Pete from FlickrI wonder: could phone trees, organized so that volunteers quickly call the precinct where people of color are being held, reduce the incidence of people dying in police custody in this country? Could enough calls from people identifying their locations around the country, saying, “We’re watching,” or simply asking the police to confirm that a particular person is being held there, make a difference?

In an essay on torture and eucharist, Rebecca Gordon, author of Mainstreaming Torture writes:

“Some time during the early 1990’s in San Francisco, California, I attended the speech of a Salvadoran trade unionist. I have forgotten her last name, but her given name I remember well: Gloria.

“Gloria’s purpose that evening was to inform her audience about the situation in El Salvador of union members like herself. By way of illustration, she related the story of her own capture and torture by the notorious Salvadoran Treasury Police. She told us that it was only the pressure of phone calls and letters from la solidaridad internacional — international solidarity — that had finally forced the police to set her free. As Gloria spoke, I began to shiver. I remembered that I had heard – and spoken – her name before. I realized that I myself had made some of those calls.

“In the late 1980’s my friend Sharon Martinas organized an informal phone tree among her Spanish-speaking friends, so that when news of police kidnappings reached her from El Salvador, we might telephone the appropriate police force or military service (El Salvador had several) and demand the victim’s release. Sharon would keep us updated about what was known of the victim’s whereabouts and supply us with the relevant telephone numbers. I remembered my phone calls to the Treasury Police, remembered insisting that we knew they had her, that she had been seen in the prison at Ilopango, which they controlled.

“As Gloria told her story, I was seized with a sort of retrospective terror. What if we had failed to make those calls? What if we had been too busy in the days of her capture to add our voice to those of others demanding her reappearance? What if the press of life, or my own laziness, had kept me from participation in the body of la solidaridad internacional?

“Still, there she was in front of me, alive. My heart was lifted up to encounter in the flesh a woman whose body the little community organized through Sharon’s phone tree had helped to save from torture.”

At the heart of Holy Communion is the reality that we are bound together with God and each other, regardless of jail cells and prison walls. I wonder about the possibilities. And then I remember that hymn:

In prison cell and dungeon vile
our hearts to them are winging
when friends by shame are undefiled
how can I keep from singing?


July 15, 2015

How about I just put this here so that I can come back and watch it once a month – or once a week?  Once a day?

What if I could refuse to allow the brutality of my enemy to rob me of compassion for my enemy?  Is that even possible?

What if the power of Holy Communion is not in its ability to somehow conquer death or make me part of a select group?  What if, instead, its power lies in the possibility that, when done well, it is able to nurture compassion and connection across boundaries, re-awakening us to the deep Communion that is at the heart of the universe (and, I would say, the ministry of Jesus)?

Communion and White Fear

December 5, 2014

photo by Jon BehmAs demonstrations continue around the country, protesting the deaths of African American men at the hands of police, we need to talk about White fear. Like many of the posts on this blog, it may seem to have little to do with Holy Communion, but from what I can see, it has everything to do with it — at least for those of us who are trying to follow in the way of Jesus. It’s just that our practice of Holy Communion has become so impoverished that we don’t see how deeply they’re connected. White fear is a symptom of a kind of spiritual poverty that Holy Communion, as a spiritual practice, was meant to heal. The fact that it doesn’t, the fact that Holy Communion does little or nothing to reduce White fear in this country, and in many cases actually reinforces it, speaks condemnation upon the church.

If you’re White like me, then White fear isn’t always that easy to see. It mostly looks like nice, clean neighborhoods, and employment opportunity based on hard work, and police who are willing to do the difficult job of defending communities and the rule of law. White fear sounds like the voice of reason: we need to be unified. We need to pull together and talk the problem out. Peace and safety first, then we can address grievances.

Chances are, White fear has been a little easier for you to see lately, but just in case you’re still not seeing it clearly, I’ll try, with my own limited ability, to help. When a White police officer with a gun sees a Black teen his own height as a giant who makes him feel like a five-year-old, that is at least partly White fear. When civic leaders send out armored personnel carriers and instruct police to aim loaded guns at crowds of unarmed, mostly Black civilians, that is the face of White fear. (Have you seen all the police pointing loaded guns at unruly White college students who are burning cars after football games? No? Exactly.) When the governor, or the mayor, or the chief of police speaks of unity and calm without ever acknowledging a problem, or warns protestors to stop being unruly “before someone gets killed” (Who could that be? Hint: it’s not the police), that is White fear. When gun sales in the St. Louis area go up 300 percent before then grand jury decision, that is White fear. (You don’t really think all those gun buyers were African American, do you?) When African Americans are relentlessly stopped by police while driving through White neighborhoods, or walking through White neighborhoods, or shopping in grocery stores in White neighborhoods, or standing around looking too grumpy in White neighborhoods, that is White fear.

