Of thee I sing

An Independence Day meditation

by Ken Sehested

It was the third of July on a cool cloudy sky
I set in for a storm in the makin'. . . .

I believe that a thought has just gotten caught
In a place where words can't surround it
It concerns the years past and the shadows they cast
And my path as I walk around it.
—John Prine, “The Third of July”

       Some years ago, on a visit to the Maritime provinces of Canada, we took a history tour of St. John, New Brunswick, and learned details of a narrative I vaguely recalled. St. John’s story is uniquely tied to U.S. history.

       The settlement’s population increased significantly beginning in 1783, shortly after the Treaty of Paris ending the American Revolutionary War, when British Loyalists fled to Canada. Terms of the Treaty stipulated reparations by the new U.S. Congress for those whose properties had been destroyed or expropriated. Congress decided to leave the matter to the individual states. You can imagine how far that went. (And remember this story the next time the topic arises of reparations to those who fled Cuba after their Revolution.)

       What caught my visual and visceral attention in St. John was a plaque set into a large boulder in the town’s oldest cemetery. Its inscription contained these lines:

       “Within these Burial Grounds lie the remains of immigrants, rich and poor, who left their homes and arrived on our shores filled with courage and determination to establish for themselves and their children a way of life free from persecution and hostilities.”

       We U.S. citizens know little of this history—including the four times we invaded Canada.[1] And we can hardly imagine anyone having fled our midst for threatened or actual persecution.

       Independence Day is a good time to peel back a few layers of miseducation.

       The novelist James Baldwin issued an urgent challenge needing to be faced every July 4th. “American history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”[2]

       It requires great subtlety to express genuine love for and devotion to one’s land, one’s people, one’s culture and community and, at the same time, recognize the devastation, at home and abroad, done by our hand or at least in our name.

       The moment of our republic’s founding was both an unparalleled advance of democratizing force as well as a near-genocidal conquest of indigenous peoples (a “problem” referenced in our Declaration of Independence) and a historically unprecedented level of slavery (explicitly sanctioned in our Constitution).

       Our accumulation of wealth involved innovative and energetic commerce as well as massive levels of sheer plunder.

       The stars and bars has been a beacon of freedom to a multitude of some and servitude to others.

       The complex aftermath of these conflicting dramas continue to unfold even to this day.

       How do we speak rightly of both realities?

       In one of his poems, Wendell Berry recommends that we “Denounce the government and embrace the flag. Hope to live in that free republic for which it stands.”[3]

       Langston Hughes pleaded, “O, let America be America again— / The land that never has been yet— / And yet must be. . . .”[4]

       Numerous authors point to the difference between patriotism and nationalism. The political friction from such debates is especially heated these days, given the electoral victory of a petulant man-child promising to make-america-great-again, a dog whistle tactic recollecting—without saying—the phrase’s currency within white supremist groups of all sorts.

       Because our virtues as a nation are considerable, we tend to think our vices unremarkable. Such is not the case. At the same time, this is the case: If you do not love your land you cannot participate in its healing.

       If we are to rightly interpret our condition, listening for the Word that is needed, we simply must take seriously the whole story—its glory and its shame.

       My country, ‘tis of thee, struggling for liberty; of thee I sing.

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[1] See James Erwin, “4 Times the U.S. Invaded Canada,” Mental Floss

[2] From “A Talk to Teachers, “originally published in The Saturday Review, December 21, 1963. Find it online here.

[3] "Manifesto: The Mad Farmer’s Liberation Front,” from The Country of Marriage, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973. Find it online here.

[4] “Let America Be America Again,” From The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes, published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Find it online here.

©ken sehested @

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  27 June 2018 •  No. 165

Processional.Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor,” musical setting by Irving Berlin of Emma Lazarus’ poem on the Statue of Liberty, performed by the Portland Choir & Orchestra.

Above: Badlands National Park, South Dakota

Special issue on

Invocation. “In seasons of dark desire eyes strain for Eden’s refrain and flickered light ’mid the fright of earth’s travail. Oh, Beloved, unleash your Voice of Pardon from wrath’s consuming reign. Speak peace to the hungered of heart.” —continue reading “Speak peace to the hungered of heart,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 85

Call to worship. “Come, heaven! Come, earth! With mercy so tender, adopted in splendor, all bloodletting malice shall melt into praise. Riches of grace are lavishing still—breathlessly awaiting the fullness of days, when all will be gathered and richly arrayed. With mercy so tender, adopted in splendor, all bloodletting malice shall melt into praise.” —continue reading “Good pleasure,” a litany for worship inspired by Ephesians 1:3-14

Signs of resistance to impunity.
        • “The El Paso [Texas] County sheriff [Richard Wiles] prohibited his deputies from working off-duty at a temporary shelter housing migrant children, saying he refused to support the Trump administration’s “unjust” policy of separating families at the border. “I told them absolutely not. I think it’s wrong. . . . It’s not consistent with the values of the sheriff’s office.” Samantha Schmidt, Washington Post
        • After providing journalists a tour of a child detention camp near El Paso on the Mexican border, a senior manager told them that President Trump’s zero-tolerance immigration policy was a ‘dumb, stupid decision. . . . All it did was harm children.’” Kevin Tripp, Guardian

Hymn of praise.  “All praise belongs to God. Let’s sing.” —“Tala' al-Badru Alayna” (The Moon Has Shone His Light To Us),” Canadian children’s choir singing the oldest known Islamic song, which was sung by Prophet Muhammad's companions to welcome him as he sought refuge in Medina

Setting the record straight in light of fearmongering. "‘There's no wave of crime being committed by the immigrant community,’ [Houston, Texas, police chief Art] Acevedo said. ‘As a matter of fact, a lot of the violent crime that we're dealing with is being committed by people that are born and raised right here in the United States.’” Four different academic studies now prove him right. —for more see John Burnett, “Illegal Immigration Does Not Increase Violent Crime, 4 Studies Show,” NPR

When love overrules fear. This brief (1:06) video, recorded by an onlooker, shows Mamoudou Gassama, an undocumented migrant from Mali living in France, scaling four floors of an apartment building to rescue a toddler dangling on a balcony rail.

Confession. I am “trudging into the distance in the bleeding stinking mad shadow of Jesus. . . . The Lord out of dust created me, made me blood and nerve and mind, had made me bleed and weep and think, and set me in a world of loss.” —adapted to read first-person, from Flannery O’Connor’s novel, The Violent Bear it Away

Words of assurance. “All glory to you, Gracious One, who smiles on the earth, restoring the fortunes of our ancestors. In your presence, the weight of shame is lifted, and we are drenched in pardon. The cooling of your anger lifts mist into the air, and the fields drink their fill.” —continue reading “Justice and peace will kiss,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 85

Hymn of intercession.The Prayer of the Refugee,” Rise Against.

Colbert, Sessions, and the Apostle Paul. In case you missed this: Stephen Colbert takes down Jeff Sessions’ biblical rationale for family separation policies. (5:06 video)

Professing our faith. “In considering illegal immigration, many talk appropriately about the rule of law. But there is also the imago dei—the shared image of God—that does not permit individual worth and dignity to be sorted by national origin. This commitment does not translate simplistically into open borders and amnesty. It does mean, however, that immigrants should not be used as objects of organized anger or singled out for prejudice and harm.” —Michael Gerson

Right: Rob Rogers, political cartoonist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, was fired from his job after producing this cartoon.

