Sacred Dance: Training for Blessedness

The heavenly dance in Fra Angelico, The Last Judgment (c. 1425)

Dancing is like a beautiful garment, a garment in which the Spirit moves and delights…When we dance we can recognize our own beauty…and with all creation simply be, thus spontaneously praising the Lord. To dance is to know we are chosen…responding with a human soul to God’s chosen time.

–– Carla De Sola

In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him, as it were with a finger, saying, This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

–– Jewish Midrash

 

It’s a rare Sunday when we get two Lectionary readings about dance, a subject we rarely discuss in church, and almost never engage in. In one reading, dance seems a good thing, a spirited form of prayer. In the other, it is a bad thing, tainted with sex and murder.

In the passage from II Samuel, King David and his huge crowd of supporters make a grand procession to bring the ark of God, the potent symbol of divine presence, into the city of Jerusalem.

The ark, a gilded wooden chest, had been carefully constructed in the Sinai desert soon after the Exodus. As a sign that God was always with them, it accompanied the Israelites during their long years of wandering in the wilderness. Then, after they finally reached the Promised Land, the ark was captured by the Philistines. The Israelites eventually got it back, but there were still more adventures and delays before the sacred symbol could finally come to rest in the holy city.

But when the day of its triumphal entry finally came, we might have expected an orderly, dignified parade to signify the solemn meaning of this moment. But the Bible tells us that King David and thirty thousand others danced before the ark as it approached the city. They danced “with all their might” (that is to say, without any inhibitions––it seems that David flung away most of his clothes). They cheered and shouted at the top of their lungs while trumpets, lyres, harps, tambourines, castanets and cymbals made a deafening racket. It was more like a Seahawks game than a religious procession.

The narrator doesn’t exactly tell us what to think about all this mayhem, but he does give us a brief glimpse through the eyes of Michal, daughter of David’s predecessor and now David’s wife. In a very cinematic way, the story cuts from a wide angle shot of the procession to a close shot of a high window, where a solitary woman is looking out on all the commotion:

As the ark of the Lord came into the city of David, Michal daughter of Saul looked out of the window, and saw King David leaping and dancing before the Lord; and she despised him in her heart (II Samuel 6:16).

Anyone who has danced in church can probably visualize the scorn on Michal’s face, because they themselves have seen that look. It’s the look of someone who knows what belongs in church and what doesn’t, the look of someone who is thinking, “Liturgical dance is not edifying to the Lord.”

While literature, music, painting, sculpture, and architecture have long had honored roles in Christian worship, dance, more often than not, has been regarded with suspicion or hostility.

In the sixteenth century, Catholic priests were threatened with excommunication if they led dances in church, while the dour Presbyterian John Knox blasted the practice of “fiddling and flinging” in the place of holy reading and holy listening. “The reward of dancers,” he said, “will be to drink in hell.”

Five centuries later, the hostility persists in many quarters. If you Google “liturgical dance,” you will find no lack of naysayers. An evangelical complaining about the phenomenon of “praise dancing” is typical:

Looking at people dancing to [a recording] with fake emotions does nothing but take up time. Church is . . . not a Broadway Show. At church people are coming to get delivered from evil spirits. And all this fakery is getting real pagan. Grown men and boys are now dancing too!

And a Catholic priest, feeling ambushed by the unexpected inclusion of dancers at a diocesan mass, called their contamination of the holy mysteries “an act of spiritual and liturgical terrorism.” [1]

Wow. Really? What has dance done to prompt so much attitude?

“Dance in the Liturgy,” a Vatican advisory published in 1975, acknowledged that in some non-Western cultures dance still retains a religious connotation, and may therefore be appropriate for liturgy. But in the West, the union of dance and religion has long been severed:

“Here dancing is tied with love, with diversion, with profaneness, with unbridling of the senses: such dancing, in general, is not pure. For that reason it cannot be introduced into liturgical celebrations of any kind whatever: that would be to inject into the liturgy one of the most desacralized and desacralizing elements; and so it would be equivalent to creating an atmosphere of profaneness which would easily recall to those present and to the participants in the celebration worldly places and situations”. 

Is “an atmosphere of profaneness” unavoidable wherever there is dancing? It’s always a risk, I suppose. Can we watch dance, or engage in dance, without having our intentions of prayer and praise overwhelmed by more carnal responses? In my experience, yes we can.

Today’s other dance reading is the gospel story of Salome dancing for Herod (Mark 6:14-29), sometimes cited half-jokingly as Scriptural support for the anti-dance crowd. See what happens when people start to dance? Things get out of control. This nasty little tale epitomizes the commodification of bodies and the steamy side of dance, what some regard as the inevitable side effects of bodies in motion. To them sacred dance is an oxymoron.

But if our secular consumer society, so impoverished in its collective rituals, has left people ill-equipped to dance for God––and with God––do we just concede the game to the culture and abandon the practice? Or should we endeavor to create occasions where people can recover and nurture the innate human capacity not just to dance, but to let the divine dance in us? In the quaint phrasing of his 1948 reflection on the attentive performance of the mass, Catholic priest Ronald Knox admitted that such aspirations would be nonsense if “what you mean by a dance is the wireless in the hall playing revolting stuff and you lounging round in pairs and feeling all gooey.” [2]

Whatever our anxieties and discomforts about our bodies and others’ bodies and the sexually charged atmosphere of our culture, we need to get over it, or else we will lose one of the best and truest dimensions of embodied life: the ability to offer our whole selves––body, mind, soul and heart––to God, and to feel God’s pleasure in the joy of our sensory lives.

In his classic study of the holy in art, Gerardus van der Leeuw found in the Sufi practice of whirling and bowing a beautiful example of embodied prayer which leaves the anxieties of self behind:

“The dervishes dance until they have forgotten everything. Earthly, bodily life is discarded, blown away. Dancing is not a secular pastime, but training for blessedness. In ecstasy, the body becomes light and the chains of the soul loosened.” [3]

Movement is the world’s most ancient language. The universe itself is a dance of movement and countermovement. God moved over the sea of chaos, and the universe was set into perpetual motion. Earth dances with heaven, finitude dances with the infinite, death dances with life, human dances with divine. Move and countermove. Call and response. When we move our bodies in rhythmic and patterned ways, we mirror the dance of Love that moves the sun and stars, and we echo the angelic dance around the throne of God, whose own inmost nature is a dance of selfless give-and-take among the triune persons.

The Psalmist says that the rivers clap their hands, the mountains dance, the hills skip like lambs. Or as van der Leeuw puts it, “Everything spins and circles, everything leaps to the rhythm of the universe.”[4] Life is motion, and to live it is to dance. Our only choice is to do it well or do it badly.

Who understands the exalted dance,
The bowing, bending, waiting stance,
The spinning round forever?
The mincing pace, the whirling space,
The flight that ceases never?

For love may stop, and love may hop,
And love may sing, and love may spring,
And love may rest in loving,
And love may sleep, and love may leap;
What mind can follow, proving? [5]

 

 

Related post: God is a dance we do

 

[1]Quoted in Heidi Schlumpf, “In Defense of Liturgical Dance,” National Catholic Reporteronline, April 14, 2017 (https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/ncr-today/defense-liturgical-dance).

[2]Ronald Knox, The Mass in Slow Motion(New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), 3.

[3]Gerardus van der Leeuw, Sacred and Profane Beauty: The Holy in Art, trans. David E. Green (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1963), 62.

[4]Ibid., 28.

[5]Ibid., 31.Attributed to Sister Bertke of Utrecht, a medieval recluse, whose tiny cell left her little room to move, much less dance. Perhaps her cramped quarters inspired her vision of the soul’s dance with God.

 

“Let it not happen again.”

