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Sermon on Joseph (w/ Allusions to Ferguson)

Given in response to Genesis 45.

You’ll remember that Joseph was a dreamer. That was his thing. He saw dreams and with the help of God he interpreted them. He also had a very nice coat. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber called it an amazing technicolor dreamcoat. So if you don’t know the story of Joseph and his dreams and his coat from Sunday school then maybe you picked up along the way from the musical.

I just read the 45th chapter of Genesis, but if you get a chance you might read the entire Joseph story. It’s about 10 chapters, is all. After reading the story you might wonder, as I wondered after reading the story, just how it is that anyone could turn a Bible story into a full length movie or musical. Even reading aloud I can’t imagine it would take much longer than 20 or 30 minutes to get through the thing, and yet we have all of these biblical movies, some about Joseph and some about other characters. And whenever a new biblical movie comes out there will undoubtedly be those critics who say, “Hold on, where was that part in the Bible?” Well, of course there’s stuff that’s not in the Bible. You try making a full length movie out of stories this sparse!

I suppose if you made a biblically accurate Joseph movie, with no extra-textual elaborations, I suppose it would need to be a short film–15 minutes tops. And that would would silence some of the critics, to be sure, but in silencing the critics it would also show how misguided some of them are. Because if you spend any amount of time with the biblical stories you’ll find that they practically beg to be elaborated on. It’s all very concrete. People speak and they do things, and that’s about all it takes to piece together a coherent story. But there’s a lot more we’d like to know about a story than just actions. Usually we want to know Why people do things, what’s their thought process, what motivates them. And Biblical stories leave that part to the audience.

For example: there’s this scene back in the 37th chapter, when the story is just getting started. This is right before Joseph is sold into slavery. Joseph’s brothers are all out working far away from home, and Joseph sets out, on his own, to find them. “So Joseph went after his brothers and found them near Dothan. But they saw him in the distance, and before he reached them, they plotted to kill him.” I told you the biblical stories move fast. Joseph appears, his brothers spot him off in the distance, he can’t be far, and in the short while it takes Joseph to reach his brothers they’ve already hatched a murder plot. And you wonder: how does something like this happen? Had they already made up their minds to kill him and they just needed the opportunity? Or maybe someone got carried away and then mob psychology took over. In any case it’s an unusual scene. It’s an everyday work day for Joseph’s brothers and then all of a sudden they’re ready to kill. That’s frightening for me because I like most other people like to believe that there’s tall reinforced fence that separates peaceable people from violence. But the Joseph story makes it seem like a thin line, really just a thread.

I have to believe we’re missing some context here. They must’ve been prepared somehow. They must have been primed and made ready to kill Joseph. Because, sure, sometimes people snap, but a dozen people don’t snap all at once and plot a murder in a matter of minutes.

Just like a riot doesn’t appear out of thin air without a long history of tension. Just like a police force isn’t militarized overnight.

Sometimes the violence portrayed in the media seems to appear to us all of a sudden, that’s how it’s presented anyway. Peace and then violence in the length of a news snippet. But there’s more to know. A riot doesn’t just appear; a police riot doesn’t just appear. There’s context. There’s history. That’s true in the suburbs of St. Louis and it must’ve been true in Joseph’s case, too.

Well, were it not for Ruben, Joseph’s brother, then Joseph would’ve been killed. Ruben de-escalates the situation. He holds his brothers off long enough for his brothers to decide that No, they won’t kill their brother. Instead they’ll sell him into slavery. A caravan comes by and soon Joseph is on his way to Egypt and his brothers are a little bit richer. So Joseph’s brothers seem to have that calculating and odious form of hatred that would rather objectify a person for profit than destroy them out of disdain. They sell their brother Joseph, they send him to Egypt, and they think that they’re done with him.

Of course, they thought wrong. Fast forward to chapter 45, to today’s reading. This is probably the most dramatic moment in the entire story. Joseph is now the highest ranking administrator in Egypt. He’s in charge of the food supply, which makes him especially powerful since there’s a famine going on. His brothers show up. The famine is harsh back home, they have no food, but they’ve heard that there’s food in Egypt. So they go, and they meet with Egypt’s administrator, the one in charge of grain. They’ve no idea whatsoever that it’s Joseph. It’s been a while, after all, and presumably Joseph is all done up however Egyptian elites tend to dress, and this is probably the last place they’d expect to find him. They don’t know it’s Joseph, but Joseph knows it’s them. And at first he gives them a hard time. Joseph sends them back home; they spend some time in jail. Joseph is waiting for the right time.

And now, today, is the big reveal. Here’s Joseph, and his brothers–still oblivious–and a room full of Joseph’s Egyptian colleagues. He sends the other Egyptians out of the room. As they’re standing in the hall they hear a sniffle, then a sob, and then weeping, uncontrolled weeping from Joseph. His voice cracks, he looks at his brothers, each in turn, he says, “It’s me. It’s your brother Joseph, the one you sold into slavery so long ago.”

His brothers, they could not answer him. Look around at various translations and you’ll find that they are dismayed, they are dumbfounded, they’re distressed. They are troubled, frightened, terrified. And it’s easy to see why. I challenge anyone to write a more perfect revenge plot. This is such a perfect turning of the tables, and you can just imagine what his brothers are thinking. (You’ll have to supply the expletives yourselves, but any number of them will do.) They couldn’t muster a response.

