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An Open Letter to Sen. Ted Cruz

Dear Senator:

As a Christian minister, I must say that I was very heartened to see a photograph of you published on the Huffington Post website a few days ago, kneeling in front of our nation’s capital, holding hands with others’ whose beliefs you share, and head bowed in prayer. It is heartening to see you take time from your busy schedule, rallying support to repeal a healthcare reform bill, and by doing that, deny access to healthcare for millions by keeping the cost of insurance premiums at their current unaffordable levels, to say a word of prayer. I say this even while mindful of the words of Christ, “When you pray, don’t be like the hypocrites. They love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners so that people will see them” (Matt. 6:5). But knowing that God is a loving and forgiving God, I’m sure you can get a pass on that one.

But I must admit to confusion as to which god you were praying to and what exactly you were praying for. Was it the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ, who taught us, “As you have done unto the least of these, so you have done unto me,” … who healed the lame, the sick, the blind, the demon possessed throughout the Four Gospels without excluding on the basis of ability to pay, pre-existing conditions, or adherence to a particular political or religious affiliation?

Or is it the god revealed in the writings of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy, I understand, you have studied and admire greatly? The god of Free Market Enterprise, who despises love and compassion as weakness? Who preaches the gospel of “Survival of the Richest?” Who urges us to commit the sin of Sodom – pride, excess of food and prosperous ease, but does not aid the poor and the needy (Ezekiel 16:49-50)?

As a nation, we have a choice to make – which God or god we will serve? I’m sorry to inform you, we can’t choose both – it must be one or the other. As Christ told us, “You cannot serve both God and mammon.” For my part, I have chosen the God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ; so I support the Affordable Care Act, food stamps, TANF, unemployment compensation, raising the minimum wage, and a whole host of things you are mostly likely against. I support these things not because I am a liberal, but because my faith informs my politics and not the other way around.  But since you apparently believe in the power of prayer (assuming the picture I saw of you was not some staged photo-op), I want you to know I’m praying for you – but, I’m probably not praying for the same kind of things you are. I’m praying that you and the rest of our elected leaders will put behind them their partisan bickering, pass a continuing resolution (better yet, a budget which is really what you should be working on!), and allow the ACA a chance to work. In short, I’m praying God will soften your heart.

Grace and peace,

Rev. Michael W. Woods

Hospital Chaplain

Columbus, OH

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Paula Deen, Chris Rock, and The “N-word”

Paula Deen, Chris Rock, and The “N-word”

Michael W. Woods
June 26, 2013

By now, much has been said and written about Paula Deen’s poor choice of vocabulary in discussing the thorny issue of race relations in the US. Most, if not everyone, have taken sides; either, in the words of one on-line friend, “joining in the pile-on,” or attempting to excuse what people of common decency would deem inexcusable. Well known pundits, such as Bill Maher, have joined in the fray declaring the “n-word” (which Deen admitted to having used in her workplace setting in the past) to be just another word and, by implication, something people shouldn’t get too out-of-sorts about. Another southern chef, Michael Twitty, who happens to be African-American, has also weighed in on her use of the n-word. While he did not excuse her use, he did comment that for him the word had lost any power it may have once had. He then went on in his essay to use the n-word himself, spelling it out clearly and plainly, supposedly so that we, his readers, could see that it had no effect on him.

Has it? Are we now in an era where a hurtful racial epithet of the past no longer – or at least, should no longer – have any power to intimidate, humiliate, and oppress an entire race of people?

It seems to me this is the real public conversation taking place in the wake of Deen’s admission – not whether Deen or her supporters are racists. Of course they are – we all harbor prejudices and there is a little bit of racism in all of us, as Twitty himself observed. But even religious leaders are in disagreement over the question of the n-word’s current efficacy in our post-modern, multi-cultural society.

For the last couple of years, I have worked as a hospital chaplain in Atlanta, GA, and now currently in Columbus, OH. Prior to that I worked a few years as a solo pastor of a small rural congregation in Northeast Georgia. I recall a conversation between two of my chaplain colleagues about an incident that occurred at one of the many seminaries in and around the Atlanta area. A white minister addressed a gathering of students and faculty at the seminary. The make-up of the audience was racially mixed, with African-Americans comprising a significant percentage of those attending. During his address, the minister used the n-word causally several times. Many in the audience were shocked and offended, but the preacher continued on, claiming (as Maher and Twitty recently have) it’s just a word! My colleagues, both of whom are white and one whom was present in the audience, could not believe anyone in this day and age would be offended. After all, they reasoned, don’t Black entertainers like Chris Rock and Jay-Z use the n-word profusely?

First of all, it struck me as completely inappropriate for two white males to be deciding on their own what should and shouldn’t be acceptable or offensive for the Black community. That is obviously something the Black community should decide on their own – we whites don’t have a say in it, nor should we. And whatever African-Americans decide, we whites should respect that decision. The n-word no longer belongs to us – i.e., to the white community. In the past, we crafted the word, borrowing it from Portuguese and Spanish, and utilized it to impose intimidation, humiliation, and oppression on a race of people. But we lost any ownership and right to use we may have had over the word when Martin Luther King, Jr. and others in the Civil Rights Movement raised the conscience of the church, marched on Washington, and brought an end to legalized segregation. We lost those things, and rightfully so, because our legal right to intimidate and subjugate people based on race came to an end. For whites to re-assert any right to use of the n-word is to reassert the basis of our previous ownership of it – the right to oppress. That’s why it was wrong for Paula Deen to use the word so casually in her business, and why she needs to apologize for having used it. It’s also why Bill Maher has no authority to decide whether or not the word should remain hurtful to African-Americans.

