Second Sunday after the Epiphany
Unraveling the Tale: A Reflection on Our Nation on the Eve of Martin Luther King Day
January 17, 2021Revised Common Lectionary
Welcome to Paintbox. If you're new to the site, you can learn more by visiting the about page. Each week you'll find links to interdisciplinary lessons followed by my collecting question for the week and then my personal reflection.
This week, as we remember the work of Dr. Martin Luther King in light of the present realities in our nation, I am wrestling with the importance of speaking truth and loving one’s enemies—or, as Valarie Kaur puts it—one’s opponents.
Current Events & World Affairs
The Capitol Riot Was an Attack on Multiracial Democracy: True democracy in America is a young, fragile experiment that must be defended if it is to endure.
Serwer's analysis that Wednesday's attack on our nation's capitol was prompted by opposition to a multiracial democracy, which, he says, is only as old as the Civil Rights Act of 1965
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Spirituality & Psychology
3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage
Activist Valarie Kaur shares what she has learned about revolutionary love as an act of transition on the birthing table and focuses on 3 lessons.
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Let America Be America Again
Hughes' poem about the reality that America has never been America for him, and for countless others, yet still, he reaches for the dream.
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Where do we go from here?
Among the most helpful pieces of advice I’ve heard since Wednesday is the pastoral admonition to slow down, from Canon Katie Pearson (in her exquisite sermon given at St. John’s Cathedral in Denver 1/10/21). Slow down from the impulse to race to comfort or even to hope.
After Wednesday’s events, I could not immediately slow down; I had work to do, zooms to attend. But then, on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, I slowed down. Way down. Almost ground to a halt. I walked slowly, I breathed slowly. And slowly, I began the process of absorbing information and perspectives of those whose thoughtful analysis I have come to value. I read op-eds. I read first hand accounts—including from black police officers who were there, doing their job, putting their lives on the line while being, once more, the object of hate that threatened their lives and wounded their spirits.
I looked carefully and prayerfully at the images. And I read poetry, from Kevin Young’s newly released anthology of African American poetry that my friend had just given me. I spoke very little for most of Saturday, which became my sabbath. I was taking in many strands of the story, the tale of our country as it has been presented to us during the past week. I simply had to slow down to make any sense of it all. So, when I heard Katie’s admonition the next day, I understood its value; I resonated with the wisdom.
One of the more insightful op-eds I read was Adam Serwer’s piece in The Atlantic in which he speaks of Wednesday as an attack on multiracial democracy, making the clear, simple observation that our multiracial democracy is very young—dating back only to the civil rights act of 1965. Which means, if you believe democracy by definition includes all of the citizens of a nation, then ours is really only as old as 1965.
And, when we consider the relentless killing and intimidation of black Americans, the stealing of the children of indigenous people in our country (watch Dawnland which chronicles this pervasive American story in the state of Maine), continued assaults on Jews, Muslims, and immigrants, visceral acts of violence against LGBTQ citizens—it is not an exaggeration to say that, in a very real sense, we have not yet become a democracy—certainly not the one we proclaim in our tributes to this nation.
I have long loved to sing our patriotic songs. I grew up saying the pledge of allegiance. I was taught that acts of hatred were aberrations from the greatness of our nation. I no longer believe this. I have come to understand that what we have seen in the past five years is the revealing of what is and has always been our reality. We are a people reaching for a dream we have yet to attain.
What you do to the least of these you do to me, Jesus says. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, Dr. King told us. Until every person in our nation has access to the dream, it remains a hope yet to be realized.
We are not yet who we long to be. We have failed in the grand experiment that led so many of our ancestors, mine included, to flee tyranny on other shores in hope of brighter futures.
I grew up as a young child immersed in images like the ones that unfolded in vivid color at our nation’s capitol on Wednesday. I grew up overhearing things whispered, or yelled, like what we heard Wednesday. People with whom I shared the same soil lived in terror every day. They lost loved ones to violence barely seen by the likes of me, tucked away as I was from such truths in the white enclaves of the city. Yet, the poison of race hatred had a strangle hold on us all. And still does.
Most of us want a country that reflects the values we proclaim in our founding documents. Yet, something bigger than any of us has prevented us from realizing the dream. It is as if we are stuck in a different story than the one we want to believe is true.
I believe we are stuck in a tale that has been being constructed since the first inklings of the dream of our democracy. A tale that says, “I can only build my dream at your expense.” It’s a zero sum gain kind of world for those who live inside the tale. This is the tale about how to “other” people in order to protect our own interests. It is a tale born of insecurities and fears that turn to hatred and violence. When those who need the tale to quiet their fears have, or are able to take by force, the resources to gain the upper hand, the results can be deadly. They have been deadly.
Unraveling the tale is our work now. It will not be easy. We cannot move forward until we do this work.
