Travelers on Church Street

Keleti Station, Budapest.

I work as the Church Street Ministry Coordinator at First Parish Unitarian Universalist on Church Street just off Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., and one of my jobs is to educate the Congregation on issues of housing and food insecurity in our neighborhood and beyond. I wrote the following for our monthly newsletter after having been asked by several congregants how to approach individuals they assume to be homeless in the neighborhood. 

One of my favorite things to do when I was a young teacher in a little village in Eastern Hungary in the mid-’90s was to take the train 25 miles East to the Provincial Capital, Debrecen, near the Romanian border. It was a beautiful city, to be sure, but it was that hour traveling by train across the plains of Pannonia, the great Hungarian Puszta, that was the real attraction for me. The landscape, “flat as an ocean,” in the poet Sándor Petőfi’s words, reminded me of my Indiana home, and being a stranger among strangers on the old no-frills Soviet-era intercity train was oddly calming. Whenever I was homesick I could ride my janky old bicycle (provided at no cost by the local gimnázium) to the station, hop on a train, and I suddenly felt right at home amongst the rabble.

It’s good to be at home among strangers, and despite growing up in suburbia, where the appearance of a stranger is often cause for suspicion if not outright alarm, I think it’s in my blood. I recently became mildly obsessed with ancestry.com, and what struck me after doing a little research was the staggering scope of global displacement over the last several generations. Take my great-grandparents, who, like so many of their compatriots fleeing the grinding rural poverty of their Southern Italian home, arrived in New York around 1900 in what’s known as The Great Arrival. But while “L’America” was a land of opportunity, the story my genealogy tells of the century that followed was one of even greater fragmentation and displacement, with two World Wars and the Great Depression, and a relentless push West that saw relatives scattered from New York and Pennsylvania to Indiana, Texas and California. Growing up I hardly knew my relatives on my father’s side at all. I met my grandfather once. We’ve been in this country for 120 years.

First Parish Cambridge has been here much longer, of course. Many of its current congregants can no doubt trace their lineage back 400 years as well. One thing I’ve learned in my own short time in New England: folks take enormous pride in being of a place. I do it, too. Each September when the next freshman class floods in from parts unknown, despite only having lived here a mere 15 years, I’m suddenly a native. We often draw the arbitrary line of belonging to a place from the moment we arrived, whether it’s the queue for our morning coffee or Plymouth Rock. We take great, sometimes comical umbrage at strangers and newcomers, puffing our chests as if to say: “we were here first!” And when it comes to the line at Starbucks: yeah, ok, fair enough. But when we telescope out a bit, things get a little more complicated. Here isn’t always here. Take First Parish. In our first 200 years the Congregation moved five times (not to mention the much greater trek from Calvinism to Unitarian Universalism that accompanied all those moves.)

We are a people on the move, a species of travelers from the beginning, for whom “home” is a fairly recent adaptation. The first shelters may have been built as long ago as 400,000 years, but the first proto-houses did not appear until just 15,000 years ago, give or take. We would do well to keep that in mind when we think about homelessness. Like “displacement,” “homelessness” is a word that hides its privilege in plain sight. We rarely dig too deeply into the root — “home,” “place,” even less so “placement” — when we think of those who are homeless or displaced. We sometimes lament that they (and they are always a “they”) have had to leave their homes, but we invariably conceive of “home” as the place they are from, not the place they are in. It is a way of reinforcing that they are “out of place” here and now. The fact that many have had to leave the place they are from doesn’t mean that they need to feel or be treated as out of place where they are. We sometimes assume that those we encounter on our streets have nowhere to be without considering how it is that we have found our place here, on the same street where they are. They are here, we sometimes seem to be saying, in the place where we belong!

But home is not just an ephemeral and transient idea for them, as much as our own good fortune in having found a place for the moment might suggest to us. I say this as a renter in Boston who has been forced to move eight times in the past 13 years. And that’s stable compared to friends earning the minimum wage. In Cambridge today they’d have to work 145 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom rent. If we zoom out to the even bigger picture, we are in the middle of an epoch of global displacement, fueled by radical income inequality and unstoppable climate change. A recent study from the Union of Concerned Scientists warns that rising sea levels will, by the end of the century, cause a third of the homes in Cambridge to face flooding every other week.  A third of Cambridge underwater. (It seems likely this will only exacerbate the housing crunch.)