This is not the fear of the small, helpless child. It is not the fear of the elderly woman in the store parking lot at night. It is the fear of the privileged. It’s the fear of those of us who have so very much to defend. It’s the fear of the entitled, the owners. It’s the fear of those of us who bristle and seethe at anything that might puncture our willful ignorance of the cost of our comfort.

It is also the fear of the exploited, working-class “competitor.” It is the fear of less affluent people who have been conditioned to keep their attention focused on the threat of the Mexican immigrant and the African American welfare mother, rather than noticing the corporations that are driving down wages and crop prices, and the Wall Street insiders who are risking pensions, and the political leaders (of both parties) who are selling them out in back rooms with lobbyists. It is the fear that the government will take what little we have and give it to people who are undeserving. It is the fear that the thin line dividing us from them — whatever “them” we’ve been taught to fear — might be lost.

White fear is part myth, relying upon the racialized imagination of many generations. (Ask yourself: why were at least one-third of African American lynchings based on the accusation of rape of a White woman?) It is part ideology, working itself into a frenzy to defend a worldview where the status quo, with its prison pipeline, its shockingly unequal school systems, and its disparity of life expectancy, seems justifiable. If we’re going to be honest, though, White fear is also based on a degree of reality. The truth is that, in an era of unprecedented disparity between the poor and the 1%, in an era when African Americans lost their homes in disproportionate numbers during the recent recession while many wealthier (mostly White) Americans often saw significant gains, there is, in fact, wealth, power, and privilege at stake. Deep down, White fear is based in an awareness of injustice, and potential cost of making things right.

White fear is also a symptom of a deeper spiritual loss: the denial of our deeper connectedness.  It’s the loss of the ability to encounter the divine in people who are “other” to us, whose perspectives challenge and push us.  It’s not a coincidence that when the risen Christ appears to the disciples, he comes as a stranger: on the road to Emmaus, by a campfire on the beach, as a landscape worker in the cemetery.  It’s not a coincidence that the disciples at Emmaus only recognize Jesus when they invite the stranger in.  White fear is a symptom of the disruption of this kind of spiritual maturation and discovery.

What can possibly begin to neutralize that kind of fear? The solution is complex, and I don’t think it will help to oversimplify, but here’s one piece of the puzzle, from this little corner of the blogosphere. Jesus, with an odd, seemingly sanctified genius, invited people to step outside of their silos of privilege or oppression, and join him for dinner. Together. That was key. He understood, I believe, the spiritual poverty of being separated from people whose circumstances are different, but connected to our own. He also understood the deeper communion that we all share, and the sense of awe, even sacramentality, that comes when we encounter people who are “other” within a sacred frame of reference.  And so he invited them to take risks, and eat together. “Invite those who cannot repay you,” he said. “Go out and find the poor, the disabled, the sick.” He ate with religious leaders and with prostitutes. He ate with wealthy tax collectors and with those who had nothing to eat. Take a risk. Sit down here. Before you know it, the Beloved Community of God will come near.

It’s not a coincidence that Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a time when the children of former slaves and the children of former slave owners would sit down at a table together.  Rev. King understood that “nonviolent resistance does resist,” but he also understood is that the goal of nonviolence is to convert the heart of one’s opponent. The strategy is to connect, to call forth the mixture of compassion and shame that will cause people who are participating in unjust systems to stop cooperating with those unjust powers and step over the line. It is aimed toward something stronger than fear.

Especially in a time of gross injustice and deep division, we need spiritual practices that push us to risk engaging each other in challenging and constructive ways. So, despite my nervousness, I will get to my point here and try not to mince words: from what I’ve been reading in scripture, we who are White can’t get together with all of our White, upper-middle class friends in our safe, clean sanctuary, and do anything that even comes close to resembling Holy Communion. It’s just not possible. It doesn’t work that way, and it’s worse than self-deception to call it that. It’s exactly the kind of piety mixed with injustice and division that made the prophet Amos so mad. He was outraged enough to imagine God saying:

I hate, I despise your feasts,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies….

Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever- flowing stream.

Remember when Paul got so mad at the wealthy church folk in Corinth, because they got off work early and had already eaten (and gotten drunk) by the time the people who worked late at Wal-Mart and Waste Management had taken the bus to get there? He was as mad as Amos. He said that when the rich folks came and ate and drank without those in need, they failed to discern the deeper unity – the fact that we are all one body. He said they ended up eating and drinking judgment against themselves. In other words, when their churchy eating and drinking actually reinforced division instead of breaking it down, it was like anti-Communion or something. It was worse than doing nothing, because it made them feel like they were in sync with God and others when they weren’t. Ouch.

I have a lot of White fear. Some of it is well-founded. I have a lot to lose. But I also recognize the spiritual poverty of my White neighborhood, my friendships with only well-educated people, and my own impulse to cry, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. I want my children to know the kind of spiritual growth, the spiritual depth that comes from practicing Holy Communion without self-deception. I want that for my whole family, and myself as well.  I want that even though, as the early church learned, it’s hard to sustain.  So, I will continue to go to protests, and to write to decision makers in government. And I guess I need to start looking for new ways to share in the sacrament of Holy Communion that are deeper, and outside of my comfort zone – in spite of my fear. Any suggestions?

