death, funeral, grace, love, mutual recognition, september 11, war on terror

The Attack on September 11 and the Funeral of My Grandmother on September 11: Two Very Different Visions

Today is September 11. As usual, this date is the occasion for a lot of talk about the ‘terror attacks’ and the unending ‘war on terror.’ For many the frustration has mounted. ISIS has arisen as a threat to Iraq, but didn’t we just get out there? I’m not sure the tail is wagging the dog, but rather, we and the Iraqis are reaping what the US participated in sowing. Historically we are not so innocent. Saddam Hussein did indeed use mustard gas and nerve agents on the Kurds, slaughtering thousands and thousands, and horribly affecting many thousands more. However, that was in the 1980s when the US still supported Iraq as a barrier against Iran. Now we are stuck with a mess, at least partially of our own creation. We went into Iraq under pseudo-humanitarian, but largely fearful pretenses given by our leaders who knew quite well that they were lying, and would profit immensely from it. To make matters worse, much of the 31-44 longitude region above the equator is characterized by bloody, political conflict: Israelis-Palestinians; Syria’s civil war; Iraq’s…whatever it is (dissolving? conflict is too tame); Iraq-Turkey boundary dispute with the Kurds in-between; Afghanistan; and Ukraine-Crimea-Russia. So, apparently, now we are compelled to stay in Iraq, if just to clean up our mess so the justifications go. We have a problem. Now those justifying the ‘war on terror’ are comparing it to the length of the cold war. We are in trouble.

What answer do we have? My family and I buried my grandmother a year ago, to the day. Generally one might chalk up the date to a coincidence since she had died a few days before, but in point of fact, she was a person of excellent timing. She had her major stroke the Easter before. Well, actually, it was on the morning of Good Friday in her church’s sanctuary during a small service. While on my long drive down that same day, I worked out a theology of timing as beautiful (fitting-ness), good, and true. It was fitting and good––in a sort of iconographic imitatio way––to have a massively debilitating stroke not simply during a church service, but also just after lighting one of the candles as part of a Methodist take on the ancient tenebrae liturgy. I had something for truth; however, I forget what it was. It was probably something like a witness to the truth, but whatever I had for truth was eclipsed by the timing of her funeral. I do not know how else it would be possible to get so many people into church on an anniversary of September 11, much less not hear a word about it. For at least a few hours there was only grief; there was no sense of retribution that drove our national response to September 11. There was also a deep sense of remembering truth, both of who she was and Christianity’s hope for the resurrection of the dead because Jesus overcame the void. Funny how all of that is diametrically opposed to the ‘war on terror’: remembrance of US action before September 11 did not exist during our response; truth was sacrificed; and no one is even contemplating the hope of resurrection for all the dead, much less reconciliation. My grandmother’s funeral was an occasion of imagination and re-orientation.

But what good is imagination since it is so often negatively equated with ineffectual dreams? I did not mention my theology of timing to anyone, not from the pulpit or privately, for two reasons. First, it could appear as, although it would not have been, a politicizing of my grandmother’s death. I’m an ‘intellectual outsider’ to that small-town agricultural society; they have plenty of smart people but also suspicion. And who says I would be understandable? Never mind, that I’m not a Methodist or part of the church there, and I was leaving in a few days. One does not cause a potential stir like that without being part of the community. In truth, that may actually have made ineffectual my ‘imaginative work’ and the imaginative re-orientation of my grandmother’s funeral. Yet, there was something else that was practical and effective.

Second, I suggested a certain someone else should speak instead of me anyways. They had become part of the family, and because, in my own take on Scripture, there should be no separation between black and white in the church, particularly south of the Mason-Dixon line in what was historically a slave state. There was far more racial diversity at the burial than in the church, presumably affirming the very real persistent legacy of slavery, segregation, and the Klan; indeed, the Missouri town is still rather strictly divided, geographically along racial/socio-economic lines. Nevertheless, a black woman willingly, truthfully, front and center from the pulpit, and side-by-side with one of my cousins eulogized her once employer turned friend-family. My grandmother’s funeral not only paused the political narrative of the status quo, but also, in so doing, was a very real site for the proleptic, albeit partial, realization of the eschatological vision.

