Tireless Exertions

A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. Eccl 1:4 RSV

Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.  Martin Luther King, Jr.


I was born in February of 1957, when the union still had only forty-eight states, three years after the US Supreme Court handed down the historic Brown v. Board of Education (347 U.S. 483), and just a few months before the first nine black students enrolled in Little Rock Arkansas schools implementing the ruling.  Local sit-in campaigns began at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, NC in February 1960 and spread throughout the South.  The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and other groups organized interracial “Freedom Rides” from Washington, DC to southern cities protesting segregation in public transportation in May 1961.  In 1963, the world witnessed the violent treatment suffered by protestors at the hands of Birmingham, Alabama’s police led by chief Eugene “Bull” O’Connor, the showdown between Alabama governor George Wallace and Attorney General Robert Kennedy over desegrating the University of Alabama, the murder of activist Medgar Evers in Mississippi, and the assassination of President Kennedy.  President Lyndon Johnson shepherded the Civil Rights of 1964 through Congress and signed it into law in June of that year.  The next year brought brutality against marchers at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, which included the beating of John Lewis, now a member of Congress representing Georgia’s 5th House district, who suffered a fractured skull in the incident.  It also brought passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  By 1968, I was old enough to have begun to think about events transpiring in the South, mostly, it seemed to me, in my native Alabama.  Despite legislative successes, events that year had reached a nadir: two assassinations (MLK and RFK), the so-called “Holy Week Uprising” in the aftermath of the King assassination, the anarchy of the Democratic National Convention held in Chicago, the Tet offensive (in addition to the struggles over civil rights, of course, the Vietnam War captivated the country’s attention throughout much of this period).

By the time I was in high school, I had quietly and privately adopted progressive positions on civil rights, the Vietnam War, environmental justice, gender equality, and a host of other issues. I was eager to shift to activism when I got to college in 1975.  I remember sitting in a humanities class my freshmen year when I came to the realization that the US had withdrawn from Vietnam, the protest phase of the Civil Rights Movement had essentially wound down, feminism was making gains, and the nation had even begun to lose confidence in all things nuclear.  No noble struggle remained for me, it seemed.

Forty-two years later, I remember that moment as an example of youthful innocence.  I believed in progress and had not learned the simple lesson that every generation must confront for itself the fundamental questions of justice and stewardship. A child of the aerospace and computer era, I identified technological advances with social progress not realizing that amoral tools can be instruments of evil as well as good. In the intervening years, I have learned that changing laws does not change hearts.

For a few weeks eight years ago, I relived my youthful innocence, thinking that the election of President Obama, regardless of how one viewed his policy positions, signaled that the US was ready truly to enter a post-racial period.  Instead, of course, Obama’s presidency very soon became a barometer of race relations.  Phenomena ranging from the ‘birther’ and ‘he’s a secret Muslim’ conspiracies to the ‘take our country back’ (from whom?) movement have only been code for “we don’t want a black president.”  Social media, which emboldens people to say what they think, have propagated volumes of blatantly racist comments about the President, his wife, and even his children.

No, the task is incomplete and always will be.  The irony must not escape any of us that, on this Martin Luther King Day, we are reading and hearing about the Twitter war President-elect Trump is waging against Rep. John Lewis, the John Lewis from the Selma bridge, the John Lewis whose favorite topics are the power of love and forgiveness.  The two men model the choice every individual must make:  selfish greed or selfless service; grudges or giving.

Several years ago, ABC News aired a segment that records the reunion in 2013 of Lewis and Elwin Wilson.  Wilson had been among the angry, violent crowd that greeted a busload of “Freedom Writers,” including Lewis, when it arrived at the Rock Hill, South Carolina bus depot on May 9, 1961.  Because it demonstrates that things can change, I recommend it for viewing this MLK Day instead of following a certain Twitter feed.

Lewis-Wilson reunion

What the world needs now is hesed, sweet hesed…

Matt 5:44-47

I “love” chocolate and I “love” my wife.  Clearly, the word “love” is almost too multivalent to be useful sometimes.

Two days ago, my phone rang at just after 5pm.  It was my youngest son.  He began, “Dad, I’m OK, but….”  My heart sank to my stomach, my pulse quickened, my mind simultaneously imagined possibilities and braced to hear the actual.  He had been rear-ended by a tractor-trailer truck at highway speed on the interstate; his car had rolled and come to a stop, upside-down, against the railing. It was totaled; he was remarkably unscathed (wear your seatbelt!).

I drove immediately to pick him up and bring him home (rather than to his apartment – I wanted to be sure that he was alright).  Over the next couple of days, I offered advice as he navigated the world of insurance claims (although, for a first-timer in that realm, he did quite well on his own), helped him rent a car so that he could go back to work, and helped him do all the things that needed to be done.

When I dropped him at the rental agency late yesterday, he thanked me profusely.  My unfiltered response was ambiguous.  I was grateful that he had not taken my help for granted, but I was also amused.  As I said to him, “Son, I am your father.”

