On the precipice of Holy Week

Originally published at Covenant, April 9, 2017.

Palm Sunday is to me the most disorienting liturgy of the year. We begin with a festal procession, waving palm fronds and shouting our Hosannas to the Messiah. Then suddenly it is as though the brakes are applied and there is a screeching turn. The colors change. The mood darkens by several shades. The Passion is sung. Yet more bitterness is portended: betrayal, torture, death. Holy Week is here.

We know what lies ahead, on the other side of the middle distance. Easter is but one week from today. It’s a funny feeling when one makes an effort to engage these mysteries with a more deliberate attention, like looking at contour lines on a familiar map. It’s a pilgrimage we make every year. Unlike the apostle Thomas, perhaps, by now we ought to “know the way” (John 14:5) — every turn, every landmark. And yet. Today, as ever, it only manages to be portended. The destination is somehow a long way off.

I have been in a melancholic mood lately. The death of my mother last month — the death of a beloved parishioner last week. Two voids hollowed out of my consciousness, two presences obtaining now only in my memory, and in an obstinate trans-cosmic distance, strangely located in the eucharistic Host. I am reminded of how the Gospel says that when Jesus was crucified

behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. (Matt. 27:51-52)

Good Friday. It all lies in front of us.

Palm Sunday’s weirdness is of a different stripe, even though it’s all connected by inexorable steps. My death too is somewhere on the map, or on an adjacent plat somewhere over the edge. But it is most certainly out there. Would I want to locate it, given the chance? I don’t know.

The immediate task is Holy Week. God gives us just enough light to take the next right step, to make the next good decision. I feel like the Christian life is a twilight life, a seemingly endless pre-dawn gray. Seemingly endless. But it stands in stark contrast to the pitch-black midnight of the world’s incredulity.

The other day I watched a Pepsi commercial featuring Kendall Jenner, reggae music, and a nose-ringed, hijab-wearing photographer. They joined a protest against (or in support of) everything (or nothing). It was an almost perfect expression of our world’s ubiquitous pointlessness.

Yet “the true light that enlightens every man was coming into the world” (John 1:9). Maranatha. It is just enough. I am reminded of an interview in which Rene Girard was asked to explain the text “Except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened” (Matt. 24:22). He said:

It means that the end times will be very long and monotonous — so mediocre and uneventful from a religious and spiritual standpoint that the danger of dying spiritually, even for the best of us, will be very great. This is a harsh lesson but one ultimately of hope rather than despair.

There are yet many miles to go. Much to endure. With respect to Palm Sunday, this precipice on the edge of Holy Week, resolute words from Luke’s gospel stand out: “When the days drew near for him to be received up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).

Audacious alternatives: clean energy and justice at Standing Rock

Originally published in The Living Church magazine, 2016.

On December 4, the Army Corps of Engineers announced that it would deny permission for the Dakota Access Pipeline to pass under Lake Oahe, the sole source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux. Protesters at Standing Rock and their supporters, including Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, celebrated the announcement, even as the pipeline’s builders, Energy Transfer Partners, vowed to complete the project without rerouting it.

The Dakota Access Pipeline and the protests surrounding it are underwritten by a tangled web of related issues ranging from climate change, to the need for energy independence and clean energy alternatives to fossil fuels, to the injustices done to indigenous peoples. This knotty political mess our society has gotten itself into is difficult, if not impossible, to sort out equitably.

I was struck recently by a Web meme showing a special forces soldier — a SEAL, judging from his uniform — holding a sign that obscured his face. The sign read, I didn’t join the Navy to fight for Al Qaeda in a Syrian civil war. Following the thread of political motives and national interest, one observes how our nation has involved itself in Middle Eastern conflicts based on our alliances with societies with whom we have very little in common, other than a shared humanity and a shared interest in extracting oil from the Persian Gulf region. One observes too that hundreds of thousands of people have died, just in the last decade, because of this shared interest, even as untold others have been injured, bereaved, or displaced.

In the wake of the September 11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman called for a Manhattan Project-style clean energy initiative. His call fell largely on deaf ears as U.S. opposition to the 2005 Kyoto Protocol built during the Bush administration. Yet Friedman’s idea remains good and has arguably become only more urgent as a scientific consensus has coalesced around anthropogenic climate change in the intervening years.

