Wednesday, August 20, 2014

For Whom the Bell Tolls

Wild Rose on Cypress Hills
Michael Brown was shot dead on the street in Ferguson, MO a few days ago. There are plenty of opinions around: the shooting was triggered by Brown’s behaviour; the gun-happy, race-profiling cop shot him unnecessarily; the entire African-American population of the USA suffers under a pall of hate and prejudice that gives rise to such events.
      I obviously don’t know enough to assign any blame, neither for that shooting nor for the violence that followed resulting in yet more gun killings, which will also have to be investigated and judgements concluded.
      On The National last night, Keith Boag claimed to have observed at least two incidents of people being robbed in the street by young black men while he was covering the demonstrations. Obvious conclusion—if based solely on his comments—would be that police profiling of black youths may be justifiable—or at least understandable—given the facts . . . a politically incorrect conclusion even if were accurate.
      In Winnipeg, a 15 year-old Aboriginal girl was placed in foster care by a care-giving relative because she was becoming unmanageable. A few days ago, her body was found in the Red River. Assessments of how and why she got there are already being expressed by all and sundry, even before the facts are known.
      These media-driven stories remind me again that we don’t quite grasp the nuances of cause and effect. There is seldom an event anywhere on the face of this earth that is the consequence of a single cause. I can think of at least a dozen possible causes for the death of Michael Brown—theoretically— and it’s not unreasonable that in a heavenly court of law, the perpetrators that drove Michael Brown’s life toward its tragic end might well have included his parents, his teachers, his classmates, his uncles and aunts, brothers and sisters, the local grocer, the police, the people who train police, the economy, the church, President Obama, the NAACP, the KKK, guidance counselors . . .. A massive docket.
      It gives a new slant to the Biblical “for all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
      Most effects are the result of serendipitous, chaotic chains of events and the best the courts can apparently do is to determine who the last person in the chain with a potential for preventing tragedy might be. In the case of Michael Brown, it’s the policeman who pulled the trigger that will be under scrutiny; those further back in the chain will never be brought to trial.
      This is not to excuse the cop that pulled the trigger, or the person who killed Tina Fontaine and threw her body into the Red River. What I’m arguing against here are two things: first, the finger-pointing and blaming of specific persons without acknowledging our own complicity and second, the tendency to neglect more rigorous identifying and addressing of factors earlier in the chains of events that set directions for people’s lives: child rearing, child poverty, education and developmental activity, employment, housing, etc.
      Michael Brown and Tina Fontaine were not “born in sin,” as many are led to believe through some Christian doctrine. They were born to unlimited vistas of possibilities to which “sin” was introduced by the carelessness, selfishness and neglect of those who ought to have been nurturing them toward the best of the available futures. Exactly the same could be said regarding the cop who pulled the trigger in Ferguson and the Winnipeg killer of Tina Fontaine. Tragic events such as these have antecedents; most of the time we’d rather not be bothered with them.
      Perhaps naming and blaming the last person in the chain is a way of protecting ourselves from the guilt of knowing we are complicit in these tragedies. 
     " . . . Send not to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee." -John Donne

Monday, August 11, 2014

God is here among us . . .

Gott ist Gegenwaertig - Gerhard Tersteegen Hymn

"God is here among us . . ." is the opening passage in a hymn I chose as worship leader a week ago. Call me obsessive about lines like that, but what exactly (or approximately) can it mean? Typically, the third party in the trinity, the Holy Ghost, is said to be this presence; his/her spirit "reality" is not bound by physical limitations. But such considerations don't really get at the essence of what's meant when we sing the lines, I would guess.

      It must have something to do with nearness, the comfort a child gets from knowing mother is "right here." It may have something to do with discipline: God reads your every thought; he's omniscient, so keep your attention on the sermon and nothing else. But in the English translation of the hymn God is even more than "among us;" he/she is also "within us" so that our soul shall, "in silence fear him."

      Written by Gerhard Tersteegen in 1729—in German—the hymn reflects awakening wonderment regarding humanity's relative position in the universe with the one, omnipotent creator/father. I don't know this, but Tersteegen must have had inkling about at least two tautologies: if the universe has meaning, it's one meaning, i.e.unity is mandatory to meaning, and second, if this universe is the work of a creative force, then that force is either everywhere or nowhere, either alive and ubiquitous or mortal and gone. Tersteegen's hymn falls on the side of faith in a living, omnipresent, omniscient creator, obviously. His hymn would never have been included in Hymnal Worship Book or Gesangbuch mit Noten otherwise.

      Even if Tersteegen's hymn accurately defines our relative position to God—and his/hers to us—the struggle to find a satisfying meaning when untimely and/or tragic death occurs, for instance, is tough. The insistence that God will take care of you, through every day, o'er all the way—as another hymn so confidently intones—is difficult to sing along with by someone who feels parented by a creator who could intervene . . . but is unable to or—worse yet—chooses not to.

     The most likely explanation for our schizophrenic, approach/avoidance, conflicted relationship with our stories about God is that we're building on faulty premises, the most glaring being that God is separate from us, that he/she lives in a mysterious, other place from which we are separated by a gulf dug by our sinfulness. Metaphorically, this paradigm can probably teach something, but interpreted as binding theology it's probably more confusing than enlightening, comparable to telling your child from birth that he/she is worthless, and inspiring (for instance) another hymn writer, Isaac Watts, to pen, "would he devote that sacred head for such a worm as I."

            I like Tersteegan’s hymn because it hints at a better foundation on which to build a perception of what we mean when we invoke God. If he/she is “among us” and “within us”, then we not only have good reason to value each other properly, but human ears become receivers, human hands answerers of our prayers.