Monday, June 13, 2016

subway music

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

-- Dylan Thomas, "Poem in October"

The older I get the softer.

I sat on the bench, sorry for myself, and waited for the train that would take me to the next client. What a good guy I was, working the holiday. Strange how quiet it was, and the platform empty.

A mom came through the turnstile, with two boys: one about nine years old, talking, talking, very excited, something about robbers and how to foil them, the other boy smaller and quiet but squirmy. To the older boy Mom would say, Oh my, or That's interesting, while she managed the little brother with a nudge, a hand on the shoulder, a grab by the belt. Nothing wrong here. Everything under control. They sat at the other end of my bench.

A subway musician was setting up his keyboard, adjusted a stool, plugged in an amp, flipped a switch, played a few chords, ran a scale and strung an arpeggio, found a pulse. There was something familiar about it, easy, persuasive. My legs were moving. Not dancing, I don't dance. But the balls of my feet touched ground left, right, left with a little bounce, not to be stopped.

The notes snapped into a line. Ain't misbehaving.' And nobody was. The loud boy proclaimed his plan for truth, justice and the American way, as my feet lurched from side to side. Somehow we fit together, that loud boy and I, the little brother squirming over the bench between us.

I thought about Fats Waller and his songs, his blackness and his blueness, his innocence and wickedness. I thought how lucky I was to live in a world that Fats Waller had passed through, so that now on a subway platform I could be moved against my will by his song. So much trouble the world had gone to -- for this.

Then the mom did something genius. She took the squirmy boy by the hand and stood him up. She danced a little two-step with him, and he calmed right down. There we were, all of us together, harmonizing. No words. We weren't even looking at each other.

Our train was coming, but it was all fuzzy and there was something wrong with my specs, and I had to clean them off with my shirt as I entered the car, and before I could put them back on I had to wipe my cheekbones with the butts of my hands. Where did this water come from? What had I done to deserve this? When did I earn such beauty?

But I hadn't earned it, and didn't deserve it. It was a gift.

A message saying . . . though I cannot make it happen, it may happen.

I was raised to get things right; mistakes were shameful; they exposed to the world my laziness and poor character. Leave no stone unturned, says the voice, be sure to check and double-checkforget the easy parts and work the hard parts, there's no excuse for mediocrity, no dessert before you eat your spinach. But the light of the world shines through flaws, gaps and tiny abysses.

I breathe better as I unpin the corset of perfection, drawn so tight long time ago.

As I get older I get looser. As I get older, this kind of thing happens more often. I am permeable. I can't be fixed.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

why me

Take my hand quick and tell me . . . 

-- A. E. Housman, "A Shropshire Lad"

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.

-- Isaiah 40:2 (NRSV)

- You're a priest? -

- A chaplain. -

Not even a client of mine. This won't appear on my work record. I had gone to a hospital room, met a patient, assessed the needs, performed the introduction, given the blessing. And as I was leaving he came out from behind the curtain that partitioned the room. He was young and robust and ambulatory (meaning in medical lingo that he can walk), so I didn't think he was a patient. I thought he must be the son of a patient. But I looked behind the curtain, and there was no one in the bed. This man before me was himself the other patient. He stood with his left hand on the IV stand that he had rolled from the bedside as he sought me out.

- Can I talk to you? -

- Of course. - 

Of course. I sat down with him. Why me? Not for me to say. I have no authority to refuse. He who has ears, let him hear. He told me his story. He had been HIV positive for thirteen years. He was alcoholic. He had just broken up with his partner. He was in despair. He didn't know how to get through the next twenty-four hours.

- How can I help? -

- Would you pray for me? -

- Of course. -

Of course. He put out his hand and I took it. I looked him square in the eyes, then I closed my own and asked the Spirit to come. It had better come, because my cupboard is bare. The abundance he needs is not in me. Who am I to comfort him?

- Gregg is here with me, - I said, - and he doesn't know what to do. He feels alone and unloved. Send the message, Spirit, send it through me if it's possible. Send it through my body right now, through my voice and my hand and my words if it will serve the purpose but send the good news somehow. Let him know he is loved. Let him know that his illness doesn't matter to you, and that if he's lost you are the shepherd who is on the way to find him. -

I stopped for a bit because I had run out of words.

