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The fierce urgency of now - Reflections for February 2021
The Revd Winnie Varghese
Week one: The fierce urgency of now
In New York City where we live, there was a blanket of crisp, white snow this morning as far as I could see, much more than I could do anything about, but I did my small part. In this city, you don’t own the sidewalk, but you are responsible for keeping it passable for others. My task is to clear a path from the front door to the street for our personal use and deliveries. I went out and cleared my section of the path whenever about six inches of snow piled up outside. Then I clear a path across our few feet of sidewalk, our part in keeping walking paths passable on our street. They say the road is made by walking.
I find snow removal is manageable about six inches at a time, after that it’s just too heavy for me. In our country it feels as if we have had at least six inches of weight piling up almost daily for four years, crowning hundreds of years of building an economy and national identity on the exploitation of the land and many of our own people. The weight is far too much to bear.
This political moment in the United States is really a spiritual reckoning, theological if you believe in God. What might a right ordered society look like here in the United States? What would a blessed Union mean for this piece of land, for these people? What is justice? What if we cannot bear the demands of truth? Are some of our lives of more value than others?
The reckoning is as shattering as the uprising we saw at the Capitol intimated. The civil veneer of America, Christian America, is a thin, cracking veneer of a polite civic Christianity pasted over the death-dealing decay of slavery, genocide, and ecological devastation, on repeat for hundreds of years. Stamped as Christian, God-given, white, a chosen people. You might know something about that.
It is so clear in this moment that we are called to upend these systems, turn them over, imagine and build anew, with urgency. I pray that we find ourselves with our hand at the tools, those familiar tools of organizing our common life, taking our part. I worry that for those of us for whom these ways have worked just fine, that the fierce urgency of now might not have quite set in. For them, for us, I would say, plow your three feet or so, make the way clear to the street, do the good directly in front of you. It is not nearly enough, but may be just enough room for the Spirit to stir in you, maybe drop off something you weren’t expecting. Or maybe it’s about making a way for someone passing by to another place, a little bit more of that road we make by walking.
Week two: A more complex truth
When our kids were young, on Christmas mornings, we delivered presents to some of our friends, anonymously, as our first ritual of Christmas morning. We were secret Santas, hoping the kids would remember the joy of an anonymous act of kindness. That year our son had informed us with very direct eye contact that there was a rumour at his school that parents went shopping for Christmas presents, the ones that came from Santa Claus, after the children were asleep. I could only think to respond that we would never leave them home alone.
That Christmas morning, there was a blizzard in New York City. We were trudging through the snow to get the car, when we heard someone shouting “Lies! Lies! Lies!” on the otherwise empty, silent street. How did he know?
It was Phillip, dishevelled and struggling, standing outside of Starbucks, which had not opened at the time printed on the glass doors. He was shouting at a worker who was trying to get in the doors without letting him in. We tried to help by saying “Merry Christmas” and waving as a distraction, so that the worker could squeeze in the door and lock it behind her.
They are everywhere, as Phillip shouted on that Christmas morning.
The lies to support the story of who we are.
The lies to help us fit in with others.
The lies that seem so far from our control.
Chris Hayes, an American broadcaster in an interview with a former employee of Fox News about the presidential election ended it this way “but you lied, your colleagues lied, and people believed you.” He could have continued, and people died.
This is the conundrum in American political life today. Fake news. Untruths. Inflammatory lies. About things as immediate as election results, and as historic as how this country was founded. People acting on new lies built upon foundational lies in defense of what they believe is the best of our country and maybe their faith. The newer are intentionally designed to weaken our confidence in the government. The founding ones, developed over time, as stories do, to build a mythology of exceptionalism. We are good and innocent, aren’t we?
But the truth is, this land of the free is built upon conquest and slavery, and the descendants of all sides are our neighbors, living very different kinds of lives because of that history.
And the truth is also that the lying isn’t new, but it is being revealed, and we could choose to do something different for the future. We have been taught half-truths or outright lies about enslavement, land acquisition, policing, housing policies, gun rights, and religious freedom. I grew up in Texas where we were taught in history class that Texas had always been independent and proud. Native peoples were few and had all been killed. Slavery was not that bad an economic arrangement, and the races should not mix. I am not 150 years old.
It is hard work to unlearn and relearn a more broad, more complex truth that means we will hear voices that trouble us, and that point to truths that unsettle.
Theology, and liberation theologians in particular, offer one way of revealing truths by writing a theology that happens in bodies, and which includes black bodies, women’s bodies, gay bodies, and trans bodies in context, within systems of power. Naming our embodied realities as the concern of Jesus is to reveal truths about God and about us. The truth can be liberating, if deeply unsettling, precisely because it is not a lie. The truth that sets us free.
