Monday, October 20, 2008

Homily: Chicago Consultation Evensong [October 19, 2008]

Just so you don’t accuse me of proof-texting, our reading from Ecclesiasticus this evening [Ecclesiasticus 4.1-10] is not something specially chosen for a gathering of movement Christians but is actually the Daily Office reading for Sunday in Proper 24, Year Two. If you don’t believe me, ask [Seabury’s Liturgy Professor] Ruth Meyers. As radically and prophetically wise at it is, our passage from the fourth chapter of the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirach poses for us an interesting question: when we read scriptures like this, who do we consider to be “the poor”?
In the most recent issue of The New York Review of Books [October 23, 2008] the Irish writer Colm Toibin has an article simply called “James Baldwin & Barack Obama”, which I read with great interest. We all know who Barack Obama is; some here may be too young to remember the great gay African American writer James Baldwin. When I was a teenager in the early1960s I saw James Baldwin speak in person, and it was seeing and hearing and then reading Baldwin which ignited my interest in the Civil Rights Movement—and it was through my experience of the Civil Rights and then Anti-War Movements in the 1960s that I came into the church in college. I’m probably one of the few straight white guys in history who read everything James Baldwin wrote while they were still in high school, including, of course, his mid-1950s homoerotic novel Giovanni’s Room—an eleventh-grade oral book report experience I hope never to repeat.
Now James Baldwin was gay and Colm Toibin is gay, but Toibin’s NYRB article isn’t about sexuality in any overt sense. Rather, it looks at the similarities between Baldwin and Obama and how both men found in the church a way to deal with the experience of being oppressed. Here’s how James Baldwin put it:

Perhaps we were, all of us, bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

As James Baldwin said many times over the course of his life, Christianity makes sense out of the experience of the oppressed because it alone combines the paradox of the way great sorrow can coexist with great joy. And that is why, when you read Baldwin talking about even racists and homophobes, you sense in what he says a unique combination of rage mixed with compassion..
In the late 1940s James Baldwin left the U.S. for a self-imposed exile in France; he came back a decade later to face the Civil Rights struggle in America in the late 1950s precisely because he carried within hima uniquely Christian mixture of rage and compassion, a profoundly biblical sense of life that had been fostered and nurtured in the Black Church. It was only what Colm Toibin calls Baldwin’s “wisdom and sense of forgiveness” which enabled James Baldwin to be such a powerful figure in America in the 1960s. He never lost the edge of his prophetic rage, and he never forgot that even Bull Connor was a human being formed by historical realities.
Now all that’s very interesting, but why this excursus into the life of a writer who’s been dead for 21 years? I suppose it’s because something in this passage from Ecclesiasticus gets at this ability to hold compassion and rage, wisdom and forgiveness in tension with one another as a Gospel style of life. Listen again to Jesus ben Sirach:

My child, deprive not the poor of their living,and do not keep needy eyes waiting.Do not grieve the one who is hungry,nor anger anyone in want.. . .[Ecclesiasticus 4.1-2]

The question again presents itself: whom does Sirach, whom does Jesus of Nazareth, whom do we Christian people mean when we talk about “the poor”? I don’t want to sound too much like a strict constructionist here, but the first, best answer is that when the Bible talks about “the poor”, it means “the poor”. As difficult as some of our lives may be, those of us who are relatively affluent need to be cautious about equating ourselves too easily with those who, as the real poor, are the special objects of God’s and Jesus’s compassionate concern. In the recent days of the economic downturn, a lot of people with resources have taken to thinking of themselves as “poor”. But this isn’t really what our biblical sources mean by “the poor”, or by “widows and orphans.” They mean those with no food, no money, and no prospect of getting them.
Our passage starts with that literal understanding of poverty, but it then takes this subtle linguistic turn and expands its understanding of our obligations to the poor to include the oppressed: “Deliver him who is wronged from the hand of the wrongdoer; and do not be fainthearted in judging a case.” [Ecclesiasticus 4.9] So in a way which is doubly true the way most Biblical truths are doubly true, the poor are both the literal poor and the figurative poor. The poor are those who are up against it economically, socially, politically, culturally. The first obligation of a person of Biblical faith is to stand with and for those who are up against oppressive and destructive forces. And our second obligation is to do so in a way which combines those paradoxical attitudes which James Baldwin and which all great spokespeople for human liberation have managed to hold together: rage at the oppression, compassion for both victim and oppressor, forgiveness for oneself and others, and wisdom to make sense out of it all.
You and I are gathered tonight as members of a Christian community of people working to ensure the same justice for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people that the heroes of my childhood demanded for American blacks, and which the heroines of my earlier days in the church demanded for women. In the spirit of James Baldwin and Jesus ben Sirach, those of us who gather to do that work need to remember a couple of things. One of them is not to be misled when others tell us that the real object of Jesus’s compassion is someone other than the people we are here concerned with. That’s what they said to Martin Luther King and to Sue Hiatt, and that’s what they now are saying to us. In my ecclesiastical lifetime I cannot count the number of well-meaning people who have said that issues of human liberation are somehow a distraction from the work of the Gospel. “Let’s get over race or gender or human sexuality and back to the business of caring for the poor,” they say. What they fail to see is that the work of human liberation is the work of the Gospel, and that we engage that work wherever we find it. The witness of our Biblical tradition is that we have to deal not with some other issues which we might care about abstractly, but with the particular oppression that is right now at hand. And in the first decade of the 21st century that issue, so far as it concerns Anglican Christians, is the equal access of all Christians—gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and straight—to all the offices and ministries of the church. This isn’t some other time. This is now. It is on this issue, and not some other, that we are called to stand with Jesus and those whom Jesus would stand with now, today. If the church cannot move beyond toleration and inclusion to celebration and embrace, then the basic credibility of our enterprise is in question.
And here’s the other thing to remember: that standing with the people whom Jesus would stand with—the poor and the oppressed in all their identities—is a wonderful, paradoxical mixture of sadness and joy. The ugliness of homophobia can make you sick. And the work of bringing about justice is in itself a joy. As James Baldwin knew, both things can be true at once. The hatred and the prejudice of the oppressor can make you crazy, especially if you adopt some shadow version of it as your own central principle. The only way through this is Jesus’s way, James Baldwin’s way, Nelson Mandela’s way, Dorothy Day’s way—the way which weaves rage and compassion, forgiveness and wisdom in an ever expanding fabric of justice and love. Here again is how James Baldwin puts it:

Perhaps we were, all of us, bound together by the nature of our oppression, the specific and peculiar complex of risks we had to run; if so, within these limits we sometimes achieved with each other a freedom that was close to love.

“A freedom that is close to love.” As companions of Jesus and all the people Jesus stands with, we all have been called to live and walk and rest in that freedom that is close to love. May our time together be a celebration and living out of what Jesus celebrated, proclaimed, and embodied--a freedom that is close to love. Amen.

1 comment:

Rev. Jane Austen said...

Wow. Thanks for reminding me about James Baldwin. You really hit the nail on the head with this one.