- That's what we need right now. -

I waited.

- We're waiting. -

We waited.

- Amen. -

I waited. Was I done?

He was tearful. I waited.

- But is it all right that I'm gay? -

The ground fell away, and my breath with it. I hadn't touched it yet. I had talked all around it, but I hadn't gotten to the root.

In the time it would take to hesitate, my hesitation would become the message.

- Of course it's all right. -

But I hadn't hesitated. I had already spoken. I had already jumped off the edge, still reeling.

- Listen to me now. God makes us different, and gives us different gifts. I'm a straight guy and you're a gay guy. I have the gift of loving women, and you have the gift of loving men. We each of us have to find our place in the world, the people who need us. Right now there's someone who needs your love. You don't know where that person is right now, but that's your task, to find them. Somewhere in the world there's an empty spot, and in that place there's work to do that only you can do. -

I was out of words again and out of breath, trying to catch up with the message that was passing.

- Thank you. -

- You're welcome. -

As I waited, a thought of my own broke the murk.

- You're obviously a person of Christian belief. Catholic? -

- No, Lutheran. -

There are Lutherans and Lutherans. So I probed.

- Have you talked about any of this with your pastor? -

His brow furrowed.

- It didn't go well. -

- OK, now look at me. There are pastors who will affirm you. There are congregations that will affirm you. There are whole churches that will affirm you. So if your pastor won't help you, find another one. You hear me? -

- Yes. -

- Promise me that. -

- I promise. -

- Come here. -

And I gave him the biggest bear hug (and I am rather a big bear), and we held each other for a moment.

- You'll remember? -

- Yes I will. You helped me. -

- God bless you. -

And that was it. Abrupt in ending as in beginning. The sky opens, and then closes again. No process. That was the nature of it. That's the dare I say beauty of it. I'll never see him again. This is what we call the boundary.

How could I speak so definitively, all on my own? Because he asked me for it. He asked flat out. And if I had hesitated, my hesitation would have been the answer. He's heard enough hesitation, enough half-hearted blessing, enough advice that he can be one with God if he'll only cut his heart out first.

He needed to hear the blessing. And he needed to hear it from me. Flat out from a straight man. Or through a straight man rather. And he needed to hear it from a man of the cloth, if I may quaintly assume the title; it was a quaintness that he needed. I'm just the channel. I did my best to clear for the message. A messenger maybe I was. I don't know that I didn't save a life.

Isaiah is talking a lot to me these days. His bony prophet's finger probes me, pushing aside dead tissues to reveal the wells of life that I would rather look away from. Being born, the first time or again, is not a peaceful thing. At times the spirit of the Lord, as Isaiah said, descends on one;* and one is chosen, authorized, empowered or -- how did the prophet say it? "anointed" --  to bind up the broken-hearted and comfort the mourners. No telling when, or where. Or why me.

*Is 61:1-2

Saturday, January 31, 2015

baby boom

How do we forgive our fathers?

-- Dick Lourie

The people will no longer quote this proverb: "The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children's mouths pucker at the taste."

-- Jeremiah 31:29 (NLT)

I am one of the oldest children of the post-war baby boom. I’m sick of being called a “boomer.”

When you call me a boomer, without remembering the phrase that first described us, you imply that I’ve spent my life “booming,” whatever that means. But I haven’t been booming. I’ve been doing my best to survive the social engineering that caused me and millions of other babies to be born at the same time. So when we started school there weren’t enough school buildings. And when we went to college there weren’t enough places in college. And when some of us tried to find a career in college teaching there weren’t enough jobs in college teaching. And now as we live toward our old age and retirement, the nation says oops, there's not enough money to pay the promises it made, promises on the basis of which we made major life decisions.

And it’s not our fault. We didn't engineer those acts of mass multiplication for which the country was not prepared. We didn’t encourage sixteen million returning servicemen from world war to go to school, buy houses and start making families. It’s not our fault there are so many of us, and that nobody had planned for us all to be there, and that the infrastructure of family life was always catching up. It wasn’t our fault that the country grew prosperous and then decided to spend lots of money on children, and then expected them to be grateful no matter what. It’s not our fault that three presidents who were not baby boomers -- no, they were members of Tom Brokaw’s “greatest generation” -- sent half a million of us at a time to a war that couldn’t be won, a war based on lies and false ideology, a war whose loss the nation blamed on us. We didn't have a glorious adventure to tell, in Sunday evening prime time with stock military footage, and music written by the nation's greatest composers, voiced over by news anchors who had once been war correspondents, and no, that's not our fault. We weren't in charge.

