Amazing Grace: the President preaches in the Black Church

I’d heard that President Obama delivered the eulogy for State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney; but that doesn’t begin to describe the sermon he preached.

I would especially encourage white Christians who are unfamiliar with the black church, to take half an hour and listen to this sermon, which inspired even a black atheist. It gave me a much greater appreciation of the central role that the black church has played in the African American community since the days of slavery, and also some insight into the liturgical and preaching style of the black church.

Let me reassure my Catholic readers that there is much you will find familiar in the sermon, although it is expressed in different ways: a call to “express God’s grace” where we would say “cooperate with God’s grace so that it bears fruit in our lives”, for example. But I heard nothing alien, and much to which I could say Amen.

For those who’d like to read more about the black church in America, this article by Michele M. Simmsparris on the significance of black church burnings is excellent: it necessarily explains the historical role of the black church in order to explain the significance of attacks on these churches.

I’d actually started this blog post a day or so after the funeral for Rev. Pinckney, and meant to post it then. But as it turns out, I think it is a helpful reflection for the Fourth of July, as we consider when and how this nation has, and has not, lived up to its professed acknowledgement that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are inalienable rights for all persons; and especially how white Americans have, at best, been willingly ignorant of the ways in which other white Americans have conspired to deny these rights to our black sisters and brothers, whether by more or less covert acts of racism, or by acts of terrorism like the Charleston massacre and the subsequent burning of black churches across the south.

America, America,
God mend thine every flaw:
Confirm thy soul in self-control,
Thy liberty in law.

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Love wins: Lectionary Reflection

A lectionary reflection for the 13th Sunday of Ordinary Time, Cycle B, in light of the recent Supreme Court decision on marriage equality.


All of creation is good. None of it is bad or destructive.

No human beings are ontologically ordered towards evil.

For he fashioned all things that they might have being;
and the creatures of the world are wholesome,
and there is not a destructive drug among them

2 Corinthians:

(…Pause for a moment here, and remember that the church of Corinth, to whom Paul is writing here, was perpetually plagued by factionalism and divisiveness.)
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On the #AMEShooting in Charleston, SC

On Wednesday, June 17, an avowed white supremacist went to a Wednesday night Bible study and prayer service at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church in Charleston, South Carolina: a historic church, the oldest black church south of Baltimore. The young man, who is white, was welcomed into the circle by its African American pastor and church members. The service continued.

After about an hour, he shot them.

He killed nine. Two survived by playing dead. He deliberately left one alive so she could tell what had happened, what he had said, that he had killed them because they were black, and black people “have to go.”

There are some things you have to know in order to fully appreciate the symbolism of this act. You have to know that the African Methodist Episcopal church was founded by black Christians who boldly followed the Good News of the gospel out of the segregated white churches and into congregations of their own. You have to know that this AME church, fondly called Mother Emanuel church, was founded by Denmark Vesey, and was later burned to the ground in the wake of rumours that he was planning a slave uprising and flight to Haiti. You have to know that this AME church was founded when chattel slavery was still legal in the United States. You have to know that the shooting occurred just two days before the 150th anniversary of Juneteenth, the day when the last slaves in the United States finally found out they were free, two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

And you have to tell anybody who claims that this massacre is evidence that Christians are persecuted that they are full of shit. This was an act of white supremacist terrorism. The perpetrator was quite explicit about it.

I’m sorry. I don’t have anything else to say.

Please pray for the nine African American men and women who died, who surely went straight from having welcomed the stranger into the arms of Jesus:
– Cynthia Hurd
– Susie Jackson
– Ethel Lance
– Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor
– Rev. Clementa Pinckney, pastor and state senator
– Tywanza Sanders
– Rev. Daniel Simmons, Sr
– Rev. Sharonda Singleton
– Myra Thompson

Pray for their families, friends, loved ones, congregation. Pray for all the black people in this country that this act was intended to terrorize. Pray that God will comfort and console them.

Pray for their killer, for his associates, and for all white supremacists, that God will convert their hearts to repentance for their evil.

Pray for the United States & all who live here, especially those of us who are white, that God will move us and shake us so that we may finally confront and repent of our racist history, structures, institutions, and unconscious biases, and commit to acting for justice.

Please, read the links, and share your own prayers or resources in the comments.

Essential reading for white Catholics:

Confessing Our Vicious History: White Catholics and Violence Against Black Churches | WIT.

Any white Catholic response to the slaughter of these black Christians must begin by confessing that while black churches all over the United States struggled for freedom, white Catholic dioceses throughout the South were owning black slaves as a corporate body. Wealthy white Catholics sometimes deeded slaves to their dioceses in their wills.

Essential reading for all Christians: what the AME church asks. Includes address for donations.

