Read more here
In the thirty-seventh chapter of Ezekiel, there is a powerful scene in which God leads Ezekiel out to a valley in which there lie the bones of the dead. They are described as very dry. In these times, it often feels as if we are being placed amidst the bones of the victims of Empire's death-dealing. But Ezekiel's experience isn't only about the power of Empire to kill and oppress, it's also a powerful strategy for resistance.
Read more here
When Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina died in July of 2008, Peter Staley told this story:"On September 5th, 1991, I put a giant condom over Jesse Helms’ house.
Why? Because, as the condom said, 'Helms is deadlier than a virus.' Senator Jesse Helms was one of the chief architects of AIDS-related stigma in the U.S. He fought against any federal spending on HIV research, treatment or prevention. He once said, referring to homosexuals, 'it’s their deliberate, disgusting, revolting conduct that is responsible for the disease.' Here’s another choice one: 'There is not one single case of AIDS in this country that cannot be traced in origin to sodomy.'
To read more about what this giant condom might have to do with Lenten practice, read more here:
These are very difficult times. The level of intentional targeting and traumatizing being done by this White House and their Neo-Nazi, White Supremacist base is exhausting. The backlash against the #MeToo campaign and the stories of so much pain that survivors experience can be overwhelming. And it's all amidst the season of Advent. What does it all mean and how do we survive and resist? As a way to answer some of these questions, I preached at Lyndale UCC in Minneapolis. You can read or listen here: Persistent Love
It feels very much like a Dietrich Bonhoeffer Advent. As I've been reading his work The Mystery of the Holy Night, I can't help but see the parallels between his grappling with what he ought to do as a person of faith in the face of Nazism and what we ought to do in the face of the rise of white supremacy and Nazism. As a way to further reflect on this question, I share the sermon below.
Awaiting the (Re)Birth of Love: Resilient Hope
Mark 1:1-8 and a Letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Tegel Prison
to His Parents, Advent 1943
Lyndale UCC—Dec 3, 2017
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here…. Until the Child of God appear. Rejoice, rejoice, Emmanuel, shall come to you, O Israel.
What gives you hope? How does hope persist for you? How are you able to tolerate waiting in this Advent season?
Sometimes when there is a prescribed season of the church (like Advent or Lent), I have to get myself into the right mindset or framework because it just doesn’t match what I’m feeling or experiencing. Or sometimes I read an assigned scripture for the day and think, what does that have to do with my life or ours?
I have to tell you that neither of these things happened for me this week…
The yearning, the longing, the waiting for love to be born amidst a world that seems to have gone mad…. The persistent search for hope amidst the madness and waiting… it all seems to have been written for this moment.
Our scripture for this morning focuses on John the Baptist. You might remember that John dressed himself in the clothing of the prophets (camel hair tied with a leather belt) and ate locusts and wild honey in order to give people all the visual and cultural cues of the prophetic tradition. Something is radically wrong, John is proclaiming.
His people are occupied by the Roman Empire—with its military and its tax plan, with its sexual violence and conquest. And far too many religious leaders are corrupted by their colluding ways. Things feel apocalyptic, with things they hold dear being destroyed.
Repent, John pleads. Turn away from the Empire, he demands. Find a way to cleanse yourself of all this toxicity and, instead, help prepare the way for the One of justice and peace.
It has been a week of Empire and collusion in our lives, too…
Matt Lauer, Garrison Keillor and the continued senate campaign of Roy Moore with his Christian preacher supporters who invoke Mary and Joseph to literally baptize pedophilia with Christian theology.
The Republican Tax bill which passed the Senate in the middle of the night that, if it survives reconciliation with the House bill, will push 11,000,000 people off health care, put money in the weathiest pockets, open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, just to name a few.
And then there was World AIDS Day on Thursday.
With each of these, and with many things these days, I find myself being transported to other places—flashbacks of a kind.
There are the Anita Hill hearings which I watched with such hope, wearing my “I believe her” button… there was that time in our shelter at Peoples Church in Chicago, whose numbers had swelled because President Reagan cut funding to affordable housing and homeless services. I sat at a table, as a teenager, with a homeless man whose fingers were black from severe frostbite because he had nowhere to go amidst the bitter cold. What can I do, he asked my fifteen year old self?
And there is Michael, one of my first patients when I worked as a chaplain at the VA in Seattle. He was in his late thirties and dying of AIDS. It came to me as a flashback this week how he recounted his early years in church when he was told of his sinfulness and worthlessness. He shared his excommunication when it was learned he was gay. And how his AIDS diagnosis only made it worse. He spoke of simple cruelties and profound ones. In place of care and love, ridicule and revulsion. When he desperately needed tenderness, betrayal came, again and again.
And then how he finally came to the questions, asked with genuine fear and trembling. Do you think I’m going to burn in hell? Do you think by this time next week I’ll be in the outer darkness?
It has been a week of Empire and collusion and collusion and Empire.
So how are we to hope? How are we to wait for the advent of justice and love?
On the eve of World AIDS Day, an HIV+ clergy colleague posted a story from Traveling Mercies by Anne Lamott. He shared it as his testimony to the start of Advent amidst the marking of World AIDS Day. He shared it as one answer to what gives hope, of what is worth anticipating and waiting for.
