Are we too late for the Resurrection?

Guercino, "The Incredulity of Thomas" (1621)

Guercino, “The Incredulity of Thomas” (1621)

What we have heard,
what we have seen with our eyes,
what we have looked at and touched with our hands—
the Word of life— this is our theme . . .
We declare to you what we have seen and heard,
so that you too may share our life.    (I John 1:1,3)

The Easter Vigil is a night of wonders. Beginning after dark on Holy Saturday, God’s friends gather around a fire under the stars, as poets and singers, accompanied by the sounds of loon, whale and wolf, take us back to the beginning of time, when all things came to be. Then we follow the Paschal Candle, symbol of the risen Christ, into the Story Space to experience creative retellings of our sacred narratives, recalling God’s unfailing covenant with us throughout history. Theater, storytelling, music and multimedia immerse us in the rich play of Scriptural meanings. After that we process into the church, to the font of new birth, renewing our baptismal vows by candlelight. Suddenly, the contemplative quiet is broken by a great tumult of drums, bells, chimes (and sometimes fireworks!) as we welcome the first eucharist of Easter, sharing the feast of heaven with bread and champagne,and dancing our praises around God’s table.[i]

The Easter Vigil is the Christian dreamtime, the molten core of our worship life, but for those who missed it, who didn’t arrive at church until Easter morning, it exists only as a rumor of something quite out of the ordinary, hard to imagine after the fact. I could describe what happened in great detail, but a considerable amount of the joy and the wonder would be lost in the telling. Hearing about it is not the same as actually experiencing it.

Just ask Thomas the Doubter. He had missed out when the risen Christ first appeared to the other disciples.[ii] Oh Thomas, it was so amazing, so incredible! If only you had been there. “No way,” he says. “I just can’t see it. You must have been dreaming.” And so Thomas became known as the Doubter, and the Church made him patron saint of the blind. And yet, we always honor Thomas by telling this story on the Second Sunday of Easter, as if to say,

We welcome those who take questions seriously;
we believe that faith and doubt must dance together;
we are in fact a community of those
who wrestle with God’s absences
as well as God’s presences.

Another Thomas, the 20th century Welsh poet and Anglican priest, R. S. Thomas, wrote a poem about this gospel story:

His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left. We put our hands in
His side hoping to find
It warm.[iii]

The sense of belatedness, of arriving too late, haunts every religious tradition whose foundations lie in definitive past events. Even Jesus’ closest friends, who had shared a last supper with him just days before, felt the warmth of his presence quickly cooling into memory.

But then they discovered that Christ does not come to us out of the past, locked within well-worn expectations. The risen One comes out of the future, often in a form we don’t expect: the stranger, the other, the outcast, even the enemy. If we only look for Jesus in the vacated tombs of past experience, we will get the admonishing angel: “He is not here. He’s already waiting for you somewhere else. Go and see.”

For a while after the resurrection of Jesus, there were sensory appearances in a form the disciples could recognize and relate to in the old familiar ways. They spoke with him. They ate with him. They experienced his peace. And their primal witness remains vital. A positive identification of the risen One as the same person who died on the cross was essential to the core Easter message: Jesus lives! Not a memory, substitute, or simulacrum, but a continuing presence which not even death could kill.

These appearances eventually ceased, but before they did, Thomas finally got his moment with the Jesus he had known. It blew away his doubts and drove him to his knees. But then Jesus said, “Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe.” And later he said, “I am with you always, even to the end of time.”

In other words, Christ’s resurrection is not limited to the personal experiences of a few first century people. If that were the case, then it would be something we could only hear about later but never experience for ourselves. Like Thomas before his late encounter, we would have only Christ’s absence.

But the Easter faith affirms the continuing presence of the living Christ among us, now and always. That presence is not always clear or obvious. Even the saints wrestle with doubt and absence. Sometimes divinity seems to withdraw for a time. Sometimes it is we who are absent— distracted, inattentive, looking in the wrong place, using the wrong language. Divine presence can’t be switched on, or grasped possessively. It is elusive. It is fond of surprise.

