It is a cold, windy and overcast February day, and my destination is the Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue, NY, approximately 100 miles due east of New York City.
I am traveling to speak with the pastor Reverend Dr. Ledyard S. Baxter, 65, or Rev Led as his current congregation named him six years ago. He is preparing for his fifth annual service on the compatibility of religion and science.
The service he is preparing for is less than a week away. The genesis of his commitment to this annual event is a document known as the Clergy Letter, which specifically addresses the evolution versus creationist controversy. It is set to coincide with Charles Darwin’s birthday, on February 12th.
Rev Led is unaware that he is one of only five pastors in the entire State of New York, and the sole pastor in the New York City/Long Island region focusing his sermon on this topic, according to the Clergy Letter’s web site. I am curious why his commitment is so unique in this region, and I’m wondering about the potential for recrimination in his congregation and the community, especially in terms of those of his Long Island neighbors who have strict Biblical ideas when it comes to evolution.
Meeting the Reverend for the first time, I can imagine the director at a casting call audition exclaiming, “We have our Reverend!” Rev Led is tall, graying, stands very erect and speaks softly in a deep baritone. His kindly demeanor makes a stranger feel immediately comfortable, a good skill for a man who spends his days counseling people about life, death, beliefs and everyday ethics.
His office is just off the sanctuary. His shelves are filled with books on theology, but he quickly points to a sizable collection on the topic of science and religion. Ian Graeme Barbour’s Issues in Science and Religion, The Language of God, by Francis Collins, and Michael Dowd’s Thank God for Evolution among them. On a wall full of framed memories, the dominant image is what appears to be a NASA photograph of the Earth as seen from an Apollo mission.
Rev Led’s interest in science is based upon an understanding of, but not expertise in, biological science. He recognizes that a deeper understanding of both science and the Bible is necessary to relate the compatibility of biological evolution with religious beliefs. It also requires a willingness to consider both, and as Rev Led suggests, “This does not work with biblical literalism. That is where the polarity continues.”
I question him regarding the impact of his commitment to the Clergy Letter project and Evolution Sunday. “It is just since I’ve been here [at Old Steeple Church in Aquebogue] really that I have felt the freedom and been blessed with the opportunity to delve into this. It certainly would have been more difficult to broach and explore these issues with a congregation and in a cross-congregational manner in any community in which I had served as clergy prior to Aquebogue.” [Rev Led had previously served with congregations in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts]
“You ask about impact, I don’t think people here have jumped up and said, yes, let’s organize and take it on the road and get other churches to do it. That’s my job. But, no one has sent me hate mail, and no one has even raised a question within the church” he adds.
By his “job”, Rev Led is referring to the extension of his influence beyond his congregation to the broader community, something he accomplishes now in a number of cross-denominational associations in the Town of Riverhead. [Area in which Aquebogue is found] His choice, however, is not to confront publically those colleagues in the clergy who believe in biblical literalism.
I gain a better understanding and appreciation for the Reverend’s means as he describes his education and commitments to community-based activism in his youth. He grew up in a small and homogeneous community, Newington, in central Connecticut, where he recalls never having an awareness of the meaning of “discrimination.” Rev Led describes the following “early lessons” in “learning how to break down barriers.”
He recalls one such opportunity in early 1966, his junior year at Colby College in Waterville, Maine. “Fred Hudson, the chaplain at Colby got me involved in a month of independent study between Christmas and the spring semester in which I was mentored by Dick Broholm, of the Metropolitan Associates of Philadelphia (MAP). This was a cross-denominational think tank that philosophized about how the church might get involved in politics and government, arts and education and business and industry. One issue addressed while I was there was redlining practices along the Mainline.” Redlining was the rejection of mortgages to certain ethnic groups, or entire neighborhoods. These practices prevented ethnic groups having access to funds that would help them improve their communities, and it often prevented them from moving to other communities. In this instance, it was occurring along the “Mainline”, a series of wealthy communities situated along the commuter railway lines from Philadelphia to the suburban areas west of the city.
