July 7, 2019 – Dr T Richard Snyder

Again?

T. Richard Snyder, PhD

July 7, 2019

This morning I want to talk with you about the word “again.” It is one of the most overused and misunderstood words today.  And so I have put a question mark after it.  Again?  

There are several ways to think about the  word. “again.”

It’s an important word because it can point to new possibilities, new beginnings, second chances.  As someone deeply involved in Restorative Justice, I want to claim that word “again” once again.  It’s like the lyrics of the old song, “I’ll never say never again, again, cause here I am in love in again.”  I’m reminded of the person whose spouse had died after a fifty year marriage.  In grief, the words inscribed on the tombstone were, “the light of my life has gone out.” After a few years, however, a new relationship blossomed, so the inscription was added, “but I have struck another match.”    Sometimes “again” can be about a new beginning.
 

It’s also a dangerous word because it has become the foundation for many empty promises and false hopes.  We are promised that America will be great again and millions get in line with no understanding of what that “again” might mean and with no clarity about the future that is to come. Many of my born-again friends refer to Jesus’ admonition to Nicodemus that he must be born “again.”, if we want to go to heaven.  With that admonition, we ae promised something but with no understanding of what that word really means and no clarity about the promise of eternal glory. Yet we are bombarded with promises of “again.”

Let me set this in the starkest contrast. The word “again” can be either nostalgic or transgressive. 

For some, the word “again” is nostalgic: longing for a time of paradise lost: a mythic time when all was harmony and concord with others and with nature. Camelot, the Garden of Eden before the Fall, Shangri-La.  While there is no historical record of such a time, the existence of these stories does reveal a universal longing deep in the human soul. But we must tread cautiously on the notion of a virtuous golden age that stands in stark contrast to the present. There never was such a time.  This is what the Tea Party wishes to do, what the fundamentalist religionists wish to do, what those in danger of losing their privilege and power wish to do—namely to go back to the way things were, or at least as they were imagined to be. “Make America Great Again” conveniently assumes a past that wasn’t marred by racism, male dominance, injustice, imperialism and violence.

But for others, the word “again” has a transgressive meaning.  It is a word of resistance.  Langston Hughes, the famous black poet and writer penned these words in his poem, “Let America be America Again.”

Let America be America again.

Let it be the dream it used to be.

Let it be the pioneer on the plain

Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me) 

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—

Let it be that great strong land of love

Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme

That any man be crushed by one above

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty

Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,

But opportunity is real, and life is free,

Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me.

Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)….

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,

The rape and rot of graft and stealth, and lies,

We, the people, must redeem

The land, the mines, the plants, rivers.

The mountains and the endless plain—

All, all the stretch of these great green states—

And make America again.

It is not an overstatement to say that the way forward demands a radical transformation; a transformation of our imagination, our consciousness, our reasoning, our behavior, and our social structures. Anything less will fall short. We may be tempted  to fix or modify the violence of the past  by returning to the old days, but doing so will not address the heart of our problem. So where do we turn? We need a new imagination, a total re-orientation. 

We can’t go home again, as Thomas Hardy famously wrote,  because home never had the complexity, the racial/ethnic mix or the reality of a global world that we now have. We need to distinguish between nostalgia for an illusory past and hope for a new world.

Many Christians interpret the words of Jesus to Nicodemus that he must be born again, as essential for salvation. A closer look at that challenge reveals a better translation and an even deeper requirement.  Not, you must be born again but, you must be born from above. You must be captured by a transcendence that goes far beyond mere longing for a lost morality and culture. Nicodemus’ response was limited to a return to the past—-to ask how he could enter a second time into the womb. But to be born from above is the promise of something totally new, a transcendence of the past rather than simply a recovery and repetition of what was. What many of the “born-again” preachers are calling for is a return to a time when marriage was only between one man and one woman, abortion was illegal, the bible was read in the schools, and the church was the center of life. 

