God of the Finish Line

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Admittedly, over these past few days, it has been nearly impossible for me to pray.  Yes, me.  The graduate student of theology; the baptized follower of Jesus Christ.  It’s not because evil events like what happened here in Boston on Monday call into question God’s existence for me.  No, far from it.  Rather, its because events such as the Boston Marathon bombing have left me speechless in the face of such great evil … and I’m just now beginning to find my voice.

If anything, my faith in God has been deepened by this tragic event.  When I learned that the bombs were made in pressure cookers that had nails and other bits of harmful objects in them, I could not help but think of the crucifixion.

We Christians believe in a humble God, a God who took on human flesh in and through the person of Jesus Christ.  Our God could not be any closer to humanity, any closer to the human experience of those who were at the finish line on Monday.  God knows what it feels like to have nails tear through human flesh.  God knows what it is like to bleed from a traumatic injury.  And God knows what it is like to die.  Because all of this happened to Jesus Christ, our crucified God.  The same evil that was present in the world that killed our God is the same evil that planted those bombs at the finish line on Monday.  God is no stranger to evil; God is the victim of it.

We Christians also believe in a victorious God, a God who triumphed over death.  Evil did not have the last word because nothing can kill God in the end.  Jesus Christ’s crucified body was resurrected on the third day.  Yes, this is the good news.  But, Jesus Christ’s body was forever marked with the wounds of the crucifixion.  Victorious over death, our God came back to life, but our God was disabled.

Three people have died and many other people’s lives – and bodies – have been forever changed.  Many lost limbs in the blast and many others had extremities removed due to the wounds that were inflicted by the shrapnel.  These once non-disabled folks will have to re-integrate into a society where disability is “other” to ability… and they will firsthand be denied equal access to the privilege that so many non-disabled people enjoy.  The disabled are stigmatized.  And God knows about stigma, too.  The glorious, resurrected body is a disabled body that bears the wounds from the cross.

Human beings are the cause of evil, not God.  Let us never forget the wisdom of Martin Richards, the eight-year-old boy whose life was tragically cut short on Marathon Monday: “No more hurting people.  Peace.”

And let us heed the thoughtful words that our president offered us today in Boston: “We finish the race and we do that because of who we are.  And we do that because we know that somewhere around the bend, a stranger has a cup of water.  Around the bend, somebody’s there to boost our spirits.  On that toughest mile, just when we think that we’ve hit a wall, someone will be there to cheer us on and pick us up if we fall.”

And so, together, let us run with endurance the race that is before us.  Grace and peace to you all.

+ CMJ

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Living to Love, Loving to Live

I’m not quite sure what it was that moved me to recall this quote from St. Paul while taking a walk along the wooded cliffs that impose on the banks of the Merrimac River, but let’s just call it grace:  “Faith.  Hope.  Love.  These three.  But the greatest of these is love.” (1 Corinthians 13:13)  Perhaps it was that same grace that led me take up and read a selection of short essays from Dietrich Bonhoeffer that were resting on the in-table table at my hermitage.  These essays would become the catalyst for my contemplation.  Surely, it was grace that led me to Emery House in the first place, an historic residence that sits on over 100 acres of beautifully kept land that is owned by the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, a monastic order of the Episcopal Church.

This past weekend, I did what I have needed to do – and haven’t done – for over two years.  I made a retreat.  No Facebook.  No Twitter. No Instagram.  No iPhone.  No iPod.  No television.  Just me, the wilderness, and a few generous monks who made sure I was fed three meals a day (monks eat really, really well!) and included in the ritual of four daily prayers (monks pray really, really often!).

After six years in the city, I had forgotten what chirping birds sound like and what it is like to hear the breeze rustle through the few dried leaves that still cling to the bare trees at winter.  And the only running water I hear these days is the water that runs from the tap.  So, when I saw a blue jay at Boston College this past summer it was a revelation for me.  Honestly, I had forgotten that blue jays even existed! When you live in the city, it’s easy to get swallowed up in your little urban bubble of hustle and bustle.  And when there are no fresh roses growing anywhere, it’s hard to stop and smell them.

Highlights of this weekend retreat included: getting clucked at by chickens and honked at by geese; watching birds flap their wings playfully as they balanced on birdfeeders; several hour long strolls through the woods and fields that mark the property of Emery House; and fresh, baked breads at every meal.  It was a rare chance for me to step back and encounter nature.  To be reassured that the wind’s whisper can be still be heard through the trees that still stand tall, to understand that rivers still flow, and to be reoriented to the revelation that the world still goes on apart from the city. Like the snow that wiped away the mud clinging to my shoes, the grace of this retreat had a restorative and purifying effect on my body, mind, and spirit.

