Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Woke and Awakening

My well-worn copy.

I love that “woke” is related to “awakening.” “Woke” as an adjective is from African American vernacular, and, as employed by Black Lives Matter, entails social awareness, especially of racism and social injustice. It is now used ubiquitously to suggest someone who is politically aware.

In spirituality, “awakening” suggests spiritual awareness. An early twentieth century authority on mysticism, Evelyn Underhill, describes “awakening” as the first stage of a mystic’s lifelong process. She described five stages of a mystic: awakening, purgation, illumination, dark night, and union.

What brings this to mind for me are two recent articles evaluating Harper Lee’s book, To Kill a Mockingbird. One article reviews a book that offers a disconcerting analysis of Lee’s novel as a defense of upper class educated Southern whites distancing themselves from racist “white trash,” as if the latter were entirely responsible for racial barriers, while excusing themselves with the actual economic, political and social power to end segregation.

Jarring as this is for me as a fan of the novel, this appears to be true, and, I hate to admit, could also be said of those who insist President Trump was elected by that infamous “basket of deplorables” rather than by educated, middle and upper class white voters.

The other article, reviewing another related book, explains the writer’s disdain of the novel as insufficiently aware of the African American experience. Only Scout’s character is fully developed, she writes, not that of Tom Robinson or even of Atticus Finch.

I wanted to counter that this is because the book is not about Tom Robinson or Atticus Finch: the book is about Scout and her transformation in the light of her personal experience of events and characters in the narrative. The most authentic representation of African American experience would most likely be found in the writings of African American authors themselves.

The novel’s film was released a month after Alabama Governor George Wallace’s infamous “Segregation Forever” inaugural speech. Though the sterling character of a small-town Alabama lawyer like Atticus Finch might have been a stretch, given the times, as one writer suggests, he serves as a counter to the prevailing ethos of racial prejudice. He gives white readers someone to emulate, something lacking in Lee’s original version, Go Set a Watchman. Thanks be to God for a good editor who advised her to revisit and reshape the story!

All this is to say, as I’ve written in my books and on this blog, To Kill a Mockingbird
served as a “woke” experience for this 12-year-old boy from California who had never even visited the South. That, coupled with the Civil Rights Movement and good teachers and preachers, began for me a lifelong journey toward a better understanding of racism and social injustice.

The books of African American authors furthered my growth: Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Stephen Carter, Eldridge Cleaver, James Cone, Frederick Douglass, Coretta Scott King, Martin Luther King Jr., Alice Walker, and Cornel West. Articles, reporting, firsthand encounters and presentations by numerous others also contributed to my “woke” process.

Just as “awakening” is only the beginning of a mystic’s lifelong path, maybe we might consider “wokeness” as only the start of political awareness. Maybe we could speak of a “woke-consciousness” that allows further development as well as application to other social issues of our times.

I was struck by the spiritual parallels as I completed reading this past Sunday Howard Rice’s book, Reformed Spirituality. He quotes Flora Slosson Wuellner’s description of spiritual growth in her book, On the Road to Spiritual Wholeness:

As we are healed and pulled together into wholeness, we are shown many things that we had not seen before. We are shown feelings we have had, but which have been repressed. We are shown things we have done, judgments we have made during our days of blindness and insensitivity. We are shown relationships in a new light, and facts to which we had not awakened. And as we wake and see, decisions about what we see begin to rise in freshness and power.

I posted this on July 11, 2018, and post it today in observance of Black History Month in the U.S.

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2018 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Black Lives Matter

This week marks the ninth anniversary of the beginning of this blog!

“Black lives matter” is not just wisdom for protesting “issues” of law enforcement. It should be a mantra for all of life.

Black lives matter when there is equal access to prenatal and postnatal care, preschool, decent housing and nutrition, education, healthcare, employment, promotions, advancement, economic opportunities, voting rights, justice in the courts, representation on school boards, law enforcement agencies, city councils, state legislatures, congress, corporate boards, and executive positions in business and government—to name some of the things routinely denied.

