The One Who Lifts Up the Lowly

 He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
Luke 1:52-53

April 4th will be the 46th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Earlier this year, I invoked his presence to explore how the values of partnership and nonviolence were important to find an experience of wholeness.  I spoke about the concept of the Beloved Community, a goal to which we might strive in the process of reconnecting to our fellow human beings.  I want to focus for the next several days on further reflections about his life and faith, and how our connections to each other are related to our experience of the Mystery at the heart of life, that some have called God.

Four years ago, I heard Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell speak at the MLK Breakfast in my city. She is a professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Princeton University, and also studying at Union Theological Seminary in New York. I was struck by her comments about the amazing faith experience of black people in America—how black people “came to believe in a loving, benevolent and just God when there was so little empirical evidence to support that world view.”

After being stripped of every vestige of human dignity, forced to abandon their languages and religions, and cut off from their families, they were compelled to adopt the religion of the slave-holders. And while the masters used the Bible to justify slavery, within the stories of Moses and the prophets black people began to find a message of hope and liberation. They were inspired and encouraged to believe in their own worth and dignity. She said,

It is humbling to remember that women and men who were born into slavery, and never expected anything but slavery for their children and grandchildren, nonetheless believed that they were equal human beings worthy of the love of a benevolent and intervening God. It is a different kind of knowing, one with at least as much power as reason and evidence.

220px-Runaway_slaveThey were inspired to rebel against the masters, to escape from their bondage, and seek a path to freedom. And really, what were the slave-holders thinking? The central story of the Jewish scriptures, and also adopted into the Christian bible, is the story of Moses leading the slaves out of bondage in Egypt, on a journey toward freedom and the promised land. If you take away that story, you don’t have a story. The God of Moses, the God of the Bible, was willing to intervene to help a suffering people find a new life.

Now, I want to interject a comment here, to say that there is no way to prove that this kind of God exists. How could anyone prove that God intervenes on the side of the poor and the outsider? We can’t. In fact, historians and scholars will argue that there is no historic evidence that the exodus of slaves from Egypt ever happened. We are moving outside of the realm of reason and evidence and into the realm of mythic truths. As Harris-Lacewell says, “It is a different kind of knowing.” But we do know that the slaves in America created their own kind of exodus. They found some kind of power in the stories that strengthened their hearts and lifted up their spirits and set them free.

Quotes from Harris-Lacewell are from “Progressive Bible Study,” and “Our Jeremiah.” 

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Broken Histories

Mab Segrest, in her book, Born to Belonging, examined the effect that the institution of slavery has had on the self-understanding of people in America, particularly the white people of her own family. She believes that a kind of spiritual anesthesia developed—a cutting off of compassion and connection—in order for a person to own slaves.

She ponders what it did to a man’s soul to sell his own children. Though it was not openly discussed, it was true that many of the children born into slavery had been fathered by the owner of the plantation. White people had to cut off their emotions, deny their relationships, and numb their spirits, to maintain this horrible institution for four centuries.

Segrest believes that the emphasis on individualism in America is an expression of our spiritual distress. We are all born into families, each with their own histories of disconnection or oppression that can cause a numbing of the soul. It feels less painful to imagine ourselves as separate, than to acknowledge the abusive and traumatic relationships that have closed our hearts. But when we close our hearts, we also lose our capacity for deep joy. We are not fully alive without each other.

Shortly after I first came to Maine, I visited Indian Island, home of the Penobscot Nation, in a trip sponsored by the Four Directions Development Corporation. During a beautiful traditional lunch that was prepared for us, we heard about some of the long history of brokenness between white people and indigenous people in Maine, as researched by Donna Loring, who at that time was the Penobscot representative in our State House of Representatives. Near the end she spoke of her belief that America needs to remember its roots. She wasn’t speaking of its ideals of freedom and democracy. Rather she meant that we cannot find the way to peace until we revisit our brokenness.

It is uncomfortable and painful to embrace our brokenness. But if we hope to find wholeness, we must be willing to hear the stories that we tried to forget. To return to wholeness is not to paint over the past with easy brush strokes, but to make awkward and painful attempts to cross over into the experience of the other. It takes a long time, and a lot of courage. In my experience, it is often easier to feel at one with nature than to feel at one with our fellow human beings. But I have also experienced, after the awkwardness, moments of grace and connection. Moments when we talk and share from our hearts, and feel a sense of wholeness restored.

Broken Rock DSC00135

Photo by Margy Dowzer