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On the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington, featuring Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “How I Got Over,” Mahalia Jackson, the last musical performer during the August 1963 March on Washington. A shout from her (she was standing a few feet from King), “tell them about the dream, Martin,” prompted King to abandon his written script and extemporaneously launch into that part of his speech we most remember.

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On this day, 28 August 2023, we mark the 60th anniversary of a speech many consider the most significant of the 20th century. Most citizens here, and many abroad, can replay from memory the mesmerizing “I have a dream” incantation Dr. King delivered.

What we don’t recall is that the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom scared the bejeezus out of federal and District of Columbia officials, and even Major League Baseball officials, leading up to that deluge of over 200,000 people coming to DC for the occasion.

As is wont to happen, though, with the passage of time, the “dream” has gotten a bit dreamy. The “dream” rhetoric has been appropriated by all manner of marketers. And sometimes with the explicit permission of the corporation controlling King’s intellectual property, Intellectual Properties Management, which in 2018 authorized King’s image for use in a Ram Truck television ad. (That ad became such an embarrassment that it was removed from social media.)

Decades ago, when I lived in Atlanta, one of my friends in the African American activist community told me of discussions he and others were having about committing civil disobedience to disrupt the upcoming King Birthday March in the city because Gen. Colin Power, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff (the first Black to serve in that role) had been invited to be the marshal in the parade. Military bands have frequently been featured in that annual parade.

Given the times we are in, this much is clear: The “I Have a Dream” speech must be read in light of another of King’s speeches, the “Beyond Vietnam” speech he gave four years later at the Riverside Church in New York City.

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Hymn of remembrance. “The Ballad of Martin Luther King,” by Brother Kirk, Pete Seeger and Sesame Street kids.

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Below is a portion of my 2017 article, “When the dream gets a bit dreamy: On the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s ‘Beyond Vietnam’”

With Dr. King’s birthday now a national holiday, and his iconic profile ever present around the anniversary of the March on Washington, it’s no longer possible to be sheltered from that historic moment.

The problem with icons, of course, is that they become fixed in stone and have little capacity to get under our skin. Feral history can be tamed. Some forms of remembering work like vaccination: we become immune to prophetic fever. Putting our saints on pedestals allows us to revere their memory while reneging on their mission.

Which is why the meaning of the “I Have a Dream” speech must be read in light of Dr. King’s last major address, delivered in 1967 from the dais of The Riverside Church in New York City. It was a speech that rocked not only the enforcers of Jim Crow but the Civil Rights Movement itself.

In delivering “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence” Dr. King enlarged his challenge far beyond segregated buses and integrated lunch counters. Instead, he explicitly linked domestic oppression with international aggression, naming what he called the “giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism.”

We forget the scandal he provoked that day, 4 April 1967—precisely to the day one year before his assassination in Memphis. On that day, King referred to the US as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Afterward, King was savaged in the media. Life magazine called it “demagogic slander that sounded like a script for Radio Hanoi.”

The Washington Post said “King has diminished his usefulness to his cause, his country, his people.”

Reader’s Digest warned it might provoke an “insurrection.”

The New York Times ran an editorial, “Dr. King’s Error,” chiding him for linking foreign policy (the US war in Vietnam) with domestic policy.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation privately called King the “most dangerous and effective negro leader in the country.” They had already, for years, been illegally wire-tapping his phone.

In the days leading up to the March on Washington, apprehension in our nation’s capital was so intense that, in the words of historian Taylor Branch, “the federal government furloughed its workers for the day. The Pentagon deployed 20,000 paratroopers. Hospitals stockpiled plasma. Washington banned sales of alcohol, and Major League Baseball canceled not just one but two days of [Washington’s baseball games], just to be sure.”

According to Roger Mudd, who covered the March on Washington for CBS News, the Kennedy Administration drew up in advance a statement declaring martial law, in case it became necessary.

I encourage you in the coming days to set aside 54 minutes to listen to an unabridged recording of the speech. (You can hear it, and read along with the text, at this site.)

“I Have a Dream” has become a bit dreamy, the sentiment injected with high fructose corn syrup, deep fried with a heavy batter, and rolled in sprinkles. Less than three weeks after the soaring prose at the Lincoln Memorial, King had to do the funerals of slaughtered Sunday school children in Birmingham. The Riverside oration puts the “dream” back into perspective in terms of the challenges still before us.

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Benediction. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power” [lyrics below video]

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The ministry of encouragement

Recently Marc Mullinax helped me videotape a word of encouragement to the Forum for Naga Reconciliation. Next week they will be commemorating the 15 anniversary of their founding, in an ongoing effort to undo the harsh antagonism—to heal the wounds of animosity and mutual recrimination—that have gripped their people for many years.

A little background. The Naga people of far North-East India are indigenous to that mountainous region. Their written history is less than 250 years old, but they are thought to be ethnically related to the people of Tibet.

The British colonizers of India were never able to exert control over the Nagas, a fiercely independent people who, prior to the coming of missionaries, carried on a cultural practice that included headhunting. Missionaries arrived in the area in the mid-19th century. Within a couple generations, the majority of Nagas identified as Christians, and—oddly enough—most of the Christians are Baptists.

This is an unlikely, very odd story.

During the 1990’s I was a member of the Baptist World Alliance Human Rights Commission. I was asked to address the Commission in its 1993 meeting held in Harare, Zimbabwe. What I did was tell stories of Baptist-flavored people, from around the world, involved in justice, peace, and human rights work during the previous 50 years.

One of those stories was of Rev. Longri Ao, a Naga Baptist pastor, who risked his life in the attempt to mediate the conflict between competing Naga political parties. The background to that conflict is complicated. But the roots go back to 1947 when India successfully threw off British colonial control.

Mahatma Gandhi had promised the Nagas their independence if they would cooperate in expelling the British. But the new Indian government reneged on that promise. Ever since then there has been a low-intensity conflict with Indian security forces. Attempts to create a ceasefire with the Indian government by some Naga leaders alienated others. What was one Naga party split into two, and then split again, and then again, such that an independence struggle was overlaid with a civil war.

Little did I know that one person in that Human Rights Commission audience was Dr. Wati Aier, principal of the Oriental Theological Seminary in Nagaland. He asked to speak further with me; and we ended up talking in the hotel lounge well into the night, telling me more of the Naga story and of his vision of taking up where Rev. Ao had left off in the attempt to help the Naga parties, two of which had guerilla armies, to reconcile in order to present a united front in negotiating with the Indian government.

The story gets odder still. I flew to Calcutta the following February, hoping to then fly to Nagaland. But that region was a closed military zone and required a special visa. I didn’t know until I arrived that I wasn’t given that special visa. What I ended up doing was meeting with the commander in chief of the principal Naga party, the National Socialist Council of Nagaland (or NSCN). V.S. Atem, a wanted man in India, surreptitiously came to Calcutta for this meeting.

For two solid days we sat in a hotel room and I listened to a long accounting of Naga history and struggle for independence. One of the most unusual things I learned was that the NSCN political manifesto is rife with Maoist political philosophy; but the party’s motto was “Nagaland for Christ.”

I felt a little like Alice when she wandered down that rabbit hole.

If you’ve never heard of the Naga people, you’re not alone. Few people have. The conflict in Nagaland has been said to be the most deadly social conflict largely unknown to the world.