All this tells me two things. First, like Stanley Hauerwas notes, timing requires time, and sometimes lots of it. Conflict resolution is not quick, in part, because healing human inflicted wounds takes time. However, how does this address the fact that innocents are still bombed right now or unarmed black men shot by police? Second, like Gary Dorrien understands, there are instances of break-through when all lights are green, a kairotic moment. Yet, historically this has been the justification for seizing or colluding with coercive power. So how does one reconcile the two types of time? Both points about time I attribute to God receiving and responding to human development qua receptivity. The Spirit works unevenly––sometimes in what seems like long stretches of silence and at other times in rapid succession––because the Spirit works in-between what human stubbornness will allow at the time, the possibility of human transformation, and the fullness of transfiguring humanity for theosis.

So how does this apply today? The issue is stubbornness: the refusal to love qua openness towards the other, ekstasis, and mutual indwelling with the other; the refusal to recognize the other as giving themselves that calls for one to reciprocate with self-gift. The answer, I believe, is in Rowan Williams’s work. We have to get to a place of dialogue to mutually develop. Dialogue is built on mutual recognition, rather than some sort of ‘pure’ rationalism; and mutual recognition is predicated on the love’s openness and grace’s receptivity. So the question, upon which lies the balance of many human lives and the environment, is: how do we get to the corporate realization that we mutually constitute each other?

Funerals need to be more like my grandmother’s. I do not ascribe to the sovereignty of the void, as if it ultimately determines meaning; but we need to learn how to deal with loss in a way that stresses our mutual interrelatedness. The death of a person should recall the full history of the community, as well as be a site for steps towards dealing with the loss of them in relation to the life of the community. Unfortunately, funerals now are little more than sentimental, ineffectual bandaids. This is ridiculous. First, the truth is a pre-requisite to properly mourn someone and heal. Second, funerals are the most important, public place for how those most affected can deal with violence. Funerals need to be deeply sensitive while having a kind of public social inquest as a strong element, and ‘both sides’ (if there are ‘two’ sides) present in some manner and under a banner like the medieval “truce of God.” These wars will not end if we grieve separately. Gee, doesn’t that sound kind of similar to the “Truth and Reconciliation” vision?

D. Stephen Long, grace, love, ontology

Long on Gift, Love, and Ontology

I do not mean to keep quoting from Long, but he has put forth an interesting work that intersects well with some of my own interests. And since I refer to this blog more than I’m sure any other reader does, so as to help organize my own thoughts, here is another post with another quote.

Here we find Milbank answering the question why there is something rather than nothing. The answer is ‘gift.’ The gift of Christ to redeem us is the plenitude that allows us t ‘glimpse’ the Fall and thereby Creation. This answer assumes that love is as basic to our existence as reason, which is something Balthasar endeavored to show. We do not understand reason well if it remains unrelated to love. We can only know what we love and love what we know. Love is the perfection against which Creation and reason can appear.

John Paul II states this well. “The truth Revelation allows us to know is neither the mature fruit nor the highest reach of the reflections of human reason. On the contrary, it is the expression, together with its particular characteristics, of a totally free gift: it stirs up and disturbs ideas and requires that it be accepted as a declaration of love.” Only on the basis of an ontology of love can gift be understood Because love, and not pure reason, is the basic structure of being, the failure of human reason to achieve its infinite desires is not negative but positive. Thus we do not need to negate reason in order to believe, but rather supplement and intensify it. We receive knowledge as a gift. To forget the necessity of gift, or to bracket it out as philosophically problematic, is equivalent to forgetting that our very being only comes through the laborious gift of another. Of course, gift’s necessity does not entail reception. I can reject the gift of being. Gift, another name for the Holy Spirit, is the fullness of being, the perfection that surrounds us with an inevitable desire for truth, goodness, and beauty. It illumines our lives.

Page 158-159.

death, hope, love

Death to Comedy: Gurgle to Laughter

I am literally sitting next to a death bed. There is a certain smell to the room, quiet talk by those still around for the night, and a very, very slow IV drip. I’ve been to the hospital chapel, because frankly, it seemed wrong not to go in. That and the hope that stepping into a holy place (a place set aside) would do what my voice could not: speak the anguish. I’ve been told that He can hear us. I’ve been told that the dying man in front of us can hear us. Yet, all I seem to know is that the sound of death is gurgling.

I cannot stand an academic trivializing death or sterilizing humanity for the sake of a scholarly epiphany. This is emphatically what I am trying to avoid. What I cannot avoid is: the man who once smiled large is now virtually catatonic. I cannot avoid the warping of the voice. The constant gurgle, from a man who once laughed loud and hard, cannot be escaped. In a very real sense, this is a living nightmare.

While watching death in full control of a human, I have two answers for the family. For my family. I have to have answers, after all, I’m the one with theological training. I don’t have the choice to volunteer to act as chaplain, it is assumed. But at least I have two answers, answers I like because I think they’re good, beautiful, and true.