Black lives matter when the disproportionate detention and incarceration rate of African-Americans on mere suspicion, manufactured evidence, mandatory minimum sentencing, or low-level drug offenses is reduced dramatically or eliminated altogether.

A pet peeve of mine has been to see black people cast in incidental roles in movies and TV programs (how many black judges can there be?) rather than seeing their characters integrally woven into an ensemble cast, though this has been changing in recent years.

I once worked with a progressive but all-white group who would have agreed that all of the above are examples of institutional racism, and whose members said they wanted to do something about it. But a colleague who had worked with the group far longer than I told me privately, “They all want to address the issue of racism politically, but few, if any, actually have black friends.”

The person observed that institutional racism will only be dismantled as we take racism personally, when black lives matter in our own friendships, families, congregations, work places, working relationships, and social networks.

A white police officer testifying in the O.J. Simpson trial was asked if he was a racist, and he said “no.” I was astounded. I don’t know how any white person in the United States can say they have avoided being taught prejudice to some degree. And we all benefit from white privilege, just as our white ancestors (and not just slaveholders) benefited from black slavery.

I believe our society survives partly because it is graced with the fortitude and forgiveness and sometimes generational forgetfulness of the minorities it has wronged. And most amazing to me are the descendants of slaves who were “owned,” brutalized, raped, and lynched. How can they stand our uppity white domination? How can they stand the undue influence of angry and mean folk trying to undo what progress has been made in redressing past sins?

Those who forgave the deadly, racist shooter in the Charleston church were as Christ to me. Their grace exposed the racism of those who held onto the confederate flag as a way of life. Their grace transformed parts of the country that seemed irredeemable.

Black lives matter.

I posted this on August 19, 2015, and post it today in observance of Black History Month in the U.S.

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Copyright © 2015 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you! 

Wednesday, February 5, 2020

Black Museums Matter

Reading of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. reminded me of the most difficult thing I saw when visiting the Holocaust Museum last May.

There are so many heartbreaking things to witness in that archive of brutality and inhumanity, what I will describe may seem less consequential, but for me it summed up everything, from the piles of shoes of concentration camp martyrs, to the railroad car used for their transport, to the various devices used to end their lives, not to mention the multiple ways intended to dehumanize them before their incarceration.

These things brought tears to my eyes, but what made me want to cry uncontrollably  was seeing a youth—maybe 15—sitting quietly on a bench in a side pocket room intended for rest and reflection. He looked so disheartened, so disillusioned, so overwhelmed by what he saw, I felt for him.

This is what our various histories do to young people: histories of anti-Semitism, racism, ethnic hatred, sexism, classism, heterosexism, mistreatment of those with disabilities, religious intolerance, and so on and so on—this is what we do to the innocent, not only of times past but of the present day.

“Woe to anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble…” Jesus admonished.

Yet frankly, my own disillusionment as a youth, learning of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, lynching, racial hatred, bigotry, and prejudice made me a better citizen. My own disillusionment in American foreign policy around Vietnam and Latin America made me a better patriot. My disappointment at the inequality and mistreatment of women made me a better person. (I say disappointment rather than disillusionment in this case because I never had the illusion that women were treated fairly.)

And the disillusionment that led to my involvement in the reformation of the church around LGBT inclusion made me a better Christian.

I’m glad to learn that there will be a room in the new museum in which to reflect and recover after visiting the exhibit devoted to Emmett Till, a black youth brutalized and lynched after being accused of whistling at a white woman.

Whenever I am able to visit that museum, I expect that I will see another youth sitting in that room with the same downcast and forlorn expression that I saw last May.

I posted this on October 5, 2016, and post it today in observance of Black History Month in the U.S.

You may support this blog ministry by clicking here and scrolling down to the donate link below its description or by mailing to MCC, P.O. Box 50488, Sarasota FL 34232 USA, designating “Progressive Christian Reflections” in the memo area of your check or money order. Thank you!

