Exodus 32: 1-14

Fourth Presbyterian Church, South Boston, MA

October 15, 2017

When we first moved to North Carolina, I volunteered for a couple of years as a chaplain at a local hospital. I was on call about one night a month, and was called to the hospital anytime an emergency situation arose. One night I was called to be with the family of a woman, Rose. Rose, who was in her sixties, was receiving treatment for a drug overdose from earlier that evening. Rose was stable, but had passed out, and as I arrived, she was beginning to come to. In the meantime, Rose’s immediate family members, her husband Robert and her sister Jennie, had also arrived. As I talked with Robert and Jennie in Rose’s room, it was clear to me that neither was sober. At first, I had a hard time understanding exactly who Robert and Jennie were, what had happened to Rose, and what they wanted me to do. They asked me to pray for Rose, which I did. As I was praying, Rose began to wake up. She wasn’t lucid. I finished my prayer, and as I did, Robert and Jennie wanted me to know that Rose struggled with addiction, that she wasn’t a bad person, that all of them had a tough life. Rose tried hard to get clean, they said, and sometimes, for a time, she was clean. But it didn’t last. There were addiction problems with Robert and Rose’s children as well. Jennie and Robert had a story to tell about themselves and about Rose, one that invited the listener to affirm them in their struggle to live a good life, even when they couldn’t always manage to do so. That was an easy invitation for me to accept.    

As I listened, it struck me that this wasn’t the first time that Jennie and Robert had uttered these very sentences. They’d had occasion to tell that same story to other strangers, in other moments of crisis and vulnerability. My sadness and empathy connected with the reality that this probably would not be the last time that Rose, Jennie, and Robert would tell this story, because this would not likely be the last time that this family would find themselves in this situation. At the time, I felt at a loss as to what I could do to help them – there wasn’t much from my own experience that could orient me to the kind of struggles that Rose, Jennie, and Robert wrestle with every day. But in hindsight, I realize that maybe the best thing I could do for this family in that particular moment was simply to hold space for them to tell their well-worn stories about themselves and their lives, to hear those stories as best I could, and to let Rose, Jennie, and Robert know that they had been heard.

In the Exodus passage for today, the Israelites are presented as “stiff-necked,” as the text says, unwilling to be faithful to the God who was their champion, the God who led them out of slavery in Egypt, who watched over them during their long sojourn in the wilderness, and who was leading them to a promised land, flowing with milk and honey. The story would have us condemn the Israelites, as God condemns them, for their faithlessness. But that’s hard for me to do, in part because of my experience with people like Rose, Jennie, and Robert. I can’t help but have sympathy for the Israelites. They’ve endured trauma after trauma, first in slavery to the Egyptians, then the harrowing escape out of Egypt, and the long sojourn in the wilderness. All the while, their God is hard to access, hidden in a roving cloud, parked on top of a mountain that the people aren’t allowed to go on, or absent altogether for long periods of time. And now Moses, their leader, has been gone for quite awhile. You can imagine that the people’s anxiety is through the roof. Has God brought them out of an already vulnerable position in Egypt only to lead them to destruction in the wilderness?    

We human beings are meaning-making creatures. In moments of anxiety and distress, we look for explanations and narratives, some of them well-worn and many of them often repeated, many truthful and some not. Narratives help us to make sense of our world and our experience in it. Rose, Jennie, and Robert had a way of talking about themselves in their most vulnerable moments that helped them to make sense of their struggles. I think that’s what the golden calf did for the Israelites: it helped them to make meaning of their struggles in the midst of pretty profound vulnerability. In the golden calf, the Israelites affirm that they are worthy – worthy of being noticed, worthy of being remembered, worthy of being saved from the Egyptians and from the wilderness, not by an inaccessible or absent Yahweh, but by gods who can be seen and touched. The golden calf made sense to the Israelites because the golden calf made sense of their experience.

So, what’s wrong with the golden calf? What’s wrong, in other words, with idolatry? On the one hand, the Israelites were doing what human beings do – they were trying to understand how they had gotten to where they are and where they are going. On the other hand, the golden calf also signaled the Israelites’ failure to live into the new way of being that God was offering. The story of Exodus is really about this question: what does it mean to live into a new identity, a new kind of story about who we are and what makes life meaningful? In Exodus 19, God tells Moses to tell the Israelites that if they “obey my voice and keep my covenant, [they] shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples … you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” In Egypt, the Israelites had been slaves. Pharaoh abused them at will, pressed them into labor, killed Jewish children, and denied the Israelites their full humanity. But God offers the Israelites a new identity and purpose. Moses leaves the Israelite camp to ascend Mt. Sinai, and he hears from God in great detail just what a priestly kingdom and a holy nation will look like. This priestly kingdom is not without its problems (there are still slaves, for example), but it is one that protects and cares for the poor, resident aliens, widows and orphans, laborers, and those to whom harm has been done and to whom compensation is due. The holy nation that God envisions was not like life in Egypt under Pharaoh; it is a place of justice.

But for that priestly kingdom to be a possibility, it must begin with the affirmation that God is the one and only God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and out of the house of slavery. So, maybe the golden calf wasn’t just about worshipping a false god as much as it was about the Israelites’ resistance to becoming something new, a fear of learning to live differently in the world, a fear of becoming a new kind of people. It’s scary to let go of old identities and old ways of being in the world because it means that at a certain point, we might not be able to recognize ourselves anymore – and then what will happen?

This past summer, I went with a group of Wake Forest students on a nine-day pilgrimage to Iona. Iona is an island off the west coast of Scotland and is the home of an ancient monastery that is a center of Celtic Christianity. We understood what we were doing as a pilgrimage, in the sense that we were cultivating an intentional openness to new experiences of God that, we hoped, would change the way we see ourselves, our neighbors, and the world. There were a couple of students for whom the Iona trip was a first experience of traveling abroad. One of them, Carly, showed up with two huge suitcases and a smaller bag full of stuff. (Keep in mind that this was a nine-day trip!). I asked Carly if she was moving to Scotland, and I teased her that she was planning to run off with some Scotsman like Jamie Fraser from the TV show Outlander. As we traveled on trains and ferries and buses, and schlepped up and down staircases in hotels and hostels, we had to devise a buddy system for Carly so that she wouldn’t get left behind or collapse under the weight of her considerable luggage. At the beginning of the week, Carly really struggled with being away from home, with the near constant cold and wet weather, with the absence of many of the amenities that made her home life safe and comfortable. Home, or at least some idea of home, was Carly’s golden calf. Her anxiousness about the trip manifest as constant complaining. Carly casted everything in a negative light – the food, the weather, the hiking, the schedule; there was nothing good about the experience. About two days into the trip, my colleague Chris Copeland called Carly on her complaining. He said, “You know, Carly, I know you’re not in your comfort zone on this trip, but if you complain about everything, chances are you’re not going to learn anything while you’re here. You need to let some of this go.”