We have one home, not many. That much is obvious. It can be hard to remember that in moments of encounter with those who seem out of place to us in the here and now. When I forget, myself, I like to hop on the train. It doesn’t really matter where to. It’s just good to be at home among my fellow travelers.

 

“So you’re a divinity student, huh…?”

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I haven’t even started classes yet, but I had my first, “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” conversation last night.

You know the one: where someone says “so you’re a divinity student, huh…?” and you say, “uhhh…” and they launch into a forty-minute monologue about life, the universe and everything that inevitably ends with the Ancient Aliens guy.

Because I work in a Church setting (I head the Church Street Ministry of First Parish Unitarian Universalist, which works with home- and food-security in Cambridge, Mass.) this isn’t a totally unexpected  scenario, and because it’s UU, the Ancient Aliens thing is also, um, not totally unexpected. 

Don’t get me wrong. I love talking to people about Ancient Aliens. See, I’m particularly interested in the individual and vernacular “deviations” from creeds and practices, their origins in oral traditions, nascent religions and religions like Christianity in their oral, incipient stages. I am always fascinated by how people are interpreting and utilizing the received wisdom of religious traditions, de- and re-contextualizing them, mixing, matching, recycling, re-purposing, and tweaking them for their own ends.

And while I am, in fact, delighted to hear from people about their beliefs, let’s call them, although we don’t really live in an age of belief so much as credulity, I emphatically reject the idea that divinity students have any more “insight on divinity,” as one friend recently put it. You can talk to literally anyone about literally anything and get insight into divinity. That may, in fact, be the main takeaway of divinity school for divinity students (I’ll let you know in three years when I finish my MDiv).

So, yeah: the conversation started with that ominous “so you’re in divinity school, huh?” And I knew immediately where it was headed. But it’s the journey, you know?  And this one started with a visit to a Catholic shrine where my fellow pilgrim observed a worshiper in deep thrall to a statue of the Blessed Virgin.

“Isn’t that idolatry?” He huffed.

I treated this as a sincere inquiry, not a rhetorical question, which I’m guessing is, like, Day 1 of Divinity Student 101, right? (Again, I’ll let you know).

The Cult of the Blessed Virgin is right up my alley, a great example of one of the developments of early Christology so central to the establishing of orthodoxy on the nature of Christ that borrows from ancient archetypes. It took 400 years to sort that out — it was not until the Council of Ephesus in 431 that the cult of the Virgin as Mother of God was finally sanctioned. It was in committee for half a millennium.

My traveling companion was more interested in the general issue of idolatry and pagan influence, as he saw it, as evidence of an inherent and irreconcilable internal contradiction (not to say conspiracy) in the Orthodoxy of the Church. (We’re about 1/5 of the way to Ancient Aliens, for those of you keeping track of our mileage.)

“Worshiping the likeness of the Virgin Mary,” he said, raising an eyebrow, “when, hey, didn’t God say something about ‘graven images’?”

I was like: “I mean, technically it came from the Finger of God rather than His Mouth, but, yeah, something like that.”

And then: “But here’s the thing…”

I’d just been reading about the Hellenization of Christianity in those first crucial years, and suggested nascent Christianity’s break from Judaism, particularly after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, and its incorporation into the imperialist project of the Roman Empire might have something to do with the more pagan elements of worship that have come down to us today. Early Christians distanced themselves from their Jewish roots, partly because their roots were ripped out of the ground. 

He pricked up his ears at the mention of Jerusalem, and, wresting the wheel, he took a sharp turn to the right, pulled into a dark alley, and picked up Louis Farrakhan, whom I had not even seen on the side of the road there! I mean, bowtie and all!

“Why,” he asked, a note of heightened indignation creeping into his voice, “do the Jews think that’s their land?” He didn’t wait for an answer, instead repeating Minister Farrakhan’s inflammatory contention that “the State of Israel has ‘no home’ in the Middle East and that the Holy Land does not belong to the ‘white Jew.’”

