And That’s the Truth, Ruth: Of Moabites and Muslims

There are some ridiculous things in Scripture. Head-scratching things. Make you slap your mama things. But then there are those things that make me wonder how I ever didn’t believe. I mean, really believe. In God, yes. But even deeper than that; believe that there’s a reason why billions of people across space and time keep reading this book. This damn book. This book that makes me cringe and weep; a book that I can’t stop reaching for, a book that keeps revealing things about myself. About who we are as persons. About how we get so much wrong in the pursuit of doing right.

And I’ll be goddamned if the Book of Ruth isn’t laying the smack down on me right now.

Since I rapped at you last week, there’ve been goings on in the macro and micro. We all know about the shit show that is Drumpf; in my ministry world, people are dealing with a tremendous amount of pain and fear. My therapy is unearthing some stuff I didn’t know was there, and I am asking a lot of people to put a lot of trust in me as I attempt to launch The Beloved Community Project of Yellow Springs. I start teaching at Xavier again next week; well, not really. I’ll be in doctoral seminars for the first week, but classes start. So it’s more like

I’ve been living with the second chapter of the Book of Ruth all week, reading it each day, doing the research and study that normally attenuate sermon prep. Faithful Reader knows that I started preaching without a manuscript during Lent and have continued since; the congregation has indicated that with this style they feel more connected to me, and I admit that it forces me to prepare much more thoroughly, and also to rely on the Holy Spirit. I generally go into the service having bullet points in my mind; I craft about three lines in advance that I use as tent poles, and the sermon is built and advanced by my knowing what fifteen minutes feels like, and attempting to end with both an affirmation and a challenge, something that will hopefully stay with people after they leave the sanctuary. That’s the goal. Sometimes I hit the target, sometimes I don’t.

But I’ve been living with the Book of Ruth as a parable. I can’t remember where I read ti first–it might be from The New Interpreters Bible or one of the articles I read by Hebrew scholars–but as soon as I made that connection, it was like I was able to read the book in a whole new way. And, honestly, the Book of Ruth has always been a struggle for me. Many of the interpretations that I encountered in graduate school and seminary left me flat. I just didn’t see how the story was relevant outside of highly spiritualized readings that are anachronistic or ahistorical. But Ruth as parable?

The Moabites have a how you say, interesting history. They arise from Lot’s daughters raping him. Through various time in history, they are both inside and outside of the covenant community. As I wrote about last time, scholars are divided as to when the Book of Ruth was penned, but I am swayed by a later dating from the time of return under Cyrus the Persian. Why does this matter? Because it reflects a time in which the community as a whole is thinking about who is in and who is out, having just experienced for themselves a multi-generational period of diaspora. In the story world, we have Naomi, an Israelite, who has lost all the males in her family. Kinda. In Ruth 2, we learn that Boaz is a kinsman of Elimelech, Naomi’s deceased hubby. And if that is the case, we might expect that Boaz marry Naomi. Maybe. But since she is beyond childbearing years, she has no cultural value and therefore has fallen through the sparsely woven safety net that exists for women. And who does she bring in tow with her? A Moabite foreigner who exists as a threat to good Jewish men whose children would not be legitimate, given that Judaism is a matrilineal religion, were they to bed her. The Moabites were much like the Samaritans: distrusted and seen as dangerous.

And let’s look at the Jewish man who is present. There are some odd details in the story. Scholars point out that Boaz and Naomi both speak in a more ancient and formal Hebrew, perhaps meaning to indicate that they are traditionalists that act in nontraditional ways. Even Boaz’s name is significant, given that he bears the moniker of a pillar in the Temple of Solomon which, if we go with a later dating, has been destroyed by the time of Ruth’s authorship. In the story world, though, Boaz is the pillar upon which these relationships will be built. He seems to push the boundaries of the law, which requires leavings for gleaning, to be more generous and inclusive than strict, literal adherence to the law would permit or facilitate. So, too, does Naomi act beyond tribalism. She refers to Boaz as “our kinsman” to Ruth; her legal obligations to her son’s widow ended with his death. But Ruth’s loyalty, expressed in chapter one in terms that scholars regard as the “first conversion,”results in Naomi ignoring law in favor of relationships.

When you think about this story as a parable, you begin to see that God works in contradictions, but also contradictions that lead to more life.

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I was going to preach a different sermon until I read the story last night of an imam and his assistant being gunned down in the light of day. Granted, there is no evidence yet that this is a hate crime. But the shooting is not just a shooting. Of course, no matter the specific details it is a terribly sad situation. The fact that the victims were Muslim, though, cannot be ignored. We cannot just think of them as two victims of a violent society. We must think of them as Muslims before anything else. Whether good or bad, that is the case. And that’s because we have done a terrible job as Americans equating Islam with positive attributes. We don’t think of Islam as just another religion, even though if you watch the Why We Fight propaganda series during WWII you’ll see that Mohammad is cited as one of the historical influences on democracy. Since 9/11, Muslims has been the other. The Moabite. We don’t see them as Americans or New Yorkers or even men. We think of them as Muslim, and for too many people that automatically makes them suspect.

