Friday, December 7, 2018

The Mouth of the Righteous

Remarks given at a prayer service for the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh.

The mouth of the righteous
is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked
conceals violence. (Proverbs 10:11)
Hebrew poetry, especially in the Book of Proverbs, is quite fond of parallels.  In Proverbs, the mouth of the righteous is many things, good things.  Here, it is a fountain of life, and there are three others – the teaching of the wise; revering the Lord; and big-W Wisdom.
I wondered what the mouth of righteousness as a fountain of life might be like and I finally settled on it being the sound of our daughter’s voice when she sings.  Elsewhere in Proverbs (10:20), “the tongue of the righteous is choice silver,” which reminds me of her voice when she merely speaks.
But the mouth of the wicked…
That could be anything from a sinister whisper to an uncontrolled bellow.  What unthinking and unexpected violence do the wicked unleash when they merely speak?
Words are powerful; we know this from reading Scripture.  But they can also be hurtful; and when they are used to conceal the violence behind them, they can kill, provoking a moment of anger that cannot ever be taken back once released. 
The mouth of the wicked speaks to the weak, the flawed, the damaged but not broken, whose actions then reveal the violence.  We gather to pray for their victims, but pray also for them, that someday they may ask for forgiveness, from our Creator God in heaven and from those whose lives they have destroyed.
I know the Lord forgives and pours out grace upon grace on us all.  I pray that God’s loving grace can remove our demons and heal all wounds and comfort the grieving.  And I remember the words of Ecclesiastes, who said:
For God will bring every deed into judgement, including every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:14)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

"mutants, creeps and musclemen"

On December 12, 1980 (!), the English band The Clash released their triple-disc album called Sandinista, which featured, among other things, the first U.K. rap song, The Magnificent Seven.

According to the band's web site, "Taking its name from Nicaragua's left-wing rebel force, the album tackles subjects including US foreign policy, Vietnam, and Cold War tensions."  Sandinista was voted album of the year by the Village Voice.

Anyway, one of the tunes on the album, Hitsville U.K., has been in my head for a few days now, especially this lyric:
The mutants, creeps and musclemen,
Are shaking like a leaf

The song is about the trials and tribulations involved in making a hit record: the long odds, the smarmy record executives hanging around, the pressure, and so on.

But that phrase — mutants, creeps and musclemen — won't get out of my head, and I think it's because I'm getting toward the end of a book called Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder.  The London Telegraph named it their book of the year in 2010, as did The Atlantic, the Economist, the Seattle Times, and the Jewish Forward, among others.

In this book, the mutants, creeps, and musclemen hardly worry about anything, since they are the ones controlling the chess board.  The musclemen, of course, are the ones doing the actual killing.  It matters little whether these musclemen were Germans or Soviets.  They did their murders in Poland, Ukraine, and Belarus, for the most part — Eastern Europe generally was a killing field for nearly a quarter of a century, despite the ever-shifting political borders at the time.

Hitler and Stalin, Snyder writes, wanted to build their versions of utopia, though the two visions were completely different (387-389).  Both leaders lived in what Snyder calls 'fictitious worlds,' so maybe this makes them the mutants, since the world had never seen anything like this before.

The creeps, then, were the politicians, underlings, and thugs who transformed both Hitler and Stalin's 'suggestions' into policies, actions, and reality.

They were all responsible in one way or another for the deaths of millions of people, not counting those who died on the various battlefields during this same period.

I'm reading this book and others like it (for example, Red Famine by Anne Applebaum) because I want to understand how we can turn people into numbers; I want to understand how we lost our humanity then, because I can sense it slipping away from us again, now, here and there as a slow drip drip drip.  We all have names.  We all have lives and families and friends.  We have to be careful in how we treat each other, every day.

Everything flows, everything changes.
You can't board the same prison train twice.
Vasily Grossman

Friday, March 23, 2018

Then the Lord Answered Job

This is a sermon given at North Falmouth Congregational Church, UCC
a few years ago.

