Truth

God 'Beneath the Ordinary'

Yehoshua November

I MEET Yehoshua November in an empty classroom in Touro College in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he teaches. The chairs and desks are piled to one side, like a barricade. We sit in a clearing beside the clutter, talking about his place as the only Hasidic poet—he is a 34-year-old member of the Lubavitch sect—on the American literary landscape, an entity ruled largely by secular academics far removed from the realities and sensibilities of ultra-orthodox Jewish observance and mysticism.

“They are the rabbis of poetry,” November laughs. He laughs so hard he doubles over in his chair. His laughter is as strange as it is infectious. Yet in all of God’s Optimism, his book that was short-listed for the 2010 LA Times Book Prize, there is not a single laugh line. His poems are serious, if lightly held narratives, some parable-like, most down to earth with a longing for heaven.

“Poetry is their vision of spirituality, their own religion, and they don’t want traditional religion brought in,” he says.

Even November’s long, reddish beard seems delighted at their rebellion against traditional religion. An antinomian Hasid and unashamed of it.

When I first read God’s Optimism, the poem I kept going back to was “Baal Teshuvas at the Mikvah” (baal teshuvas are secular Jews who return to religious observance), a poem of solidarity with those intimate others who came to Hasidism through the tunnel of the profane, commonly marked by drug use and sexual looseness, for the sake of spiritual passion held within a net of restrictions.

Sometimes you see them
in the dressing area
of the ritual bath,
young bearded men unbuttoning
their white shirts,
slipping out of their black trousers,
until, standing entirely naked,
they are betrayed by the tattoos
of their past life ...

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Your Turn, Harvard

IF YOU WANT to understand why the climate movement missed Tim DeChristopher when he was in jail for two years, you should read the letter he sent recently to the president of Harvard.

Drew Faust—Harvard’s first female president—had just spoken for the establishment (really, the establishment establishment) by publishing a weary, soulless letter explaining that Harvard would not divest from fossil fuels despite the request of 80 percent of its student body. DeChristopher—who was imprisoned for two years after an inspired act of civil disobedience to block a drilling lease auction in his home state of Utah—had just arrived in Cambridge to start at Harvard Divinity School.

“Drew Faust seeks a position of neutrality in a struggle where the powerful only ask that people like her remain neutral,” DeChristopher wrote. “She says that Harvard’s endowment shouldn’t take a political position, and yet it invests in an industry that spends countless millions on corrupting our political system. In a world of corporate personhood, if she doesn’t want that money to be political, she should put it under her mattress. She has clearly forgotten the words of Paolo Freire: ‘Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.’ Or as Howard Zinn put [it] succinctly, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train.’”

DeChristopher is exactly right. Just as a tie goes to the runner, so “neutrality” goes to the status quo. And given that we’re in a full-on climate emergency—the Arctic melted last summer, for crying out loud—this kind of neutrality is no more admirable than defending the right of poor and rich alike to sleep beneath bridges.

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Complexities of Struggle and Love

LEE DANIELS’ The Butler, a century-spanning tale of race in the United States and service in the White House, is a dream of a film—by turns historically realistic and magically fable-like. It’s a perfect companion piece to last year’s Django Unchained, in that case a movie whose tastelessness wrapped up as fabulous entertainment forced audiences to engage with a deeper level of the shadow of U.S. history.

Based on the story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served multiple presidents in a White House that took its own time to desegregate its economic policies for domestic staff, The Butler begins with a rape and a murder of plantation workers by the son of the boss. The ethical quality of the film is immediately apparent. This horror is not played for sentiment, nor even spectacle, but to evoke the very ordinariness of monstrosity.

This makes The Butler a rare film: one more interested in confronting us with a kind of previously unspoken truth than in goading us to feel the catharsis of guilt-salving by association. (It’s the antithesis of films such as Mississippi Burning, which use white protagonists to tell black stories and appear to believe that we can somehow participate in the virtue of the civil rights movement just by watching a movie about it.) The makers of The Butler have told a kind of truth about the struggle for “beloved community” that has rarely been seen so clearly on multiplex screens. The film illustrates the serious and painful work of nonviolence and invites us to consider the political and cultural tensions within the black freedom struggle, while giving a more humane perspective on the presidency than is often the case. We can hope the door is now open to more reflective cinema about the unfinished business of the black civil rights movement, broken relationships, traumatic memory, and how we tell the story of who we are.

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Seekers of Truth or Defenders of Belief?