These are the words from Anne Lamott: "One of our newer members, a man named Ken Nelson, is dying of AIDS, disintegrating before our very eyes...Ken has a totally lopsided face, ravaged and emaciated, but when he smiles, he is radiant. He looks like God's crazy nephew Phil...There's a woman in the choir named Ranola who is large and beautiful and jovial and black and as devout as can be, who has been a little standoffish toward Ken...She was raised in the South by Baptists who taught her that his way of life—that he—was an abomination. It is hard for her to break through this. I think she and a few other women at church are, on the most visceral level, a little afraid of catching the disease...So on this one particular Sunday... when it came time for the second hymn, the Fellowship Hymn, we were to sing "His Eye Is on the Sparrow." The pianist was playing and the whole congregation had risen—only Ken remained seated, holding the hymnal in his lap—and we began to sing, "Why should I feel discouraged? Why do the shadows fall?" And Ranola watched Ken rather skeptically for a moment, and then her face began to melt and contort like his, and she went to his side and bent down to lift him up—lifted up this white rag doll, this scarecrow. She held him next to her, draped over and against her like a child while they sang. And it pierced me."
“It is times like these that show what it really means to have a past and an inner legacy independent of the change of times and conditions. The awareness of being borne up by a spiritual tradition that lasts for [centuries] gives one a strong sense of security in the face of all transitory distress…” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
As we begin this Advent journey-- particularly amidst the power of Empire and the betrayals of collusion--we do so with another kind of flash back: We have a past, an inner and an outer legacy. While we wait the birth of love, we do so knowing that love has already been born.
While we seek hope, we do so coming back, over and over again, to the communion table… a place where the cradle and the solidarity of the cross are embodied. The communion table… a place where we know the reality of God’s radical, physical, palpable presence with us and in us and the reality that God will and does go into any pain and suffering we might encounter in order to transform it into new life.
And we are fortified and reminded and compelled to prepare the way. Amen.
Over the years, Beth Zemsky has been a mentor and friend in the work of religiously-rooted justice work. She is a practicing Jew, a lesbian and a movement thinker who has both challenged and inspired me to be more faithful and smarter as I've gone about my movment work. It was, therefore, an honor to be invited on to her Podcast. Here is a double episode where we delve into what it means to be about the work of building movements which are devoted to the liberation of real peoples' bodies-- individually, communally and as a planet.
Take a listen: http://bethzemskypodcast.com/bzp004/
Sing to God
Psalm 96 and portions of A Wind in the Door
Lyndale UCC—October 22, 2017
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
Holy One, as we breathe in your presence and your power, speak to us, imbue us, hold us. And somehow use the words about to be spoken and the words about to be heard that they might be your Holy word. Amen.
The building was fairly remote-- at least it is in my mind's eye. It sits on 106 acres of land in the mountains of Tennessee, set amidst trees. It was built in the 1930's. It was first home to classrooms for folks struggling to form a labor movement. But on this night in the 1950's, it housed a group of mostly African American and some other folks, learning the techniques of non-violent direct action in preparation for sit-ins across the Deep South. They were mostly young people sitting at desks and tables, studying and talking, making plans to help transform racist laws using their bodies and their lives.
I fill you with Naming.
Be, butterfly and behemoth,
be galaxy and grasshopper,
star and sparrow,
O sing to God a new song;
sing to God, all the earth.
Sing to God, bless her name;
tell of her salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.
As the sun went down on the Tennessee mountains, the smell of the settling dew came through the windows and the lights were turned on as the instruction continued. But at some point in the evening, another odor began to waft in. Something was burning...
Before they knew it, the students of non-violence were surrounded by the epitome of violence. All around the building, members of the Klan stood, rifles and torches in their hands. As several burst through the door, they ordered the young people to the floor at gunpoint. Some in one room, others in another. And for what seemed like hours they lay there, hands over their heads, waiting for the shooting to begin.
But something happened that night. As the Klan stood with their guns trained on the young advocates of non-violence, someone began to sing “We Shall Overcome.” And soon the song traveled to the other room until all were singing. As Bernice Johnson Reagon tells the story, the Klan didn’t know quite what to do and time seemed to stand still as violence and non-violence met one another. As the verse ended, there was a pause until someone started a verse that had never been sung before. With the power of the Holy Spirit, a voice rang out “We are not afraid, we are not afraid, we are not afraid today. Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe that we shall overcome someday.”
And then the sound of boots on the floor. And the sounds of doors closing. And the sounds of cars starting. And the Klan was gone.
This morning, we are gathered as a congregation, a community of faith amidst a time that seems particularly painful and anxiety-producing. I’ve read on many of your Facebook walls as you’ve written #MeToo. I’ve had conversations with several of you who are struggling with getting out of bed. I know that some of you are grappling with the end of relationships and still others are aching for the lack of them. And then, of course, are the daily trauma-inducing actions of our president whose racism and misogyny are as frequent as they are despicable. The times seem heavy and ominous.
And amidst this, I went to the lectionary to see what text it invited us to consider together and I found there Psalm 96. Sing to God a New Song... that made me pause a bit. I have to admit that I felt a resistance to this. I don’t much feel like singing and I’m not sure if you do either. I’m not sure if I literally or metaphorically feel like singing.