The Story Wall at the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial, where the Nikkei were forcibly removed from their island home in 1942. (Photo Illustration by Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz)

“Later on, they took my dad around five o’clock, and I think I remember my dad went to the corner and prayed. And they said, ‘What is he doing?’ I said, ‘He’s praying because he didn’t do anything wrong.’ But they took him anyway.”

–– Nobuko Sakai Omoto

 

Seventy-six years ago, people of a certain ethnicity were rounded up and transported to concentration camps. This happened not in some distant citadel of despotism, but in the “land of the free,” from the shining sea of the Pacific to the diamond desert of the western interior. It happened in the United States of America, and the island I call home is where it all began.

After Pearl Harbor, everyone of Japanese ancestry (the Nikkei), whether or not they were born in America, became objects of suspicion in the eyes of their government. On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 calling for the exclusion of “any or all persons” from areas deemed sensitive for national defense. Although around 14,000 people of German or Italian ancestry were interned for at least part of the war, those of Japanese descent were the prime targets, reflecting an anti-Asian bigotry with deep roots in American history.

On March 21, after only an hour’s discussion in the Senate and thirty minutes in the House, Congress passed a law authorizing the roundup of 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese ancestry. Of that great number, the first 227 would be residents of Bainbridge Island, six miles west of Seattle.

These evacuees comprised a significant portion of the island’s relatively small population. Boasting the world’s largest sawmill––a magnet for job-seekers––in the late nineteenth century, Bainbridge attracted immigrant workers and families, many of them from Japan, even after the mill shut down in the 1920s. By the 1940s, both the Issei (“first generation,” born in Japan) and the Nisei (“second generation,” born in the U.S. as American citizens) had become established members of the island community. But when Pearl Harbor stirred up primal fears of the “other,” 227 friends and neighbors were abruptly severed from their community and shipped off to distant internment camps.

Why was Bainbridge targeted first? The high percentage of Nikkei on the island, along with the proximity of military installations and the Boeing aircraft plant, have been cited as probable causes. The fake news of the day accused Japanese-American farmers of aligning their strawberry rows as pointers toward bombing targets. Frank Kitamoto, only two years old when his family was taken, thought the island’s isolation made it a perfect test case:

“We didn’t have the bridge in those days. So it became real easy for the army to isolate us and to kind of use us as a practice run to see how people would react to something like this––if they came in to force us off the island, whether we’d be violent or whether we would cause problems or protest or whatever. And since we went without any of that going on, then I think that kinda set the pace . . . for them to do things.”[1]

The idea of a practice run seems especially chilling to me after reading a recent op-ed piece by Fintan O’Toole, describing Trump’s corrosive attacks on democratic norms as a means of “test marketing” the spread of fascism. “Fascism,” he writes, “doesn’t arise suddenly in an existing democracy. It is not easy to get people to give up their ideas of freedom and civility. You have to do trial runs that, if they are done well, serve two purposes. They get people used to something they may initially recoil from; and they allow you to refine and calibrate. This is what is happening now and we would be fools not to see it.”[2]

Notice of forced evacuation, posted on March 24, 1942.

On March 24, the Nikkei of Bainbridge were given just 6 days to settle their affairs and pack their things before military trucks would come to take them away to the ferry dock. For those with property, it was especially complicated. Non-citizens couldn’t own property, and Japanese-born were forbidden citizenship by law[3], so titles had to be in the name of either U.S.-born children or supportive friends. In any case, what would happen to their houses and land while they were gone?

There was a limit of one suitcase per person, not only for clothes and personal items, but also to carry sheets, blanket, utensils and plates! If you had to pack one suitcase without knowing where you were going or how long you’d be away, what would you include? Practical things, or emotional treasures? Matsue Nishimori Watanabe, who was 15 at the time, remembers the pressures of packing so lightly:

“And, of course, in that suitcase you’re trying to put maybe a sheet or so, that you can have for sleeping. And the rest is your clothes and your shoes. And so you’re not taking any toys or anything like that. . . one suitcase for the rest of your life . . . isn’t a lot of space to put things. And that’s the way we traveled, and with a tag on the suitcase and a tag on our body. .  .  [O]ne of my girlfriends now, she sees the pictures of my sister and us walking down the dock and she could see that they’re dressed up and they have hats on and everything. And she says, ‘Why did you dress up to go to camp?’ And I said, ‘Well, we had no place else to put it except on our body, because you had one suitcase to carry.’”

But there were greater stresses. Many reported a sense of shame at being treated like criminals. What had they done to deserve this? What would their neighbors think of them?

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And for one thing, we were so busy destroying everything that was Japanese. We, my dad says, ‘Get rid of everything,’ so we just burned things, buried things, broke things up, did everything to get rid of all the things that Grandma sent from Hiroshima. . . I hated to get rid of all the stuff that Grandma sent me, but then again, it was too Japanese, and so we just had to destroy them.” (Kay Sakai Nakao, 22)

Perhaps the worst thing was having no idea of where they were being taken, or what would befall them in the days to come.

“They never told us where we were going, if it’s gonna be hot or if it’s gonna be cold or anything, which sort of — I don’t know how the others felt, but I felt like I was kind of up in the air and I couldn’t come down on earth to get my feet on earth, to really feel sort of secure. I don’t know if that’s the word, right word to use, but you’re just left kinda dangling, wondering.” (Kay Sakai Nakao)

 

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

The truckloads of evacuees were dropped at the end of the road I now live on, less than a mile from where I write these words. Escorted by soldiers with rifles and fixed bayonets, they lugged their bulging suitcases down to the dock at Eagle Harbor and boarded the ferry Kehloken to Seattle, where they would, under armed supervision, take train and bus to the concentration camps far inland[4]. Some 10,000 people would eventually be crammed into a primitive settlement of one square mile bounded by barbed wire. After the blue water and green forests of Bainbridge, the harsh landscape of the high desert came as a shock. A resident of California’s Manzanar camp summed it up tartly: “The main thing you remembered was the dust, always the dust.”

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

And how had the Nikkei’s neighbors on Bainbridge responded to “the exclusion”? While some residents shared the widespread racism and wartime belligerence of the country as a whole, a majority of Bainbridge Islanders resisted the anti-Japanese hysteria. The bonds of longtime community were stronger than the sirens of fear.

The day after Pearl Harbor, teachers were careful to remind their nervous classes that the students of Japanese ancestry were Americans too. Neighbors pitched in to help the Nikkei families with last-minute logistics. Generous souls took over management of abandoned farms and businesses until the day their rightful owners returned. And the editors of the local weekly newspaper, the Bainbridge Review, mounted an eloquent and courageous defense of the vulnerable.

Walt and Milly Woodward, a young couple from Seattle, had bought the paper when they moved to the island in 1940. Their first editorial made a powerful commitment: “Always strive to speak the truth, unafraid, whether it be on a national issue or something purely local.” And so they did.

On the day after Pearl Harbor, their front page counseled neighborliness over fear: “There is the danger of a blind, wild hysterical hatred of all persons who can trace ancestry to Japan. That some of those persons happen to be American citizens…easily could be swept aside by mob hysteria.”[5] Walt and Milly continued the fight for constitutional rights and mutual respect for the duration of the war. The Review was the only newspaper in the United States to do so! The Woodwards also hired evacuated high school students to send dispatches from the camps, so that absent neighbors would not become faceless or forgotten. Their stories of exile were read widely back home.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

Because Bainbridge had resisted the extremes of racist hostility and fear infecting much of wartime America, it was easier for its exiles to return without incident when the global conflict drew to a close. As the Woodwards’ daughter Mary has written, “All up and down the Pacific Coast that spring and summer [1945], newly released families returned to vandalized houses and damaged or stolen personal property. Bainbridge families also saw damage, but to a lesser degree. There was vandalism––common whenever a house stands vacant––but it was a result more of petty crime and greed than viciousness.”[6]

Some couldn’t afford to return, and others chose not to, but more than half of the exiles did come back, compared to a much smaller return rate in other places. Bainbridge showed little sign of the nasty anti-Japanese sentiment seen elsewhere. Those who voiced their continuing hostility on Bainbridge found few followers, while there were countless expressions of kindness and goodwill to assist the Nikkei in their resumption of lives interrupted.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial.