This was only the beginning of an interest and commitment to principles of fairness and human rights. His pastor in Newington involved him “with a group at the University of Chicago Divinity School” several months later, during the summer of 1966. “It was a summer work/study program where we lived in this community of students with common interests and backgrounds, had to get a job and participate in reflection groups on readings and discussion.” This summer program, however, turned into much more.
Frank Reynolds, who is currently Professor Emeritus of the History of Religions at the University of Chicago managed the program and a PhD student named Larry Greenfield currently the Executive Minister of the American Baptists Churches of Chicago was Rev Led’s mentor. “Larry knew Jesse Jackson, and when the Southern Christian Leadership Conference came north that summer to demonstrate in Chicago, Larry asked if we would be interested in participating” he recalls.
This was the summer that the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King’s political base, committed to eight months of marching in communities in the Chicago area to promote equal rights for black Americans. Primary focus of these marches was on housing, education and jobs. They were documented as some of the most difficult such efforts that Southern Christian Leadership Conference leadership had encountered, and Rev Led participated in four major civil rights marches that summer, learning about nonviolent protests from no less than Dr. King and Ralph Abernathy. The impact of the hatred he experienced firsthand must have had a great impact on this young man from Newington.
Graduating from Colby College in 1967, Rev Led enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, then a center of Protestant social justice thinking. During his studies at Union, his interest in social ethics motivated him to take a year off to work with Bill Webber of the East Harlem Protestant Parish and the Metropolitan Urban Service Training program (MUST). He spent the year working in Harlem as a welfare rights and welfare caseworker, and in the Bronx, for the Welfare Department.
For a man who would spend his life trying to balance worldly justice with a religious message, these early experiences were transformational. Rev Led talks about “falling into these opportunities” as if he just happened to be at the right place at the right time. Perhaps so. But all along the way, he seems to have made choices to stand up for what he believed was right, to add not only his voice, or signature in the case of the Clergy Letter, but to be an active participant in society, a model for others. His choice to devote a service to present the compatibility of science and religion is but one example of this.
Cross-posted from Radical Religion.
“Justice language” is, in my experience, the greatest stumbling block in an otherwise rich and productive dialogue between socially-engaged Christians and Buddhists. It should not be so, but last night’s Presidential announcement of the death of Osama Bin Laden shows us precisely why this stumbling block exists. Last night, Obama announced that “justice” had been served. In this case, the clear implication was that the death of Bin Laden was part and parcel of this “justice.” But was it?
I don’t think that Amos had this kind of thing in mind when announcing that God wanted justice to “roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24). In fact, I don’t think that there’s any language about “justice” in the gospels which would support Obama’s view thereof. The word he was looking for last night is “vengeance,” which I’m pretty sure God has reserved for Godself (Deut 32:35; Rom 12:19; Heb 10:30).
If we think instead of what “justice” should mean in any theosocial context, we can come quickly to the notion expressed in the sermons given on the “Kingdom of God” (or Kin-dom or just basileia). Justice is merciful care for the downtrodden. Justice is a social order in which human bodies are not violated for profit or any selfish intent. Justice looks more like the community described in Acts 2:44-47 in which the community held no private property and distributed any material goods among themselves according to the need of each. No word about revenge is spoken in that description. No word of revenge has any place in justice at all.
If justice then is more about mercy and compassion, it is not only more consistent with Buddhist understandings of human relationship, but it is also precisely the opposite of what’s been pronounced “justice” in this political context.
Cross-posted from my newly-formed and post-Union blog Radical Religion.
Irene Monroe has a good take on Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm X up at her Huffington Post blog. I will leave her comments for you to read, but please do. She is an excellent writer with a much-needed perspective on race and sexuality in American culture. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a Union alumna either.