But as I’ve prayed and thought about this morning’s service in the context of these times, I have been filled with deep emotion, had my reluctance challenged and been taken back to story after story, and memory after memory about the ways in which music has been God’s saving hand in my life. I’ve been transported to all of the bedsides at which I’ve sat as a pastor and a chaplain, when the person was in a coma or already along the road in the active dying process and as we sang the old hymns like “How Great Thou Art” and there were visible signs that the person responded—either moving their lips to sing along or their countenance brightening.
As I’ve been transported back to these stories and memories, my heart has been reminded of why it is important, in the context of trauma and pain, to pause and sing and give thanks for music. There are at least two reasons for this thanksgiving that I’d like to lift up this morning for our consideration. The first is that in many ways, music is a closer expression of the language that God has knit throughout the universe. As the version of the Lord’s Prayer which we often use here at Lyndale says, “the hallowing of your name echo through the universe.” Or as Victor Hugo says, “Music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.”
Somehow, someway, God has created a harmony of stars and planets and mitochondria and cells and energy that sing together in a glorious song of creation. Madeleine L’Engle has tried to describe this in her book, A Wind in the Door. The poem we read for today’s contemporary reading is a portion of this incredible theological work.
Be caterpillar and comet,
Be porcupine and planet,
sea sand and solar system,
sing with us,
dance with us,
rejoice with us,
for the glory of creation,
seagulls and seraphim
angle worms and angel host,
chrysanthemum and cherubim.
Sing for the glory
of the living and the loving
the flaming of creation
sing with us
dance with us
be with us.
For L’Engle, as with many theologians, music expresses the language of God and it invites all of creation into the song of naming. Naming and being named is the opposite of un-naming or being without a name. Music has the power to interrupt the trauma and violence. Music recognizes the exquisite song within every part of creation. Music recognizes, and hearkens to, that of God within each person and part of creation. To sing is to name, is to see God incarnate all around and it mysteriously erodes anything which might seek to un-name or seek to erode that of God in any part of creation.
And this brings me to the second piece of reflection I’ve been having. Because music is one of the closer approximations of the language of God knit throughout creation, it is also a powerful expression and experience of the gospel’s call for justice and life and liberation. As Bernice Johnson Reagon, whom some of you may know through the African American women’s a cappella group, Sweet Honey in the Rock, as she tells it, that night at the Highlander Center in Tennessee when that brand new verse of “We Shall Overcome” was born, music helped incarnate the belovedness of each of the people present in that room. It cut through the un-naming and hatred the Clan was seeking to perpetrate and instead brought them to their senses enough to recognize God’s presence in the room.
Another story shared in a newspaper article helps illustrate this point.
They had nothing but suffering, these women, held captive in a Japanese prison camp in Southeast Asia during World War II. They were separated from their parents and husbands, abused by brutal guards, starving, filthy, diseased, with no end to their misery in sight.
But on Christmas 1943, they had music.
Thanks to two prisoners - one a society matron who had been trained at London's Royal Academy of Music, the other a Presbyterian missionary - they had Dvorak, they had Mendelssohn, they had Chopin, Debussy, Brahms. Norah Chambers, the musician, and Margaret Dryburgh, the missionary, transcribed the pieces from memory and taught a choir of English, Dutch and Australian women prisoners to sing the instrumental parts. . .
The music conveyed beauty, dignity and order in a world of ugliness, public shame and chaos. Decades later, camp inmate and vocal orchestra member Betty Jeffrey wrote . . . from her home in Australia to say, ''When I sang that vocal orchestra music, I forgot I was in the camp. I felt free.''1
“When I sang…. I forgot I was in the camp. I felt free.” Music can transport us out of oppression, out of chronological time and help us visit, if only for a moment, God’s time, God’s naming, God’s love song knit throughout creation. And in those momentary glimpses of God’s time and space, we are given visions of what songs we might be singing and work we might be doing in every moment of our lives.
On Christmas Eve of 1914 in the frozen trenches of Belgium, surrounded by frozen bodies and with guns trained on them from a few hundred feet away, a few German soldiers began to sing Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht, Alles Schlaft, einsam wacht….” It was followed by pure silence, filled with awe and prayer. And then, “God rest ye merry gentleman, let nothing you dismay.” And then, slowly, another and another song. Until all the guns were set aside and each side entered into the “no man’s land” that separated them. And there, for the whole night, songs were sung, games were played, brandy was shared and naming happened…
It did not end the war. It did not even end that battle. But for a brief moment of time, God’s song was sung.
We are living amidst times that need God’s song to be sung now. The tiki torches of white supremacy still burn. The degradation of war still rages. The prevalence of sexual violence still threatens to overwhelm.
And so we must sing—to name, to re-member the beauty of creation, to be reminded that we are not afraid. To claim freedom here and now.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
During my first visit to Standing Rock in September of 2016, the people I met would ask me, "Where are you coming from?" What they meant was, who are your people? These reflections are my attempt to answer that question and discern how to best act in solidarity.
Sovereignty, Cultural Reclamation and Environmental Justice: Scottish Reflections on DAPL
Earlham College--March 27, 2017
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
Where are you coming from?