Sweet Jesus forgive us.

So what are we doing to be Naomi or Boaz? I write this to Christians especially, but to all Americans in general. What are we doing to bring the Ruths of our communities into the fullness of relationship? To do more than just glean on the leavings, but to be inheritors of the crops? What are we doing to listen to the Moabites, the ones about whom we have preconceived notions or improper preconceptions? What are we doing as pillars in our community? As ones who can speak in terms of “we” in order to make that more expansive?

What are we doing?

 

 

 

 

To the Imams Khan: I Have Sacrificed Nothing

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Like a vast majority of Americans who are not terrible people and have a soul, I watched the appearance of Khizr Khan and Ghazala Khan, the parents of fallen U.S. Army Captain Humayun Kkhan, a patriotic young man who lost his life owed to the reckless policies of the Bush Administration, with tears in my eyes. Anyone who questions if the American dream is still alive need only look at these dignified, proud people who understand what true political oppression feels like. Looks like. They know what it means to go to another country and seize opportunities, such as Mr. Khan has done as an attorney. As their son did as a soldier deploying and redeploying as called upon by his country. And the image of Mrs. Khan, standing silently but proudly, wearing a hijab, providing strength for her husband as we imagine she has done for family all her life, is now seared into the American consciousness. Watching them, I felt proud to be an American. I don’t say stuff like that a lot. False patriotism is ugly. I have sacrificed nothing for my country. I am not a veteran. I have taught at private institutions. My community service and work is not a sacrifice. It is a great joy. A privilege. My religious freedom is not as the result of anything I have done; it has been given to me. While I am a lifelong, dedicated pacifist I have friends who are Marines and soldiers in the Army; sailors and Air Force. Veterans and active duty. One of my dear friends’ father is a retired Air Force Colonel. Another friend lost her brother in Afghanistan. I live a stone’s throw away from the second largest AFB in the country, and there are armories to the south and east. I know lots of people who have sacrificed by serving in the Peace Corp or Teach for America.

I have sacrificed nothing.

The splenetic, infantile responses of the Orange Baboon are a perfect illustration of what is going on in this country right now. Really, if we are honest, it has been going on for hundreds of years. Rich men who never serve a day of their life in the military continually decide to send our volunteer forces into impossible situations with suspects motives to seeks amoral outcomes. See also: History. Drumpf, who is woefully unaware of geopolitics, including dangerously inaccurate statements about Crimea and Ukraine, claims that he has made sacrifices by working hard, creating jobs, and building “great” buildings. One is reminded of his statement that his love for the differently-abled community can be seen in his spending millions of dollars to

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comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Sacrifices abound.

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We cannot ask for a better situation to demonstrate the macrocosm through the microcosm. Here we have an immigrant family who are fiercely proud of their adopted country; who raised a son with a sense of devotion and service that I have never even approached; who laid bare their own pain and suffering out of concern for their fellow citizens, to offer as an example an American who never would have existed had The Donald been in power when the Khans left Pakistan; who passionately used as their defense for having such fundamental questions about Drumpf’s qualifications, knowledge of the fucking Constitution of the United States. And as John Oliver has said, it seems the first time that noble document has been used as a middle finger.

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I felt proud because I see, in a small way, that we are inching closer and closer to fulfilling the maxim that all persons are created equal. A Muslim couple who still speak with accents, proudly and courageously challenging the odiousness that is passing for GOP policy positions. And, of course, the response is no longer a surprise. The asshat with “one of the great temperaments” reacted like a foul-mouthed parrot that has learned how to tweet. And, seriously. What the hell is with that sentence construction? One of the great temperaments? I must have missed the day in school in which Ms. Davis, the legendary history teacher from my high school alma mater, went over the Great Temperaments. As I am a man who likes to know things, I spent the morning doing deep research on the Great Temperaments (one cannot recommend enough the seminal work of Monsieur Derriere-Chapeau) and I found rare footage of Trump’s noble forbears:

I have written before (and before and before) about the darkness and irresponsible vision of the country the GOP nominee is presenting. But I am asking people to look very closely at what is happening: Drumpf wants to be president, but he can’t even fulfill the most basic tasks. He will send armed forces into areas of the world he knows nothing about, and will be unable to comfort the families when our heroes return in boxes. The man is a walking id, as I’ve said before. He is a blight on humanity.