More to the point of this posting’s title, I began to wonder upon reading Rev. Monroe’s piece whether we might be on the brink of some kind of Schweitzer-esque quest for the “Historical Malcolm X.” Schweitzer’s 1906 volume The Quest of the Historical Jesus is a great introduction to the field of historical Jesus studies. In a nutshell, the central question here is what new light might be shed on faith claims to Jesus based on historical research into the person Jesus of Nazareth.
With Marable’s new book shedding new light on the person of Malcom X, do we need a similar re-evaluation of the claims we can make to his legacy as well? Do we need to consider a “Malcolm of History” versus a “Malcolm of Faith” as we do with Jesus? I do not wish to draw a soteriological parallel between these two figures. Rather, I want to raise again the question of whether the facts-that-happened version of history is more important than the usable past. I don’t have a solid answer, but I do have my sympathies for Martin Marty’s view of history and Michel Foucault’s view of discourse and narrative here.
In my own estimation, new historical evidence might shed light on a figure’s past in terms of the facts-that-happened. Such evidence, however, may or may not have much bearing on the usable past version of history as a story we tell ourselves about a particular figure or event. Malcolm X remains simultaneously the person described in his autobiography and the person described by Marable. He was always both, just as we are all both the people we believe ourselves to be and the people who match our self-perceptions.
A friend of mine shared this extraordinary video on Facebook recently, about a man in India, Narayanan Krishnan, who has followed his heart into a ministry of feeding and care-taking of some of the most desperately poor and vulnerable people in his home city.
For me, watching it brought a host of emotions. It brought me back to the warmth and light of my beloved India, a country filled with paradox. It is at once ancient and modern, wealthy and poor, religious and secular. The colors and sounds and scents are heady and intense, from the swirling pinks and oranges of colorful saris to the blaze of billboards advertising modern wares with bright white Bollywood smiles on ancient buildings, from the gossipy chattering of lime green parrots in the trees to the endless metallic din of motor rickshaw traffic, from the rose and jasmine tinged incense wafting up in morning prayer to the smoky peat of cow dung patties being burned for warmth and cooking fires. As the video clip shows, it is a country of astonishing wealth and luxury such as can be found in its glittering five-star Taj hotels, and a country of despair-inducing poverty, the squalid slums outlining the cities reeking of excrement, trash and urine. It is, for many visitors, a country of chaos. It is also a country of an ancient order, the caste system.
I’m not qualified to comment on the current understandings of the caste system in India, or on prevailing systemic injustices that call for change. What I do wish to lift up is how this man’s calling spontaneously led him out of the ‘acceptable’ order of his life and society, into a life of scandalous love. I would lift up, too, something I feel even more deeply moved by in watching this video. This man exudes a tangible love for the people he cares for. He seems to exude love in an effortless, easy way that attends his every movement, touch or gesture while with them, and which makes me feel that he must be enormously rich; he is rich in love. There is economic poverty, but there is also a very real poverty of love. In his ministry, it seems this man is engaging with both from a wealth of both. Relating and feeding are not separated; body and psyche are kept together, and he offers a healing and nourishing outpouring on both.
1 John 4:19 says “We love because he first loved us.” From psychoanalytic insights, we know that our ability to give love is primarily and deeply related to the ways in which we have received love. Yet many people suffer from wounds of love; an absence of an affirmation of, and a relating to, our deepest selves. Even those of us who consider ourselves among the fortunate in the world, those of us who seek to be givers, caretakers, ministers, may struggle with loving, feeling at some deep level that we were, or are, not loved ourselves. And we blame ourselves. Yet, we all deserve the experience of receiving love, not just a belief in it, and we thrive when we have this experience with enough constancy to make it true in our bones, so true that it gives rise to its natural corollaries of deep inner freedom and the ability to love others in the same unconditional way. This grace-filled love just may break through into narcissistic systems, internal and external, bringing the life-giving good news of true relatedness where there was captivity, despair, and broken-heartedness.