And so, in my post-retreat buzz, I have this brief meditation on social justice to offer, caffeinated by the mocha latte that I am currently enjoying at Fuel America:

To live is to love and to love is to live.  The day that we stop loving is the day we should cease to live.  If I could boil down the entire biblical message into one word, it would be: love. I’ve said this time and time again.  To be Christian is, first and foremost, about a way of loving in the world.  It’s not about how much theology you have read, nor is it about whether or not you can recite scripture when the time is right or on a moment’s notice.  To quote St. Paul again, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” (1 Corinthians 8:1)  To be a Christian is to love.  To be a human is to love.  At the end of the day, ethics is all about discerning who, how, and what we love.  Social justice is about realizing that love in the here and the now.

Back to St. Paul’s letter.  Sure, faith is important; beliefs are action guiding.  But would the world be a better place if everyone had faith?  People of faith do bad things.  Yes, hope is necessary; without it, we would not be able to persist in the face of life’s greatest challenges and struggles.  But would the world be a better place if everyone had hope?  Hope is future oriented and real transformation and structural change is needed in the here and now.  Certainly, what it all comes down to, for all of us, is love.  When St. Paul wrote about love, he meant a love that takes on the cross.  Love is not easy, it is one of the hardest things a person can do.  But think of how better our world would be if everyone loved one another.

Love, if you are Muslim.  Love, if you are Buddhist.  Love, if you are a secular humanist.  Love, if you do not believe that God exists.  At the end of the day, this is the one life we have each been given and we are all on different journeys headed to same destination, anyway.

So, with thanksgiving for this weekend and for the brothers of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist who have shepherded me on this part of my spiritual journey, I close with this quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who perhaps knew more than most ever will of the heights, depths and complexities of what it means to live out the kind of love that I’m writing about:

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.  The only profitable relationship to others – and especially to our weaker [brothers and sisters] – is one of love, and that means the will to hold fellowship with them.  God did not despise humanity, but became [human] for [humanity’s] sake.”  (From “After Ten Years,” a reckoning made at New Year 1943)

+ CMJ

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These two had very strong personalities!

The Case for Moral Objectivity

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Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reflecting on moral objectivity.  I’ve gotten some pushback from a few people that I have great admiration for, which has inspired me to re-examine my own convictions.  Before I go any further, I’m going to show my cards.

First and foremost, I am a moral realist.  I believe that an objective moral order exists independently of human reason.  This objective moral order is the natural order of the universe, which has been created by God.  Our human capacity to reason – which is itself a gift from God – enables us to reflect on what it means to be human, what it means to live in relationship with other human beings and earthcreatures, and how we ought to live out those relationships in a responsible manner.

Sure, human reason can be erroneous.  It can also quickly turn into a hegemonic power discourse.  We need not look too far back in history to know the truth of this tragedy.  Think women.  Think persons of color.  Think Jews.  And the list goes on and on and on.  We should rightfully be suspicious of any claims that objectively discriminate against a certain group of people, because all humans are first and foremost humans, together.  Women.  Persons of color.  Jews.  All created in God’s image and likeness.  All persons with inherent dignity.  This is an objective moral truth.

People have rights, actions do not.  Actions are not people.  Actions do, however, have an impact on the character formation of their actors.  If a person develops the habit of lying – then their propensity to lie, which is a bad character trait, will have an adverse effect on their overall moral character.  So, actions must undergo a careful and thorough scrutiny.  That said, we must be weary of talk about moral perversity.  Think queer people.  Our LGBTIQA sisters and brothers have been the victims of heteronormativity, a particularly insidious hegemonic power discourse.  Which is why consulting human experience, especially the experience of those on the margins of both church and society, is of the utmost importance in ethics and matters of social justice.

So, how is experience not relative?  Experience can, in fact, illuminate universal truths.  If you do not eat, you will die.  The loss of a loved one is saddening.  I’ll never forget the experience of watching those children march out of Sandy Hook Elementary School in a single-file line.  This searing image angered many of us at the injustice of gun violence.  Shooting and killing children is wrong.  This is an objective moral truth.