Hand-drawn sketch of the Bible, VladisChern / Shutterstock.com
Hand-drawn sketch of the Bible, VladisChern / Shutterstock.com

One Sunday morning, I was facilitating a discussion with the teenagers in my small group. The students were engaged. Most of them voiced their opinions. Some of them even backed their views up with Scripture. Others defended their stance based on personal experience. The discussion was going well, but we had veered so far off course that I wasn't sure how to make our way back to the original topic. Usually this didn't bother me, because those seemed to be the times their perspectives were broadened the most. But I could see things were beginning to get heated. The students were divided and beginning to make things personal.

I interrupted the students in hopes of bringing them back to the point at hand. It didn't help. The open dialogue on truth had taken a turn for the worse. It was now a full on assault in which denominational pride resorted to church bashing and religion hating. I knew that if I didn't intervene soon, all hell would break loose — the Crusades would be re-birthed and someone might get burned at the stake. After a while, my frustration got the best of me and I opened my mouth long enough to let a few unfiltered words fly. No, I didn't yell, swear at them, or lose my temper in any manner. Had that been the case, I'm sure the backlash would have been much quicker and less severe.

There, in the middle of what used to be the sanctuary, I told that small group of teenagers they could find truth in the Qur'an. 

From the Archives: July 1994

THE FUNCTION of healthy religion and church is to provide individuals and society with a collective container that carries the objective truth of reality for individuals. The Great Truth is too grand and transcultural to be entrusted to the vagaries of individuals and epochs. Otherwise, society becomes a massive runway for unidentifiable flying objects—each claiming absolute validity and turning their subjectivity into the only sacred.

The ground for a common civilization and shared values is destroyed if our religious experience is basically unshareable or without coherent meaning. We end up where we are today: pluralism without purpose, individuation but no community.

By a necessary “container,” I mean a human structure that holds together and somehow reduces the scale of events—so that I can deal with much larger events: the cosmos, salvation, sin, and grace. The arrogance of the literal West is that it will not take its place in the “cleft of the rock” (Exodus 33:21-23) and allow God to pass by.

Life, like theater, demands a stage. Church is the stage that keeps us all as necessary actors, with God as the unavoidable protagonist and director. The mystery of church keeps reminding us that our script matters, although it is never the last word. That, thank God, is “mercy.”

Richard Rohr, OFM, founder of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, N.M., was a contributing editor to Sojournerswhen this article appeared.

Image: Vintage script, danielo / Shutterstock.com

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Feeding our Imagination

CRITICS HAVE BEMOANED the lack of fiction centered on climate change, which seems to mirror our public sluggishness about this scientific reality. But two recent novels, Barbara Kingsolver's Flight Behavior (Harper) and Lauren Groff's Arcadia (Voice), artfully integrate climate change into their plotlines, weaving scientific truth about global warming into the lives of fictional characters. Just as compelling, both works of fiction feature spiritual community at the center of critical decisions about the future of the land and its inhabitants.

Flight Behavior is a lyrical story set in rural Tennessee with the fiercely intelligent Dellarobia Turnbow as the main character. She encounters a vast sea of monarch butterflies that seem to have taken a wrong turn on their migratory path, a result of a miracle—or a warming planet. Journalists, ecologists, and locals speculate about the misplaced monarchs. In an impassioned but measured plea for the land, the local pastor invokes a biblical mandate for creation care.

In Arcadia, climate change doesn't enter the narrative until the conclusion of the story, which is the tale of an intentional community started in the 1960s. The central character, Bit Stone, returns to a failed commune in upstate New York, where he grew up, to care for his ailing mother. Set in 2018, the dystopian conclusion is marked by climate change and global pandemics, but the values of the original spiritual community set up a struggle between the desire for freedom and the creation of shared life.

Reading both books, I could imagine myself inhabiting these worlds, in ways more personal than when I read a news report about global warming. Fiction allows us to live into a reality relevant to our time and to visualize our own reactions to the events on the page.

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Relearning to Read

DREAMS CAN serve a powerful purpose. Jacob dreamed a ladder and was renamed Israel. Joseph dreamed the sun and moon and stars and was sold into slavery. The magi dreamed a warning and returned home by way of another road.

Years ago I had a dream. I sat, a child, on a dirt floor. Around me paced a horse, saddled, ready. In front stood an immense door, cathedral-tall and brooding. And though open, the space within was dark. I was holding a light. And in the dream, I knew we were to bring light into that darkness. And the darkness—the darkness was the church.

In Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture, Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Old Testament at Columbia Theological Seminary, bears light to the exegetical (seminary lingo for interpretive) work and examination of the interplay between truth and power found in both familiar and less familiar narratives of Old Testament scripture. Rigorous in content, the read is nevertheless accessible to scholar and novice alike.