And then, what’s truly incredible, and what all of the commentators are eager to comment on, is that Joseph forgives them. It goes beyond forgiveness, though, at least it goes beyond forgiveness the way we normally think of forgiveness. Joseph acts like nothing happened. As if it didn’t even cross his mind that these are the men who tried to kill him and only didn’t kill him because they wanted to turn a profit. Further still, as one of our UCC ministers points out, this is a “freely given forgiveness that seems to give Joseph as much joy as it gives his brothers relief.” Joseph says, “Come near to me. Now, don’t be distressed, don’t be angry with yourselves.”

We don’t expect that sort of forgiveness. All of our cliches about forgiveness–I’m sure you know a few–they’re all aimed at getting people to realize that the failure to forgive does them harm. “Like swallowing poison and hoping the other person dies.” So it’s most of all an appeal to look after yourself. But this sort of forgiveness? I’ve heard very few people urge others to forgive so that they could bring relief to the very people who hurt them in the first place. That’s not a calculating or self-interested forgiveness. No, that’s the way God forgives and that’s the forgiveness only God can give.

I got to wondering how it was that Joseph could forgive in that way. Did it build gradually, with time? Was it somehow born of necessity? Did it occur to him all at once like an epiphany? Well, I don’t know. That’s another aspect of the story about which we can only speculate. But here’s what I do know. I learned it from Joseph. God’s forgiveness always strolls hand in hand with an awareness, with a knowledge of what it was all about. Joseph says something truly astounding: “You didn’t send me to Egypt; God did.” Now I can see that God was with me; God was sustaining me; God was going to bring meaning out of everything I went through.

And did you catch, did you hear from Joseph the point of it all, the conclusion? “Is my father still alive?” It’s practically the first thing he says. Don’t worry, God had a plan, he says, now go and hurry, tell my dad that his son Joseph is still alive. They take the news. The brothers caravan back to Canaan and they tell Jacob, their father, “Joseph is still alive.”  And “when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. 28 And Israel/Jacob said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

One thing I love about Bible stories: We can usually identify with the ending. Even the most spectacular stories–and this one is dramatic, I know, there’s a reason it did so well in the theater–even the most unbelievable stories end in a way we can relate to. Joseph takes an epic journey, from Canaanite slave to Egyptian grand supervisor, and at the end of it all he says, “I want to see my father. It’s been a very long time.”

So in the midst of these miraculous stories there is always somewhere for us to start. If you cannot interpret dreams and visions, if you’ve never performed a miracle, if you don’t even count yourself particularly faithful or brave, well, maybe you try to start at the end of the story, at the parts we can all relate to. Let’s all pray for the forgiveness that only God can give. Let’s break bread and start to be reconciled one to another. We can all start today.


Coffin on Rev. Jim Jones and the Pentagon

That story about the Pentagon’s $1.5 TRILLION (flawed) fighter jet reminded me of a particularly brash, “did he really just say that?” pulpit moment. In November of 1978 the Rev. Jim Jones and over 900 of his followers committed mass suicide in Guyana. About a month later William Sloane Coffin drew an extended Jonestown comparison as a way of critiquing out of control military budgets. From his Dec. 3, 1978 sermon at Riverside Church:

When I consider the terrible events of Guyana, I keep returning to one question: when at two in the morning, they were going through the Kool-aid drill for a simultaneous suicide, didn’t someone understand the possibility of what might happen? Suppose someone had said, “This is crazy. I’m not going to take this drink. We’re not going through with a mass suicide, ever, so why the drill?” That, at least, would have brought home some reality.

I suppose they took the drill, many feeling, “Well, it can’t happen.” If it seemed a little much, “Well, you have to take the bad with the good.” Besides “Rev. Jones is a real Dad to us. He makes us feel good, he has given us security, he has provided direction for our lives.”

Today the Pentagon is Rev. Jones. Once an honorable institution, it is showing signs of the same paranoia and meglomania that afflicted  Jones in his last months. Like Jones it has conditioned us, in our case by ever rising military budgets, against which we have not protested, so that we are in the same danger as Rev. Jones’ followers of passively giving over to the Pentagon the power to cause our own destruction. The proposed civil defense is the Kool-aid drill without the cyanide, a preparation for mass suicide of unthinkable proportions–what of the millions who won’t be included in the drill? Of course it is called a test of patriotic loyalty to prove that we are willing to die for our country.

It’s it time for somebody to refuse the drill? Isn’t it time for somebody to say “This is crazy”? And who should refuse to drink from the giant vats of the Pentagon, if not those who take the cup of salvation with their Lord and Savior? Those who are made strong by the blood of Christ can have nothing but contempt for the poison proffered by the Pentagon. In the name of our coming Savior, the Prince of Peace, we refuse it.

I really wish I could’ve seen the in-person response.

Sermon on the Parable of the Sower

Given in response to Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.

A sower went out to sow….and we’re speaking of course, with the help of another parable, about how we go about spreading the Word and where we might expect it to take hold.

But first, Let’s pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be pleasing unto you, O God. Show us how to sow indiscriminately, for the sake of your Kingdom.

Every now and again I’ll read a book, as some of you know, and one of the books I happened to read somewhat recently was Barbara Kingsolver’s novel _The Poisonwood Bible_. You might read it sometime, if you get the chance. It’s about the family of the Rev. Nathan Price, who’s a missionary in the Congo. Rev. Price is notable mostly for the fact that he’s an absolutely terrible missionary. Reason being that he has no desire to learn about or understand local customs, culture, language. He’s interested only in conversion. He wants to turn the Congolese people he lives with into white, southern American Baptist Christians. He’s especially interested that the village children be baptized, and so he’s always trying to arrange to hold a big service down by the river to baptize the kids. What he doesn’t know is that the Congolese word for baptize, if it’s pronounced in a slightly different way can mean “terrify.” Nor does he know that within recent memory a child was eaten by an alligator in that very river. So while the people in the village of wary of the river, and for good reason, Rev. Price is talking about holding a service by the river to terrify the children.

