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The Church As A Knife   Leave a comment

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Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961)

In Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana (1961), a man going through his father’s possessions finds a small bejeweled crucifix; upon closer inspection, he discovers that the cross is actually the casing of a pocketknife. “What an idea!” the man exclaims, presumably in horror at the juxtaposition of faith and violence.

I recently watched the film Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015) about The Boston Globe’s investigation into child molestation in the Roman Catholic Church. The story of what they found is well-known: an intricate system built around sheltering priests—and more importantly, the institution of the Church itself—from public scandal. Bishops, clergy, laypeople, the criminal justice system, and even the parents of abused children all conspired to keep silent while great evil was going on. The Globe’s senior editors even come to acknowledge that they had the facts of the story years earlier, but shied away from challenging the Church. A whole city—and a whole world—was complicit in the hurt inflicted on the vulnerable.

It’s not hard to see the harm the Church Universal has done over the centuries: slavery, racism, genocide, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, child abuse, countless wars, and other corporate sins have all been explicitly or tacitly condoned by The Church, justified by texts from the Bible.

It’s easy and tempting for those of us in The Episcopal Church and other denominations that tend to be progressive in policy and steeped in social justice to wash our hands of those sins and say, “not my church, not my Jesus.” But while the latter may be true, the former is not.

One of the authorized forms of the Confession of Sin in the Holy Eucharist in The Episcopal Church begins:

God of all mercy,
we confess that we have sinned against you,
opposing your will in our lives.
We have denied your goodness in each other,
in ourselves, and in the world you have created.
We repent of the evil that enslaves us,
the evil we have done,
and the evil done on our behalf.
(Enriching Our Worship 1, pg 56)

I believe that “the evil done on our behalf” includes not only sins our nation and society do in our name, but sins Christians do in the name of Jesus, whether or not we personally or denominationally endorse them. We have a responsibility to act as a counterpoint to those sins. To, as the Baptizer says, “Bear fruits worthy of repentance.” To bring a loving, credible God to those whom the Church has instead shown an unwelcoming and unwelcome God.

And we have a responsibility to examine and confront the prejudices we harbor in our own hearts but would like to deny or disown. My own racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and capacity for violence are all obstacles in my service to Jesus and my fellow human beings.

My heart has been breaking daily since the election last November, as every day in the transition and inauguration of our authoritarian new government brings more news of rights stripped, protective regulations eliminated, and preposterous fictions presented as truths. This administration values money and power over God’s creation, industry and military over programs that help people.

But worse, there is an increasing devaluation of human life—or at least certain human lives: people in poverty, people with chronic illness or disabilities, racial/ethnic minorities, non-Christians, LGBTQ+ people, women. These are all human beings made in God’s image and beloved of God, and our nation’s current government does not care about them. In our name, the United States Government has denied their belovedness, their human dignity.

But what about the Church? What are we, as followers of Jesus Christ, doing about it?

I can point to dozens, even hundreds of Episcopalian and other Christian friends, along with Jews, Unitarians, Muslims, Buddhists, atheists, and agnostics who are marching, organizing, calling legislators, and other great resistance work. Preachers, writers, and speakers who proclaim a gospel of resistance from their (real or virtual) pulpits. Servants who are ministering directly to people in those vulnerable, uncared-for groups. Churches that are declaring themselves sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants and others in danger.

But I also see bishops, clergy, and lay leaders who won’t speak up, won’t do enough. Who say: “The Church should preach the Gospel, not engage in social justice” (as if the two weren’t inextricably linked). Who feel an obligation to make milquetoast statements about race, but can’t bring themselves to say “Black Lives Matter” (or if they do, quickly follow it with “All lives matter” or “Blue lives matter”). Who feel an obligation to acknowledge the Pulse nightclub shooting, but don’t acknowledge that it was specifically an attack on the LGBTQ+ community. Who refrain from making a statement about the election or the administration for fear of upsetting conservative voters in their pews. Who preach a false idol of “unity” that is not true unity, and serves no one but the powerful.

Perhaps they fear losing the pledge checks of wealthy parishioners; perhaps they fear losing their own earthly power. But in these conformist statements, these faith leaders not only fail in their prophetic duty to lead their people to greater discipleship, they fail in their pastoral duty to the vulnerable, marginalized people in their care.

And if we follow their lead, we become complicit in those sins.