Whose “again” are we looking to recover?  Is it a time  before the #MeToo Movement when rape isn’t considered such a bad thing when it is committed by a “nice” boy who is an Eagle Scout and from a good home.  Is it a time when the United States reigned supreme in the world and could insert its will upon other nation’s without regard—when we could overturn the democratic election of Arbenz in Guatemala, fund the Contras to stop the Sandinista revolution and support a military coup that removed Salvador Allende. Is it a time when we were waging a just war against the totally evil Nazi’s but closed our borders to hundreds of thousands of Jews desperately seeking to flee the killings of the Holocaust?   Is it a time before women’s suffrage when only men’s voices and votes counted, when it was only men who were created equal?  Is it a time when the monuments of secessionist heroes and the flying of the confederate flag in the name of state’s rights sought to disguise their role as symbols of slavery and overt racism?

Whose “again” are we looking to recover?

And while legislative changes sometimes achieve desirable results, often those changes merely mask an underlying reality that does not change. The ending of slavery, for example, did not eliminate the racist treatment of people of color. There have been legislative changes along the road, as the racism of slavery was replaced “again”—this time with Jim Crow, and the racism of Jim Crow has been replaced “again” –this time by the war on drugs and the resultant mass incarceration and criminalizing of blacks.  No matter what we call it, racism, is rampant. Again.

While the Civil Rights Act led to some improvement for blacks, it didn’t fundamentally change the beliefs, attitudes, and values of many whites. Similarly, the Voting Rights Act has been circumvented by gerrymandering (that the Supreme Court recently voted to allow), identity requirements, and shortening registration and voting periods.  Once again, millions of blacks are disenfranchised. And the Equal Rights Amendment, that still has not been ratified by enough states to make it part of the Constitution, once again has not ended the mistreatment of women. Allowing a few women to rise to the top of the corporate ladder does not change the underlying sexism of a male dominated culture as we have witnessed with the steadily increasing accounts of sexual abuse by men, and lower pay for women for comparable work. Native Americans have witnessed scores of legislative actions to correct their mistreatment, but they remain marginalized on reservations and largely impoverished. No matter what is legislated, Native Americans again and again are oppressed. And while legislation has created more educational programs for prisoners and proven to reduce recidivism, it does little to change our society’s perception of prisoners as undesirable men and women who must be kept away from us “good” people. Again.

New technologies are often praised as the way to a genuinely new future but too often fall short of the promise. This is especially evident in the development of our military technology. Drones have been developed with the promise of surgical strike capacity, thereby minimizing or even eliminating civilian deaths. But again “collateral damage” of civilians continues and the advent of drones doesn’t change our view of the enemy as evil and deserving of death. What we have created is a technologically advanced form of warfare. The technology may have changed, but wars and a war mentality continue, Again. 

But there is also a transgressive memory—one that points to an entirely new future—a new America. We Christians are a people of memory: of  hymns sung since childhood, of creeds and prayers recited weekly.  In fact, some of those memories are burned into us so deeply that almost nothing can dispel them.  I vividly recall the experience with my father who was in a rehabilitation center after having suffered a severe stroke that soon led to his death.  His communication had been reduced to unintelligible sounds. He could not speak. One Sunday we wheeled him to the chapel service.  To my utter amazement, when the pastor led the people in the Lord’s prayer, my father joined in, word for word.  He never uttered a word after that.  Somehow, the memory of that prayer ran deeper than even the effects of the stroke.

There is no substitute for memory.  But one of the truths that I have discovered is that it is possible to remember much and understand little.  It is possible to remember the words of scripture and prayers but not experience their power.  It is possible to know the history of the church by heart but to miss the heart of its history.  It is time to claim a liberating memory.  A memory that transcends the limits of the past and points to a new possibility. 

I think that is the way it was for the people of Israel during the time of Isaiah’s words that we read today.  The people were captives in Babylon.  They had been forced into exile. The good life was over.  Life was a hazy shadow of their former glory.  The excitement was gone and rather than living in anticipation they were despondent.  And their memory wasn’t helping them. They were nostalgic memories of a lost past.  They were ephemeral memories. Those memories were not the way ahead.  The reality of their exile dominated their thoughts and remembering the past had no power.  Their memories were as empty and as meaningless as their rituals.  Another prophet, Amos had chastised the people for the emptiness of their rituals, claiming Yahweh despised their festivals and took no delight in their solemn offerings.  They were unacceptable to Yahweh because they were empty of the power of justice.  Now Isaiah says something similar about their memories. 