I first visited the Oceti Sakowin camp in early September at the invitation of Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo, pastor of All Nations Indian Church and the Director of the Council on American Indian Ministries in the United Church of Christ to be a “witness and interpreter” (as she called it) in support of the Water Protectors. The Water Protectors had started the Sacred Fire on April 1st of 2016 just outside of Cannon Ball, North Dakota which is just outside the boundaries of the Standing Rock Reservation in order to stop the illegal Dakota Access Pipeline. The impact to the Missouri River when a spill happens from the pipeline, will be catastrophic. (turn to slide #3)
The first question we were asked was “where are you coming from?” After I answered Minneapolis a couple of times, a Native colleague said, “you know when you are asked that question, folks aren’t asking for where you live, they are asking who your people are.”
One of the things that Rev. Helgemo required of folks that came to Oceti Sakowin (which, in English means the Seven Council Fires) and stayed in her camp-within-a-camp was that we stayed for at least three days. She didn’t want theological tourists. My first three-day visit was literally life-changing.
Our first stop in camp was at the Sacred Fire which was very close to the entrance gate. It was a space in which a microphone had been set up and elders of the Standing Rock nation were receiving delegations from indigenous nations across the world. When we walked up to the circle, a delegations of Mayans from Guatemala presented themselves and asked to be allowed into camp. When the Standing Rock elders welcomed them, they were given a Mayan flag that was then hung along the entrance road.
After their flag had been accepted a Lakota elder from a different reservation took the microphone and invited anyone who knew it, to join her in song. She explained to those who didn’t know Lakota that the words they were about to sing were:
“We are alive…. We are alive…. We are alive.”
As the song was picked up by people all around me, I realized the other, equally important reason I had come—to stand in solidarity with Native leaders.
The song “We are Alive” brought me to tears. In the face of over 500 years of attempted genocide, broken treaties, concentration camps, forced marches, boarding schools, cultural genocide—most of it perpetrated by my fellow Christians—this was a gathering that said that Native Lives Matter. It was a camp of shared food, shared clothing, shared school supplies and it was filled with music and ceremony and prayer.
At one point, we were all invited down to the riverside to welcome representatives of several Pacific Coast nations who had brought their boats from as far away as Alaska and then paddled across Lake Oahe (which was created by flooding the Missouri River at the Standing Rock reservation). These nations were coming up the Cannon Ball River, a tributary of the Missouri to bless the water and stand in solidarity with Standing Rock. As they paddled past us, people shouted out blessings and one child in particular greeted each new canoe with “Water is sacred. Water is life.” Lalalalalala “Water is sacred. Water is Life.”
As the evening closed, we were invited to a pipe ceremony. The invitation alone was an act of deep honoring. I knew that as a white, non-Native person, that was sacred space that is not mine. And I couldn’t help praying as the pipe came to rest in my left hand, that I would do justice to the honor bestowed upon me as a witness and interpreter of this sacred, revolutionary space.
As I returned to Minneapolis and de-briefed with trusted friends and colleagues, I kept hearing the first question asked of me, “Where are you coming from?”
I began to understand the message underneath the question: that we must know who we are as we purport to do the work of justice in the world.
A second underlying message in the question came to me explicitly from a Native colleague in Minneapolis. As he and I were preparing for a presentation he was going to give to the United Church of Christ in Minnesota, he said, “You know one of the primary differences between Western or European understandings and Native understandings is you believe that time is linear. There is a past, a present and a future and they happen one after another. For Native peoples, time and history are embodied in place. The past, the present and the future are in the land and they live in our bodies.”
And I kept hearing the question, where are you coming from? Who are you, Rebecca Mary MacKenzie Voelkel? What history lives in your body?
I realized that, for me, my solidarity with Standing Rock needed an answer to this question.
I grew up as an only child. My mom is an only child of Scottish immigrant parents. My grammie, my mom’s mom, was the only one of her siblings to have children. And her mother was the only one of her siblings to have children. Because of this reality and the fact that my grammie took care of me as a child and I spent a lot of time with her, I was raised to know my Scottish heritage.
Grammie was born in Inverness, Scotland in 1905. In her many stories, she often told me that her father’s first language was Gaelic and that his English wasn’t that good. She loved to recount the story of going to visit her father’s family in Applecross, a tiny village on the side of the mountain on the West Coast of Scotland.
On one particular evening, she was taking a walk with her uncle Murdo who spent most of his time dressed in tartan and hiking in the mountains since his job was to be the hunter for the wealthy land owner. As the darkness fell, Uncle Murdo turned to Grammie and said, “would you like to talk with Robbie Burns?”
Now, Robbie Burns was one of my Grammie’s favorite poets. She had memorized dozens and dozens of his pieces—many of them in Gaelic. As he was known as the Scottish national poet, you can imagine that my grammie would have been thrilled to talk with him.
But she responded to Uncle Murdo’s request with deep fear, “Uncle Murdo, Robbie Burns has been dead for over a hundred years.” To which Uncle Murdo replied, “Ay, Lassie, a spirit like that never dies.”
I’d heard that story many, many times. But as I grappled with where was I coming from, I started to do some reading.
And there’s a bit more to the story of Uncle Murdo and my great-grandfather. As I said, they had grown up in Applecross, on the West Coast of Scotland. But our family had originally lived in the Western Islands.
The story of how they got to Applecross is rooted in a century of brutality known as the Highland Clearances. In the mid-eighteenth century, as punishment for participating in the Scottish Clan uprising against English colonization, the Scottish wealthy class began clearing people, including my MacKenzie relatives, from the communal lands in the Highlands and the Western Islands. Then, those same lands were given to wealthy people to develop large-scale sheep farming.