Week three: A word of truth
I once dreamt that I was standing in the massive pulpit in our Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, gate closed behind me, alone. The congregation was somehow moving further and further away from me. On the desk in front of me blank pages were multiplying and spilling to the ground. In my dream, I started to go down the pulpit stairs to the now locked gate to get some help. James Cone, my seminary theology professor was there. Dr. Cone looked up at me and said in his distinctive, high-pitched, lilting, Arkansas accent, “Winnie, does the church have anything to say to the world in this time?”
James Cone is the father of Black Liberation Theology. I was a student in his classes in the mid-1990s at Union Theological Seminary where candidates for ordination and graduate students study together. Dr. Cone would ask those of us who were only considering ministry in the church how we would negotiate the complacency of the church. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. Academia and activism seemed equally cutthroat and complacent to me. I guess my dream cleared that up. For me it is about a complacency that feels like blank pages, the congregation moving away, standing alone locked into a pulpit, holding the responsibility to interpret and speak gospel truth.
Do we as the church have the courage and the insight to speak to the crises of the day?
Can the church do whatever the opposite of gaslighting is? Gaslighting is when someone questions what you know to be true in a way that might make you question your judgment. It comes from a film called Gaslight from the 1940s in which one character manipulates another to a mental health crisis by changing the brightness of the actual lights in an apartment by changing the demands on the gas system while denying that there was any change in the lights.
The way we talk about racism amounts to a collective gaslighting, so effective that we need new images and careful analysis to support obvious truths about discrimination and power. The lights are changing, but what if no one but you will say they are?
On January 6, 2021, wooden gallows with a noose and a wooden cross were raised on the lawn of the Capitol in Washington D.C. Some of the news channels covered it. There were images on my television screen. Then there weren’t. I couldn’t find the image later in the day. It wasn’t part of the coverage of the story by that evening. One of the Christian magazines used a photo of both, but I remembered live footage of a cross being raised with ropes, and I wondered as I watched if they would burn it like in the film Birth of a Nation. I saw the gallows in other footage that afternoon. I wonder if I remember them because I had a reference point for what they mean together: White Christian Nationalism, an ideology named and resisted by Black Theology.
The Cross and The Lynching Tree is James Cone’s 2011 book about understanding the cross of Jesus through the lens of the lynching tree and the other way around. The power of Black Theology is whatever the opposite of gaslighting is. A theological and political framework to recognize and act for justice and healing. A word of truth to say from the church, to the church, and to the world, about where we can find Jesus.
Week four: The promise of liberation
A friend from India told me he became a Christian because he was given a Bible while serving as a civil service officer in Nagaland. The Nagas are Baptists. He read his gift, from the first page of Genesis to the final page of Revelation, like you would read any other book. He told me that he got to the final pages in tears for the promise of universal liberation for himself and for all people.
I wish I could start fresh and read the Bible from page one to the final page, in order, unsuspecting. I hope I would encounter a message as stirring as he did. I wonder if my middle class American self would.
My friend was from a Dalit family in Salem in Tamil Nadu, the other end of India from Nagaland. He grew up in a loving home. He and his parents had faced horrible abuse and prejudice while diligently pursuing opportunity. He was a star, a true genius, full of love for everyone, interested in peace-making which is what brought him to a university in the United States. He brought no assumptions of what the Bible was or what Christianity was or even what a Baptist was. I guess for him they were primarily Nagas.
When he and I first met, in our twenties, I was very aware of the pain caused by the Christianity I had been raised around in Texas. Christianity in public life was synonymous with discrimination of many kinds. I was nervous about being publicly Christian in a way that might offend or actually hurt those who were abused by my religion. I didn’t have the language for it, but I was feeling the stress of potentially taking on the privilege of my religion in this country and not the critique. The difference between me and my friend was that I had been initiated into a Christianity of power, and he had read the Bible as a person who assumed the best of religion and approached the text with a heart for justice.
The Rev. Dr. William Barber writes that the purpose of the Black Church is prophetic social justice, holiness, and spiritual empowerment in worship. The churches I was raised in would have agreed with the final two, but the first would have been optional, if a nice option. Maybe more accurately I should say also the church I am now a part of today as a mainline Christian in the United States.
St. Mark’s in the Bowery, an Episcopal Church in the East Village in New York City, holds a Good Friday Blues service each year. It is a three hour service from Noon to 3pm on Good Friday which enacts the passion narrative from the gospel of John and breaks the scenes with music: gospel, blues, jazz, or roots music.
The service illustrates the issue for the church. When black bodies read and embody those characters, the gospel call for social justice is quite clear. The music weaves that knowing into your flesh.
God of history,
God of the future,
Who loves us a friend.
Gift us with the freedom of breaking through
the illusion of innocence,
the illusion of safety,
the illusion of confusion,
the illusion of good enough
Gift us the freedom of your words and the perspective of your beloved,
that our heart may beat in harmony with yours. Amen.
The Revd Winnie Varghese is a Priest at Trinity Church Wall Street in New York City, Coordinating the Ministries and Programs there.