I was able to visit Nagaland the following year, expressly to lecture at the Oriental Seminary. On my first night there, I had my hotel room searched by heavily armed members of the Indian Security Forces. I learned that of those in our previous meeting in Calcutta (now renamed Kolcuta) the year before, a Naga civil right lawyer, had been assassinated. Another, the NSCN security chief, was in prison.

In the years that followed there were further meetings in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, Thailand. Leaders of the Naga parties came to Atlanta for a series of negotiations. (In part because they wanted to visit the Jimmy Carter Library and the Martin Luther King Center.)

Eventually, I turned over coordination of our mediation projects to a colleague. But I stayed in touch with my Naga friends. Like what has happened in any contentious history, the negotiations went back and forth. Ceasefires were established several times; then fell apart for one reason or another. The Forum for Naga Reconciliation was formally established 15 years ago, and Dr. Aier continues his resolute and courageous work as a mediator.

Peace and justice activists are sometimes referred to as prophetic figures. Fact is, though, the biggest part of my work with the Baptist Peace Fellowship was pastoral in nature. I realized early on in my work as an organizer that the prophets are already out there. But they often feel alone and isolated and dispirited. What they most need is not money or influence. They need encouragement. They need to know that someone knows about and supports their work, however difficult, however meager the results. And they need to feel part of a larger network of people who share their hopes and dreams of a different world, of the day which the prophet Zechariah foresaw when the war horse will be let out to pasture, the battle bow broken, and peace be established among the nations.

Not long out of seminary an older pastor who I respected greatly mentioned that the ministry of encouragement is the most overlooked, least expensive and most effective thing we can do for each other. It takes no special training, no claim to authority or office, no brilliance of mind or eloquence of speech. Only attentiveness; an awareness that courage is contagious.

Encouragement steels resolve. It mitigates the corrosive fear of isolation. It rains honor on draught stricken lives.

Encouragement is like the lime and silica that can turn loose sand into rock hard cement.

I love the way Nancy’s sister, Abigail Hastings, writes about encouragement.

“I still believe there are words that can be said that can bring a person into being and can fortify them with a sense of belonging and safety in the world, words that can boost their emotional immune system, words to carry in their hearts, words to light a path.”

There is no getting around the fact that life delivers sorrow onto every head. And also disappointment and discouragement, when the fruit of inspired dreams are choked by weeds. I love that old hymn line—sing if with me if you know it:

“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again.”

Key to understanding the Spirit’s work is the ministry of encouragement. Every one of us has been ordained to this calling.

And the key to a ministry of encouragement is timeliness. You don’t just slather compliments all over the place. You don’t offer your praise in hopes of getting in more in return. And you don’t mouth innocuous, feeble cheeriness to someone in the midst of a crisis. You take their pain seriously. Sharing another’s sorrow is evidence that you’re paying attention. Grief is the price of love.

Instead, you look for ripe moments, unexpected occasions, even when no one else is looking or overhearing. And you offer a word of confidence, of reassurance, of generous praise or gratitude. It need not be more complicated than saying to one in the midst of tribulation, “you can do this hard thing.”

Needless to say, the practice of a ministry of encouragement does not mean we relinquish our prophetic calling to confront the systems of injustice that constantly harass the impoverished and the vulnerable. It just means there is more than one tool in our vocation as disciples.

Today’s text from Zechariah is spoken to the Hebrew people who have been released from their Babylonian captivity, returning to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. And not just the physical city, but also restoring their agency as heralds of God’s promise of flourishing to all the nations.

“Return to your stronghold you prisoners of hope.” Two things in this text stand out.

First, though the English translation loses this distinction, the command addressed to “the daughter of Zion” is an expressly feminine entity. Zion is a synonym for Jerusalem, and her destined inheritance as a beloved center from which God’s promises the overthrow of the reign of terror and bloodshed. You could paraphrase it like this: Mama’s gonna protect you from every stressful threat of carnage.

Second, what a mind-bending image that we are prisoners of hope! What a mixed metaphor! How can hope and captivity co-exist?

There is a kind of spiritual alchemy going on. We are being remade as prisoners to this world-changing hope. Despite history’s groans and sorrows and sighs—these are not the last words. We are gripped by, and animated for, a new world that is on its way—even though, from all appearances, we seem powerless to construct such a world by the sweat of our own hands.

An old cartoon comes to mind, featuring a conversation between two figures. The one asks,

“Aren’t you terrified of what [the future] could be like? Everything is so messed up. . . .”

The other responds, “I think it will bring flowers.”

The first responds, incredulously, “Yes? Why?”

Responds the other, “Because I’m planting flowers.”

Kindred, plant the flower-promising seeds of encouragement every day, in every way, in the face of fear and dismay, along every back road, every byway. So may it be. Amen.

Ken Sehested
Circle of Mercy Congregation, 9 July 2023
Text: Zechariah 9:9-12

Interpreting the 4th (of July) in light of the 1st and the 5th

A meditation for fellow US citizens

Ken Sehested

Invocation. More than 200 South African firefighters singing and dancing after arrival at the Edmonton, Alberta airport, to help their Canadian colleagues extinguish wildfires that have broken out across the country. This is serious work and requires the ritual preparation to focus the mind, the heart, and the will. (Which is what liturgy should be.)

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A belated “Happy Canada Day” to our Canuck friends, on the occasion of their nation’s birth anniversary on 1 July 1867. It’s different from the US “independence day” since they achieved sovereignty from Britain over a period of decades and without a bloody revolution.

Two decades ago, responding to an article on the history of US imperial ambitions—where I mentioned a once-threatened invasion of Canada by the US—a friend in Canada, Scripture scholar Ray Hobbs—responded by saying, “not only threatened but carried out—in fact, four times.”

(For more, see “4 Times the U.S. Invaded Canada,” James Erwin.)

Those invasions were never mentioned in my history classes (or, likely, in yours).

Heather Cox Richardson points out other excluded background information surrounding our nation’s war of independence. As late as 1763, at the conclusion of what is referred to here as the French and Indian War, British colonists experienced an economic boom. Moreover, with the French relinquishing claims to land west of the Appalachian Mountains, the prospect of yet more free land and natural resources fueled entrepreneurial ambition.

However, Britain had no desire to fund yet another expensive war with Native Americans, which would surely happen if colonists began flooding west across the mountains. Such expansion was outlawed by the Parliament, which also passed multiple tax legislation affecting the colonies to help pay for the war.

For sure, the championing of freedom as a political virtue was an express ideal leading to the founding of the United States. But woven throughout—then as now—were pecuniary interests. Money is free speech, according to the US Supreme Court, first in the 1976 Buckley v. Valeo case, widened further in the 2010 Citizen United v. Federal Election Commission decision.

Or, to put it baldly, the wealthy (and a corporation is now a “person”) get more than one vote.

As has been said, money talks. Louder still as the decimal points accumulate.

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Hymn of confession. “What makes a gringo your smart aleck lingo / When he stole this land from the Indian way back when / Don’t he remember the big money lender / That put him a lincoln parked where his pinto had been / The almighty peso that gives him the say so / To dry up the river whenever there’s crops to bring in / Such a good neighbor to take all his labor / Chase him back over the border till he’s needed again.” —Merle Haggard, “The Immigrant

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Democratic aspiration and commercial gain have been bound together since the arrival of the first English immigrants to our shores. But as Jon Meacham points out in Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, of the 1606 First Charter of Virginia’s 3,805 words, only three percent are about God, the rest about commercial enterprise. As Captain John Smith of the Virginia Company wrote, “Faith was their color, when all their aim was nothing but present profit.