The Clearances were marked by violence and brutality and often removed whole villages off their land on short notice. People were often left homeless, without any source of income or food. And, if they stole food to feed their families, many were arrested and sent to penal colonies in places like Australia. Additionally, wearing tartan was outlawed and punishable with arrest and deportation. And speaking Gaelic was discouraged and suffered greatly.
This use of forced displacement and cultural destruction as punishment for liberation struggles, coupled with rewarding the wealthy who are already aligned with the colonizer, are old, old tactics.
Robbie Burns, by the way, wrote much of his poetry during the Highland Clearances, in Gaelic. And his voice was one of resistance and resilience and cultural reclamation. These, too, are old, old tactics.
So, in September and October, the answer to the question of where are you coming from was that I was the great, great granddaughter of those who’d been cleared from their land, whose language had been outlawed, whose traditions and clothing had been outlawed but who’d resisted. I was Grammie’s granddaughter but also Uncle Murdo’s great, great niece. And my presence at Standing Rock was another act of resistance and support.
But then I was asked to go back to Standing Rock on November 2nd and 3rd for a Clergy Call, this time by Father John Floberg, priest on Standing Rock. He prayed he’d get at least 100 people and over 525 came. Our purpose was to stand in solidarity as religious and spiritual leaders. But before we could stand in solidarity, Father Floberg knew that particularly the Christians needed to do some spiritual work. Before we marched, we were being asked to ceremonially repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery.
For those of you not familiar with the Doctrine of Discovery, it was a series of pronouncements by the Pope starting in 1452 which stated that it was the right of any Christian who encountered a non-Christian to take their land and kill, enslave or otherwise dominate them. Many also call the Doctrine of Discovery the Doctrine of Christian Domination. It was first issued to encourage the Portugese to colonize West Africa and enslave folks. And it literally baptized the expedition of Christopher Columbus and subsequent explorers. And the Doctrine of Discovery was cited as early as 1823 by US Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall and has been woven into US law—continuing to be cited in case law as recently as 2014. There is a lot more to say about the Doctrine of Discovery but I hope that gives you some idea if it is an unfamiliar term.
Given the genocidal impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, our Clergy Call needed to start with it. And so, on a cold November morning, we arrived at Oceti Sakowin and gathered around the sacred fire before a council of elders. (turn to slide #10) And then, one by one, leaders of the various Christian denominations who’d done work within their own traditions to repudiate the Doctrine—the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America were three—came forward and read the official statements of repudiation. And then they handed a ceremonial copy of the Doctrine of Discovery to the Standing Rock elders who then took coals from the sacred fire and burned it.
This ceremonial act acknowledged that given over 500 years of physical and cultural genocide, forced clearing from the land, boarding schools, and environmental degradation—all done in the name of Christian domination—we needed to begin with confession and repentance. And out of confession and repentance can come acts of repair. And perhaps, then, some kind of reconciliation might be possible.
Our being there as religious leaders was an act of solidarity—a small act of repair—but we needed to start with confession and repentance and the ceremonial repudiating of the Doctrine of Discovery was that.
And then we marched from the camp to the bridge on Highway 1806 just south of where the pipeline would go under the road and then under Lake Oahe. But by this time, the Morton County Sheriffs Department had become a militarized force and we were standing on the road in plain sight of armored vehicles with aircraft flying overhead on a regular basis. It was an eerie and palpable sign of the Doctrine of Christian Dominance.
I only had less than a week before I returned a third time to Oceti Sakowin as a guest of two Standing Rock tribal Council members. I knew I would be asked where I was coming from and this time this answer to who I was and what history lived in my body was even more complex.
I am the granddaughter of Mary Doyle MacKenzie Unwin whose people survived the Highland Clearances but resisted. But I am also a Christian pastor and heir to all that was done in my name and in the name of the Doctrine of Discovery. (As I was doing some research in preparation for being here, I was looking at photos of the massacre at Wounded Knee, which is often said marked the end of the US Indian Wars, and of the grave site there. And I was looking at photos of the grave site at Culloden Moor, where the Scottish uprising was put down for the last time. It is eerie to see some of the similarities. But more painful for me was that twenty soldiers were given medals of honor for their killing spree done under the command of Col. James Forsythe. It was a Scotsman who led the massacre.)
Where are you coming from? I come from the survivors of the Highland Clearances, those who resisted. I come from those who survived the Highland Clearances and then came to this country or to Australia to turn around and perpetrate genocide on others. I come from a Christian tradition of a gospel of liberation—rooted in one whose whole ministry was to resist Roman Imperial occupation. I come from a Christian tradition that has been colonized by Empire and used to perpetrate unspeakable Holocaust and Slavery and pogrom and domination all over these lands.
What, then, am I supposed to do with all of this history that literally lives in my own body? And why do I share it with you?
You might recall that Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo asked that we come to Standing Rock in the first place to be witnesses and interpreters but not to do so from a perspective of being a theological tourist. She has since asked that we go and “get our people” to tell the story.
This ask is a complicated one because it entails several layers of thinking and acting.
Because the Doctrine of Discovery and the Highland Clearances both live in me, my telling the story of Standing Rock has to be both the story of Empire Christianity and how Christian Domination is a distortion of the liberative story that is the core of Christianity.