Based on Job 38:1-7, 34-41

“The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”  How did we get to this holy place today?
The Book of Job fearlessly tackles the problem of suffering in the world.  You’ve heard people wonder, time and time again, when disaster strikes where was God.  If God was all-powerful, they say, God would have prevented every fill-in-the-blank horror ever visited upon humanity.  People get angry when the Hand of God doesn’t scoop them up out of harm’s way.  What happens to our faith when we know we did nothing to invite the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune?  What do we do?
We open the Book of Job to chapter 1, verse 1, which reads: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.  That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”
And yet, his life comes undone.  We say today that so-and-so ‘had the patience of Job,’ but you find out when you read the book cover to cover that Job was anything but patient.  The word patient comes from Latin and means sufferer.  That would be Job.
It’s easy to talk about Job and his suffering because it’s not ours.  The people who put this book together knew that when our pain is too close, we stop talking, but we can talk about Job’s pain.  He lived “in the land of Uz,” and even then no one knew where that was.  At best, it was far enough away for us to know that whatever happened to Job, probably wouldn’t happen to us.  And his name was Job.  He wasn’t even Jewish, yet he calls on the Jewish God of the covenant.
Long story short: Job’s life falls apart through no fault of his own.  His friends come to help but they just make everything worse.  During the course of the book, Job even threatens a lawsuit against God!  In chapter 23, he says:
I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.  
I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.  Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?  
No; but he would give heed to me.
Job wants to know why his life was ruined – he needs to be heard – and he’s even willing to cross-exam God in open court.  Throughout the book, we also learn something else: it’s all about Job.  He’s angry and becomes blind, as any of us might, to the world around him.
But God remains silent.  Finally, after much dialogue between Job and his three friends, and a fourth man, a younger man named Elihu who offers his perspective, the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, which brings us to today’s passage.
The National Lampoon recorded some comedy albums and made some films back in the Seventies and Eighties.  At one point, they recorded a parody of a New Age poem called Desiderata and called theirs Deteriorata, which was pretty funny, for the times – find it on youTube.  Anyway, at one point the narrator says, “Make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be – hairy thunderer, or cosmic muffin.”  I have always imagined God in Job as the hairy thunderer, mostly because I think I was set up to expect that through the first 37 chapters, but the text itself may show us another way to read God’s speeches.
For one thing, up until now, Job himself has called on Shaddai, the Almighty.  The authors also refer to El, God.  Now, in these final chapters, it’s the Lord, YHWH, the God who raised up Israel out of Egypt, who speaks.  Is the compassionate God of the covenant also a hairy thunderer?  Is YHWH angry with Job?  It’s hard to tell with what we have to work with but it makes a difference to how we as Christians understand God’s nature and how God relates to humanity and humanity’s suffering.
English translations tend to steamroll meaning.  God says, “Gird up your loins like a man,” which is Bible-speak for “get ready because here it comes.”  Except, most translations leave out one word which translates as “I pray” which itself means, in modern English, “please.”  So is God being ironic or is God approaching Job as an equal?
Good news!  First, God heard Job’s lament!  And then God answered.  God had to, either to maintain a sense of honor or perhaps Job had pushed too far.  Or maybe Job was beginning to show signs of real stress – an explanation might help him hang in there.  He also needed to get back into relationship with God, and that’s another reason for the switch to YHWH – when God establishes contact in a direct, personal way (think Moses or Jonah), it is YHWH the covenant God who shows up.  This is a sign of YHWH’s steadfast love and faithfulness to the people of the covenant.
Throughout the book, Job has raged against God, and that, I think is something he had to do before he could return to God.  We know his faith wasn’t broken but his trust in God was.  And now they’re talking, the first sign of reconciliation.
God asks a series of questions: Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?  Can you do this?  Who can do what I do, asks the Lord.  Up to now, Job has been preoccupied with his own problems.  His life has become chaos, so God shows him the vastness of Creation.  Job never saw beyond his own picket fence, and now he has a new perspective: Yes, there are predators and there is prey.  There are limits.  There are boundaries, drawn by God.  There are reasons for everything.  You matter, God says, but other things matter too; Job, you are not the center of the universe.  In the end, Job says to the Lord, “I had heard of you but now my eyes see you; I withdraw my case against you,” or words to that effect.
In our time, we still want to know: what is the meaning of suffering?  Why?  Does God indeed control everything, or did the Lord simply wind the metaphorical clock and then step aside?  We tend to think that you reap what you sow, but we also know that stuff happens.  We are all eligible to slip on God’s banana peel; we are all subject to what David Bentley Hart calls the “imbecile forces of chance.”
We want the world to be fair.  Yet it’s a two-way street.  We know good things happen to bad people too.  After becoming a fugitive from the FBI, Whitey Bulger won the lottery – twice.  But we want – we expect – Evil to be punished and Good to be rewarded.  We want the fighting in Syria to end.  Some of us secretly root for the Cubs.  It doesn’t always happen the way we want it to.
Are there boundaries we can’t cross with God?  If we keep the Commandments, are we then free to say anything to the Almighty, as long as it comes from the heart?
When God answers Job “out of the whirlwind,” I think what YHWH is really saying is, “Here I am.”  Never too far away.  Always within earshot.  Through the Book of Job, we learn that we can return to God just by speaking up.  We are welcome to question God and demand a hearing.  We learn that God’s steadfast love is unwavering.  And we learn that while there might be no answer to the questions we ask, we better be ready for the answer we get when it comes.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Remembering the Martyrs