There was more piety in Puritan Massachusetts, of course. But their exercise of religious freedom was for their own kind. Meacham quotes the English Lord Bishop of Salisbury complaining, “Every party cries out for Liberty & toleration, till they get to be uppermost, and then will allow none. In fact, the1650 Connecticut Code bluntly stipulates that “If any man shall have or worship any God but the Lord God, he shall be put to death.”

There is no doubt in my mind that the US Declaration of Independence represents the most politically far-reaching ideas of its time, beginning with those majestic lines of the second paragraph:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . .”

Recall the words of colonial leader Thomas Paine who wrote his broadly circulated “Common Sense” pamphlet in January 1776: “For as in absolute governments the King is law, so in free countries the law ought to be King.” Paine rejected the idea that any person could be born to rule others. Consent by the governed as the basis of civil society was a radically new notion in this period.

Sensing the dramatic novelty of this epoch, Paine issued this breathtaking claim: “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

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Hymn of revelation. “Padded with power here they come / International loan sharks backed by the guns / Of market hungry military profiteers / Whose word is a swamp and whose brow is smeared / With the blood of the poor / Who rob life of its quality / Who render rage a necessity / By turning countries into labour camps / Modern slavers in drag as champions of freedom. . . . / And they call it democracy.” —Canadian artist Bruce Cockburn, “Call It Democracy” (Calling out the International Monetary Fund, a global financial institution about which few in the US know.)

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One of the great historical ironies associated with the US Declaration of Independence is the fact that Ho Chi Minh, emerging leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam—against which the US fought its longest war of the 20th century—quoted extensively from the Declaration in the founding of his party in September 1945.

But between the issuance of the Declaration and the writing of the US Constitution several years later, profound differences in economic policy emerged, threatening to sever the ties that had united the colonies in the war against British rule.

Slavery had already become the dominant economic generator in the Southern colonies, where industrial scale agriculture blossomed—and would compete, in the decades to come, with the Northern colonies’ development of industrial scale manufacturing.

The authoring and editing of the US Constitution was fraught with tension, most explicitly over the question of slavery. The resulting compromise ended with the sanctioning of enslavement.

The “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison, attacked slavery early in the Constitutional Convention, stating, “We have seen the mere distinction of colour made in the most enlightened period of time, a ground of the most oppressive dominion ever exercised by man over man.”

In line with Madison’s conviction, Thomas Jefferson attacked the trade in human bondage, calling it a “cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty”—though he himself profited greatly from the institution.

Such was the moral ambiguity built into the Constitution’s framers. To be sure, Jefferson did not believe that African Americans were social equals. (Nor did future President Abraham Lincoln, who, like many white abolitionists, supported repatriation of slaves to Africa.)

Jefferson described them “as incapable as children,” and admitted that maintaining slavery was like holding “a wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go.”

In the end, the writers reached a compromise. Three provisions in the final draft of the Constitution provided partial limitations on the practice: the Three-Fifths Clause, the ban on Congress ending the slave trade for twenty years, the fugitive slave clause, and the slave insurrections.

Yet to hide its ignominy, the final draft resorted to euphemisms rather than use the words “slave” or “slavery.”

If the temporary confederation of colonies (for the purpose of ending British rule) were to survive as a coherent nation-state, the financial boon of chattel slavery had to be warranted—and not just for Southerners. Northern business interests, particularly the banking, shipping and insurance industries, were essential to slavery’s maintenance.

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Hymn of assurance. “O my soul, my soul, my soul / You are Holy, wholly, my whole life / For the lowly, the lambs, he breaks the / Empire’s knife, empires knife” —“Magnificat,” The Psalters

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The lofty sentiment of the Declaration’s “all men are created equal” was a myopic aspiration. The celebration of freedom was literally for men only, and not even for all men. Voting rights was largely restricted to white property owners. Slavery would not be abolished for another 76 years with the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution. The franchise for women wouldn’t be approved until 1920; and nearly a half-century more before the Voting Rights Act assured Black voting rights. Even now, the US Supreme Court is chipping away at those voting rights provision.

The virtues of democratic governance celebrated on our nation’s Independence Day has from our founding been in competition with the interests of a “free” market economy. Though the word “God” is absent from the Constitution, the framers implicitly affirmed that, yes—in contradiction to the New Testament—both God and Mammon can be served simultaneously.

The instability of these competing aspirations was evident from the beginning. It was Jefferson who wrote, in 1816, that “The end of democracy and the defeat of the American Revolution will occur when government falls into the hands of lending institutions and moneyed corporations.”

This sentiment would later be expressed in the writing of President Abraham Lincoln: “I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . [C]orporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.”

Then again, in the 20th century, President Woodrow Wilson complained: “If monopoly persists, monopoly will always sit at the helm of government. I do not expect monopoly to restrain itself. If there are men in this country big enough to own the government of the United States, they are going to own it.”

President Theodore Roosevelt went so far as to say, “All contributions by corporations to any political committee for any political purpose should be forbidden by law.”

As has been said, money doesn’t just talk in politics, it also silences.

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Altar call. “I am a son of Uncle Sam / And I struggle to understand the good and evil / But I’m doing the best I can / In a place built on stolen land with stolen people / We are more than the sum of our parts / All these broken homes and broken hearts / God will you keep us wherever we go / Will you forgive us for where we’ve been / We Americans.” —Avett Brothers, “We Americans

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Any accurate accounting of the competing interests in our nation’s founding must be attentive to the prophetic protestation of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass’ 5 July 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

“Had I the ability, and could I reach the nation’s ear, I would today pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake. The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused, the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.”

His assessment is as indisputable now as then. The slave trade was the original sin of our nation. Clearly, there have been sporadic, courageous, and efficacious movements to right that wrong, and we rightly recollect and celebrate those narratives. We do so not to exhaust or satisfy the longing for justice, but to inform, to sharpen, and to animate the ongoing struggle, to lay claim, as Dr. King reminded in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, to that “promissory note” of freedom’s “inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And to do so, we must move beyond King-quoting.

The provocative words of 18th century patriot Thomas Paine have never been more prescient than to our current political climate. When reflecting “on the precariousness of human affairs,” a “constitution of our own” based on the rule of law must be established.

“If we omit it now, some [dictator] may hereafter arise, who laying hold of popular disquietudes, may collect together the desperate and the discontented, and by assuming to themselves the powers of government, may sweep away the liberties of the continent like a deluge.”

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Benediction. “. . . from the staggering account / of the Sermon on the Mount / which I don’t pretend to understand at all. / It’s coming from the silence / on the dock of the bay, / from the brave, the bold, the battered / heart of Chevrolet: / Democracy is coming to the U.S.A.” —Canadian artist Leonard Cohen, “Democracy” (Click the “show more” button to see the lyrics.)

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Resources for this article include:
• “July 2, 2023,” Heather Cox Richardson, “Letters From An American”
Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, Jon Meacham
• “Slavery and the Constitution,” Bill of Rights Institute
• “James Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention, May 25, 1787
• “Jefferson’s Attitudes Toward Slavery
• “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” Frederick Douglass

Queer Theology 101 – Offering in light of Pride Month

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Grace.” Early American melody, performed by the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus the day after the 1 October 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas.

