cricket. And I am tired of seeing people bamboozled or intimidated by bullies who use the name of Jesus as a geopolitical lubricant. They are not beyond redemption. But their behavior is lacking in grace.

“I know I have to forgive him, because otherwise I won’t get into heaven.” A friend said this to me recently about someone who had treated her horribly. Casting forgiveness as a duty is one take-away message from the New Testament. But how did that particular bumper sticker receive such tenaciously sticky backing in mainline, evangelical circles? Harboring a spirit of revenge is exhausting, even toxic. But carrying around the burden to forgive can also warp a soul. A song I sang as a kid goes: “So high, you can’t get over it. So low, you can’t get under it. So wide, you can’t get around it. You gotta go in through the door.” I remember being told that door was Jesus Christ. How did my own will to forgive become the door to heaven?

A few years ago David Crabtree interviewed me about John Edwards. My answers reflect my crushed hopes that John and Elizabeth Edwards were going to facilitate change in the South. I answered David’s question about forgiveness from the gut, and accidentally got it right. The idea that anyone in the Edwards family had a responsibility to forgive John Edwards seemed off. I had heard people in evangelical circles ask a similar question about the Mark Sanford and John Ensign debacles. Don’t family members have a responsibility to reconcile? When asked about one of my own fallen heroes, I said something controversial, but consistent. No.

I believe no one wronged by another human being has a responsibility to reconcile, for two reasons. First, forgiveness is God’s work. To ask a mere mortal to make forgiveness their duty is to mistake a person for Jesus. Second, I have heard the term “reconciliation” used to elide the ramifications of injustice. The word is often used more for opacity than truth. Camera operators apply a thin layer of petroleum jelly to the lens before an actor’s close-up – to make the image more “forgiving.” “Reconciliation” has been used like petroleum jelly in some circles– to blur the truth. Spokesmen have told people who have suffered injustice to focus their spiritual energy right back onto their former relationship to an individual or a group that has wronged them, and then used the blurring power of “reconciliation” to smooth over the fractures of that wrong.

This constitutes religious gaslighting. In case that term is unfamiliar, here is a definition from Wikipedia: “Gaslighting or gas-lighting is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.” Take, for example, a commonly used Biblical passage from 2 Corinthians: “And all things are of God, who hath reconciled us to himself by Jesus Christ, and hath given to us the ministry of reconciliation.” Whatever this means to a Christian surviving or recovering from injustice, such passages should not be used to conjure an alternative world where wounds are healed because a third party has described them as healed. I have seen “reconciliation” used like a Jedi mind trick. A Christian leader with sufficient training can almost convince a human being that she didn’t see what she saw and did not suffer what she knows she suffered.

A Christian leader whose name became synonymous with “Reconciliation” is Desmond Tutu, for his work with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. His name has come up again recently, with an emphasis on “Truth” and the invasion of Iraq. In July, 2012, at a forum on faith and public life, Tony Blair again denied praying with George W. Bush about invading Iraq. Several weeks after the event, Archbishop Tutu publicly refused to appear at a conference on “Leadership” with Tony Blair. “If leaders may lie, then who should tell the truth?” Tutu asks in his September 1, 2012 essay for The Observer. Tutu suggests Bush and Blair “should be made to answer for their actions in the Hague,” and reminds readers: “Good leaders are the custodians of morality.”

I want in closing to ask about the glue that has made a bumper sticker version of forgiveness so tenaciously sticky. The Fellowship Foundation facilitates the colossal, week-long, spectacle of faith and leadership that is the National Prayer Breakfast. The word “reconciliation” appears repeatedly on their official website, and I heard “reconciliation” used as often as “Jesus” when I attended the Prayer Breakfast two years ago. I think the concept is being used to dupe perpetrators as well as survivors, encouraging obliviousness or cynicism. (Blair and Bush have displayed both.) Reading Tutu’s words, and thinking about what truthful reconciliation must mean – whether in matters of war, or domestic violence, or racism, or geopolitics – another “R” word comes to mind. That word is “Reparations.” I’d like some glue on that bumper sticker.

[Kara Slade] Knowing Ourselves as Known

A sermon preached by the Rev. Dr. Kara N. Slade at the opening Eucharist of the Scholar-Priest Initiative conference, at Duke Chapel, June 26, 2014

2 Kings 24:8-17, Matthew 7:21-29

Since confession is good for the soul, I’d like to begin with one of my own. I panicked a little – well, more than a little – when I saw the lectionary texts for this evening. Ordinarily, I’m the first to sign up for anything with a homiletic difficulty setting of “extreme,” but our lessons from 2 Kings and Matthew seem a strange word indeed with which to begin this conference. We have come together to talk about “welcoming theology home,” and yet in today’s Gospel we hear what sounds like a decidedly un-welcoming word from Jesus:

‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?”  Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”’ Read more

A Memorial Day Post

CAM00150The young woman on the right is my Great Grandmother Elliston, Shirley Moore Elliston.

