Monday, April 19, 2010

Hopey Changey

Why is the negative so powerful?

It's been a couple of weeks since I last posted anything, and in that time, there's been plenty happening that probably deserves comment. I'm going to focus on one bit of all I've heard in that time, in the interest of keeping this post of reasonable length.

Specifically, I want to offer this one Christian's perspective on one bit of simple-minded negativity, and what it says about the people who utter it, and their comrades who repeat it.

I'm speaking of a statement by former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin:  "How's that hopey, changey stuff working out?" She asked this rhetorically in a speech at the first Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tennessee, on Saturday, February 6, 2010. I saw a version of this on a yard sign yesterday, so I know it's not the only instance of someone asking it. In fact, if you google the exact phrase "hopey changey stuff," you'll get almost 680,000 hits. Try "hopey changey thing" and you'll get around 2.3 million.

This is obviously a play on President Obama's book title, The Audacity of Hope, and the slogan of his campaign, Change We Can Believe In.

So, what's so wrong with that? The Republicans are out of power, having been turned out by the majority of Americans in the 2008 elections. Political campaigns never really end, and they're doing nothing more than energizing their core partisans by attacking the current administration with whatever weapons present themselves. This is just good hardball electoral politics, right?

As I said above, I want to comment on this as a Christian. I'm not exempting the Democrats from criticism, but it does seem to me that the Republicans are more likely to come up with phrases or actions that are worthy of some severe examination and critique. So, let's get to it!

In the first place, Sarah Palin calls herself a Christian, so I expect some consistency between what she says and what she says she believes. Christianity is nothing if not a faith defined by hope, and praying for change. We Christians hope in our resurrection after death, in a liberation from the destiny of every person who has ever lived - the grave. We pray for change in ourselves, another liberation from our weakness and inability to live righteous lives, just as we pray for a change in the way the world operates. A world of war, of abortion, of slavery, of murder and oppression and hate and dehumanizing rhetoric aimed at the "other" is not the world that we want to live in. We hope in a better world, one brought about by God's Spirit operating in his faithful, and we're doing what we can to bring it about. Admittedly, we stumble around a lot, and we bicker and disagree over exactly what that world looks like, but we sooner or later get it right. We have seen an end to slavery in parts of the world, we've seen people saved from starvation, we've seen people rescued from tyranny, and we've seen truth and reconciliation triumph after horrendous oppression.

I expect some consistency between utterances and beliefs. I demand it, in fact, if I'm going to take the speaker seriously. If Sarah Palin is who she claims to be, why is she belittling the very thing that we Christians claim as our own? Hopey changey stuff is our stock in trade; we can't separate ourselves from the fact that the status quo is not where we want to live.

More to the point, there are other things that she typifies that deserve to have a bright light shined on them. Things like how much we depend on our guns. Things like never having anything positive to say about our leaders, including the sitting President. Things like always being reactionary and negative. Other GOP luminaries say the same sorts of things, some of which are half-truths and some of which are out and out lies. What really makes the Republican Party tick, if these utterances are typical, and why are Christians drawn to it?

Republicans have wrapped themselves in the cloak of integrity and family values, even as a multitude of Republican senators, representatives, and governors has indulged in sexual behavior that's either dishonest to their spouses or absolutely illegal. I'm not singling the Republicans out, however, because there are numerous Democrats who have fallen off their self-erected "role-model" pedestals through the same dumb behavior. However, we had almost come to expect this of the Democrats; with the support of the Christian Right, though, suddenly repentant GOP politicians have fallen from grace with a lot of noise.

Oh, what the hell! No group seems free from angling in the wrong pool for their nookie. Republicans, Democrats, Christians of Protestant and Catholic denominations - all these groups are without excuse for their moral failures. Why should we trust any of them?

Why should we trust any of them, indeed? Why do we even give a shit? We've fallen so far off the wagon that we don't trust anyone. We don't trust our government, we don't trust our churches, we don't trust our bosses or labor leaders, our teachers or any paid experts that so easily will try to assure us of this or that.