To her credit, Carly took Chris’s suggestion to heart. She committed to the group that she would practice gratitude whenever she felt inclined to complain. Towards the end of the week, we went for a three or four-hour hike around the island. Not ten minutes in, it started to rain, hard, as it often did. Iona is full of muddy bogs that are always a challenge to navigate, especially when it is pouring down rain. Carly was wearing bright white tennis shoes that, by the end of a day of trekking through muddy bogs, looked to be ruined. We were all waiting for her to complain about the hike, but she didn’t. Someone finally said: “Carly, if you want to complain, it’s OK.” It was pretty rough, after all! Carly said that she had been so engrossed in the conversations she had with her colleagues along the way that she had forgotten about the rain. She was surprised at how much she had learned from sharing and listening to the stories of her walking partners. Carly later reported that her attention to gratitude had shifted the whole experience for her, and she also developed more of an awareness about why she was so fearful of the experience of pilgrimage in the first place. Carly had feared the pilgrimage because she wasn’t sure she could find her way in world in which God wanted more for her than she wanted for herself.

Idolatry isn’t just about the worship of false gods. It’s more fundamentally about closing down the possibility that in being in relationship with the true God, we will become more fully who God intends for us to be. Idols are tough. Because we make them, they help us both to recognize and understand ourselves and our world. Idols shore up our vulnerability to disappointment and distress. But they also blind us to possibilities for new life. The Israelites failed to be open to the possibility that whatever was going on between Moses and God on Mt. Sinai promised more for the Israelites than the Israelites could imagine for themselves. The same was true for Carly, and maybe also for Rose, Robert, and Jennie. In closing down our vulnerability, idols prevent us from hearing what theologian Howard Thurman called the “sound of the genuine” in ourselves – those ways in which God is calling us to be who we really are.

God’s anger about the golden calf and God’s willingness to change God’s mind about the Israelites also tells us something. Yahweh is incensed at the Israelites for their idolatry and faithlessness. Yahweh is ready to wipe them off the face of the earth and rebuild the chosen community through Moses’s offspring. But Moses persuades God that if God were to destroy the Israelites, that would only show the Egyptians that God meant to exploit the vulnerability of the Israelites all along. But in calling the Israelites to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation, God is calling them to be open to vulnerability. Moses, then, exposes an inconsistency in God’s rage. Moses reminds God of God’s promises to Israel. God relents; and not only that – God changes God’s mind.

What I hear in all of this is that the journey into new identities and new purposes to which God calls Israel and us is not linear; it’s not just good and getting better all the time. Instead, this journey is more often two steps forward and one step back. It is a redemptive journey, one in which our vulnerability is always affirmed in God’s forgiveness. God invites; we make ourselves vulnerable to God’s invitation; we try; we fail, God forgives us, and we try again. The life to which God calls us is not a good life, if “good” means progress towards perfection and the achievement of some goal. We are not called to live “good lives” in that sense; we are called to live redeemed lives – lives that don’t always get it right, but are made good despite inevitable failure in our yearning and striving and stretching towards God. Our role is to try and try again; God’s role is to forgive. And that is a hard lesson to learn, even for God.

What is the sound of the genuine in your life? And where are the opportunities to let go of narratives and stories that stand in the way of living more fully into the person God has called you to be? Wherever those opportunities are for you and for us, may God bless you on the journey.    

What If the World Isn’t What We Think It Is?

John 9: 1-41

FBC Highland Avenue

March 24, 2017

 

I was pleasantly surprised yesterday morning when I opened my copy of the Winston-Salem Journal to find a considerably large picture of one of our School of Divinity graduates, Liam Hooper, on the front page. The picture, of course, was connected to a story. And the story examines the views of two local ministers, Liam being one, on House Bill 2, on the first anniversary of the passage of that legislation. HB 2, as I’m sure you all know, is popularly known as the “bathroom bill.” Among other restrictions, the law makes it illegal for persons to use public restrooms of any gender besides the one to which they were assigned at birth.

I am proud to say that I had the pleasure of working with Liam during his time at the School of Divinity in a number of courses. Liam is an insightful, wise, and courageous minister of the Gospel, and a tireless advocate of transgender rights. That is to say, Liam would remind us, that he is an advocate of human rights – the right of all human beings to be, well, human. Indeed, in the Journal article, Liam comments that the “real failing” of HB 2 is, he says, “the failing to see [transgender people] as human.” When asked about the concern some people have that without the bathroom law, public restrooms are vulnerable to sexual predators, Liam remarks:

“[That concern] plays on and agitates pre-existing fears that people have about the possibility that the universe might not be as ordered as we think it is or that we might not fully understand the order of nature. … And so people are afraid that if there aren’t these absolutes that are men or women — what does that really mean? And it’s kind of a subconscious or pre-conscious fear. It’s just something that comes up in all of us.”

Then Liam said something that really got my wheels turning. Liam names a deep concern that I think motivates much of our fear much of the time, and particularly our fear of the other: “What if,” he says, “the world isn’t what I think it is?” What if the world isn’t what we think it is?

When we learn that the world isn’t what we think it is, what do we do then? How do we respond? And how is God present in the ways we might respond to the world when we learn that it is not what we think it is? These are tough questions – questions that maybe only a formerly blind beggar can help us to see clearly.

Please join me in a word of prayer: God, we give you thanks for the opportunity to gather in your presence as your people and your body. We ask, God, that you would work to illumine your Word for us in this moment, that we would see and feel and understand the ways in which your Word bears us up in this broken world and inspires us to respond to it with the love and compassion you showed in the life and work of your Son in whose name we pray. Amen.

_____

I have some fairly profound vision problems. Because of a genetic disfiguration of both of my corneas, I have had five corneal transplants, three in my right eye and two in my left, most recently in January of last year. There have been times – months, entire semesters even – when I could read with only one eye. And when I accidentally broke my only contact lens for my left eye this past December, on December 24 to be exact, I had a panic attack. At the time, that tiny piece of plastic was the only thing I had to help me to see well enough to read. Fortunately, I was able to get a temporary replacement. Many of you have probably experienced similar kinds of vision issues. And you know that when you love to read, you read a lot, and you aren’t certain from day to day whether you’ll be able to – well, I’ll tell you, that’s depressing. And, as you might imagine, academics who can’t read don’t do very well.

