"The lines we draw are invitations to cross over and that crossing over, as any nomadic subject knows, constitutes who we are." (Judith Butler)

Archive for the ‘Society’ Category

The Usefulness of the Gospel

22 March 2015
Philemon
Ballard Vale United Church, Andover, MA

[The sermon was preached as part of the Lenten series “The Doctrine of the Incarceration.”]

How many of you upon hearing Philemon this morning wondered, “What in the world is going on, why is this in the Bible, and what it’s supposed to mean for us?” One of my favorite things in teaching is to encourage students to linger for a while in the bewilderment rather than trying to move directly to the “one right interpretation” (so if you’re hoping that I’ll tell you what this letter really means, it’s not going to happen, so let’s get that disappointment out of the way). Especially with texts held as sacred, we can both expect and desire a coherent message that is immediately and clearly meaningful for our lives. But I would contend that meaning is made, that what is meaningful is not always self-evident but becomes meaningful in the process of trying to figure things out. After all, our lives are continually unfolding processes of working to figure things out, figuring out how to makes sense of and live in the world around us.

And that’s where we might start with Philemon: in this text, Paul and Timothy write to Philemon, Apphia, Archippus, and the assembly that gathers in their house as a matter of working out the dynamics of what it means to live in Christ. We might say that the prevailing question centers on what difference faith in Christ makes for living together. How are relationships and practices informed by the gospel? But here’s where I want to be careful. It is far too easy and far too common to jump immediately to the conclusion that Paul presents a glorious vision of equality and oneness in Christ. Maybe. Maybe that’s the idea in theory. But we might want to ask further about how that plays out in practice.

So what is actually happening in this letter? What’s at stake “in practice”? Honestly, it’s not entirely clear. We know that Paul and Timothy send a letter to a group of people who meet together in a house, presumably for some kind of worship. We know that some man named Onesimos has been with Paul during a time of separation from Philemon and that some kind of relationship of affection and usefulness has developed between Paul and Onesimos during that time. But who is this Onesimos? What’s he doing with Paul? And why does Philemon care?

Onesimos is apparently a slave since Paul abjures Philemon to welcome Onesimos back “no longer as a slave but more than a slave” (v16, CEB). Onēsimos in Greek means “useful.” Calling someone by describing her or his functionality was a common practice for naming slaves. Paul even makes a pun of the name, saying that Onesimos “was useless to you before, but now he is useful to both of us” (v11). We’ll come back to this issue of how Paul and Philemon relate to Onesimos, but we should keep in mind the fundamental idea that Onesimos’s very name signifies that he is someone to be used, that he is valuable not on his own terms but as far as he is beneficial to another.

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Beyond Marriage…

*Originally written for the Methodist Federation for Social Action blog and posted here

One of the biggest fights friends in my master of divinity program ever had erupted over same-sex marriage. The question was not if it should happen—all were fierce advocates for equality—but how and when. On one side were strategic minds worried that a case brought before the Supreme Court too soon could set equality back. On the other were persons from less friendly parts of the country where the lack of equality for all would continue to mean equality for none.

It’s challenging to be radically progressive and pragmatically strategic. We in the United Methodist Church know this well.

But here we are, just a short time away from finding out how this Supreme Court will deal with the questions of marriage equality before it. And beyond what my friends or I could have imagined just a few years ago, there are social and political indicators to suggest the U.S. is “ready” for a sweeping ruling (whether or not these justices will be so bold is another matter).

Even still, while I celebrate the progress and the potential in this moment, I also warily wonder what and, more importantly, who it is “victory” on marriage would represent. While an ostensibly effective strategy for allaying fears and winning popular approval of marriage equality might be to present same-sex couples as “just like us” (notice the continued privileging of the heteronormative position), it is important that we consider who is in view, who is not, and what is given up to appear “acceptable.”

Being strategic toward very particular change isn’t necessarily being radically progressive toward thoroughgoing justice.

We would do well to pay attention to the subjects put forward as acceptable, as not too threatening to the status quo: to notice their social-economic status, gender, race, ethnicity, abilities, etc. And if we are concerned for justice, we ought to pay attention to the persons and issues not addressed or served all that well (or at all) by marriage equality as it has been conceived, who are in fact obscured and left behind by relatively elite and conservative interests in perpetuating a nominally expanded institution of marriage.

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“Let America Be America Again”

Rick Santorum, a Pennsylvania Republican, just announced his presidential fundraising committee and unveiled a new campaign slogan on his website: “Fighting to Make America America Again.”

There are a lot of things I could say about Santorum’s extreme right ideology and the way it harms individuals and tears down community. And there are a lot of things I could write in response to his slogan. However, I simply want to say that the idea that there was a time when America was “more American” than now is bizarre and disturbing. Does Santorum want the America of witch trials? Of slavery? Of Jim Crow? Of women without vote? (Shall I continue?)

It’s an attractive option in times of distress to think back to the “glory days.” But we should always ask: for whom were those days glorious? Generally we find that all times and places are characterized by their own successes and shortcomings, and whether and how one experiences the positives and/or negatives depend upon who you are and what are your social opportunities and constraints.

So I would like to know what it would mean for Mr. Santorum to “make America America again.”

When I hear that sentiment, the words of the Langston Hughes poem “Let America Be America Again” ring out a great challenge upon which I wish we might all reflect (while also thinking about the words Hughes himself chooses and striving yet further for the inclusion of all in our grandest vision of “America”):

“Let America Be America Again”
By Langston Hughes

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free?  Not me?
Surely not me?  The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!

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