Unraveling the tale is an act of what Valarie Kaur calls revolutionary love. It begins when we listen, as if our lives depend upon it (because, as we can plainly see, they do)— first to those who have been cast out since the beginning—those who have labored too long under the rod of the oppressor. Those who have suffered most must lead the way. Theirs is the wisdom we must center, theirs the stories we must privilege. Those who have been last, for our whole history must now be first. This is the way of Jesus.
And then, the act of love continues. It pushes out to those who have oppressed, to those who have committed heinous, hateful acts. We are called to hear their stories too. The stories of those who practice hate. Part of how we will unravel the false tale and build beloved community involves tending their wounds too (Valarie Kaur’s term—see story that follows).
I do not believe those who committed acts of hatred on Wednesday and those who have perpetrated such acts throughout our history came out of the womb evil. Rather, I believe their acts flow from the tale some have woven since time immemorial and passed down generation to generation, by whatever means available, including using holy writ. This carefully constructed tale of the threat the other poses, plus power and privilege, have become a religion of their own often masquerading in the language of Christianity.
Those who stormed the capitol put sickening labels and images on the other, using words I cannot repeat in this reflection. But you know them all too well. They use those labels and images in the name of Jesus, believing earnestly they are protecting what matters most to them, and to him.
The great irony, of course, is that Jesus came precisely to unravel the deadly tale and teach us how to love one another as we love ourselves. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and soul, and love your neighbor as yourself. The sins of racism, of nationalism, of antisemitism, of sexism and heterosexism—all have at their root the fear and ignorance that birthed the tale.
Jesus said at the end of the day there are only two commandments that really matter: to love God with all our hearts, minds, and souls and to love our neighbor as ourselves. The tale works in direct contradiction to these commandments while operating under the banner of Jesus’ name.
Any society that aims toward liberty and justice for all must begin with learning how to love one’s neighbor as if that one were your own flesh and blood—as if that one were you. As if it were your lover, father, mother sister, brother, or child lying in the streets bleeding to death, beaten unrecognizable by hate incarnate. And, too, as if it were your loved one committing these heinous acts. Not forgetting but seeking, with wonder, to discern what the one who hates actually needs in order to change.
Valerie Kaur, whose uncle Balbir Singh Sodhi, was shot down in cold blood at a gas station in an act of race hatred, speaks of the work of revolutionary love. In her TED talk, she tells of returning to the gas station 15 years later and lighting a candle on the ground where her uncle’s blood was spilled. His brother said to her, “Nothing has changed.” She asked him, “Who have we not yet tried to love?” They decided to call the murderer in prison. Despite every fiber of her being telling her she could not do this thing, she said, “It becomes an act of will for me to wonder.” To wonder about this man who killed her uncle in cold blood.
In the conversation they had with her uncle’s killer, the man said he was sorry for murdering her uncle, but then went on to say he was also sorry about what happened on 9/11. His version of the tale made her uncle into the “other” he was justified in killing in cold blood at the gas station because he identified her uncle as one of “those people” who had caused the suffering on 9/11. Looked at this way, from the vantage point of inside the tale, the story never ends. The hatred only builds.
However, Kaur says, “…If some of us begin to wonder about them. Listen even to their stories, we learn that participation in oppression comes at a cost. It cuts them off from their own capacity to love….We love our opponents when we tend the wound in them. Tending the wound is not healing them. Only they can do that. Just tending to it allows us to see our opponents: the terrorists, the fanatics, the demagogue. They’ve been radicalized by cultures that we together can change.” (Quoted from 3 Lessons of Revolutionary Love in a Time of Rage: TED talk by Valarie Kaur).
The good we seek begins with the having the eyes of our hearts enlightened to see the suffering of those for whom this country has never fulfilled the promise of democracy. Their stories must inform us, first and foremost. Their anger must light our path. Their wisdom must guide us.
And then, it includes, as Valarie Kaur teaches, listening also to the stories of our opponents, tending the wound in those who have so profoundly harmed others.
Any just society we seek to establish requires nothing less of us than this kind of all-encompassing act of giving our lives—always first for those who have been oppressed, and then extending even to those who have oppressed. Not with the lie that all is well, not with a false neutrality, but with the glaring truth of their heinous acts in plain view in the effort to unravel the tale that has taken root in them, so that future suffering may be averted.
Among the two dozen or so poems I read slowly yesterday, the one that landed most saliently for me as I contemplated the events of the week was, “Let America Be America Again” by Langston Hughes. In it, Hughes both reaches for the dream we have long proclaimed and acknowledges, “America was never America to me.”
Listen to the last two stanzas:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!—from “Let America Be America Again,” by Langston Hughes
I believe this is indeed, as my friend Katie preached, a time to slow down and see what is being revealed to us. What I see, when I slow down is this: Until America is America for every single person who makes this place home, it is not truly America for any of us.
It is time, long past time, to unravel the deadly tale and build, at last, the democracy for which we long.