Short story. My friend and colleague Joyce Hollyday and other gringas meet every Thursday with a group of Spanish-speaking women at a local church in Madison County, NC, for Bible study, language lessons, and a potluck lunch. The mujeres’ fear of being arrested and deported bubbles up frequently in the conversation.

        “But a few weeks ago Carmela announced over lunch, ‘I think the best way to keep from being sent back is to introduce ourselves to local law enforcement—let them see our children and get to know our families.’ It seemed to me audacious and brave—and very frightening for my friends.”

        You’ll love reading the rest of the story, “Lunch with the Law.”

Cheers. “Notice how we’re constantly told there isn’t $ to provide adequate schools or healthcare for poor children but funds suddenly materialize whenever they decide to imprison children.” —@BreeNewsome

Jeers. Border Patrol agents caught on film destroying supplies left by humanitarian groups to reduce migrant deaths while crossing the US border with Mexico. More migrants died during that dangerous trek in the last 16 years than in 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina combined. (Thanks Jeanne.)

By the numbers. National Bureau of Economic Research reported in a June 2017 study that each adult refugee settling in the US between 2010-2014 paid, on average, $21,000 more in taxes than they cost in public assistance. Veronika Bondarenko, Business Insider

        In a July 2017 study the Trump Administration’s House and Human Services office that that refugees paid $63 billion more in taxes than they received in public assistance. New York Times

¶ “Regarding our current ‘immigration’ uproar: the chaos at our southern border with Mexico did not start at that border. There is traceable history behind the fact that many of this era’s migrants are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.” —continue reading “Are things are getting worse? No, just uncovered. Commentary on ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policies, with five suggestions

Offertory.Immigrants: We get the job done.” Lin-Manuel Miranda (“Hamilton” creator) produced this thought-provoking music video about the American immigrant experience, featuring Residente, Riz MC & Snow Tha Product. (6:07 video.)

History summary you need to know.

        • Here’s an excellent, brief (3:21 video) history of race as an immigration factor. (Thanks Leon.)

        • Essential reading.There’s no immigration crisis and these charts prove it,” Christopher Ingraham, Washington Post

        • “There were no federal laws governing who could enter and who couldn’t until the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” —read more on US immigration history, Becky Little, “The Birth of ‘Illegal’ Immigration,” History

        • “When people say ‘my ancestors came here legally,’ they’re probably right. For the first century of the country’s existence, anyone could land here and walk right off the boat with no papers of any kind. Coming here ‘illegally’ did not even exist as a concept [until 1924].Kevin Jennings, LA Times

        • “Until the 1920s, Europeans who came to the United States could just show up, without a visa, and were generally admitted. After the 1920s, there were also relatively easy avenues available to people to adjust their status while remaining in the country, even if they had entered without authorization. Those possibilities basically ended in 1965 [with the Immigration and Nationality Act], and the consequence of this change has directly fed our current immigration challenges.” —Moustafa Bayoumi, The Guardian

        • How things have changed. “The traditional hospitality of the American people has been severely tested by recent events, but it remains the strongest in the world. Republicans are proud that our people have opened their arms and hearts to strangers from abroad and we favor an immigration and refugee policy which is consistent with this tradition.” Republican Party platform of 1980

Art at right by Nizar Ali Badr. See more of his “pebble stories” art.

Preach it. “As a general rule, I would say that human beings never behave more badly toward one another than when they believe they are protecting God.” —Barbara Brown Taylor

¶ “What is the fear that drives the leaders of the United States to tear children from their parents and put them in places of horror and despair? For both Pharaoh and Herod, the destruction of children had nothing to do with “safety” and everything to do with insecurity, a pathological hatred of the other, and a fanatical desire to hold on to power at all costs.” —Sylvia Keesmaat, “Separating Children and Parents Is Not About Safety. It’s About Hate,” Sojourners

Hymn of supplication. I Am a Stranger,” Ken Medema.

Can’t makes this sh*t up. President Trump has nominated Ronald W. Mortensen to be the Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration. Mortensen currently works for the Center for Immigration Studies, a white nationalist group. Southern Poverty Law Center (Thanks Harold.)

Call to the table. “I am resilient / I trust the movement / I negate the chaos / Uplift the negative / I'll show up at the table / Again and again and again / I'll close my mouth and learn to listen.” —Rising Appalachia, “Resilient

The state of our disunion. “There are white Christians who are OK with forcibly separating migrant children from their families . . .  who are so enthusiastically preparing for summer mission trips to these same children’s countries.” —@davidswanson (Thanks Kristen.)

More disunion. In February the “US Citizenship and Immigration Services altered its mission statement by taking out a reference to the US as a ‘nation of immigrants.’" The new statement speaks of “protecting Americans, securing the homeland, and honoring our values.” The rising tide of xenophobia is now reinforced with formal language. Max Greenwood, The Hill

Best one-liner. “All of us are immigrants, in this state of grace.” —Leslie Lee & Steve Gretz, “Immigrants” 

For the beauty of the earth. Two resources to explore opportunities at US national parks.

        •The outdoor recreation company Montem has created a very useful compilation, “Top 37 National Parks To Visit Before You Die," which includes not only photos but background information, including a “things to do list” and “how to get there” options for each.

        • “The 22 best US national parks to escape the crowds, chosen by experts.” —Guardian

Altar call. “The strategy of Jesus is not centred in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place—with the outcast and those relegated to the margins." —Fr. Gregory Boyle

¶ “Here's where to donate to help migrant children and families at the border,” by Megan Leonhard, offers great advice generally as well as several specific recommendations. CNBC (Thanks Buddy.)

Benediction. It’s hard to describe Bruce Springsteen’s performance (6:26 video) at the recent Tony Awards. It’s a combination of spoken word and singing (from “My Hometown”) as he describes both the beauty and the heartache of every hometown. There is no one without the other. Root yourself; find companions; turn your face into whatever wind—fair or foul—is blowing. In everything give thanks, resting in the assurance, which only a heart of faith can access, that in the end goodness will outdistance hardship.

Recessional. Sharifah Khasif, extraordinarily beautiful Qur’anic recitation.

Lectionary for this Sunday.Rouse yourselves,” a litany for worship inspired by Ezekiel 2:1-5. And: “Sufficient grace,” a litany for worship inspired by 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 & Habakkuk 3:17-19.

Lectionary for Sunday next.Good pleasure,” a litany for worship inspired by Ephesians 1:3-14

Just for fun. There is no white Jesus. (1:52. Thanks Phil.)

