12 August 2012/Proper 14B – 2nd Samuel 18:33/Psalm 130/John 6:51
O Absalom, my son, my son!
Few of us ever thought we would ever know anything about Oak Creek, Wisconsin, only to wake up one morning to find that Wade Michael Page, a 40 year-old white former veteran, member of a neo-nazi hate group and musician in a white-power rock band, End Apathy, had shot and killed six members of a Sikh community while they were worshipping in their temple, their gurdwara. He wounded other members of the community and at least two policemen before taking his own life. Among the dead was Satwant Singh Kaleka, 65, president of the temple, who tried valiantly to stop the assailant from carrying out any further carnage, saving the lives of those who were able to find a place to hide while he fought with Wade Michael Page.
Few of us knew that an estimated 500,000 Sikhs live in the United States, 3,000 in southern Wisconsin alone. Few of us knew that Sikhism broke away as an offshoot of Hinduism (NB not Islam) in part to bring an end to the caste system, and is recognized around the world as a religion of peace and tolerance. Until this week few of us knew that since September 11, 2001, there have been over 700 attacks on Sikhs and Sikh communities across the U.S. And few of us know just how many neo-nazi, white supremacist groups there are across the U.S., let alone aware of the kinds of hate-crimes they commit, how many minds they infect, how many acts of violence they incite against people of color, people who wear turbans, immigrants, gays, lesbians, transgendered persons, and anyone they perceive as undermining “our way of life.”
We find ourselves overwhelmed. Such violent tragedy seems to be happening at an increasingly alarming rate. Which ought to suggest that something is terribly wrong with “our way of life.”
The Bible, particularly among the prophets, is relentless in demanding that we carefully examine “our way of life.” Yet, it is not the prophets only, but the Psalms, the narrative stories, and the urgings of Jesus, all call us to a greater degree of reflection and self-examination than we are inclined to undertake, and worse, feel we have no time to do. The bottom line is: unless we take time out to do this difficult work what used to be understood as “the common good” will continue to erode into the seemingly never ending stream of apocalyptic programming that suddenly has dominated both the movie screen and the TV screen. The problem is, however, it will be real, in the streets, in your face violence – not simply a story-line meant to earn back the millions of dollars it takes to produce such nightmarish visions.
The search for an explanation this week results in the oft repeated, even by me, mantra, “He probably thought he was shooting at Muslim sympathizers of Bin Laden and the Taliban because the men were wearing turbans.” As true as this may be, it is also a facile analysis of the evil that eats away at our culture, “our way of life,” like a cancer. For implicit in this surmise is the idea that shooting at Muslims might make sense and even be ok.
Make no mistake, there are underlying causes to help us understand Oak Creek, Wisconsin, and Aurora, Colorado. And despite herculean efforts to convince us these are two very different incidents, it is difficult to ignore that the apparent ease with which one can arm oneself off the Internet, and the entrenched culture of violence, make such events of hate-crimes and acts of domestic terrorism all too attractive, primarily to young white men who themselves are often just as marginalized from society as the minority and marginalized groups upon which they prey.
How apt is it that we are faced with the end of the David and Absalom narrative: where Absalom the son seeks revenge against his half-brother for raping his sister, then mounts an armed revolution to depose his father, King David, and ends up foiled by a tree – a mighty oak tree to be precise. As the handsome, long-haired Absalom is riding his mule to battle, his head, his lovely locks, snare him in the branches of the tree, allowing the King’s men to slay him an quell the rebellion. The rabbis, reflecting on this ask, “Did one ever hear of an oak-tree having a heart? This is to show that when a man becomes so heartless as to make war against his own father, nature itself takes on a heart to avenge the deed.” [Mek., Shirah, § 6]. So often in the Bible nature takes over where we fail to take action.
How is it that the lectionary committee some three or four decades ago arranged that after a week such as this we get to read and reflect on Psalm 130:
1 Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; *
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2 If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss, *
O Lord, who could stand?