Now, I suppose I could have said WHOOAA. HEYYY. HEY NOW NO. PULL OVER. LET ME OUT OF THIS CAR.

But this is, as they say, The Work.

And anyway, we were now halfway to Ancient Aliens. I mean, let’s ditch Farrakhan at the next Gas Food Lodging. But I might as well stick it out, right? I could almost make out the Great Pyramid of Tenochtitlán peeping up over the horizon up ahead, as we raced past a thousand years of Secret History via The History Channel.

“There are written records they don’t want us to see hidden in a room somewhere!” my comrade cried, his eyes bright as a fire worshiper on the twelfth day of Izcalli. “They’ve kept the truth from us!”

Not to be gendered about this, but I feel like the belief that there’s always a windowless room somewhere with the truth hidden away in a desk drawer is a very mansplainy way to look at truth. Because if it’s all stuffed in a file cabinet on Skull Island or whatever, you can always Mission: Impossible that shit, right? Just, like, bust in guns blazing and catch the Illuminati by surprise, steal back the truth and save the day!

I get it. The idea — you might even call it faith — that there is hidden proof is one of our species’ most persistent idées fixes. It may come from our early days digging for tubers and cracking the shells of nuts with stones.

The certainty that a staggering Truth is being hidden and withheld is part of our popular understanding of the forces of oppression at work in our world. It’s also a way we’ve been conditioned, or maybe condition ourselves to deny the power of our own truths. But what if what’s really being hidden on Skull Island is not the Truth that No One Must Know but the Truth That Everyone Knows?

My fellow seeker nodded sagely.

“Yeah,” he said, appreciatively. “You know, how is it that they’ve never found human remains in any of those pyramids in Mexico.”

I was like: “uhhh, I’m not sure that’s… ”

He gave me a significant look that cut me to the quick. We had arrived.

“I’m not saying it’s aliens, but…”

 

 

 

Theologies of Courage

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Independence Day was hard for many Americans to celebrate this year, and Therese Patricia Okoumou, who climbed up to the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty on the 4th, demonstrated succinctly in word and deed exactly why that is.

“In a democracy we do not put children in cages,” she said in remarks after her arraignment.“Period.”

“There is no debating it,” she added emphatically. “Nothing you will say to me will justify putting children in cages.”

That this not only needed to be said, but needed a public act of political protest, a singular act of courage by an individual with a story of her own to tell in her own words to drive it home, reminds us that we are in a moment that requires acts of courage from all of us. That requires us to radically change the course of our own stories.

One reason I’m so interested in Bonhoeffer is that his life story is the search for how we answer a radical evil in word and deed. His is a political theology. There’s a lot that I don’t know that I agree with in the nitty-gritty of his theology, but my agreeing with it or not (and there is literally no agreement among Bonhoeffer scholars about his theology, so no pressure) certainly doesn’t change the fact that Bonhoeffer was a genuine badass, and his theology was absolutely central to his badassery.

I have read just enough of theology to realize already that there’s really no such thing as Theology. Whether we would like or not, there are only theologies. And these theologies themselves are dynamic, each a living narrative, each a life. Bonhoeffer’s biography was his theology, his theology was biography. I think that’s why he remains such an object of fascination: you simply cannot separate the two, and the implications are positively vexing.

Such is life. And the capital T Truth of all theologies must be lived. But that dynamism shouldn’t frighten us. In fact, it’s what propels us forward, into experience, engagement and encounter. Deeper and further into life in all its vexations.

So there really is no theology outside of experience, in my thinking, and experience is  therefore not merely incidental to our theologies, sola fide (more about which later) be damned.

Bonhoeffer’s theology was as extraordinarily dynamic as his times, because, again, there is no theology outside of living relation and encounter. There is no Truth that does not lead back to encounter.

Our theologies are not really there to give us answers, they’re there to give us courage.

They are not there to provide the certainty of reward in this or a next life. They are there to give us courage to act in this one without any thought of reward.

Here’s where I’m going with this, and I’ll expand on it going forward: the presumption of certainty has brought us manifest evil, and we need dynamic theologies of courage to combat it. And not only that, we need to recognize and acknowledge the sanctity of these living theologies of courage, and challenge ourselves to engage in authentic encounter with them.