More Catholic reflections:

Praise and Lament: That We May Protect Life and Beauty | Daily Theology.

From Cheerful Recklessness to Sobriety: ‘Laudato Si’’ and Charleston | America Magazine.

Between Laudato Si’ and Black Lives Matter | The Jesuit Post.

[Pope Francis] argues that praising the God of creation includes being willing to challenge and transform systems, institutions, and our own patterns of comfort and consumption that fail to respect our duty to care for the planet and for each other. “Human life is itself a gift,” he says, “which must be defended from various forms of debasement.”

A Tale of Two Churches | Commonweal Magazine.

n the same way, the fact that the church targeted last night was another such community—a community not just of Americans and Christians, but of black Americans and black Christians—makes the shooting a very different sort of event than it would have been otherwise.

What did we expect? #BlackLivesMatter | Daily Theology.

What did we expect when, time and time and time again, the largest unified Christian denomination in the United States–Roman Catholicism–failed to consistently and vehemently repudiate the defilement of the human body that is racism in all its forms? What did we expect when the confederate flag is flown freely? What did we expect when gun laws remained lax, and racial tensions continued to grow? What did we expect would incur from the silence of the Church?

Becoming a Better Friend to Job | Daily Theology.

What must I do to be a better friend to Job, to be in solidarity with African Americans whose mourning and anger this week is the newest page in a long book of suffering?

More responses to the massacre:
What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston | Osheta Moore.

Murder in Charleston: The Episcopal Church Must Respond.

Anti-racist resources:
Where to start when you’re afraid to talk about race | between worlds.

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Book Review: The Just City

The Just CityThe Just City by Jo Walton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Closer to 4 stars than three.

A very difficult book to classify. One might say “The Just City” bears the same relationship to classical Greek philosophy that science fiction does to science.

It’s a story about an experimental attempt to create a city that embodies the ideals of Plato’s Republic, and the places where reality is simply incompatible with the ideal, thus illuminating flaws in that ideal.

It’s a sort of philosophical parable; the characters in the Just City (which include both adults from various times, and children/youths of ancient Greece) care and talk about justice, slavery, excellence, deception, and friendship. The practice of rhetoric is central in the way that the practice of science is in SF.

The viewpoint characters include a couple of Greek gods. Don’t let this put you off the book, or dismiss it as mythology: instead, accept them as real elements of the universe in which the book takes place. (Or, just consider them as aliens, if that’s more familiar.)

I liked the book very much, except for the treatment of one theme; but I also perceive that treatment to be a strength of the book (just, an unpleasant one to read).

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Easter Week

Happy Easter!

It’s Easter Week, or the Octave (eight days) of Easter, or Bright Week — so called because in the early church, those who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil and clothed in white garments would continue to wear those white garments all week, as they continued to be instructed in the faith, now that they had received the Holy Spirit.

As part of my Lenten and now Easter observance, I’ve been praying the Liturgy of the Hours using the excellent People’s Companion to the Breviary. During Lent, it sensitized me to Sunday, the Lord’s Day, as a day of praise: the psalms to be prayed on Sundays during the four week breviary cycle are noticeably praise psalms, especially the morning psalms.

And this week, all week, we are praying the same Sunday psalms that we prayed on Easter, over and over again. It has given me a deeper appreciation of the Octave of Easter, the eight days over which the Eighth Day is prolonged. It’s also given me a new appreciation for the function of the antiphons that precede and follow each psalm: because the antiphons are changing each day. So although the psalms themselves are the same each day, I experience them differently because the breviary places them in a different context each day. I suppose that, for those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours regularly, the antiphons serve a function similar to that of the mysteries when praying the rosary: they provide a setting, a theme, on which to meditate while repeating the familiar prayers.

The antiphons this week have been progressing through the Easter appearances: first the stories of the women at the tomb; then the story of Emmaus; then the story of Thomas. It’s been very helpful in keeping me “in” Easter.

The other thing that’s been repeating this week is the news of yet another killing of an unarmed black person by a police officer. Walter Scott was killed on Holy Saturday. Every day, this story is in the news, on the net. Every day, the same basic facts are repeated, preceded and followed by new pieces of information that come to light, new events unfolding, new commentators opining. How different the police account looks, when placed next to the bystander’s video of the shooting.

This country is in a repeating cycle of unarmed black people being killed by police officers, in eerie similarity to the breviary’s four week cycle: a cycle that is long enough that each repetition strikes us anew, but short enough that each occurrence is familiar. The similarities in the police accounts are eerie. The video evidence proving that Officer Slager’s account of the incident was filled with lies makes the earlier police accounts look different. Feidin Santana, the witness who captured the event on video, was afraid, like the women in the short ending of Mark’s gospel:

Then they went out and fled from the tomb, seized with trembling and bewilderment. They said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

Those women did eventually testify to the truth, despite their fear, despite the risk, as Mr. Santana has done. Without them, we would not know the truth.

