The Right Place for Love[i]
Late Friday night, when I plugged my cell phone into its charger, I saw the news of the latest mass shooting. This time at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center. This time 12 adults. This time 4 wounded. This time an “Oh no!” escaped from me as I felt the beginning of a gut-wrenching sadness for such needless suffering.
But I quickly cut off all sensations of heartbreak and immediately pivoted to the causes as I learned more facts. I cast about for what needs to be done and who is in the way of that! I was numbing my heart by wringing my hands. I was escaping grief by blaming others and gathering my body for a furious attack. At 10pm. On Baldwin Hill. In Egremont, Massachusetts.
And then grace upon grace, I remembered to come back home to my body and feel the deep ache that was connecting me to myself and to others. I allowed myself to feel how much I cared for every human being that would be affected by this tragedy.
This was not a pleasant feeling. It hurt. But there was something liberating about it, because it allowed something richer and truer and sweeter to run through me for a few moments. I felt connected to all creation as an achingly thick nectar of caring flowed through me, unchecked by any default response of blame and combativeness. My body relaxed, yet it was full alive. I felt truly human in that moment, un-defined by any self-righteous anger.
A few weeks ago I was standing in the Garden of Gethsemane. It’s on the west side of the Mount of Olives which looks across the Kidron Valley at what was the temple mount in Jesus’ time, and is the Dome of the Rock today. This is the place where Jesus was arrested following that last dinner at another location with his friends when he washed their feet and offered what would be a final prayer for them. We heard part of this prayer in our Gospel reading this morning.
It is really more than a prayer. It is a revelation and testament of all Jesus’ hopes for the future of his disciples and all who comes after them. That means us. That means everyone.
The language of this final prayer is seemingly endlessly circular—but John is using this language in a way that describes the felt sense of what Jesus experienced with God: a vital and tender flow, a back and forth of dynamic love and life that Jesus wants for all humans to enjoy and experience. This saving graciousness is what Jesus offers us at every moment. Now. Here on earth.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes this graceful, unforced interplay of relationship in terms of the African concept of Ubuntu: “I am because we are,” or “I in you and you in me.” He writes:
“We say a person is a person through other persons. We don’t come fully formed into the world. We learn how to think, how to walk, how to speak, how to behave, indeed how to be human from other human beings in order to be human. We are made for togetherness, we are made for family, for fellowship, to exist in a tender network of interdependence. That is why apartheid and all racism are so fundamentally evil, for they declare that we are made for separation, for enmity, for alienation, and for apartness.”[ii]
Separation, enmity, alienation and apartness distort the social context in which our identities, our self-images, are formed. This is not what Jesus hopes for our futures. It is what he came to save us from: distorted identities born of anxiety and fear. Distorted identities that are formed in response to humanity-denying circumstances and which cut us off from one another.
Paul did not know who he was until that day on the road to Damascus when he encountered “Dynamic Tender Love” through the grace of the risen Christ. He was a zealous agent, a bounty hunter for the religious authorities who were threatened by the new Way-of-Liberating-Love-Among-People. His identity was founded on the prosecutorial vigor of his enmity. But in one blinding moment, his culturally adaptive self-image was shattered, and the door opened to a new identity—an identity based on unthreatening relationships with others.
In today’s reading from the 16thchapter of Acts, Paul and Barnabas are shackled to the floor of the innermost room of a prison. They had been arrested as a result of some men whose income had been disrupted after Paul had removed a demon from their slave girl who was divining spirits for money. (Luke, the author of Acts, doesn’t indicate this, but reading between the lines we can assume she was a trafficked female, and likely a sex slave as well).
As usual in the Lukan tradition, we have a pair of healings, one female and the other male. The male in this pair is a jailer, who because of a foundation-shattering earthquake draws his sword to kill himself for his failure to secure his prisoners. But he is interrupted by Paul’s reassurance that no prisoners have escaped.
While the earthquake can be interpreted as a theophany that moves the story along, it is also a metaphor for what it takes to shatter the foundations of our identities that separate us from the humanity of others. Luke doesn’t tell us much about what the jailer’s life was like before the earthquake, but we are given an astounding picture of what happened after it, when the salvation of real human connection became available to him.
No one after that earthquake was completely defined by the roles that separated them. They were now united with each other in mutual caring.Jesus’ hopes for their salvation had become fulfilled.
The shackles of our identities keep us inside walls built around our capacity to feel any caring for ourselves and others. It can be hell on both sides of those walls until they are breached.
I heard an interview a couple of weeks ago with Congresswoman Barbara Lee of California who reminisced about how she got into politics by working on the 1972 presidential campaign of Shirley Chisholm, who was the first African American woman in Congress and the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president.[iii]
While Lee was a student at Mills College in Oakland she organized Chisholm’s Northern California campaign. On May 15, Chisholm suspended her campaign for several days in order to visit George Wallace who had been shot five times at a rally.
Lee was livid. Wallace was the hate-mongering segregationist governor of Alabama during the Civil Rights Era and Lee could not believe that this black woman would go visit this horrible individual. She confronted Chisolm:
“How could you do that? I mean this man. First of all, he’s running against you. And secondly, he’s running for president. And thirdly, he’s a segregationist and he’s trying to maintain the status quo that you’re trying to change.”
Chisholm replied, “C’mon now, you’re working with me in my campaign, helping me. But sometimes we have to remember we’re all human beings, and I may be able to teach him something, to help him regain his humanity, to maybe make him open his eyes to make him see something that he has not seen …So you know you always have to be optimistic that people can change, and that you can change and that one act of kindness may make all the difference in the world … I know people are really angry, but you have to rise to the occasion if you’re a leader, and you have to try to break through and you have to try and open and enlighten other people who may hate you.”
George Wallace’s daughter Peggy Wallace Kennedy also remembered when Chisolm arrived in her father’s hospital room:
“Shirley Chisholm had the courage to believe that even George Wallace could change. She had faith in him … In 1972, Shirley Chisholm planted a seed of new beginnings in my father’s heart. A chance to make it right.”
She recalled that her father asked Chisolm,
“What are your people going to say about your coming here?” Chisholm replied, “I know what they’re going to say but I wouldn’t want what happened to you to happen to anyone.”
Wallace Kennedy continued:
“Daddy was overwhelmed by her truth, and her willingness to face the potential negative consequences of her political career because of him — something hehad never done for anyone else. “
Later in 1979 Wallace, confined to a wheelchair, made an unannounced and unexpected visit to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Church in Montgomery, rolled to the front of the sanctuary, and told the congregation this:
“I’ve learned what suffering means in a way that was impossible. I think I can understand something of the pain that black people have come to endure. I know I contributed to that pain and I can only ask for your forgiveness.”
As he was leaving the church, the congregation began singing “Amazing Grace.”It is“Amazing Grace” to encounter this role-shattering love in relationship with one another. It is God’s dream and Jesus’ hope for our salvation right here. Right now
[i]“Earth’s the right place for love: I don’t know where it’s likely to go better” (Robert Frost, “Birches”)
[ii]From a handwritten address delivered at Morehouse Medical School Commencement, May 15, 1993, quoted in Michael Battle, Ubuntu: I in You and You in Me,(NY: Seabury Books, 2009) p. 54.
[iii]“How segregationist George Wallace became a model for racial reconciliation: ‘Voices of the Movement’ Episode 6 by Jonathan Capehart, podcast Washington Post May 16, 2019. https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/05/16/changed-minds-reconciliation-voices-movement-episode/?tid=ss_mail&utm_term=.ec110b2b9aae