 

“And our neighbors were all willing, happy that we came back. That time we came home it was September . . . it was dry summer, they said, the strawberries are all wilted. The dirt, the soil was just like sand, just really, oh, it was sad. Everything was wilted, I remember. And we had to start all over again, and I still wonder how did we ever, you know, with Mom and Dad, how did we ever get going, I always wonder. But we did.” (Michiko Amatatsu Noritake, 22)

 

“I was about thirteen when I came back and I was really frightened, but I went up to school and I signed in as “Sally” because I had to be very American and I didn’t want to be known as Shimako anymore. Well then . . . so the first day of school, Shannon Stafford and Ray Lowry, my classmates from Kindergarten, they came up and said, ‘Welcome back.’” (Shimako “Sally” Nishimori Kitano)

 

Steven Gardner panels at the Exclusion Memorial.

On August 6, 2011, the anniversary of Hiroshima, nearly 600 people gathered to dedicate the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Exclusion Memorial at the exact place where the Nikkei had been removed from the island in 1942. The beautifully designed site is a moving tribute to the dear people of that troubled time, but it also provides a necessary reminder of our perpetual vocation to repair the world by nourishing community and resisting everything which diminishes the human family.

Paper cranes left by visitors at the Story Wall, where the names of all the evacuated Nikkei are inscribed.

In the Memorial’s peaceful setting beside Puget Sound, a cedar “Story Wall,” designed by local architect Johnpaul Jones, holds the names of all the exiles as well as a series of moving terra cotta panels by Seattle artist Steven Gardner, depicting people and incidents of the exclusion.[7]

It is a place to remember––and to hope. As Sada Omoto, one of the surviving exiles, has said, the Exclusion Memorial wants to “create in you a different sense of being.”[8]This should be a pilgrimage site for every American in this dispiriting time. You will take heart from it.

The Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community’s excellent website is also worth a visit for its wealth of fascinating photos, archival films and video oral histories. Most of the interviews quoted in this post may be found there.

Nidoto Nai Yoni: Let it not happen again.

Just before Independence Day, I interviewed Clarence Moriwaki, a local activist who has been a driving force behind the Memorial project. I looked him up after hearing his eloquent speech at the recent Bainbridge Island rally to “Keep families together.” Like so many of us, Clarence is troubled by the normalization of racism and hatred at the highest levels of our government as well as in the untamed id of cultural rage. From the stigmatization of Muslims to the unspeakable cruelty at our southern border, America’s shadow side is on full display, while the crazier voices on the right tout the 1940s internment as an applicable model for the war on terror. Singling out people based on race and ancestry remains an illness hard to cure.

“This is frightening to me,” Clarence said. “We spent months thinking about the motto for the Memorial. We went back and forth, and what we decided on was Nidoto Nai Yoni (‘Let it not happen again’). But it is happening again. It’s happening to those children being separated from their families. The motto is not being lived up to. They’re creating concentration camps, and it’s happening in the name of the United States of America.

“What’s different this time is that people are not remaining silent the way they did in 1942. And they’re making comparisons between what is happening to Muslims and immigrants and the incarceration of Japanese Americans. It has become part of the American narrative. Sites like ours keep it out there so it isn’t forgotten. And people have notforgotten. The story is timeless––and timely.”[9]

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Just days before the evacuation of 1942, the Bainbridge High School baseball team opened the season against its traditional rival. They wanted badly to win, of course, but instead of using only the best players, the coach, “Pop” Miller, made sure that all six Nikkei players not only took the field, but remained in the lineup for the entire game. They got trounced, 15-2, but no one seemed to care about all the errors and fruitless swings of the bat. All that mattered to the Nikkei––and to their teammates who cheered them on––was the joy of a love so much stronger than fear.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Among the many fascinating exclusion artifacts in the Bainbridge Island Historical Museum, none is more telling than side by side posters of the high school classes of 1942 and 1943. They make an indelible image of a community bereft by a terrible sense of absence. In the class of 1943, the faces of the Nikkei have all disappeared.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1942.

Bainbridge High School Class of 1943.

But the students stranded in Manzanar would not miss their graduation. The principal sent copies of all the graduation speeches to the camp, along with diplomas for every exiled senior. Meanwhile, during the commencement ceremony back on the island, in the middle of the stage, there were thirteen empty chairs.

Steven Gardner panel at the Exclusion Memorial

Let it not happen again.

 

 

I am very grateful to Clarence Moriwaki and the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community for their generous assistance in the making of this post. It was a privilege to engage with this unforgettable and challenging story and the enduring legacy of the people who lived it.

[1]Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from the video oral histories on the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) website: (http://www.bijac.org/index.php?p=WELCOME)  The ages given are of the interviewees at the time of their evacuation. Thanks to Clarence Moriwaki for his generous assistance with these sources.

[2]Fintan O’Toole, “Trial runs for fascism are in full flow,” The Irish Timesonline, June 26, 2018.

[3]Incredibly, Japanese legal resident aliens were not allowed to seek U.S. citizenship until the passage of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952.

[4]Not all spent the war in the camps. Some joined the military and fought in Europe. Some were jailed. Some would be allowed to move outside the exclusion zone for work or school. But no one could return home until war’s end.

[5]Bainbridge Review, December 8, 1941. Cited on the BIJAC website.

[6]Mary Woodward, In Defense of Our Neighbors: The Walt and Milly Woodward Story(Bainbridge Island, WA: Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community / Fenwick Publishing, 2008), 118. This is a beautifully produced and moving account with many striking photographs and illustrations.

[7]My photos of the story wall are used throughout this post. Thanks to Steven Gardner and Johnpaul Jones for their exquisite artistry, and to Paul Dunn and Tracy Matsue Loeffelholz for their composite image of the wall and the historic photo of the evacuees walking toward the ferry.

[8]From a display panel at the Bainbridge Island Historical Society.

[9]Jim Friedrich interview with Clarence Moriwaki, July 2, 2018.

 

 

 

Are All Welcome? The Red Hen and the Spirit of Eucharist

Vincent van Gogh, The Potato Eaters (1885)

Within my house there shall not dwell
one who practices deceit.
A speaker of lies shall not stand firm
before my eyes.

–– Psalm 101:7

 

Jesus loved to break bread with people. He did it all the time––not just with his friends, but with anyone hungry enough to sit down with him, no matter who they were. Sharing a meal together was so much a part of who Jesus was that we who love him practice table fellowship as our most sacred act.

Whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, I am with you.

Christ’s table is not a privilege of the righteous. Sinners always go to the head of the line. As our primary image of divine hospitality, it is meant to be a place of welcome, not exclusion. Whenever we gather to share the bread of heaven with one another in an act of wondrous love, we become a visible and concrete image of a world come home to God.

All who hunger, never strangers. Seeker, be a welcome guest.
Come from restlessness and roaming, here in joy we keep the feast.
We, that once were lost and scattered, in communion’s love have stood.
Taste and see the grace eternal, taste and see that God is good.[1]

The eucharist reveals the meaning of eating together. Every shared meal is a chance for holy communion. We receive the gifts of the earth, thankful for the labor and skill which have set them before us, and we share them with one another in love and mutual delight. Whenever we eat together with mindfulness and gratitude, we taste and see that God is good.

