essay

Infinity

For a couple of weeks I've been trying to get the bat of my shoulder to comment about the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative being put up for a vote here in Denver. I haven't had the guts to swing, I guess because the terms of discourse are so narrow as to be utterly useless to anyone trying to make sense of the issue.

Together Denver, the campaign organization backed by real estate developers and the downtown business district, has framed the issue like this: they argue it's cruel to pass a law which allows people to live on the street but offers no way out of homelessness. In all of Together Denver's campaign literature, in their TV ads, in their mailers, in their online material, they claim to have the best interests of "the homeless" in mind. Vote no, they say, for the true moral stance is not to make it more comfortable to live on the streets. No, the true moral stance is to craft policy that helps people get off the street.

This false piety is so smart it makes me sick.

For someone who supports the Right to Survive, the reasoned response within this framing is to point out that making life on the streets more humane, on one hand, and offering resources that help people get off the streets, on the other, are not mutually exclusive.

But I'm tired of the reasonable response.

The unreasonable response is this: there are people living on the streets right now who will never get off the street. There are people living on the streets right now who will die on the street. There are people who are not yet living on the streets who will die on the street.

Here's the thing. Right now, there are people living on the streets for whom LIVING IN PUBLIC IS THE BEST POSSIBLE OPTION. It isn't the wrong option. It isn't a bad choice. It isn't a choice that shouldn't be possible. It's the best. possible. option. for the day-to-day survival and overall spiritual health of many individuals who live on the street.

Homelessness is such a fraught issue for our country because it is an axe that smashes the frozen sea covering so many of our cultural sins.

The fact of homelessness in our society implicates many things: it implicates our economy, our healthcare system, our ideas about what's possible in government, our education system, our understanding of public and private space, our churches and other religious bodies, and our existential wellbeing (or lack thereof).

That homelessness itself is so dangerous to the people caught up in it and that it is so controversial to those who view it from the outside reveals our lack of imagination about the way a human life ought to be lived.

We may be able to develop the capacity to really reckon with ourselves as a society. But not by voting 'no' on the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative.

A 'yes' vote on the initiative is a vote for possibility: the possibility that someone living on the street right now might live another day, the possibility that someone may feel encouraged to seek out resources available to her to get off the street, the possibility that as a society we might really see what it takes to survive on the street and to investigate why someone might need to make that choice in the first place.

But more than all that, a 'yes' vote on the Right to Survive Ballot Initiative is a choice for the possibility of surprise. A 'no' vote doubles down on the poverty of the unexamined present. If we only had the courage to look, we would find that the present is pregnant with future possibilities, but a 'no' vote forecloses on the possibility of the future available to us at every moment.

To vote 'yes' is to vote not only for the defeat of Together Denver. To vote 'yes' is to choose that there might be more choices available, not only to our homeless friends but to all of us, unfolding into infinity.

Martyreo Aletheia

November 25th was Christ the King Sunday on the church calendar, which is one of those funny irksome titles Jesus ends up with after he's dead and gone and back again. The people who put the Revised Common Lectionary together (Lectioneers) gave us John 18:33-37 for the week.

Roman Law

What we see in the passage is Pilate's interaction with Jesus. Just before we get there, though, we overhear Pilate outside his headquarters interacting with the Jewish authorities who have brought Jesus to be judged.

As a Prefect, Pilate had some limited judicial authority in Judea. Keep in mind, Rome would rather have their provinces govern themselves to a degree than to dictate everything that went on in a province. The whole colonial system works better if an illusion of self-governance is maintained. So as a good bureaucrat, Pilate asks, "What accusation do you bring against this man?" and, "Why not take Jesus yourselves and judge him by your own law."

But the authorities who apprehended Jesus maintain that they would have him judged by a different law, so Pilate has to go back into his headquarters to question Jesus.

