Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Crisis of Racism

Part of a nearby Baptist church memorial to multiple African Americans 
whose lives have been taken in recent years.

In preparation for leading an online course on respected spiritual author Henri Nouwen, I am reading my own 2002 book of 100 meditations on his life and writings to remind myself of things I might say and stories I might tell. I found “Day Seventy-Two: The Crisis of Racism” particularly pertinent to today’s happenings and offer it in support of Black Lives Matter.

Henri wrote in a posthumously published book of his participation in a well-known Alabama protest march:

It seemed as if nobody could party better than these oppressed people. The flush of victory seemed to have them in its grasp, combined with the certainty that they would lose. … [Alabama Governor] George Wallace cannot be converted.
-Henri J.M. Nouwen, The Road to Peace, p 82.

Why does racism have such a grip on us? Why do its relentless talons press into our culture’s mind and heart so deep that we hardly recognize its power even now, almost forty years* after Henri wrote these words about the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, with Martin Luther King Jr. in 1965? Forty years—we should be at the Promised Land by now. Did our grumbling en route bring us yet another forty years as punishment?

What strikes me as I finally read Henri’s previously unavailable essays about the Selma march and King’s death in 1968 in The Road to Peace is the unambivalent clarity with which he describes good and evil, what is just and what is unjust. It’s like the realism of his writings about Central and South America: there’s a hardness and a leanness to his writing that is less enchanting than gripping.

If he had “swung” that way, he would have made a strong politically prophetic figure. This book’s editor John Dear points out that Henri did not want to be arrested in U.S. protests because, in doing so, he risked being deported as an “alien.” But I think it was something deeper in his nature that shunned political drama for spiritual drama, the larger playing field in his mind.

“Fixing” something politically was important; but addressing it spiritually was even more so. And he realized that “being right” politically did not mean “being right” spiritually; that, as we try to take the beam out of the world’s eye we must be watchful of a myriad of splinters in our own, to reverse Jesus’ metaphor.

Which brings us back to the talons of racism that grip our culture. At heart it is a spiritual crisis underlying the political crisis. That’s why the Reverend King could draw Henri from his studies at the Menninger Clinic in Kansas into a march by calling the religious community for support after marchers earlier suffered violence on the Edmund Pettis bridge just outside Selma.

Henri wrestled long and hard about whether or not to go. That, to me, suggests Henri was not meeting the demands of ego or self-righteousness but meeting the demands of humility and justice. When you’d rather not, but you’re there anyway, you know it’s not about you.

His recognition that “nobody could party better than these oppressed people” foreshadowed similar experiences with the poor in Latin America and the severely disabled of L’Arche. Feeling momentarily powerful and victorious while facing certain defeat is a dynamic understood by any who have advocated “lost” causes.

And yet, ironically, the “defeat” that “George Wallace cannot be converted,” is controverted as early as five years later in an essay Henri wrote about Dr. King’s assassination, quoting the Alabama governor declaring it “a senseless and useless act.” Since then, of course, Wallace asked forgiveness for his support of segregation, probably not unrelated to his own crippling wound in an attempt on his life.

Though [truth’s] portion be the scaffold
And upon the throne be wrong,
Yet that scaffold sways the future…

From the hymn, “Once to Every One and Nation” by James Russell Lowell.


* Remember, my book was published in 2002.

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Copyright © 2002 and 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author, blogsite and book title, Henri’s Mantle: 100 Meditations on Nouwen’s Legacy

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Pride and Shame

We obtained this rainbow flag in Italy when our LGBT symbol became a rallying flag to oppose whatever war the U.S. was waging in the Middle East at the time. 
"Pace" means "peace" in Italian.

How can I write about pride when there is so much shame about racism, reactionary politics and policing, confederate symbols and namesakes, as well as our failure to contain a deadly pandemic that disproportionately punishes people of color and/or poverty?

That thought crossed my mind as I hung our rainbow Pride flag on our front porch in honor of LGBTQIA Pride month and anticipated writing this post. And, after writing this, the U.S. Supreme Court recognition of LGBT employment rights makes this post all the more relevant.

Pride was what I needed when I began to affirm myself in my 20’s a half-century ago, pride of who God created me to be as a gay man. And a healthy dose of pride is what we all need to confirm who God has created and called us to be and confront the truly shameful parts of ourselves and our nation’s history that led to slavery, Jim Crow, and brutal murders of black men, women, and children.