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INTRO: Years ago I represented the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists on the board of the Institute for Welcoming Resources, an ecumenical coalition of networks within multiple Protestant bodies advocating for the full inclusion of the LGBTQ community within the life of the church. On the way home from one of those meetings, I began a mental outline of what would become my sermon on Epiphany Sunday. Below is an excerpt.

I.

On the plane coming home I began composing a new sermon or essay—Queer Theology 101—dealing with the unpredictability, the “foolishness,” the queerness of God in choosing covenant partners and the destabilizing effect on all existing political arrangements and established orthodoxies. Here are some of the points it would include:

While Queer theology flows from the historically particular experience of LGBTQ folk, it is not only for them.

The Queer theology I envision points to the insistence of the Apostles Peter and Paul that Gentiles were to be welcomed into the household of faith. I can assure you that that the question was as controversial then as the question of gays in the church is now.

Queer theology references Jesus’ selection of the unclean Samaritan as a model of faith in the coming Reign of God; of pagan astrologers as the first to recognize the significance of that bright star announcing Mary’s birth pangs; of Ruth’s inclusion in Jesus’ genealogy, even though she was a Moabite, a stranger to the household of faith; of a black Baptist preacher, from Georgia of all places—Martin Luther King Jr.—who would come to be recognized among the leading figures in our republic’s pantheon of heroes and the church’s prophetic tradition. The Bible is chocked full of such queerness.

This is the heart of Epiphany’s announcement. Though the news is good, especially for those who have had no place at the table of bounty, those currently managing and policing the table sense the terror of this message. And they will resist it, with vicious propaganda, virulent threats and public intimidation, even with bloody violence.

News of Jesus’ birth, as T.S. Eliot wrote in his Magi poem, will be “hard and bitter agony” for some. And we could find ourselves in the middle of such a struggle.

But already, a week ahead of another birth anniversary of Gospel proportion [Dr. King’s], we can hear the echo of that refrain, begun in the ancient prophets and carried on by enslaved, shamed, and belittled people ever since: How long? Not long. For we shall overcome. Thanks be to God.

II.

INTRO: In February 2019 the United Methodist General Conference reaffirmed its previous ecclesial judgment against affirming the presence of LGBTQ folk in the life of its congregations. What follows below is a bit of my own commentary. Needless to say, Methodists are not the only denominational body being fractured over this matter—only, for now, theirs is the most public schism.

“A humble word of encouragement to my Wesleyan friends: On the United Methodist Church’s General Conference decision to ostracize queerfolk”

by Ken Sehested

Today’s hard news from the United Methodist General Conference made me remember something a friend (and United Methodist pastor) wrote some years ago about another travesty in the Wesleyan tradition.

“John Wesley recognized such violence hidden in the clean and tidy profits of slave traders and owners. He exposed it, addressing them with the fire of a prophet: ‘Thy hands, thy bed, thy furniture, thy house, thy lands are at present stained with blood.’

“He drew the Methodist societies effectively into abolitionism. The ‘General Rules’ [of the Methodist movement] began with the commitment to give evidence of salvation by ‘Doing no harm, by avoiding evil of every kind, especially that which is generally practiced.’ (‘Doing no harm’ is an 18th century synonym for nonviolence. . . .)

“The founding conference in the US called for the expulsion of any member participating in the slave trade . . . [though] little by little that commitment fell to the temptations of mainline compromise. By 1816, a committee reported to the General Conference that ‘in relation to slavery, little can be done to abolish a practice so contrary to the principles of moral justice . . . the evil appears past remedy. . . .’” (Bill Wylie-Kellermann, “Of Violence and Hope: Death Undone,” Response magazine)

This quote’s purpose is not to make anyone feel better. It’s simply a reminder that days like today are not new—and they will likely happen again in the future. What I am sure of is that, now and in the future, those steeled by Wesley’s courageous gospel vision are resilient and will continue to be troublesome to the wall builders. Today’s evil “appears past remedy.”

But only for a time. Times-up is coming. Attune sorrowful hearts to that melody that can only be heard by storm-stilled attention.

A postscript
No doubt more than a few will respond to [the Methodist church’s] insult by joining the ranks of the “dones”—as in, I’m outta’ here, done with the church altogether. If so, I urge those who depart to resist the temptation to play solitaire in your spiritual life. Find another community of conscience and conviction, one that actually gathers, whether explicitly oriented to some faith tradition or not.

Too much of the “nones” tradition, of those claiming no religious affiliation, is fueled by the increasing isolationist and narcissistic tendencies that plague modernity in all its forms. The powers that be want to turn us all into consumers. That kind of “freedom” is the worst kind of bondage.

As Wendell Berry says, “It is not from ourselves that we learn to be better than we are.”

The expansive dream of the Beloved Community to which we pledge allegiance is but an empty slogan unless rooted in actual communities that, in one way or another, involve entangling with others. That’s how our choices refine and our voices resound.

Remember one more wise word from Wesley: There are no “Holy Solitaries . . . no holiness but social holiness.”

III.

INTRO: In the middle of World War II, writes Heather Cox Richardson, the US War Department started publishing a series of weekly pamphlets “to help [the personnel] become better-informed men and women and therefore better soldiers.” In 1945, one of those was devoted to understanding fascism. It is worth your while to ponder how our own military leaders perceived this threat to democratic governance.

In a recent post, Richardson surveys this history and outlines three techniques used by fascists to achieve and maintain power:

“First, they would pit religious, racial, and economic groups against one another to break down national unity. Part of that effort to divide and conquer would be a ‘well-planned hate campaign against minority races, religions, and other groups.” —continue reading Richardson’s 30 May 2023 “Letters From An American” post

§  §  §

Benediction.Dedication.” The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus sings in solidarity with victims of the 12 June 2016 mass shooting at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida. (Click the “show more” button for more background.)

# # #

My favorite Mother’s Day songs

An unconventional list

Ken Sehested

While it’s true that mothering songs often emphasize comfort, it’s not at all true that songs of comfort are flaccid, limp, or weak-kneed. Lullaby is not quietism. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is both an animator (think “tongues of fire”) and a comforter.

Comfort is the sustenance given in the midst of trouble and travail. I would go so far as to argue that such steadfast endurance, the capacity to keep on keepin’ on, is the decisive virtue in Scripture.

Fifty years ago, a Brazilian movement committed to nonviolent resistance to injustice (during a US-backed dictatorship) had as its watchword the phrase firmeza permanente, or roughly: persistent, resolute struggle, regardless of the odds of success.

Such is the eschatological posture to which people of faith and conscience are called. That is to say, it is the grace-imbued confidence that, in the end, death will not have the last word, despite much observable evidence in the present age.

In the long run, our willingness to receive comfort, and to rest and sleep serenely, is as crucial to good health as our most energetic activity.

Such motherliness is our secret weapon.

§  §  §

¶ “The time has come / We’ve got to turn this world around / Call the mothers / Call the daughters / We need the sisters of mercy now.” —Keb’ Mo’, “Put a Woman in Charge,” feat. Rosanne Cash

¶ “Songs My Mother Taught Me,” by Antonín Dvořák, Ernestina Jošt and the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra

¶ “Anagehya, women of all the Nations, you are the strength, you are the force, you are the healing of the Nations.” performed by Joan Henry, founder of the Mothers of Nations Singers & Dancers, with remarks on the nature of traditional songs.