Rev. Price does learn a lesson at one point, though. He wants to plant and cultivate a garden, to grow some food for his famly and to show the people in the village how to grow food. So he flattens and tills and plants in neat rows. The next day he looks out onto the garden and finds that the housekeeper has rearranged the whole thing. She’s reshaped the garden into mounds, six elevated mounds. Rev. says, well it’s okay she thinks she’s helping, and then he flattens and tills and plants in neat rows. The rainy season arrives pretty soon after that and the whole garden is flooded, all the plants are drowned and the whole project is ruined. And wouldn’t you know, the very next day the Rev. Price is out there forming the garden into mounds, six elevated mounds, not that he would ever admit that it was someone else’s idea. But you see even the clueless and stubborn Rev. Price knew that there’s a certain way you plant seeds if you expect them to grow.

Well, a sower went out to sow…And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. 5Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. 6But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. 7Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. 8Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.

It seems wasteful, doesn’t it? Why not just sow in the good soil? I certainly hope this wasn’t an ongoing thing, for the sower. Because whatever sower is in the habit of sowing to birds and thorns must be, well, maybe a little bit stupid. Certainly wasteful or naive, at the very least.

I’ve taken the liberty of composing a couple of modern parables of the sower. Here they are:

A student sat down to study, and although the students exam was in calculus the next day student said, perhaps I ought to study some history, and then some biology, and read a couple chapters of a novel, and then also study some calculus.

A venture capitalist went out to invest, and the venture capitalist said, “give some of my money to….whoever, whichever business wants money.” Her assistant says, “Don’t you want to see business plans, expense reports, profit projections…” No just throw some money around wherever.

We could think of others, too, but you get the idea.

How do you deal with people like this–the sower, the student, the investor? It almost feels as if they’ve done something wrong. As if by failing to follow the most efficient, well-tested, prudent path that they’ve actually done some sort of harm. Of course they’ve not done anything wrong, not strictly. It’s like the way people will muster up a sort of righteous indignation because people care about a good cause instead of the best cause. Do you ever run across that? “How can you care about saving the seals when there’s so much hunger and war?” Even one of my favorite preachers used to say something like, “The blood brother of apathy is a failure to give priority to what’s important.” Which might be true in a way but it’s also a way of saying that if you don’t follow the course of action I know to be best then you are actually doing harm.

A sower went out to sow….and since they never learned proper technique they sowed onto a path and to shallow soil and to thorns. The lesson really ought to be, in good American self-help fashion: “Do a better job sowing!”

To put it another way: Direct your efforts more efficiently; try not to waste time; don’t prioritize anyone who doesn’t prioritize you. Most importantly: brush off the haters. I hear this sort of thing very, very often. Avoid toxic people, ungrateful people, negative people. Find a way to keep them from hindering your progress. Do you know what Joyce Meyer started saying recently? “New level, new devil.” As if the point of life is self-advancement, to level-up by becoming more healthy, wealthy, and wise. “New level, new devil” I get that it rhymes so it’s sort of catchy but she’s saying that evil is whatever keeps you from accomplishing your goals, whatever those goals might be. This is what we’re hearing. Do a better job sowing. Be prudent. Guard yourself.

But of course this sower, the one who seems wasteful or naive or absentminded or what have you, the sower is a positive example. What Jesus means to say is, basically, spread the gospel everywhere, spread kindness and forgiveness and love for all, even enemies, everywhere, because you don’t know where the good soil is. You don’t know where the good news is going to take hold and grow. We’re talking after all about the same guy who told us to love our enemies, pray for those who persecute you, the one who told us forgive and forgive and forgive. How many times? Not 7 but seventy times 7. More times than anyone would think is reasonable or fair. All of which is difficult, very difficult.

And so, I’m afraid I probably don’t have much of a future as a self-help guru repeating that sort of advice. See, I love a turn of phrase as much as the next person but if you say something like “new level, new devil” I’m going to remind you that devil’s not an obstacle to your own success. that devil’s whatever it is that’s keeping you from loving an enemy, the devil’s whatever keeps you from praying for those who aim to hurt you, the devil’s whatever keeps you from showing grace to someone friendless and downright mean. Our devils keep us from loving other people, not from achieving more impressive goals. And if we’re going to speak of something called a level in spiritual development then let’s realize that a level is no small improvement of the self. No, each level is nothing less than a death and a resurrection. Not a better self but a whole new creation.

Just one more thing about sowing. I can all but guarantee that if you go about the business of spreading love the way the sower sows, I mean if you show love grace forgiveness to just any old person, if you love that way then people will hurt you. There are few things I know of more hurtful than handing over a token of your care for another only to find that they see it not as a something valuable but more so as a knicknack, something to bury in a junk drawer somewhere and forget about altogether. But this happens from time to time when you sow like God sows. It’ll happen to all of us even if we try to guard ourselves.

But here’s the good news. The more you try to love a person, the more you start to understand a person. Sometimes you might even understand that simple phrase the pastoral theologians try to teach; they say, “hurt people hurt people.” People hurt others because they’ve been hurt themselves. And that’s not to say that understanding others makes you invulnerable from hurt. No, you’ll still hurt, but you’ll also understand.
That’s how the love of God comes to us: first as an understanding that grants us peace and then soon, someday, as a peace that passes all understanding. May the peace of God rest on you as you go about sowing. Amen.

Last Meals: A Menacing/Humane Feature of the Death Penalty

Last time I claimed that the death penalty is always a cruel and menacing happening regardless of any attempts by the state to stage the execution process as if it is humane.

