Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Fortresses and Façades

Because they lead my people astray, saying, “Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. (Ezekiel 13.10-11)

Midnight of the Soul

On this date, 150 years ago, Confederate soldiers sweep into Charleston Harbor and attack US troops stationed at Fort Sumter. Their gunfire rings in America’s midnight of the soul—an hour whose darkness grows so impenetrable it hovers above us still. It was destined to happen, of course, this violent reckoning with contradictions the Founders naïvely entrust future generations to reconcile. Democratic ideals like personal freedom and social equality are too rich for our pragmatically capitalist blood. While a federal government ensuring states’ rights works in principle, it’s stubbornly impracticable. The revolutionary pledge to promote such inalienable human rights as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness only holds for male landowners of European descent. The Founders aren’t so naïve they don’t notice potential cloud chambers pocking their Great Experiment’s fortress of freedom. They see where its walls are flimsy, its joints weak. As Founders, their first duty is laying solid groundwork for upcoming architects and builders to refine their original design and shore up its initially patched-together construction. In this, they’re utterly magnificent.

Their faith that future Americans will heed their precedent of revering national unity above political ideology and personal ambition is naïve to the point of foolishness, however. Succeeding generations find choosing sides far less demanding than compromise. Greased palms feel friendlier than hands calloused from tireless labor to build an increasingly great nation. Instead of bolstering the Founders’ beacon against clouds that dim its brilliance, they settle for slapping on a fresh coat of red, white, and blue from time to time in the name of “patriotism.” Then April 12, 1861 arrives. Before God’s sun rises, our midnight lands in a blaze of artillery. America’s bastion of liberty all but implodes as nearly a century of pent-up bickering and neglect eclipse the horizon.

Naturally Superior and Morally Bound

We’re well versed in mounting conflicts that erupt into Civil War. We’re taught the South’s agrarian economy can’t survive without slave labor; the real issue is states’ rights, not slavery; slave trade has become such a fixture in Southern culture few who benefit from it question its justice. Yet when we envision hundreds of gray-clad youths stealing into position to slaughter their fellow countrymen, we can’t discern what they hope to gain by use of violence. What’s in it for the wealthy elite—plantation owners and merchants reaping huge profits at human expense—is too apparent to refute. Nor is it sane to suggest anything but wealth and favor motivates toadying politicians and preachers who hawk distorted ideology and diabolical doctrines of racial inequality. Confederate military command is decidedly upper crust, either ardent slave owners or their sons. But the faceless troops—hardscrabble farmers, day laborers, millworkers, and miners whose misery mirrors slavery more closely than the privileged manner they volunteer to die for—what’s in it for them?

The standard answer: they fight to protect their way of life, a laughable conclusion about an average Confederate soldier with neither means nor need to own slaves. No, these men risk their lives because they’re seduced to believe they’re inherently superior to slaves and morally bound to murder anyone opposed to their belief. (Sidebar: how is it we Americans harshly reproach Germans who tumbled for Hitler’s evil while sentimentalizing our very same dance with the Devil?) Without a morally sound foundation on which to build, the Confederacy’s architects erect a façade that mimics America’s freedom fortress. Borrowing from their recently disavowed compatriots’ playbook, they mask their rickety structure in red, white, and blue patriotism—cleverly sticking to stars and bars and all that goes with inflaming unwary American minds to hate, wound, and kill for “love of country,” rather than defending their nation’s ideals. (Remember: that’s really hard work to be avoided at all cost—“cost” being the operative term.)

Thus, in the first instance of what would become a deadly habit, decades of lazy politics and poor citizenship lead America to equip enemies of freedom and equality. The young Rebels have absolutely nothing to gain by killing and maiming their brothers. If anything, the slavery crisis provides their generation’s best reason for uniting to remedy a fundamental flaw in the Founders’ plan—to make the freedom’s fortress sturdier, more impregnable to threats of tyranny, corruption, and senseless violence. With neither side having witnessed this, though, taking up arms seems logical to both; a lifetime wasted on watching paint dry conditions North and South alike to turn a blind eye to their civic duty to uphold moral principles and social justice. When midnight descends on the American soul, the Union stumbles and staggers in search of a way out. Meanwhile, the Rebels can’t see they’ve elected to be slaves to slave-owner wealth and power. Lives across the divide are cheapened past the price of the cheapest slave—and debt our nation accrues in the process has yet to be cleared. April 12, 1861’s toll on racial harmony, equal rights, and personal freedoms may never go away.