Yet it remains true that even if the political will for such a project existed, the world could not simply and suddenly stop burning fossil fuels without bringing about a global economic catastrophe, and the immense human suffering that such a catastrophe would certainly entail. Like the prehistoric animals who got stuck in petroleum seeps and died, global society now finds itself bogged down in an oily mire. Like it or not — and few informed and farsighted people like it — carbon-based energy is the patrimony of contemporary mankind. The broad question is how we will elect to spend that patrimony. As David Biello has written: the short-sighted option is to continue to burn fossil fuels until there are none left to burn, or until climate change forces a radically different way of life on us. The alternative, though, is to use fossil fuels in the service of finding clean, renewable energy alternatives, and building infrastructure for those alternatives. I devoutly hope that we will elect to pursue the latter course.

The research and development for clean energy alternatives, still in their infancy, to say nothing of building a global infrastructure to support them, will take years if not decades. The immediate need to extract, move, refine, and burn fossil fuels seems inescapable. Yet this fact evinces another conundrum: easy access to fossil fuels drives down prices and reduces economic incentives to search for clean alternatives.

What should we make of the situation at Standing Rock and the Dakota Access Pipeline, in light of such broad considerations? Energy Transfer Partners claims that the pipeline is state-of-the-art, and that the contamination of drinking water from leakage is extremely unlikely. Yet concern for the contamination of drinking water seems to have led the Army Corps of Engineers earlier to reject a proposed route for the pipeline under the Missouri River near Bismarck. And just one day after the corps announced its refusal to permit an easement for the pipeline under the Missouri River, the North Dakota Department of Health announced that a rupture had been discovered in the Belle Fourche Pipeline in Billings County, about 150 miles from Standing Rock: more than 130,000 gallons of oil had leaked into the Little Missouri River.

These developments hardly instill trust in the assurances from producers that potential ecological harm is negligible. And in any event, there is a very long track record of the U.S. government, and the economic interests it too often represents, breaking its promises to Native Americans. To my mind, the strongest argument against the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline has less to do with its ecological effects and more to do with just deference to the Standing Rock Sioux. As David Archambault II, chairman of the Standing Rock Indian Reservation, said in an interview with PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff on Dec. 2:

It’s unfortunate that this nation continues to treat our tribe, and tribal nations around the country, in this manner. … History will show that the federal government, the state government, has always built the economy … off the backs of our nations. And this is another example.

That is indisputable. Native American society has paid a heavy price for the economic greatness of America. Writing in The American Conservative, Henry Chappell quoted the Sioux writer Vine Deloria, Jr., whose book Custer Died for Your Sins: An Indian Manifesto (University of Oklahoma Press, 1969) rebukes the hypocrisy of the United States in its declamations on the importance of keeping international treaties, in particular with Russia:

Indian people laugh themselves sick when they hear these statements. America has yet to keep one Indian treaty or agreement, despite the fact that the United States Government signed over four hundred such treaties and agreements with Indian tribes. It would take Russia another century to make and break as many treaties as the United States has already violated.

From coast to coast for four centuries, from the Jamestown Colony to the Treaty of Temecula, the Trail of Tears, the Comanche Wars, the massacre at Wounded Knee, and on and on, it seems too much to hope that Standing Rock might mark a turning point in the nation’s dealings with American Indians, that a just and durable solution might be found, and that such a solution might serve the pressing need to use the natural resources at our disposal to find cleaner and more sustainable energy alternatives.

Let’s be audacious enough to hope this, and as we await the fulfillment of that hope, to find less poisonous ways of living.

dispatch from a white priest in Dallas

Originally published at Covenant, July 18, 2016.

Two Sundays ago, churchgoers heard in the familiar story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) Jesus’ answer to a question put to him by “a lawyer,” namely: “Who is my neighbor?” The tragic shootings of two black men by police raised for our nation yet again the twin questions of Who is my neighbor? and How I am to love him? Alton Sterling was shot in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile outside of St. Paul. The horrific events in my city of Dallas arrived soon after.