¶ “Kiss me mother kiss your darlin’ / Lay my head upon your breast / Throw your loving arms around me / I am weary let me rest / I am weary let me rest.” —“I Am Weary, Let Me Rest,” The Cox Family

¶ “Mothers of the Disappeared,” U2

¶ “All the weary mothers of the earth will finally rest; / We will take their babies in our arms, and do our best. / When the sun is low upon the field, / To love and music they will yield, / And the weary mothers of the earth will rest.” —Joan Baez, “All the Weary Mothers of the Earth

¶ “Fingers on the trigger around here / Fingers on the trigger around here / Bullets flying, mothers crying / We gotta change around here / Get it straight, be sure that you hear / Things gonna change around here.” —Mavis Staples, “Change

¶ “All the pain that you have known / All the violence in your soul / All the ‘wrong’ things you have done / I will take from you when I come.” —Sinéad O’Connor, “This Is to Mother You

¶ “A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh, courage that cries out at night / A way outa no way is flesh outa flesh, bravery kept out of sight / A way outa no way is too much to ask, / Too much of a task for any one woman.” —“Oughta Be A Woman,” Sweet Honey in the Rock. (Open a second tab to read the lyrics while listening.)

¶ “The Mother,” Brandi Carlile https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cOpbJIJF7bM

¶ “I went down to the place where I knew she lay waiting / Under the marble and the snow / I said, Mother I’m frightened, the thunder and the lightning / I’ll never come through this alone / She said, I’ll be with you, my shawl wrapped around you / My hand on your head when you go / And the night came on, it was very calm. . . . / I want to cross over, I want to go home / But she says, Go back, go back to the world.” —Leonard Cohen, “Night Comes On

¶ “Lay me low / Lay me low, low. / Where Mother can find me, / Where Mother can own me, / Where Mother can bless me.” —Dale Warland Singers, “Lay Me Low” (Shaker)

¶ “From the north to the south / from the west to the east / hear the prayer of the mothers / bring them peace.” —“Prayer of the Mothers,” Yael Deckelbaum, who created an alliance of a group of Israeli and Palestinian women for a “March of Hope” in 2016

¶ “As we come marching, marching, we battle, too, for men— / For they are women’s children and we mother them again. / Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes— / Hearts starve as well as bodies: Give us Bread, but give us Roses!” —“Bread and Roses,” a poem and song that emerged during the women’s millworker strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912. Women were fighting for fair wages, child labor laws, overtime pay, fair working conditions.

¶ “When I find myself in times of trouble / Mother Mary comes to me / Speaking words of wisdom / Let it be / And in my hour of darkness / She is standing right in front of me / Speaking words of wisdom / Let it be / And when the broken-hearted people / Living in the world agree / There will be an answer / Let it be.” —The Beatles, “Let It Be

¶ “Slumber, my darling, till morn’s blushing ray / Brings to the world the glad tidings of day / Fill the dark void with thy dreamy delight / Slumber, thy mother will guard thee tonight.” —“Slumber my darling,” beautiful Stephen Foster lullaby, performed by Alison Krauss, Edgar Meyer, Yo Yo Ma & Mark O’Connor

¶ “How sweet and happy seem, those days of which I dream / When memory recalls them now and then / And with what rapture sweet, my weary heart would beat / If I could hear my mother pray again.” —“If I Could Hear My Mother Pray Again,” Staple Singers.

# # #

Art: A reprise of my Mother’s Day card to my beloved (aka, JaJa to her grandkids).

Hear the prayer of the mothers

A Mother’s Day reflection

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Holy Mother, where are you? / Tonight I feel broken in two. / I’ve seen the stars fall from the sky. / Holy mother, can’t keep from crying. / Oh I need your help this time, / Get me through this lonely night. / Tell me please which way to turn / To find myself again.” —Eric Claption, Luciano Pavarotti, and the East London Gospel Choir “Holy Mother

Call to worship. Bread-baking, kitchen-dwelling, breast-feeding God / We return to your lap and to your table because we are hungry and thirsty. / Fill us again with the bread that satisfies, with milk that nourishes. / Drench parched throats with wet wonder; / feed us ‘til we want no more. —continue reading “Bread baking God

§  §  §

It seems such an incomparable coincidence: A spate of horrific killings of kids; then the singularly sentimental observance of Mother’s Day.

Just in the past 10 days: A young kid rings the doorbell on the wrong door and is shot. A young woman drives into the wrong driveway and is shot. A cheerleader accidentally gets in the wrong car in a parking lot and is pursued and shot, along with her friend. A basketball rolls into a man’s yard, and a neighboring 6-year-old girl and her father are shot. A young girl playing hide and seek with friends in her neighborhood is shot. All these episodes occurred within recent days

In popular culture, Mother’s Day is about bouquets, chocolate, cooing Hallmark cards, and all manner of sugary sentiment (which, like actual sugar, generates a short-lived burst of emotion followed by lethargy).

It’s as if we can make up a year’s worth of taking motherly care for granted with a day of platitudes. Kind of like the opposite of national handwringing over the latest mass shooting followed by public policy inertia.

Thoughts and prayers, shots and tears: an emotional catharsis which only further dulls the conscience. It all happens so frequently that we forget which tragedy we’re now mourning.

The US is now averaging one and a half mass shootings per day. Guns are the leading cause of death among children in our nation. Compared to other wealthy countries, the US accounts for 97% of such deaths, though our share of the population of such nations is 46%.

As has been said, if more guns made us safer, ours would be the safest country in the world.

§  §  §

“We are all meant to be mothers of God.” —Meister Eckhart, 13th century mystic

§  §  §

Several individuals’ names get mentioned in the history of Mother’s Day founding. (See “A brief history of Mother’s Day.”) But the earliest call for such an observance came from Julia Ward Howe who, after witnessing the carnage of the US Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War in Europe, called for a 2 June 1872 Mother’s Day festival which “should be devoted to the advocacy of peace doctrines.”

In her “Mother’s Day Proclamation,” she wrote “As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home. For a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace….”

In some ways, there’s no better occasion to address the cascade of deadly violence than on Mother’s Day.

§  §  §

“For a long time I have held my peace, I have kept still and restrained myself; now I will cry out like a woman in labor, I will gasp and pant” (Isaiah 42:14).

§  §  §

In the early years of our congregation’s life, we pastoral leaders put special effort in planning Mother’s (and Father’s) Day—though without the sentimental trappings—to highlight and honor the pivotal work of parenting. In place of a sermon, we asked selected members to speak of their own mother’s/father’s enduring influence on their lives.

We heard some extraordinary stories of steadfast strength, and encouragement, and tenderness, and gratitude in those testimonies. But afterwards, to our surprise, we got more than a little pushback. We eventually stopped marking these days in any focused way. (For more see “Pastoral dilemmas with observing Mother’s Day.”)

For some, such parental recollections trigger painful memories. My friend Courtney Marsh, a steadfast mom and a midwife, wrote about this recently:

“As we head into this weekend: I am thinking of all of you who are not mothers but want to be, all of you who decided not to be mothers but feel society’s pressure, all of you who navigate the realities of being a stepmother, all of you who have lost a child, all of you whose mothers have left this Earth, all of you whose mothers weren’t/aren’t who you needed them to be. This weekend may be tough for you. Please remember that you are loved and you are not alone.”

Matchless wisdom. Parenting stories are complex.

§  §  §

“Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.” —Julian of Norwich, 14th century mystic

§  §  §

I gathered pages of facts and figures for this article about the toxic scourge of guns in our culture. The numbers can be numbing. But note this one: Already in 2015—eight years ago—more citizens in the US had been killed by guns since 1968 than members of the military in all battlefields of all the wars in US history.