But we are not left without clues. Jesus tells us, “If you want to keep experiencing me, love one another. Forgive one another.”[iv] Thus we meet the risen Christ in the life of forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, justice, love. Where love and charity abound, there God is, there Christ is. It’s not enough to proclaim resurrection. We need to embody it.

As Rowan Williams explains: “the believer’s life is a testimony to the risen-ness of Jesus: he or she demonstrates that Jesus is not dead by living a life in which Jesus is the never-failing source of affirmation, challenge, enrichment and enlargement.”[v]

The Book of Acts tells us the first believers made their common life a “laboratory of the resurrection”[vi]— not just a theological mystery but a daily practice, rejecting the economics of selfishness and scarcity for radical acts of generosity and compassion. Their belief was a practice of entrusting themselves to the renewing force of divine love that is never exhausted by the sufferings of the world. In other words, resurrections have consequences.

These are large claims, of course, and not universally embraced. But for me resurrection’s greatest challenge is not that I am being asked to believe something difficult; it is that I am being asked to do something difficult:

to be utterly transformed by immersion into the dying-and-rising of Christ,
to become my baptismal self,
to cast off the rags of ego and fear
and be clothed in “garments of indescribable light.”[vii]

It’s not intellectual or empirical doubt that makes me hesitate at the threshold of the risen life. It’s not that I think such transformation to be impossible. No, for countless saints have already demonstrated its possibility. My doubt concerns myself. Am I up to it?

Have you ever stood on a rock
twenty feet above the surface
of an icy mountain lake?
The summer day is hot;
you know the water will refresh you.
You are caked with grime and sweat from hours of hiking.
It will feel so good to wash it all away.

You imagine the explosive energy of the splash,
the exhilarating shock of glacial waters.
And you anticipate the joy of swimming,
the bliss of weightlessness
setting you free from the gravity of things.

But you hesitate.
You doubt.
The water is dark.
Are there rocks beneath the surface?
Will the sudden cold take your breath away?
The very act of stepping out into nothing
is resisted by an inner voice of self-preservation.

There’s no way to stop the mind’s questions or the body’s fears.
They persist for as long as you stand there.
The lake doesn’t get any warmer.
The boulder doesn’t get any lower.

Then you just lean out into space
and let yourself go.



Related Posts

Just a dream? Reflection on the Easter Vigil

Christ is risen!


[i] Although most Easter Vigils don’t happen quite this way, they can, and (IMHO) should. I have been curating them this way for several decades in various worship communities, and I believe that such a rich interplay of ritual and the arts, engaging all the senses in a multigenerational, visionary happening, at once contemplative, playful, and ecstatic, does true justice to our celebration of the Paschal Mystery – the passage from darkness and death into the risen life..

[ii] John 20:24-29

[iii] R.S. Thomas, “Via Negativa,” Collected Poems: 1945-1990 (London: Phoenix Giant, 1995), 220

[iv] My gloss on the Farewell Discourse in the Fourth Gospel (John 14-17)

[v] Rowan Williams, Resurrection (New York: The Pilgrim Press NY, 1984), 62-3

[vi] Dumitru Staniloae, q. in Olivier Clement, The Roots of Christian Mysticism (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 1993), 82

[vii] Pseudo-Macarius (desert father, c. 400, Mesopotamia/Asia Minor) First Homily

Keeping the faith in a time of terror

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

— Staretz Silouan[i]

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life!

— Fyodor Dostoevsky[ii]

How do we sing the Lord’s song in the shadow of terror? In solidarity with all the victims of Brussels and the whole human family this week, I protest, I rage, I grieve, I pray. But I must also try to think.

Indiscriminate terror has long been a scourge on this earth, but its globalization through television and social media has now made it emotionally inescapable. Were I to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I could not flee from its presence.[iii]

So as we try to absorb the terrible news from Brussels, how do we “despair not” even in the face of monstrous evil? No simple task, and easy answers seem disrespectful in the time of weeping. But I do believe the antidote to despair is to keep the faith. We must never forget the sacred story we belong to. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[iv]

The terrorist, on the other hand, belongs to a story which for most of us in inconceivable. Terror is “the language of being noticed,”[v] a kind of performative rhetoric designed to bring a neglected or disregarded worldview into the open by subjecting others to the violent norms of its alternate reality. They see themselves as global victims, in search of a global audience for their cruel narrative. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his study of religious violence, explains this terrorist rationale:

If the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.[vi]

In the minds of many terrorists, the war they are so eager to wage is apocalyptic, a cosmic conflict of good and evil in which there is no compromise or bridging of differences. They are, in Don DeLillo’s term, “lethal believers.” And the very worst thing we could do in response would be to play the part they have written for us: satanic enemies in a cosmic struggle. The proposals of certain American presidential candidates to “bomb the hell out of them,” or bring back the good old days of torture, would play perfectly into the terrorists’ hands, conceding the primacy of their deadly story.

However, I choose to belong to a better story, the one enacted and embodied in the powerful liturgies of Christ’s Passion. Step by step on the Way of the Cross this Holy Week, Christians will bring to mind and heart the saving journey which Jesus made, without weapons, into the abyss of suffering and death.

Renouncing all violence and hatred, Jesus remained faithful to the end. After pouring his whole life into a ministry of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, he continued to show us the face of love even as he was tortured on the cross. “Father, forgive,” he said with his dying breath. To the last moment, in his most bitter hour, he remained the human who shows us God by doing what God does.

Which story do we choose to live in? The story of terror and violence, or the story of self-diffusive love? Both are costly in the end, but only one leads to new and unconquerable life. Even after Brussels, the word remains: Be not afraid! Love makes the abyss into a Way.

The cross shows us how it is possible to absorb evil and neutralize its effects, rather than pass on the anger and live in bitterness. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving away your coat to the robber who steals your shirt, loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse us – all this turns out to be an intelligent and intelligible Christian way of living.[vii]

When medieval women mystics contemplated the cross in prayer and vision, they saw not death’s triumph but a kind of birth. The crucified Jesus was like a woman in labor, enduring pain and travail in order to bring us all to birth: Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross and … in one day you gave birth to the whole world.[viii]

To see such a death and call it birth is the central act of Christian imagination. It is why we declare victory at the cross. We don’t wait for Easter Sunday. We declare victory at the cross, because the Passion isn’t just a story about violent powers that always trample the weak and kill the prophets. It’s also a story about the Realm of God, where dry bones breathe and lost hopes dance, where the prodigal is welcomed home and the tears are wiped from every eye. The Love that makes such a realm was nailed to a cross, but was not consumed by it. Death did what death does, and God did what God does.

And on the outcome of that story, I stake everything.



Related posts

We are the singers of life, not of death

After Paris and Beirut, what story shall we tell?

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance



[i] Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) was a Russian monk on Mt. Athos in Greece. Appearing as an epigraph to Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, I found this provocative saying in Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith (London: SCM Press, 2008), 9. Rose herself added this typically intense comment: “What Staretz Silouan is talking about is the subjective experience of God-forsakenness,” and even there finding God. “I want to sob and sob and sob,” she says, “until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”

[ii] From Alyosha Karamazov’s final speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 776

[iii] cf. Psalm 139:6, 8

[iv] Burial of the Dead, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499

[v] Don DeLillo, quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 ), 139

[vi] Juergensmeyer, 10

[vii] David Wood, in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, eds. Simon Barrow & Jonathan Bartley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 118

[viii] Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310)

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance


In Faith and Violence, a book published amid the political turbulence of 1968, Thomas Merton told an old Hasidic story about two men, one drunk and one sober, who were beaten and robbed as they traveled through the forest. Asked later about what had happened, the sober one described the violent encounter in vivid detail, but the drunken one seemed quite placid. “We’re all right,” he said. “Everything is fine.” Merton went on to observe that for some, faith “seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong.” But, he asked, is faith a “narcotic dream” or is it “an awakening”? Then he delivered his punch line: “What if we were to awaken to discover that we were the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves.”[i]

At a time when a brutal war was raging in the jungles of Vietnam, police and protestors were clashing in the American street, and leaders who spoke out for justice and peace were being assassinated, a monk dedicated to contemplative retreat from the world felt compelled to explore the theology of love in an age of violence, one which would “deal realistically with the evil and injustice of the world.”[ii] How do we resist the violence in our society without adding our own anger and demons into the mix? How do we resist systemic and social sin while harboring no illusions about our own capacities to do harm?