Love is abundant. Yet, we often find ourselves squabbling like a flock of sparrows over the last crumb, as though we must frantically fight to get our little piece before flying off with it to some protected place and devouring it, and peering enviously at others who arrived first or more aggressively and took their share. Or perhaps we give up our share entirely, believing that it is starvation that is required of us to save others from our own hungering, rather than a joyful feasting together.
The absence of love where there should have been love is extraordinarily painful. Yet, this movie clip inspires me. It inspires me because I feel reminded, in an embodied way, that the reality of love is that it is endlessly real and utterly generous. Love is not a zero-sum commodity, as though love for oneself comes at the cost of love for others, rather than both bubbling up from the same deep well-spring and building gloriously and joyfully on each other, tumbling us into new spaces of freedom, creativity, generosity and even play.
Whatever my past experience has been or whatever corresponding beliefs about myself I arrived at, I don’t actually have to fight for my share of love, earn it by conforming to expectation, or affirm or partake in any system that overtly or covertly claims that I do. Neither does anyone else. This, to some of parts of some of us, is just as scandalous as it may have been to that man’s family when he stepped out into his call. Just as he had to break with the oppressive and unjust aspects of is social context to live out this life of love for others, so too is it given to us to break with inner systems that are oppressive and conditional and would dehumanize the needy and vulnerable, and also the hopeful and lively and loving, within ourselves and others, and to withstand the inner scandal that such grace may bring. The more love we know, and allow ourselves to know, the more we will be able to offer both food and love to a world in an agony of starvation for both.
More can be learned about his work at www.akshyatrust.org
Pia Chaudhari is a Ph.D. student in Psychology and Religion .
A quick heads-up that Religion Dispatches has an article on Union alum Bishop Christopher Senyonjo currently running on their site. For those who do not know, the Bishop has been the sole voice of religious support for the LGBTQ citizens of Uganda.
He has been doing a great service both in Uganda and in the United States. The churches need not only more Christopher Senyonjos, but more of us to recognize and publicize efforts like this. Please share this article far and wide.
Contrary to the old saying, the Revolution has indeed been televised. Al Jazeera, despite Mubarak’s shut-down of both new and old media, has carried live coverage of a peaceful revolution in Egypt.
This is a great day. Twenty-one years ago today, Nelson Mandela was freed from Victor Verser Prison: this too was televised. The media has a great responsibility to the people not as our opiate but as a partner in liberation.
Mubarak has resigned.
Much seriousness is traipsing the front pages of newspapers and our minds these days: floods, food shortages and price hikes, and political-social unrest in Egypt and bordering states. It’s right that our hearts and minds focus on these heavy matters. But it really leaves little time for the less consequential to inhabit our thoughts. That’s why I’m thankful that Union graduate Robert Loring sent me this website that sells Christian clothing. Before you get ahead of yourself with thoughts of habits or white collars or austere monkish robes, think much more modern. Think graphic… Ed Hardy, even. (Do you think I can get an Ed Hardy habit?)
What does this type of garb have to say? While many are evangelical in nature — this image attesting – for me it is saying less about a reflection on being a person of “the way”, and more about a way of being part of a culture. Which brings up the long debate of how Christ and Culture have always been weaving in and out of each other. It gets at the question, what is Christ’s way in the world? A survey on that question can be found in H. Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, where he describes various understandings of Christ “against,” “of,” and “above” culture, Christ “transforming” culture, and Christ in “paradoxical” relation to culture. I would find it difficult to pinpoint one of these above the other, though my hopes are on the transformational element. The thing is, like these shirts, we seem to make God in our image rather than the other way around. If Christ can inhabit the front of our shirts, can Christ also inhabit the whole or our being to transform us and a world toward the commonwealth of God? Does a shirt that says “Jesus is my homeboy” work toward that end?
Your thoughts on the aesthetics and popular renderings of Christ are welcome here.
Marriage is all about sharing…So I’d like to share my blog with my wife, Cathy Cornell, who recently returned from a trip to Ciudad Juarez in Mexico. These are her reflections.