This time I’ll support ^^that claim^^ by taking a close look at one aspect of the execution process—last meals.

Let’s do a macabre but potentially-interesting thought experiment. Suppose, just for a moment, that for some reason you’re aware of the exact moment of your death. Suppose, also, that in anticipation of that moment you’ve decided to prepare a last meal. You can choose whatever you want, within the realm of reasonable possibilities. Have you supposed?

What did you choose to eat? More importantly, why? What feelings and desires would guide that decision? What would the meal say about you as a person? Would your last meal be in some way a meaningful act or essentially the same as any other meal? This is hypothetical; there aren’t really any right or wrong answers.

The good news is that in all likelihood you will never actually pick a last meal. So for you and for most other people it remains a thought experiment.

One more question: what do you make of the fact that death row inmates are often allowed to make last meal requests?

Maybe you don’t really care, which is fine. But a lot of people find the last meal to be a site of fascination and great importance. It’s not typically seen as a meal like any other meal. The last meal of condemned is thought to provide a sort of window into the mind of the condemned, in like manner as how you might hope that your own hypothetical last meal would say something important about you. And the last meal of the condemned is important in a more general sense, too, as it’s thought to be part and parcel of moral logics that are attached to the happening of state-sponsored executions. That’s a lot to pin on just one meal, I know.

But consider, for instance, the series of events that led to Texas’ 2011 decision to discontinue the practice of providing last meals. State Senator John Whitmire, a legislator with significant sway in state criminal justice policy circles, made it clear to the state prison agency that he would attempt to pass legislation to end the practice of the last meal if the agency did not take steps to do so on their own. Whitmire, apparently, had long been opposed to the practice, but it was the highly charged political platform he found (or produced, perhaps) in the last meal request of Lawrence Russell Brewer that finally allowed him to make the last meal a political issue. Brewer, who was convicted for his involvement in a racially motivated murder, was given for his last meal “a triple-patty bacon cheeseburger; a cheese omelet with ground beef, tomatoes, onions, bell peppers and jalapenos; a bowl of fried okra with ketchup; one pound of barbecued meat with half a loaf of white bread; three fajitas; a meatlover’s pizza; one pint of Blue Bell Ice Cream; a slab of peanutbutter fudge with crushed peanuts; and three root beers.”

State Senator Whitmire framed the episode essentially as a breach of justice: “He never gave his victim an opportunity for a last meal. Why in the world are you going to treat him like a celebrity two hours before you execute him? It’s wrong to treat a vicious murderer in this fashion. Let him eat the same meal on the chow line as the others.” Worse still, from Whitmire’s perspective, was that Brewer did not eat his meal. It is fairly common, as it turns out, for inmates to eat little or none of their requested last meal, but Senator Whitmire interpreted Brewer’s failure to eat his last meal as an attempt to “make a mockery out of the process.”

Whitmire, of course, did not have any way of knowing why Brewer chose to order what he ordered, nor were the reasons for Brewer’s choice to not eat available to him. Brewer’s meal was plucked out of its context and recast as a scene in a virtual spectacle. And the last meal, in so far as it is part of the death penalty’s virtual, public spectacle, is never just a meal. When the last meal is assumed to be significant facet of death penalty logics, whether they are pro or anti-death penalty logics, it becomes a window into the moral worlds of both the condemned and the process of justice itself. This point is perhaps most obviously expressed in a letter to the editor that the New York Times ran in response to their story on Texas’ final last meal. The letter, written by Claudia Couch read, in full:

Texas’s abrupt disposal of the practice of offering the condemned a last meal of choice is disquieting, signaling an offhanded disregard for the moral values deeply encoded in the longstanding tradition.

The custom of the last meal acknowledges the humanity of the condemned, both in the manner of offering a meal and in the fundamental self-assertion inherent in making food choices.

But the tradition also holds significance for the community, which is therein reminded to approach executions with thoughtfulness and humility. These values should not be gratuitously discarded, certainly not because of grandstanding by one state senator who objected to the last meals.

Couch’s letter to the editor, when placed beside Whitmire’s statements, reveals the tensions inherent in what I’m soon going to call the menacing/humane logic of the modern death penalty. Couch’s letter does not read, at least not easily, as an abolitionist letter. The concern is not that state sponsored killing might be uncalled for in general but rather that the state might kill in an uncalled for way. The last meal is taken to be evidence that the state is capable of humane killing. It shows that the sovereign is measured, that it respects the essential humanity of the condemned, and that it is, in some sense, gracious towards the condemned even as the sovereign carries out proportional justice’s mandate to take the life of the one who took a life. The last meal, in other words, demonstrates that state sovereignty does not partake in cruelty.

However, what some view as a lack of cruelty others will be more inclined to view as a breach of justice. Whitmire charged that the state’s willingness to fill Brewer’s last meal request elevated Brewer’s status in such a way that the terms of proportional justice had been compromised. The state extended humanity to the condemned but the condemned, through his inappropriate response, showed himself to be unworthy of the state’s gesture. The last meal, then, serves as an expression of the state’s powerful sovereignty even as it aims to maintain an image of humane sovereignty. The menacing/humane death penalty, as it is presented through virtual spectacle in part by last meals discourse, allows the condemned to express their humanity in whatever way they choose so long as no force powerful enough to curtail the last meal practice finds their choices uncouth.

So you can see how the last meal starts to become a morally charged item for those who participate in conversations related to the death penalty. Eating carries importance, eating is a social and even intimate act that carries deeply held values, but food choices are deeply ambiguous. The last meal requests of the condemned—and this will become even more clear in a moment—can mean just about anything.