For the record, I believe there are at least four sins committed by our nation that cry to heaven for vengeance:

  1. the genocide of American Indians;

  2. state-sanctioned abortion;

  3. the defrauding of laborers of their wages (according to the Social Security Administration, illegal immigrants and their employers have contributed more than $100 billion of their wages to Social Security in the past decade and, because they are here illegally, they will receive little to none of that money);

  4. and slavery.

Our nation has sowed the wind, and I am afraid that we will reap the whirlwind. When it comes to the legacy of slavery, we are beginning to see it more and more. And if you don’t believe in corporate sin or corporate guilt, you haven’t read the Bible.

I don’t have any political answers. And frankly, I don’t think there are any answers for our nation anymore. We have denied ourselves access, politically and corporately, to the resources that animated the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. The heroes of that time proclaimed from the rooftops that their work was underwritten by the imperatives of their faith in Jesus Christ. I have in mind men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Jonathan Myrick Daniels. The latter was a white, Anglo-Catholic seminarian from the Church of the Advent in Boston who was shot to death in Alabama in 1963 when he threw himself between a shotgun-wielding white construction worker and a 17-year-old black girl. Martin Luther King called this “one of the most heroic Christian deeds of which I have heard in my entire ministry.”

But our misguided rulers are deliberately and systematically squeezing Christian faith out of our nation’s public square, because the idea that our authentic identity must be found wholly in the election of God’s only Son strikes at the very foundation of the vision of the neoliberal market state, which understands itself entirely in terms of guaranteeing and celebrating individualist, consumerist autonomy. We are now supposed to choose our identities as freely and as whimsically as we choose which brand of toothpaste we buy. We are told that our freedom to choose trumps even the structure of our chromosomes. But Christian faith stands in the way of that so-called freedom. The signs of the times, in this respect, are there for all to see. The hour is late.

W.B. Yeats’s poem “The Second Coming” (1919) is a word in season, an eerie and prophetic voice for this moment of history. The poem has been floating through my mind in connection with our cultural moment, ever more and more:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

It is cold comfort to recognize yourself among “the best” simply because you “lack all conviction.” How is it that this poem so trenchantly foreshadows, in 1919, the political situation of the West almost a hundred years later?

I am not convinced that René Girard and Walker Percy were wrong when they suggested that the Apocalypse began at the Battle of Verdun (see, respectively, Battling to the End[MSU Press, 2010] and Love in the Ruins [Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971]). The words of a brave and innocent four-year-old-girl, trying to comfort her distraught mother, have been echoing through my head. If you watched the video of the aftermath of the Philando Castile shooting (which I do not necessarily recommend), you will know what I am talking about. It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay. I’m right here with you.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned.

So, I fear, we contemporary Americans are rudderless when it comes to figuring out who our neighbors are and how to love them.

But we Christians aren’t. We should know, because our Master has told us, and commanded us to live it out. Nor can we forget the exegetical consensus of the Church Fathers, that Jesus is himself the one figured by the character of the Good Samaritan. We are the ones lying in the ditch, battered and helpless. Jesus is the stranger who comes near in mercy, bathes our wounds with the sacraments of his healing and reconciliation, the one who lodges us safe in the bosom of our holy mother, the Church, until he comes again.

My congregation is a small one. But one of the things I cherish most about it is its racial diversity. Authentic integration doesn’t happen naturally: take a look at a typical school cafeteria, or at the neighborhood demographics of any American city. Authentic integration is supernatural. We are one people of God, gathered like grains of wheat from the disparate hillsides of class and ethnicity, gathered in peace around one altar, worshiping one Lord. Saint Paul said to the church in Corinth: “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17).

Like many people, I feel a sense of foreboding about what is coming on our nation and our world (cf. Luke 21:26). But the peace of Jesus is rooted in my heart, and that peace transcends all foreboding and all understanding.

With Saint Paul (Col. 1:9-14), I pray that we may be strengthened with all power, according to the glorious might of God, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified us to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. He has already delivered us from the dominion of this world’s gathering darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption and forgiveness — even from the sins of our own nation that cry to heaven for vengeance.