And so, as someone who has learned not to take good vision for granted, I’m struck in this passage by the blind man’s response to his own healing. We don’t hear any jubilation. There is no sense of relief. We don’t get an enthusiastic, “Thank you, Jesus” – though, in fairness, the text also doesn’t suggest that the man was ungrateful. But it is odd, isn’t it, that the only one, it seems, who is not surprised that he has been healed and can now see is the man who was blind! I’m surprised everyday when I can see! So, what’s up with that? His neighbors are surprised, the Pharisees and Jews are surprised – and in fact, “surprised” is too mild a term. They are incredulous, unwilling to believe the man, and angry that this happened at all, and especially on the sabbath. But the formerly blind beggar – he’s not surprised; he’s just cool.

When the man’s neighbors ask him where Jesus is, he says simply, “I do not know.” I like to imagine, though it is not really in the text, that this moment is the first time the formerly blind man is asked to use his vision to confirm a truth about the world. “Where is Jesus,” his neighbors ask him. I imagine the man shading his eyes, scanning the horizon, looking for Jesus, so that he can respond to his neighbors’ query about Jesus’ whereabouts. But he comes up short. How profoundly do we rely on our vision to verify everyday truths about the world? We all know the expression, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” And yet, just as the newly sighted man is not surprised that he now has vision, he seems equally unperturbed when his vision fails him the first time he is asked to use it to report a fact about the world. The man doesn’t see Jesus, but, the story tells us, that does not interrupt his belief about what happened.

To my mind, the most compelling feature of this story is the man’s straightforward affirmation of the truth of his experience, despite the ways his experience complicates and confounds the worldviews of Jesus’ detractors. The Pharisees are exercised that Jesus performed the healing of the blind man on the sabbath; therefore, they conclude, Jesus must not be from God. The Jews are similarly upset. For the Jews, the formerly blind man and Jesus are both sinners, the man because his blindness proves that he was born into sin, and Jesus because he practice healing on the sabbath. The Jews question the man’s parents who out of fear insist that they talk to their son directly. The man, irritated that he is being questioned a second time, says simply: “I do not know whether [Jesus] is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.”

What irritates the Pharisees and the Jews so profoundly is that this healing upsets their deepest truths about the world. Those truths are that the law of Moses tells us what it means to live good lives, lives that reflect God’s intentions for the world; that the law clearly forbids work on the Sabbath; that disability is a form of punishment for breaking the law, and that persons born with disabilities are being punished for their own sins or the sins of their parents. The Pharisees and Jews simply cannot let go of these concerns. The last time we see the Jews in this story, they have re-affirmed their belief that the man must have been born into sin because he was blind. The fact that he is no longer blind doesn’t make him clean; the man, in their view, is still a sinner, and they drive him out. That’s exactly the same place Jesus’ disciples begin 34 verses earlier, when they ask Jesus: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” It’s hard to let go of old ways of seeing, isn’t it!

But here Liam’s question is crucial: What if the world isn’t what we think it is? What if the world is completely different? And now, the really scary question: What if the world is different from our experience of it in such a way that those differences threaten to upset the power and privilege that benefit us but marginalize others? Imagine a prophet in the time of the Pharisees who came along and said: “You have heard it said: God loves those who pray in private. But I say unto you: pray loudly, obnoxiously, and often in public, and God will love you even more.” Now, there’s a prophet a Pharisee can love! The powerful are happy when they find out that the world is different than what they thought it was, as long as those differences benefit them. But when a sinner can be healed in a way that breaks a religious law, and that religious law ensures the power and privilege of the Pharisees and Jews – well, that just won’t do.

I’m reminded of the poignant phrase the essayist Ta-Nehesi Coates uses to describe white people in his book Between the World and Me. He refers to white people as “people who believe they are white.” That phrase underscores that whiteness is not a matter of skin color. It’s not a matter of national or ethnic heritage. Whiteness is not a natural condition. Whiteness is instead a constructed identity, made by people, that reflects a world oriented to benefit certain persons and communities at the expense of others. Whiteness is primarily a marker of power and privilege, rather than a description of a person’s natural identity. Now, we can all think of a lot of people who got into a lot of trouble for pointing to a world different from the one arranged to enhance white privilege.

Similarly, one could get into a lot of trouble for upsetting the power arrangements that determine who gets to be a man or a woman, what resources are available to men and women, and what possibilities are open to men and women for living lives of meaning and purpose. The Journal article I mentioned reports the views of another minister who defends HB 2. That minister says: “I serve a God who has never made a mistake from all eternity.” He goes on to say that: “To look in the face of God and say, ‘I know you created me a certain way but you made a mistake, and I should have been born male. But I was born female,’ or vice-versa. I just don’t believe that happens.” To my mind, that comment misunderstands what transgender folk are saying about their identity. They’re not saying that God made a mistake in creating persons assigned to a gender identity that does not align with their own experience of themselves. Instead, transgender folks are saying that gender is a human category, like whiteness. It is useful in some respects. But gender and sexuality categories are also not immune from the play of power that privileges some at the expense of others.

Jesus would not, I think, have said that God made a mistake in creating the blind man with a physical disability. He would not have said that the man was blind because of some sin that he or his parents committed. Jesus does say that blindness is a human category, and it is applied in ways that reinforce human power structures. At the end of the passage, Jesus flips the Pharisees’ judgment of the blind man’s sin on its head. Now, sight is the token of sin, and blindness is the token of sinlessness. Jesus says to the Pharisees: “If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains.” Similarly, what if it is the case that those who get to say what counts as a man or a woman, and those who benefit from getting to determine what counts as a man or a woman, are the ones with sin – and that the ones who challenge these categories bear witness to a new reality that Jesus has introduced?

The blind man was open to seeing the world in a new way – a world in which God’s work to make creation whole takes precedent over the priorities of the powerful and the privileged. Maybe that’s why he wasn’t surprised that his vision was restored. The Jews and the Pharisees were closed to these possibilities. The blind man is our answer to the question: What do we do when we find out that the world is not the way we think it is? What do we do when the world is different from the way we think it is in ways that threaten the privileges that we enjoy? We open ourselves to it. We trust that God is working to create spaces in which all of creation flourishes, and we look for ways to participate in God’s work for justice, reconciliation, and compassion in the world. Listening for Jesus often begins with Liam’s question: What if the world is not the way we think it is? Let us take courage and listen attentively. Amen.

On Demagogues and Prophets

In 1961, Charles Lomas, pioneer of rhetorical studies, famously defined demagoguery as “the process by which skillful speakers and writers seek to influence public opinion by employing the traditional tools of rhetoric with complete indifference to truth. In addition,” he wrote, “although demagoguery does not necessarily seek ends contrary to the public interest, its primary motivation is personal gain” (Lomas, “The Rhetoric of Demagoguery,” Western Speech (Summer 1961), p. 161). Lomas goes on to specify what he means by “the truth.” He argues that there is no need to “posit an absolute truth;” at minimum, we can say, he thinks, that the demagogue is one who clearly does not intend to “state and interpret facts objectively.”