We were busy, though. We were busy cleaning up the messes of our parents. We had to clean up the continuing racial terrorism, the stultifying confinement of women into poses of ornament and alcoholic stupor, the claustrophobic conformity endured in houses of ticky-tacky, the red scares set loose on our artists and our prophets to deprive them of authority and livelihood. No, we weren't booming. We were sucking on the sour taste of our parents’ grapes. Sometimes we got angry about it.

There. I'm glad to get that off my chest. Actually, I love my country. She is, of course, the worst country of all -- except for all the others. There is greatness in that story of our parents: to spend so much blood and treasure defeating on both sides of the world two paranoid, aggressive and racist regimes, then making our former enemies free and prosperous, is perhaps the most noble campaign of grand strategy ever executed in human history. It didn't of course bring an end to history; not even the miraculous and mostly peaceful fall of Bolshevism's incompetent, violent and corrupt experiment has accomplished that. And we have our own contradiction still to own, again and again. Through all this persistence of history we are fallible, and sinful when we can get away with it. I am willing to pledge allegiance to my country "under God," because I want it known that my loyalty to the nation depends on its submission to moral authority. Not my country right or wrong, but my country under God. That was Dr. King's blessing -- he brought us the judgment of God.

Shall there be forgiveness of our parents? Shall we get the sourness of their grapes out of our mouths? Shall we be forgiven by our children? We are as disappointing and peculiar to them as our parents were to us. The parents set the table and provide the cooking vessels: the kids can cook what they want, but the flavor of the past is cured into those pots.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

good shepherd

When Mary birthed Jesus, 'twas in a cow's stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all . .
. . If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing . .
. . He surely could've it had it, 'cause he was the king.

-- Appalachian carol

God, endow the king with your own justice,
his royal person with your righteousness . .
. . For he will rescue the needy who appeal for help,
the distressed who have no protector.

-- Psalm 72  

We can't remember which central American country this créche comes from, but every year we struggle to separate the kings from the shepherds. They all have fancy hats and carry something in their right hands (an expensive gift or a lantern?) But this guy, we're fairly sure, is a shepherd -- he bears the crook in his left hand. The mystery of the créche is the yielding of one power to another, of might to apparent impotence. Kings bow to a squalling blob of protoplasm, born to poor people of a despised race in an obscure corner of empire. Shepherds and beasts are the watching courtiers. The trumpet of incarnation is the lowing of a cow.

"Your rod and your staff, they comfort me," sang the psalmist, likening the divine auditor of his song to a shepherd. The people who assembled the scriptures were city dwellers, who had come a long way from the tending of flocks; but they kept the pastoral imagery alive as a discipline on the powers to whom they appealed. The shoot of Jesse, the heir of David whose arrival Israel awaited as national savior, would be strong enough to overthrow the conquerors but tender enough to take care of those who could not save themselves -- a good shepherd, who would leave the ninety-nine in their safety to seek out and save the lost sheep. They trusted, hoped he would forestall the abuse of power, the nickel-and-diming of farmers to less-than-subsistence day-labor, the extraction of wealth by elites for profitable trade with the goyim. And when they imagined God, the author of such authority, they hoped he would put his thumb on the scales of justice for those who could not throw the weight of wealth.

The Day of the Lord, the arrival of the Divine Domain, was always to be a day of reversal. Congratulations to the poor, for they are the heirs, but to hell with you rich, who already have your compensation. Change your minds, said the prophets, because the kingdom is closing in. The people against whom the game is rigged, the people who haven't a chance, are about to get their chance, and you addicts of their degradation will feel withdrawal pangs of your privilege.

No matter how much they had picked, it wasn't enough.

-- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings*

Most of the world's hymns to hard work and its moral value are written by people who have no idea what hard work is. The wealthy dream they are not debtors, and we of the middle class claim the right to whistle while we work, either for work's compensation or for its intrinsic delight. But there is work that kills and pays so little that it can never ennoble the worker. Some work pays so little that it won't in the long run keep the worker alive. We hear a lot of songs today about the beauty and saving power of family life, but a family can't thrive on terror and turmoil.

Keeping peace therefore is the crucial task of legitimate power, and there is no peace without justice. In my city and in others, we are questioning our peacekeepers; and they shout back that those who question are murderers. There are some who can't control their rages but have learned to hide them behind a badge. There are some who can't see a dark skin without seeing monstrosity and threat, and they clothe their blindness in a coat of blue. These few wolves are the enemies of many good shepherds, destroyers of their work and of the flock; so why do the shepherds protect the wolves?

Our mayor has spoken in public the words that parents say to young black men: bear in mind the baseless suspicion and ancient anger that may at any moment light on you. And a past mayor has said the present mayor must apologize for creating a climate of distrust. But the distrust already exists. If the mayor of old times doesn't know this, he doesn't know any black people. Or he isn't listening to them. Or worse, they are hiding the truth from him and we must ask why; the willfully ignorant are responsible for what they don't know.

We've all got to grow up, and that includes policemen. They are licensed to be good shepherds. A good shepherd is, among other things, an adult.

The word is out, and there can be no peace until we all address it. No compromises please. Not on this. Compromise can only bring us phoney peace.

*Maya Angelou (New York: Ballantine, 2009), p. 8.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

grubby arithmetic

He has the power to render us happy or unhappy; to make our service light or burdensome; a pleasure or a toil. .  . . The happiness he gives, is quite as great as if it cost a fortune.

-- A Christmas Carol

The history of the world, my sweet,
Is who gets eaten, and who gets to eat.

-- Stephen Sondheim, Sweeney Todd

There's been no time. There aren't many presents under the tree. There's no hearth except the high-definition one I can play on the television. There's no chimney and no snow, only a dreary rain. The tree itself is true to memory, delivered to this fifth floor apartment by Fedex and planted in two gallons of tap water. The red and white lights, the collection of museum store stars and snowflakes and angels, with a few items left unbroken from childhood and youth, yield double reality: it is this year, but also every year into the past as far back as I remember. We are keeping Christmas, though it eludes us. They've told me since I was tiny that the Prince of Peace is coming. Exactly what does Peace look like?  And who gets to speak for it?

A few weeks ago, on November 22, I wrote, "The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty." That's what I said. What the sam hill did I mean? Something like this I guess: when the good guys win and justice rolls down like waters, we'll know it because wolves and lambs are lying down together. We can't send the lambs somewhere else to become someone else's wolves. So if the predators and the prey are now secure with each other, that can only be because they are no longer wolves and lambs.

To put it bluntly, we have to share and be happy about it. Those of us who once had most of the good stuff must live with a smaller percentage. Those who were once deprived of their share will accept their proportion of what had been denied. This is so simple it's terrifying. It's grade school arithmetic, a zero sum game. When has this ever happened?

Christians, or anyone studying the life of Yeshua, would say they know at least one example. But look what happened to him. Some say he now rules a kingdom not of this world. Justice however, if it lives anywhere, dwells on this side of the river. It's a this-wordly concern. And in this world the powerful do not give generally away their power.

We may ease the pain, and hide the zero sum, with a promise of prosperity. With more stuff to share, the masters whisper to each other, we can keep our larger portion while the poor rejoice at marginal improvements. And it's true that when all our tribes do better, hatreds go into remission; but in times of calamity the poisons burst out again, the poor fearing that the little they have will be taken away, the rich fearing a turn of fortune's wheel.

The myth of opportunity is another opiate. It's not so bad to be poor, said Horatio Alger, if by hard work and character you can become rich. Why don't you wretches just turn over a new leaf like Ragged Dick? they say, and try to grow up 'spectable? Trouble is, the powerful are always pulling up the ladder while they counsel patience.

So prosperity and mobility, when they are not lies, can only be means to the end, which is the sharing of stuff and the power to get it. Sooner or later we have to do some grubby arithmetic.

