A Litany of Lamentation and Protest

For those who might wish to use a litany like this in future protests against the war, I offer here the one I wrote for our witness in Hartford on March 19:

Litany of Lamentation and Protest
God of all people, God of this moment: be with us in this gathering of witness and resistance. Four thousand sons and daughters of our nation have lost their lives to the bloody machinery of war. Many thousands more return to us damaged in body, mind and spirit. For our soldiers, their families and our nation we pray:

Strengthen us in the ways of peace; make us faithful to the call for justice.

Iraq and Afghanistan have been ravaged in our names. Women and men, children and elders have lost their lives, their homes and their hope. For the suffering people of Iraq and Afghanistan we pray:

Strengthen us in the ways of peace; make us faithful to the call for justice.

Our leaders walk a pathway drenched in blood. They use torture; they hire mercenaries; they hold prisoners without trial and without hope for freedom. For the injustices carried out in our name, we pray:

Strengthen us in the ways of peace; make us faithful to the call for justice.

Through all the scriptures and revelations of our faiths, we have been taught that you are a God of love. We know that each thing done to the least of your children has been done also to you. For the ways we have failed to follow your call to love one another, we pray:

Strengthen us in the ways of peace; make us faithful to the call for justice.

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Lamentation and Protest

This past Wednesday there was a cold, driving rain in Hartford, but several hundred people turned out anyway to bear witness to the fifth anniversary of the start of the war against Iraq. We gathered in front of Center Church, where twenty-nine sets of military boots sat on the steps, each one bearing the name of a Connecticut soldier who has died. We built a cairn of stones marked with the names of dead Iraqi civilians. There were so terribly many names to choose from, I settled on bringing three stones, each one bearing the name of someone killed on the date one of my three children was born.

We walked to United Technology Corporation, one of the many companies reaping huge profits off this war. And we ended at the Federal Building, where five of us poured blood on the courtyard, led the group in a litany of lamentation and protest, and then sat in front of the doors until we were arrested.

Of course it was not really the fifth anniversary of the war. There is no easily named date that marks its beginning, since it seeped out of the first Gulf War little by little in the form of routine bombings, deadly sanctions and clandestine raids. But March 19 was the start of “shock and awe” — so arrogant a term for such a bloody assault — and so we think of it now as the “start” because it was certainly the beginning of a new level of violence that has since been unremitting.

As the war staggers on into its sixth year, our government — with the collusion of the media — has been astonishingly successful at shielding us from images that might force American citizens to grapple with what is being done in our names. Of the four thousand American soldiers who have returned home dead, we have seen almost no images of their coffins, neatly packaged in our flag, nor of their grieving families. Of the scores of thousands of Iraqi dead, we have seen very few images of anguished mothers or fathers as they hold the bodies of their children. We hear that there are millions displaced and living in refugee camps, but I have never yet seen an image of even one of these camps.

What shall we do to try to end this relentless and bloody war? It’s a question we have to ask, because action is called for. We have to ask it because we are, so many of us, activists. But if we are also people of faith; if we believe our faith has some word to speak into the suffering and conflict of these days; if we want to sink our roots deeper than the shallow soil of our outrage and anger, then we have to ask another question as well. We have to ask not only, “What shall we do?” but also, “Who shall we be?”

I hope we can be people so grounded in our own spiritual practices that we see the war within, as well as without — the ways in which our own rage, fear and reactivity can lead us to speech and action that breed violence. I hope we can hold firmly to the integrity that will not allow us to fade into our comforting, innocuous routines unmindful of the violence done daily in our names. I hope we can be those who refuse to go away or to look away, who bear witness to the insanity of war even when we have no certainty that our witness will make a difference. I hope we can live by the words of a prophet against an earlier war, Abraham Joshua Heschel:

“Others have considered history from the point of view of power, judging its course in terms of victory and defeat, of wealth and success. But the prophets look at history from the point of view of justice, judging its course in terms of righteousness and corruption, of compassion and violence…They proclaimed that might is not supreme, that the sword is an abomination, that violence is obscene.” Amen.

Racial Politics and the Color of Faith

When I took my first preaching class in seminary, now well over twenty years ago, I remember a professor telling us, “Preach the truth as you understand it, and remember: if you’re not making someone mad at least some of the time, you’re probably not doing your job.”