(I haven’t even talked about my being queer and how a big piece of the rationale for Christian Domination was that indigenous understandings of sexuality and gender were more expansive than Empire Christianity’s and were a critical part of what the Doctrine of Discovery sought to crush. As Pedro Font, an early Franciscan conquistador in the America’s wrote in his diaries:
Among the women I saw some men dressed like women, with whom they go about regularly, never joining the men… From this I inferred they must be hermaphrodites, but from what I learned later I understood that they were sodomites, dedicated to nefarious practices. From all the foregoing I conclude that in this matter of incontinence there will be much to do when the Holy Faith and the Christian religion are established among them.
So, being a witness and interpreter of Standing Rock is also the story of being in solidarity in a way that is honest with the complexity of the power and vulnerability I hold in my own body. And for me, that is balancing being a follower—listening to the voices of indigenous leaders and doing what I’m asked to do—with being a leader in the context that it makes sense for me to lead.
The very good news is that although Oceti Sakowin and Oceti Oyate are no longer camps, the movement that has sprung from Standing Rock is only growing.
As I close, I would ask you, where are you coming from when you do your justice work? Whose struggle do you hold in your body?
 Pedro Font, Font’s Complete Diary of the Second Anza Expedition, trans. and ed. Hubert Eugene Bolton, vol. 4 of Anza’s California Expeditions (Berkeley: University of California, 1930), 105, quoted in Katz, Gay American History, 291.
In these times, I find myself grappling with an almost all-consuming anger as I read the news. As one amongst many religiously-rooted folks seeking to live justly, the news of Standing Rock, of the attempted Muslim ban, of avowed white supremacists couseling the president enrages me. Into my anger and rage, this week's Scripture reading came as a balm and a salve. Jesus offers his creative, non-violent direct action rooted in revolutionary love. It was a word I needed to hear and preach.
Resistance Rooted in Love
Lyndale UCC- February 19, 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel
Root us in love, Holy One. Root us in love. Root us in love. Amen.
In A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engele’s theological masterpiece masquerading as a children’s book, she writes of a scene in which the protagonist, Meg, has managed to temporarily resist a totalitarian regime of control and evil (called IT and the Black Thing) and escape to a planet of beasts who will help her heal and return to the struggle. She arrives there deeply injured from her resistance, nearly broken.
“This little girl needs prompt and special care. The coldness of the—what is it you call it?”
“The Black Thing?”
“The Black Thing. Yes. The Black Thing burns unless it is counteracted properly.” The three beasts stood around Meg, and it seemed that they were feeling into her with their softly waving tentacles. The movement of the tentacles was as rhythmic and flowing as the dance of an undersea plant, and lying there, cradled in the four strange arms, Meg, despite herself, felt a sense of security that was deeper than anything she had known since the days when she lay in her mother’s arms in the old rocking chair and was sung to sleep. With her father’s help she had been able to resist IT. Now she could hold out no longer. She leaned her head against the beast’s chest, and realized that the gray body was covered with the softest, most delicate fur imaginable, and the fur had the same beautiful odor as the air.
… As the tall figure cradled her she could feel the frigid stiffness of her body relaxing against it. The bliss could not come to her from a thing like IT. IT could only give her pain, never relieve it. The beasts must be good. They had to be good. She sighed deeply, like a very small child, and suddenly she was asleep.
This brokenness and injury feels familiar.
I had lunch with a clergy colleague this week and we talked about how angry we are. I hear about Scott Pruitt’s confirmation and I’m angry. I hear about president #45 saying he’s the least anti-semitic person you’ll ever meet and I’m angry. I hear about the Dept of Education under DeVos’s tweet that misspelled WEB DuBois’s name and then misspelled the word “apology” in their apology and I’m angry.
And when I hear these things while I’m logged onto Facebook, I find myself clicking the red-faced angry emoji on almost every article or post I read. Black history month meeting at the White House—angry emoji. “This isn’t chaos, it’s a fine-tuned machine”—angry emoji. The US Army Corp of Engineers reversing itself on an environmental review and the drilling can begin at Standing Rock—angry emoji.
And then I’m in a meeting with other religiously-rooted justice folks—all of whom I honestly love—and we have to pause because we find ourselves going after each other in anger… And after a few deep breaths, we try to re-orient ourselves. And we talk about the fact that this anger we are engulfed in and directing toward so many we encounter—is totally appropriate to feel, given what we’re experiencing. AND it’s part of a strategy being deployed against us. It is both of these at the same time.
So you might be surprised to hear that I was absolutely ecstatic when Ashley and Mindy and I were doing worship planning and we read our Matthew text from this morning. It was one of those times when the Biblical text is like the beast with its exquisitely soft fur with the beautiful aroma who cradles me back to healing.
This may surprise you because this particular text has been used in such negative ways. But a theologian, Biblical scholar and activist named Walter Wink has helped me experience this text like an Aunt Beast—it appears ugly, but when one relaxes into it, it is a healing balm.
Wink’s book is called Violence and Non-Violence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way and his central message starts with setting our scripture for this morning in context.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not strike back at evil (or one who has done you evil) in kind. Do not give blow for blow. Do not retaliate against violence with violence.