In recent days there have been numerous conversations about the escalating political violence surrounding the Trump campaign. My own post (March 12) on the topic has generated heartfelt responses of shared concern. Many of us are wondering what we can do about the situation without defaulting to our own versions of anger or fear. We need experienced guides through such tricky terrain, and Thomas Merton is one of the best.

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.”[iii] He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.”[iv] When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. The peacemaker is committed to communion as the nature and destiny of humankind. As Martin Luther King said in a speech I remember from my college days, we must see the face of Christ even in the police who are attacking us with dogs and fire hoses. Or as Jesus himself taught, we must love our enemies. That does not mean capitulating to evil, or abstaining from the tainted ambiguities of political conflict. But it does mean that we ultimately belong to a much better story, where one day the tears will be wiped from every eye, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the prodigal will be welcomed home. It means that our highest commitment is not to defeat our enemies but to make the divine love story of amazing grace come true for everyone.

As Merton wrote, “Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of [humankind]. It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of … the human family.”[v] This isn’t sentimental benevolence or passive submission. It’s a very tough form of love, as Jesus, Gandhi, King and many others have demonstrated in their costly commitment to a wider, more generous perspective than the self-righteous justifications of partisan interests. Our struggles must always reject the ultimacy of division in favor of communion. “The key to nonviolence,” Merton reminds us, “is the willingness of the nonviolent resister to suffer a certain amount of accidental evil in order to bring about a change of mind in the oppressor.”[vi]

But how do we apply this wisdom to the specific challenges of our own day? How can we respond creatively to the upwelling of anger, fear, racism and nativism poisoning our public life? In 1968, Merton compiled a list of principles for nonviolent resisters which is worth considering. While he admitted that the complexity and fluidity of events in that turbulent year could make any opinion lose its value in a matter of weeks, I believe his prescriptions retain an enduring value:

1) “be free from unconscious connivance with an unjust and established abuse of power”

2) “be not for [oneself[ but for others, that is for the poor and underprivileged”

3) “dread a facile and fanatical self-righteousness and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures”

4) demonstrate “a desirable alternative” to violence and injustice

5) use means which embody and manifest the emergent way of being which Christians call the Kingdom of God

6) be “willing to learn something from the adversary”

7) be grounded in hope and humility – what we strive for is a gift from God’s future: not of our own making, and not yet fully here [vii]

I particularly like Number 4 (demonstrate a desirable alternative) and Number 6 (embody and manifest the Kingdom of God). It is what we do in the eucharist, where everyone is welcome, everyone practices reconciliation, and everyone shares the bread of heaven. But can we take such countercultural vision into the street?

Yes we can. There are various ways (many of which have yet to be invented!). Even into her nineties, my mother joined the “women in black” every Friday in silent vigil against the Iraq war on the streets of Santa Barbara. Their faithful witness was impossible to ignore, while at the same time it perfectly embodied the peace for which they stood.

A very different display of visionary resistance occurred at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Advent of 1999. Those who watched the news only saw the Punch and Judy show of untrained police and young provocateurs turning a shoving match into a tear-gassed conflict. But the most important things that happened were not on television. This is what I myself witnessed on the day of the big rally and march[viii]:

There was a large banner which read, AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL. It seemed a perfect summary of the gospel: “If you do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” All in Christ, Christ in all. Solidarity forever. We were there to speak for all those whom the WTO would rather silence or forget – voices crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

At 12:30 pm, we took to the streets, marching up Fourth Avenue. to join the thousands more who were already downtown. It was a wonderfully diverse procession: there were people dressed as Santa Claus, sea turtles, trees, and even death. But it was not some crazy fringe out there. As one writer put it, “These were the kids at UW, the ladies from church, the guys at Boeing. It was Seattle that was marching this week.”