We’ve talked about outsider’s perceptions of the last meal, but we’ve not yet tried to consider the ways in which the condemned might experience their last meal. It would be easy to think that the State’s habit of extending a last meal to death row inmates is an essentially humane, benevolent, or even gracious act, but this is very clearly not the case if we start to consider the plight of the condemned.

In his seminar on the Death Penalty, Jacques Derrida pursues a line of thought related to cruelty and time. His suggestion is, in short, that there’s a fundamental cruelty involved with the State’s attempt to control precisely the time of someone’s death. By claiming to control the exact moment of the condemned one’s death the sovereign State imposes cruel constraints on the ways in which condemned people experience time itself. Derrida posits as much in suggesting:

what is certain, and trivial—and you will easily agree with me on this—is that if there is some torture, torturing, cruelty in the process of the condemnation to death, what is most cruel and the cruel itself, the crux, is indeed, beyond everything, beyond the conditions of detention, and so many other torments, the experience of time.

It is cruel for the condemned to live with the knowledge and accompanying experience that comes with the precise knowledge of their time of death, even if that death seeks to be humane in its implementation.

We can find some evidence in the death row/last meal literature, however anecdotal, that serves to partially corroborate Derrida’s claim. Robert Johnson, in Death Work A Study of the Modern Execution Process, offers the following comment on the last meal:

The mood becomes more somber and subdued during this final period, as the execution draws near. Though, as noted earlier, one prisoner ate a hearty last meal in the ostensibly congenial company of a deathwatch officer, most eat little or nothing at all. At this point the prisoners, in a last ditch effort steeped in denial, may steadfastly maintain that their executions will be stayed. The pathos of this effort comes through even in the retelling. One man proclaimed that his execution to be “inconceivable.” Such bravado is belied by the prisoners’ loss of appetite, which reveals deeper doubts and fears and is taken by the officers to be a sign of weakening resistance. “You can see them going down,” said one officer. “Food is the last thing they got on their minds.”

Johnson notes, also, that at least one death row inmate identified the last meal ritual as “barbaric and cruel.” And while it is possible to find secondhand sources in which the condemned evaluate the last meal in a positive manner, most prisoners seem to view the last meal as yet another cog in the cruel machinery of death. The sovereign State, by condemning the prisoner to death at a known time, creates for the condemned an unlivable and inhumane experience of time. Then, at the moment the condemned is experiencing time in the most inhumane way possible, meaning in the days and hours preceding their execution, the sovereign asks them to practice their human agency as if they were (in a limited sense) a free actor. The condemned is presented with the possibility of inhabiting a different time and space through otherwise unavailable food choices, but this seemingly humane gesture can only happen under conditions that render the condemned unlikely to experience the last meal in the sense that it is presumably intended. These cruel/humane tensions and competing meanings are part of the last meals identity, so to speak, whether the last meal is considered as an actual happening in the life of the condemned or as a vignette in the menacing/humane virtual spectacle of the death penalty.

The last meal then, as part of a menacing/humane death penalty, is very much ambiguous. Compassion and cruelty sit at the same table in the happening of the last meal, and that very ambiguity allows the last meal to serve as a tool in both the death penalty supporter and abolitionist’s toolkits. Michael Owen Jones, while discussing abolitionist appropriations of last meal narratives, writes that “those contesting retributive justice, particularly in regard to the mentally handicapped, sometimes start or end an essay with reference to a meal request.” In cases like these the meal request is framed in such a way as to indicate that the condemned is “childlike” or in some way unfit to fully understand the implications of their crime or the supposed justice and rationality of their punishment. Whereas the pro-death penalty advocate sees the last meal as a venue in which the condemned expresses their humanity and thereby underwrites the appropriateness of the death penalty, the abolitionist seeks to present the last meal as an indication of the death penalty’s inappropriateness given the (apparently obvious) cognitive limitations of the condemned as determined by their meal choices.

You can find abolitionist logics largely similar to those mentioned above on display in a number of recent photography projects. Such as this one, or this one, or this one.

The basic idea, in all three cases, is that the audience for the photos will find something macabre and distasteful (pun intended, obviously) about the practice of the last meal, and that the audience will then direct those negative feelings towards the practice of capital punishment in general.

Next time I’ll take a closer look at these and other similar lines of argumentation, suggesting that for abolitionists it is ultimately inadequate to merely expose the cruelty of the death penalty.

The Death Penalty as Performance

While living in Tennessee I’ve paid taxes to a government that performs executions. You’ll find that sort of language—the language of performance—if you read up on the death penalty. “Tennessee performs first electric chair execution since 1960,” reads a newspaper article from 2007.

“Performance” can mean a couple of things. I could tell you that I saw a performance of Wicked a couple of months ago or I could tell you that a surgeon once performed knee surgery on me. When news outlets write that a State performed an execution they intend, presumably, to invoke the second, less theatrical sort of meaning. They simply mean to say that the State carried out the task of executing a condemned inmate. And maybe that’s the common sense reading of a phrase like “Tennessee performs executions.”

But that’s not the reading or meaning that I have in mind.

When I say that Tennessee performs executions I mean to invoke the first and more theatrical meaning of “perform.” I mean that the performance of an execution is, in many if not most ways, comparable to the performance of a musical like Wicked. And, no, I’m not drawing an analogy or speaking metaphorically for the sake of making a point. I mean to say, in the plainest way possible, that the performance of an execution and the performance of Wicked are comparable.

Consider the following little bit of reporting from the New York Times, which was concerned with a recent botched execution in Oklahoma:

“Robert Patton, Oklahoma’s director of corrections, halted the execution after a physician discovered that Mr. Lockett’s vein had ruptured. The physician lowered the blinds, blocking the view from the witness room.”