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Are things are getting worse? No, just uncovered," commentary on “zero tolerance” immigration policies, with five suggestions

• “Good pleasure,” a litany for worship inspired by Ephesians 1:3-14

• “Blessed assurance: Call to the table in the face of terror

• “Speak peace to the hungered of heart,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 85

• “Justice and peace will kiss,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 85

• “Three exegetes—a traditionalist, a modernist, and a post-modernist—walk into a bar. Over shots of bourbon, the three discuss the prologue (1:3-14) to the epistle to the Ephesians,” pastoral commentary
SPECIAL FEATURE. In light of the US Independence Day approach, see this 2017 special issue of “Signs of the Times” on “Patriotism.”
Other features

• “Out of the House of Slavery,” a Bible study on “immigration”

©Ken Sehested @ Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

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Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at


Are things getting worse? No, just uncovered.

Commentary on “zero tolerance” immigration policies, with five suggestions

by Ken Sehested

U.S. President Donald Trump is a self-obsessed, infantile, demagogic and malicious huckster without a shred of moral capacity other than self-promotion.

There. Say it out loud.

Say it again.

Hold on to these words (with your own edits). You may need to say them again, out loud, in the future. Maybe more than once.

But now it’s time to move from ranting to revival, reclamation, and repairing: Reviving a beatific vision filled with moral imagination; reclaiming Creation’s promise that what has been made is, in fact, delightful (i.e., more than “good”); repairing the damage caused by malevolent forces (which are far larger than individual actors) attempting to desecrate all that has been named sacred.

This unraveling demands the attention, focus, and energies of reravelers. Which takes a lot more devotion, determination, and discernment than ranting. The heinous forces which animate trumphoolery want more than anything to keep us perturbed. Perpetual ranting robs us of agency, keeps us in reactive mode, and shreds our ability to focus. Its final counsel is fearfulness.

Fear is a liar.

It is like a swarm of termites on virginal wood joists. You likely won’t notice until your foot goes through the floor. By then, it will be too late.

What to do? Five suggestions.


The range of commitments needing to be made is as diverse as the spectrum of a rainbow. We need bold, bodacious, and disruptive actors to breach the barricades of propriety and seemingly-civil demeanor. That’s one end of the spectrum—and if you are called to it (for motives other than ego-enrichment), chart a strategic plan of action.

But we also need, at the other end of the spectrum (and in far, far greater numbers), those willing to undertake the menial, localized, patient work of reweaving the social fabric of daily life in the commonest of ways within families, neighborhoods, workplaces, and watersheds whose features are nearby and familiar. No news cameras rolling. No newspaper coverage. Mostly anonymous, except in a small circle of relations.


Commitments must be sturdier than a burst of enthusiasm, however heroic. Few sustain this work over a long period of time without a community of conviction. I would like to think that people of faith find this by engagement with a local congregation or ecumenical advocacy group.

I claim a special purpose for communities of faith because, as Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently revealed, much public policy is rooted (usually more implicitly) in counterfeit faith claims and illegitimate narratives of divine origin.

Otherwise, find another civic community. Whatever shape it takes, it must be rooted locally but also be conversant with regional, national, and even global networks. Such commitment will be inconvenient. To be effective, it will be consequential. It will impinge on what is currently considered as personal “freedom.” It will exact a cost.


Regarding our current “immigration” uproar: the chaos at our southern border with Mexico did not start at that border. There is traceable history behind the fact that many of this era’s migrants are from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador.

Our nation’s wandering eye (aka “Manifest Destiny,” conceived in starkly racial terms) was present from the beginning. One quote sums up that history with our continental neighbors.

In 1927, Under-Secretary of State Robert Olds said, “We do control the destinies of Central America, and we do so for the simple reason that the national interest absolutely dictates such a course…. Until now, Central America has always understood that governments which we recognize and support stay in power, while those we do not recognize and support fail.”

Most of the time the mechanisms of control take the form of bribery of local elites. But at lease once, in 1954,  the Central Intelligence Agency backed a coup d’état overthrowing the democratically elected government of Guatemala’s President Jacobo Arbenz Guzmán. During the first three decades of the 20th century US Marines were sent to various Central American countries dozens of times during the so-called “Banana Wars” to protect American business interests. [For a fuller accounting of this history, see Juan González’s Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America.]

However painful it is to admit, the logic of our nation’s relative willingness to admit immigrants is dominated by economic demands for cheap labor. Emma Lazarus’ famous poem, inscribed on the Statue of Liberty— “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free”—is aspirational at best. Dismissing its claim on our nation’s self-image, White House senior policy adviser Stephen Miller (the likely architect of Trump’s Muslim ban and “zero-tolerance” immigrant policies) said last year that the poem “is not actually part of the original Statue of Liberty.”


As many have already said, Trump is a symptom of this season’s crisis, not the cause. The malady afflicting our nation’s soul is deeper and more profound than we wish to acknowledge. In the immortal words of Jerry Lee Lewis, there’s a whole lotta shakin’ going on in our body politic.


To return to where we began, don’t let panic get behind the wheel. Refuse dystopian alarm; and recognize despair for the luxury it presumes. Listen attentively to two fragments of contemporary prophetic insight.

The first, a line from Somala-British poet Warsan Shire's poem, "Home," is essential for understanding what got us to where we are: “No one leaves home unless / home is the mouth of a shark.”

Second, for orientation and sustenance for what is to come, from author-activist adrienne maree brown: “Things are not getting worse. They are getting uncovered. We must hold each other tight and continue to pull back the veil.”

Undergirding everything, we need a beatific vision to chart a course through these squalling storms. Mine comes from Jesus; but I will wholeheartedly collaborate with any traveling in parallel direction.

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© ken sehested @

Three exegetes—a traditionalist, a modernist, and a post-modernist—walk into a bar

Pastoral commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14

by Ken Sehested, slightly adapted from a Feasting on the Word article

        A traditionalist, a modernist, and a post-modernist walk into a bar. Over shots of bourbon, the three friends discuss the prologue (1:3-14) to the epistle to the Ephesians.

        [The following exchange is fictitious—though quite plausible—imagining the voices and perspectives of three particular friends.]

§  §  §

        Aaron, the traditionalist: Attention to the opening lines of this letter from Paul to the church at Ephesus is among the most-needed antidotes to the nihilism and moral confusion so evident in the world, generally, and in our culture specifically—from the inaugural line about blessing “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v. 3), to the admonition to holiness (v. 4), to the emphasis on Christ’s salvific blood atonement (v. 7) and the confirming presence of the Holy Spirit (v. 13). In Christ, and Christ alone, do we find our salvation. By grace, and grace alone, are we redeemed. This stuff will preach!

        Bob, the modernist: Aaron, I do sometimes think you exist to get under my skin! All the comments you just made have the effect on me of someone raking their fingernails across a chalkboard. First of all, Paul almost certainly didn’t write this letter (though neither he nor his pseudonymous friends ever escaped their chauvinism). And your obsession with Father language is beyond me. Don’t you realize this impoverishes the prayer life of more than half the human family and reifies patterns of gender discrimination? Furthermore, focusing on Jesus’ turns the Ground of our Being into a child abuser, just as linking God’s grace solely as a response to human weakness reduces the I-Thou relationship into a pattern of co-dependency. And this inheritance language, coupled with the claim that we alone are “God’s own people,” fosters the kind of hubris that has undermined the church’s therapeutic and civil-reconstructive purposes throughout much of our history.