African-Americans are roughly one seventh of the American population. In a just America therefore they will have about one seventh of the good stuff -- and only one seventh of the bad. One seventh is fourteen percent. For most of our history America assigned them a different number -- zero percent of the good stuff. How many black people could go to our school, buy a house in our neighborhood, sit down in our restaurant, get medical treatment in our hospital? None.

So if we wake up one morning and discover that one out of seven millionaires, one out of seven CEO's, one out of seven congresspersons, one out of seven presidents, one out of seven homeowners, one out of seven police officers, are black; if we also see that only one out of seven poor people, only one out of seven prisoners, only one out of seven crime victims, only one out of seven unemployed, only one out of seven shot to death by policemen, are black, then we'll have to admit that America has become more just.

But this figure of arithmetical proportion, this meme called "looking like America," won't travel to every micro-climate. Shall we close Morehouse College and Fisk University? Shall we ration the black content of the NBA? Shall we picket the African Methodist Episcopal Church until their membership looks like America? People who look like me have no authority to make such decisions: we may theorize that in a better world these institutions would not have been necessary; but they were necessary because of our sins, and they are a part of what my brothers and sisters tell us is the black experience.

Justice is not a plantation. I have no license to command the choices of free people from the veranda of my wisdom. Free people sometimes do things I don't understand. Sometimes they do things I don't like. Sometimes sitting next to me is not their highest priority. So what do white liberals really want? what do we think we mean when we talk about justice? What will America look like if the good guys win? We must interrogate our poetry. This kind of thinking is not fun. It's not high rhetoric or differential calculus.

America transformed will not in every place, every time and sample, "look like America." It will remain granular.

If we "allow" (lacking authority to disallow) some schools, sports leagues, fan clubs, professional associations, arts companies and churches to remain predominantly black, then we must own the arithmetical consequences. Students at Morehouse or Fisk do not attend the now integrated universities that seek them out. Basketball stars are not playing soccer or going to medical school. Members of the African Methodist Episcopal Church are not Christian Scientists, Episcopalians or Unitarians. To say this is not ideology. It's just grubby arithmetic.

As long as there are black churches, it follows as the night the day (or as four follows two plus two) there will be white churches. A black church is not a Black Panther church, and a white church is not a White Supremacist church, but every successful enterprise finds its public, and learns what it must do to serve that public. Every successful enterprise also discovers what it doesn't have to do.

America's black churches are a living repository of endurance and resistance by a group of Americans much sinned against, a living memorial of the hymnody and poetry, theology and oratory that has brought them thus far on the way. Can we be surprised that many of our black siblings find comfort there? Theirs is a kind of history I have not directly experienced; I can visit, admire and respect it, but it is not my home, nor is it intended to be. There are some black Americans who are not comfortable there, and some of them come to us.

Unitarian Universalist churches are living repositories of another history. There's no utility in shame about the difference. If I give all my goods to the poor and die for racial justice tomorrow, it will not buy me the family history of an African-American. We too have songs of justice, and an oratory, theology and poetry, born on another terrain. This difference does not make me an enemy. My social location is not a sin. My song doesn't have to be everyone's lullaby.

And if a person who looks like me feels that justice requires before everything else the integration of Sunday morning, then the most direct action that person can take is to join a black church. My father, a high-critical scholar of the New Testament, did precisely that; an African Methodist Episcopal church in the North End of Hartford took him as an associate pastor for his last seven years of ministry. I notice however that Unitarians Universalists do not join black churches, and I take this to mean that the statistical integration of Sunday morning is not our highest priority. 

Perhaps true diversity means not that every cell of the American organism will look the same, but that America will contain different kinds of people and different kinds of groups of people, conversing and contending by proper rules of agitation and competition. Perhaps justice means first and foremost that everybody has a fair choice to get what they want, and that all are protected from the unfair interference of others. Perhaps we should be judged not by the precise demographics of our assemblies but by their solidarity, or alliance, or assistance, or fellowship with the oppressed -- whatever awkward term we use to describe the participation of mostly white folks in the struggle to distribute powers that have been denied to others. The transcendence of grubby arithmetic comes not from longing to be what we are not, but from the leverage of what we are. Let us be useful. Our true diversity lies on the other side of usefulness.