When the state executes someone there are witnesses, but it is more accurate to call them an audience. In execution chambers there are blinds, but it is more accurate to call them curtains. In fact, some execution chambers have actual curtains instead of window blinds.

Here are a few pictures of various execution chambers.

Picture One. Picture Two. Picture Three.

Notice the closed off room, the windows, the curtains, the microphone that carries sound into the viewing area so that the audience can know what they are seeing.

What would you call this if not a (theatrical) performance?

The witnesses, the audience, they only see what they are intended to see. The curtains are typically closed until the condemned is strapped to the gurney. The state might even administer paralyzing drugs before the curtains are opened. The whole scene is meant to come across as tranquil, medicalized, and humane. Should the performance go poorly enough—as in the case of the condemned who struggles or appears to be in torturous pain—then the director can close the curtain. He can quickly end that evening’s showing.

Why would there be curtains in the first place? Aren’t curtains always for staging, or for concealment, or for controlling what is seen and not seen by outside observers?

Of course an execution is always staged somehow, with or without elements like curtains that directly resemble features of the theater. The staging is different for an execution by guillotine, or by hanging, or by lethal injection, or by electric chair. And different stagings are bound to produce different reactions in the audience.

I ran across an interview with a warden as I was researching capital punishment a couple of months ago. The warden wondered aloud to the interviewer why the state, if it was interested in painless and humane forms of execution, didn’t kill the condemned by carbon monoxide poisoning. The condemned inmate, the warden said, would slip away to unconsciousness and then die in their sleep, painlessly. The warden speculated that this would be the best option for the condemned, but he quickly pointed out that the witnesses to a carbon monoxide execution would likely find the appearance of a person who has been killed by carbon monoxide to be off-putting. (Their skin turns a ruddy, cherry-red.)

So our opinion of what is “humane” depends far more on the perceptions and tastes of witnesses to an execution than the experience of the one who is executed. The state, then, has an interest in staging what appears to be a humane execution. But that’s the extent of the states interest in the humane treatment of those who are condemned to death. The experience and impressions of the witnesses/audience is the only thing that finally matters, just as a theatrical performance is judged strictly by its popular and critical reception.

I would tend to think, then, that an execution cannot be botched unless the State fails to kill the condemned. What is botched in the case of a “botched execution” is the attempt at staging an execution as if it is humane and routine as opposed to cruel and unusual. In other words, the State’s botches it’s performance of a humane execution, and in so doing it presents the witnesses with something other than what was planned, scripted, and rehearsed.

Next time I’ll write about last meals as a way of suggesting that the implementation of the death penalty is always cruel and menacing regardless of any attempts by the State to make it seem humane.


Holy Enough to be Disreputable

Given in response to Acts 17: 22-31.

I’ve been meaning to tell you a story about my friend Paul. Paul and I have a conflicted relationship but I still count him a friend, and sometimes Paul passes along some pretty good stories. Well, one time Paul—I mean the Apostle Paul, formerly Saul, the preacher who dictated all of those letters that later became part of our New Testament—one time Paul was speaking to a group of believers and it started to get late. He’d been talking all evening and it was already midnight. There was a young man sitting in a window, on the second floor where they were gathered, and the young man gets tired as Paul talks on and on with no end in sight. The young man dozes off and falls out of the window, at which time everyone lets out a horrified gasp and then rushes to the outside of the building, finding that the young man has died from the fall. Well Paul is taken aback, suddenly struck with an unspeakable grief because, you see, Paul wasn’t quite done speaking and the whole meeting was getting a bit sidetracked. So Paul rushes downstairs, resuscitates the young man, brings him back from the dead, and then Paul speaks until the crack of dawn. So that’s my friend Paul. I’m not sure if that one shows up in the lectionary but it’s in the 20th chapter of Acts.

And if you rewind just a little bit, flip back a few pages, you’ll find today’s reading in the 17th chapter. Paul has been running his mouth off again—preaching, proselytizing, picking arguments with whatever audience he can find. He’s in Athens, in Greece. Athens wasn’t originally a scheduled stop until Paul got run out of town elsewhere, on account of the fact that he wouldn’t shut up already. So Paul is in Athens, sitting at a place called the areopagus, debating some greek philosophers.

The word Areopagus is sometimes Romanized and rendered as “Mars Hill.” That’s another name for the same place. Areopagus and Mars Hill. And in recent years a lot of new churches have taken the name Mars Hill. Partially because Mars Hill has a better ring to it than Areopagus, but more so because of this story. A lot of new churches read the story of Paul at Mars Hill and they see a mission statement.

Here’s why: Paul is evangelizing, as he always does, but he’s evangelizing in a very particular way. Paul’s doing what we now call apologetics. He’s offering an explanation of Christianity, a defense of Christianity over against Greek beliefs. That’s apologetics—a reasoned argument in defense of a belief system. Now, if you want to be successful at apologetics you need to take a cue from Paul. Notice Paul’s argument. He doesn’t just speak his own beliefs and concepts. He also engages with the ideas that his conversation partners already hold. And he says, like any good apologist, you all are on to something and its not that we’re in disagreement, but let me tell you why my beliefs are actually more complete than yours. Let me tell you why my truth actually speaks your own truth, only better.

Paul says, look, you already believe in something you call an Unknown God. And your own poets have spoken of a deity, they’ve spoken of beings in whom we live and move and have our being, and they’ve said that we’re all that deity’s offspring. And all of that’s true, you’re right, but your Unknown God can now be known. Not through idols or anything that people have built but rather through the work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, Paul says, God gave you your belief in an unknown God so that you might search for the God of Jesus, and now I’m here to make the unknown known to you.