This week Barack Obama felt obligated to distance himself from his longtime minister at Trinity UCC, the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, because of things that Wright has said about race in America. It’s too bad. Dr. Wright is widely considered one of the best preachers in the country, and he has taken Trinity from a dying inner city church to a vibrant congregation of over 8,000, with vital service missions from Chicago to Africa. Whether or not you regard his words as true or incendiary, Dr. Wright is of course not running for President himself. He’s a preacher, and for decades he’s been doing a better job at it than most ordained ministers can ever dream of.

Preaching is different from political speech not only because it’s supposed to focus on a spiritual message rather than on winning votes. It’s different because of being part of a conversation, week after week, between a minister and his or her congregation. The conversation is always particular: the reason the gospel message lives on through the centuries is that people continue to hear it according to their lives and circumstances. A preacher’s job is to help them do that, and sometimes we do it best by being provocative and shocking.

In an earlier chapter of this controversy (which remains a surrogate racial attack on Barack Obama), Dr. Wright was interviewed on Fox News. He said then that Trinity’s philosophy does not “assume superiority or does it assume separatism… When [we] say an African-centered way of thinking — African-centered philosophy, African-centered theology — we’re talking about something that’s different, and different does not mean …superior or inferior.”

This is simply truth-telling: there is always a center from which we view our world. Where we stand affects what we will see and hear and how we’ll receive it. It is an undeniable truth that the default center of our nation – in terms of history, power, language, definitions, institutional control, wealth, privilege and most anything else you could name – has been and is white. And so still, in our time as in the past, in order to be black in America and also be strong, confident, proud and independent, something is required beyond what the general society is willing to give. That “something” has resided for generations in the black church.

Black liberation theology and African-centered churches do not teach a doctrine of separatism or hatred of white people. They teach power, pride, self-reliance and faith to black people. For those of us willing to listen, they teach white people to notice how heavily the scales are still tipped for us. Whatever our class background, whatever our other struggles, whatever our political commitments: because our bones come wrapped in a Caucasian package, we walk through this world affirmed at every turning in ways invisible to us. It is not racism to name this truth. It is a form of racism to ignore it.

Fear and Trembling in the Blogosphere

Sometimes I wonder when I will finally hit my technology threshold and become wholly incompetent in the art of adaptation. This is my first posting on my first blog, and I know I’m late to the party. There is a simple explanation: I am a techno-peasant, and I am old. Only fifty-two, but still: the generation gaps, which used to be counted in decades, now seem to occur every few years.I taught myself how to type on a manual typewriter in my first year of college; my kids learned to type in school, on computers, in second grade. I bought my first computer when I was thirty-one; my kids have been using them since they were tall enough to drool on the keyboard. And I didn’t really start using e-mail consistently until about the end of the last century. By now, as my daughters explain to me pityingly, e-mail is “old people’s technology”. The girls are now thirteen and fourteen years old and, with the temporary schizophrenia that characterizes the teenage years, they are capable of simultaneously wishing their parents were cool and finding it “gross” that we are on Face Book.So why would I start to blog? There are three reasons, none of which have to do with a perverse need to add one more thing into my insanely packed days.

Number one: I am really tired of the degree to which “religion” and the “religious perspective” are still so dominated by the those who are conservative in their faith and right-wing in their politics. I want to be one more voice exploring the complexity and diversity of religious faith and the ways in which it compels those of us who are progressive in our politics toward action in the world.

Number two: I am at least as tired of the degree to which many secular progressives believe not only that they themselves have no use for religion, but that religious people in general are foolish, irrelevant and vaguely embarrassing. For those folks who draw all their hope, inspiration, perseverance and courage from purely secular convictions and heroes, good for you! But I’d like to help generate a bit more respect, open-hearted curiosity toward and solidarity with those of us who draw these things from our religious faith.

And third? I think it’s a form of spiritual discipline to notice where the boundaries are for our various comfort zones and stretch ourselves out of them a little. I am most deeply in my comfort zone in the truly “old people’s technology” of the printed page; so I am pushing back against my Luddite soul in the hope that the vast network of techno-wizards out there will be tolerant of my blunders and kind in your guidance.

So… even though I really have no idea what I’m doing, off I go! Call it an act of faith…