        Charles, the post-modernist: Would somebody hand me a shovel, so I can dig my way out of this compost pile of a conversation! Both you guys are locked into the rationalist assumptions of this passage. Don’t you understand the deterministic function of such “cosmic” constructs (“before the foundation of the world,” “gather up all things”)? I mean, the twentieth century—ushering in the “age of optimism” about human potential to make history turn out right—was the bloodiest in recorded history, and virtually all its campaigns of butchery were undertaken on calculated, “scientific” grounds? Think of Stalin’s gulags, the Nazis’ extermination camps, the U.S. atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Furthermore, can’t you see that assertions about truth mask the competition between self-appointed superpowers? (President Bush’s announcement that he intends to “rid the world of evil” is but the latest verse in a very long song.) Putting a “religious” face on this power struggle makes the irony that much more cruel. Your God, all gods, are killing us—and the planet itself! If we have any survival options left, all such metanarratives must be deconstructed.

§  §  §

        Pity the pastor whose flock has gathered from each of these pastures!

        But wait. The geo-cultural backdrop to the Pauline corpus is not unlike the ideological clash summarized above. It’s important to remember that this original Christian missionary movement took place both: (1) among Jewish communities formed in Hellenistic culture outside Judea and its priestly-temple ethos; and (2) among Gentile communities to whom Paul and his fellow missionaries were vigorously and radically extending fellowship at YHWH’s table. The cultural chaos, then as now, included profound questions of legitimate authority, the applicability of inherited holiness codes and behavioral norms, and the breakdown of religiously-sanctioned social hierarchies. One of the most pressing motives for composing and circulating these epistles was: How can a harmony, rather than a cacophony, be created from this choir loft of distinctive voices? Is there a center to this swirling whirlwind? What is the particular shape of our set-apartness, and how is Jesus’ lordship different from that of Caesar? This last question is fruitful and has pastorally-relevant implications for the contemporary church.

        More than ever we are realizing the truth in the aphorism “what you see depends on where you stand.” Scholars increasingly help us locate the historical contours of Scripture, allowing us to view the text in three-dimensional ways. The canon’s imperial backdrop—especially that of the Roman Empire for the Newer Testament—allows us to uncover assumptions and histories we hardly recognized before.

        When in 31 B.C.E. Octavian (who took the name of “Augustus,” meaning “revered”) defeated Anthony for control of Rome, he was acclaimed as “Savior” who had brought “peace” to the whole world. One inscription spoke of Caesar as the gift of “Providence,” “equal to the Beginning of all things” who “put an end to war and set all things in order.” He “gave to the whole world a new aura” and, beginning with his birth, marked “the beginning of good news (euangelion)” and thus was “god-manifest.,” with citizens to celebrate his reign in “assemblies” (ekklesiai). [1]

        This is the landscape of Pax Romana, the empire that secured the peace, fruitful security and an expanding global economy. Is it any wonder that the assemblies who gathered to hear Paul preach were accused of “acting contrary to the decrees of Caesar” (Act. 17:7). Is it any wonder that the early Christian community chose the phrase Pax Christi as the counterclaim.

        This prologue testifies that a New Order is unfolding, despite the chains that shackled the apostle even in his writing; that the very foundations of Creation are inscribed with our names; that our mistakes do not make us a mistake in God’s eyes, for indeed we have been adopted out of the penurious life of the conquered and into the Beloved’s. Ground is being laid here with details to follow: that the disordered life of “fleshliness” results in creating “children of wrath” (2.3), whereas “grace and peace” characterize Christ’s ekklesia; that the “dividing wall of hostility” (2:14) is destined for collapse, resulting in the welcome of all, whether “far off” or “near” (2:17), turning “strangers and aliens” into citizens” (2:19) in the empire of God whose Lord himself abolishes all lording and whose “economy of underserved grace has primacy over the economy of moral deserts.” [2]

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©ken sehested @

This essay is slightly adapted from "Pastoral Commentary on Ephesians 1:3-14" in Feasting on the Word: Year C, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors. Westminister John Knox Press, 2009.


1. See especially Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), pp. 23-24.

2. Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation (Nashville: Abingdon Press), p. 85

News, views, notes, and quotes

Signs of the Times  •  19 June 2018 •  No. 164

Processional. Cubanos Todos.

Special Issue

“The disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful,
and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition is
the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
—Adam Smith, Scottish economist and philosopher, considered the “father” of free market economic theory

Invocation. “Spirit open my heart to the joy and pain of living.” —“Spirit, Open My Heart,” text by Ruth Duck to the traditional Irish melody “Wild Mountain Thyme”

Call to worship. “Each tongue, by supplicating lung, / invokes bright morning’s rise! / Through darkest night let love’s Delight / condole all mournful eyes. / Both soul and soil alike await / Redemption’s crowning glory. / Meadow, mountain, healing fountain, / proclaim Resurrection’s story!” —continue reading “Draw near,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 130

Hymn of praise. “Yonder come day, Day done broke / Yonder come day, Oh my soul, / Yonder come day, Day done broke / Into my soul.” —“Yonder Come Day,” Bessie Jones

Good news. “All told, what began as a scrappy band of fast food workers [e.g., the “Fight for $15” movement] walking off their jobs in New York City in 2013 has won over $62bn in raises for 19 million workers, according to the National Employment Law Project.” —Tamara Draut, Guardian

¶ “The 3 Richest Americans Hold More Wealth Than Bottom 50% Of The Country, Study Finds.” Noah Kirsch, Forbes,

¶ “. . . when God forbids oppression of the poor in the Book of the Covenant (cf. Exodus 22:21-24), it is the first time the Scriptures explicitly affirm that God becomes angry.” —Thomas D. Hanks

In the US “there are 62 million people making less than a living wage. But there are 400 people that make $97,000 an hour.” Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-organizer, with Rev. William Barber, of the new Poor People’s Campaign. In actions across the country over the past five weeks, 2,000 have been arrested in demonstrations advocating for a range of social and economic justice measure. Listen (or read the manuscript) of Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Nowinterview with Theoharis and other campaigners, “Special Report: In the Streets with the New Poor People’s Campaign Against Racism and Poverty.”

Confession. “From the turbulent bowels of darkest deep, / our roiling souls cry to you, O God! / Close not your ears to the sound of our / afflictions! Remind us again that Heaven’s / Provision will yet outlast earth’s squalid distress.” —continue reading “The boundary of bedlam,” a poem inspired by Psalm 130 & Psalm 46

¶ “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey / Where wealth accumulates, and men decay.” —Oliver Goldsmith

Hymn of supplication. “I want to be ready when joy comes back to me.” —Ruthie Foster, “Joy Comes Back

¶ “It was the great sage of Islam, ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), who saw that as a society becomes affluent it becomes more individualistic. It loses what he called asabiyah, its social cohesion.” —Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

For starters.Wealth Inequality in America(6:23 video) provide a stunning graphic illustration.

Oxfam now calculates that the 85 richest people’s wealth equals that of the lower 50% [3.5 billion people] of the global population. Graeme Wearden, Guardian

¶ “Experience demands that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor.” ―Thomas Jefferson

¶ “Rich people no more create jobs than farmers create tomatoes.” —Nick Hanauer, venture capitalist billionaire, civic activist, and severe critic of the US low-wage economy. For more see Brian Prowse-Gany & Joyzel Acevedo profile in Yahoo, and/or watch Hanauer speaking (9:20 video) to the danger of economic inequality.