Usefulness is the backhand meaning of "white privilege." A privileged person is a person who can make things happen. If we are privileged, we have the power to make someone happy, to make their condition light and pleasurable, Isaiah's power to bind up the broken-hearted. So what shall we do with this power? Fling it to wolves? Apologize and flagellate?

If I am free, that is not the problem; the problem is that others are not. The Unitarian spiritual voyager Ebenezer Scrooge discovers his ministry just in time. He doesn't enlist in the throng of London's beggars, but assumes the proper use of his power. He learns to go out of the counting-house. That's where we keep Christmas, and where we do the work of it.

Monday, November 24, 2014

ham sandwich

A grand jury could indict a ham sandwich.

-- Sol Wachtler

You can indict a ham sandwich. I know this to be true. I've seen it happen. I colluded with the process.

Seven years ago I served on a federal grand jury. It lasted a month. We heard forty or so charges. We approved them all. Not once did we fail to indict.

Before the grand jury there was no defense. The prosecutor presented the evidence for "Probable Cause." You couldn't challenge their statement. You couldn't raise alternative interpretations. You couldn't speak up for the circumstances of the defendant; you couldn't hear from the defendant; after all, as the prosecutors said, the person wasn't yet actually a defendant. To indict is not to convict, they said. This person will have their day in court, they said, and then at trial they can raise all the concerns that you good people are raising now. Don't worry about the effect of your actions. It will all come out well in the end.

Yeah right. Few of them will ever get a trial. They can't afford it. Not many of them will be picked up pro bono by a competent lawyer. They'll cop a plea, confess to something they did or didn't do, without a briefing on the indelible consequences of that plea, because they have no other choice; so they'll do anything to avoid the trial. They'll testify against someone else, the bigger fish, and be left on the trash heap.

Forty or so charges came before us, and we indicted every person charged. You could tell that a few of those people were felons, and one was running an industrial scale marijuana farm. Many of them had committed the deadly crime of returning to the United States after being deported. Seven or eight had, at the instigation of pals or a pimp or a boyfriend, moved a package from one place to another, a package containing just ever so slightly too much weed. We indicted them all, in twenty minutes or at most an hour.

Now I would view that work in a very different way.

So now I know for sure that you can indict a ham sandwich. Unless the ham sandwich is a white police officer.

And now I'm marveling at the special grand jury, with its very special process, called into being around that police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. That grand jury has made a decision, and their decision will be announced in a few minutes. I will finish writing this before their decision is announced.

But now, before we hear what they have done under direction of a reluctant prosecutor, I remember that I know what a grand jury is, and this was very different.

The person who would be charged, (that person who is "not yet a defendant" and may never be one), got to speak his piece to the grand jury. The prosecutor has not even recommended a charge. All interpretations of the evidence have been presented -- all the ways in which the person suspected might not actually have done the things of which he might be charged. In other words, it's a trial, though we have not been told so -- a trial with no prosecutor. The implication would be that the jurors are pressed to look for the standard of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, a standard vastly higher than the routine standard of probable cause to bring a charge. That's why it's taken so long. The people I indicted seven years ago got twenty minutes. Darren Wilson got three months to make it go away.

Maybe there's a better way to indict people than grand juries. If so, tell me what it is. But this was called a grand jury, and given that I know what a grand jury is, I cannot fail to see that some people get very special ones. I hope that what it looks like is not what it is. I won't know until the decision is announced, and it hasn't been announced yet.

This is what it looks like. It looks like the killer of an unarmed jaywalker has special protections, provided he has a badge and a European heritage. If that isn't true, if that isn't what the prosecutor meant to say, he should have done things differently. Now we'll see. I'm waiting.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

tumblin' down

. . And the walls come a-tumblin’ down . .

-- African-American spiritual

We’re on our way to Canaan, to the New Jerusalem.

-- European-American spiritual

When justice rolls down like waters, I ask myself, when tyrants and bullies are overthrown and the good guys win, what will the world look like? We think we know, but we don't. We don't know because we think we know. We work with tropes, linguistic models of transformation, but we need to interrogate those models. My love is like a red red rose, but she will not appreciate it if I spray her with pesticide or prune her in the winter. Lions might some day lie down with lambs, but will the lambs then sleep well, or should they? We must search our poems of liberation for their actual consequences. There is a boundary beyond which we cannot press our metaphors. As we stand at that boundary, our imperfection of purpose is exposed.