I’ll admit from the outset that I’ve been casting around to learn more about demagoguery because I suspect that our soon-to-be President, Donald J. Trump, is a demagogue. That’s my working hypothesis. While it might be a simple case of confirmation bias, I am inclined to think that Lomas’s definition of demagoguery describes Trump’s politics well – particularly the parts about using the tools of rhetoric with “complete indifference to the truth” and that the demagogue’s “primary motivation” is “personal gain.” I won’t re-hash here concerns about Trump’s “indifference to truth,” nor persistent worries that he will manipulate the presidency to advance his business interests.

With Lomas, I don’t think we need to invoke some understanding of absolute truth to describe demagoguery accurately. Contra Lomas, I’m also pretty sure that there is no such a thing as “objective” statements and interpretations of “the facts,” So, let’s just forget about both absolute truth and objective interpretations of the facts and say that the demagogue is characteristically inhospitable to nuanced and competing descriptions of politically relevant states of affairs. Indeed, the demagogue even aspires to undermine the conditions that make nuanced descriptions possible (by undermining the media, norms of public discourse, etc.) – and is especially inhospitable to nuanced descriptions of politically relevant states of affairs that threaten to disrupt the demagogue’s aspirations for personal gain.

The demagogue perceives already existing tensions in what public audiences are willing to endorse as truthful descriptions of politically relevant states of affairs. The demagogue then works to undermine norms of public discourse in order to surface these tensions in ways that enhance the demagogue’s political power and position. Donald Trump, it is often claimed, is “just saying what everyone already thinks.” That statement is surely false in its assumptions about who “everyone” is and what they think. But the statement is probably true in that it implies a margin of public discourse that Trump did not himself create but, through his rhetorical performances, disclosed, legitimated, and leveraged to enhance his political power. Validating and intensifying fear, anger, and anxiety, demagogues engage a disaffected margin of public discourse, not to advance constructive forms of political cooperation, but to undermine democratic affirmations of pluralism, and the qualities of nuance and complexity that accompany them. The demagogue is not finally a champion of the disaffected communities he or she claims to be defending; she is a champion of herself.

In her recent book Prophecy without Contempt (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2016), Cathleen Kaveny argues that the proper function of the prophet is to administer what she calls “moral chemotherapy” in times when practical reasoning is profoundly attenuated – when, she writes, practical reasoning proceeds either on the basis of “distorted assumptions about the nature of reality” or a “skewed perception of the importance of the moral values at stake.” She goes on to suggest that the prophet “[destroys] the diseased moral reasoning” and “[promotes] healthy regrowth based on a secure connection with fundamental religious and moral truths” (pp. 312-13).

Demagogues and prophets bear interesting similarities to one another. Both diminish complexity in order to radically re-orient public discourse; both, therefore, are blunt-force instruments. To the extent that Kaveny’s “chemotherapy” metaphor signals drastic rhetorical measures, both prophets and demagogues work in that medium. Demagogues pull public discourse in the direction of disaffection, fear, and anxiety – political emotions that thrive on absolutist distinctions between good and evil, strong and weak. Demagogues thereby undermine democratic commitments to pluralism and conceptions of justice that affirm multiple and conflicting forms of human experience and value. Demagoguery expands the marginal spaces that prophets inhabit, as prophets stand on the side of “the weak” and “the enemy” that demagogues so passionately demonize. In democratic contexts, prophets pull discourse back in the direction of fundamental commitments to equality, equal access, and justice for all. The “for all” part ultimately distinguishes the prophet’s vocation from the demagogue’s; the demagogue is finally only out for himself.

We will shortly have a demagogue in the White House. That’s an open invitation to prophets who can champion all of those left out of Trump’s project to “make America great again.”

 

Public Trauma and the Cross of Christ

Philippians 3:17-4:1

I am the only child of two American history teachers. My parents, Joan and Dave Senior, both taught eighth grade American history, both in the same junior high school, on the same floor, down the hall from one another. Together they were one half of the eighth grade social studies program – although it often took students the whole year to figure out that “Mr. Senior” and “Mrs. Senior” were not just two people who coincidentally shared the same last name. I think it’s not romanticizing too much to say that I grew up with a much thicker civic than theological dogmatism. By that, I mean that my parents didn’t much care about what I believed about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and all of the other stuff that we do in church on Sunday mornings. They weren’t nearly as concerned, as Paul was, that our citizenship is in heaven. But they both – and especially my Dad – had a very clear story to tell about the American republic.

It was on one level just a story, one that focused mostly on great white men and the wars they fought. There were lots of dinnertime conversations about classroom antics, problematic students, and school politics. But I heard in those conversations, too, a lot about the trajectory that my parents’ eighth grade American history courses followed. I remember the story of those courses very clearly: from what was called the “pre-history” of Native American populations in North America; to the age of exploration and colonization, to the French and Indian War and the burdens that war imposed on the American colonies through British taxation; to the American Revolution and the founding of the republic, first in the Articles of Confederation and then, when it failed, in the Constitution; to the war of 1812 when the White House and Capital burned, and Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem; to the rowdy years of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s and the systematic genocide of Native Americans in the “Trail of Tears;” to the “peculiar institution” of American slavery, the continual turmoil it caused, and the many attempts at political compromise endeavored in response; to the Civil War and finally, Reconstruction. As May rolled around, my parents usually had not made it much past Reconstruction, and it was left to the high school social studies program to explore American history in the twentieth century.

Admittedly, this story leaves many voices and perspectives out: women, African Americans, Native Americans, poor and working class citizens, and immigrants, among many others. But the story I learned from my parents about American history did clearly communicate why our history and politics matter, and why, therefore, our shared history and politics constitutes a res publica, a “public thing” in the Latin, a republic, as Franklin said, if we will keep it. I’ve found in my own reading and learning that a history that includes the fullest range of American voices and experiences only strengthens this thesis.

This election cycle is unique in my experience, both in the ways that the deep injuries of citizens have energized it, and in the way that this election has exploited injuries to traumatize and re-traumatize, over and again, our own citizens for political gain. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that this election has been an exercise in what I would call public trauma. The theologian Serene Jones in her book Trauma and Grace defines a traumatic event as “an experience in which a person perceives oneself or another to be threatened with annihilation.” Trauma, she writes, can be overwhelming physical violence as well as overwhelming violent rhetoric that threatens annihilation. Trauma can be experienced not only by the person or persons who are the object of violence but also by those who witness it. We are familiar with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” the term that describes the long-term psychological damage that results from trauma. Trauma survivors who experience PTSD are hyper vigilant in monitoring their environment in preparation for anticipated attacks; they often experience emotional numbness, sleeplessness, lost or fragmented memory of trauma; and they sometimes feel a compulsion to repeat and re-live traumatic events over and again.