Interesting to note that often the crucifixion of Jesus is seen as a miscarriage of justice. If Pilate had been braver or the Jewish authorities had been more faithful or if the crowd had seen that it was Barabas, not Jesus, who deserved death (if it had never been left up to the crowd at all...) then Jesus might have lived.

In fact, if the wheels of Roman justice and the Jewish authorities had been working more efficiently, Jesus would have been put to death much sooner. In this case the gears of human justice moved imperfectly and so Jesus lives longer than he would have.

Anyway, Pilate asks Jesus straight out: "Are you the king of the Jews?" And instead of answering, Jesus asks this funny question: "Where'd you hear that from?" Like, is that your idea or someone else's? Pilate is a little bemused. He says, "Look, you're a Jew, not me. Your people handed you over to me, so what did you do?"

Now Jesus seems to answer the first question. He speaks about his kingdom. Not a kingdom of this world but a kingdom from somewhere else. Maybe a kingdom that is coming or is only now entering the world. Jesus' kingdom is unexpected, it intrudes in this circle of reality and upsets it. And importantly, it doesn't function the way the powers of this circle of reality expect a kingdom to function.

Kingdom

So the question is, how do we expect a kingdom to function? How does a king or a queen actually behave? I bet when most of us think of kings and queens we think of the British Royal family. “Wasn’t Megan Markle’s wedding dress beautiful?” and “Isn’t Prince George cute in his little prince outfits??” So, basically we think of glorified celebrities that only go away when they die.

But when we think of a kingdom, we should really think of somewhere more like Saudi Arabia. Think of a person or a family who controls all the wealth of a nation just because they said it should be so. Think of a man who, if you cross him, will send 15 men to murder you, cut your body in to pieces, and dissolve you in acid. This is how kings rule: through force.

How then are we to think of Jesus as a king?

I’m not satisfied by the line of thinking that Jesus is the best possible king, a king who is a servant to his people, a king who rules with love, mercy, peace, and forgiveness. All of this is merely a reaction against the concept of kingdom we already know. As a reaction it will always be defined by the thing it's reacting against. If we understand Jesus to be a king on the world’s terms, but a really really good one, then he is by definition limited by those terms.

But Jesus says something different. To the question, “Are you a king?” he answers, “My kingdom isn’t limited to the terms of this world, people won’t fight and die over it, I won’t force it upon anyone.” Jesus never claims to be a king, and when he speaks of the kingdom, he suggests a reign of god unburdened by the baggage of the old ways of doing things.

Anyway, Pilate doesn't get it. He wants an answer that conforms to his understanding of the world, he wants to hear something that means something to him, that fits into his scheme for the way the world works. He says, "So are you a king or not?" Jesus answers in verse 37, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Our Lectioneers let the passage end there. But the passage actually ends with verse 38. Pilate responds to Jesus: "What is truth?" Jesus doesn't get a chance to answer, but we witness the Empire's answer soon.

Empire

The clearest definition of the truth of empire that I’ve read comes from a quote by Karl Rove (President George W. Bush's campaign manager and Republican political operative). When he was questioned by a NYT reporter about he nature of truth he said the following:

“America is an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors... and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do."

He means truth under empire is defined by empire. Empire is the ultimate subject of history and when the empire acts it creates new worlds, new truths, new realities. We can see, I think, that this is true. As I said before, even those who would fashion a different reality than empire still do so in reaction to empire, the ultimate truth maker.

"Martyreo Aletheia," Witness to Unconcealedness

We quickly turn from Pilate’s cynical question about the nature of truth to Chapter 19 where Pilate takes Jesus and has him flogged. Pilate activates the truth making machine of empire. The power of empire is now visited upon Jesus body. He is stripped. He is whipped. He is mocked. Thorns are forced upon his head. He carries the instrument of his death to the site of his execution and there he is murdered by the Roman state. Finally the wheel of justice turns freely as Jesus breathes his last breath.

Yet, in this death, Christians claim, Jesus has borne witness to all truth.