Fourteen more people were killed in Ciudad Juarez during the first forty-eight hours of this week. This is not an unusual toll for Juarez…but one that is more deeply troubling and sad for me now that I have witnessed the life of the people there this past weekend. What follows is my journal recounting my recent forty-eight hours in Juarez.
Peter Hinde, Carmelite priest, and Betty Campbell, Mercy sister, both dear friends, were there to meet me at the downtown bus station in El Paso, Texas as I hopped off Bus #33 from the airport. We walked the few minutes to the border and over the bridge to Juarez. The first surprise was how different this border crossing is from the crossing in Nogales (across from where my mother lives in Tucson); in violence-torn Juarez there’s no swarm of vendors because there’s no stream of tourists.
In fact, at first, it looks like a ghost town. Empty, skeletal foundations mark the spot where a business area had been planned. Only a few years ago, the area was cluttered with shops, hotels, bars and prostitution. Today only empty, hollow streets.
The boarded up buildings along the dusty roads of the neighborhoods are the most obvious sign of trouble here – so many places closed up because owners couldn’t or wouldn’t pay the extortion fees (reported to be $100 a week). And the stories I heard – of the woman who was kidnapped in May and returned because her family was able to scrape together the $100,000 ransom; slowly she was healing from the horror of that experience…or Maricela who was murdered outside the government building in Chihuahua because she persistently demanded justice for the prior killing of her daughter … or the teenage boy from the neighborhood who went out to ride the dunes in his new car and never returned (his body was found days later).
And then we arrived at Peter and Betty’s home, Casa Tabor – a colorful and peaceful oasis in this desert, a community house of hospitality and peace. A place of beauty, of memory, of life, possibility and creativity. I walked with Betty to the nearby store and saw the neighborhood soccer court where the head of the soccer team was gunned down not long ago (there are no longer swimming pools or other recreation areas for young people and only one library). We entered a local store (open only because they do pay the extortion) and its warm welcoming environment with smiling neighbors and a shopkeeper who likes to joke around. This was my introduction to the paradox of Juarez.
I’ve come to Ciudad Juarez to join the fast to end the bloodshed; it was led by churches and human rights organizations as part of the bi-national rally for peace and justice on this troubled border. The crowd gathered at the Benito Juarez monument downtown – families and loved ones of so many murdered or disappeared, seminarians, priests, nuns and joined by journalists, photographers and people from other countries who desire peaceful change.
Banners hung on the fence surrounding the monument – the most prominent being “No More Bloodshed” and Ni Una Más” (not one more) protesting the savagery against women which has claimed the lives of 446 women from Chihuahua state last year. A multicolored homemade banner commemorate the life of their beloved “Tatic,” the recently deceased Bishop Samuel Ruíz García from Chiapas.
As the bell rang, those of us fasting donned little white masks covering our mouths to mark the beginning of our fast. Representatives from the organizing groups – numerous parishes, Paso del Norte Human Rights Center, Migrant Human Rights Center, Women Workers Pastoral Center of the diocese of Juarez passionately called for an end to the violence and madness. Local seminarians led us in prayers for peace and a clown lightened and activated our energies by engaging all of us (including the somber seminarians on stage) to wave our arms and jump up and down in unison. Our many grins and giggles helped us tolerate the sadness, grief and tension that held us all.
Then a caravan of vans and cars snaked through the city to the border fence at Anapra where we joined others on “el otro lado” (“the other side” as El Paso is called) for a bi-national rally for Peace and Justice Without Borders at noon. The US Border Police monitored the scene from the El Paso side while the Juarez side was completely without police protection. From the crowd in El Paso we heard strong statements critical of US immigration policy, of US drug consumption that fuels the violence in Juarez, of the lack of regulations to limit the thousands of guns bought in the US which are used to perpetrate the horror, and of US military and economic policies that undermine the possibility of a sustainable solution to this nightmare. Poems and songs, prayers and pleas, testimonies of family members who have lost loved ones to the violence…of kidnappings, shootings, and awful torture. More stories were told and many tears shed. The children mimicked the clown’s antics and then settled down in a circle while their minds, for a short precious time, were captivated with silliness and joy.