How do we hold those two things together, Easter week and yet another black person killed by police, icons of the glorified body of the risen Christ and photographs of bleeding, dying, black bodies? When I started this post, I didn’t know; I only knew I couldn’t say nothing about Walter Scott’s death. I didn’t know how to hold them together, because his unjust death at the hands of government power is surely more crucifixion than resurrection, more the cross than the empty tomb, more the Pieta than the Apostle to the Apostles, more Good Friday than Easter Sunday.

But that’s the point, isn’t it. There is no resurrection without crucifixion. There is no crucifixion without resurrection. Our faith is in the Crucified-and-Risen One. We have to hold them together.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Christ is Risen.
Truly, He is Risen!
Amen, alleluia.

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Stations of the Cross

So I finally got to Stations of the Cross last night – I’ve been wanting to get to them since I was writing my thesis last year and realized that is was a devotional practice that could foster empathy. As I was on my way over, I realized it was not only the first time I’d been in this parish — it was the first time in.. oh.. at least 20 years, possibly 30. I had only the vaguest recollection of how it goes.

Because of the traffic, I got there just barely on time. I picked up a worship aid on the way in: The Way of the Cross, with text from scripture, copyright 1965, with an introduction explaining how directly it was inspired by the Vatican II teachings encouraging Catholics to engage more broadly with Scripture than we had before.

As I entered the sanctuary, I was dismayed to see both the new projection screens lowered and showing a reproduction of Jesus among the disciples. Oh no!! I thought. Surely they aren’t going to project the stations on the screen while we sit here and watch? We’re supposed to walk the way of the cross!

Fortunately, I was wrong; apparently the picture was projected simply to inspire meditation before we began. (Full disclosure: I loathe the increasingly common practice of using projection screens in liturgy for anything at all. This is largely a personal loathing; I have some idiosyncratic vision issues that make these things problematic for me. Thinking about it more dispassionately, I can see that in theory, this kind of usage has possibilities that open up the world of sacred art in the parish setting. However, if one is going to use it this way, one should configure the machine so that the bar at the bottom of the screen with all the various icons is hidden!)

A moment later, the priest processed in behind a teen boy carrying the processional cross, and a little girl carrying a candle. (The “candle in a jar” sort, that she could hold in both hands.) The priest was vested; the young people were not. We all rose, and began with the sign of the cross. He led us in singing (a capella) the introductory verse that was in our worship aid, to the tune of Stabat Mater, and then led us in the first station, as we stood in our places.

The observance for each station was as follows:
– Priest: Station N, (name of the station).
– Priest: We adore you, O Christ, and we praise you,
– All (genuflect): Because by your holy cross, you have redeemed the world.
– Priest: reads a passage of scripture that describes, or is relevant to, the events of the station.
– All (kneel): read a passage of scripture from the psalms or prophets, that either points towards Christ’s sufferings or presents an emotional response to them
– All: sing the next verse, that moves us to the next station, while we process to it
Continue reading

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#RaceLetter and Other Resources for Catholics Discussing Racism

Roman Catholic Bishop Braxton of Belleville, IL wrote a pastoral letter on the racial divide in the United States for the World Day of Peace this year. In this letter, he expressed the hope that Catholics across the country would use it as a resource for prayerful reflection on the state of racial relations in our communities, church, and nation.

In early January, some of us got together on Twitter for a discussion of the letter, using the hashtag #RaceLetter. This post presents the discussion questions we used to structure the discussion, and includes a set of resources for further reading and discussion. The conversation itself was storified, so you can read and reflect on the thoughtful responses of a small but varied group of Catholics and non-Catholics to this letter.

If your parish, small group, or group of friends is looking for material with which to reflect on past and present racism in the Catholic church in the US, I hope you will find these materials useful. If you have additional resources or stories to share, please do share them in the comments.
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Learning to Call Myself White

(Cross-posted from BLT)

I remember how hard it was to learn to call myself a woman.

Growing up, through high school, my female classmates and I were called “girls,” of course. (Or very rarely, “young ladies,” though mostly when we were in trouble.) So that’s what we called ourselves.

That’s what our mothers called themselves, too. They talked about “getting together with the girls”, “girls night out.” Occasionally “ladies,” usually in a humorous vein.

In college, I didn’t much like any of the words I might use to describe myself. I paid close attention to their counterparts for my male classmates. We all called them “guys,” which would mean I should call myself and my female friends “gals”: which I did, often, but it felt just a little too cowboy-Western to me. If my male friends weren’t “boys” then I shouldn’t be a “girl”; only on the rare formal occasions when they were “gentlemen” should I be a “lady.” “Young men” and “young women” sounded both too young, and too nineteenth-century. “Males” and “females” sounded both insufficiently human, and even more nineteenth-century.