I'd like to suggest that this truth is, on one hand, an entirely new thing and, on the other, also the only thing—the only true thing, the radical truth at the root of existence. What is that truth?

Advent

I want to suggest our answer is in Advent.

Advent is a period of dark expectation. I don’t know about you but I feel an expectation for something new to come. I feel hope that I almost wish wasn’t there. As the days grow shorter and colder, I feel that they mirror the character of my own imagination for what’s possible.

Still, as this year ends, I look toward the four themes of Advent: hope, joy, peace, and love. And I look toward the generativity of the Spirit at work in the world, to the simple hope of a new baby and his mother’s love, to all the possibilities contained within the life of a single child.

Kings and Emperors seek to contain these generative forces. They work to cover difference, and to manage new possibilities so that they might achieve stability. Of course, stability often turns to stagnation, and Empire will always leave a few on the margins (the poor, the weak, the lame) as it pulls powers and resources to its center.

Between Jesus and empire there isn't some third synthesis that gives us a unified vision of both. There’s a shift not just in paradigms or cultural lenses but in circles of reality. I want to suggest that Christ is something new–the embodiment of an in-breaking reality: the embodiment of the end of one world and the beginning of another—another way of being, not stagnant, but open to the creative, loving existence of the presence of God.

If that’s all true, I don’t know exactly what to do. I had a friend once who told me if he believed in God nothing would stop him from running down the middle of the street completely naked. Maybe if I really believed all of this that’s what I’d do too…

But for the time being I look forward to quietly preparing myself, not for a glorious king, but for a poor baby and the love of his mother.

Discomfort and Enclosure

The Seattle Times recently ran an article about the kind of mundane racism that seems to be a matter of course for people of color in our country.

Air Force veteran Byron Ragland was doing his job as a court-appointed special advocate and visitation supervisor, sitting at a table at Menchie’s frozen yogurt shop supervising an outing between a mother and her 12-year-old son. As he was working, two police officers approached him, checked his ID and asked him to leave.

It turns out two employees at the store were uncomfortable with Ragland because he hadn't purchased anything. The employees complained to their boss—an Asian-American man—who called the police. Though Ragland explained he was working and accompanied the mother and son, the trio ended up leaving the store.

The Seattle Police department has since apologized to Ragland for asking him to leave.

A topic that goes unmentioned in the article is the ongoing enclosure of public spaces in this country. More and more, any indoor space has a required price of admission. Practically the only free, public, indoor space available is the library. Even outdoor spaces are increasingly enclosed, regulated, fenced, and patrolled. If you can't pay the fee or don't fit the profile of someone allowed to exist in public, you're asked to move along. People of color feel the effects of this enclosure more frequently than whites and with greater consequences.

It is also highly concerning that the employees either did not feel comfortable asking Ragland what was going on, in which case he could have explained his presence at the shop, or were not empowered to do so.

This story reveals an increasing breakdown in our ability to relate to each other on a basic level. If we cannot have a preliminary interpersonal encounter without involving the police, then frankly we don't have much of a society. If the way we relate to each other in this diminished society is primarily with fear, then I cannot see how we begin the work to rebuild it.

Going Back to 127

Sunday on our way to church my almost five-year-old daughter said to me, "Dad now that I'm in 123 I feel all broked up." I said, "What do you mean broken up, sweetie?" She replied, "I feel broken up and switched around. I feel switched." When I pressed her again she went into a longer explanation.

She moved into a new room recently and while a lot of her friends from her old room (127) also moved to new rooms, a few still remain. So she has a new room, a new teacher, and new kids to get to know. She admitted that sometimes when her class is outside she'll peek in the windows of her old class, even though they're not supposed to. She said she can see her friends in there, and she rattled off four or five names. As a dad this is a bit heartbreaking.

Because I'm an idiot, I asked her, "What do you think you need to feel wholeness?" I mean, I'm seriously an idiot. She loves me, though, and she's only 5 so she just asked, "What's wholeness?"