So this story of Paul at Mars Hill becomes something of a template for churches that want to make the case for Christianity to people who don’t necessarily know anything about Christianity. And sometimes it works. Our reading says that a couple of people believed and some other folks were at least interested enough that they said, “alright, we’ll talk more later.” Apologetics will sometimes win over converts. It worked for Paul and it works for the Mars Hill churches.

But here’s another thing you need to know about apologetics: apologetics may be directed at outsiders but apologetics is very rarely for outsiders. Do you read many open letters? Around this time of year you can read a lot of open letters that are addressed to new graduates, but some of these letters are not for graduates, graduates are not the intended audience. When you read a letter that’s addressed to recent graduates and the central message seems to be “let me tell you why your generation is the worst generation and why you’ll be the ones to ruin everything if you don’t get off of my generation’s lawn immediately” then it can be safely assumed that the open letter is not actually intended for recent graduates. Well, anyhow, apologetics is sort of like that. It’s addressed to outsiders but it’s meant for insiders. The purpose of apologetics is most often to circle the bandwagons, to essentially guard insiders from outside arguments by misrepresenting outside arguments and then defeating them. Apologetics are spoken as if the purpose is to win over outsiders, but the purpose is usually to make insiders feel good about themselves.

There’s a man named Ken Ham who runs an organization called Answers in Genesis. Ken Ham’s mission is to defend young earth creationism. So scientists will find dinosaur bones and say “we’re pretty sure these are 60 million years old” and Ken Ham will say, “No, they’re 4,000 years old.” So scientists and Ken Ham have a difference of opinion. But you won’t hear Ken Ham say that science is wrong. He’ll say actually the scientists are wrong about science. Science supports my position, in fact. Of course you have to badly mangle science to say something like that, but then again the target audience isn’t scientists.

There is an audience, though, and part of the reason that Ken Ham can find an audience is that no one wants to think that they are wrong, or that their deeply held beliefs might be disreputable by the standards of others. And what you find in the world of apologetics is that if outsiders disagree with you then you can always misrepresent the views of outsiders, with the end result being that insiders consider themselves to be intellectually rigorous and very much respectable according to (what they think are) scientific standards of belief.

But those are other people’s apologetics. We do apologetics, too. I realized, as I was preparing that elegant take down of Ken Ham, that I couldn’t let myself off of the apologetic hook either. Because I’m a Christian but I’m also someone who’s at times very much concerned with the way in which I’m perceived by outsiders. Sometimes I really want to be respectable on other people’s terms. I’ll be out and about somewhere, talking with new acquaintances, and at some point they get around to asking me what I do. I’ll say, “I’m a minister” and then very soon after want to add, “but it’s not what you’re thinking.” Or I’ll very quickly try to bring up some sort of reading that I’d done recently—some book that you wouldn’t expect a minister to read. Or, sometimes, this is fun, I’ll try to say something unbefitting of a minister–something profane or sort of off-beat. It’s fun to see the reaction. But you see it’s important that I’m not viewed as a Ken Ham sort of Christian. That would make me disreputable.

And so, as is often the case, this week it was very troubling for me to remember the Gospel. Especially as it occurred to me all at once that if the Gospel isn’t in some disreputable then it probably isn’t Gospel at all. And I don’t mean we have to reject science and throw in our hats with Ken Ham, but there is something at the heart of Christianity that has always been disreputable.

Some time ago I learned that the very term “Christian” was originally meant as an insult. People who followed Jesus eventually started to call themselves Christians, but Christian was a dirty word at first. It meant, basically, “fanatical.” Christians were people who were pre-occupied with the coming of a Messianic kingdom—selling all of their stuff, forming new communities that provided medical care to outcasts, and just generally going overboard as they acted as if some sort of utopia had arrived.

And my friend the Apostle Paul, who spoke quite a bit, probably too much and yet sometimes really got things right, Paul one time told me that God has a special preference for those who lack prestige, for those who lack standing, for those who reject power and refuse to act in their own interest, for all those who are disreputable by the worlds standards. Paul told the early church members at Corinth, “Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to confound the strong.  God chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things.”

I’ve not yet seen those words in a church’s mission statement—not a fundie church or a conservative church or a liberal church. It’s not the stuff of strong apologetics, either.

And yet this is the Gospel: God chooses those who are considered disreputable by the world’s standards. God has a special love and even a preference for all those who are stripped of influence. And God is building, even right now, an upside down Kingdom with the help of all those who are holy enough to be disreputable.

Make that your prayer sometime this week: God, make me holy enough to be disreputable.

About Comparing the Movement for Marriage Equality to the Civil Rights Movement

Kate Abbey-Lambertz at the Huffington Post reports on an amicus brief filed by 110 conservative black pastors from Michigan. The brief is meant to oppose recent developments towards marriage equality in Michigan by making the case, basically, that “it’s incorrect to compare the fight for equal marriage rights to the civil rights movement.”

I’ve read the brief, and at least some of its contents warrant discussion even though my best guess is that the brief itself will be ineffectual in a legal sense. The arguments are telling even if legally unsound.

So, let’s look at a few key pieces of the amicus brief.

“Amici believe that the Bible defines what constitutes sound doctrine, not the culture, gender, or personality. Amici bear the responsibility to oppose unsound doctrines and to oppose practices that are harmful to the following of God’s teachings as outlined in the Bible. Therefore, Amici support the vote of 2.7 million citizens of Michigan who cast their vote and enacted the Michigan Marriage Amendment to secure the sanctity of the traditional family, as it is defined by God in the Bible.”