He tells them—do not remember not the former things or consider the things of old.  Stop living in the past.  Your history is not going to help you.  I suspect that history had become their horizon.  Perhaps they had become so comfortable with the litany of the past that they were unable to see the new things that were brewing in their midst.  Perhaps they had become like old friends or married couples who spend their time reminiscing and never allow for new developments in their relationship.   Sometimes memory can become a tranquilizer.  Apparently, for the exiles, memory had become a substitute for the experience of the living spirit. 

This is the situation of many of our churches and our nation today.  Our memories have locked us into a past that is a dead-end. We are living with a myopic memory. To us, the words of Isaiah are timely.  Do not remember the former things or consider the things of old.  I am about to do a new thing:  now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.”

It’s time to cultivate new memories–memories that are transgressive, that point to radically new possibilities. It is time for us to focus on perceiving the new that is emergent.        

Watch for the new.  Move beyond your memories.  It’s strange how sometimes even a good thing can become a problem.  Just as too much comfort may make us complacent, too much memory may lull us into an assurance that all we will be well when the old days return. 

For modern folks like us, memory is even more problematic than it was for the captives in Babylon, because we have idealized history.  We have turned biblical history into a spiritualized story devoid of the material content that makes history.  We have tended to think of the powerfully transforming events of biblical history such as exodus and return from exile as coming down magically from heaven.  For the prophet, that was unthinkable.  History always involved actors, human agency–Pharaoh and Moses, Joshua and the Canaanites, Gideon and his three hundred, Deborah and Jael.  All of those dramatic changes involved politics, social structures, and economics.  Nothing magical there—rather the stuff of everyday life.

We must move beyond a memory that is merely nostalgic–that fills us with feelings of contentment, of warmth. The problem with nostalgia is that it tends to make history over into what feels good to us—it is like comfort food for the mind and soul.  A few years back Carole and I returned to Brazil where I had lived for a time in the 60’s.  For years I had experienced strong nostalgia for the music, the beaches and the beauty of Rio de Janeiro.  I was filled with what the Brazilians call saudades—longings of nostalgia.  Unfortunately, when we returned, all had changed, including me–and the reality was shattering.  Nostalgia doesn’t prepare us for a new day. It merely seeks to repeat the old.  Perhaps Israel was caught up in nostalgia. 

And we must not languish in memories that are merely interesting stories, without the power to move us to action.  Memory can be benign.  There is a form of memory that doesn’t harm or heal, it’s just an story. Interesting, but without power–a memory that ruffles no feathers, disturbs no order—it simply recounts what everyone already knows or could know.  Perhaps for the Israelites history had become a source of comfort that required neither expectation nor action. 

Whatever Israel’s problem was with memory, Isaiah tells them to let go of their memories. What is called for now, he says, is not memory but perception.  The task now is to perceive the new that is already in process. The prophet exhorts them to perceive the unexpected new thing that God is doing in their midst.  It was their dream to be set free.  But they certainly didn’t see this coming because they were locked into their history and unable to perceive what was already stirring. 

If we listen to the challenge of Isaiah, it is time to stop living in a safe past and to take the risk of faith—to struggle to perceive what is already breaking forth.  Make no mistake, the dramatic nature of a truly new life and world involves risk, it involves upset, it involves cost. The future will not drop from heaven simply because we want something better, simply because we pray for it.  It will involve digging into a marginalized past, careful analysis, strategic thinking and planning, judicious deployment of resources, sacrifices, perseverance, and a willingness to consider the unimaginable. It will involve different allies, not the ones who brought us this mess. The future will not be easy or perfect. 

We are offered a different kind of memory—a transgressive memory that comes from the margins rather than the center, that comes from the silenced rather than from those whose voice has dominated, that come from the least of these rather than from those in power. Only that memory can cause us to perceive a truly new future.

In the words of Langston Hughes, “Let us make America Again.”

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