This kind of thinking is not fun. It’s about metrics rather than proclamation, statistics not rhetoric, prose not verse. Or rather, it’s like telling your dream to the analyst, both of you knowing that the dream is already in its Secondary Revision, and now you’re aware that the walls of the room didn’t meet in the corners, and you can’t actually fly. So now in our mortality, our limitation of strength and stamina, and in the face of history’s unfathomable creativity for violence, by what standard shall we measure our hoped-for resolution of American original sin?

The book of Exodus became a world-wide trope of liberation. Enslaved people, the story says, must walk out of the enslaver's authority. Moses, supported by accelerating divine violence, convinces the Pharoah of Egypt to "let my people go." The enslaved Hebrews cross the sea, vacating the place where their labor had been stolen. Then Moses learns what his real problem is: his own people would rather eat from the stewpots of Egypt than face the wilderness. So begins the forty years of wandering, in which the covenant between God and the chosen people is redefined. The generation of escape, including Moses, will die before the Israelites come into their Promise. What precisely is that Promise?

I stand on the shoulders of giants. I thank the Moses generation. But we have got to remember now that Joshua still had a job to do.

-- Barack Obama at Brown Chapel in Selma, Alabama, on March 4, 2007

Dr. King said the night before he died that he had gone to the mountain-top and “seen the Promised Land,” but by casting himself as Moses he assigned the realization of promise to another generation, a “Joshua generation.” Barack Obama, in his progress toward presidency, flirted with the role of Joshua.

But the Joshua-trope has not taken hold, and not merely because black liberation is incomplete. It fails because it is unsuitable. Joshua's "job" is not to liberate but to exterminate. He leads us not into right relation with the oppressor but into violence toward the innocent. Instead of establishing justice in the land of their oppression, the Israelites inflict new injustice on people in another land who had done them no harm. The lightning war of Joshua has served as a manual for the advance of Europeans into the American West (“empty” except for Indians), for the trek of the Boer Piet Retief into the interior of South Africa (“empty” except for Zulu and Xhosa), and models the expansion of Germany into Lebensraum (“empty” except for racially inferior Slavs). "You must doom them to destruction," says Yahweh to his shock troops, "Grant them no terms, and give them no quarter" (Deut. 7:1-2, Tanakh).* No people standing in the way of the formerly oppressed wants to be designated as Canaanites. The often-sung Battle of Jericho, whose walls came a-tumblin' down, is no more a freedom-fight than was Wounded Knee. The Osage Indian theologian Robert Allen Warrior warns us that "Yahweh the deliverer became Yahweh the conqueror."**

"Thank God it never happened," said my Old Testament professor, and many a rabbi joins in the sentiment with a sigh of relief. Neither archaeology nor the deuteronomic history as a whole support the violent boast of Joshua's book. Those pesky Kenites and Kenizzites and Kadmonites and Hittites and Jebusites, not to mention the Philistines, were not exterminated. They survived to trouble the kingdom for the rest of its existence.

And even if the story were true, it would still be unsuitable. Our formerly enslaved brothers and sisters did not walk out and go elsewhere, as many a white supremacist hoped they would, but stayed here to claim their freedom among us. And that's why their liberation still lingers. There was no getting rid of our scarlet letters. The Pharoah and those he enslaved must figure out how to live together.

Every American should thank God that Joshua was not our general, and the Civil Rights Campaign was in no way like the book that bears his name. White Pharoahs didn't get to export their sins and inflict the consequences elsewhere. We stole the land of Indians and the labor of Africans, and now we must live with those we stole from, and they must live with us. It has taken, and will continue to take, some reckoning and repentance, some forgiveness and restitution. The true Land of Promise, the land where we hope to live in peace, is the very land where this story started. The New Jerusalem is Egypt transformed, with hearts broken and born again under divine sovereignty.

*Tanakh: A New Translation of the Holy Scriptures According to The Traditional Hebrew Text (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1985), p. 285.

**"Canaanites, Cowboys and Indians," Christianity in Crisis, 49 (September 11, 1989): 261-265