This poem is by Rev. Robert E. Hall, my father.  I asked if I could post it for Memorial Day.

Life can come at us, willy nilly,
wound and defeat us,
unless revised,
re-envisioned.

I remember….
Grandma E, widowed young by WW I.
She walked to Hilley’s Dress Shop
twelve blocks round trip
six days a week.
On her feet eight hours a day
selling and sewing.
On Sundays
she walked nine blocks to First Baptist Church to worship.
For their new sanctuary,
she did without hair appointments
to fulfill her pledge.
In WW 2, she rented out rooms to make ends meet.

It was not the life she had hoped for.
And yet she was…
Tough.
Enduring.
Providential.
Faithful.
Steadfast.

Her life was God-led,
with detours.

May Day Mayday Mash-up . . .

I’m working on a little effort to encourage people in North Carolina to say the words “Labor Union” (without epithet) in a prayer, sermon, or song at a service of faith the weekend before Labor Day.  We are calling it “Labor Sabbath,” and we will have a nifty website up soon.  In correspondence with another activist about this, she asked if I meant May 1 or September 1.  I snorted my morning tea out my nose.  As IF!  It will be a long game to encourage conversations about Labor Unions on Labor Day Weekend.  May Day is a gift to many people, but not a gift I can take to congregations right now.  Working on labor justice in North Carolina requires patience and whimsy.  It also requires collaboration across meaningful divides on the left, because the anti-justice people collaborate quite well, thank you.  Inter-racial, pro-labor populism in North Carolina has been squished by the neo-liberal, pro-business dudes and the old, conservative dudes for too long.  (See here, especially “Two Men and a Bargain”: , here, and here.)  The good news is that inter-racial, worker populism must be pretty darned powerful, or else liberals and conservatives would not have been so willing to collaborate with one another to keep labor unions at bay.  So . . . with cheers for both May 1 and September 1, here is my own May Day Mayday Mash-up.  I will be dancing intermittently during the day, as I grade lots and lots of (mostly wonderful) student papers . . .

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4xmckWVPRaI&feature=kp  (Bonus quiz: Why is Twisted Sister more fun than The Who?  Answer: WHIMSY!  Plus, note that kiddies are reassured repeatedly that dad is ok, just stunned.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8_RY0x3GI0 (Don’t Frack with us!  Love it!  And more here:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQSNVQStnZ4 and here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8kd_sWRsphE.)

And, while we are in Wisconsin, LOVE the bagpipes!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l6hZA0c4cDE  love the kilts too ; )

This one doesn’t have a beat, but it has serious SOUL!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=so1PYBCn_5o

Ah beloveds, let’s get down to business!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8PaoLy7PHwk

And, yes, just because I need this periodically.  Love Belinda!  Jump Back!  (I ain’t apologizing for nothing.)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CRwR33FLmrI

 

The Vorpal Bunny: An Eastertide Post

The first church I served after surviving my M.Div. was in New Canaan, on what is known as the Connecticut Gold Coast.  If you want some sense of New Canaan, take this concentrated website and add two parts water.  Not every single household there is super-duper-duper wealthy (and, of course, not everyone there is a man with a cigar) but it is definitely a Yankee form of swanky.

My favorite Easter story comes from that year of ministry, with a man named John Gerlach.  John was winsomely manic about his faith.  He had left the craziness of the New York corporate world after Jesus found him, and he enjoyed stirring up holy mischief in this United Methodist parish.  On Easter, wearing a huge grin, he greeted everyone coming in the door with “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  Loudly.  With flourish.  And, when people looked confused, he just kept going, on to the next person: “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  It was gauche to be too verbal about one’s religious convictions in New Canaan.  And to be so fundamentalist as to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ was downright tacky. God bless weird John Gerlach.   I have a hard time saying the words “Happy Easter” even today without feeling I am being hopelessly accommodationist.

George Lindbeck was one of my favorite professors at Yale, and two of my best Lindbeck stories involve Easter.  I’ll tell the hard one first.  Way back when I completed my dissertation, on which The Treachery of Love is based, George Lindbeck called me on the phone.  He said such gracious things about the manuscript that I was genuinely confused.  I didn’t realize I had written something so well worth reading.  But he was concerned about a conspicuous lack of the Resurrection in the book – that is, a conspicuous lack of Easter joy.  I had so focused on the cross that I missed the next chapter, so to speak. (George Pattison also wrote as much, in Danish, in his review of the book.)  I will return to this detail later.  For now, the second story is important.