Some refer to slavery as our original sin, but I think our displacement and murder of Native/Indigenous peoples preceded and anticipated the enslavement of Africans, borne also of our racism and cultural superiority complex.

I once wondered how descendants of slaves could ever overcome the generational PTSD inflicted by our nation. Now I wonder if and when white Americans will ever get over our sense of privilege and entitlement at the expense of people of color and of other nationalities.

Jesus would not be happy.

Jesus told the parable of the Good mixed-race Samaritan as an example of loving one’s neighbor and revealed his Messianic identity to the mixed-race Samaritan woman at the well who became his first evangelist. Jesus was moved by the wisdom of a Syrophoenician woman, healing her daughter after initially resisting her request. Jesus healed ten lepers, but only the mixed-race Samaritan returned to give him thanks. And Jesus remarked in wonder at the faith of a centurion, part of the occupying force of the Roman empire, healing his paĆ­s, a word which could mean slave or lover.

Jesus is the original disruptor-in-chief by demonstrating values that lift us all.

Atlanta is majority African American. And our Pride, now celebrated in October around International Coming Out Day, does not focus on LGBT people alone but encourages all to take pride in who God created them to be. Atlanta also hosts the annual Black Pride festival for LGBT people, the largest gathering of its kind. Atlanta, said to be “the city too busy to hate” is becoming “the city too busy to shame.”

“Pride is faith in the idea that God had when God made you,” Isak Dinesen (nee Karen Blixen) wrote in Out of Africa. She added, “Love the pride of God above all else and the pride of your neighbor as your own.”  (I’ve quoted this many times!)

When we celebrate our neighbor’s worth, we offer gratitude, praise, and honor to the God who created all the peoples of the earth, even as “the arc of the moral universe… bends toward justice,”* as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. anticipated the “Beloved Community,” the Commonwealth of God.


*This is King’s briefer and more memorable allusion to a longer quote of abolitionist Theodore Parker, a Unitarian pastor of the 1800s.

A different post also entitled: Pride and Shame

With his wit, wisdom and word-play, poet, pastor, and friend J. Barrie Shepherd has been a good companion in this epidemic through a new chapbook entitled A Pandemic Portfolio: From BC – (Before Corona) to AD – (After Distancing) – Poems Composed in a Season of Pestilence. Proceeds go to Barrie’s local charities that include two food banks and may be obtained by a donation of $5+$2 postage to J. Barrie Shepherd, 56 East Shore Drive, Chebeague Island, ME 04017 or email barrieshep@aol.com.

You may support this blog by clicking here. Please scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Jesus Did Not Come to Save You

Our pastor and neighbor and her daughter doing chalk artwork
on Saturday in support of the protests. (Our house is in upper left corner.)

Jesus did not come to save you, nor to make you prosper. Jesus came to save the world and help it prosper. Of course that includes you, but not exclusively.

The morning I write this, these thoughts came to mind after hearing a discussion on NPR of an evangelical pastor about personal salvation and individual prosperity followed by reading a New York Times column by David Brooks about reparations best going to communities rather than individuals. All of this in the context of the pandemic and the racial divide.

I grew up as the kind of Baptist that emphasized personal salvation. I had no idea that there were other kinds of Baptist and other kinds of Christian that emphasized the salvation of our world, our environment and our communities. To my knowledge, at the time there was no “prosperity gospel,” though The Power of Positive Thinking of Norman Vincent Peale came close, influencing President Trump’s father and apparently himself.

In high school, I remember being moved by John Hersey’s novel A Single Pebble that offered a different perspective, that of Asian religions and cultures, featuring the greater importance of the collective, of the community, over individual concerns.

And then I became a Presbyterian my first year of college and learned for the first time that salvation was not my personal escape clause from hell but sought the redemption of a fallen world. “God's got the whole world in God’s hands,” we had sung as evangelical fundamentalist children, though with male pronouns. “Jesus is coming” was not seen as a joyous occasion of transformation but as a threat to nonbelievers and Christian “backsliders.” The cosmic Christ would end the world.

Only through a Spiritual Formation course at Columbia Seminary a few years ago did I fully “get” that the whole Bible is about God coming to be with us, first “tabernacling” with the Hebrews, becoming Emmanuel (“God-with-us”) for Christians, and, in Revelation, not destroying the world but making his/her/their home with us, renewing and refreshing heaven and earth.