In a recent New Yorker essay, Adam Gopnik considers “commensality,” the social anthropology of eating. “Nothing is more fundamental to human relations than deciding who has a place at the table,” he writes, noting that Jesus broke all his culture’s rules when he dined with outcasts and sinners. Turning his attention to our own time, Gopnik then writes, “The modern restaurant—invented in Paris, after the Revolution—is a little temple of commensality: all you need, as shown in so many early Chaplin shorts, is five cents to enter and then to share.”

When Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the White House press secretary, was asked by the owner of Virginia’s Red Hen restaurant to leave the premises without being fed, was the temple of commensality being desecrated? Some have thought so, bemoaning the “incivility” of denying service to a fellow citizen. Doesn’t such an act undermine the norms of peaceful coexistence and exacerbate partisan rancor? Shouldn’t we be allowed to eat in peace no matter who we are?

While acknowledging the importance of civility and social reciprocity, Gopnik argues that “someone who has decided to make it her public role to extend, with a blizzard of falsehoods, the words of a pathological liar, and to support, with pretended piety, the acts of a public person of unparalleled personal cruelty—well, that person has asked us in advance to exclude her from our common meal. You cannot spit in the plates and then demand your dinner. The best way to receive civility at night is to not assault it all day long. It’s the simple wisdom of the table.”[2]

Well said. But once you begin to cross the line into shunning, shaming and excluding, where do you stop? When the cold-blooded Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen sat down in a Mexican(!) restaurant, angry protesters drove her out with cries of “Shame! Shame!” for her complicity in the atrocious abuse of immigrant children. Others gathered outside her home to blast her with the heartbreaking audio of border children crying and wailing in a government detention center.

Responding to the unspeakable cruelties of the Administration, Congresswoman Maxine Waters sounded a controversial call to arms:

“We want history to record that we stood up, that we pushed back, that we fought. If you see anybody from that cabinet in a restaurant, in a department store, at a gasoline station, you get out and you create a crowd and you push back on them, and you tell them they’re not welcome anymore, anywhere!”[3]

I’m not likely to spot any of those monsters on my little island anytime soon, but if I did, I’d be pretty tempted to remind them loud and clear that racism, bigotry and cruelty are not okay. Uncivil? Perhaps. But as Mark Sumners writes, “the demand being made for ‘civility’ isn’t about language at all. It’s about throwing a ring of protection around the powerful. It’s about pretending that people whose actions wreck millions of lives on a whim, are cocooned from the consequences of their actions, not just because they have money, and connections, and resources, but because their power puts them on a different plane.”[4]

Of course, confrontation can go too far. During the French Revolution, when Marie Antoinette was under house arrest on an upper floor of her palace, a protester stuck the guillotined head of an aristocratic consort on a pole, holding it high to stare at the queen through her bedroom window. One can only imagine what Ms. Antoinette might have tweeted in response!

Returning to the question of commensality, “the wisdom of the table,” how should churches respond to the presence of notorious sinners when they come to Christ’s table? In the fourth century, St. Ambrose withheld communion from the Emperor Theodosius after his soldiers slaughtered 7000 Greeks attending a sporting event in Thessalonika.[5]More recently, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero excommunicated government officials responsible for the murder of priests and nuns.

While the icon of an open and welcoming table is central to Christian practice, there have been those exceptional occasions when it needed to be said that you can’t spit on the Body of Christ one day and consume it piously the next.

When I was a young priest in Los Angeles, I was asked to assist at the liturgy of a congregation I did not know. After the mass, the rector told me I had given communion to the city’s chief of police, whose department was known for abusive practices toward minorities and peace activists. “I didn’t tell you beforehand that he was in attendance,” the rector told me later. “I was afraid you wouldn’t have given him communion.”

He laughed when he said this, so I wasn’t sure how much he was joking. Had I known, how would I have felt about it? Excommunication is a serious matter, certainly not undertaken spontaneously, without considerable discernment and the blessing of a higher authority (i.e., the bishop, not God, who remains provocatively silent on such matters). And since “we are all bastards but God loves us anyway,”[6]who dares to risk the presumptuous task of judging worthiness rather than dispensing mercy?

Still, I wonder. Would I give communion to Hitler? Or Putin? Or Trump? Put the bread of heaven in a hand soaked with so much blood?[7]Assuming they all remained obstinately unrepentant, would I somehow be enabling or endorsing their behavior by affirming their place at the table? Or would giving them communion, even if they received it unworthily, signify that God’s love knows no obstacles, not even the hardened and hateful heart?

 

 

 

[1]Hymn text by Sylvia G. Dunstan (GIA Publications, 1991).

[2]Adam Gopnik, “Sarah Huckabee Sanders and Who Deserves a Place at the Table,” New Yorkeronline, June 25, 2018 (https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/sarah-huckabee-sanders-and-who-deserves-a-place-at-the-table)

[3]For an excellent take on the overheated reactions to Waters, cf. Crystal Marie Fleming, “Maxine Waters and the trope of the angry black woman,” Vox, June 29, 2018 (https://www.vox.com/first-person/2018/6/29/17515192/maxine-waters-sarah-sanders-red-hen-restaurant-trump)

[4]Mark Sumner, “The ‘civility’ debate isn’t about language, it’s about power,” Daily Kos, June 26, 2018 (https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2018/6/26/1775471/-The-civility-debate-isn-t-about-language-it-s-about-power)

[5]It’s a complicated story. The soldiers wanted revenge for the killing of their commander by an angry mob of citizens fed up with abuses by the Roman military. Theodosius, hearing the news in a distant city, flew into a rage, and sent a message giving carte blanche to the soldiers for retaliatory action. He soon sent a second order rescinding the first, but it was too late. The soldiers’ rampage had already taken 7000 lives. Although the emperor himself didn’t wield a sword, he bore the responsibility, and his striking submission to church discipline was an historic recognition that divine authority rules the powers of the world.

[6]When Will Cambell, a Baptist preacher, writer, and wonderful disturber of the peace, was asked to sum up Christianity in ten words or less, this was his reply, as recorded in his moving book, Brother to a Dragonfly.

[7]Trump is already responsible for the deaths of countless Americans in Puerto Rico, and he will bear the blame for tens of thousands of premature deaths due to his animus against health care. His suicidal refusal to address climate change, however, will ultimately be his most murderous legacy.

All Is Grace: The Spiritual Cinema of “First Reformed”

Ethan Hawke in “First Reformed”

“Oh my Lord, when will you cease from scattering obstacles in our path?”
“Do not complain, my daughter. This is how I treat my friends.”
“Yes, my Lord, and that is why you have so few of them.”

–– Attributed to St. Teresa of Avila

 

Many of God’s friends have known the dark night of divine absence, when God falls silent and faith loses touch with an answering Presence. Some have understood this as a form of progress, a necessary purgation of comfortable words, images, concepts and feelings as the questing soul goes deeper and deeper into an ungraspable Mystery. Others have experienced God’s silence as nothing but nothingness, a one-way ticket into the void. My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

Paul Schrader’s harrowing new film, First Reformed, traverses this abyss with an intelligence and seriousness all too rare in American films about religion. The life of faith is easy to satirize, trivialize or sentimentalize in popular culture, but Schrader treats it as a subject of critical import. And in so doing, his film attempts to go “all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn.”[i]

Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is the middle-aged pastor of an old Dutch Reformed church in upstate New York. The 250-year-old white colonial structure has an interesting history, but its days of relevance are long gone. Almost no one attends Sunday worship, and the building only stays open through the sponsorship of a nearby megachurch, which preserves it as a kind of museum. Tourists stop by now and then for souvenirs, and Toller’s job is to hang around and lend some authenticity to the place, like the costumed actors who re-create the past at popular historic sites.

