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.

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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?