But I’m about solutions. Positivity. Rejecting Trump does not happen just at the ballot box, it comes with the actions we engage in each day. Because this is what we are facing:

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This was left on a female friend of color’s FB post. I reported it and alerted my friend, who is out of the country. But this is what Drumpf is stirring up. We can be reactionary and go into word battles with them–which, actually, can be fun, so go ahead an inundate them with tweets and posts–but we can also engage in action. And that’s what this post is ultimately about. I feel like Mr. and Mrs. Khan have been our Imams. They have presented to us a challenge.

Pastor friends, Christian friends, friends who teach Sunday School. Join me. Join me as I continue to teach the children of First Presbyterian Church of Yellow Springs the Five Pillars of Islam. I connect each pillar to Christianity, highlighting similarities and differences, but they are learning about Islam. We are then going to a local mosque, and in return we will invite members to come to the church. My hope is that we can become sister communities, coming together every year to share. To support. To love one another. I’m asking you to do the same, or to do something to connect the congregation you serve or attend to a local Muslim community. It is time to make sure that as many microcosms as possible shift. That this be the end of a major politician being able to stoke fear and xenophobia.

The Khans are doing their part. Are you doing yours?

 

We’re Not Allowed to Laugh

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They started appearing almost the instant Donald Trump “humbly” accepted the nomination of the once proud Grand Old Party to which my grandparents were lifelong members (except for my beloved grandma who voted for Obama twice). The tweets. The FB posts. The IMs. Usually this is my favorite part of both conventions: the witty, urbane, deeply educated comments from my wide circle of friends that includes rocket scientists, professors, pastors, teachers, nurses, welders, writers, actors, artists, dancers, photographers, retail workers, business owners, managers, lawyers, diplomats, economists, and trust fund babies. I count Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians, Tea Partiers, Socialists, Democratic Socialists, Anarchists, and Communists among my friends, at least the ones with whom I remain in digital contact. We squabble, but over the years I’ve managed to weed out the most obstreperous on all sides and am lucky to have a pretty awesome FB and Twitter feed.

There was no congenial jocularity last night. No moments in which we could reach across the proverbial aisle and type in response, “If this candidate wins despite my voting for someone else, I known I can support a few things in the platform; I’d prefer to not have this president, but I understand why others do.” Even my staunchest Republican friends were either silent or posted about deep pain in watching their political party hand over the reigns to a grossly incompetent narcissist who all but promises martial law, racial profiling, mass deportations, foreign policy chaos, and economic recovery (despite the relative strength of most major markets and indicators).

My night went a little something like this: I tried some attempts at humor.

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If I do say so myself, that is kinda funny. Chuckle-worthy at least. Then I saw a post from a friend who came to the country as an refugee, is Muslim, and has children. He wrote that before his family escaped Iran in 1979, there were similar promises for purity, strength, security, and elimination of undesirables. I stopped chuckling. He has family who are not citizens but who understandably do not want to go back to Iran.

I tried an intellectual approach.

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Rather astute, if I do say so myself, and at the time I felt rather proud of myself for having such a sweeping grasp of historical geopolitics. Then a friend reminded me of the homeless man who was beaten by Trump supporters for being an immigrant, an action Trump refused to denounce. Intellectualism also was not successful in keeping me at a distance from the shitshow unfolding before the world.

I tried sarcasm, the last refuge I could see that might keep me from a total surrender to despair.

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As Trump struggled to pronounce GLBTQ+ and promised our community protection from a “foreign ideology,” a not-so-coded reference to the shooting at the Pulse nightclub, which has yet to be connected to Islamic extremism, into my feed came this Advocate slideshow about the trans* persons who have been killed this year. Crap. Sarcasm wouldn’t work, either.

Righteous indignation at the baffling ignorance being trumpeted as strength and leadership seemed the next logical approach:

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As the balloons fell down upon the assembled crowd all I was left with was this:

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The song selection seemed so meta I reasoned it had to be unintentional. Certainly neither Trump nor anyone in his clusterfuck of a campaign could be witty enough to chose the song as a slight to states like my own, which loudly and proudly cast delegate votes for Gov. John Kasich, who has been disastrous for Ohio but seems downright Churchillian in comparison. No way, I thought, that this was a pointed jab at Ted Cruz, who refused to endorse Trump the penultimate night of the convention. No. Way! Right? And it certainly couldn’t be pointed at the American people, could it? A message to the so-called “moochers and takers,” to use House Speaker Paul Ryan’s verbiage, and the “losers,” which Trump believes includes Republicans who dare to disagree with him. That couldn’t be what we just saw, right?

Right?

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Right.