Surely there is a malady deeper than the powdered discharge of lead from calibrated, machined steel. There is a hideous spirit that’s been loosed in our culture—incarnated in the National Rifle Association more than any other entity, shielded by a spurious history of court rulings and legislative roadblocks—that shields and protects gun purveyors from anything resembling accountability.

It is one sign (among several) of the poisoned well of our democracy that a large majority of citizens support a variety of common sense gun restrictions, yet state and national legislators refuse to budge. The consent of the governed is being expressly rebuffed.

You don’t need to be a grammarian to comprehend that “the right to bear arms” is explicitly tied to the provision for “a well-regulated militia” in the second amendment to the US Constitution.

It’s been nearly six years since former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly said that mass shooting events are “the price of freedom.” He was commenting about the gunman who, firing from the 32nd floor of a Las Vegas hotel, killed 59 and wounded 520 attendees at an outdoor concert.

Just last week a bill in the Texas legislature was introduced stipulating students as young as eight could be instructed on how to stanch blood loss suffered by a classmate’s gunshot wound.

Also last week, Alex Coker, a former police officer, responded to a Fox News commentator’s question on how to be prepared for a mass shooter: “Be polite and professional, but plan to kill everyone you meet.”

§  §  §

My ship of faith has many sails. But being both a reared and a convicted deep-water (small “b”) baptist meant I was nursed and nurtured on the language of freedom. The first Baptist congregation in the Western Hemisphere was founded by Roger Williams, who fled for his life from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for championing religious freedom for all. Our nation’s founding aspiration (distinctive at the time)—denying the divine right of kings—was freedom, though severely restricted to white, property-owning men. Just as colonial demand for religious freedom meant freedom for “my” religion.

Nowadays, freedom has come to mean something altogether different.

Economically, freedom language reifies the “free” market, providing justification for cannibalizing capitalism to penetrate and control the economies of other nations, and rationalizing extreme wealth inequality. “Foreign policy” means resource extraction.

Politically, freedom was stamped by the Supreme Court’s 2010 “Citizens United” decision, opening the floodgates of corporate-funded electoral politics, and, ironically, the rejection of social contracts designed for the common good.

Militarily, freedom reflects the strategy of preemptive war, embedded in Congress’ 2001 “authorization for use of military force” (which allows the president almost unlimited use of military force by simply saying “terrorism.”) “Freedom” is the stated rationale for having some 750 US military bases outside the US. (China has two. Russia, 10, all but one of which are in former Soviet republics.)

And in the church, “freedom” has come to mean, “don’t ask me to make commitments,” or take risks, or subject material assets to Gospel imperatives, or be otherwise inconvenienced.

§  §  §

The wombishness of God. “In the biblical Hebrew language, the word for ‘mercy’ (רחם; racham) shares the exact same three-letter root as the word for ‘womb’ (רחם; rechem).”

§  §  §

This weekend our congregation joins a coalition of other faith-based organizations to host a gun-buy-back event in our city. Once dismembered, the weapons will be donated to a company for reforging the metal into garden tools.

To be clear: we cannot buy-back our way out of this public health emergency. But congregations and individuals need to get started, even with incremental steps, on the longer, arduous journey needed for recovery from our national gun addiction.

§  §  §

¶ Not to be outdone. Fathers, be like these dads who:

Helps with stage fright

Helps with hula hooping

Benediction. “From the north to the south / from the west to the east / hear the prayer of the mothers / bring them peace / bring them peace.” —Yael Deckelbaum & Prayer of the Mothers, “This Land” (English translation of Hebrew and Egyptian Arabic lyrics), a 14-member ensemble of Jewish, Arab and Christian women

 

St. Stephen’s testimony

The week leading up to a remembrance
of St. Stephen’s testimony

Ken Sehested

Invocation. “The Prayer,” Giulia Zarantonello, performed by Montserrrat Caballé

§  §  §

There’s a lot going on this week of 2023, much of it having to do with the kind of memory needed to sustain the future.

7 May: The Feast of St. Stephen on the Roman Catholic list of saints is not until 26 December. But those following the Revised Common Lectionary, his story—traditionally venerated as the first Christian martyr—in Acts 7 rolls around this coming Sunday.

A brief meditation on the Feast of St. Stephen

Historic moments of grand-scale movements cannot be engineered. Our work is to be readied, rehearsed, abled, and allied for the season when gestating Darkness erupts in travailing labor to birth the Promise of the ages.

Remain faithful to the liturgy beckoning the Age to come: When the night’s dark fear melts from having loved so greatly the stars’ kindly light and clarifying direction.

Pray for us, St. Stephen, when Truth’s claim conflicts with law’s domain. —Ken Sehested

§  §  §

6 May: The hair on the neck of every Free Churcher will stand up this Saturday, on the occasion of the coronation of newly-ascended British King Charles III.

During the service, Anglican Archbishop Justin Welby will invite not just the royal guests gathered in London’s Westminster Cathedral but “All persons of goodwill in The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the other Realms and the Territories to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King, defender of all” by saying aloud this oath:

“I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”

This is the first time in history that all citizens are including in this pledge. Previously only British royalty were asked to do so.

And, wouldn’t you know it, bankers get an extra holiday on Monday the 8th.

§  §  §

4 May: The annual “National Day of Prayer” in the US, when citizens are urged “to turn to God in prayer and meditation.” Several of our presidents have made such declarations. Earlier, though, such official declarations were titled “National Day of Humiliation, Fasting and Prayer.”

By act of Congress and President Truman’s signature in 1952, all reference to penitence was removed. As Truman said, “Our global victory [in World War II] . . . has come with the help of God. . . . Let us . . . dedicate ourselves to follow in His Ways.”

Soon after, in 1954, continuing a show of public piety and opposition to those commie atheists, Congress approved a revised “pledge of allegiance” to include “under God.” And then, in ’55, mandated that all US currency contain the wording “In God We Trust.”

In his 2003 National Day of Prayer proclamation, President George W. Bush focused on divine guidance in the “fight against terrorism” and urged citizens to “ask the Almighty to protect all those who battle for freedom throughout the world and our brave men and women in uniform. . . .”

Evidently, God’s honor, and the nation’s prowess, was at stake. By now, national penitence is a thing of the past. In its stead, “May God bless America” became the repeated benediction of political leaders and the centerpiece of National Day of Prayer piety.

A few years ago, while in an especially curmudgeonly mood during our trumphian captivity, I penned the following brief meditation:

On this national Day of Self-Inflated Prayer,
when legal sanction is extended to
flatulent religious posturing, proudly
claim your allegiance to the early
Christian movement charged with
atheism by Roman imperial authority
for their refusal to genuflect in the
ace of mercenary gods.
This is not the time for decorous
objection. This is a time for holy rage.

§  §  §

2 May: The “Children’s March” began in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. You remember the black and white TV footage of police dogs and water cannons being loosed on more than 1,000 school children. These scenes galvanized the nation and prompted President Kennedy—then, after his assassination, President Johnson— to press for and secure, the Civil Right Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. (For more see “Black Children Begin Movement Protesting Segregation; Face Police Brutality,” Equal Justice Initiative)

ALSO: The US Marines again occupy Nicaragua in 1925, having left only nine months before after a stay since 1912. This time they stayed until 1933.