And the story of the Incarnation is that Jesus did not “come” from anywhere else, but was, in the psalmist’s words, “knit together in a mother’s womb, fearfully and wonderfully made” as we all are. The gospel he proclaimed was of a commonwealth already in our midst, even within us, if we only shared a divine vision, empathy, and desire for us to heal one another and our world.

The story of the Bible is that God has been with us all along. And in all of us. “Red and yellow, black and white—all are precious in his sight,” we sang in Sunday school. And, I have come to believe, in all of us regardless of religious perspective.

Mere personal survival was Jesus’ first temptation (“turn these stones into bread”) and is ours as well. Through his ministry and his teachings Jesus transforms personal survival to personal sacrifice, encouraging all to offer our lives to others for the sake of and in the realization of the commonwealth of God. That’s how the bread and wine of mere survival become the body and blood of full communion with the world. We are called to be, in the apostle Paul’s words, “living sacrifices.”

That’s how God loves us, how God saves us, how God lives in us—unless we mess it up.


Recent posts that offer hope during our pandemic:

Two of many posts that address our racial divisions:
“I Can’t Breathe!” (last week’s post)

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Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

"I Can't Breathe!"


George Floyd portrait in a front yard on our street.

In thanksgiving for the life, artistry, and audacious activism of Larry Kramer, who saved countless lives, possibly my own.

An unrecorded Eighth Last Word of Jesus on the cross as his body sagged, cutting off his airflow, was “I can’t breathe!”

Doesn’t matter if this is true, because his spirit is surely in the last breath of any who suffer at the hands (or knee) of the powers that be. “I can’t breathe” has become the protest not only of individuals but of a movement intent on justice for all.

And now it also encompasses the respiratory suffering of millions at the hands of a virus and care-less leaders, even as caregivers give everything they have to relieve suffering and save lives.

Only in one difficult period of my life did I suffer a series of panic attacks in which I thought, “I can’t breathe.” But it gave me an inkling of what desperation that feeling entails. I can understand the resulting urges to violence and the sentiment expressed in the words of the 1975 Hollywood film prophet, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Or in the Holocaust rejoinder, “Never again!” And in the AIDS pandemic, “Silence=Death.”

In relation to the novel coronavirus pandemic, I’ve followed the science of the virus and the treatment of COVID-19 as well as the sometimes-harrowing personal experiences of those infected. When I pray about this, I can’t bring myself to pray for special protections for me and Wade and our families and friends. I pray for the whole human family: for deliverance, for a treatment, a cure, a vaccine.

On a recent routine visit, my Physician Assistant asked me where I was getting my information about it all and he was relieved to hear me say, “NPR, PBS and The New York Times.” Whether facing a pandemic or a presidential election, where we get our news matters.

Intriguing to me is how central breath is to managing and hopefully overcoming the havoc the virus wreaks in our bodies. Breath is central biblically and spiritually as well. Breath and Spirit represent life and soulfulness. God breathed life into the first human creature. Jesus breathed on his disciples Holy Spirit. The Spirit breathed resurrection into the early Christian movement, and then its subsequent reformations, including that of progressive Christianity.

And breath is helping me get through this period. Using the words Jesus used on a storm at sea, I breathe in thinking “Peace” and breathe out thinking “Be still,” inhaling the peace of God and exhaling the “demons” that wrack my well-being.

Last week I read a moving message from one of my Facebook friends, a black mother who was glad she had given her teenage son “the Talk” that so many of our black friends and colleagues have had to give their children about appearing non-threatening. He was pulled over for what turned out to be a minor infraction, so he had taken everything out of his pockets, put his driver’s license in one hand and his car registration in the other, and placed both hands on the steering wheel where the approaching officer could see them. The officer turned out to be friendly, but her son had been shaken by the encounter. I’m sure he had to catch his breath when it was all over, as did his mother upon hearing of the experience.

I wept to read this. With many others, I responded with a brief word of support and gratitude.

I believe Jesus wept too.

Also in our Georgia neighborhood. 

Recent posts that offer hope during our pandemic:

You may support this blog by clicking here. Please scroll down to the donate link below its description. Thank you!

Copyright © 2020 by Chris R. Glaser. Permission granted for non-profit use with attribution of author and blogsite.