Who could stand, indeed! The Psalmist is rhetorical of course. There is no “If” when it comes to the Lord noting what is amiss. It has been noted. The Lord has sent messengers in the past and messengers in the present. It is we, who cannot or at least ought not to stand, we who ignore the message over and over again.
When we listen to what Jesus in the Fourth Gospel says at the end of all these Bread passages we have had for the past few weeks we hear him conclude: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” John 6:51
We read this at least once every three years. Yet, we do not seem to hear what is being said. It is incredibly vexing to what purports to be a Triumphant, Supercesionist church that Jesus does not once say, “…and the bread that I will give for the life of the church is my flesh.” Jesus gives his flesh and his blood, Jesus goes to the cross, for the “life of the world,” not the life of the church. This world for which he offers himself is a pluralistic world of many different peoples of many different faiths and yet a common sense of faithfulness. That is, whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Taoist, Jainist or of any other faith, Jesus includes you in his love and offers you his bread, bread that is meant to sustain the “common good” and “our way of life,” which way, The Bible understands, is the Way of God.
Whether one derives meaning out of the Absalom narrative, or from the Good News of Jesus Christ the Son of God, it strains the faithful imagination to believe that the way to respond to what happened on September 11, 2001 is to mount700 attacks on Sikhs throughout the U.S. But even that is too simple a conclusion, and misses what no doubt must be a key underlying cause of increased gun violence throughout our nation – that is, that it made any sense whatsoever to launch military attacks on Afghanistan and Iraq. To reply to violence with violence will not work, and in fact as anyone who takes the time to reflect on it, is not working at all. Yet, what can we expect when the elected leadership of “our way of life” use violence as a response? Of course it gives license to take that kind of action in all corners of our common life.
As we prepared to invade Iraq, Sam Hamill, a poet, went up on the internet to invite poets to send him poems speaking for the conscience of our country in opposition to President George W. Bush’s plans for “Shock and Awe.” Little did he suspect that he would receive some 13,000 poems from 11,000 poets, some of whom were professional writers, most of whom were ordinary people like you and me. Hamill had been invited by Laura Bush to a symposium on poetry to have been held at the White House – which symposium was to have focused on the poetry of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickenson, and Langston Hughes – three of the most anti-establishmentarian poets of American literature. Once word got out of Hamill’s Poets Against the War effort, the symposium was cancelled. Some 200 of the poems made it to press in the book, Poets Against the War [Thunder Mouth Press, NY:2003].
The Old Testament prophets were poets – they wrote in Hebrew poetry. Here are two examples from Hamill’s offering, one by a 90 year-old former teacher, blind, who had her first book of poetry published when she was 80, the second by an 11 year-old sixth grader.
Fear arrived at my door
With the evening paper
Headlines of winter and war
It will be a long time to peace
And the green rains
Wet bodies of those who have fallen
Afghanistan blown to pieces!
Right on target – the men, the women,
The children, crying mommy mommy!
Rebecca, age 11, also wrote, “I am an eleven year-old girl in the sixth grade. Most of the kids in my school don’t want a war with Iraq. We wish that President Bush would stop being the school yard bully and do what Jesus would do – fight evil with good, not evil with evil. It says it right in the Bible.” [Poets Against War, p55]
We can blame TV, we can blame Hollywood, we can blame the access to guns and ammunition, we can blame misunderstanding one religion for another, we can play the blame game all day long into the night.
Or, we can take time to reflect on our collective behavior. Those whom we elect to public office and act on our behalf do not have the moral sense of an eleven year-old girl or a ninety year-old blind former school teacher.
Wade Michael Page is Absalom. Absalom is our son. We are Absalom. Our culture creates Absaloms every day. David sits in his chamber and weeps. What are we doing? One thing is for certain, sitting in our rooms and weeping will not change “our way of life,” or improve “the common good.”
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, St. Timothy’s School, Stevenson, MD