The Ministry of the Tragic | May 15, 2022 by Rev. Dr. Dorsey Blake
It is for us to see the Kingdom of God as always coming, always pressing in on the present, always big with possibility, and always inviting immediate action.
- Walter Rauschenbusch
Once the world was perfect, and we were happy in that world. Then we took it for granted. Discontent began a small rumble in the earthly mind. Then Doubt pushed through with its spiked head. And once Doubt ruptured the web, All manner of demon thoughts Jumped through— We destroyed the world we had been given For inspiration, for life— Each stone of jealousy, each stone Of fear, greed, envy, and hatred, put out the light. No one was without a stone in his or her hand. There we were, Right back where we had started. We were bumping into each other In the dark. And now we had no place to live, since we didn’t know How to live with each other. Then one of the stumbling ones took pity on another And shared a blanket. A spark of kindness made a light. The light made an opening in the darkness. Everyone worked together to make a ladder. A Wind Clan person climbed out first into the next world, And then the other clans, the children of those clans, their children, And their children, all the way through time— To now, into this morning light to you.
- Joy Harjo
This poem by Joy Harjo, our nation’s first Native American Poet Laureate, speaks profoundly to my current outlook and hope. I grieve with her that the perfection that was ours at birth has been severely compromised by our discontent, doubt, fear, greed, envy, and hatred. I also believe with her that there is a light in darkness revealing a way to the morning light.
The Reverend Walter Rauschenbusch’s first pastorate began in 1886 with the Second German Baptist Church in a section of New York City called Hell’s Kitchen. There he participated in too many funerals of children – dead because of the ruthless and unethical power of robber barons and other capitalistic machinations. The robber barons controlled the vital industries with little if any regulation. The one human asset of the poor and working class that was of interest in this Gilded Age was their labor. Rauschenbusch was pained by what he experienced, the heart wrenching agony of witnessing death after death of the poor while the rich became richer. He knew that his life was inextricably bound to theirs. A void was created in his life with these avoidable deaths. Many church leaders supported the policies and practices of the ruling elite through their duplicitous silence and refused to acknowledge their alliance with the oppressors. Rauschenbusch knew, however, that this was a perversion of the message of Jesus. That message called him and the church to a ministry that would later be termed the Social Gospel Movement. The Social Gospel Movement to which he gave courageous, resolute, and audacious leadership was devoted to embedding Christian ethics into the social realm to address societal inequities, justice, and compassion. It attempted to implement the Lord’s Prayer on earth.
Rauschenbusch wrote: . . . “religion is not a purely individual matter. Nothing in human life is. We are social beings, and all elements of our life come to their full development only through social interchange.”. . . Some Baptists seem to think that this separation [of church and state] is based on the idea that the spiritual life has nothing to do with the secular life. I utterly deny that suggestion and think it a calamitous heresy.” The churches incorrectly focused on individual sins and salvation to the detriment of social sins and societal redemption.
From his perspective the purpose of Christianity was to spread the idea of the kin-dom of God on earth, in our cities, our rural areas, to those locked out of the joy of living, those languishing in poverty, disease, burdened by labor, castrated from the vitality of life. Christianity by its very nature was revolutionary. Its mission was to transform the society through love.
Later, as a professor at Rochester Theological Seminary, his teaching was infused with his active participation in the larger Rochester community. A story is told that he became immersed in a local issue that would have contributed significantly to uplifting the poor, transforming their lives. He participated with conviction and great passion. The morning after the election, he bought a newspaper. Arriving at the classroom, he spread the newspaper across his desk. And wept! The proposition had been defeated.
It is on this that I would like to focus our time together today. He wept. He wept due to his deep love of the people and what this meant for his community of concern. One weeps in this way when one loves deeply and feels the loss of possibility, the possibility of bringing the Kin-dom of God closer to reality. The story reminds me of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Jerusalem had refused to be the Glorious Golden City it had the potential to be. I remember my own weeping upon being told of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The nation had refused to become who and what it had the potential to become. It sanctioned the culture of violence that encouraged such assassinations.
Weeping recognizes the tragic nature of life and is necessary for renewed vitality. It drains and then replenishes. Apparently, we have difficulty in recognizing and lingering with the tragic, the ghastly contradictions of our world, the unsettling of what has become commonplace.