Toller, however, is an ordained minister with a serious vocation. He conducts real worship and counsels his tiny flock. So the inescapable sense of play-acting in a museum is demeaning and demoralizing. His humiliation will be recognizable to all those clergy and congregations left behind by a culture where the biblical God has been rendered harmless––or even unthinkable.

Toller, whose very name suggests loss and mourning, lives a lonely, solitary life in a house of monastic bareness. His marriage fell apart long ago, after the death of his son in Iraq. His health is failing, and he is depressed. Prayer comes hard for him, and doubt is his constant companion. His life is a desert with no rain in the forecast.

A spiritual director once told me in a time of personal crisis, “Congratulations! You’re exactly where you need to be––fallen overboard into a raging sea.” John Donne said the same thing with seventeenth-century elegance: “No man hath affliction enough, that is not matured, and ripened by it, and made fit for God by that affliction.”[ii]

Such a rigorous spirituality may never pack the churches, but it is intriguing that First Reformed has struck a chord with critics and audiences alike. Perhaps this is due to its demanding seriousness, so refreshingly alien to the self-congratulatory spirituality of our time. We grow weary of trivia. We want to fall for something that matters so absolutely.

Half a century ago, Paul Schrader wrote a book which had a major impact on film studies. Transcendental Style in Film opened many eyes, including mine, to a different kind of cinema, in which the sacred is expressed not through psychological realism but through a film style fraught with renunciations. No expressive or self-conscious acting presuming to explain the mystery of human beings. No fancy camerawork interpreting a scene or manipulating an audience. A withholding of many of the emotional satisfactions which moviegoers have come to expect. Transcendental cinema, in Schrader’s view, doesn’t just represent religious experience. It creates it in the viewer.

“Transcendental style,” he concluded, “can bring us nearer to that silence, that invisible image, in which the parallel lines of religion and art meet and interpenetrate.”[iii]

Schrader was raised in a strict Dutch Calvinist home. Movie-going was forbidden in his childhood. But he eventually fled the constricting faith of his ancestors and, like the Prodigal Son, lived in the distant country of movies saturated with violent themes and forbidden pleasures. He also worked on the script for The Last Temptation of Christ. Some of his films, like American Gigolo, revisited the spiritual terrain of his seminal book, but First Reformed, made in his early seventies, is Schrader’s most explicit homage to transcendental cinema, and especially to the work of my favorite director, Robert Bresson, who once said, “No art without transformation.”[iv]

First Reformed strongly echoes Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest (1950) in many ways: a pastor in crisis who keeps a journal and speaks it in voice-over; a worrisome stomach ailment; a bleak environment––claustrophobic and without exit; a barren and unanswered prayer life; a heavy dark cloak as metonymy for his sense of confinement; the suicide by shotgun of a parishioner in despair; and long silences begging for divine presence. Schrader’s Bressonesque film style––the constraining “Academy” film ratio (1.37:1) instead of the expansiveness of wide screen, an austere minimizing of music and camera movement, the cold factuality of interior spaces begging for the miracle of life and breath––also tells a story. As Susan Sontag once remarked of Bresson, his form does not merely perfectly express what he wants to say. “It is what he wants to say.”[v]

Schrader’s writing in Transcendental Style about the three forms of alienation in Bresson’s film reads like a template for First Reformed:

  • The priest and his afflcted body: “He feels himself condemned by the weight he must bear, and associates his agony with the sacrificial agony of Christ.”
  • The priest and his parish: “The priest’s agony alienates his community, and it is an agony which he seems unable to control.”
  • The priest and the fallen world: “The priest is unable to cope with the world of sin, either in himself or others. . . He is able to bring peace to others, yet has none himself . . . His holy agony allows him none of the temporal means of release which Church, society, and body provide.”[vi]

But there are also some crucial differences between the two films. The priest’s only diet is bread and wine, identifying the priest’s suffering with the eucharist. The pastor substitutes whiskey for wine, and pours in some Pepto-Bismol to boot, creating a nauseous parody bereft of holy resonance.

The priest is young, innocent and virginal, without a haunting past. The pastor is middle-aged, burned out by an excess of experience, and carrying a burden of grief and loss unknown to the young. Their contrasting faces read like different languages. Claude Laydu, a non-actor whose face suggests an inner life attuned to divine secrets, has the expressive eyes and hieratic features of an icon. When he gazes offscreen, it seems possible he could be glimpsing the hidden God. Hawke’s face is creased, tired, tense and unexpectant; his narrowed eyes give off no light.

Claude Laydu, Diary of a Country Priest (1951)

Ethan Hawke, First Reformed (2018)

Both men identify with the Passion of Christ. Toller’s boss, a megachurch pastor practiced at compromise, tells him, “You’re always in the garden [of Gethsemane]. Jesus wasn’t always in the garden, sweating blood. He was on the mountain, in the marketplace, and the Temple. . . But for you, every hour is the darkest hour.”

In Bresson, the priest writes in his journal, “I am a prisoner of the Holy Agony,” and the film mirrors the Stations of the Cross. But Toller seems unable to turn his personal anguish into gift, while Bresson’s priest, though suffering inwardly and rejected by many, manages to make an immense difference in the lives of some:

Oh miracle –
thus to be able to give
what we ourselves do not possess,
sweet miracle of our empty hands.[vii]

First Reformed also draws key elements from Ingmar Bergman’s Winter Light, described by Robin Wood as a “spiritual documentary” where “alienation from the past, from the traditional beliefs and customs that formed the basis of a way of life” has left church and village stranded “between two worlds, belonging to neither, bewildered and unfulfilled.”[viii] Its Swedish Lutheran parish is as much a relic of a vanished age as Toller’s “souvenir church.”

Bergman’s aging Lutheran pastor, Tomas (the name of Jesus’ doubting disciple), is also in a crisis of faith. He recites the liturgy without conviction, and his pastoral counsel has a patently empty ring. When a parishioner confesses his despair over the prospect of nuclear war (the film was made in 1962), the pastor tells him, “We must trust God.” But then he averts his eyes from the man’s gaze, a “tell” that betrays his own unbelief. After receiving such impotent counsel, the parishioner goes down to the river and shoots himself. Virtually the same incident occurs in First Reformed, but instead of nuclear winter, climate change is the engine of despair. Sickened by statistical forecasts of environmental collapse, a young activist finds no comfort in Toller’s citations from Thomas Merton on facing the abyss with courage. The activist goes out and shoots himself in a snowy wood.

Another element Schrader seems to have borrowed from Winter Light is the character of Karin, the caring woman who wants to mother the troubled pastor. The audience audibly winces when the pastor of First Reformed responds to the woman’s kindness by saying, “I despise you!” But on reflection this seems not just an inability to receive affection, but a way of saying, “This is not that kind of movie. My sickness unto death will not be cured by a romantic cliche.”

In Bergman’s film, Tomas goes even further. In what Wood calls one of the “most painful and ugly . . . in all cinema,” Tomas annihilates Karin’s illusions about their relationship. But strangely, the terrible honesty of this exchange, along with his confession of religious disillusionment in a previous scene, seems to open the possibility for an unexpected grace in which each may discover a kind of salvation in human relationships which an exhausted orthodoxy can no longer provide.

Though Tomas has lost his faith, the film ends with him at the altar, speaking the old words of praise because that’s the only language he possesses for whatever, if anything, is beyond him: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, heaven and earth are filled with your glory.” The nave is even emptier than the one in First Reformed––only Karin and the sexton. But we see Karin, who is an atheist, listening with the utmost attention. “[T]he irony is very beautiful and touching, the disillusioned priest celebrating Vespers for the confirmed atheist, a sort of inexplicit communion between them.”[ix]

Although neither they, nor Bergman himself, have been able to retain the language or vision of inherited belief, the eyes of faith might still perceive in the ending of Winter Light (its Swedish title is The Communicants) a hint of the communion which God never stops desiring, no matter what the rest of us manage to believe.

