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.