I wonder if that is why we motor past the crucifixion of Jesus to the resurrection. But the height of resurrection, life’s continuity, cannot be fully understood without the depth of death, without pondering the tragedy life of being cut off from life. Jesus’ death was tragic, and we need to mourn it. Mocked was he and probably assaulted, as was the custom, before being brought before the people by Pontius Pilate. Jesus looked defeated, impotent, like an imposter of a king. Understandably, the people would ask for the revolutionary Barabbas to be released instead.
Likewise, we acknowledge the birthday of Dr. King with various celebrations and basically ignore his assassination and what led to his death, the climate of violence that had been cultivated. Consequently, there emerges no image of reconciliation, only a superficial understanding of resurrection. And that is what we need, images of a new paradigm, and we need them now. My heart is pained when I drive on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and see people unsheltered, without any privacy, often devoid of sanitary ways of disposing waste. I cringe. Something is wrong in Oakland just as something was wrong in Jerusalem. And I weep over it. I weep for us and for all that is sacred in life.
Taking a break from writing this message yesterday, I turned on the television only to learn of the mass shooting in Buffalo. The essential scenario repeats. A young white man travels hundred of miles heavily armed to a Black community and opens fire, killing at least ten people and injuring three others. When will it stop? The local and federal authorities expressed sympathy for the families of the victims. This seemed very heartfelt. My question is when we will open our eyes to this continued sapping of life through gun violence. When will we understand the tragedy that is our everyday living? When will we acknowledge the depth of racism, other forms of bigotry and exploitation that are the norm in our society? Yes, I tremble, tremble.
I was there and I am here, witnessing another tragedy, a continuing reality of American life. I was there during this mass crucifixion because I have not, we have not, demanded exploring the depths of our tragic cultures to seek a new way forward. I have not, we have not, demanded the end of the manufacturing of guns. We have not demanded an end to this culture of violence that we celebrate and fund each day via the internet, our televisions, our commercials, our buying habits, and even our words.
We must study war no more, not only the global wars, but the violent wars within and among ourselves. We must lay down our swords and shields. And we must do more than lay them down. We must pick up. We must pick up a new yet old paradigm of living. It is the one that Rev. Walter Rauschenbusch articulated, the one that Jesus incarnated. We must pick up a new way of being within and among us that celebrates and makes real among us the kin-dom of God on earth as it is in our most transformed celestial vision.
Do not sell yourself short,
For you are priceless.
Part the waters with your staff –
you are today's Moses.
Tear through the cloak of fog!
You are of the light,
the same light as Muhammad.
Shatter the mirrors of the beautiful,
you are the dazzling Joseph.
Blow the breath of life like Christ –
you, too, are of that air.
Break away from the unscrupulous;
do not fall for the deceit of ghouls.
You are of noble origin –
you are from the highest high.
By spirit, you are deathless –
magnificent from within.
You belong to the glorious –
you are of divine radiance.
What have you seen of your own beauty?
You are still veiled…
One dawn, like the sun,
you will rise up from within yourself.
It is a shame to be shrouded this way
like the moon under cloud.
Tear through the cloud of body!
You are the magnificent moon.
You are like a hawk whose feet are bound,
tethered to the body –
It is with your own claws
that you must untie the knots.
How joyous is gold when it enters the fire!
for it is within the flames
where it can show its essence
and radiate its virtues.
Do not run away from the fire's flames!
What will happen if you step into them
for trial's sake?
It will not burn you, I swear;
your face will glow, like gold.
For you are Abraham's kin;
ancient knowingness is yours.
No mine has a jewel like you!
This world has no life like you!
For this is the world of decay
and you are life-giving life...
~ Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi
One of Rauschenbusch’s favorite scriptures was Acts 17:22-28. The God who made the universe and all things in it gives to all life and breath and all things. God has made of one blood every nation to dwell on all the face of the earth. In God we live and move and have our being.
This scripture signaled him to emphasize that we must love one another, that we must not isolate ourselves. We are called to uplift not denigrate each other. We must stand in solidarity with humanity, in its pain and joy, in its highs and lows.
May we, who now live, see the oncoming of the great day of God, when all people shall stand side by side in equal and real freedom, all toiling and all reaping . . . brothers and sisters with one another, exultant in the tide of the common life, and jubilant in the admiration of the Divine Presence, the source of our blessings and Creator of us all. - Walter Rauschenbusch, paraphrased