A friend of mine who is a scholar of dystopian literature and one of the sharpest thinkers I’ve ever known, usually is able to pull me out of Chicken Little mode. But even he was almost speechless and described himself sad, noting that Orwell was not writing a political handbook. Alas, we have found ourselves in Oceania. War is peace. Slavery is freedom. Ignorance is strength. One has to wonder if Trump wins the presidency, will yearly conventions be held in Cleveland? If so, one can only hope that it one day hosts international criminal court proceedings to bring to justice the regime that we are on the precipice of putting into place by so-called democratic means.

Finally, it pisses me off that this is exactly what Trump wants. He desires his supporters to feel emboldened and justified, and he wants to imbue with fear those of us who do not view the world in an infantile “winner and losers” rubric that most people shed by kindergarten. He wants us to believe his dark, ominous, wildly inaccurate claims and depictions of the United States. He wants to play upon White fear and insecurity; label as enemies immigrants and Muslims; and celebrate as wisdom ignorance of such gobsmacking depths that even Jules Verne couldn’t imagine the bottom.This is how we will make America great again.

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Imam Jesus

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I was raised in a decidedly nonreligious household, and while there was decent religious diversity in the local schools I really did not know the difference between a Hindu and a Buddhist until I went to university and began studying religion seriously. My introduction to Islam came from a gorgeous musclebound lacrosse player at Kalamazoo College, where I started undergrad studies, while he sipped from a 40 oz. of Mickey’s Ice. The first time I heard the shahada, I was drinking Zima and wondering if the guy was gay or if he’d kick my ass if I tried to make a pass at him. He wasn’t and I didn’t. But the claim, “There is no God but God and Mohammad is God’s prophet” will always be tied to that dorm room in Michigan and my crush on a straight boy.

I wish that I could tell you some of my closest friends are Muslim, but I can’t. I certainly have Muslim friends and acquaintances, and I have done multifaith work with Muslims on college campuses and within communities. I have colleagues and former colleagues who are Muslim, and we try to stay in touch with one another to let each other in on what’s happening, events upcoming, challenges, and other information that helps us be of service to one another. But a deep, significant, sustained relationship with a Muslim or a community is something that has yet to occur in my personal life. Some of that is owed to context and circumstances (there is no mosque here in YS, so the village may not be as attractive as say Springfield or Dayton, where there are vibrant Muslim communities), and some of it is owed to the fact that many Muslims feel rightly wary of self-identified Christians. Especially White men. In the main, “my” people have not been so good to the Muslims.

And that sucks. I mean, I know I have a proclivity to be on the “wrong” side of many social issues that rankle Christians. I am pro-choice. I affirm GLBTQ+ persons and their rights to be married in a church if they so desire (would be kinda hypocritical of me not to, seeing that I am queer).  I am critical of the State of Israel for its apartheid-like policies toward Palestinians. So that can put me at odds with people in my own tradition, but don’t get me wrong: I am decidedly and proudly Christian. In terms of theology, I’m somewhat conservative. While I do not believe Jesus is the only way to salvation (however you might define that), Jesus is the only way for me. I confess the literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, a rather recent development, but I don’t hang my entire theology upon it and I do not think one needs to take it literally. I reject a blood atonement theology, but I confess the cross as essential to Christ confession. I believe the pastorate is polluted by people who do not undertake the proper training and education, but I am adamantly against the taxation of religious organizations (unless they clearly violate 501 (c)3 regulations).  I believe in original sin, but not as Augustine defines it. And I think that Christians should be able to explain in some detail how they understand the Apostle’s Creed before they are allowed to weigh in on serious theological discussions. So, yeah. I’m also a bit of an ass and an intellectual elitist. There’s an entry fee to play with the adults and too many Christians are infants with no purchase.

Thank God for grace, because I’m a bit full of myself.

But the most important thing–and this actually seems to me to be a conservative position–is to be in relationship with God’s children. Not just the ones like me. Not just Christians or men or White people or progressives. Everyone. And this is the most important thing to me because I take Jesus’s interpretation of the shema literally: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is One. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength…

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“and love your neighbor as yourself.” Like, I can’t make that metaphorical. I can’t turn it into an allegory or use an analogy that gets me out of loving my neighbor, especially my neighbors who are being persecuted and oppressed. So, I’m kinda obligated to do more than just say I support American Muslims. I need to show them I love them.

Here’s what I am doing/going to do. For the next six weeks during the children’s sermon, I am going to be teaching them the Five Pillars of Islam and how they connect or don’t connect to Christian teachings. I have already been in contact with a local imam, and we are going to be hosted by a mosque in September, with a reciprocal hosting by us occurring in October. During the time before our first visit, I will be writing entries in the “Imam Jesus” series that aim to help other Christians educate their kids on Islam and encourage them to develop significant relationships with their Muslim neighbors. These will grow out of the sermons and questions asked by the kids at First Presby.

This is my mantra: Less talk, more work. Less empty sympathy, more significant solidarity. Less ignorance, more knowledge. Less hatred, more love. Inshallah.