Many of us in The Episcopal Church pride ourselves on our inclusivity: officially, all baptized persons—of any ethnicity, gender, gender identity or expression, or sexual orientation—are welcome to all aspects of church life, including ordination and marriage. We pointedly proclaim our slogan, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you,” and declare “you” to mean “all of you.”

But does it mean anything to our gay and lesbian neighbors? To our black or brown neighbors? To the impoverished families on our doorsteps? Does it mean anything to the women whose ordinations we defer while approving those of their male peers? To the women we ordain but under-employ and underpay? To the transgender people we say we welcome, but keep at arms’ length by using incorrect pronouns and binary gender language? Our policy statements are little good if they are only theoretical.

One of my Gregorian Brothers, Brother Karekin Madteos Yarian, BSG, lives and ministers to the Queer community in San Francisco’s Castro district, a ministry of presence and love to young people living on the streets, drag queens performing in gay bars, and everyone else in that community. Every day Brother K meets people who have either never heard of The Episcopal Church at all, or have no idea that TEC or any other Christian denomination would welcome them. All they know of Christianity is the religion that told them they were inherently disordered, that made their families reject them. Why would they bother to notice or believe “The Episcopal Church welcomes you” on a church sign? Even in a diocese that has been ordaining LGBTQ+ persons and blessing same-sex partnerships for four decades, the Church can fail the people outside its walls.

I attend a mixed (mostly European-American and African-American) parish in Denver full of committed, long-time racial justice activists. And yet in recent conversations on race, we white parishioners have learned that our black siblings have experienced racism from us. Even where we think we have overcome our prejudices, we have far to go.

When—either through our actions or our silence—we let the sins of the Nation and the Church go unchallenged, we are complicit in the injury caused by those sins. If Christians are not preaching—by word and deed—the God of love and the belovedness of every human being, the Church becomes nothing more than a knife disguised as a cross.

Now is the time to remember our love for God and our Neighbor. Now is the time to stand up and say in no uncertain terms, “All people are made in God’s image, and we will not stand by while any of our siblings are cast aside!”

No Motherless Children   Leave a comment

The following is the text of a homily I gave at St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Denver, on 8 January 2017

Biblical texts: Isaiah 42:1-9, Matthew 3:13-17

Sometimes atheists make the most spiritually resonant art. The great Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, an avowed atheist, made a painstakingly-faithful and shockingly reverential cinematic adaptation of The Gospel According To Saint Matthew, with all dialogue straight from the Biblical text. And as his film comes to the scene we’ve just heard, we see John baptizing peasants in the Italian countryside while on the soundtrack, the Blues singer Odetta sings “Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child.”

As Jesus approaches John, there is a smile of recognition between the two of them. John protests, saying he needs to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus assures him this is the right way. And once it has been done, God’s voice comes from the heavens, saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Words reminiscent of several passages in Isaiah, including the one we heard a few minutes ago.

Today is the celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord, the day the Church remembers that Jesus, like most of us, was baptized. We have entered, as of Friday (or Thursday evening) the Epiphany: We have passed through Advent’s season of waiting, and the twelve days of Christmastide celebrating the incarnation of Christ in our lives, and now we celebrate Christ’s revelation to the world. Today is one of four days in the year that the Church recognizes as “especially appropriate” for baptizing newcomers to the faith, and though we are not baptizing anyone at St. Thomas this morning, we will renew our Baptismal Covenant together in a few minutes.

Baptism, according to The Episcopal Church’s Catechism (which is in the Book of Common Prayer beginning on page 845), is one of the two great sacraments of the Church—the other being the Eucharist. A sacrament, you’ll recall, is an outward and visible sign of an inward, spiritual grace. The Catechism says, “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” The simple act of pouring a bit of water on a person’s head becomes a sign of God’s welcoming that person into the family.

When I was born, my parents decided not to baptize me as an infant; they wanted to wait until I was old enough to make the choice myself. And that choice came when I was about 13 years old, when the Presbyterian Church in which I grew up held a year-long confirmation class for middle school children, which would culminate in confirmation—full membership in the church—preceded by baptism for any of us who hadn’t been baptized earlier in life.

I was enthusiastically on board with confirmation: I wanted very much to be a full member of the Church, primarily so that I could vote in congregational meetings—I was already very interested in church governance. But I was terrified of baptism, to the point at which I really struggled with the decision to be confirmed.