Addicted to Whitewash

Inattentive upkeep of fortresses and fondness for façades are neither recent phenomena nor uniquely American. They’re common to a universal tale as old as time. Ezekiel’s prophecy addresses a nation born in bondage and nurtured in freedom, only to be divided into two kingdoms, north and south, that turn on each other and consequently fall captive to Babylon. (Their 70-year exile is lamented to this day as the midnight of the Jewish soul.) The prophet is a captive through whom God charges the people with apathy that accounts for their demise. Content to watch paint dry, they disregard the hard work of building their nation. Convenient ignorance evolves into a crippling habit they can’t break. In Ezekiel 13.10-12 we see an oft-repeated pattern throughout the prophecy. God cites leaders for abusing their nation’s trust but ultimately indicts the people for letting them get by with it: “Because they lead my people astray, saying, ‘Peace,’ when there is no peace, and because, when a flimsy wall is built, they cover it with whitewash, therefore tell those who cover it with whitewash that it is going to fall. Rain will come in torrents, and I will send hailstones hurtling down, and violent winds will burst forth. When the wall collapses, will not people ask you, ‘Where is the whitewash you covered it with?’”

America has become addicted to whitewash. No sooner do we kick the habit than we permit leaders to seduce us with fresh paint. Our resistance weakens with each relapse. Cycling up to deadly overdoses takes less time: 80 years to the Civil War; 60 tolerating robber barons and political graft before crashing into Depression; 40 excusing paranoid propaganda and moral hypocrisy before the Sixties unleash a tsunami of unrest and violence; 25 pretending not to see the Religious Right creeping into bed with neoconservatives and big business; 15 tuning out cautions that rampant materialism and media overload will be our undoing. And every cycle cheapens lives past the cheapest slave’s price.

Every time our walls cave, we grab the whitewash and leave freedom’s trowels and hammers to somebody else—somebody who doesn’t exist, never did, and never will. Out of the mouth of God we’re warned that whitewashed walls will surely fall. The most patriotic façade is still a façade. It cannot endure. Fortresses require constant attention and fortitude to strengthen ramparts, seal cloud chambers, and mend moral decay. As believers who know the ways of justice and righteousness, we have no excuse for not speaking out against moral apathy or conveniently ignoring flaws we can remedy. If no one else pitches in, with God’s help we can do the hard work of liberty and equality. We can break the whitewash habit and kill our contentment to watch paint dry. May it be so.

On April 12, 1861, eight decades of convenient ignorance erupted in a blaze of brother-on-brother violence. Since that day, our whitewash addiction has escalated into increasingly shorter cycles between calamitous overdoses.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Love Among the Ruins

Jesus wept. Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (John 11.35-37)

People of Substance

A lot has changed in the three years or so since Jesus found Peter and Andrew on the seashore and began assembling a core group of followers. For one thing, the need to recruit disciples has long passed. Jesus is an established Rabbi known for His provocative preaching and miracles. There’s always a show when He comes to town. People drop everything and flock to Him. Although it sounds crass, the comparison seems accurate: Jesus is a celebrity activist akin to Bono or Oprah—Someone Who wields His fame to change lives. That broadens His appeal significantly. By the second year, many people of substance actively court Jesus. They invite Him to banquets, prevail on Him to heal their sick, and ask to join His entourage. Since wealth and status don’t impress Him, He rebuffs those whose self-interest is obvious. Yet we’re given more than a few instances when Jesus befriends people who don’t fit the downtrodden mold. Besides, assuming Jesus confines His interest to the outcast and impoverished contradicts His message of radical inclusion in John 6.37: “All those the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away.”