Trust seems to be extinct. In this vacuum of trust, how is that hopey changey stuff working?

Well, I said this was my perspective on "hopey changey stuff," written as a believing, confessing, practicing Christian. My perspective is, basically, that it's working pretty well, actually. Politically, I got a tax cut last year. My country is viewed in an entirely different light now, as compared to a couple or three years ago. For all its flaws, I can actually believe that the administration is trying to return to a civility that has been lacking from political discourse for almost twenty years. I can even believe that there are some Republicans who feel betrayed by the "Christian" demagogues who have co-opted and reshaped their party. We've got people at least recognizing the fact that the government we have today is not going to exist as it is forever unless income and expenditures are brought into some sort of parity. Either we're not paying enough taxes, or our government has gotten too large, but we can't go on borrowing against tomorrow indefinitely.

How's that hopey changey stuff working? As a Christian, I'm not fazed. My belief is in a God who looks down at the trivial posturings of all of us as we strut around acting so important, and laughs. He laughs, but he loves us regardless. He laughs, but he has put into motion a rescue plan, a bail out, if you like, that I believe will not fail. It may not reach completion in my lifetime; it may take multiple lifespans to accomplish. But my God has set it in motion, and all the forces of negativity and denial and hatefulness will not prevail against it. His rescue plan involves the Christ, the man two thousand years ago who died, killed by the imperial power of his time, and then rose three days later to sneer at that paltry effort. Hopey changey is my creed, and it's my marching orders. It isn't all political, but hopey changey is where I live, one foot in the divisive rhetoric of the present, and one foot in the unlimited future.

Screw negativity!

Screw hatefulness!

Screw them all, and forgive their adherents, because they don't know what they do!

And hope and change the world instead!

Monday, April 5, 2010

What Pisses You Off?

What pisses you off?

Now that Easter is upon us -- the entire week after Easter Sunday is Easter Week -- we are confronted with the need to embark on a new life. The period of Lent is that arena where we face those things in our lives that put barriers between us and God, and where we work intentionally to remove those barriers. Now that the barriers have been removed, or at least are smaller, the next phase begins -- fresh living.

Part of fresh living is facing those things that anger us, piss us off, and dealing with them, so we can move on beyond the same old baggage we had drug around for too long. Maybe we began dealing with all this during Lent, but most likely there's still work to do.

So, my question -- what pisses you off?

I've got some ideas about what pisses some people off...

Fundamentalists (of all stripes) are pissed off that no one sees the world in the sharp black and white that they do.

Atheists are pissed off that those god-believers, of whatever stripe, but mostly Christians, don't see how stupid the whole idea of an all-powerful deity really is.

Liberals are pissed off that no one sees the need for more collective action to mold us all into better human beings, with or without God, and preferably without.

Conservatives (modern-day American variety) are pissed off that the present regime in Washington isn't bowing to their obviously superior plans and beliefs.

Al Qaeda is pissed off that the United States doesn't just dry up and blow away.

Politicians are pissed off that no one seems to realize how hard their job is.

Moralists are pissed off that people still keep doing the same stupid crap they've been doing for centuries.

Sexual addicts are pissed off that no one seems to understand just how important sex is.

Writers are pissed off that editors just don't see the brilliance of their story-telling.

And finally, I suspect that God is pissed off because people are alike in so many important ways, and different in so many insignificant ways, and have so much trouble realizing which is which.

What pisses you off?

Are you willing to look the source of your frustration and anger square in the face, and work to reduce or eliminate its power over you?

Are you willing to take on the difficult task of forgiving people for angering or mistreating or thwarting or oppressing you?

Are you willing to buy into the idea that only grace -- the free gift that we Christians say God offers to each of us -- is the only way out of the cycle of vendetta that seems to consume the world of men?

Are you man or woman enough to take on the challenge of not being pissed off any more? Do you have the backbone for that job, or is it just plain easier to stay pissed off because it's so damned familiar and comfortable?