The most utterly bizarre juxtaposition I’ve ever experienced occurred in this hospital room. While the gurgle is incessant and dominating, there is laughter from memories and little jokes. He loved little toys. There are two voices in this room: death’s and grace’s. The grace — the pure gift — of divine redemption active in the people in the room speaks to the presence of grace: they are here, and here not at each others’ throats, but taking care of each other. They are at least reconciled enough to one another, knowingly or unknowingly, to live within this gift that makes the presence of God known. Therefore, they can laugh. Indeed, they do laugh.

What is it about love and hope that turns the gurgling to laughter? This juxtaposition is crucial: despite the work of death, hope lives. This is not a hope that looks for a miraculous recovery, but a hope that death does not have the last word. Death will not defeat the love of God. It is this love that stimulates the laughter in the room. And it is this laughter that reminds us of both the dying man’s laughter and divine laughter.

Jensen was wrong. The end is not music, it is laughter.

freedom, justice, love, memory, peace, reconcile, redemption, solidarity

Love is the Movement (of Freedom, Justice, Reconciliation, and Solidarity)

This post functions in a few ways. It is partly a clarification for a few conversation partners at school. It is also a synthesizing work on the way towards a post on pacifism that I have long promised in light of the previous language work. Without further delay:

We begin our existence with break or rupture. With death. And throughout life relationships of all kinds die: between communities, within communities, or strictly between two people. At one time the relationship is there in a positive way, and in the next following second, it is gone, it is sick or broken or dead. This death is not merely the virtue of not being properly alive, but has taken on its own identity as broken — judged in relationship to how life should be, but toxic in its being.

And yet, the Christian life seeks to live contrary to this. Forgiveness, reconciliation, and the flourishing of life is not only the telos of humanity because of divine interruption, but the future living itself today from the same divine work and the promises therein.

Nevertheless, there exists a gap between life and death. The Christian answer, for the action between the act of death and the act of new life, is the Christological movement into love by way of a sacramental life that remembers Jesus in terms of anamnesis. God looked into the fullness of death and did not choose death. Love was the method — the way of being — instead. Through our active and participatory remembrance, God moves us into life by his love and her grace. In a blink, relationships can now in their time (in their own blink) be restored.

As such, the sacramental life — including the in-breaking of the rule of God — looks death in its face. It refuses to trivialize death. And yet, the rule of God says that in present, the repercussions from the past do not hold sway. Indeed, the toxicity of death is arrested by love in the act of reconciliation. This is justice.

However, the forgiveness of today is not exactly retrogressive. While death is stopped, and its eternal sting is indeed taken away in the christological act of redemption, we do not work history backwards. The old covenant of Israel was not dissolved backwards, nor the promises of God renounced to the troublesome humanity; but rather, the curtain between the Holy of Holies and the people was ripped from top to bottom at Jesus’ death — the Christological love in death that looked Death in the face opened the present and future to the continuation of God’s work and plan.

History, and the sufferings within history, leave wounds that linger as scars. We long for the full healing, and at times, we do receive it, but often today, the death in the past still exists. The wounds from the spear and nails were left in the Lamb who will be recognized as the “Lamb who was slain.” Nazi death camps, divorce, parental abandonment, murder, still exist as scars even after the reconciliation between people. But the hope we have is that the past does not have to rule the present, nor does the past have to command the future. Reconciliation today informed by the future eschaton makes the past the past as it confronts the pain and conditions of the past in the present. Rather than simply perpetuating death, love moves us into the freedom to love.

The problems of the past, however, are not left to simply be ignored. But the problems and death of the past is not to be left to memorials, like we do with war memorials. Instead, the past is to be remembered to know who we are and to make sure that we have reconciled today what was in the past that still lives in the present. This is justice formed from the memory of a just God who took pain and healing seriously. This justice is working towards the righting relationships, towards reconciliation.

But how do we live in love towards reconciliation? The death of the past living in the present conflicts with those of us Christologically formed. The answer is yet again Christological, because it is incarnational: a loving solidarity against the perpetuated evils. We are immediately in conflict with the sting of death as it continues today.

After true reconciliation life is able to flourish, relationships are established and strengthened, because swords have become plowshares. This is peace. We see glimpses of it today (and indeed participate in it one hopes) informed by eschatological memory and the small reconciliations that do happen. But while death is rejected in favor of love and reconciliation, death still exists. For now, formed by memory and urged on by hope, we work in love to participate in what divine reconciliation we can.