[This piece was originally written in 2014 to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murders in El Salvador.  This edited version incorporates new material and updates the original text.]

On November 16, 1989, eight people were murdered on the grounds of the José Simeón Cañas University of Central America (UCA) in El Salvador.  Six of the victims were Jesuit priests who taught at the university and who were vocal advocates for a negotiated settlement of the country’s civil war.  The two other victims were the cook for the priest’s dormitory and her daughter.[1]  These murders shocked a country that had seen plenty of bloodshed up to that point.
The 1993 United Nations Security Council report submitted by the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador claimed that, “between 1980 and 1991, the Republic of El Salvador […] was engulfed in a war” which ultimately claimed upwards of 75,000 lives, traumatized an entire society, destroyed roads, highways, bridges, churches, schools, hospitals, homes, and families.  “In its cruelty violence leaves everyone defenceless.”[2]
Looking back, I remember being unsure about who was doing what to whom, and where.  Central America was in crisis throughout the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, when civil wars in Guatemala (1960-1996), Nicaragua (twice, first in 1978-1979 and again from 1981-1990), and El Salvador attracted a variety of foreign involvement, in the form of money, arms, and advisors.  Coup d’états, repressions, and counter-coups marked the era.  Human rights were abused with impunity.  People disappeared, villages were destroyed, and villagers massacred.  Both sides committed gross atrocities against the other.
In El Salvador, the United States backed the government.  The Soviet Union, Cuba, and other Soviet bloc countries supported the Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), an alliance of five insurgent groups.  The fighting was “particularly merciless” on the civilian population.[3]  The details are far more complicated than a brief synopsis can provide, but in the end, neither side could dislodge the other, and as the Cold War dwindled, so too did foreign political interest and financial aid to El Salvador, eventually leading to an end to the fighting and a subsequent peace accord, signed in Mexico City on January 16, 1992.[4]
This conflict highlights the nature of power – who has it, who wants it, and who gets stuck in the middle.  But war doesn’t happen overnight.  Even the seemingly spontaneous Rwandan genocide in 1994 was planned.  War is, as von Clausewitz said, “a continuation of policy by other means,”[5] a political act, as it certainly seemed to be in the El Salvador of the Cold War era.
The roots to this latest conflict go back to the sixteenth century when Spain conquered Central America.  El Salvador only became an independent republic in 1838.  Before then, the Spaniards and, after independence, Salvadorans of European descent had created a vast gap between rich and poor.  The Salvadoran economy was based on agriculture, mostly around two singular crops: first, indigo, for which demand evaporated with the introduction of chemical dyes, followed by coffee in the 1800s.[6]  By 1880, coffee had become the dominant export crop and would figure prominently as a funding source in the civil wars to come.[7]
The Center for Justice and Accountability says indigenous peoples and mestizos[8] made up 95 percent of the population but were reduced to virtual serfdom while a small minority of wealthy landholders called the “Fourteen Families” ruled through a long series of military dictatorships throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  “It is along these fault lines – between peasant and planter, European and native – that cycles of violence have erupted throughout El Salvador’s troubled history.”[9]
In January 1932, Augustin Farabundo Marti, a labor leader, led a peasant revolt against the ruling dictatorship and the “Fourteen Families.”  The response was immediate and massive.  It is remembered today as La Matanza, the slaughter that took 30,000 lives, mostly those of indigenous people.[10]  Thus began a perpetual struggle between the various right-wing military dictatorships and their left-wing guerilla opponents.  Caught in the middle, Salvadoran society in general and particularly the peasant population were vulnerable to depredations from both sides, more so from the right-wing.
Europe between Hitler and Stalin, from the 1920s to the end of the Second World War, and even a little beyond, experienced similar murders, where millions of people were murdered simply for who they were and where they happened to be living at the time.
We need to know these long and complicated histories in order to see our current world in all its complexity and tragedy and as clearly and completely as possible.  In response, one might ask, where was God?  For every murder, for every disappearance, was God present to the victims?  How could God allow such a long-playing tragedy such as what befell El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua, Poland and Ukraine?
In the immediate aftermath of the December, 2004 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Sumatra and most of the coastal regions of the Indian Ocean as far away as Sri Lanka, David B. Hart wrote that, when we are confronted by “the sheer savage immensity” of wide-spread suffering, we are permitted only to hate death, waste, and “the imbecile forces of chance.”[11]  The hidden hand of God does not send the destruction of natural causes our way as a form of testing or punishment.  Instead, we can see that God is in our collective positive response to tragedy, in our compassion, and in our charity.
In the wake of the 2012 Sandy Hook shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, John Podhoretz wrote that evil is “an effort to destroy the common good by making good appear powerless, ineffectual, weak.”[12]  Evil is all of that and more.  Evil isn’t just a thing that sits there as if it were waiting for the next bus.  Evil is something we choose to do.  We can resist evil.  We can choose not to do it.
What happened on November 16, 1989 in El Salvador was not by natural causes.  The men who murdered six priests and two women that night chose to do evil.  Worse, they were commanded to, and they did not question the command.  We can say, then, that the murderers and their commanders were evil.  Such evil is still on the loose around the world today in conflicts small and large.
We are called to remember what happened on November 16, 1989 and elsewhere in Central America at that time because, as Father Joseph O’Hare wrote, “for us to forget [the slain priests] or to decide that the costs of justice are too high for us to pay would be to betray not only their memory but our faith that this is God’s world and that God is the Lord of justice.”[13]  In the same way, we are called to also remember if not stand with the slain in Bosnia, Rwanda, Syria, and with all those trapped in a war zone; anywhere that neighbors strike at neighbors or wherever people have died at the hands of oppression.  It is a long list.
At the Communion table, Christians recall the words of Jesus Christ, who said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”  Jesus is calling us to remember, first, that we meet in peaceful fellowship that cuts across social, political, and economic boundaries.  Secondly, in sharing that meal, we build up God’s beloved community, the kingdom of heaven, here on earth.  Reconciliation and perhaps understanding occur at the Lord’s Table.  What we do there is the exact opposite of what we do when we are at war.
Jon Sobrino reminds us of “God’s eternal question,” which is this: “What have you done to your brother or sister,”[14] to which we would add, “or not done for them?”  Here is Sobrino again with what we hope is the last word that might speak for all time to man’s inhumanity to mankind: “In a world of darkness with a heart of stone it is possible to live with light and with a heart of flesh, and that it is possible to experience in one’s own life the blessing and joy of the beatitudes.”[15]