The point is reiterated when the coalition, represented by the conservative Christian Thomas More Law Center, states that “Amici must oppose any idea, law, rule or suggestion that is contrary to the teachings of the Bible.”

These statements open up a big cluster of issues related to public and private morality, religious values and the state, as well as the relationship between legality and morality more generally considered. But the paragraph I just quoted completely collapses any distinctions that might be necessary or useful when it comes to thinking about the relationship between church leadership and the power of the state. The reasoning flows from Bible to constitutional amendment without pause or hiccup. The coalition represented by this amicus brief is apparently untroubled by the prospect of the state wielding power in the name of their religious convictions. And the brief, in fact, makes no attempt at shedding the specifically religious language that serves to bolster its arguments. The brief, of course, speaks of “traditional values” and healthy, ideal families, but it makes no attempt to present these ideals as if they had any sort of non-religious grounding. This is, in other words, an openly theocratic amicus brief.

The coalition represented here cloaks their religious beliefs in the language of “self-evidence,” going so far as to suggest that their particular views of morality are unquestionable according to any logic or criteria that might contest their own initial claims. The logic of the brief, then, is classically authoritarian. The authors make claims on terms that could never be refuted. Consider the following statement, which is meant to critique the normative moral criteria of the American court system:

“These simply are not “scientific” matters. Materialistic science cannot measure the non-material. It cannot define or select morality, values, or the necessary components of a successful family, much less measure these factors. It is an injustice and exhibits a gross misreading of the Constitution to install such self-styled “social” experts as the moral compass of the population.”

This is a sort of half-true statement. It’s true that the empirical sciences cannot, of their own accord, make moral claims. But to say that materialistic science is incapable of measuring pre-existing moral claims is to say, essentially, that the only acceptable criteria for the corroboration of moral claims is “because I said so.” The moral authority makes a “self-evident” claim and by its very self-evident-ness the claim cannot be refuted by anything like experience or observation or alternate theories or evidence.

The logic of self-evidence is profoundly anti-democratic and it makes reasonable and open public debate all but impossible. We are bound to disagree on matters of morality because morality cannot be objective in the scientific sense. (And we would still disagree even if it was!) But what we can do is to strive towards a more-or-less objective criteria for evaluating moral claims. For example, if it is self-evident that only traditional nuclear families produce healthy children, then there ought to be some sort of evident (read: measurable or empirical) criteria by which this self-evident claim is evidenced. And if the allegedly self-evident claim is actually evidence-able, then it can be either corroborated or rejected. What has happened now, though, is that social scientists have produced evidence for the health of children raised in non-traditional households, and instead of conceding the point those who are against marriage equality are making the reactionary claim that evidence does not matter.

So it is extremely problematic that the central arguments and concerns of this amicus brief rely on “self-evident” distinctions. Here are a couple of allegedly self-evident claims presented in the brief:

Some truths are self-evident. Among them are that men and women are different. In fact, it is clear from our very existence that men are made for women, and women for men. None of us would be here but for that truth. Another self-evident truth is that it is best for children to be raised by their parents whenever possible. There have been many theories to the contrary throughout history, but they have all proven vacuous at best. Public policy that recognizes and acts on these truths is not unfairly discriminatory. In fact, the only way to have sound public policy is to build on such truths.

All of these claims can be contested quite convincingly, but I’ll save the critical gender theory for another post. The filers of this brief want policies built on these supposedly self-evident truths surrounding gender, and they object to the claim that sexual-orientation might question historical marriage policies in like manner as the rulings that put an end to bans on interracial marriage. That’s the heart of the legal argument—a self-evident distinction between race (which the authors of the brief consider to be “immutable”) and sexuality (which they consider to be “merely activity in which they engage.”) As per the brief:

A person’s sexuality and sexual preferences, however, are not their state of being, or even an immutable aspect of who they are, as race is. The truth of the matter is that it is merely activity in which they engage. And for amici, truth matters. The state has no responsibility to promote any person’s sexual proclivities, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise—and certainly is not required to accept that one’s sexual conduct preference is the same as an immutable characteristic like race. Government may not regulate people based on who they are, but it may regulate their conduct, including sexual conduct.

Now, I can think of several reasons why it might not be the best idea to compare the struggle for marriage equality to the civil rights movement. However, none of those reasons invalidate the recently-established legal precedent of treating racial designations and sexual or gender identities as largely similar.

The trouble with this brief’s “self-evident” distinction between race and sexuality, very briefly and pointedly stated, is that if sexuality is “merely activity” rather than an immutable characteristic, then so is race. The color of a person’s skin, of course, is more-or-less “immutable” but the color of a person’s skin is not necessarily race. Race as a social category is a human creation, not some sort of biological distinction. In that sense race is “merely activity.”

The point is made even more clearly if you consider the experiences of people who claim a mixed racial identity. There are circumstances in which a mixed person might “pass” as white, and their ability to pass in a given situation depends more upon context and their self-presentation than the color of their skin, per se. When the same person can be identified both as white or as a person of color, depending on the situation and depending upon their own “activity,” then it seems obvious that the category of race is just as much a product of “mere activity” as it is a result of “immutable characteristics.”

There was of course a time when racial distinctions (and even racial inferiorities) were taken to be self-evident, but our country eventually decided on an evaluative criteria that debunked self-evident racism. We are now in the process of debunking any self-evident distinctions between gender identification and sexualities. And there is backlash; change will always bring backlash. But the fairness of our society requires that self-evident claims are actually evidenced. And if they can’t be evidenced then we need to make some new claims.