The daily news indicates that most of us prefer to remain pissed off. I pray that we someday reach a point where being pissed off is rare, because we're a long way from that now.

Easter is upon us, and we can have a fresh life if we're willing to pursue it. God assures us he's ready to help.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Second Person Plural - Endgame


You are staggering up the rocky path to the Place of the Skull, carrying the patibulum across your shoulders.

The crossbeam is rough, and is agony as its splintery surface rubs against the wounds from the flogging you had undergone before this death march. As you take step after painful step, you lose your footing and fall to the path. The crossbeam slips from your grasp, and the Roman soldier walking behind you lashes you with his crop. You try to rise, but the blood on your hands makes them slip on the worn stones of the trail. You fall face first, and lay there for a moment, even as the whip slashes your bloody ribs and back.

Finally, power from some inner reserve gives you the strength to rise to a standing position. You reach down, and try to pick up the patibulum. The soldier has other ideas. He drags a man from the crowd flanking the road, and forces him to pick the beam up and place it on his own shoulders. You follow this unwilling conscript, thankful for the relief.

Finally, you and the other members of the execution party reach the summit of Golgotha. The pits where the stipes of the crosses will be sunk are ready for their gory pillars, the wedges to stabilize the crosses set to their sides.

The man carrying your crossbeam drops it near you. The soldier roughly motions for him to move away. He looks at you, imploringly. You try to say something, but all that comes from your parched throat is a croak.

Your clothes are pulled off you, leaving you naked in the bright sunlight of mid-morning. You look down at your body, your arms, your legs. You have been flogged relentlessly, and your skin is a tapestry of bleeding wounds and torn flesh. Blood runs down your face from the thorns that crown your head. Even as you look down, you begin to weave from side to side, almost ready to fall.

Hands grab you by the arms and legs, and you're dropped like a dead man onto the hard stone, next to the stipes. The soldiers have been lashing the crossbeam to the upright, and you're dragged across the wood to have your arms spread wide on the beam. The upright is under your back, and every move is agony.

As your arms are pulled to the left and the right, soldiers grip your hands and arms as nails are poised above your wrists. The points bite into your flesh, and then the first stroke of the hammer hits the head. You can't help yourself as you scream in pain, as the point of each nail drives through your wrist and into the hard wood of the crossbeam. The blows from the hammer finally stop, and you're left in shock with blinding pain shooting up and down your arms.

Your feet are placed to each side of the upright, and more nails are placed against your heels. You try to steel yourself for the blows you know are coming, but you're unable to keep the agony within you. As you scream with each strike of the hammer, the soldiers laugh and make jibes at you, sticking out their tongues and spitting on you.

Finally, the hammer falls silent. The troopers grab the cross and heave it into the hole, letting it drop to the bottom with a sharp jerk. Your wrists and feet are shocked by the blow, but by now, the pain is so encompassing that it's all you experience. It's everything, it's your world, and it's becoming impossible to separate one source from another.

You look around at the people standing in knots on the summit. To your right, you see another prisoner, a thief, writhing in his own crucifixion agony. To your left is another man slumped down from his cross. The Romans are squatted at the foot of your own cross, grabbing at the robe you had worn until just minutes ago.

You are lifted up and exposed to the wind and the cries from the birds that spiral around this hill of death. Through the fog of pain, you wonder how long you will last. The air is getting cooler; the sky is beginning to darken as clouds mount up on all sides.

You glance down and see your mother standing with one of your disciples. Tears are streaming down her cheeks as she clutches the arm of the young man. She reaches out toward you. In a whisper, you tell her that this is her son. To your disciple, you say that this is now his mother. You can say no more, as you wheeze and cough, trying to draw in each breath against the weight of your body hanging from the spikes through your wrists.

Time passes. One of the Romans puts a sponge on the tip of his lance, pours some vinegar on it, and thrusts it at your mouth. You lean out toward the sponge, licking the bitter liquid, desperately trying to moisten your throat. The exertion forces you to cough once more, and your breathing begins to roughen.