[1] Rev. Stan G. Duncan , “Introduction: The Crime” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1990], xi-xxviii.
[2] Betancur B, Figueredo Planchart R, Buergenthal T.  “From madness to hope: the twelve-year war in El Salvador.  Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador.”  [New York: United Nations; 1993], accessed 13 October 2014.
[3] Mark Vasallo, “Truth and Reconciliation Commissions: General Considerations and a Critical Comparison of the Commissions of Chile and El Salvador,” The University of Miami Inter-American Law Review, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Spring, 2002), 168.
[4] Ibid., 168-169.
[5] Karl von Clausewitz, War, Politics, and Power: Selections from On War, and I Believe and Profess, ed. and tran. Edward M. Collins [Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1962], 83.
[6] “Background on El Salvador,” The Center for Justice and Accountability,, accessed 16 October 2013.
[7] Donald E. Jacobson and David B. Ehrenthal, "Chapter 3: The Economy" in A Country Study: El Salvador, Library of Congress Call Number F1483.B55 1990,, accessed 17 October 2014.
[8] A person of combined European and Native American descent.
[9] “Background on El Salvador.”  Emphasis added.
[10] Ibid.
[11] David B. Hart, “Tremors of Doubt,” The Wall Street Journal (31 December 2004).
[12] John Podhoretz, “Gehenna in Connecticut,” Commentary (14 December 2012),
[13] Father Joseph O’Hare, S.J., “Six Slain Jesuits” in Companions of Jesus: The Jesuit Martyrs of El Salvador, 176.
[14] Ibid., ix.
[15] Ibid.