For some, trauma has fueled anger and desperation that our candidates have skillfully manipulated. Consider those Americans who have lost their jobs and livelihoods to a global economic system arranged to reinforce the interests of a powerful few at the expense of the well-being of many. We have chosen to create an economy that privileges wealthy corporate owners and big-box consumers over industrial workers, leaving many without jobs and without much possibility of ever re-entering the workforce. Or consider communities of color whom institutions and systems at home persecute violently because those who benefit from such systems have neither acknowledged their fear of losing their privilege, and are far from dismantling it. For others, campaign rhetorics and tactics have been a constant source of injury: women, survivors of sexual abuse, immigrants, the disabled, and communities of color, among others. I am not myself among these groups, but I can imagine that campaign rhetoric has opened and re-opened old wounds, returning the abused spouse, the displaced immigrant, the disabled reporter to those moments of original injury, forcing traumatized citizens to re-live and re-experience trauma. Some are forced to re-live trauma every time injuries are delivered from the campaign podium, in attack ads, or by whipped up and aggressive supporters.

These various experiences of injury are traumatic in that they threaten annihilation. Our politics has manipulated these threats of annihilation in the worst way, most often responding to injury by inflicting more injury. For many, this election has been a place a deep darkness, sadness, and injury, not unlike the storm-tossed sailors in today’s psalm, those who, in the midst of the storm, “went down to the depths” and whose “courage melted away in their calamity.”

I am saddened and outraged, as I am sure many you are, both by the sense of hopelessness that many Americans feel, and by the rhetorical violence enacted upon our citizens in this election. I am also grieving a sense of loss, that, contrary to the narrative I learned from my parents, ours may not be a civic tradition that honors the contributions that all of our citizens make to our common life, nor one that provides all of our citizens the resources they need to live well.

In his words to the Philippians, Paul begs an important question: what does it mean to that our “citizenship is in heaven”? And how does that inform the way that we encounter one another as citizens of earthly polities. I must say, first, that I’ve always bristled at theologies that locate our true citizenship in heaven, casting our earthly political life as a poor imitation of a heavenly kingdom. Some political theologies – those, for example, inspired by St. Augustine – urge us to understand that what is ultimately real is not our earthly experience, but the heavenly order. And so we should try to arrange our earthly politics in ways that reflect the heavenly kingdom, in which all things are ordered properly to the love of God. In these theologies, earthly politics are disordered to the extent that they fail to reflect the way things really are in the heavenly kingdom. If I’m being honest, my dis-ease with such theologies is probably rooted in my upbringing, which valued the political traditions of the world immensely. But I also think that while such theologies may tell us why our earthly politics are deficient, they don’t open space for us to feel deeply for our compatriots whom our politics injure. On this view, earthly suffering is, after all, not ultimately real.

There is a flavor, perhaps, of this kind of theology in Paul’s words to the Philippians in our passage for today, when he contrasts those “enemies of the cross of Christ” whose “minds are set on earthly things,” with those whose “citizenship is in heaven.” The Philippian community was fractured internally. Paul urged the Philippians to imitate his good example and thereby to unite in living into the life of Christ together. In drawing a contrast between earthly and heavenly citizenship, Paul knew what he was doing, for the Philippians understood the language of citizenship well. In the civil wars that led to the ascendancy of Caesar Augustus as Emperor of Rome, Philippi was promoted to the lofty status of a Roman city. Philippian citizens had all the rights and privileges of citizens of Rome. Indeed, if we believe the account of Acts 16, Paul’s narrow escape from persecution in Philippi turned on his own status as a Roman citizen. Christians in the Philippian community spoke the language of Roman citizenship. Paul knew that an appeal to a more perfect citizenship would not land on deaf ears.

It also seems likely that the Christian community in Philippi was suffering persecution and humiliation, as Paul himself did, at the hands of local authorities. Threatened with annihilation, the Philippian community was suffering public trauma. But Paul argues that the humiliation of public trauma is the very medium that the cross of Christ transforms into wholeness, healing, and victory. In another well-known passage in Philippians that we didn’t read today, Paul invokes what seems to be an early Christian hymn, one that remembers the way Jesus Christ discloses the divine character in the most profoundly traumatic of humiliations, “even death on a cross,” as Paul says. In our passage for today, Paul writes, Jesus Christ will “transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” For those whose bodies and minds and hearts have suffered traumatic humiliation, those who are made to experience and re-experience the trauma of humiliation in our politics, this, perhaps, is good news.

How is it good news? Serene Jones notes that the Christian story is odd in that it portrays a profound trauma, the horrible execution of a man nailed to a cross, and then immediately offers a redemptive response, the resurrection of Christ. Jones writes: “We are compelled, deep within to believe that in the throes of this traumatic event, God uniquely meets humanity in the fullness of love and offers to us the grace of life abundant.” Christians have lots of ways of making sense of how God works in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to redeem the pain and brokenness of the human situation. Jones suggests that it’s not so important which theory we select to explain how God accomplishes redemption. Indeed, she argues, for trauma survivors, different explanations of God’s redeeming work may hold different kinds of power. What’s important is that the cross interrupts trauma, breaking up the narrative of pain and injury that trauma survivors so often find hard to release, and offers an alternative narrative gesturing towards wholeness and new life.

Jones recounts an experience she had with four women who participated in a course on self-defense that Jones helped to lead. The last meeting of the course happened to be on Maundy Thursday, with the service scheduled to begin just after the self-defense class ended. Jones writes that she was surprised to see four women from her course file into the Maundy Thursday service. As the service ended, Jones greeted the women on their way out, curious about why they’d come. Jones writes: “Mari spoke to me first, rubbing the knuckle she had bruised in class: ‘This cross story, … it’s the only part of this Christian thing I like. I get it. And, it’s like he gets me. He knows.’ She hugged me and walked out. Shanika left next, saying something about Jesus standing between her and her ex-partner, taking blows meant for her, keeping her safe. Sarah, her closest friend from the shelter, disagreed, smiling. ‘He’s the King, man. He’s throwing your ex’s sorry ass in hell’s jail soon as he can.’ Joanne, the last to leave, didn’t say anything but gestured toward the cross with a slight shrug just before walking out the door.”