My fear was entirely rooted in my adolescent vanity. First, I was simply embarrassed: Why hadn’t my parents taken care of this earlier? Why on earth would they have waited for me to make up my own mind when this was clearly something done to unknowing infants? Learning that roughly half the class was in the same boat as me somehow didn’t diminish that embarrassment.

But the more significant reason was my hair. I had thick red hair that required about half a bottle of hair gel every day to control. And for some reason I got a notion in my head that the pastor—who was known for his sense of humor—would, upon putting water on my head, make a joke to the congregation about how much gel was in it.

He was a compassionate person and a good pastor in the midst of a sacrament of the church, so of course he made no such joke. I was baptized, without any fuss apart from my own distraction.

Years later, days before I officially joined the Episcopal Church, I witnessed my first Episcopalian baptism. The whole congregation followed the altar party’s procession back to the font, and we all read or recited the Baptismal Covenant together. The adult baptizands were all dressed in a white alb after baptism and handed a candle: the Light of Christ. I was filled with a deep wish that this could have been my baptism, not the experience that my anxious teenage vanity kept me from appreciating at the time.

But: the wonderful thing in The Episcopal Church—and I think this is part of God’s grace in baptism—is that it didn’t really matter whether I was baptized as an unknowing infant, an unappreciative teenager, or a discerning adult: that baptism at Grace Cathedral was my baptism. As has been every baptism I have experienced since then. At every baptism we attend and participate in, each of us has the opportunity to renew our baptismal vows, our Baptismal Covenant with God. We remind ourselves that we are beloved children of God and part of God’s family. We renew our commitment to be in relationship with God, not simply as individuals, but in community.

We recite—in question-and-answer form—the Apostle’s Creed. And then we promise, with God’s help, to continue in the teaching, fellowship, communion, and prayers of the Church. To resist evil and repent of our sins. To proclaim the Good News. To see and love Christ in the person of our neighbor. To strive for justice, peace, and the dignity of every human being. We say aloud together our shared beliefs about our Triune God, and we recommit to our responsibilities to God’s kingdom and our siblings in it.

Going back to the Pasolini film: Pasolini uses that “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” cue several times in the picture, not just as prelude to the baptism scene. And motherhood was a recurrent theme throughout his work; perhaps its most significant sign in this film is the fact that Pasolini cast his own mother in the role of the Blessed Mother Mary.

I don’t know why he used that song in the baptism scene, but it seems a significant contrast to God’s proclamation moments later: “This is my beloved son.” Jesus is no motherless child.

Nor are any of us motherless children, even if we feel as if we are: I don’t know if Pasolini had any knowledge of the wonderful English mystic Julian of Norwich, but this Gospel message—perhaps particularly in the way Pasolini tells it—makes me think of a key theme in Julian’s work. In the late 14th Century, Julian had a series of powerful visions from God, which she later wrote about in her book Revelations Of Divine Love. Among many other things, God gave her in these visions an understanding of Christ as a mother to us all. She writes: “…Our Saviour is our true mother, in whom we are endlessly born, and out of whom we shall never come to birth…“We know that our mothers bear us and bring us into this world to suffering and to death, and yet our true mother Jesus, he, all love, gives birth to us into joy and to endless life—blessed may he be!”*

I know that not everyone has a good relationship with their parents, and so: if you are someone who has not known a parent’s wholehearted, unconditional love, know that God’s love is that for which you have hoped. This is Julian’s message—and, indeed, the overarching message of the Bible. God loves you as dearly, as abundantly, as a mother should—and more.

In the humility of God’s incarnation comes the deepening humility of the Messiah’s submission to the rite of Baptism, despite the Baptizer being less worthy than the baptized. God welcomes Godself into God’s human family, into the Beloved Community. Jesus, though fully divine, is fully human: he is one of us.

And all this shows God’s love for us: that God would take part in this human life, and in particular today would take part in this rite to which each of us is called in righteousness. That one of the ways God makes the human family holy is by participating, in the flesh, in its holy rituals.

I’m sure there are 13 year-olds who approach baptism with far more grace than I had. And I am equally sure that there are mature adults who approach baptism with as much anxiety and trepidation. But at that font—as at this altar—we are received with the love that a parent has for their beloved children. God gives generously regardless of our ability to appreciate or understand what we receive.