Jesus is speaking to people living under Roman occupation. They are grappling with how to live in relationship to the Empire. Some have chosen fight. There was a violent uprising in Galilee that was crushed. Many of Jesus’ hearers would have seen some of the more than 2000 people crucified along the roadside for resisting the Empire. Or they would have known the inhabitants of Sepphoris just three miles north of Nazareth who had been sold into slavery for supporting the insurrectionists.
Others had chosen passivity or submission- an option which didn’t incur Roman crack-down but which was soul-crushing.
It is into this seemingly no-win situation—fight and be crushed or submit—that Jesus preaches.
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also;
Wink invites us to focus on Jesus’ referencing the right cheek. Why does he include the right cheek? The only way (in a right handed world—and there were fines in Jesus’ day for using your left hand which was reserved for unclean tasks) the only way to strike the right cheek of another person is to use the back of your hand. A backhand slap was the normal way of admonishing those with less power than you—those who are considered inferiors. As Wink says, “masters backhanded slaves; husbands, wives; parents, children; men, women; Romans, Jews. One black [South] African told me that during his youth white farmers still gave the backhand to disobedient workers. We have here a set of unequal relations, in each of which retaliation would be suicidal. The only normal response would be cowering submission.”
Jesus’ hearers would have been those being backhanded. They would have endured such dehumanizing treatment and been forced to stifle their rage due to the hierarchal system of caste and class, race and gender, age and status and imperial occupation. So why does he suggest turning the other cheek?
Because it robs the oppressor of the power to humiliate. It says, try again, your first blow failed to achieve its intended effect. But furthermore, it creates difficulty for the striker. If you hit the left cheek, you have to do so with your closed fist—acknowledging the other as your equal, your peer.
Likewise, the second example of and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well is another example of flipping the power dynamics. It is set in a court of law. Only the poorest of the poor would have nothing but an outer garment to use as collateral for a loan. And the economic system in Jesus’ day was one in which the Roman Empire had created a tax system in which people were falling further and further into spiraling debt. Many of Jesus’ hearers would understand that this was someone who owned only his coat (his outer garment) and his cloak (his underwear). Faced with a rigged legal and economic system, he isn’t going to win the trial. So when he is forced to give his outer coat, he takes off his underwear and hands it to his creditor. In his cultural context nakedness is a taboo and the shame falls on the one causing or seeing the nakedness, not the naked one.
By stripping, the naked one brings a curse upon his creditor. It becomes a public chastisement to both the system of Empire and the individual demanding his coat. And, as Wink points out, it might provide an opportunity for the creditor to have his participation in unjust systems revealed to him. It is a call to an ancient Jewish art of clowning. And it echoes a later saying in the Talmud which says, “If your neighbor calls you an ass, put a saddle on your back.” But it does more than that. “The Powers That Be literally stand on their dignity. Nothing [deflates their power] faster than deft lampooning. By refusing to be awed by their power, the powerless are emboldened to seize the initiative, even where structural change is not possible.”
Finally, and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. This third example is also rooted in a context very familiar with Jesus’ hearers living under Roman imperial occupation. There existed a law that Roman soldiers could impose labor on subjected peoples. It was another bitter reminder that they were an occupied people in their own land. But to keep the subjected peoples from rebelling, there were strict rules that a solder could only make a person carry his belongings one mile and violation of them carried penalties for the soldier. So again, faced with an imbalance of power, Jesus counsels creativity which flips the power dynamic.
The soldier flaunts his power and demands that someone carry his bag (which often weighed sixty-five to eighty-five pounds). That person picks up the bag and starts walking, but when he gets to the mile marker where the soldier thinks he’s going to drop the bag, he keeps walking. The soldier doesn’t know what to do—are you being kind? Are you insulting his strength? Are you trying to get him disciplined for violating the rules? From a situation of servile impressment, you have taken back the power of choice. You have flipped the dynamic, claiming your own humanity and your equality with the soldier.
Seen through the lens that Walter Wink offers, this text can be a salve and a balm to the soul. In the midst of Empire, Jesus offers practical, creative resistance, rooted in the culture of his listeners that claims deep humanity, plays with humor and takes the rules of Empire and flips them on their head. It’s like the AIDS activists who, in the 1980’s in the face of a government who refused to do anything about this horrifying plague, wrapped Sen Jesse Helms’ house in a giant condom and at the same time made quilts for each person who had died with exquisite, palpable details about each, precious life. Claiming humor and satire and humanity.
I believe we are in similar times and the call to a kind of creative resistance is our call. It’s why Saturday Night Live is saving my life right now. Satire is one of the most profound kinds of resistance. It can expose and name and claim truth.
But it’s important to look at the last part of our scripture today.
But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you
Any of this kind of resistance can easily be fueled by anger alone. And when we are driven only by anger, a kind of bitterness and hatred can be the motivation which drives us and begins to control us. And this is where the fact that we are followers of Jesus makes a difference. Jesus’ Third Way reminds us that our anger can be sacred, but unless we are rooted in love, we can become pawns of the very system or situation we are seeking to resist. To quote some of the signs at those women’s marches which are another wonderful example of Jesus’ Third Way, “only love trumps hate.”
After she is healed by Aunt Beast, Meg is sent back to confront IT again. Her job is to try to save her brother, Charles Wallace, who is enslaved by IT. To help her, she is told by one of her teachers, Mrs. Whatsit, that she has something that IT does not.
As she saw him it was again as though she had been punched in the stomach, for she had to realize afresh that she was seeing Charles, and yet it was not Charles at all. Where was Charles Wallace, her own beloved Charles Wallace?
