Sunday, August 16, 2020

Declaring Their Deaths


What should be a radical, weekly call for social justice was long ago domesticated, as was every other symbol of victory over oppression in the Christian faith. I wonder if some of it can be recovered.

Every week in the Christian Churches and Churches of Christ the Lord's Supper is commemorated. Following differing liturgical practices it is also a weekly or even daily in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Anglican traditions. It can be referred to as 'communion' or 'the Eucharist,' and theological understandings about what it means vary. For instance, Roman Catholics are to believe the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus, while evangelicals generally see it as symbolic. It is far removed now from being part of a fellowship meal, as was likely the case in the first century of the Common Era. It is tied back directly the the crucifixion of Jesus, seen within Christianity as an atoning event. How exactly it is supposed to work has been debated throughout Western history, but the clearest connection is to the sacrifices required under the Mosaic law of the Hebrew Scriptures. 

The community of Israel shall give Aaron two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. He shall offer a bull as a sacrifice to take away his own sins and those of his family. 7 Then he shall take the two goats to the entrance of the Tent of the Lord's presence. There he shall draw lots, using two stones, one marked "for the Lord" and the other "for Azazel." Aaron shall sacrifice the goat chosen by lot for the Lord and offer it as a sin offering. — Leviticus 16:5-9 GNT

That's only one sacrificial ritual of many that ancient Israel was to practice. A bull was sacrificed to cover the sins of the priest and his family, a goat for the people, and then another goat was to be driven into the wilderness for a demon, carrying the sins of the people with it. The historical books of the Hebrew scriptures describe sacrifices at the temple that went from morning until night. The priests would have been covered head to toe in blood by the end of the day. This was what the earliest Christians likely believed was replaced by the death of Jesus on the cross. The problem with scapegoats and sacrificial lambs, whether literal or figurative, is that they don't really work.

That the scapegoat pays for the sins of others is well known, but this is only a legend, and a revealing one at that. In fact, however the scapegoat may be made to suffer, his suffering cannot purify the sinner; it merely incriminates him the more, and it seals his damnation. The scapegoat, eventually, is released, to death: his murderer continues to live. The suffering of the scapegoat has resulted in seas of blood, and yet not one sinner has been saved, or changed, by this despairing ritual. Sin has merely been added to sin, and guilt piled upon guilt. In the private chambers of the soul, the guilty party is identified, and the accusing finger, there, is not legend, but consequence, not fantasy, but the truth. People pay for what they do, and, still more, pay for what they have allowed themselves to become. And they pay for it very simply: by the lives that they lead. James Baldwin, No Name in the Street

Bullies pour their insecurities and fear into violence toward their victims. In the United States, white people assign guilt and inferiority to black people just as easily. This isn't a matter just of prior centuries or the time before the civil rights movement. This is now, right now, in the United States of America. This is George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Atatiana Jefferson, Stephon Clark, and far far too many more. The system was built on the backs of slaves, and the status quo favoring white people is sustained through violence and oppression. The blood shed day after day cries out for justice.

Live is tragic simply because the earth turns and the sun inexorably rises and sets, and one day, for each of us, the sun will go down for the last, last time. Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death—ought to decide indeed, to earn one's death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us. — James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

With the recent protests against racism and police brutality I've seen friends and family post online that people should leave the past behind, letting bygones be bygones. They don't want to face our history or its consequences for our present reality. They prefer to imagine that race problems were solved through first the Civil War and then the civil rights movement, and they think of the protesters as socialists, ne'er-do-wells, and entitled freeloaders. This is the guilt they ascribe to people of color. This is what can never be put away through violence. Fundamentally, white people do not want to be reminded of the injustices inflicted on people of color, and of the fact that these wrongs continue to be done on a daily basis. It frightens and angers us, and so we must have the truth dragged back out into the light repeatedly until we can no longer look away or deny it.

"For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes." — 1 Corinthians 11:26 NRSV

Almost 2000 years ago a brown-skinned, Jewish peasant was crucified by the empire. He was a rabble-rouser, and though he called for non-violent resistance with instructions to turn the other cheek to the oppressor and to walk a mile beyond what the law allowed a soldier to compel a non-citizen to carry their equipment, he had to die. If the Gospel stories have any basis in reality, this man was seens as a threat to the local religious leaders, people who used their oppressors laws against one of their own people. Systemic oppression reaches all of us. His death is to be declared by his followers through time in a commemoration of his last meal before facing execution. 

That death of one thousands of years ago is a type of every act of violence by the powers that be from the birth of human history up to today and beyond. It is right to memorialize his exposure of the violent means by which an oppressive status quo is maintained, particularly if by doing so we are calling to mind and voicing the truth of those being crushed in our days in a similar fashion. We must repeat it until it cannot be denied, and carry it on until the truth is faced and real repentance takes hold.