Cognitive dissonance: Which one of these facts do not belong in this list?

        • “Adjusted for inflation, the federal minimum wage peaked in 1968 at $8.68 (in 2016 dollars). Since it was last raised in 2009, to the current $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum has lost about 9.6% of its purchasing power to inflation.” Drew DeSilver, Pew Research Center

        • “Those with higher earnings have fared the best, enjoying a 27% jump in wages since 1979. Those in the bottom bracket, however, saw their paychecks shrink slightly.” Tami Luhby, CNNMoney

        • “A minimum-wage worker needs 2.5 full-time jobs to afford a one-bedroom apartment in most of the US.” Hillary Hoffower, Business Insider

        • "Median wages of production workers, who comprise 80% of the workforce, haven't risen in 30 years, adjusted for inflation." —Robert Reich 

        • “If you define a ‘low’ wage as under $15 per hour, you’re referring to almost half the workforce in the US. . . ." Most are not high school or college students. "Today 73% of workers earning under $15 per hour nationwide are older than 25.” —Mary Babic, “5 myths about the working poor in America,” Oxfam America

        • The present state of our economy “is pretty much as good as it gets.” —James Smith, one of our nation’s leading economists, quoted in Dillon Davis, Asheville Citizen-Times

¶ “An imbalance between rich and poor is the oldest and most fatal ailment of all republics.” —Plutarch, 1st century CE

Words of assurance. “If you, O God, should keep track of all our failures, none of us would make the grade. But your hands heap pardon on all the penitent. Forgiveness is your middle name. Mercy is your mandate; pardon, your provision. Declarations of amnesty flow from your lips. Every remorse is met with remission.” —continue reading “Amnesty,” a litany for worship inspired by Psalm 130

Hymn of resolution. “(I’ll never turn back) No Mo,” Dorothy Cotton Jubilee Singers.

¶ “Today’s economic boom is driven not by any great burst of innovation or growth in productivity. Rather, it is driven by another round of financial engineering that converts equity into debt. It sacrifices future growth for present consumption. And it redistributes even more of the nation’s wealth to corporate executives, wealthy investors and Wall Street financiers.
        “Rather than using record profits, and record amounts of borrowed money, to invest in new plants and equipment, develop new products, improve service, lower prices or raise the wages and skills of their employees, they are “returning” that money to shareholders. Corporate America, in effect, has transformed itself into one giant leveraged buyout.” Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post

Hymn of intercession. “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

¶ “As America's largest banks post record profits, massive companies continue their unprecedented stock buyback spree, and already-obscene CEO pay packages are set to rapidly expand in the aftermath of the Trump-GOP tax cuts, top corporate executives are now openly admitting that they have no plans whatsoever to invest their enormous windfall into wage increases for workers.
        “During what Axios described as a ‘rare, candid, and bracing talk from executives atop corporate America’ at the Dallas Fed, Troy Taylor, CEO of Florida's Coca-Cola franchise, said of the possibility of broad wage hikes for workers: ‘It's just not going to happen. Absolutely not in my business.’" Jake Johnson, CommonDreams

By the numbers. If Bill Gates could find a way to spend $1 million a day, it would take him 218 years before he bounced a check. Allison Jackson, GlobalPost

Offertory. “When Jesus came to town all the working folks around / Believed what he did say / Well the bankers and the preachers ‘ They nailed him on a cross / For they laid Jesus Christ in his grave.” —Woody Guthrie, “Jesus Christ

Preach it. “I spoke to you in your prosperity, but you said, ‘I will not listen. . . .’ Therefore you will be buried in a donkey’s grave.” —Jeremiah 22:19-21 (adapted)

Can’t makes this sh*t up. Gargantuan company Amazon’s founder, Jeff Bezos, is the richest man in the world. How rich? When Amazon stock recently surged by 6.5%, Bezos’ wealth increased by $12 billion—in a single day. Can you guess how much federal income tax the company paid last year? Zero. Zilch. Nada. Zip. In fact, the company will be getting a $137 million tax refund. —Jessica Corbett, CommonDreams

It’s hard to imagine one billion of anything. Here’s one frame of reference. Say you’re working at minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, 40 hours per week, 52 weeks per year, no sick days. (Low wage earners rarely if ever get paid vacation or sick leave.)
        How long would it take you to earn $1 billion (before taxes)? That would be just short of 66,313 years.

Call to the table. “Grace is always sufficient when crops are abundant and food is plentiful; when crushing illness and death’s visitation are distant and anonymous; when pin-striped, silk-tied pirates no longer plunder tomorrow’s dreams. . . ? When a good name’s belittled or when the battered ask why?—continue reading “Sufficient grace,” a litany for worship inspired by 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

The state of our disunion. “’Peace Is Bad for Business’: War Profiteer Stocks Plummet After Diplomatic Progress With North Korea.” Jake Johnson, CommonDreams

“A mutant form of capitalism.” In this animated video Wesley P.P. Hall explains the root causes of war, poverty and terrorism in under two minutes.

Best one-liner. “Poverty exists not because we cannot feed the poor but because we cannot satisfy the rich." —author unknown

For the beauty of the earth. Hooded Grebes, one of the rarest birds in South America, doing a courtship dance. (1:06 video. Thanks Wendy.)

Satire alert. “They don’t pay taxes. They circumvent our laws. They get free stuff from the government. They are America’s billionaires, and many would like to see them gone. . . . They come here, take thousands of our jobs and export them overseas. . . .” —Andy Borowitz, “Sentiments Building to Deport Billionaires

¶ “The federal minimum wage is less than the cost of living in every major city in the country.” Josh Hoxie, CommonDreams

Generosity can break out in the most unlikeliest of times and places. This high school pitcher struck out his childhood friend, allowing his team to advance to the state championship baseball series. Before celebrating with his teammates, he first did this. (0:35 video)

Altar call. "Where a trade is carried on, productive of much misery, and they who suffer by it are some thousand miles off, the danger is the greater of not laying their sufferings to heart. . . . Many groans arise from dying men which we hear not. Many cries are uttered by widows and fatherless children, which reach not our ears.  Many cheeks are wet with tears, and faces sad with unutterable grief, which we see not." —John Woolman, 18th century Quaker abolitionist

Benediction.Heal the World,” Child Prodigy covers this Michael Jackson hit song. (Thanks Deborah.)

Lectionary for this Sunday. Re: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15. In his work to gather donations for the destitute church in Jerusalem, Paul makes references a God-Occupying axiom: “The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.” But this is no first century United Way appeal. This instruction goes to the heart of Exodus-rooted covenant theology, given by the very Shining Presence of God to the Egypt-émigré Hebrews during their long walk to freedom, announcing daily manna: Each was to gather only enough for the number in their tents. The result: Those who gathered much had nothing left over; those who gathered little had no lack. Any surplus gathered “bred worms and became foul” (Exodus 16:9-21).

        Also: Two litanies for worship based on Psalm 130: “Amnesty”  and “Draw Near.”