I wonder whether we, the Church, in our most foundational story, have something important to offer a republic suffering in a season of trauma. Indeed, the Church itself was born in its response to the trauma and grace of the resurrection story; we are a public thing, a res publica, inasmuch as we come together, as we always have, around the cross of Christ and the redemptive possibilities it offers. As much as I love the narrative of civic pride and responsibility that I learned from my parents, I see the limits of that story in offering hope, wholeness, and healing to persons that our political process seems to go out of its way to injure. A more fitting story is available to us who gather as the Church. To be a citizen of the heavenly commonwealth is to remember that politics at its best should help people to live fully human lives. But all fully human lives are broken lives; no one escapes the brokenness and pain that make human beings human. Neither does our God. And while our brokenness and our injuries may not go away, God offers wholeness and flourishing despite them. The resurrected Christ has deep and unhealed wounds, and is also a God who offers new life in the midst of wounded-ness. How can we offer the cross as an interruption to the traumas that our political process inflicts on traumatized citizens to offer life made new?

 

Service of Commissioning, WFU School of Divinity

Luke 14: 1, 7-14: Table Manners

There are few things in this world that I love more than my alma mater, Bowdoin College. If you ask my spouse Raegan about my passion for all things Bowdoin, she will, with a dramatic eye roll and in as sarcastic a tone as she can muster, catalog the many tokens of my undying fealty and devotion to, as she mockingly calls it, “the old school.” There are coffee mugs, baseball caps, t-shirts, calendars, glass tumblers, coasters, a windbreaker, a wooden captain’s chair (with my name emblazoned on it, of course), a paperweight, winter gloves, a sock cap, and most recently, a bow tie that I haven’t even worn yet. (Raegan, I should say, is only jealous because she has nothing to be proud of herself, having attended some stupid university in Cambridge, Massachusetts, notable mostly for its statue of a man with a shiny foot.) You might have seen hanging in my office a framed picture of a college scene. I’ll give you a hint: it’s not Wake Forest. And you might have noticed another framed piece of sheet music, the Bowdoin alma mater, which shares a tune with the Wake Forest fight song.

I regret that many of you are so benighted that you have never heard of Bowdoin College until today. I only mention a few of our many distinguished alumni and friends which that liberal arts college in Brunswick, Maine, has gifted to the world: Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the Civil War hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and my personal favorite, the sex researcher Alfred Kinsey, who, in the 1950s and ‘60s, helped Americans to understand that they were having sex. There is of course much, much more I could say about that great institution. But as sermons constrain the preacher to the sharing of the Good News of the Gospel, I will reserve the Great News of Bowdoin College for another occasion.

You can imagine my shock and dismay when, back in July, I heard a podcast by the well-known author Malcolm Gladwell in which he said, to my utter disbelief, the following words: “If you’re looking at liberal arts colleges, don’t go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your kids go to Bowdoin. Don’t let your friends go to Bowdoin. Don’t give money to Bowdoin or any other school that serves amazing food in its dining hall.” Now, I regard myself as a peaceable, nonjudgmental, respectful, conciliatory, and loving person. But here’s the thing: I now hate Malcolm Gladwell with the passion of a thousand burning suns.

You see, Bowdoin is consistently recognized for its excellent food. (I applaud, by the way, the person who decided he or she could make a living rating college food, and also for getting others to believe that this is a meaningful undertaking.) In his podcast, Gladwell compares Bowdoin to Vassar College in New York. He finds that Vassar, similar to Bowdoin in many respects but not quite as wealthy, has decided to cut down on the quality of student amenities in order to free up financial resources to support, as Gladwell calls them, “poor, smart kids.” Vassar students interviewed in the podcast consistently affirm the marginal quality of Vassar’s food but understand that that decision empowers their college to offer more money in financial aid. Bowdoin, meanwhile, serves, and I am embarrassed to say this out loud because it is true, dishes such as smashed chickpea avocado and pesto sandwiches, venison when it is in season, and lobster and steak at an annual celebration welcoming students back to school. Gladwell’s point is that food at Bowdoin is, as he says, a “moral problem,” because, in his words, “every time you spend money on a place like Bowdoin, you make it harder for poor kids to go to college.”

Ugh – a knife to my heart. Now, there are lots of problems with Gladwell’s argument. He ignores the fact that Bowdoin “is among the very small number of colleges that are need blind on admissions, meet full need, and never use loans in any part of a financial aid package, and that Bowdoin’s dining operations are self-supporting, with all funds coming from students who opt to join.” Gladwell doesn’t paint a fine-grained picture of what’s going on. But he’s not wrong about the more general point he’s trying to make: schools like Bowdoin benefit tremendously from their status as nonprofit and therefore tax exempt organizations. They owe an obligation to the public good to find ways to educate as many worthy students who cannot afford the considerable price tag as they can. And even if food isn’t really what is pushing tuition out of reach, the optics of lobster, steak, and venison aren’t helping in that effort. Really, one could say that Gladwell is offering some insights about hospitality – in a way, about table manners – which, as much as it pains me to say it, are helpful.

I thought of Malcolm Gladwell as I considered our text for today, for the text, too, invites us to think about hospitality and table manners. And in the context of a service of commissioning, the text offers us an opportunity to consider ministry from the point of view of table manners. Jesus, invited on the Sabbath to a meal in the home of a Pharisee leader, makes two sets of observations about table manners, one for guests and another for hosts. In the ancient world, the table was laden with a social burden far heavier than the meals it supported. Questions about who got to come to the table, who sat where, in what proximity to whom, who got to speak and when, all mattered a lot. The banquet table was a market in social status, inviting trade in the currencies of honor and shame, and representing opportunities for hosts and guests to establish, maintain, diminish or improve their social status in the performance of shared meals.

Jesus’ advice upends the conventional strategies for success in the markets of social goods that were convened at banquet tables. He implores guests not to jockey for position at the table, and thus for the status that comes with position. For one thing, he seems to be saying, such strategies are liable to backfire: an attempt to position oneself in a place of honor will likely result in demotion, and thus in shame, rather than honor. But more fundamentally, Jesus is saying that true honor comes not with a position at a table, but in the exercise of the virtue of humility. He encourages hosts not to invite those persons most empowered to participate in the trade of social goods – friends, relatives, or wealthy neighbors – but instead to invite those most marginalized from social markets: the least, the lost, and the left out. And here Jesus is clearer about why a host should reverse the conventional strategy for table etiquette: because he or she will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.

Now, if your table manners are anything like mine, they are instinctual, by now hard-wired in embodied responses to the table, and in the neural pathways that make those responses happen. I know this because I feel so profoundly irritated when my children violate table etiquette. In our house, I’m sorry to report, we don’t always remember Jesus as often as we eat, but do violate table manners as often as we eat. And I have had to learn that while it is important for our children to learn table etiquette, my irritation about their behavior at the table is way more about me than it is about them. It’s about my own formation in a family in which table transgressions, in all of their complexity, were, under the watchful eye of a mother who is a former nun, not just failures in performance, but something more akin to immorality. A lot of that stuff comes out for me now at our table. And I have to work hard to try to re-wire the neural pathways that make those responses what they are. The neural pathways of privilege and power are probably not dissimilar: students at Bowdoin and other high price-tag schools often come from families that enjoy, among other things, elaborate tables, and are wired, on a deep level, to expect the same privileges in their college experience.