Furthermore, it’s also why – even should the African-American community ultimately decide to reclaim the word in the same way that the LGBT community has reclaimed the “q-word” or women are currently reclaiming the “b-word,” as Twitty suggests – the n-word will never, ever belong again to the white race and we will never again have the right to its use without subjecting ourselves to charges of racism. Many (mostly whites) will proclaim this is not fair, but we have only ourselves to blame. This is the bed we made with the institutions of slavery and Jim Crow.

PS: Michael Twitty’s open letter to Paula Deen, which I referenced several times in this essay can be found at http://afroculinaria.com/2013/06/25/an-open-letter-to-paula-deen/

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A theological reflection on Les Miserable

There are two competing theologies struggling against each other in the musical Les Miserables represented by two characters who serve as perfect foils for one another. Inspector Javert believes in an orderly universe, where the good are rewarded and the evil are punished. His system of belief is expressed in the aria “Stars” where he reflects on his hope for capturing the escaped fugitive, Jean Valjean.

There, out in the darkness
A fugitive running
Fallen from god
Fallen from grace
God be my witness
I never shall yield
Till we come face to face
Till we come face to face

He knows his way in the dark
Mine is the way of the Lord
And those who follow the path of the righteous
Shall have their reward
And if they fall
As Lucifer fell
The flame
The sword!

Stars
In your multitudes
Scarce to be counted
Filling the darkness
With order and light
You are the sentinels
Silent and sure
Keeping watch in the night
Keeping watch in the night

You know your place in the sky
You hold your course and your aim
And each in your season
Returns and returns
And is always the same
And if you fall as Lucifer fell
You fall in flame!

And so it has been and so it is written
On the doorway to paradise
That those who falter and those who fall
Must pay the price!

Lord let me find him
That I may see him
Safe behind bars
I will never rest
Till then
This I swear
This I swear by the stars!

There is no room or hope for forgiveness in Javert’s philosophy. Forgiveness is a sign of weakness to him. But as soon as Javert exits the stage, the street urchin, Gavroche, runs onto the stage and in a comical aside sings,

That inspector thinks he’s something
But it’s me who runs this town!
And my theater never closes
And the curtain’s never down
Trust Gavroche, have no fear
Don’t you worry, auntie dear,
You can always find me here!

There are other forces at work in the universe, besides law and order, and that are far greater. More importantly, there is another theology at work counterpoised to Javert’s: a theology of grace. After being paroled from prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s children, Jean Valjean finds himself a marked man and an outcast in society. A local bishop takes pity on him, taking Valjean in for the night. But Valjean steals the bishop’s silverware and sneaks away, only to be captured by the police who do not believe Valjean’s story that the bishop gave the silverware to him as a gift. Yet when the police bring Valjean back to the bishop’s house, the bishop confirms Valjean’s story adding that the former prisoner left in such a hurry that he forgot the silver candlesticks, which the bishop had also intended as a gift. The bishop then presents the candlesticks to Valjean urging to use this newfound wealth “to become an honest man.”

All his life, Valjean has known only hardship: an “eye for an eye/turn your heart into stone.” But this experience of grace has profoundly changed his life and he cannot go back to the life he knew before. As the recipient of grace he can only respond in kind. He intercedes on the behalf of Fantine when she is left destitute, and when she dies, he takes her daughter, Cosette, into his home, raising her as his own daughter. And when Cosette falls in love with the revolutionary Marius, Valjean takes part in the uprising in order to rescue the young student. Valjean even extends this grace when he personally has much to lose by doing so. When an innocent man is mistaken for him, Valjean turns himself in to the French court so that the man would not have to take his place in prison. And after the revolutionaries capture Javert, Valjean convinces them to put the inspector in his care. But rather than execute his nemesis, which is what the revolutionaries anticipate, Valjean releases him to go free.

However, Javert’s reaction to being the recipient of grace is very different from Valjean’s. He sees the tables as having been turned. Valjean now has dominion over him and, rather than being free, the  inspector is indebted to a man who, in turn because of his crimes, is indebted to society. The inspector has been taken from the safe, secure world of law and order and placed in a world of grace – a world in which he has no idea how to live. In his final soliloquy, Javert sings:

And must I now begin to doubt

Who never doubted all these years?

My heart is stone and still it trembles

The world I have known is lost in shadow.

Is he from heaven or from hell?

And does he know

That granting me my life today

This man has killed me even so?

Unable to face this new world, Javert takes his own life.

But the musical promises a different end for those who live by grace. At the end, after Valjean has died and his spirit has been taken to heaven by the ghosts of Fantine and Eponine, the entire cast gathers onstage and sing the Finale:

Do you hear the people sing
Lost in the valley of the night?
It is the music of a people
Who are climbing to the light.

For the wretched of the earth
There is a flame that never dies.
Even the darkest night will end
And the sun will rise.

They will live again in freedom
In the garden of the Lord.
They will walk behind the plough-share,
They will put away the sword.
The chain will be broken
And all men will have their reward.

Will you join in our crusade?
Who will be strong and stand with me?
Somewhere beyond the barricade
Is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Say, do you hear the distant drums?
It is the future that they bring
When tomorrow comes!

 

            The future that awaits is not a fantasy of some blissful life in a heavenly realm somewhere far removed from the cares and worries of this world. If that is the only hope that the gospel promises us, then Karl Marx is right and religion is nothing more than the opiate of the masses. The gspel promise is of a better future for this world. But that future will not be brought by revolution – Marius’ friends die on the barricades and their dreams die with them – and Javert’s theology of law and order is bereft of justice. The only theology left standing at the end of the day is the one of grace.

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