I remember when I went to a sleepover party, the summer after sophomore year, with some reunited high school classmates of both sexes. One of them had made signs that designated separate sleeping areas for “Men” and “Women”: spelled out in a hand that was big, bold, unapologetic, and perhaps just a little self-conscious. I remember looking at that sign, “Women”, and thinking, I would not have had the nerve to write that word.

It wasn’t until I was out in the working world, aware that I was facing sexism, aware that the male-dominated field in which I work would further aggravate it, that I got serious about actively trying to own the word. It helped that having a fulltime job with a steady paycheck and my own apartment made me feel like an official grownup, but it was still hard. I had to practice saying it. It felt awkward for about the first two years, I think. If I hadn’t been a determined feminist, I would have given up.

Because it felt so awkward. It didn’t feel like something nice girls say. To call myself a woman was to assert my adulthood, my identity, my expectation that I would be taken seriously. It meant owning my embodied, space-taking-up identity, and naming it. It was an assertion of power: not something that girls are socialized to do.

Learning to call myself white reminds me of that. Continue reading

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The Best Option for Intellectual Women

I was very intrigued to learn, some years ago, that during medieval times, the convent was almost certainly the best available option for women who were intellectually gifted or ambitious. Women in religious life were often educated beyond the ordinary education for women. Vowed religious women didn’t only pray; they studied, they wrote, they taught, they composed, and they led, all within a women’s sphere that was other than domestic. While their formal authority was limited to (and even within) that sphere, their informal authority and influence often reached wider, sometimes even into the highest reaches of church or civil government, as with Catherine of Siena’s interventions with the pope, and Teresa of Avila’s correspondence with King Philip II.

So when I read the Final Report on the Apostolic Visitation of Institutes of Women Religious in the United States of America, this sentence leapt out at me:

It is important to note, however, that the very large numbers of religious in the 1960s was a relatively short-term phenomenon that was not typical of the experience of religious life through most of the nation’s history. The steady growth in the number of women religious peaked dramatically from the late 1940s through the early 1960s…

Because you know what else was happening in the late 1940s through the early 1960s? First, women were getting fired from jobs across the board: for no reason other than that the war was over, and there were men who “needed” those jobs. Then, the romanticization of what we now think of as the 1950s ideal family, which turned out to be so alienating, isolating, and toxic for many women, as they discovered while sharing their feelings in the early 60s consciousness-raising groups.

So it makes me wonder: did American women enter religious life after WWII for the same reason that medieval women did? Catholic sisters in the US worked — they taught, they nursed, they ran hospitals and schools — and they were educated to do that work.

If you were a Catholic woman who wanted to do something with your life other than be a wife and mother — who felt that God had gifted you with talents that were best used beyond the domestic sphere, but the secular world had no respect for you — then why wouldn’t you choose the bounded-but-abundant opportunities of religious life?

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Remembering The Ones Who “Fit the Description”

The description wasn’t very specific: sex, race, age range. But the wealthy elite were sufficiently disturbed that they sent law enforcement out in force, with a tacit understanding that a blind eye would be turned towards any “overly aggressive tactics” that might be “necessary” to accomplish the mission.

So it happened that all the Jewish boys of approximately the right age — still too young to piss standing — were killed by Herod’s soldiers, to restore his sense of security and supremacy in the land.

When December 28th falls on a Sunday, as it does this year, the Feast of the Holy Innocents is trumped in the Catholic liturgical calendar by the Feast of the Holy Family. But given the rising tide of awareness of police brutality particularly against black men, women, and children, it seems particularly necessary to reflect on these boys who were killed simply because they “fit the description.”

Just as in the media, scripture tells us about the boys who were killed, but not about the women and girls. Christian artists through the ages have filled this in for us, though; reflecting on human nature, the desire of mothers to protect their children, and the brutality common among soldiers, there are paintings and icons that also show these mothers, women and girls, likewise being slaughtered as they try to protect their sons. It seems likely that some of the women would have been raped as well, as additional punishment for daring to fight back.

Surely these, too, were holy families.

Holy Innocents,
who were killed simply because you “fit the description”
who were killed to assuage the fears of the powerful,
intercede for all those black boys and girls, for all those black women and men, who have been killed for the same reason.
Pray for their grieving mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives, friends and kin, that they may be comforted.
Pray for those who killed them, for those who stood by and did nothing as they died, that they may be converted.
May your story deepen our desire for justice.
We ask this in the name
of the little Child who lived to lead us to a better way.

A voice was heard in Ramah,
sobbing and loud lamentation;
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she would not be consoled,
since they were no more.

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