Curiously, at first pass, Jesus does not seem to be urging guests and hosts to abandon the fundamental moral logic of the table market, of quid pro quo, a “this” for a “that.” Guests and hosts should not give up trading altogether, in other words. Rather, Jesus seems to be saying that guests and hosts should calculate their trades for the right goods – not social goods, but eternal ones. I think, however, that a deeper consideration reveals that if guests and hosts really do what Jesus is asking, if they practice the virtues of hospitality and humility at the table and in other social markets, they are endeavoring to learn a table etiquette that opens up a different kind of moral awareness. Those who diligently practice humility and hospitality will find that they don’t need to participate in markets for social goods. A training in righteousness, as Jesus calls it, changes the habits of social markets, maybe even those neural pathways that induce us to think we need things that we really don’t – not unlike, perhaps, the Vassar students, who have learned that they don’t need lobster and steak if it means that others have an opportunity to benefit from a Vassar education.

We are about to commission our students to join in the work of God in ministries already underway, all over our city and region. An important part of that work is in empowering the faith communities and organizations in which our students will serve, as well as broader communities, to practice good table manners – to encourage those who hold seats at the table to make space for the those who don’t; to empower conveners of tables to expand their welcome; and to serve in ministries of presence and comfort to those who continue to be excluded or to those who are new participants in table fellowship. And while our banquet tables may not function as social markets in quite the same way as they did in the ancient world, there are certainly many spaces in which the goods of status, prestige, voice, power, and wealth are traded in complex ways that empower some and marginalize others.

This is really hard work. Prophetic speech is an important element in encouraging good table manners, but it’s not enough. It turns out that people don’t do things just because prophets tell them to. Ministers will need to learn the skills of community building and of priestly presence, the many forms of everyday attention to the habits and practices of communities, some of which need encouragement, others refinement, and still others re-calibration. Following the example of Christ, ministers may even need to manipulate the dominant logics of table etiquette in order to dismantle them, performing forms of “table judo” to create the conditions of an expanded hospitality. Practicing the kind of table hospitality that God would have us practice means getting into the neural pathways of people, helping them to notice their embodied patterns of table etiquette, and empowering them to learn new ways of being in the world.

It is a great privilege that communities of faith welcome our students into their ministries. May God bless those communities, our students, and their mentors as all strive to be better hosts and guests at God’s welcome table. Amen.

Reflections on Matthew 20:1-16

Matthew 20: 1-16: The Laborers in the Vineyard

One of the things that strikes me about this passage is how easy it is for me to put myself in the place of the workers who were “first” and who felt slighted by the vineyard owner, and, conversely, how hard it is for me to put myself in the place of the workers who were “last” and were paid the same wage. Maybe you can feel it, too. A palatable sense of injustice, a nagging “what the hell”? The parable invites us to let go of that wondering about why workers who toiled all day long in the vineyard should get paid the same wage, albeit at the end of the line, as those who showed up at 5 o’clock and were paid at the front of the line. That’s what the Kingdom of God is like; if you don’t like it, that’s your problem. That’s what the parable seems to be saying to us. Indeed, the vineyard owner throws our outrage right into our faces. It’s my money; can’t I do whatever I want with it, he says. I can’t help it if you are envious of my generosity. The last shall be first, and the first shall be last. That’s the way of the kingdom. Get over it.

But I have a hard time letting go of my sense that the first unjustly became the last. There’s nothing about the parable that doesn’t lead us to believe that all of the workers were in a tough spot at the beginning of the day. The image that comes to my mind when I read this parable is the many day laborer pools all over the city of Atlanta, where men (mostly), brown-skinned men (mostly), and, I imagine, undocumented men (mostly), congregate at the side of the road and wait for white (mostly) employers to come by and hire them, for daylong construction jobs, to help out around the house, or whatever. I remember the pool of guys down by the Home Depot on Ponce de Leon near my apartment where I used to live, men who huddled together in hoodies and jeans on cold winter mornings. I am sure that many pay day laborers fairly enough, I suppose, but no one hires a day laborer in Atlanta because they really want to strengthen the local economy. Day laborers are hired because they’re the cheapest option that the black market in labor provides.

The parable permits one to imagine that the workers hired at the beginning of the day were just as desperate as those hired at the end. At the beginning of the day, the first were simply luckier than the last, though of course at the end of the day, the last end up being luckier than the first. Nothing prevents us from believing that the first and the last were equally unfree, in the sense that none of the workers had much meaningful choice about the kind of work they could do. If someone is willing to hire them, they’ll probably do it. If the wage is low, they’ll probably still do it. The thing about the marketplace is that you can only really participate meaningfully if you have something to offer. Markets work on the rule of quid pro quo – a “this” for a “that;” I give you something, and you give me something in return. So, the more you have to offer in the marketplace, the more empowered you are to participate, to use quid pro quo to your advantage. And the more you can put in, the more you will get out. But if you don’t have anything to put in, you don’t get anything in return. These workers seem to have only one thing to offer: their work. And because there is such a glut of workers to offer their labor for sale, just as there are innumerable labor pools in the city of Atlanta and all over the country, work comes cheap. The landowner of course has the upper hand.

So, it may be true that the first workers of the day got lucky and were hired first – lucky in the sense that perhaps nothing distinguished them as workers in comparison with their colleagues who were hired later in the day. The cohort that was hired first very well might have been the cohort hired last. And yet even though the first workers were lucky at the beginning of the day, I feel on some level that they were cheated. The landowner claims that he honored his contract: he said he would pay the first workers a certain wage X for a day’s labor, and indeed he did.

But doesn’t the contract that the landowner made with the first workers implicitly say two things: first, that a day’s labor is worth wage X, and second, that if a worker completes a day’s labor, he will receive wage X in return for his work? Well, the first workers received wage X in return for their work, the second part of the contract. It seems, however, that the landowner implicitly changed the terms of the first part of the contract when he hired other workers to complete part, even a small part, of a day’s work for the same wage X. Common sense would say, I should think, that a fair treatment of the first workers would involve the landowner’s acknowledgement that he effectively changed the terms of the contract by the end of the day, and that the first workers should be paid at a rate reflecting the changed terms of the contract. Thus, by the end of the day, wage X was deflated: wage X at the end of the day is only worth the last part of a day’s work, which the last cohort of workers received. And so the first workers should be paid wage X times the number of parts that ultimately composed a full day’s work. Doesn’t that make sense?