The whole episode has brought scores of earlier episodes to my mind involving all four of my children. The most insistent of those memories takes me back to the early morning years ago when I was driving my wife to the hospital to give birth to my first-born. For weeks, I had been awakened in the night by variants of a dream in which I beheld my newborn for the first time to look into a daughter’s face that fused features of my brother and my brother-in-law.  In the dream, she was beyond ugly.  Driving to the hospital that morning, an extraordinary feeling-recognition-decision overwhelmed.  I realized that the child about to be born had done nothing to elicit my love, and that despite my hopes, my fears that it might not be “lovely” could well be realized, and that, nonetheless, I would, for my lifetime, love this child. I would love it (he turned out to be a boy) when it disappointed me just as much as when it made me proud.  In fact, I realized, nothing could keep me from loving this child that I had not even met yet.  In that moment, I realized that “love” may not even be the right word for what I felt (and still feel). I had made a profound determination that I would be for this child no matter what transpired. Parents will understand.

The Hebrew language of the Old Testament has a word that comes closer to naming this “feeling,” which is really more decision and action than emotion – hesed (חסד). It is the unmotivated, unearned determination to act to the benefit of another. It expects nothing in return.  It is constant, unwavering, irrevocable.  It cannot be translated with a single English word, or even with a short phrase.  I agree with my Hebrew students that, in class, we will not even try to translate it.

The book of Ruth narrates the meaning of hesed.  Ruth demonstrates it for Naomi when she refuses to allow Noami to return to Israel alone. Ruth does not owe this to Naomi as a family duty because, with the deaths of all the men in the family, Ruth no longer has any family connection with Naomi, as Naomi (1:10-13) and Boaz (2:10) recognize.  Although Ruth’s future would have been much brighter at home in Moab, she would not abandon Naomi.  She said,

Do not ask me to abandon you or to stop following you, for where you go, I will go; where you live, I will live; your people will be my people; your God will be my God; where you die, I will die and be buried… (1:16-17 my translation)

The apparently wealthy landowner Boaz showed both women hesed when he took unusual steps to protect Ruth as she gleaned in his fields and to provide for both women.  He owed them no more than he owed any of the other poor people gleaning in his field; they were in no position to repay; his actions were not rooted in emotion, but in his ability to help.  To complete the triangle of hesed, Naomi demonstrated it toward Ruth when she devised the (risky and risqué) plan to challenge Boaz’ to extend his hesed further by marrying Ruth, thereby redeeming the family property and restoring both women to family relationships with a male relative.  Boaz accepted the challenge, although another actually had the responsibility and although it would diminish Boaz’ estate.  Famously, the outcome was the birth of the grandfather of King David.

The Greek New Testament obscures in one level of translation what Jesus must have actually said in Aramaic/Hebrew.  It seems likely that the authors of the New Testament chose to translate hesed with forms of the previously uncommon Greek root agap- (αγάπ-) “self-sacrificial love.”  Thus, it is highly probable that Jesus used hesed in his statement concerning love in the Sermon on the Mount.  In it, as Jesus often did, he elevated hesed to a requirement of citizenship in the Kingdom of God and he extended its scope to include, not just our children, or needy fellow-Christians, but to our enemies. Jesus calls upon us to be for people we find objectionable, people who hate us, people who would do us harm.

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.  For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? (Matt 5:44-47 RSV)

Hesed/agape is not an abstract attitude of benevolence.  To say that one loves one’s enemies in Jesus’ sense is not to say simply that one wishes them well.  This love requires determination, difficult action, and consistency.

Thirty years have passed and recent events have reminded me of the power of the decision to be for someone.  By the way, the oldest looks more like me every day that passes.  That is his nightmare.

Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

The concept of “Christian values” is playing a prominent role in the public arena today, but my Facebook® feed lately suggests very little agreement among those who call themselves Christian concerning the identification of these values or the definition of them individually. No one should wonder that people outside the church view it with suspicion Continue reading Hermeneutics, Consistency, and “Christian Values”

Two more

Ellen’s introduction:

“On the 11th day of Christmas, I channeled my inner Grinch. 🙂 Continue reading Two more

Catching up

I was very busy yesterday and did not make good on my promise to catch up on Ellen’s musical offerings, so there will be two today. Continue reading Catching up

Two Today

Ellen started this project a couple of days before I was able to figure out the technology.  I will post two selections today and tomorrow so that I can catch up by Christmas day (and the bloopers she mentions, which I dread to see and hear). Continue reading Two Today

Six of Twelve – “Hallelujah”

Ellen again:

“On the sixth day of Christmas, I’m singing one of my faves! Continue reading Six of Twelve – “Hallelujah”

Villancico Cinco

As Ellen explains:

“On the fifth day of Christmas, I sang a thing with my dad…   Continue reading Villancico Cinco

The Series Continues with “Angels We Have Heard on High”

As Ellen explains:

“On the fourth day of Christmas, my family sang to theee… Continue reading The Series Continues with “Angels We Have Heard on High”

The Third

In Ellen’s words:

“On the third day of Christmas, my family sang to theeeee….

The Cherry Tree Carol! Featuring none other than my mom on guitar. This one is not to be missed.  BEAUTIFUL!!” Continue reading The Third