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Becoming Jeremiah

Jeremiah in his loincloth. (artist unknown)

The prophet in his loincloth. (artist unknown)

One of the pleasures of Lent this year for me is re-viewing the prophet Jeremiah (c. 627-c. 586 B.C.), whose big theme was the destruction of ancient Judah and the Babylonian captivity. He can see it coming, so he warns about it.

Now I don’t know if you have an image of Jeremiah in your mind, but if you do it’s probably like the old man above, with a sour attitude; a male Cassandra, doomed never to be believed until it’s too late. Modern prophets of doom – global warming, anyone? – are often said to issue “jeremiads.” But the prophet’s actual writings are richer than that; here’s a snippet appointed for tomorrow’s Morning Prayer.

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages;
who says, “I will build myself a spacious house
with large upper rooms,”
and who cuts out windows for it,
paneling it with cedar,
and painting it with vermilion.
Are you a king
because you compete in cedar?
Did not your father eat and drink
and do justice and righteousness?
Then it was well with him.
He judged the cause of the poor and needy;
then it was well.
Is not this to know me?
says the LORD.
But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

(Jer. 22:13-17, NRSV)

And I thought, “What a perfect description of slavery in the American South. I wonder how the slaveholders managed to ignore that?”

Woe to him who builds his house by unrighteousness,
and his upper rooms by injustice;
who makes his neighbors work for nothing,
and does not give them their wages…
But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

Of course, we know how slaveholders managed to ignore that; they fastened on St. Paul’s many times of telling slaves to mind their place – heedless that what Paul actually said was “We are all slaves of something; those who believe in Christ are the joyful slaves of God.”

Racists’ “fastening on St. Paul” is a lot like homophobes’ fastening on him for their proof-texts. As LGBTs we’re all too familiar with this. First they’ll hit us with Leviticus, and when that stops working, since it’s in the Old/Hebrew Testament, they’ll start quoting St. Paul.

I never bother with Bible-quote arguments against homosexuality anymore. They bore me and I’m just too old for them; same shit, different day.

Instead I focus on the prophets – not in their future-telling ability, which is really a minor part of what prophecy’s about, but in the nature of their complaints. What exactly set them off?

There are two answers really; unrighteousness, which is worshiping the wrong god (especially money); and injustice toward fellow human beings.

But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

Those four simple lines, which are over 2500 years old, are the perfect indictment for Dick Cheney, the war in Iraq, Wall Street bankers, the new Pope, income inequality, corporate greed, the Republican Party, the NRA, the National Organization for Marriage, the Tea Party, Anglican schism – and even my next-door neighbor, the one who still flies his flag at half-staff because Barack Obama got re-elected. Or so it seems to me.

I don’t have to watch MSNBC to know what to think about the news; all I have to do is read my Bible.

The prophets were always pissed about Israel’s treatment of the poor! It was also Christ’s constant theme.

Recently my friends at the Polish Episcopal Network posted an icon that summarizes in a single image the heart of the message of Christ.

(unknown)

Give drink to the thirsty, visit those in prison; provide the dignity of clothing to those who have nothing. (artist unknown)

This Polish Network, run by my friends Jarek and Lukasz, are trying to establish a progressive Christian alternative in that very Catholic country, where the national hero Lech Walesa recently denounced Gay people again. There are a couple of new Gay and Lesbian members of the Polish Parliament, and Walesa said they should be seated “behind a wall,” not with the other members. (In response they occupied the front benches instead.) As you can imagine, it’s rough going, but the progressive network has an elderly priest who celebrates mass for them, and the backing and guidance of the American bishop in Paris, Pierre Whalon. Jarek and Lukasz say there is a real desire among younger Poles for a church that is catholic but not Roman. It isn’t feasible to found a church yet – people are scattered all over the country – but they have founded their network. Who is behind this new evangelism? A couple of Gay guys whose very humanity Walesa tries to deny.

Now here’s some news: I am making plans for a pilgrimage in a few months to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota, where a priest-friend, Margaret Watson, runs an Episcopal mission of nine churches. The People are desperately poor, and yet their faith is so real you can touch it.

YouthWorks volunteers helped reopen St. Philip's Episcopal Church, Dupree, South Dakota, last summer.

YouthWorks volunteers helped reopen St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Dupree, South Dakota, last summer on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Because I am that rarest of Episcopalians, a commissioned Evangelist, Margaret and I are thinking I might be able to help a little with lay ministry training. One priest can’t possibly cover nine churches; the funerals alone keep her racing around, much less regular Sunday services. Fortunately the People have a tradition of mutual lay ministry, and the Bishop and diocese support them in that.

But I won’t be going as an outside expert. I am completely ignorant of their culture and their ways. I know only one thing about them, which is that my first great mentor in the faith, the Evangelist Ervin Faulkenberry, was totally in love with the Lakota Sioux. Every couple of years he used to travel to their big annual pow-wow, called the Niobrara Convocation, where Episcopalians from all the tribes in the state gather for a weeklong reunion.