Copyright © 2016 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. 

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Cuddling with Jesus

Wade and Hobbes cuddling.

I can imagine red flags going up for my more progressive readers, fearing I’ve gone evangelical on them with a title like “Cuddling with Jesus.” And my more mainstream readers may fear I’m getting too familiar, even sexual, with our spiritual leader.

But the deity with whom Jacob wrestles in Genesis becomes the deity with whom the Beloved Disciple cuddles during the Last Supper in John. It’s okay for males to wrestle (God was imagined as male, remember) but not to cuddle (Jesus was imagined as God, remember).

In As My Own Soul: The Blessing of Same-Gender Marriage, I pointed out how recent translations have distanced the Beloved Disciple, believed to be John, from Jesus. In the King James Version “the disciple whom Jesus loved” is “leaning on Jesus’ bosom.” The Revised Standard Version describes him as “lying close to the breast of Jesus.” But the New Revised Standard Version and the New Jerusalem Bible have the Beloved Disciple simply “reclining next” to Jesus. As the Beloved disciple moves farther away from Jesus with newer versions, I imagine in the next translation he will be in another room!

In his book, The Man Jesus Loved, Theodore Jennings translates the passage this way:

One of his disciples was lying in Jesus’ lap, the one Jesus loved; so Simon Peter nods to this one and says: “Tell, whom is he talking about?” That one, falling back on Jesus’ chest says to him: “Lord, who is it?”

Imagine watching TV with a group of close friends, some of whom are seated on the floor. Arms may rest on knees, heads lean on shoulders, hands draped affectionately on legs. This would be like the scene of the Last Supper, where the custom would be for everyone to be on the floor with cushions or mats, not seated upright at a table.

This is the casual intimacy between John and Jesus, but it affords John the opportunity, in the understanding of Celtic Christianity, to “listen for the heartbeat of God” with his head on Jesus’ breast. It is a symbol of mysticism, not sexuality, though mysticism is also erotic, understanding “eros” as the force that compels us toward God or another human being.

What prompts this reflection is a recent opinion piece by Stanford anthropology professor T. M. Luhrmann, who suggests the success of evangelical churches is that they promise such a personal relationship with God, but then overstates the case by claiming—mistakenly, I believe—that mainstream Christians do not imagine a God so intimate. (Since writing this I discovered agreement from a Letter to the Editor by Sister Mary Ann Walsh.)

I do believe mainstream Christians have a problem with intimacy. I once heard seminary professor and author Carter Heyward describe their God as a “Gentleman God,” embarrassed by sexual passion, yet too polite and dispassionate to be rabidly anti-gay. And the changing position of the Beloved Disciple may have to do with a fear of homoerotic implications.

But I believe the broader fear is intimacy with God. I’ve noticed that the same translation that has John “reclining next” to Jesus in John 13:23 also translates John 1:18 about Jesus’ intimacy with God as “who is close to the Father’s heart” when the actual text reads “who is close to the Father’s bosom.”

Yet I believe many mainstream Christians’ embrace of contemplation also chooses an intimate relationship with God. And though it may seem new, it has always been with us, from the Desert Fathers and Mothers, monastic communities, and Celtic spirituality to our present day interest in all things spiritual.

My purpose in writing this blog is to encourage progressive Christians, too, to come out of the closet about their intimacy with God, with Jesus, and with the Spirit. Ours may be a different experience, but no less worthy to strengthen our resolve, challenge others’ certainties, and enjoy communion with all we hold sacred and dear.

I posted this on April 24, 2013 and thought current readers of this blog might enjoy it.

Please join me for a five-day contemplative retreat April 27-May 1, 2020 in Cullman, Alabama, through the Spiritual Formation Program of Columbia Theological Seminary. It is open to the public.

Copyright © 2013 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. Other rights reserved. Check out past posts in the right rail on the blogsite. Use the search engine in the upper left corner of the blog to find particular topics.

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