What is it I have got that IT hasn’t got?
“You have nothing that IT hasn’t got, “Charles Wallace said coldly. “How nice to have you back, dear sister. We have been waiting for you. We knew that Mrs. Whatsit would send you. She is our friend, you know.”
For an appalling moment Meg believed, and in that moment she felt her brain being gathered up into IT.
“No!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. “No! You lie!”
For a moment she was free from ITs clutches again.
As long as I can stay angry enough IT can’t get me. Is that what I have that IT doesn’t have?
“Nonsense,” Charles Wallace said. “You have nothing that IT doesn’t have.”
“You’re lying,” she replied, and she felt only anger toward the boy who was not Charles Wallace at all. No, it was not anger, it was loathing; it was hatred, sheer and unadulterated, and as she became lost in hatred she also began to be lost in IT. The red miasma swam before her eyes; her stomach churned in ITs rhythm. Her body trembled with the strength of her hatred and the strength of IT.
With the last vestige of consciousness she jerked her mind and body. Hate was nothing IT didn’t have. IT knew all about hate.
“You are lying about that, and you were lying about Mrs. Whatsit!” she screamed.
“Mrs. Whatsit hates you,” Charles Wallace said.
And that was where IT made ITs fatal mistake, for as Meg said, automatically, “Mrs. Whatsit loves me; that’s what she told me, that she loves me,” suddenly she knew.
That was what she had that IT did not have.
She had Mrs. Whatsit’s love, and her father’s, and her mother’s, and the real Charles Wallace’s love, and the twins’, and Aunt Beast’s.
And she had her love for them.
But how could she use it? What was she meant to do?
If she could give love to IT perhaps it would shrivel up and die, for she was sure that IT could not withstand love. But she, in all her weakness and foolishness and baseness and nothingness, was incapable of loving IT. Perhaps it was not too much to ask of her, but she could not do it.
But she could love Charles Wallace.
She could stand there and she could love Charles Wallace.
Her own Charles Wallace, the real Charles Wallace, the child for whom she had come back to [this planet], to IT, the baby who was so much more than she was, and who was yet so utterly vulnerable.
She could love Charles Wallace.
Charles. Charles, I love you. My baby brother who always takes care of me. Come back to me, Charles Wallace, come away from IT, come back, come home. I love you, Charles. Oh, Charles Wallace, I love you.
Tears were streaming down her cheeks, but she was unaware of them.
Now she was even able to look at him, at this animated thing that was not her own Charles Wallace at all. She was able to look and love.
I love you. Charles Wallace, you are my darling and my dear and the light of my life and the treasure of my heart. I love you. I love you. I love you.
Slowly his mouth closed. Slowly his eyes stopped their twirling. The tic in the forehead ceased its revolting twitch. Slowly he advanced toward her.
“I love you!” she cried. “I love you, Charles! I love you!”
Then suddenly he was running, pelting, he was in her arms, he was shrieking with sobs, “Meg! Meg! Meg!”
“I love you, Charles!” she cried again, her sobs almost as loud as his, her tears mingling with his. “I love you! I love you! I love you!”
A whirl of darkness. An icy cold blast. An angry, resentful howl that seemed to tear through her. Darkness again. Through the darkness to save her came a sense of Mrs. Whatsit’s presence, so that she knew it could not be IT who now had her in its clutches.
And then the feel of earth beneath her, of something in her arms, and she was rolling over on the sweet smelling autumnal earth, and Charles Wallace was crying out, “Meg! Oh, Meg!”
Now she was hugging him close to her, and his little arms were clasped tightly around her neck. “Meg, you saved me! You saved me!” he said it over and over.
Readings for February 19, 2017
Matthew 5: 38-48
“You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not strike back at evil (or one who has done you evil) in kind. Do not give blow for blow. Do not retaliate against violence with violence. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
43 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be children of your Father/Mother in heaven; for s/he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father/Mother is perfect.
“The role of the artist is exactly the same as the role of the lover. If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”
 Madeleine L’Engele A Wrinkle in Time (Square Fish: New York, 1962), 197-198
 Walter Wink, Violence and Non-Violence in South Africa: Jesus’ Third Way (New Society Publishers: Philadelphia, 1987), 12-23.
 Madeleine L’Engele A Wrinkle in Time (Square Fish: New York, 1962), 227-230.
As we prepare for the inauguration of Donald Trump, here are some words which have been on my heart: http://www.lyndaleucc.org/sermons/dreams-visitations-and-other-epiphanic-interruptions/
What lesson did you learn from today,” I asked my nine year old daughter. I had brought her to the Clergy Call at Standing Rock because my partner and I (two middle-aged, white lesbian Christians) are trying to raise her (a white, Christian girl) to know both her power and agency AND her responsibility to work for justice. We don’t know exactly how to teach these lessons—since we are still trying to learn them ourselves. But we hope that acting for justice and sharing those experiences might be one part of that.
“I learned that Christians did and still do some terrible things to indigenous people and we have to help change that.”
Continue reading here: http://auburnseminary.org/standing-rock-collective-confession-and-repentance-was-our-first-action/
Rev. Dr. Rebecca Voelkel is a pastor, theologian and movement builder. She is also a mom, partner, community-builder, biker, runner and swimmer.