Lectionary for Sunday next.Rouse yourselves,” a litany for worship inspired by Ezekiel 2:1-5

        Also: “Sufficient grace,” a litany for worship inspired by 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 & Habakkuk 3:17-19

Recessional.Toccata on ‘Amazing Grace.’—Jeff Brummel (Thanks David.)

Just for fun. A belated Happy International Dance Day. (2:37 video. Thanks Glenn.)

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Featured this week on prayer&politiks

• “Blessed assurance: Call to the table in the face of terror,” commentary on caging children

• “Sufficient grace,” a litany for worship inspired by 2 Corinthians 12:2-10 & Habakkuk 3:17-19

• “Morning by morning,” a litany for worship inspired by Lamentations 3 and Luke 19:41-42

• “Rouse yourselves,” a litany for worship inspired by Ezekiel 2:1-5

©Ken Sehested @ Language not otherwise indicated above is that of the editor, as are those portions cited as “kls.” Don’t let the “copyright” notice keep you from circulating material you find here (and elsewhere in this site). Reprint permission is hereby granted in advance for noncommercial purposes.

Feel free to copy and post any original art on this site. (The ones with “prayer&” at the bottom.) As well as other information you find helpful.

Your comments are always welcomed. If you have news, views, notes or quotes to add to the list above, please do. If you like what you read, pass this along to your friends. You can reach me directly at


Rouse yourselves

A litany for worship inspired by Ezekiel 2:1-5

by Ken Sehested

Rouse yourselves, O creatures of clay, for it is I, the Potter of Heaven, who commands your attention!

We tremble, but trust that your grace is sufficient.

On your feet, O mortal ones! The One whose Name is whispered in the wind now summons your presence!

We tremble, but trust that your grace is sufficient.

Brace yourselves! For I am sending you to an impudent and stubborn people. Speak up, even those whose hearts are deaf.

We tremble, but trust that your grace is sufficient.

Cast off your fear, even when you are encompassed by ascending briars and assaulting scorpions.

We tremble, but trust that your grace is sufficient.

MercyFull ones, do not hide your scandal-ridden hands or your scorn-scarred hearts. Trust the promise, claim the power, walk in the light of God.

¡Alabaré! Praises be! ¡Marchemos! March on!

©ken sehested @

Arise and arouse

The Blessed One is a stronghold of safety for those crushed by the world.

In every season of trouble, cling to this promise.

May this Name be upon your lips in every waking hour.

In every storm of despair, hold fast to this assurance.

Let you voice resound with praise, for Creation’s Song has yet to be silenced.

In every eruption of brutality, take refuge in this confidence.

The Faithful One will avenge every murderous impulse; the cries of the afflicted ignite the Heart of Heaven.

When the gates of death are opened, fear not! Fear not!

The Advocate will never abandon. Another Way has opened. A River of Peace shall be unleashed.

Arise and arouse, O Christ, and roll back the rule of enmity. Amaze us with your Grace, so that all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.*

©Ken Sehested @ Inspired by Psalm 9. *The last line comes from Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic. This litany is reprinted from In the Land of the Living: Prayers personal and public.

Blessed assurance

Call to the table in the face of terror

by Ken Sehested

        One important thing that hasn’t been said this week [about the savagery of separating of children from parents at the US-Mexican border] is that this Department of Justice policy change is in fact a form of terrorism.

        The point of terrorism isn’t killing people. Terrorists make strategic use of aggressive trauma to spread fear for the purpose of affecting social or political objectives. Look up the FBI’s definition.*

        When Attorney General Jeff Sessions first announced this new administrative procedure six weeks ago, he explicitly used the threat of separating children to spread fear among would-be immigrants. Already, 2,000 children have been separated from families.

        When we gather at this table, week after week, we recall an ancient act of terrorism when the Newer Testament story’s antagonistic climax began, with Jesus gathering with his disciples shortly before his arrest, torture, and crucifixion.

        For the Roman authorities, crucifixion was not merely a means of capital punishment. It had a very special meaning, of hanging those convicted of subversion on crosses at busy intersections for all to see. Its purpose was far larger than killing—its purpose was to terrify the population to enforce obedience.

        Of course, our weekly recollection is more than reminiscence. Rather, it is ongoing training in light of the continuing antagonism to what Jesus named as the Kingdom of God. The drama did not end with Jesus; but it was illuminated, with the call to a different sort of obedience extended to those willing to walk in this Way.

        So week by week we ritually reimagine ourselves as actors in this story. It is a repeated practice because we are forgetful; because the signals that fill the airways are confusing and contradictory. We gather to tune ourselves anew to redemption’s homing beacon. And we are reminded again that we are not alone, that the Comforter is present, that we are buoyed by a power we do not manage or fund or control.

        Indeed, “it is the resurrection which is the terror of God to all who believe that death should have the final word” (Lee Griffith).

        Many years ago, in a season of personal trauma and career uncertainty, I memorized this Wendell Berry poem, which speaks of the assurance and sustenance available to all:

        Whatever is foreseen in joy
        Must be lived out from day to day.
        Vision held open in the dark
        By our ten thousand days of work.
        Harvest will fill the barn; for that
        The hand must ache,
        the face must sweat.

        And yet no leaf or grain is filled
        By work of ours; the field is tilled
        And left to grace.
        That we may reap,
        Great work is done
        while we’re asleep.

        When we work well,
        a Sabbath mood
        Rests on our day and finds it good.
        [“X” in Sabbaths, North Point Press, 1987]

        Come to the table, trusting in this blessed assurance.

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©ken sehested @ This is a slightly extended version of his “call to the table” for communion, 17 June 2018, Circle of Mercy Congregation, Asheville, NC.

For more on this topic, see “Testimony in a Time of Terror: Standing with the Word of God, for the earth and against the world,” a litany for worship adapting multiple biblical texts

*Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Definition of Terrorism. The unlawful use of force or violence against persons or property to intimidate or coerce a government, the civilian population, or any segment thereof, in furtherance of political or social objectives.

Early Church Fathers on refusal of the sword

A collection of quotes

TERTULLIAN (160–220)

§ “Christ, in disarming Peter, disarmed every soldier.”

§ “Shall we carry a flag? It is a rival to Christ.”

§ “It is absolutely forbidden to repay evil with evil.”

§  “Only without the sword can the Christian wage war: the Lord has abolished the sword.”

§  “How will a Christian engage in war (indeed, how will a Christian even engage in military service during peacetime) without the sword, which the Lord has taken away?”

§  “Shall it be held lawful to make an occupation of the sword, when the Lord proclaims that he who uses the sword shall perish by the sword? And shall the son of peace take part in the battle when it does not become him even to sue at law?”


§  “I am a Christian. He who answers thus has declared everything at once—his country, profession, family; the believer belongs to no city on earth but to the heavenly Jerusalem.”


§  “We ourselves were well conversant with war, murder and everything evil, but all of us throughout the whole wide earth have traded in our weapons of war. We have exchanged our swords for plowshares, our spears for farm tools…now we cultivate the fear of God, justice, kindness, faith, and the expectation of the future given us through the Crucified One.”