As the poet Christian Wiman suggests,

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.[x]

Or as Natalie Carnes puts it in her intriguing new book, Image and Presence, the iconoclasm of the cross ensures that the death of old words and images does not mean the death of the Reality behind them. “The cross breaks the brokenness, the violence of idolatry. It breaks brokenness to proclaim the ubiquity of God’s love. It identifies the way God is present in a special way, a riven and riving way, to those suffering divine absence. It courses through the cosmos, which takes its shape, displaying the broken center of all things.”[xi]

The ending for Bresson’s priest, in contrast, remains firmly within the language of Christian orthodoxy. Having passed through his dark night of doubt, and resigning himself to premature death from cancer, he dies in peace. His last words, spoken to comfort a doubting friend, is the best summary I know of the Christian faith:

“What does it matter? All is grace.”

The ending of First Reformed, however, is nothing like the country priest’s trusting departure from this world, nor does it settle for the potential beatitude of purely human relationships suggested by Winter Light. Something extraordinary and redemptive seems to happen in its enigmatic conclusion, but no one can say exactly what. Everybody I know who has watched the film asks the same question: What did you think about that ending?

Its highly charged mix of image, symbol, physicality and feeling resists any closure, and Schrader himself has rightly refused to explain it. Critics have applied words like “epiphany” and “catharsis” to the final scene, but have generally avoided discussing it. This reticence respects the viewer’s right to see for oneself, but it also suggests that none of us are sure what to make of it. I share that sense of indecidability regarding the climax, but can’t help thinking about it.

[SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film yet, read no further until you do.]

While most of the film has been inspired by Diary of a Country Priest and Winter Light, the ending shares an affinity with a third film, Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). For most of that film, the protagonist, Michel, is locked within the prison of his ego, unable to connect with reality beyond the self. Unable to love. In the final scene, he is locked in an actual prison cell. Jeanne, a woman he knows in an unromantic way, comes to visit him. The film has so far given us little reason to think there is, or may be, a deep connection between these two. But in a famous ending that seems sudden, unexpected, and unmotivated, she reaches out to him, and he responds to Love at last. “Oh Jeanne,” he says, “what a strange path I had to take to reach you.”[xii]

The ending of First Reformed, like the ending of Pickpocket, is a powerful image of surprising and unmerited grace. Jean Collet’s reflection on Bresson’s climactic prison scene could describe Schrader’s ending as well: “If this final illumination was caused by some necessity of plot, we would no longer be required to speak of grace. By definition grace is that which is free of any necessity, and hence gratuitous. Isn’t that enough to make the conversion of Michel not appear improbable?”[xiii]

In the course of First Reformed, Toller shifts the focus of his spiritual struggle from his own inwardness to the fate of an earth in dire peril. In a prickly conversation with Edward Balq, the church’s financial patron but also a notorious polluter, he is warned by the conscience-free entrepreneur to keep politics out of church. Clergy should not meddle in public issues. And environmental concerns are too complicated to be subject to moral judgments. But Toller rebukes him with a simple but convicting question:

“Will God forgive us?”

As Toller goes on to ponder the immensity of the stakes, he comes to decide that Balq, as a servant of darkness, must be killed in an act of prophetic terrorism. This horrifying turn of mind threatens to lose the sympathetic viewer. As we watch this decision unfold, we are thinking, “Don’t go there!”

Balq’s arrival at the church’s 250th anniversary celebration provides the perfect opportunity. Vesting for the ceremony in the rectory next door, Toller puts on a suicide vest beneath his black robe as we hear him, in voice over, reciting Ephesians 9:11-12:

Put on the whole armor of God,
so that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.
For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh,
but against the rulers, against the authorities,
against the cosmic powers of this present darkness,
against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

In Toller’s troubled mind, the cosmic powers of darkness are sitting in a pew next door. But the viewer is appalled by the pastor’s descent into madness. However evil the acts of men like Balq, equating a suicide vest with the armor of God is abhorrent and wrong.

When Toller learns that Mary, the pregnant widow of the dead activist, is inside the church as well, he abruptly scraps his apocalyptic mission. Her life means more to him than his terrible burden of wrath. And her unborn child, like the child of the Nativity, signifies hope for the human future in a fallen world. To put that at risk would be the greater sin.

But he still feels compelled to make a dramatic self-sacrificial gesture, turning the violence against himself. His vocation is in tatters, he will probably die of cancer, and the end of humanity may be drawing near. He had once warned the activist about the pride of a certitude that surrenders hope in the face of despair. Now he himself has become a prisoner of that fatal arrogance, confusing his own suffering with Christ’s. He prepares to make his own body a signifier of planetary suicide.

He replaces the suicide vest with a coil of barbed wire, wrapping it painfully around his torso in parodic imitation of the crown of thorns. Then he covers his bleeding body with a Christ-like white robe––a vivid image of the paradoxical tension between the Christ of glory and the broken and desolate Christ on the edge of oblivion. But just before Toller can take his own life with a toxic glass of drain cleaner (a grotesque symbol of baptismal cleansing?), he looks up to see Mary, standing quietly on the other side of the unfurnished empty space of his living room. When did she enter? Why has she come?

“Ernst,” she says. It is the first time we have heard anyone speak his baptismal name. He’s always been addressed as “Reverend Toller.” But now, like Magdalene weeping at the tomb, he hears his name called by the tender voice of his “savior,” summoning him back from the dead. Without any hesitation, he sweeps across the room into her arms. As they embrace and kiss with unrestrained intensity, the camera, so still and quiet throughout most of the film, suddenly comes to life, circling round and round this miracle of redemptive love, like angelic praises whirling around the throne of God.

This breathtaking perichoresis [xiv] continues without ceasing for a full minute, until it abruptly vanishes in a startling cut to darkness and silence. No lingering fadeout, just this sudden absence. Over the next bewildering 8 seconds, the viewer wonders whether the projector has broken. But then, the credits begin to scroll across the blackness, accompanied by the same low-pitched waves of mournful sound heard in the film’s bleak passages of environmental dread, as if to resist any presumptions of “happily ever after.” We may have glimpsed for a moment the miracle of saving love at the heart of the universe, but our fallen world still yearns in the dark.

To me the last scene felt like something more than the natural outcome of the affinity we saw building between Ernst and Mary after her husband’s death. Reducing their union to a formula of movie romance would fail to perform the revelatory transit from the visible to the invisible. Schrader wants to give us more than a warm, familiar feeling. He wants to deliver the Wholly Other, who will not be contained by language or understanding.

So Mary, pregnant with future, provides a surplus of meanings as she offers Ernst––and the receptive viewer––the divine embrace in all its forms: grace, mercy, forgiveness, peace, healing, hope, joy and the mystery of self-diffusive love. Its very unexpectedness is a sign of its sacred character. It is not something of our own making. It is pure gift.

The essential function of spiritual cinema is not to structure a plausible narrative confined to the world we know, but to use the means of its form to create an experience of the life-giving sacred in the viewer’s inmost self. So whether Mary is the divine feminine, Dante’s Beatrice, an angel, a dream, Toller’s long-lost soul, or simply another one of God’s human children trying to connect, what does it matter?

All is grace.

 

 

 

Related postThe Ten Best Religious Films

 

[i] From “Brownsville Girl,” a song by Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard on Bob Dylan: Knocked Out Loaded (1986). “How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh / “We’re going all the way, till the wheels fall off and burn / Till the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies” / Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn.”

[ii] Devotions lxxxvii 17, q. in Helen Wilcox, ed., The English Poems of George Herbert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 164.

[iii] Paul Schrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1972), 169.