The world in which we live is broken, namely because of human sinfulness and our freedom to do wrong and to orient ourselves to badness.  James Keenan defines sin as “the failure to bother to love.”  Genocide.  Torture.  Starvation.  Mountaintop removal.  Rape.  Economic exploitation.  These are all the consequences of human sin, of failing to love.  An objective moral order exists to show us that – no matter the specific, particular, cultural context – the aforementioned actions are wrong and worthy of unequivocal condemnation.  Because all humans are first and foremost human, together — and together, we are called to love.

We are greater than our particular cultural context or situation.  Our call to care for each other and our planet is universal and binding.  This is not just true for me, it’s true for all of us.

+ CMJ

The New Normal: Reforming Sexual Ethics for Global Justice

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For several decades, sexual ethics has been the subject of critical scrutiny and careful revision within the academy, seminary, pulpit, pew, and bedroom.  And for a very good reason.  With the rise of women’s liberation and the slow, but steady momentum gained by the bold and brave activists of the queer community, people are beginning to see with greater clarity that women and queer folk alike are human beings created with the fundamental human right to realize full flourishing in both the public and private spheres.  Insofar as humans are wired to be sexual beings, the erotic dimension of our lives is but one means to realize the end of full flourishing.  While moral norms within sexual practices such as mutuality, fidelity, love, and justice remain rightfully at the forefront of talk about sexual ethics, the equation for what an “ideal” sexual relationship looks like is rapidly changing.

Listening is the first requirement of doing the work of justice.  Emerging insights about sexuality and gender, in light of human experience, are situated at the heart of the renewal of sexual ethics.  Right reason, formed within the life of a community, informs us that not every sexual union can be biologically procreative.  Tragically, this ideal is not even possible for some committed heterosexual couples whose efforts to conceive a child are stymied by infertility.  But do we have the audacity to say that their union, their love for each other, is unfruitful?  Mutuality, fidelity, love, and justice, among others, are universalizable moral norms within sex.  This is confirmed by human experience.  The norm of procreation is not.  Full stop.  This, too, is confirmed by human experience.

With the goal of procreation no longer hailed as the ultimate moral norm of sexual union, but as one of several fruitful goods that could result from sex, the door is opened to empower those sexual minorities on the margins to lay claim to their humanity as they have been created.  Our queer sisters and brothers, by their very lives, by their sometimes welcomed and oftentimes unwanted and awkward presence in church, and by their celebrated public display at annual pride parades, take their place in the everyday, ordinariness of lived existence.  Queer people are never going to go away.  We might as well get used to them.

This is the new normal.  It’s not the type that is depicted on the television sitcom.  It’s certainly not a queer community whose public face is oftentimes white and male.  And, believe it or not, it’s more basic than marriage equality.  The new normal is a global phenomenon.  It’s the basic, human right for all people everywhere to be treated as a human being, to be treated with dignity, respect, and fairness.  The new normal isn’t about toleration, but about appreciation.  The new normal isn’t about fear, it’s about love.

But you cannot have the new normal without a global reform of sexual ethics.  If the sexual practices of queer people remain cast as “other” or “perverse,” then the hate crimes, suicides, criminalization, bullying, violence, and outright murder of our queer sisters and brothers will continue worldwide.    Sexual ethics is, in fact, tied up with the commitment to a global project of social healing.

Ethics is the theory of discerning the good and living in right relation.  It’s about the proper ordering of relationships, of living and loving for justice and for the common good.  Sexuality is perhaps the most intimate way one can relate to another human being.  And humans are, at their very core, social beings.  This sacred dimension of the human person ought not be repressed or oppressed.  To deny others access to their full flourishing, to a relationship of intimate union, is to deny their very humanity.  Furthermore, to ignore human experience is antithetical to the doing of ethics.  Experience is the touchstone of knowledge; experience is the place of divine revelation.

Noteworthy figures like Margaret Farley, Shawn Copeland, Lisa Sowle Cahill, Aana Marie Vigen, Carter Heyward, Robert Cummings Neville, Patrick S. Cheng, and Marvin Ellison, to name but a few of the people who have a stake in this project and who have influenced my own studies and writings on ethics, take their place within the tradition alongside a great line of prophets who continue to call our global church to greater unity.  We must follow in their footsteps to enact a vision of love and justice that can create the context for the emergence of God’s great kin-dom.  On earth as it is in heaven.

+ CMJ

This meditation appeared on The Huffington Post on 18 February 2013.