Brueggemann's concern with the interplay of truth and power rests on the observation that far too often truth, even biblical truth, is found colluding with and legitimizing the self-serving and self-preserving agenda of totalistic and monopolizing authorities. To use biblical imagery, truth sides with the Pharaohs and the Solomons of the world and not with those on its margins and periphery.

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Inside Job

Viridiana Martinez
Viridiana Martinez

ONE EVENING LAST July, I walked up to the Port Everglades U.S. border checkpoint in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to intentionally turn myself in to U.S. Customs and Border Protection. My mission: to get into Broward Transitional Center, a privately run U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facility, to expose the stories of those held there. It's categorized by ICE as a model facility. But as I witnessed firsthand, it is nothing short of a prison where, as in the other 250 immigration prisons across the U.S., immigrants are arbitrarily held and exposed to all kinds of human rights abuses.

The total number of undocumented immigrants detained in the U.S. each year is sky-high—ICE detained 429,247 people in 2011 alone. In August 2011, the administration announced that it would focus its deportation efforts on people with criminal records. "Obama is only deporting gangbangers and felons," established immigrant advocacy organizations said. "He's our guy for immigration reform!"

But that is far from true. In my work with the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA), I keep hearing the real stories of immigrant prisoners and the loved ones from whom they're torn.

Getting detained was part of a strategy of civil disobedience that fellow activists and I have been pursuing since 2010: In order to pressure ICE and the government, we have to put ourselves on the line. I was one of two Youth Alliance activists who sought to infiltrate the Broward Center to find out the inside story. We also set up a telephone hotline, funded by donations from the community, to take calls from people detained in the center.

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The Circle of Life

EXCLUDING WOMEN from leadership weakens the commitment and contributions of churches, theological institutions, and the global church in their participation in God's prophetic mission. It translates to women's priorities and specific needs being inadequately articulated and under-resourced.

For instance, matters of sexuality, reproductive health education, and justice are hardly ever discussed in churches or theological institutions, except when governments want to legalize abortion. Similarly, little attention is given to maternal health care despite the high rates of maternal death and infant mortality in Africa. It is not enough for churches to focus on baptizing children, blessing them, and welcoming them into the house of God when they neglect to care for their well-being from the time they are in their mothers' wombs, especially now that so many children are born HIV-infected. Responsible and healthy sexuality, childbearing, and parenting are matters that require full engagement of both women and men, and the churches should be at the forefront of providing much-needed education.

Women have been left to shoulder the burden of the times: preventing HIV transmission, facing HIV-related stigma, handling deaths, and addressing the myriad other adverse impacts that the HIV pandemic has created. Similarly, in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, of which this author is a founding member, women have provided leadership in naming theological, ethical, cultural, and religious beliefs, as well as harmful practices and leadership styles, that fuel gender disparity, social injustices, and the spread of HIV in religious communities and in society at large. The Circle also has endeavored to provide theological and ethical reflections that are empowering and transformative to the behaviors contrary to God's will for how women and men relate to each other in families, religious contexts, and everyday life.

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A Shameful Legacy

A TRADITIONAL whale-oil lamp is solemnly lit by an Inuit elder. After being brushed with cedar and smudged with sage, three commissioners take their seats. A survivor begins his testimony, haltingly narrating painful memories from 60 years ago. Soon tears begin to flow, and a support person carefully collects the tear-soaked tissues into a basket, to be added to the sacred fire that burns outside the hall. In this space, so filled with sorrow and rage, every ritual communicates respect, empathy, and determination, turning public halls into sanctuaries of healing.

For seven generations Indigenous Canadian children were taken from their homes and sent, most often by force, to Indian Residential Schools. Churches began operating these schools in the early 1860s, and by the 1890s the federal government had begun to make attendance mandatory as part of a policy of assimilation into Canadian society. In these schools children were forbidden to speak their native languages, forced to conform to European ways of life, and often abused emotionally, physically, and sexually. Though most residential schools were closed by the mid-1970s , the last was not shuttered until 1996.

As part of a 2007 legal settlement with survivors, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was created, with a five-year mandate to document the testimony of survivors, families, and communities affected by the residential school experience and to inform all Canadians about this tragic history. Launched in Winnipeg in June 2010, the TRC will include seven national and a number of regional hearings throughout the country. The hope is to “guide and inspire Aboriginal peoples and Canadians in a process of reconciliation and renewed relationships that are based on mutual understanding and respect.”

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