What I ask myself what I think I mean when I judge the landowner’s behavior to be unjust, I am aware that I am basing my sense of justice on an idea of fairness, and my idea of fairness in turn on the rule of quid pro quo. I think the landowner’s actions are unjust because they are unfair, and unfair because he unilaterally alters the terms on which the exchange for the early workers’ labor is valued, and then does not honor the real value of their work. The landowner is the empowered party; again, the workers have nothing to leverage their engagement in the market other than the value of their labor. Without consulting the early workers, the landowner effectively re-values the workers’ labor, but then pretends that he has not done so. He effectively makes a new contract, and then he breaks it.

Questions about justice are questions about what is due. There are many ways to flesh the meaning of “due,” and thus many approaches to justice, which we will discuss more in this class. In the marketplace, what is due is determined by contracts that establish the terms of exchange. Market justice is quid pro quo: you and I agree on the terms of our exchange, and justice is served when we both honor the terms of that contract. Injustice in the marketplace, by contrast, happens when one party to a contract fails to provide their part of the exchange.

One thing that strikes me is how profoundly our American sense of justice is conditioned by our experiences in the market place. I wish I could say that our dominant moral formation happens in our families or in our communities of faith. But I dare say that it happens in the marketplace. Our sense what makes life good and how we should make decisions related to the good life – our moral awareness, in other words – is shaped in profound ways by our formation in market settings as buyers, sellers, customers, consumers, workers, owners, bosses, and the like. We instinctively reckon costs and benefits, even in non-market goods, like friendships, love, churches, and the like. We know bad deal when we see one, and the parable of the laborers in the vineyard shows us what appears to be a bad deal. That’s precisely because we know justice on a deep, visceral level through the lens of quid pro quo.

I’ve heard theologians try to explain away the apparent injustice of the vineyard owner. One theologian with whom I studied in graduate school argued that this parable illustrates the difference between love and justice. Justice, he argued, is what is due, and the landowner paid the early workers their due, according to the original contract to which both parties agreed. The love of God, this theologian argued, “always rises above the demands of justice, but never falls below them.” By giving the later workers the same wage as the earlier, the landowner demonstrates the impartial and other-regarding love of God. The landowner, in other words, meets the demands of both justice and of love.

It seems more likely to me that the parable does not show a just God according to the terms of a contract, but rather demonstrates the limits of market justice. Consider what comes next, on the day after the setting of the parable. Imagine that the next day, all of the workers who received the landowner’s wage again congregate in the labor pool, again waiting for the landowner or some other employer to hire them. They’re still relatively disempowered participants in the marketplace. Their primary asset is still their labor, and labor probably still comes cheap. But they all took home an equal wage the night before, and so they are all now a little less threatened by the rule of quid pro quo. In the marketplace, as I said already, one can only get if one has something to give. Well, the landowner has ensured that everyone who worked with him the day before is, at least over the span of a day, an equal participant in the market system the next day. All of his workers have both their labor and a day’s wage to offer in the marketplace. And so all have a little more to offer, and thus a little more power to receive in return. There are more decisions the workers can make as empowered participants in the marketplace.

I think the parable is saying that the kingdom of heaven is a place in which the logic of quid pro quo doesn’t determine the possibility of human flourishing. To the extent that market participation empowers persons to live the human lives that God intends, it is a good and necessary thing: markets can invite creativity, ingenuity, individual agency, and commitment to work. But the kingdom of heaven is a place where the bottom line, the threshold requirement, is empowerment to participate in the life of the kingdom – what we sometimes call social justice, where what is due to all human beings is empowerment to participate in social and political life. In the kingdom of heaven, the last shall indeed be first and the first shall indeed be last, if what makes the “first” first and the “last” last in the earthly kingdom is the moral logic of quid pro quo – the capacity to participate only if one has something to offer. We are to appreciate but also to consider the limits of market justice, and strive to empower the least, the lost, and the left out to participate even when the market says they have nothing to offer.

On Rotten Compromises

In a recent article in the Emory Magazine, Emory University President James Wagner praises the Three-Fifths Compromise as a model example of political compromise:

Some might suggest that the constitutional compromise reached for the lowest common denominator—for the barest minimum value on which both sides could agree. I rather think something different happened. Both sides found a way to temper ideology and continue working toward the highest aspiration they both shared—the aspiration to form a more perfect union. They set their sights higher, not lower, in order to identify their common goal and keep moving toward it.

Maybe you’re now doing the same double-take that I did. Let me get this straight: Wagner is saying that the Three-Fifths Compromise, which traded on the view that slaves are not fully human, and thus cannot be citizens, but from whom slaveowners may nonetheless extract some political benefit for themselves – this reflects the virtue of political compromise? Wagner goes on to liken compromise of this sort to the kind of work that goes on in university settings:

The constitutional compromise about slavery … facilitated the achievement of what both sides of the debate really aspired to—a new nation.

Something like this process occurs every week on a university campus. Through debate, through questioning, through experimentation, we aim to enlarge the sphere of knowledge and refine the exercise of wisdom, to do the hard work of opening others’ minds and keeping our own minds open to possibilities.

There are lots of problems with this. First, it isn’t clear how “debate,” “questioning,” and “experimentation” in university settings involve compromise. Wagner rightly says that the business of a university is to enlarge the sphere of knowledge and to refine the exercise of wisdom. But these are non-rivalrous goods: my engagement with the goods of knowledge and wisdom doesn’t prevent others from doing the same. You can’t use up knowledge and wisdom. So, why would you need to compromise?

But more to the point: if universities like Emory aim, as Wagner says, to “contribute to human well-being … in the twenty-first century,” then how is the Three-Fifths Compromise a good example of that work? In his book On Compromise and Rotten Compromises, the political theorist Avishai Margalit defines a “rotten compromise” as

an agreement to establish or maintain a regime of cruelty and humiliation – in short, an inhuman regime, in the literal sense of inhuman, unfit for humans (Princeton: PUP, 2010, p. 89).

Margalit has in mind the various compromises world leaders made with Hitler that ultimately promoted the Holocaust.

On Margalit’s definition, the Three-Fifths Compromise is a prime example of rotten compromise. That’s why it is a bad example of political compromise. No compromise is good that undermines human flourishing, even if the compromise aims at a higher good that promotes it.

In our divisive political climate, there has been renewed interest in compromise as a political virtue. It’s a good idea, I think, to promote compromise. But any discussion of compromise has to include an awareness of its limits. My view is that the theological category of the imago Dei contains possibilities for making sense of healthy political competition as well as both the necessity and limits of political compromise. Compromise should end right where a resulting policy would deface the image of God in persons affected by it. The Three-Fifths Compromise was rotten because it did just this.