[iv] Robert Bresson, Notes on Cinematography, trans. Jonathan Griffin (New York: Urizen Books, 1977), 5.

[v] Susan Sontag, “The Spiritual Style of Robert Bresson,” in Against Interpretation (New York: Dell Publishing Company, 1966), 180.

[vi] Transcendental Style, 73, 75.

[vii] In the film, the priest speaks these words in voice over as we see him kneel by the deathbed of a woman for whom he had been a vehicle of miraculous grace.

[viii] Robin Wood, Ingmar Bergman (New York: Praeger, 1970), 111.

[ix] Ibid., 122-23.

[x] Christian Wiman, “Every Riven Thing,” in his collection of the same name (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2010), 24.

[xi] Natalie Carnes, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2018), 113.

[xii] Schrader uses this line verbatim, and recreates the essence of Bresson’s scene, in his own film, American Gigolo (1980).

[xiii] Jean Collet, q. in Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film (New York: Continuum, 2003), 82.

[xiv] This Greek word for “dancing in a circular pattern” has long been used to describe the ceaseless movement of interpenetrating, self-diffusive love which is the Holy Trinity. Schrader’s image may be more carnal than most theology is used to, but that’s the price of the Incarnation!

“Not too late to seek a newer world”

Fifty years ago today, Bobby Kennedy died. Moments before he was shot, he was being cheered by his supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He had just won the California presidential primary, and his victory speech near midnight was full of hope and promise. “Now it’s on to Chicago and let’s win there” were his parting words. But he never even made it to the hotel exit. With the jubilant ballroom crowd still shouting “Bobby! Bobby!,” an assassin’s bullet struck him down in a narrow kitchen corridor.

Watching on television only ten miles away, I turned off the news and went to bed less than a minute before the shooting. I slept in peaceful ignorance until the morning. Then came the long anxious watch as doctors at the Episcopal Hospital of the Good Samaritan––where I had been born and my father had died––tried to save the fallen leader.

But 26 hours after the shooting, Bobby Kennedy departed this world, and perishing with him was an American future that never happened. Who can say what that future might have been, but after watching Bobby Kennedy for President, Dawn Porter’s riveting 4-hour documentary for Netflix, I have to wonder.

L.A. Times TV Guide cover, June 2, 1968, two days before Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles (Jim Friedrich personal archive)

In a time of great division, in an America troubled by violence at home and abroad, Bobby Kennedy was a passionate advocate for reconciliation and healing. Though born to great wealth, he visited the poorest of the poor––virtually invisible in today’s politics––and pronounced their plight “unacceptable.” He appealed not to resentments and fears but to our better natures. Against the darkness of the time, he envisioned an unselfish and compassionate America.

But that is not the America we have in 2018. Our would-be dictator is burning down the house while his shameless enablers say not a word. Instead of dreaming better futures, some of my friends are starting to worry that the end may be near, that the America we believed in is finished. For those who don’t confuse the United States with the Kingdom of God, this need not bring despair. The ingenuity of God will always find a way to make more justice, more peace, and more compassion in a world “so loved” by the divine. But still, the demise of our democratic experiment would be a very sad thing, despite the glee with which the powers-that-be are bringing it to pass. It could have been otherwise. And perhaps, God willing, it still might be.

Bobby Kennedy knew a lot of poems by heart, and one of his favorites was Tennyson’s “Ulysses.” about the hero who roamed “with a hungry heart” in search of his destined home. The journey is long, and the hero, though “made weak by time and fate,” is still determined “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.” May these lines so treasured by Bobby bring comfort and courage to us all:

Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.

 

 

Related post: Is the American Dream a Con Game?

 

 

 

 

 

I

When Love is the Way

Magnus Zeller, The Orator, Germany c. 1920 (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)

The Episcopal “Daily Office” provides prayers and Scripture for various times of day. Derived from medieval monastic liturgies, the practice of hallowing the beginning, middle and end of our days with both corporate and private prayer can offer refuge and refreshment, lifting us out of the relentless rush of time to remember what it’s all about and deepen our connection with the holy One, who is our Source, our Companion, and our End.

This venerable prayer practice is not an escape from the world, but a way of attending to it with clearer vision. Thus the Daily Office offers challenge as well as comfort. The God of history will not let us ingore the calamity and suffering wrought by what the original Book of Common Prayer called “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”

Sometimes the biblical readings seem ripped from the headlines, like this week’s Wednesday reading from Proverbs:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes,
a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that hurry to run to evil,
a lying witness who testifies falsely,
and one who sows discord in a family.[i]

I have to confess that in the midst of my prayer time I succumbed to uncharitable amusement when I read these words. They describe the American president––and his corrupt and cruel minions––so perfectly! But neither righteous outrage nor satirical jesting––and certainly not any presumption of our own goodness––will deliver us from the menace of these times.

Of course we must take sides against the malicious designs of evil tyrants in order to defend the vulnerable and preserve the common good. As Reinhold Niebuhr reminded my generation of theology students, trying to keep one’s own hands clean in a dirty conflict can be a form of capitulation. Sometimes our innocence must be sacrificed in the historical struggle for a better world. Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew this when he joined the plot against Hitler.

But engaging the powers of darkness solely on their own terms is toxic, perhaps fatal, in the long run. If our goal is community and communion, we cannot make division and opposition our primary weapons. On the day following the assassination of Martin Luther King (and two months before his own violent end), Bobby Kennedy made this point boldly to an audience afflicted by passions of grief, fear and rage.

“We must recognize that this short life can neither be ennobled or enriched by hatred or revenge. . . . violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[ii]

The United States has weathered dark and dangerous times before. But with the exception of the Civil War, has there been another time when our nation’s very survival has been in such doubt? Institutional and legal norms are under daily assault by the White House and Congress; Republicans turn a blind eye to corruption and the clear threat to democracy; racism, hatred and fear are fostered and encouraged by “the most powerful man on earth,” and a third of this country lives in a fact-free bubble, impervious to reason and morality. A recent headline called us “The Banana States of America.”[iii]

Bells of warning should ring out Danger! in every city and town. Prophets should shout The end is near! on every street. Pundits may worry, dissenters object, and activists resist, but where is the widespread public cry of peril and alarm? Imagine such passivity after Pearl Harbor or 9/11. Are most of us still taking for granted our national stability? Do we simply assume everything will return to normal after the next two elections?

In a recent Washington Post column, “Watch What Happens in Rome,” Anne Applebaum examines current Italian politics as a disturbing cautionary tale for the United States. After finally ousting a corrupt authoritarian leader, Italy failed to revert to a more benign and centrist public order.

“Reeling from the flood of broken promises, electorates did not turn back to honest realists who told them hard truths or laid out the hard choices. On the contrary: In Italy, as in so many Latin American countries in the past, the failure of populism has led to greater dislike of “elites,” both real and imaginary; a greater demand for radical and impossible change; and a greater sense of alienation from politics and politicians than ever before.”

Applebaum then wonders what we all should be wondering:

“In President Trump’s wake, we too are not necessarily going to return to the status quo ante, to a tame trade-off between centrist conservatives and centrist liberals, all of whom respect the Constitution, believe in the old definitions of patriotism and get elected based on their experience and political views. It is just as likely that national politics becomes a patchwork of competing, incompatible single-issue groups and causes; that otherwise disparate groups meet one another online and form temporary alliances. It is just as likely that irresponsibility and irrationality become something that people vote for, not something that they reject. Watch what happens in Rome, because it could be America’s future.”[iv]

Whether this or some other equally destabilizing scenario should come to pass, what are the friends of God called to do? Sadly, many of my Christian brothers and sisters are only making things worse. As another columnist, Leonard Pitts, lamented last week:

“Having seen putative Christians excuse the liar, rationalize the alleged pedophile, justify the sexual assaulter and cheer as walls are raised against the most vulnerable, it’s obvious that many of those who claim that name embody a niggardly, cowardly, selfish and situational “faith” that has little to do with Jesus.”[v]

In encouraging contrast to such shameless apostasy, an ecumenical group of Christian leaders has issued a timely manifesto, “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis.” Click the link to read the whole text, and share widely. It’s a good theoretical foundation for a gospel-based resistance.