As in all street rituals, there was a playful, carnival atmosphere. As Richard Shechner observes in his book, The Future of Ritual:

“When people go into the streets en masse, they are celebrating life’s fertile possibilities…They put on masks and costumes, erect and wave banners, and construct effigies not only to disguise or embellish their ordinary selves, or to flaunt the outrageous, but also to act out the multiplicity each human life is…They protest, often by means of farce and parody, against what is oppressive, ridiculous and outrageous…Such playing challenges official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immortality.”[ix]

In other words, we were exhibiting the same spirit – dare I say “holy spirit”? – of playfulness, camaraderie, irony and subversion that was seen ten years ago at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall and, during biblical times, at the Red Sea and the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. And as faith tells us, the powers don’t stand a chance against the foolishness of God.

There were people on stilts, people carrying giant puppets, babies in carriages and elders with canes and walkers. I stuck close to the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, which played soulful New Orleans versions of “America the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” We all just danced up Fourth Avenue …

So, my friends, how shall we do the Kingdom dance in the year of grace 2016?




[i] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968) ix-x (All quotes from Faith and Violence are in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (New York: Orbis Books, 2002) under the entry on Merton’s book, but I have listed the original volume’s page numbers in the footnotes.)

[ii] ibid., 9

[iii] ibid., 159

[iv] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005)

[v] Merton, 15

[vi] ibid., 27-28

[vii] ibid., 21-25

[viii] From a sermon I preached the following Sunday at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church, Whidbey Island, WA (Advent II, 1999))

[ix] Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 46

How far can we sink? – Donald Trump and the vortex of rage

Rashad Alakbarov, "Do Not Fear," installation at Venice Biennale 2015

Rashad Alakbarov, “Do Not Fear,” installation at Venice Biennale 2015

We must love one another or die.

— W. H. Auden, “September 1, 1939”

In the early 1930s, about a hundred communists crashed a Nazi meeting in Bremen, Germany, determined to break it up. One of them, Richard Krebs, rose to interrupt a speech by Herman Göring, head of the notorious SA stormtroopers, a paramilitary group dedicated to political intimidation and violence. Krebs only got out a few words before the “brownshirts” rushed toward him. As Krebs later wrote,

“A terrifying mêlée followed. Blackjacks, brass knuckles, clubs, heavy buckled belts, glasses and bottles were the weapons used. Pieces of glass and chairs hurtled over the heads of the audience. Men from both sides broke off chair legs and used them as bludgeons. Women fainted in the crash and scream of battle. Already, dozens of heads and faces were bleeding, clothes were torn as the fighters dodged about amid masses of terrified but helpless spectators. The troopers fought like lions. Systematically they pressed us on towards the main exit. The band struck up a martial tune. Hermann Göring stood calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”[i]

A political life fraught with such violent thuggery once seemed unimaginable in contemporary America. What happened in Germany could never happen here, we tell ourselves. Physical violence as a routine form of political expression is not something we expect our leaders to tolerate, much less encourage. What, then, are we to make of the violent anger which has become a common feature of Donald Trump rallies?

At one such gathering, a man held up a sign, “Make America hate again!” The crowd happily obliged, ripping up the sign and roughing up the protester. At another rally, on March 10, a 78-year-old man in the crowd sucker-punched a young activist as he was being escorted out of the arena by Trump’s security guards. “He deserved it,” the man told a reporter. “Next time, we might have to kill him.”[ii]

In Ashley Parker’s excellent New York Times piece on this phenomenon, she sees the crowd’s violent reaction as “almost biological”:

“Trump supporters typically begin shouting, pointing, jeering — and sometimes kicking or spitting — at the protester, surrounding the offender in a tight circle, like antibodies trying to isolate and expel an unwanted invader from the bloodstream.”[iii]

Is Trump to blame for the passions of his followers? He has made some cursory disclaimers after the fact, but when the anger erupts he does little to discourage it.

On February 1, he told an Iowa crowd to be on the lookout for protesters with tomatoes. “If you see somebody getting ready to throw a tomato, knock the crap out of ‘em, would you? Seriously. Okay? Just knock the hell – I promise you, I will pay for the legal fees, I promise, I promise.” Later that month, as a protester was being ejected from another rally, Trump said, “I’d like to punch him in the face.”[iv] It is hard to listen to this stuff without thinking of Göring in Bremen, standing “calmly on the stage, his fists on his hips.”