Photo: Jon Behm

In this video, Tony Porter, educator, activist, and co-founder of A Call to Men gives a ten minute presentation on masculinity and violence.  It’s introductory, but there are some good stories.  He introduces the concept of the “man box,” the normative way of performing masculinity that boys in our cultures generally learn.

Now, if Holy Communion in its current forms does anything, it shores up the authority of those who are leading it.  We don’t draw attention to this aspect in worship, but it’s actually quite central to the way Holy Communion works.  Everyone who participates learns how to do this meal: the leaders get to lead the prayers, handle the holy food (breaking and pouring the body of Jesus), and distribute it to the rest of us.  We all have this ingrained through our participation (even if it annoys us).

In most church contexts, where men preside and women either help in subordinate roles or sit out, there is an intimate connection between the performance of masculinity as dominating, hierarchical, and maintaining the prerogative of violence, and the performance of presiding at Holy Communion.   This is nothing new.  Theologians like Marjorie Procter-Smith have been pointing this out for decades.  What Tony Porter reminds us is that the performance of masculinity can be a cage for men as well.  We may not easily see the ways in which presiding performs/reinforces the “man box,” but we go along with it every time we join in.  Is it any wonder that many churches, even liberal churches, rarely have women preside, if ever?

As you watch the video, I encourage you to consider how the “man box” impacts your life, and how it impacts Holy Communion.

I have three sons.  I got to the end of this video and cried.  You got a problem with that?  🙂

Tony Porter: A call to men | Video on

Almost all of Stephen Colbert‘s congressional testimony about migrant farm workers today was in (goofy) character, but during the question and answer period, he was asked why he chose the particular issue of immigration reform.  Colbert was silent for a moment, running his fingers through his hair, and then, stepping out of character for a moment, said, “I like talking about people who have no power.”  He then went on to say, “You know, ‘Whatsoever you do for the least of my brothers…’  and these seem like the least of our brothers.”

I’m not sure of the Bible version (it’s none that I have on hand — perhaps others know), but I found it interesting that, when pushed, Colbert found himself reaching back for scripture.  It was a rare glimpse of the man behind the (often irreverent) wit.  It was also a good reminder that, because our relationships through the marketplace are moral and spiritual as well as economic, the inherent sacredness of our meals calls us to pay attention to those who work so that we might eat.

What’s the supply chain of your communion elements?

Video – Breaking News Videos from

Where did this search begin?  When did the question of violence and Holy Communion, of their relationship with each other, first begin pushing its way up toward my awareness?  When did the general, low-level uneasiness begin to form itself into a question, or a problem, or a  sinking sense of recognition?

It may have been in Tom Driver’s Ritual and Sacrament class at Union Theological Seminary in New York.  We watched a movie in which a group of people puncture the jugular vein of a cow, and as the blood streams out they fill a cup and pass it around, each taking a drink.  The shock of realizing the parallel between this ritual and Holy Communion stayed with me.  Of course, it’s not really parallel at all.  I mean, it just isn’t.  Right?

It may have shifted toward a problem, a quest, when I had a conversation with my Uncle Jack about violence and ritual, and he sent me Renee Girard’s Violence and the Sacred and Gil Bailie’s Violence Unveiled.  Their mixture of ritual insight and Christian apologetics both fascinated and frustrated me.  When you begin with a search whose end necessarily arrives back at orthodox (small “o”) Christian belief and practice, there are many things you can’t ask or see.

It may have been earlier than that, just listening to my friends’ stories of rape, battery, and childhood abuse.  It may have been later, when I found myself preaching Easter sermons that began to reinterpret Holy Communion.  It may have been the first time I admitted to another pastor that I was thinking of going back to school to study these issues.  It’s actually difficult to say.  “How did I get to this place?”  becomes such an obviously constructive and selective task.

A colleague of mine recently returned from an academic conference wondering whether, in this postmodern era, it’s possible to write history at all.  Do we really have access to events after they occur?  Are there “events,” at all, or do we carve them out?  Is history more construct than anything else?  Is it all just social location and self-interest?  My response was, “No, it isn’t possible, but it’s important that we do it anyway.”

Like Holy Communion itself, we make a beginning by selecting a point of origin from the flowing stream of our living, and our memory, personal and collective.  We stick a pin in the “Last” Supper, in the meals of Jesus’ ministry, in early Jewish meal practices, or the Greco-Roman symposium tradition.  We draw the point of origin, still dripping, from that continuous stream, often based on the needs of the moment. Nothing wrong with that, necessarily.  The problem comes when enough time goes by that we lose sight of the beginning we have made.  Then we may start to think that we have only observed what obviously was The Origin. We cannot see ourselves polishing, tweaking, and shoring up our story as we go along.