The summer before I went to seminary at 22, he took the youth groups from Lafayette and Plainfield, Indiana to the Pine Ridge Reservation in the Badlands. They helped build a church there, but I didn’t get to go; I had to work and earn tuition money. Years later his daughter Pam sent me a photo of them from August 1973; her mother Emily is in the foreground, Ervin is in the center in the blue shirt, while the kids were working like dogs and sweating like pigs.

Faulkenberry.Mission_SD_1973

Yet I do know the People to some slight degree, through him, through Margaret and her blog, and a general knowledge of Native American history. The Pine Ridge Reservation is the home of Wounded Knee. Sitting Bull was killed there in 1890; Dennis Banks of the American Indian Movement led a siege there from February to May 1973. You can read about it here. Fortunately it was over by the time the Faulkenberrys got there.

Why, 40 years later, are the People still so poor? They really have almost nothing – except alcoholism, domestic violence and suicide, diabetes, heart disease and hunger. Meanwhile South Dakota has the lowest unemployment rate in the country thanks to a boom in shale oil and gas. The state government is swimming in so much cash they can’t get rid of it – but they won’t pave any roads on the reservations or build a decent hospital.

Maybe you noticed that two weeks ago, Congress finally got around to passing the Violence Against Women Act, after a year’s worth of Republican objections over two new provisions: it covers LGBT victims of domestic violence now, and for the first time it provides that White men who commit domestic violence on the reservation can face justice in tribal courts.

Oh, the Republicans howled. Protecting Lesbian and Gay victims means approving same-sex relationships! And White men can’t get justice in Indian courts, Indians don’t know anything about justice under law!

But your eyes and heart
are only on your dishonest gain,
for shedding innocent blood,
and for practicing oppression and violence.

The reservations exist because White men stole the Indians’ land. And nothing has changed since then. That’s why all the young people get drunk; they have no other life.

And yet they do; Margaret loves her ministry, and Ervin loved his. When I go this summer, it will be to retrace his steps, to learn a little about what the faithful remnant have to teach.

I’m scared, but I’m also looking forward to it.

Now this part is difficult for me; for reasons I don’t understand, I identify with Jeremiah and the prophets. In some very minor way I am like them. Jeremiah couldn’t help himself; God called, he answered and it was all downhill from there. He somehow had the balls to tell the people of Judah they were wrong.

They didn’t listen. For the most part we don’t either; climate change, anyone?

Rachel Jones wrote about prophets recently:

Their job isn’t to tell the future in stunning detail or stark relief. Their job is to tell us what they see, what they understand; it’s not to explain things. How few of them, sacred and secular, have really understood the profound underpinnings of what they’ve been charged to share? But even in the face of the naked acknowledgment that there is always a lack of total understanding, each prophet eventually succumbs to the compulsion to speak their piece, because they have to; even if it’s imperfect in practice, the true and right message transcends the messenger. And that makes them difficult people to know, much less to be; they are constantly being spoken through, without ever really speaking.  They are serious people, most of the time, even in moments of joy and refreshment.

Am I one of those prophets? Are my friends Leonardo and Grandmère Mimi? In a small way, yes. All of us “eventually succumb to the compulsion to speak our piece, because we have to.”

I am a disciple of Ervin Faulkenberry, who was a disciple of Martin Luther King Sr., the father of a genuine prophet.

More than that, LGBTs as a group, a community, are and have been prophets. The whole reason for saying and doing what we do is not to save ourselves, but to spare others if we can. It’s a tribe I’m proud to belong to.

But I also know this: no matter how much we draw connections between one oppressed group and another, no matter how much we can read tomorrow’s headlines in yesterday’s Bible, the in-our-lifetimes, in-this-decade success of the Gay civil rights movement has come about primarily because it’s White, male and middle-class. To really understand powerlessness and therefore overcome it, we have to go and learn from people who don’t have a thing but faith.

Liberation doesn’t trickle down, it bubbles up. Pray for me if you can, that I’ll learn something from my reservation pilgrimage. What I don’t know is a lot more than what I do.

If I can be faithful while having nothing like the Lakotas – if I can feed the hungry like they do, with two loaves and some fishes – if I can figure out how Margaret manages to serve nine churches in the middle of nowhere – then finally some wisdom may begin. I don’t have any today, but I do know where to go to find it.

When I ran photos Margaret took of the weekday lunch program at St. John’s, Eagle Butte, on my prayer site, the people scoffed, “Why’d he do that? This is just what we do.”

When they’re not finding White people dangerous, they often find us silly. And that’s the key somehow. They don’t want to go to Williston, where the oil and gas jobs are. They don’t want to join the rat race in any way. They want to stay where they are, among their own. Despite all their suffering, and it’s severe, they don’t want to suffer like we do.

Like a person who won’t touch a favorite food of yours, some people just don’t know what’s good, so there’s no helping them.

I’ll go to South Dakota as a pilgrim, and when I get back home I’ll either be better at being me, or much much worse. I’m looking forward to it.

And the conservatives I somehow attract to my prayer site, despite a steady stream of facts from the reality-based community? Let ‘em how at the moon, I don’t care.++

Tim_Egan

One Response

  1. Wish you the best on your journey to South Dakota — ought be a real eye opener, my favorite kind of growth experience…you’re right, it’s not just about them. I rejoice in your spirit of willingness. Best to you and Luke, Len
    .

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