When asked by reporters about the violence, Trump talks about “the good old days” when America wasn’t “weak,” and you were able to dish out a well-deserved pummeling. “This country has to toughen up,” he says. “These people are bringing us down.”[v]

Such scapegoating is one of the hallmarks of fascism. Instead of the hard work of developing concrete policies and building support for them, the leader simply invokes fear and hatred of “the other” to unite his followers. Trump repeatedly demonizes protesters as “nasty people” and blames them for initiating the violence, even though no reporter or camera has seen anything to support his claim, except for one thrown tomato that is said to have missed the mark.[vi] This one-sidedness may change, of course, for violence can be highly contagious.

Trump has argued that his supporters are not really angry people, but that they “do get angry when we see the stupidity with which our country is run and how it’s being destroyed.”[vii] His rhetoric bears a chilling resemblance to the Nazi justifications for Kristallnacht: “an expression of the people’s rage” …. “ “a just measure of indignation”… “our patience is exhausted.”[viii]

A few days ago, Trump described an incident at an earlier rally. “He was a rough guy and he was punching. And we had some people – some rough guys like we have right in here – and they started punching back. It was a beautiful thing.”[ix]

In this week’s Republican presidential debate, the three other candidates were given the opportunity to condemn the political violence of Trump’s mob, but they kept silent. Maybe they were hoping it would all just go away, without their having to risk the loss of any votes from “the base.” But silence in the face of evil is just endorsement by default.

We hear God invoked repeatedly in presidential campaigns by candidates who claim to be good Christians. But a “Christianity” so enamored of what theologian John Milbank calls the “ontology of violence” feels unrecognizable to me. Whether it is the manipulation of anger at a rally or policies of aggression against everyone who is “other,” such a politics is anathema to the transformative project of conforming the social body to the divine desire for justice, forgiveness, and peace.

Last October I had a conversation about American politics with a few British shape note singers in a London pub. They wanted to know what on earth the Trump spectacle was all about. I muttered the common wisdom of the moment about a clownish celebrity who would soon fade away. “Watch out,” warned one of the Brits, the daughter of an Anglican priest. “A single dumb candidate can make the whole process dumber, and drag everyone down to his level. That happened here when we elected our mayor. It could happen in America.”

She was right, as we now know, although “dumb” is the least of it. How far can we still sink? In Richard Evans’ acclaimed trilogy on the Third Reich, he describes Germany on the eve of the Nazi takeover in one disturbing sentence: “Years of beatings and killings and clashes on the streets had inured people to political violence and blunted their sensibilities.”[x]

The blunting of our own sensibilities should be worrying us. But how can we resist the downward pull of fear, hatred and violence without ourselves being corrupted by it, or sucked into its vortex of rage? How may we give concrete political form to the better angels of our nature?

The day after Martin Luther King was assassinated, Senator Robert Kennedy spoke against the violence permeating American culture in the 1960s:

“Some look for scapegoats, others look for conspiracies, but this much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”[xi]

Two months later, Bobby Kennedy himself would be cut down by the political violence he had so earnestly lamented. As for the rest of us, the day of our collective cleansing still remains sadly distant.




[i] Richard J. Evans, The Coming of the Third Reich (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 270

[ii] Ashley Parker, “Riskiest Political Act: Protesting at Rallies for Donald Trump” (New York Times, March 10, 2016)

[iii] ibid.

[iv] Philip Bump, The Fix, Washington Post online, March 10, 2016

[v] Jim Salter & Jill Colvin, Associated Press, March 11, 2016

[vi] Daniel White, “Donald Trump Tells Crowd”, Time online, February 1, 2016

[vii] Salter & Colvin

[viii] Walter Laqueur & Judith Tydor Baumel, eds., The Holocaust Encyclopedia (New Haven: Yale UP 2001). 390

[ix] Jill Colvin & Michael Tarm, Associated Press, March 11, 2016

[x] Evans, 348

[xi] Robert F. Kennedy, Remarks to the Cleveland City Club, April 5, 1968

The Return of the Prodigal Son

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Rembrandt van Rijn, The Return of the Prodigal Son, c. 1661–1669 (Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg)

Sometimes I lead retreats to explore correlations between biblical narratives and our own stories. It’s not just a matter of putting ourselves in a given Bible story as a method of interpreting it. We also need to let it interpret us, as we discover the biblical motifs which are playing out in the particular circumstances of our own lives. What is my creation story, what is your exodus story, what is each one’s death and resurrection story?