§  §  §

1 May: “The Catholic Worker Movement traces its beginnings to May 1, 1933, when Dorothy Day and three others distributed an eight-page tabloid newspaper in the midst of a crowded, festive Union Square in New York City.” —“History of the Catholic Worker Movement

ALSO: In what is called the 1886 “Haymarket Affair” (or “riot” or “massacre”) in Chicago—a demonstration that drew a large crow of the working class demanding an eight-hour workday (down from an average of 60 per week). Both Illinois and federal law mandated this limit but few enforced it. The cause of the Haymarket incident was the police killing the day before of several striking workers at another industry.

Just as Methodist pastor and labor activist Rev. Samuel Fieldman finished speaking, an unknown person threw a pipe bomb in the direction of assembled police called in to disburse the demonstration. Gunfire broke out after the explosion. By the end of the melee, seven police officers and four demonstrators lay dead, with an untold number of wounded.

In the ensuing trial, eight demonstrators were convicted, seven of whom received the death penalty. In 1893 the Illinois governor pardoned the three still living and condemned the trial’s outcome.

Etcetera

  • Late in his life the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass commented, “experience demonstrates that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.”
  • “The federal minimum wage in the US would be more than $42 an hour today if it rose at the same rate as the average Wall Street bonus over the past four decades.” Common Dreams
  • Oh, about the child labor laws which unions helped get passed, 10 states have recently approved or are considering legislation to allow younger workers.

“The comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor.” —Voltaire

Benediction. “We reached these shores from many lands / We came with hungry hearts and hands / Some came by force and some by will / At the auction block, in the darkened mill/ Arise! Arise! / I see the future in your eyes. / To a more perfect union we aspire / And lift our voices from the fire.” —Jean Rohe, “National Anthem: Arise! Arise!” (Scroll down to see the full lyrics.)

The pathos of God, the ethos of the church

This is a slightly longer version of commentary for The Center for Congregational Ethics‘ “Lectionary to Life Series” for 21 April 2023

 

by Ken Sehested

Lections for the day: Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19; Isaiah 26:1-4; 1 Peter 1:13-16

Here are three points of entry in discerning today’s lections.

1. The psalmist (as is the repeated case elsewhere) lifts up life’s distress in vivid language. Though little of such psalms (or other biblical texts) show up in our lectionary cycle. Our liturgies characteristically feature “the sunny side of life” and strive to “accentuate the positive.”

The church gathered needs fewer praise bands and triumphant anthems and more occasions for lament and blues music. Ironically, our resistance to public lament constricts our capacity for the kind of hope that sustains beyond shallow, cheery optimism.

2. As is too often the case, today’s readings skip over key information which clarifies and quickens the surrounding text.

Left out of this selection from Isaiah are vv. 5-6: [God] humbles those who dwell on high [and] lays the lofty city low; he levels it to the ground and casts it down to the dust. Feet trample it down—the feet of the oppressed, the footsteps of the poor.”

This reversal of fortunes is echoed in Mary’s “Magnificat” (Luke 1) where her incendiary “hymn of praise” impinges on “the proud in their conceit” and imagines the rich being stripped of their affluence.

3. Attention to the world’s cries is the essential context of spiritual formation. As Isaiah writes, The Lord “heard my voice,” an ultimatum uttered in the midst of death’s entanglement.

The psalmist centers the voice of the abused, calling to mind the Exodus text where the wailing of Hebrew slaves mobilizes God’s attention (3:7). And, prior to that—after her abandonment by Abraham and Sarah into the desert’s desolation —the weeping of Hagar’s infant, Ismael, whose name means “God has heard,” spurs God’s intervention (Gen. 21:17).

To “be holy, because I am holy” (1 Peter 1:16) requires a recalibration of our eyes and ears.

Atonement comes by way of attunement to the voices of the afflicted. It is in their presence that we comprehend our own spiritual paucity and the revelation that our own sake is linked to that of “the least of these.” The only proper adoration comes by way of emulation.

As has been said, what you know depends on where you stand. Social location is essential if the little flock of Jesus is to “rightly divide the word of truth.”

The pathos of God—incarnated in Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, and capacitated by the Holy Spirit— forges the ethos of the church.

# # #

Letting Pharaoh go

A Maundy Thursday meditation

by Ken Sehested

Maundy Thursday, a key observance in Christian Holy Week calendar, is often associated with the Gospel of John’s account of the “Last Supper,” when the central plot is not the meal but the shocking narrative of Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples.

The dramatic climax comes when Peter objects to having his feet washed by Jesus—likely because of his notion of reverence: Jesus is to be served (honorifically attended), as is the custom in the every culture of privilege.

Recall for a moment that the Gospels record the disciples’ argument over who among them would be greatest in the coming Kingdom—once at the very table Luke mentions as the final their final meal together. I can only imagine Jesus’ heartbreak that even now, shortly before his final showdown with imperial authorities, his closest friends were still clueless about the counter cultural nature of his mission.

It is indeed an “other” world; but not one evacuated to the high reaches of heaven, but bursting out in the very stuff of history’s creaturely life.

The scholarly debate over whether this final meal was formally a Passover observance is maddeningly complex. There’s no question, however, that this narrative was happening on the cusp of that pivotal Jewish remembrance of the Exodus, that dramatic escape from Egyptian clutches, following by the desert wandering, the Sinai instructions, and the entry into a “promised land.”

The Exodus march was not like a Marti Gras parade, however. The text says that less than two months into the trek, “the whole congregation of the Israelites” began complaining to Moses, even suggesting maybe they should go back to their dependent status in a company-store economy. Life may have been hard in Egyptland, but at least they had enough to eat.

Evidently, God did not take offense at this bickering (Exodus 16:2-3) but instructed Moses to tell them that provisions would be made, both morning and evening—and that these provisions would disclose “the glory of the Lord.”

Then come detailed instructions on the morning gathering of manna. Each household would gather only enough to satisfy its members: Those who gathered much had nothing left over; those who gathered little had enough (16:17-18). The harvesting was aligned with sufficiency: gather too much, the stuff will rot and be worm infested.

Furthermore, the gathering on the sixth day should include enough for the seventh, allowing for a day not just for leisure but weekly reorientation and recommitment to a vision of equity and a rejection of the relentless striving for more, and yet more, that characterizes the impulse of every assertion of “manifest destiny” and imperial modes of empire.

Neither Israel, nor America, can lay claim to being “first.”

The “glory of the Lord” means no more surfeiting: no more restless, never-ending accumulation; no more gorging; no more coveting neighbors. Or as the Book of James would later interrogate: Where do those conflicts and disputes come from? Your cravings! You want and cannot obtain; therefore you commit murder.

Even worse, by “befriending” such behaviors, you become “an enemy of God”! (4:1-4)

God’s “glory” is displayed in neighborliness. God’s “enemies” are those who hoard.

No doubt Jesus had this narrative in mind when, in John’s Gospel, he scandalously breached the logic of what is commonly viewed as power. He, the “master,” assumed the kneeling posture of a washer woman to clean his subordinates’ feet as a symbolic representation of the new pattern of redemptive community.

To be aligned with this alternative community, everything you recognize as to how the world “works” is rejected: No more would the strong take what they can, no more the weak suffer what they must.

From here on, as Hebrew scripture repeatedly affirms, special attention is to be given to the widow, the orphan, the migrant—the most vulnerable and all judged unworthy to be seated at the banquet of plenty.