§  “We who formerly hated and murdered one another now live together and share the same table. We pray for our enemies and try to win those who hate us.”

§  “God called Abraham and commanded him to go out from the country where he was living. With this call God has roused us all, and now we have left the state. We have renounced all the things the world offers. . . . The gods of the nations are demons.”

ARNOBIUS OF SICCA (died c. 330)

§  "For since we, a numerous band of men as we are, have learned from His  teaching and His laws that evil ought not to be requited with evil—that it is better to suffer wrong than to inflict it—that we should shed our own blood than stain our hands and consciences with that of another, an ungrateful world is now for a long period enjoying a benefit from Christ . . ."

IRENAEUS (c. 180)

§  “Christians have changed their swords and their lances into instruments of peace, and they know not now how to fight.”

MARCELLUS OF TANGIER (spoken as he left the army of Emperor Diocletian in 298)

§  ““I threw down my arms for it was not seemly that a Christian man, who renders military service to the Lord Christ, should render it by earthly injuries.” “It is not lawful for a Christian to bear arms for any earthly consideration.”


§  “Say to those that hate and curse you, You are our brothers!”


§  “Hitherto I have served you as a soldier; allow me now to become a soldier to God. Let the man who is to serve you receive your donative. I am a soldier of Christ; it is not permissible for me to fight.”


§  “Christians, instead of arming themselves with swords, extend their hands in prayer.”


§  “Above all Christians are not allowed to correct by violence sinful wrongdoings.”

§  The Christian poor are “an army without weapons, without war, without bloodshed, without anger, without defilement.”

§  “We Christians are a peaceful race . . . for it is not in war, but in peace, that we are trained.”

HIPPOLYTUS (170–236)

§  “The professions and trades of those who are going to be accepted into the community must be examined. . . . . A military constable must be forbidden to kill, neither may he swear; if he is not willing to follow these instructions, he must be rejected. A proconsul or magistrate who wears the purple and governs by the sword shall give it up or be rejected. Anyone taking or already baptized who wants to become a soldier shall be sent away, for he has despised God.”

§  “A person who has accepted the power of killing, or a soldier, may never be received [into the church] at all.”

TATIAN OF ASSYRIA (died c. 185)

§  “I do not wish to be a ruler. I do not strive for wealth. I refuse offices connected with military command.”

ORIGEN (185–254)

§  “You cannot demand military service of Christians any more than you can of priests. We do not go forth as soldiers with the Emperor even if he demands this.”

§  “We have become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader.”

§  “To those who ask us whence we have come or whom we have for a leader, we say that we have come in accordance with the counsels of Jesus to cut down our warlike and arrogant swords of argument into ploughshares, and we convert into sickles the spears we of Alexandria. For we no longer take ‘sword against a nation,’ nor do we learn ‘any more to make war,’ having become sons of peace for the sake of Jesus, who is our leader, instead of following the ancestral customs in which we were strangers to the covenants.”

THE 2ND EPISTLE OF CLEMENT (anonymous author c. 95–140)

§  “For the Gentiles, hearing from our mouth the words of God, are impressed by their beauty and greatness: then, learning that our works are not worthy of the things we say, they turn to railing, saying that it is some deceitful tale. For when they hear from us that God says: ‘No thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you; but thanks will be due to you, if ye love your enemies and those that hate you’—when they hear this, they are impressed by the overplus of goodness: but when they see that we do not love, not only those who hate us, but even those who love us, they laugh at us, and the Name is blasphemed.”


§  Christians “love all people, and are persecuted by all; . . . they are reviled, and they bless; they are insulted, and are respectful.”


§  “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. . . . They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. . . . This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”


§  “The whole world is wet with mutual blood; and murder, which, in the case of an individual, is admitted to be a crime, is called a virtue when it is committed wholesale.”

§  “[Christians] are not allowed to kill, but they must be ready to be put to death themselves . . . it is not permitted the guiltless to put even the guilty to death.”

§ “God wished iron to be used for the cultivation of the earth, and therefore it should not be used to take human life.

§  “It is the Christians, O Emperor, who have sought and found the truth, for they acknowledge God. . . . They show love to their neighbors. They do not do to another what they would not wish to have done to themselves. They speak gently to those who oppress them, and in this way they make them their friends. It has become their passion to do good to their enemies. . . . This, O Emperor, is the rule of life of the Christians, and this is their manner of life.”


§  “We Christians cannot endure to see a man being put to death, even justly.”

SPERATUS (martyred 180)

§  “I recognize no empire of this present age.”

LACTANTIUS, instructor of Constantine’s son (240–320)

§  “For when God forbids us to kill, he not only prohibits us from open violence, which is not even allowed by the public laws, but he warns us against the commission of those beings which are esteemed lawful among men. . . . Therefore, with regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all, but that it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred animal.”

THE TESTAMENT OF OUR LORD (anonymous author, 4th or 5th Century)

§  “If anyone be a soldier or in authority, let him be taught not to oppress or to kill or to rob, or to be angry or to rage and afflict anyone. But let those rations suffice him which are given to him. But if they wish to be baptized in the Lord, let them cease from military service or from the [post of] authority, and if not let them not be received. Let a catechumen or a believer of the people, if he desire to be a soldier, either cease from his intention, or if not let him be rejected. For he hath despised God by his thought, and leaving the things of the Spirit, he hath perfected himself in the flesh and hath treated the faith with contempt.”

AMBROSE (338-397)

§  “The soldiers of Christ require neither arms nor spears of iron.”

§ “The servants of God do not rely for their protection on material defenses but on the divine Providence.” 

THE DIDACHE (also known as The Teachings of the 12 Apostles, is an early Christian document written c. 80–90)

§  “This is the way of life: first, thou shalt love the God who made thee, secondly, thy neighbor as thyself: and all things whatsoever thou wouldest not should happen to thee, do not thou to another. The teaching of these words is this: Bless those who curse you, and pray for your enemies, and fast on behalf of those who persecute you: for what thanks will be due to you, if ye love only those who love you? Do not the Gentiles also do the same? But love ye those who hate you, and ye shall not have an enemy.”

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©ken sehested @

Out of the House of Slavery

Bible study on “immigration"

by Ken Sehested

This material was delivered in 2010 to a North Carolina Council of Churches-sponsored series of clergy gatherings in various cities.

      My assignment is to do a Bible study relevant to the intense conversation underway in our nation over the question of immigration. Others will offer social analysis and practical strategies. But I should mention three presumptions I bring.

      First, I believe we have a powerful witness to bear from our Scriptures, one that is surprisingly relevant. It’s not more information that we need. We don’t so much need to be convinced as to be convicted.

      Second, while I believe we have some unique sources of conviction, that doesn’t mean we have privileged insight or expertise when it comes to shaping specific policies. For that we need to come to the table with other people of faith and conscience to forge workable policy options that take into consideration what has happened in the past and what is happening now as leverage for what could happen in the future.

      Third, our analysis must be informed by an intelligent reading of the economic realities shaping immigration policies and patterns. I firmly believe there is a kind of economic magnetism at work: a negative force, characterized by desperation (particularly in Latin America), shoving migrants across the border. And a positive force drawing them here: A lot of people make a lot of money employing migrants. In fact, people like you and I need to count the cost: Our standard of living depends on cheap labor. We, too, are implicated in this system.