The Confession is structured in six sections, pairing what we believe as disciples of Jesus and what we reject. Yes to imago Dei, no to racism; yes to compassion and kindness, no to neglect or abuse of the vulnerable; yes to servanthood, no to domination; yes to communion, no to division and oppression; yes to truth, no to lies; yes to global community, no to “America first.”

The last of these may be the most challenging for those who subscribe to the great American heresy of exalting nation over God. As Clarence Jordan observed many years ago, the biggest lie told in America is, “Jesus is Lord.” But “Reclaiming Jesus” aims higher: “Our churches and our nations are part of an international community whose interests always surpass national boundaries. We in turn should love and serve the world and all its inhabitants rather than to seek first narrow nationalistic purposes.”

Tonight the framers of this Confession are processing to the White House gates for a candlelight vigil. As they have written,

“We are living through perilous and polarizing times as a nation, with a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches. We believe the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake.”[vi]

Among the many church leaders marching in that procession will be the Most Rev. Michael Curry, the Episcopal Presiding Bishop whose sermon on love’s redemptive power, at last week’s royal wedding, invited a global audience to imagine the world as God made it to be:

Imagine our homes and families when love is the way.
Imagine neighborhoods and communities when love is the way.
Imagine our governments and nations when love is the way.
Imagine business and commerce when love is the way.
Imagine this tired old world when love is the way.[vii]

Let all the people say: Amen!

 

 Related posts

7 Spiritual Practices: A To-do List for the Time of Trial

Dante and Lewis Carroll Walk into a Dark Wood

 

[i] Proverbs 6:16-19.

[ii] Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968: https://www.jfklibrary.org/Research/Research-Aids/Ready-Reference/RFK-Speeches/Remarks-of-Senator-Robert-F-Kennedy-to-the-Cleveland-City-Club-Cleveland-Ohio-April-5-1968.aspx

[iii] Patrick T. Fallon, “The Banana States of America,” Washington Post, May 22, 2018.

[iv] Anne Applebaum, “Watch what happens in Rome. It could be our post-Trump future,” Washington Post, May 18, 2018.

[v] Leonard Pitts, “Oregon school district forced LGBTQ students to read the Bible––how Christian,” Miami Herald, May 17, 2018 (http://www.miamiherald.com/opinion/opn-columns-blogs/leonard-pitts-jr/article211384374.html).

[vi] “Reclaiming Jesus: A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” (http://www.reclaimingjesus.org)

[vii] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/presiding-bishop-currys-sermon-royal-wedding

Ascension Day: Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Giotto, The Ascension (c. 1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua)

Hail the day that sees him rise,
glorious to his native skies;
Christ, awhile to mortals giv’n,
enters now the highest heaven.

–– Charles Wesley (18th century)

At once the disciples wept and, groaning deeply,
said to the teacher,
“Are you leaving us, O Compassionate?
Parting from those who love you?”

–– Romanos, Kontakion for the Ascension (6th century)

O envious cloud,
do you grudge even our brief delight?
Where do you fly in such haste?
Your departure, so splendid and bright!
But how poor and blind you leave us!

–– Fray Luis de Leon ((16th century)

 

This is the fortieth day of Easter, Ascension Thursday, commemorating the cessation of resurrection appearances and the exaltation of Christ into a state of divine glory and universal presence. The liturgical texts and hymns are festive and celebratory: the divine fullness, hidden and humbled in the life of a first-century mortal, is lifted high once again, but without discarding the humanity assumed and hallowed in the Incarnation. By ascending, Christ does not abandon us to “earth’s broken Eden,”[i] but rather makes the way for us to follow, deeper and deeper into God. Our humanity, made glorious in Christ, is joined to divinity forever.

O strong Ramme, which hast batter’d heaven for mee,
Mild lambe, which with thy blood, hast mark’d the path;
Bright torch, which shin’st, that I the way may see . . . [ii]

Still, the day has always felt bittersweet to me. Amid all the festive imagery of a glorified Christ taking up his rightful crown as “cherubic legions shout him welcome to the skies,”[iii] and despite the promise that we now have a Mediator who, as one dear priest put it to me long ago, “whispers our prayers into the ear of the Father for all eternity,” a sense of ending and departure is there as well. The companion who once graced his disciples with the intimacy of daily presence, even after his death––where is he now?

Those once blessed,
now sad, afflicted,
those nourished at your breast
and now by you dispossessed,
where will they turn their faces? [iv]

Divine absence is a common theme in our time. In the secular imaginary, where heaven is but empty space, the Ascension is a flight to nowhere. It’s not just a matter of declining interest in the labor of belief as other matters compete for our attention. For many, “God” is simply no longer even thinkable. Divinity seems a term referring to nothing in contemporary experience. The vocabulary and grammar necessary to speak God into being have become, for many, a dead language.

Climbing high into the mountains fifty years ago, on the lookout for divine presence, Czeslaw Milosz saw only absence––“the mighty power of counter-fulfillment; the penalty of a promise lost forever.”

No eagle-creator circled in the air from which the thunderbolt of its glory had been cast out.

Protective spirits hid themselves in subterranean beds of bubbling ore . . .

God the Father didn’t walk about any longer tending the new shoots of a cedar, no longer did man hear his rushing spirit.

His son did not know his sonship and turned his eyes away when passing by a neon cross flat as a movie screen showing a striptease. . .

And those who longed for the Kingdom took refuge like me in the mountains to become the last heirs of a dishonored myth. [v]

The Ascension does not only signify absence, however. It also promises a new form of presence, which I have written about in “Ascension Day ‘Charade’: The Puzzling Exit of Jesus.” But absence is as fundamental to faith as presence, and deserves to be treated by Christian communities with equal respect and attention.

Since most churches, unable to get good attendance at weekday liturgies, now celebrate the joyful glories of the Ascension on the Seventh Sunday of Easter, perhaps we should consider devoting Ascension Thursday to the honest contemplation of its shadow side. What if God’s friends were to gather annually in an “upper room” for an Ascension potluck or pub night to share their stories and their wonderings about the experience and meaning of divine absence?

Might we then, like those first disciples left behind on the Mount of Olives, find the sincerity of our questions and the depth of our longing answered by the winds of heaven and the fire of unquenchable Love?

So now, be joyful and radiant,
be glad, and sing a new song.
For everything that may happen, happens for your sake.
It was for you I came down and went through all . . .
It is for you again that I ascend into heaven,
to prepare the place
where I must be with you. [vi]

 

 

 

 

[i] Denise Levertov, “Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration: The Life of Jesus in World Poetry, eds. Robert Atwan, George Dardess, Peggy Rosenthal (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 567.

[ii] John Donne, “Ascension,” in John Donne: The Complete English Poems (London: Everyman’s Library, 1985), 433-34.

[iii] Isaac Watts, “Morning,” in The Sacred Harp (Bremen, GA: The Sacred Harp Publishing Company, 1991), #163t.

[iv] Fray Luis de Leon, “The Ascension,” in Divine Inspiration, 566.

[v] Czeslaw Milosz, “How It Was,” in Czeslaw Milosz: New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001 (New York: Ecco, 2003), 232-33.

[vi] Romanos, “Kontakion on the Ascension,” in On the Life of Christ: Kontakia, trans. Archimandrite Ephrem Lash (New York: Harper Collins, 1995).