This assertion is clearly reinforced in Jesus’ utterly incongruous claim that the only road to heaven included compassionate partnering with the hungry, the evacuee, the inadequately clothed, the feverous and frail, the massively incarcerated. That is to say, the debris field in every communized and capitalized culture.

This is Passover’s preface to Sinai’s covenant imperatives. This is the paschal signifier of the sacrifice and posture worthy of God’s glory. Holy Week’s mandatum (mandate) is to align with the posture by whose terms alone will vanquish death’s greatest threat.

The baptismal vows of those on the Way of Jesus center around the ongoing struggle to let Pharaoh go.

# # #

Maundy Thursday, 6 April 2023

Easter’s threat, King’s dream, and national pretension

by Ken Sehested

Invocation. “Hatred had me bound, had me tied down / Had me turned around, couldn’t find my way / Then you walked with me and You set my spirit free / To me and my family down that long highway / Free at last, free at last / Free from the world and all it’s sins / Free at last, free at last / I’ve been to the top of the mountain.” —Joan Baez, “Free At Last

§  §  §

Given the lunar calculus of setting Easter’s date, the occasion moves around on our solar calendar, landing anywhere between late March to late April. Every year, therefore, the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination on 4 April 1968 occurs within that span. This coincidence is an interpretive matrix in my faith formation.

Among our stubborn human tendencies is to create sentimental memories of times past that actually were turbulent, conflicted, even dangerous. Nowadays, Easter bunnies substitute for Jerusalem’s colonizing Roman soldiers. Clothiers and chocolate makers alike look forward to the day as much as any cleric.

Choirs perform new jubilant anthems. Well appointed sanctuaries feature brass ensembles. (And I confess, I do love such music.)

The Sunday leading up to Easter, children process with palms, ancient symbol of peace and prosperity, historically associated with military prowess. These days you can purchase plastic Easter eggs painted in military patterned camouflage, each with a toy soldier inside.

Jesus overturns no tables in modern Holy Week reenactments. Few feet are washed.

You would think that Jesus was executed for preaching the Golden Rule.

Our recollections of Dr. King and the troublesome movement he represented have also been acclimatized. Military bands are often featured in Atlanta’s ML King Day parade. His “I Have a Dream” speech gets a little dreamier each passing year. Alabama and Mississippi’s ML King birthday holiday is a “King-Lee” day, splicing the occasion to also remember Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the “Lost Cause” mythology.

A few years ago the makers of Dodge Ram pickups ponied up $5 million for a Super Bowl ad—an homage to patriotism and “service”—featuring a brief line from one of Dr. King’s sermons.

We forgot long ago how polarizing Dr. King was. The Federal Bureau of Investigation referred to him as “the most dangerous Negro” in the country. They along with two other intelligence agencies (we have 17 of them, in case you were curious) illegally spied not only on Dr. King but numerous other activists.

King’s favorability ratings plummeted after his historic 4 April 1967 speech at Riverside Church in New York City (exactly one year prior to his assassination), where he vigorously condemned the war in Vietnam and referred to the US as the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”

He had long since understood the Beloved Community went well beyond bus seating, water fountains, and lunch counters. Less than a month after his soaring “I Have a Dream” speech, he was presiding at the funerals of the girls killed by a terrorist bombing of Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.

Nowadays, a number of state legislatures have approved, or are considering, laws making it illegal for teachers to present material that might make a student feel uncomfortable. Even after a “war on poverty,” the median wealth of white households is ten times that of African Americans.

But of course, I never heard that when our country’s Declaration of Independence insisted that “all men are created equal,” it literally meant men. Not just men. White men. And not just white men but property-owning white men. It would take nearly three-and-a-half centuries between the first arrival of chattel slaves from Africa and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. And those rights are now eroding in many parts of the country.

It’s not the case that we are, merely as individuals, suffering memory loss as to Easter’s threat and Dr. King’s critique. There are potent economic, cultural and political interests collaborating in the work of dis-remembering and sugar-coating our history.

There are also powerful forces at work disguising the ambiguous character of our nation’s aspirations regarding foreign policy.

In my high school senior year. the last six weeks of our world history class was devoted to studying J. Edgar Hoover’s book, Masters of Deceit, that propagandizing screed which encouraged citizens to see a communist behind every bush. And if you didn’t pass that one six-week period of one course, you could not graduate.

There is, to be sure, a legacy of foreign policy—not to mention a host of foreign service personnel—nobly championing the pursuit of human dignity and democratic aspirations. What we fail to see over the course of our history is that when human rights and economic gain are in conflict, the latter are more likely to govern our action.

One document in particular, written in the years after World War II gave way to the Cold War, that articulates the “political realism” of this principle.

George Kennan, then US ambassador to the Soviet Union (later named “the most influential diplomat of the 20th century”), wrote a lengthy secret memo, later declassified, advocating for a bare-knuckled game plan for our nation’s foreign policy. This long excerpt is worth needed attention:

“We have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. . . . In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. . . .

“We should dispense with the aspiration to ‘be liked’ or to be regarded as the repository of a high-minded international altruism. We should stop putting ourselves in the position of being our brother’s keeper and refrain from offering moral and ideological advice. We should cease to talk about vague and . . . unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards, and democratization. The day is not far off when we are going to have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are then hampered by idealistic slogans, the better.” (You can read the full proposal here.)

Among our most urgent tasks as people of The Way is recovery of memory. Beginning with comprehending the threat that saturated the first Holy Week.

In his book The War on Terrorism and the Terror of God, Lee Griffith wrote, “It is the resurrection which is the terror of God to all who believe that death should have the final word.”

Add to that, regarding the legacy not just of Dr. King but of the countless others, a few named, most unnamed, who put their security on the line in service to the Beloved Community. The urgent question for us is: How has it become so common to respect the man but relinquish the mission? To revere the dreamer but renege on the dream?

Movements have a tendency to become museums.

Finally, it is imperative that we do the excavation needed for an honest reading of our nation’s history.

In commentary on a news channel, Dr. Eddie Glaude, professor of African American Studies at Princeton, commented: “America is not unique in its sins as a country. We’re not unique in our evils. . . . Where we may be singular is our refusal to acknowledge them. And the legends and myths we tell about our inherent goodness, to hide and cover and conceal, so that we can maintain a kind of willful ignorance that protects our innocence.”

Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. And if we are to rightly interpret our condition, to expose our pretension, we simply must take seriously the whole story.

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Benediction. Listen to Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech—“I’ve been to the mountaintop”—on 3 April 1968, the night before his assassination. Here’s is a brief (1:13) excerpt. You can view the entire speech (43:14 video) here.

        Background to the speech. There was a terrible storm that night in Memphis. King was tired. The initial march in support of sanitation workers had attracted provocateurs who smashed windows along the march route. King was deeply discouraged. His staff was very unhappy that he chose to be in Memphis when so much work was needed on the upcoming “Poor Peoples’ March” in Washington, DC. Memphis seemed like a distraction.

Given the bad weather the night of the rally, given his tired and disappointed disposition, he didn’t want to go. “Ralph, you can take care of it.” But an overflow crowd showed up. And they wanted to hear King. So Abernathy called him and said “Martin, the people want to hear from you.” So he went and spoke extemporaneously, going on that famous “I’ve been to the mountaintop” riff, but then going on to say “I may not get there with you.” Almost a premonition of what happened the next day. He was 39 years old when the sniper’s bullet arrived.