Come to this font and be readopted. Come readopt your siblings. Come to this table and be made one with all of God’s people. Come be welcomed into the arms of Jesus, your loving mother.

 

*Julian of Norwich (2015). Revelations Of Divine Love. (Barry Windeatt, Trans.). Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. (Original work published 1395).

Reflections on seeing Hiroshima Mon Amour   Leave a comment

Hiroshima Mon Amour (Alain Resnais, 1959) has been one of those films that, as a cinephile, I’m embarrassed to say I hadn’t seen—until my first viewing a few nights ago. It’s considered a landmark of cinema, one of the first films in the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) and a work that continues to wield a great influence.

I’ve neglected it entirely out of what I’m finally recognizing was a very misplaced disregard for the French New Wave. To make a long story short, a negative reaction to Breathless (Jean-Luc Godard, 1960), considered perhaps the quintessential FNW film, made me think I didn’t like the movement—despite enjoying a wide assortment of non-Godard FNW movies I have seen over the years (and even appreciating some aspects of Breathless). Surely if one didn’t care for le grand film de La Nouvelle Vague, one didn’t care for the movement as a whole? Well, I’m finally learning that isn’t at all an accurate conclusion (and perhaps it’s time I reconsidered Breathless too).

So at last I watched the beautiful, poetic, haunting Hiroshima and found it well worth the wait. The cinematography, the language in Marguerite Duras’s screenplay, and​ Giovanni Fusco’s surprising score are all remarkable, and the story is quite moving and invites one’s own reflection. I’m sure repeat viewings will reward all the more.

And I kept thinking of one of my favorite films by the Spanish Surrealist Luis Buñuel, That Obscure Object Of Desire (1977). Each film chronicles a relationship between a man and a woman (albeit entirely different relationships), and bombs play an important side role in each. In Buñuel’s film, terrorists are wreaking havoc in Europe, and every once in a while, a bomb goes off with no warning.

In Hiroshima, the bomb’s destruction is 14 years past, still weighing heavily on the protagonists and the citizens who surround them. The woman in the film (played by Emmanuelle Riva) is an actress who has come to Japan to make a movie “about peace.” And within this film-within-the-film, a nuclear disarmament protest takes place—a recreation of an action that has happened and will happen again. The actress predicts to her lover (Eiji Okada) that more bombs will fall. The Bomb hangs over the future as well as the past.

That Obscure Object is about lust, frustration, manipulation, and the foolishness and vanity of sexual obsession; the threat of destruction in the unexpectedness of the terrorists’ bombs seems to have no effect on the characters’ thoughts or actions. But Hiroshima is about how the memory (and perhaps imagination) of past violence dominates the present and future of the characters—especially when it comes to love. I won’t tell you the actress’s history in wartime occupied France: her recounting of it is a significant portion of the plot, and affects her new relationship. And naturally, the citizens of Hiroshima must deal every day—every minute—with the consequences of the atomic bomb. There is no escaping the War for these characters—nor will there ever be.

The film begins with the woman poetically describing her “memories” of Hiroshima in the few days she has been there, while the screen juxtaposes the lovers’ intertwined bodies with the burned bodies of the bomb’s victims. And as I watched this montage, I thought about how we in the west think of Hiroshima. The film considers the bombing of Hiroshima an unquestionable horror—which is not an attitude I’ve observed in the United States, at least in my lifetime. We seem to regard it as at worst a “necessary evil,” and in some cases a heroic act. How sad that we have created a world in which we believe evil to be necessary, much less heroic. I fear that such thinking assures that the actress’s prediction is too accurate.

***

How could I watch a classic film about memory without thinking back on the experience of watching movies with my father? Despite being a college film major and continuing to study the subject in numerous ways for the rest of my life, I attribute the majority of what I know about cinema to the movies my dad showed me in my teenage years. He started me on John Ford westerns, Woody Allen comedies, and Hitchcock thrillers, and then moved me onto Lawrence Olivier’s Shakespeare films, Ingmar Bergman’s theological explorations, and Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai adventures. All of this happened with VHS tapes: he’d borrow them from the library and then make copies for later viewing with a two-deck setup. I can still see in my mind the title Hiroshima Mon Amour in his handwriting on a VHS label, but it’s one we never got around to watching together. Wish I could call you up and let you know I saw another of your recommendations, Dad.