With pain lancing through your limbs and your chest, you grab for each breath. Your eyes widen. Arching your back, you cry out, "It is finished!" And the world whirls away into blackness.

Second Person Plural - Jurisdiction


You are being force-marched to the fortress of Pontius Pilatus, the Roman procurator of Judaea. You're on the edge of passing out. A long night of trumped-up charges and falsified testimony in front of the Sanhedrin has left you fatigued and bruised.

The Sanhedrin, the Jewish High Council, is forbidden by Roman law from carrying out the death penalty. After convicting you of blasphemy against the Most High God, they are sending you to Pilatus to be executed. During the week of Passover, the Romans are especially sensitive to anything that might lead to civil unrest. This should be an easy decision for the governor.

Your determination to see this through is strong, but you are nearing a point of physical breakdown. You don't know when everything will come to a head, but you hope that it's soon.

You finally enter the fortress gate. Hardened Roman troopers look at you and spit in the dust. It's early morning, and the chill of the night before is still present in the deep shadows in the courtyard. As you are pushed into the interior, you hear snatches of Latin coming from further in.

Finally, as you come around a corner, you see him. He looks you up and down, seeing the dark hollows under your eyes, the bruises on your face, and the abrasions on your wrists from the ropes that tied your hands together.

He looks away, and examines a bill of particulars that is handed to him. He seems disgusted with what he's reading. He's had a frustrating relationship with the local officials since taking on this post, and this looks like one more thing that makes him hate Judaea.

He questions you about who you claim to be, and who the Sanhedrin says you claim to be. Your mind is having trouble marshaling thoughts into something coherent, so your words are disjointed and mumbled. You finally realize that he would love nothing more than just releasing you and seeing you disappear into the Passover crowds. It isn't going to be that easy, though; the Sanhedrin will see to that.

Finally, he throws the document onto a table and calls for a centurion, telling him to take you to the palace of King Herod. Herod Antipas is in Jerusalem for the Passover. Pilatus is telling the centurion that Herod must decide your fate, since he has authority in this province.

You realize that this day isn't close to over, and that you have more trials ahead. With an effort, you straighten your back and follow the soldier out of Pilatus' chamber.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Second Person Plural - Orchard


You have led the men closest to you outside the City walls, across the valley and up the hill to the Olive Orchard. As the night has gotten colder, ground fog has been pooling in the low areas, and flowing down the slopes toward the water courses. You're standing now at the edge of the trees, and you look back at the City. It stands dark against a darker sky, with only a few torches giving any light. Clouds scud across the sky, only occasionally breaking to reveal the stars and moon above.

Your companions have straggled along to keep up with you. They're not feeling the energy of resolve that is coursing through your veins. The only thing in their minds is the need for rest. As the last of them come into the Orchard, you ask them to settle in around the trees and keep watch while you go some distance away to pray. You've gone apart from them to pray in the past; this is nothing they haven't seen before. Muttered assent dies away as you walk into the fog between the trees.

You kneel down at the foot of an ancient olive tree. You reach out to its gnarled bark, grasping with fierce determination something firm and tangible. You begin to talk in a low voice to the One, praying for courage to face the trials ahead. You lean your forehead against the fog-damp bark, and choke out imploring words.

"Father, if there is any way for this to be done another way, let it be so done. But, Father... No, it's not my will but yours that must be done. Let it be so, let it always be so."

As you draw in a ragged breath, you stand up and look back to where you left your friends. You can't see them through the darkness and the fog, but you know that they're sound asleep, despite what you asked them to do. You walk back to where they lie, all in slumber, all oblivious to the world. Wrapped in their cloaks, they don't see or hear you approach. You reach down and touch Cephas' shoulder. He starts and looks around without comprehension until he sees you. A break in the clouds has let moonlight silhouette you from behind. Your shadow falls across him as he struggles to his feet.

"Couldn't you have stayed awake even one hour, Cephas? It's too late to watch out now. They're here already."