      Several years ago, to supplement my income, I began a new career as a stonemason. I was paid $10.00 an hour doing very strenuous work. After a year, my boss laid me off, saying he could hire a Mexican for $8.00 an hour. “Nothing personal,” he said, “just business.” But in biblical terms, nothing is just business. In the long run, the only sustainable business is just business.

      Some of you may recall hearing the story of Manuel Jesus Cordova. He was in the news a couple years ago.[1] While sneaking across the border from Mexico, Cordova happened to find a 9-year-old boy, Christopher Buchleitner of Rimrock, Arizona, alone and injured in the desert. As it happens, Christopher and his mom had been in a single-car accident when their van went over a cliff on a remote road in southern Arizona. His mother had been killed, and Christopher went looking for help. Cordova gave the boy his sweater and some chocolate and built a fire to warm the boy. It was that fire that drew the attention of the border patrol. Authorities say Christopher would likely have died had Cordova not stopped to protect him.

      Cordova was honored for the rescue by U.S. and Mexican officials at a border crossing station. Then he was arrested by federal agents and returned to Mexico.

      I mention that story not to romanticize those who enter the U.S. without legal sanction. No doubt that within the ranks of immigrants—whether legal or illegal, documented or undocumented—there are the same proportion of saints and scoundrels as are already here. I mention his name—Manuel Jesus Cordova—as a reminder that each immigrant has a name and a story. They’re not simply statistics.

      By the way, Beatriz Lopez, the Mexican consul general for Nogales, had this stunningly prophetic insight in her comments to the press about this incident: “The desert has a way of rearranging priorities.”

      I have four brief points to consider for this Bible study.

      1.  There is a stunning amount of material in the Bible about “immigrants,” and all of it underscores the special attention that God commands on their behalf. In Scripture the commonly used words are “strangers” and “aliens.”

      •“You shall love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Deut. 10:19).

      •Among Job’s complaints was this assertion of holiness: “I was a father to the needy, and I championed the cause of the stranger” (29:16).

      • “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field. . . ; you shall leave them for the poor and for the alien” (Lev. 23:22)

      •The prophet Malachi explicitly links refusal to “fear” the Lord with the mistreatment of marginalized people: “Then I will draw near to you for judgment. . . . Those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan [two other classes of uniquely vulnerable people in ancient Middle Eastern cultures], against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts” (3:5, italics added).

      •Jesus included “strangers” among those whose fate was tied up with his own: “. . . for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matt. 25:35).

      •Even the Apostle Paul echoes this persistent theme throughout the Bible: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God. . . .” (Eph. 2:17-22).

      2. The holiness of God is attested by just relations within the earth. The story of the Hebrew people’s escape from Pharaoh’s brickyards is so familiar to us that we forget that it’s hardly a “religious” story at all. Rather, it is an ancient civil rights movement, a rebellion against empire, a stunning escape from slavery. The very memory of this liberation movement is asserted as the rationale for obeying the commands of Yahweh God: “Thus God spoke all these words: I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” This is the preamble to the Ten Commandments and all the law of Torah. It begins with: “You shall have no other God before me,” and ends with a prohibition against covetousness, which is to say, against hoarding life’s provisions. Over and over again in Scripture idolatry and exploitation are paired as frequently as are “fear of the Lord” and doing justice.

      “Having no other God” is finally played out by refusing monopoly and exploitative economic practices—something which later gets spelled out in the “Jubilee” laws, describing the year of the Lord’s favor as a time that slaves be freed, debts be canceled and land be returned to original owners. The great prophet Isaiah returned to this “jubilee” theme several times, as did Jesus when, in his inaugural sermon, he spoke of his mission “to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19).

      3. To understand who these “strangers” are, we need to know a little more about the practice of slavery in Egypt. Among the many unfortunate distortions of Scripture caused by Hollywood movie-makers is the notion that those Egyptian pyramids were built by legions of slaves—the kinds of slaves that used to be imported to the U.S. from Africa for sale as chattel property. There simply is no historical evidence for this. There are no records of markets in Egypt for the buying and selling of slaves. Nor were Egyptian slaves primarily like “indentured servants” who worked for a period of time as servants to pay off a debt. Maybe the closest analogy is that slaves in Egypt were something like serfs in medieval Europe: a more or less permanent underclass who, merely because of the accident of birth and family history, were destined by economic and social sanctions to live at the very edge of material existence. Rulers’ domination was by divine right—much the way, currently, the “free hand of the market” is considered self-evident and unassailable. (Whether theistic or not, “God made it that way.”)

      You remember the story of Joseph’s clan who came voluntarily into Egypt to avoid starvation. In other words, they were very much like the majority of modern immigrants fleeing lives of desperate poverty.

      It’s important to also remember than the origins of the “Hebrew” people were not primarily racial or ethnic. Biblical scholars believe the biblical term “Hebrew” is an alternate rendering of the word “habirû.” “Habirû” was the sociological designation for outsiders, people with no claim on the land—vagrants and vagabonds, the hoi polloi—people who at various times were merely an inconvenience, possibly a worry, and occasionally an overt threat to ruling authorities. [2]

      The word “Hebrew” comes from a root word meaning “to cross over.” Thus, the Hebrew is one who crosses borders, who have no social power and no legal claim on resources or status, whose desperate efforts of sheer survival push them to ignore the boundaries of assigned bounty. [3] (And some of them, like some of us, just long for expanded consumer options.)

      Recall Joseph’s story. Captured by a trade caravan after being left for dead by his brothers, Joseph was sold into bondage but then, remarkably, managed to rise through the ranks to become a key political operative in Pharaoh’s court. He became an insider. Recall how the text reads when his brothers come begging: “[The household servants] served [Joseph] by himself, and [his brothers] by themselves, because the Egyptians might not eat bread with the Hebrews, for that is an abomination to the Egyptians” (Gen. 43:32). Joseph had been co-opted, had become a part of the power elite. We know about that, don’t we?

      4. Theologian Douglas Meeks has suggested that much of Scripture—and particularly these teachings about care of strangers—depicts God through the metaphor of “homemaker” [4] I like this image a lot. Think of it: God as the one who makes a home for strangers and aliens. A God who takes a nameless and homeless people and gives them an identity and a place to call their own. A God who provides hospitality and welcome to those who find no room in the inn. A God who jumps into action at the sound of groaning slaves—not because of some special moral quality or devotional purity, but simply because they cry out. A God who undermines empires, who feeds the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty-handed. A God who befriends the unworthy, the unwashed, the untouchable, a God who eats with “trashy” folk. A God who turns enemies into friends—and who invites us into the fray.

      “Once you were no people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 2:10).

      This—I am suggesting—this is our story, this is our song. Such is the praise we raise all the day long.

1. Associated Press story in the Asheville Citizen-Times, Wednesday, 5 December 2007.
2. Walter Brueggemann, Interpretation and Obedience: From Faithful Reading to Faithful Living, p. 291.
3. Ibid., p. 292-293.
4. God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, cited by Ibid., pp.298-299.