At one such retreat, we considered Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son. After studying the text, we tried out various ways of retelling it in our own words. Then we divided into three groups: Fathers, prodigal sons, and elder brothers. Membership in each group was determined by chance, although it turned out that the “elder brothers” consisted mostly of firstborn children.

Each group was asked to wrestle with their assigned character. What do you feel about this character? What does the story tell you about him? What does the story leave unsaid? Then they were invited to share a related story from their own lives. Tell about the struggles of being a parent, a child, or a sibling. Tell about a time you were forgiven, or needed to forgive. Tell about a time you felt neglected or ignored, envious or resentful.

One man said he had been disappointed at first to draw the father’s group, because he always related more strongly to the elder brother. As the oldest child in his family, he had some of the issues common to that role. He knew the burden of wanting to live up to his parents’ expectations, to be “perfect,” obedient, one who pleases by getting everything right. He had also experienced some envy and resentment of younger siblings who seemed more carefree and less responsible.

But as he listened to others in the group engage with the father’s side of the story, it occurred to him that he himself had actually been a father for as long as he had been only a son and brother. Maybe, he said, it was time to rethink his own story and who he was in it.

In the early nineties, Henri Nouwen wrote “a meditation on fathers, brothers, and sons” using the parable of the Prodigal Son along with Rembrandt’s famous painting of the moment when the errant child is welcomed home. Like the people in my retreat, he found critical insights into his own life in each of the characters. And in doing so, he realized that there were two sons, not just one, who went astray from their father’s will, into “a distant country,” the place of alienation.[i]

The younger son’s sins may have been more dramatic and colorful, but the elder brother’s bitter and jealous heart grieved his father just as much. Both sons are lost. Both need to be welcomed “home.” As Rembrandt’s painting shows, the elder stands in the shadows, separated from the radiant light surrounding the father and his youngest child.

“There is not only the light-filled reconciliation between the father and the younger son, but also the dark, resentful distance of the elder son. There is repentance, but also anger. There is communion, but also alienation. There is the warm glow of healing, but also the cooling of the critical eye; there is the offer of mercy, but also the enormous resistance against receiving it.”[ii]

Whether the elder brother will be able to step out of his darkness into love’s radiance remains unknown in both the painting and the original parable. But the father has made it clear that his parental love will never be withdrawn. Like the loving mercy of God, his welcoming arms remain ever extended and expectant, now and forever. As Nouwen writes, “The heart of the father burns with an immense desire to bring his children home.”[iii]

Nouwen describes the differences between the father’s hands in Rembrandt’s painting. His left hand is strong, masculine, gripping his son encouragingly. His right hand seems more refined, almost feminine, offering the caress of consolation. The father’s red cloak also conveys shelter and protection, like the enfolding wings of a mother bird.

Love so amazing, so divine, has a cost. It does not always produce happy endings. In the “fathers” group at the retreat, one woman told us about her own prodigal son, a forty-year old man who had struggled for years with his own lostness. “I welcomed him home every time,” she said, “and then he would just break my heart all over again.” Six months before our retreat, he had committed suicide.

When we hear the parable, it is natural to focus on the prodigal’s experience of unconditional, unmerited welcome. We all long to hear the word of mercy for ourselves: weary pilgrim welcome home. But Nouwen won’t let us stay there. Although we each need to make our way on the difficult journey home, in the end we are called to claim the role of the father as well. Forgiven so much, may we also become the ones who forgive, whatever it costs.

“His outstretched hands are not begging, grasping, demanding, warning, judging, or condemning. They are hands that only bless, giving all and expecting nothing … As I look at my own aging hands, I know that they have been given to me to stretch out toward all who suffer, to rest upon the shoulders of all who come, and to offer the blessing that emerges from the immensity of God’s love.”[iv]




[i] Henri J. M. Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons (New York: Doubleday, 1992)

[ii] ibid., 126-7

[iii] ibid., 89

[iv] ibid., 127-8, 130