As you speak, the light from several torches bobs toward where you're standing. A column of men in the armor of the Temple police marches toward you, led by Yehuda. He walks up to you, grasps you by the shoulders, and kisses you on the cheek.

At this signal, several of the Temple guards rush to you and grab you by the arms, roughly pulling your hands behind your back to tie them together. Cephas is finally awake, and reaches for his sword. With a slash he hits one of the men standing at your side, knocking him to the ground with a cry.

"Cephas, put away your sword! There is no time for that now. I must do this." With that, you free one arm and reach down to the head of the wounded man. His sudden intake of breath shocks those around him, as he stands up. He looks wonderingly at you as he feels his ear.

Your arms are once again grabbed and pulled behind your back, where they're tied together with rough cord. You're prodded sharply in the ribs with a sword haft, and Yehuda and the Temple police lead you out of the Orchard and into the night.

Second Person Plural - Supper


You look around the room. Your followers, your friends, have been with you now for three hard years. There were once many more, but these twelve are now the true faithful. Almost everyone else has fallen away.

You have been telling them for weeks now what will happen in the days ahead. No one seems to really believe what you're saying. They nod, but you know you're not getting through; they don't really understand yet what you're saying.

You had arranged to share this meal with them to try once again to help them to understand what they needed to prepare for. Time is short, and this is the last chance you'll have to help them comprehend the shocks that they will experience soon.

When you stand and take off your cloak, and wrap the towel around your waist, you see shock in their eyes. When you pour water into the basin, and begin to wash their dusty feet, they begin protesting loudly.

"Master, stop this. Let us get one of the servants to do this."

"No, I won't stop. You have to know who you are, and who I am. I am showing you how you are to act toward each other. Even though you say to me 'Master,' and so I am, I am here to serve you. The goyim lord it over each other, but that's not the way you must be. If you are to be great, you must take on the role of servant to all."

When you get to Cephas, he refuses to let you wash his feet. "Cephas, you must let me wash your feet, or you can be no part of what is to come. All I need to wash is your feet; once I have done that, you will be truly clean."

As you complete the washing, you look around at these familiar faces one more time. The initial shock has been replaced with curiosity and uncertainty. No one seems willing to ask a question; they're all waiting to hear what you will say next.

As you eat this evening meal, you explain many things to these men you know so well. Lively conversation flows back and forth. Finally, it's time to explain what is coming. Will they finally understand?

You tell them that among them is one who will betray you. When the shocked expressions are replaced by protests and questions, you point to Yehuda, and say, "You know what must be done. Do it quickly." With that, he leaps to his feet and runs out of the room.

Cephas is adamant. "No matter what anyone else does, I won't leave you. No, not even if I die!"

"Cephas, Cephas, you are so sure. Before the morning sun rises, you will have abandoned me three times."

Everyone else is equally sure that they will never turn their backs on you. You look at their open faces, and see that they still don't understand what you're saying. How can you get through?

You begin telling them about the Presence, and about who you are and what is to come after you leave. You use words of encouragement, you lift them up in a shared prayer, but you're still not seeing comprehension in their eyes. Sadly, you realize that your expectations are becoming true. They will have to go through the next days more unprepared than you wanted.

You want them to understand at least what you are leaving for them. You pick up a flat of bread, break it, and announce that this bread is your body, broken for them. Then, picking up the wine cup, you tell them that it is your blood, shed for them. They are to eat the bread and drink the wine every time they think of you, to remind them of the new promise you are making to them.

You tell them that you will be going away for a time. By now, late in the evening, time has become vague, as uncertain and fleeting as the fog that is snaking through the low-lying parts of the City and its suburbs. It will mean nothing to them to be more specific.

As you finish the bread and the wine, you can see that the excitement from earlier in the evening is finally giving way to fatigue and drowsiness. Regardless, you know that you can't remain in this room all night.

You stand up and begin moving toward the door. When Cephas asks where you're going, you motion for him and the others to follow. They will know soon enough where you're headed.