It should be noted, however, the better advantaged of Jesus’s followers are exceptions to their class. Unlike Bono, Oprah, and their ilk, Jesus never obtains the kind of superstar glamour that swings wide the gates to upper crust society. That’s why when we see Him dining in finer homes, clusters of unhappy neighbors gather in protest. It’s why Nicodemus, the highly regarded Pharisee, sneaks off in the night to visit Jesus. It’s also why the disciples balk when He decides to return to Bethany—the Jerusalem suburb where his dear friends Martha, Mary, and Lazarus live—after He learns Lazarus is gravely ill. The last time they visited that part of the country, its residents tried to stone Him.

Completely Out of Character

Although John’s Gospel doesn’t explicitly say so, Jesus appears to share the disciples’ concern. Something’s amiss—that we know. News of Lazarus’s sickness reaches Him and He reacts completely out of character. He’s indecisive and hesitant. It takes two days to make up His mind to go see about His friend. In retrospect, we realize Lazarus couldn’t have got sick at a worse time. Jesus’s arrest and execution will occur in a matter of weeks. Returning to Bethany puts Him within two miles of enemies conspiring against Him. His sense of foreboding must be unbearable, as must knowing His friends need Him desperately. Lazarus, Mary, and Martha never hesitate to welcome Jesus to their home. The sisters lavish Him with care, feeding and housing Him in grand style. On one occasion, Mary empties an expensive box of perfume on Jesus to signify how dearly He’s loved. Yet Jesus waits. He waits so long by the time He tells the disciples they’re going to Bethany He’s confident Lazarus is already dead.

John, whose main purpose for writing his Gospel is deifying Jesus as “the Word made flesh” (1.14), gives the impression Jesus lingers on purpose to set the stage for a final, unprecedented miracle that foreshadows His own death and resurrection. He confides to the disciples, “For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.” (11.14) But if we accept that, we also accept that Jesus delays coming to His friends’ aid for heartlessly selfish reasons. What could be crueler than ignoring their urgent request for help—to allow Lazarus to die, while his sisters cope with undue stress wondering why Jesus hasn’t shown up? Clearly, Mary and Martha are wounded when Jesus arrives. Mary stays at home and lets Martha go out to greet Him as He nears the town. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died,” she says. (v21) Jesus doesn’t acknowledge her grief, however. He promises Lazarus will be revived, saying, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.” (v25) When he asks about Mary, Martha brings her to Him and she says exactly what Martha said: “If You had been here…” Again, Jesus overlooks her sorrow, asking, “Where have you laid him?” (v33) Mary leads Him to Lazarus’s grave, with a gaggle of neighbors trailing after them. At the tomb, the weight of the entire ordeal buries Jesus. His disconcerting detachment vanishes. In the presence of beloved friends and cynical onlookers, He weeps.

A Horrible Situation

What is Jesus feeling? The episode is so fraught with conflicted emotions and behaviors attributing His grief to any of them amounts to speculation. Mourning Lazarus doesn’t prompt His tears; in mere minutes, He will restore His friend’s life. We want to agree with neighbors who say, “See how He loved him!” (v36) Then again, the cynics have a point when they counter, “Could not He Who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?” (v37) John’s reason for Jesus’s delay is moot when we observe how it affects Mary and Martha. The purest of intentions don’t change the fact Jesus walks into a horrible situation of His own making. Is that what we’re meant to see? Should we even question why Jesus falters? Perhaps the most obvious answer is the best one.

When Jesus reaches the graveside, regret, confusion, disappointment, and every other feeling we associate with human frailty engulf Him. He weeps because His hesitance incited His friends to doubt Him. His tearstained face conveys love among the ruins. He summons all of His power not only to speak life into Lazarus’s hollow shell, but also to revive the faith and trust of those He loves. What we’re looking at is precisely what Hebrews 4.15 describes: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

We all have uncomfortable moments when hesitance, fear, and every other imaginable internal conflict threaten the ruin of relationships with people who dearly love us and we dearly love. We cause grief and confusion about where we are and why we don’t respond sooner. When we realize what we've done, we weep. But there is life in us, because there is love in us—life we can speak that brings lost friends out of their graves and heals the pain of disillusioned loved ones. Accounting for shambles we create is never pleasant. Walking into situations where we’ve let people down is nothing we want to do, even though we know we must. At Lazarus’s graveside Jesus demonstrates the power of love among the ruins.

The humanity we witness in Jesus’s tears expresses the regret, confusion, disappointment, and every other feeling we associate with frailty.