As a second year M.Div. student (way before I ever read Kierkegaard) I was in a small seminar on ecclesiology.  I think I was the only woman.  And I was young.  And confused.  And when I am confused, I ask more questions.  There were all of these unwritten assumptions going on in the seminar, and, at one point, while trying to understand something we had read, I used the word “symbol” in the same sentence with the word “cross.” Some of the students in the class gasped.  I remember in particular the visiting scholar from Germany looking at me, visibly aghast.  George Lindbeck ignored their remonstrations and tried to explain patiently the problem with seeing the cross as a symbol.  I didn’t understand, so I asked more questions.  Were the silly trappings of Easter the problem?  Like, the bunny and the eggs and the bonnets?  “No, no, no,” he said with a frustrated wave of his hand (confusing some of the dour students).  “The bunny isn’t a problem.  I don’t begrudge the children a bunny.”  He then made up a précis of a symbol-cross Easter sermon  – wherein the Resurrection is a symbol, an example, or an instance, of a universal experience of something or other.  I finally got it!  That is the problem with making the cross into a symbol.  Whether on the grand scale (say, genocide) or the micro scale (say, domestic abuse) human horror is not the cross, and human redemption is not “the Resurrection.”   “Oh!  That is the deadly bunny with the teeth!”  It was the only time I made George Lindbeck LOL.  (See this grisly video if you are as lost as the German scholar was.)  Making the Cross and the Resurrection into symbols might seem nice and cuddly and furry, but it is a dangerous shift in meaning.  (This makes George Lindbeck into the character with the strange, horned hat in the skit.  And Pierre Teilhard de Chardin into the foolish knight, maybe?)

When John Gerlach went around scaring people with “the Resurrection” that Easter Sunday in New Canaan, he was trying to take the symbol out of their Easter.  He was declaring with annoying repetition that, when United Methodists say “The Lord is Risen Indeed!” we don’t mean that some concept of human hope is irrepressible.  We don’t mean that some vague sense of the human spirit is floating above the particulars of our bodies and delights and predicaments.  We mean that Jesus Christ is Risen, from the dead.  This crazy fact matters for our matter.  But, if we make the cross into a symbol of some facet of something called human experience, or human history, or evolutionary theory, or the resilience of democracy, etc, then we make Jesus a malleable, useful thing for our projects.  That is the bunny with the teeth.

Now, for the harder part.  What George Lindbeck said about my first book was right, in retrospect.  Trying to name Easter joy has been hard for me.  I wasn’t sure how to name Resurrection hope without betraying what I thought was my inescapable commitment to a very hard marriage.  The Resurrection is not symbolic, I got that.  Check.  But I wasn’t sure how to sort through the fact of God’s redeeming grace for my own life.  If Easter involves literal freedom from a literal tomb, and the redemption of our actual bodies, what did that mean for the actual me?  I didn’t know how to think that and still remain married.

Thinking right alongside the literal Resurrection of Jesus is messy, and confusing.  My daughter Emily made this point when she was about three years old.  Our dog Ernie was on his last leg.  He had lost control not only of his bladder but of his bowels, and we were doing doggie hospice at our house.   Emily asked me if Ernie would be in heaven.  She then asked if Ernie would be chasing squirrels in heaven.  And, would Ernie be eating in heaven?  This led to her inevitable conclusion that there would be pooping in heaven, and that it would all be somehow ok.  It turns out, reckoning with how God might redeem my own poopy life was much harder for me to do than to affirm the physical resurrection of Jesus for my dead dog.

It is still easier for me to name a theological impulse gone wrong – making the Resurrection a symbol – than to live into the very weird affirmation that “The Lord is Risen Indeed!”  But, three years out from divorce, I am beginning to risk it.  I am beginning to believe that, when Jesus Christ came out of that tomb, he brought me with him, even now, even here.

We sang a song at Trinity United Methodist on Easter Sunday that had awkward words and an unfamiliar tune.  (Our ambitious new music director is stretching us, hard.)  The hymn is by John Bell, and it is in the little, black paperback hymnal that we have to share awkwardly with our neighbors in the pew (because there are fewer copies than the red, hardbound hymnal).   The hymn is called “Christ Has Risen,” and I have been singing a phrase from it while sweeping and washing dishes.  “Christ has risen and forever lives to challenge and to change all whose lives are messed or mangled, all who find religion strange.”  I am not sure about Bell’s use of the word “religion.”  But I do know that this faith I am called to preach is strange.  And I know my messed and mangled life has been challenged, and is being changed.

So, “Happy Day of the Resurrection!”  Indeed.

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