On the way home, a female lawyer spoke of her increasing hopelessness of finding a way out of this deadly morass where seven to ten people lose their lives each day…and we spoke of the need to keep going as well as to care for ourselves and each other. The inspiration of the day’s gathering was palpable, but the uncertainty of the future weighed heavily on those who are trying to build a culture of peace.
A short while later, with the sun going down, I walked with Peter and Betty down the uneven dusty road, past modest homes and unsteady shacks, past children playing in the yards, dogs barking, and grownups doing their daily errands. Life goes on in Juarez. Moments later we were at the church at the bottom of the valley. Betty and I took our seats and greeted many friends in the parish and Peter processed in with the other priests to begin the Mass in celebration of Pastor Arturo’s fourth anniversary in the priesthood. With standing room only, the people sang and prayed together with gusto. Yes, this is Juarez too. This is Juarez where we gather in an upstairs room decorated with brightly colored balloons and streamers, a room filled to capacity with tables and chairs and heavy plates of delicious rice, beans and meats for all. This is Juarez – ancianos, babies, toddlers and teens, all together, full of life, with such beauty and joy.
Before leaving Juarez, I wrote fifteen more names on the memorial mural of the dead of Juarez in the patio behind Casa Tabor. As I wrote, my sadness and horror at the tremendous loss and grief of the people broke through very forcefully. I walked the labyrinth that Peter created in the garden nearby as I prayed that all may be free from this suffering. I chatted with Betty’s chickens (Chula, Bonita and Hermosa) in their brightly colored coop as the sadness moved through me and the joy of being with good friends comforted me. This is Juarez, where people grieve amidst the suffering and death in their community and where people comfort one another and celebrate life. I’m reminded of the chant we said after a distraught and angry parent gave their testimony – No Estás Sola – You are not alone. We must find ways to respond to the people of Juarez – by visiting and supporting their brave workers for justice, by working in our country to end the insidious ways our country’s policies promote and sustain this violence (for more information, see http://forusa.org/blogs/john-lindsay-poland/not-giving-our-city-fastingciudad- juarez/8457), and most of all, to remember our one-ness with our brothers and sisters in Juarez.
Juarez – You are not alone.
New York, NY
February 4, 2011
We are so accustomed in the Abrahamic tradition to see Egypt as the oppressor to be overthrown. It is a central part of the Exodus narrative, which has been crucial in Jewish history as well as African-American Christian identity. So what happens when Egypt itself yearns for freedom?
That is precisely what we are seeing now. The people of Egypt are straining against the bonds of a modern-day Pharaoh, and he’s one that the United States has nearly unequivocally supported. The Sarthanapolos blog has an excellent guide about “How Not To Say Stupid Stuff About Egypt”, which contains many corrections to the distorted view that we have had of our Muslim sisters and brothers for years. Notably, it points out that Mubarak and Nassar before him were not peace-seeking fonts of stability but repressive dictators and that the Muslim Brotherhood is not anything like Al Quaeda.
How long must we follow Constantine before we remember Christ?
This seminarian is no different from anyone else. These have been disturbing, nonsensical days that I can hardly begin to make meaning of one way or the other. When I don’t understand–especially when phrases from the middle ages pop up in present political rhetoric–I look to the wiser ones that have gone before me. So what does blood libel mean anyway? Union’s Mary Boys talked to CNN today to help us understand. Yes, Wheat and the Chaff is actually highlighting religion in the media. Imagine that. Enjoy!
And friends, I don’t know much, but if you have someone you love, tell ‘em. That may not seem to have anything to do with this article, but I can assure you it has everything to do with the healing we all need right now.