Good question.

As adults we know what it's like to feel broked up. Something is missing. Something feels uncomfortable. Something is incomplete. Or maybe we feel like something used to be there and now it's gone. It's not always so easy to put our finger on what the feeling is or where it comes from. Certainly the cause of this feeling isn't usually as obvious to us as moving into a new classroom.

We talked about the new friends Nora has in 123 and then I asked, "Don't you think if you went back to 127 you would miss the girls we just talked about?" Matter-a-factly she said, "No." Like, duh, dad. But I suspect she would, in fact, miss them and her new teacher and their activities.

Wholeness isn't available to us as a return. As much as we would like to be able to go home again, to be embraced as a child by mom, to return to old friends and familiar places, we know deeply that they can't embrace us as they once did. We also know that in our attempted return we will leave behind things that have become familiar, and that by returning we again leave behind a part of ourselves.

Wholeness—whatever we mean by wholeness—can only be found where we stand now. More than that, I feel wholeness is only ever something that visits us—we do not visit it nor attain it by an action of the will. We may cultivate an awareness of the presence of wholeness in our lives, interact with it, even develop an intimate relationship with wholeness as we do with a friend or a lover, so that wholeness becomes an integral part of who we are and how we act in the world.

But we cannot go back to 127.

When Someone is Covered in Shit

While sitting outside talking to Anne, I see Cindy look at me from across the porch and know she's going to come over and ask for something. Her floral dress hangs down to the ground with a brownish smear, a stain, and she quickly gathers the fabric forward to hide it.

"Do you have any extra pants?"

There are no extra pants but I tell her I'll go and look. I do this sometimes when I don't want the first thing I say to someone to be, "No."

"What size are you honey?" Anne interrupts.

Cindy tells Anne her size and Anne goes into her bag and pulls out rumpled pair of pants, saying, "These are too big for me." She also pulls out a t-shirt and hands it over to Cindy.

Cindy thanks Anne and shuffles toward the door. It's obvious she's also made a mess of the back of her dress and her shoes and her socks. Inside, the bathroom is blessedly in a rare unoccupied state.

By the time Cindy retrieves what she needs out of her pack, the bathroom is occupied again. Cindy looks through the little tub of donated hotel soaps and shampoos we set out for showers. One night someone walked in off the street, picked a thick bar of soap out of the tub and took a bite out of it like it was a cookie.

I can smell Cindy now. I ask Cindy if she's going to be able to clean herself up. I tell her she's number twelve on the shower list and we usually only get through ten showers on a shift. I don't stop to listen to her. The words are tumbling out of me.

I say, "I want you to be able to take a shower now. Is that okay with you?"

She says yes. I simultaneously feel like a Very Good Person and want to get her into the shower room and be finished with her.

She chokes a little and starts crying as I turn away. "I'm so embarrassed. I'm sorry to be a bother and make a mess. I'm so embarrassed."

I'm finally listening to her now. I see her, for the first time, as a child. I encounter her now as a person, not a problem.

Cindy emerges from the shower room after her allotted time and takes a seat at a table. The next person on the list calls me over and says, "Uh, can you guys clean that up?"

Poop is smeared on the floor, on the radiator, on the toilet.

As the mop bucket fills, Shani, a regular volunteer, pops her head in and asks if wiping up the mess with paper towels first might be best. That's what I was thinking too.

"Okay, hand me some gloves and I'll get started," she says.

The mop bucket is full now and Shani is crouched down wiping up poop and putting dirty paper towels in a bag. This is a radical act of love for Network, for Cindy, and ultimately for Christ, which Shani undertakes like it's nothing.

Our humanity lives closer to meekness than to strength. Vulnerability and mercy make us transparent to ourselves and present to our neighbor, while security and confidence conceal. We are children, all of us, reaching out and up, only asking to be embraced by love.