To have courage to be transformed by them, and thereby transform the world through them.

 

The Final Brick

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The bad news has been unrelenting this week, and reading about Hitler’s rise in Bonhoeffer is chilling. Yesterday I stumbled upon a New Yorker piece from early last year about Stefan Zweig (whose memoir is next on my reading list), where the author concludes:

The excruciating power of Zweig’s memoir lies in the pain of looking back and seeing that there was a small window in which it was possible to act, and then discovering how suddenly and irrevocably that window can be slammed shut.

And I couldn’t help thinking: that’s where we are now. We’re thinking the window is still open, but it’s already closed. And not just closed. As Justice Kennedy’s devastatingly timed retirement shows, they’re bricking it up. And while there are isolated moments of hope, like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Democratic primary win in the Bronx Tuesday, there is virtually no chance we will flip the Senate. 

The best we can hope for — and it’s not nothing — is to grab a slim majority in Congress, but that’s in no way guaranteed either. We may actually lose seats in the Senate. Whatever happens, I believe what’s in motion now (and I’m not talking about the “Blue Wave” here, friends) is all but unstoppable. They’re about to place that final brick.

Yesterday I was reading in Bonhoeffer about the Reichstag Fire. Of course, history nerds, and those junior high school debate, too clever by half, smartest guy in the room types are looking for an analogous event that the current administration will use to “declare Martial Law.” Guys: history repeats but not like that. This regime’s Reichstag Fire already took place. 17 years ago. This is a long game. It’s like a cancer that’s been moving through the body and we’re just seeing it now that all our organs are shutting down.

Now, don’t get it twisted. I’m not saying “9/11 was an inside job.” This is not a conspiracy blog. All I’m getting at is that within two years of 9/11 Congress had created the laws and the culture that left the door wide open to Fascism. It gave us the Patriot Act, our Reichstag Fire Edict:

Articles 114, 115, 117, 118, 123, 124 and 153 of the Constitution of the German Reich are suspended until further notice. It is therefore permissible to restrict the rights of personal freedom [habeas corpus], freedom of (opinion) expression, including the freedom of the press, the freedom to organize and assemble, the privacy of postal, telegraphic and telephonic communications. Warrants for House searches, orders for confiscations as well as restrictions on property, are also permissible beyond the legal limits otherwise prescribed.

The Patriot Act of October 2001 allows for all his and more. Those repeating this piece of history learned it well. Guantanamo opened in January 2002. By November 2002, the eerily named Department of Homeland Security was up and running, with ICE to follow in March of 2003. The laws, enforcement and penal apparatus have been in place for over fifteen years.

Not to go full Godwin’s Law on you, but since we’re already here, I might as well say it: they had to wait for their Hitler.

Bush just wasn’t a very good demagogue. He was more a feeble heir to a patrician ideal that was already teetering. The last of the Respectability Republicans, his appropriately condescending “compassionate conservatism” was entirely too conciliatory. Compare his merely tone-deaf reaction to Katrina to Trump’s flat-out GFYS to Puerto Rico after Maria. There was not even the clumsy pretense of compassion in the latter. 

Obama provided what was missing: the kindling. His election triggered the White Supremacists. What followed was eight years of resistance to his legitimacy, led with open scorn by Mitch McConnell and the Republican establishment, nurturing the movement, stoking the flames of white resentment until they were white hot.

McConnell was their John the Baptist. Trump is their Jesus.

Yeah. I went there.

But, come on. They went there first.

I saw this photo in a story on the Red Hen, which has now been shut down until further notice from a deluge of threats and protests after the Manager tried to speak Truth to Power:

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It’s the “Trump is Love” couple that gives me chills. I’ve noticed a change in the nature of this cult in the last few weeks. As the self-reinforcing madness has been building, the “religious” fervor has more grotesquely focused on the person of Trump himself. It is a kind of madness we have seen before.

Should we abandon hope? I think it’s important to prepare for the worst. This didn’t come out of nowhere. We need to stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. This is a movement that was waiting for its moment to seize total power. This is its moment.

What happens with that last brick in the window is the only question now.